Acting Deputy Administrator John Barsa’s Remarks at Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute’s Trade and International Affairs Symposium

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For Immediate Release

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Mr. Franco: Hi, everyone.  Great presentation by Mauricio, that was fantastic.  So I am here, I think I see Barsa; John Barsa's on, so let me quickly introduce him and we're going to do it Cuban style.  This is going to be like a [speaks Spanish] between us just to kind of see what he's doing over at USAID. 

So, John Barsa's currently the Acting USAID Deputy Administrator or Administrator.  He was sworn in on June 10, 2019.  That was a good day for me since that's when my twins were born.  As the Assistant Administrator for USAID's the Bureau of Latin America and the Caribbean, John Barsa comes to USAID from the Department of Homeland Security, where he led the DHS Office of Partnership and Engagement as Acting Assistant Secretary and later as the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary.  His leadership was also critical in the successful efforts in combating the scourge of human trafficking.  John began his career at DHS in the Trump Administration as a Special Assistant to Secretary John Kelly, a position he took after serving on the -- President Trump's DHS landing team.  During the historic 2017 hurricane season, he deployed to South Florida to assist with Hurricane Irma preparation and response.  Later, after Hurricane Maria, he went to Puerto Rico and designed and led one of the most complex and challenging intergovernmental affairs efforts in FEMA history. 

John entered public service first as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves, initially with the 11th Special Forces Group and later with the 450th Civil Affairs Battalion.  While still in the Reserves, he started working for our own Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart on defense and national security issues, including support for democracy and human rights in Cuba, Nicaragua, and all of the Western Hemisphere.  John's work also included working in the Bush Administration as a lead senior level coordinator over at NASA.  And when the Department of Homeland Security was created, he created and led the Office of Public Liaison, where he handled all the outreach for Secretaries Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff.  In the private sector, he's held positions with premier defense trade associations, small businesses, and large businesses, including a leading Fortune 100 company. 

The son of a Cuban refugee, Mr. Barsa grew up in a fully bilingual and bicultural family in Miami.  He has a bachelor's degree in international affairs from FIU.  And you know, he did go to that other high school that we don't talk about.  But we won't mention that.  So, John, thank you so much for joining us.  So, you know, I know you have a lot to say.  We just wanted to kind of, you know, get the ball rolling and ask you what's going on?  What are you seeing, especially in the Western Hemisphere? 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: Well, Omar, first of all, thank you so much for that introduction.  Now, I mean, my gosh, I can see why my LinkedIn profile is so dizzying.  [laughs] So a lot of time in and out of public service.  So most recently, I was confirmed by the Senate to lead the Latin American and Caribbean Bureau of USAID.  And then I was asked by the President to lead USAID.  The title kind of changed, but I'm still leading USAID, but it's rather dizzying.  But one of the benefits I have coming into the position at USAID is working with great leaders like my former boss, Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and so many others who, you know, really informed me coming into this role.  So it is the honor of a lifetime to be leading USAID, certainly in this challenging time, as well.

Having just come to the USAID Front Office from the Latin American Caribbean Bureau, gives me a really complete and enhanced perspective on the challenges we're facing in the Western Hemisphere and some of the opportunities because, sitting here in the Front Office, I see a lot of the best practices that we do in other parts of the world.  And we start thinking, well, how do we replicate this here in our own backyard?  So I guess the first question many people might have in the audience, what does USAID do to support trade and commerce in Latin America and the Caribbean?  Well, USAID does a lot of things. 

So, Mauricio was right to mention the importance of the hurricane right now.  So all of us are certainly focusing on what's happening right there.  USAID, we have humanitarian response elements.  So we do a lot of lifesaving work right now.  Yesterday, I was able to announce an additional $17 million in humanitarian assistance.  So USAID has a development side and a humanitarian disaster response side.  And both of these elements come into play.  They work together.  In the Western Hemisphere, for example, with the terrible case of the Venezuelan diaspora, it is a humanitarian challenge to try to keep people alive, healthy, and fed.  And it is also the development challenge, how do you get people jobs?  So more announcements coming up on the hurricanes in Central America; it's very much on my mind.  It's been kind of consuming me for, really, for the last week. 

What does USAID aid do directly to help trade?  Well, one of the things we do is we work to enable the conditions for trade to take place.  We don't try; we actually do change conditions on the ground to make conditions favorable for the private sector to grow and take root.  We help with education, so a lot of our economic development work, we work in countries throughout the world in terms of any number of things which allow countries to stand up on their own.  What we at USAID do, we have our mantra.  We help countries on their Journey to Self-Reliance.  And really, what a wonderful model that is.  We help countries become economically resilient to be able to stand alone.  So this takes place in working with universities, trade schools.  So things that people may not necessarily think of immediately as economic development that leads to trade actually are. 

For example, in Colombia, after five decades of civil strife and conflict, there are some problems with land titling.  So we worked with the Duke Administration.  We have some cutting edge programs to allow people to gain title to land. 

How does that affect trade?  Well, it affects trade a lot of ways, because what you find when individuals have a title to land, actually own a piece of land, certainly recidivism and coca growing, I mean, that almost goes out the window, then people can invest and say, you know what?  I'm going to grow coffee or I'm going to grow, chocolate.  And then not only that for business within Colombia, but it turns into an export as well. 

Mr. Franco: Yeah, you can use that as collateral, right?  To build up their small business.  Hernando de Soto had a great book on that on Capitalism, a Peruvian, which I've read numerous times.  It's fantastic.  

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: So for a while there, because of a change in government, we had to shut down our mission in El Salvador.  But one of the success stories we had -- no, sorry, in Ecuador, I misspoke.  So we reestablished our mission in Ecuador.  One of the success stories we had was helping these small farmers come together to combine their assets in growing chocolate.  And now they have this high end exotic chocolate, which is all the rage in Europe, which leads to economic development.  So it's trade; it's a win-win.  And USAID does some really great work.  And I'm really proud of the work we do in the Western Hemisphere as well. 

Mr. Franco: So, John, how has COVID-19 impacted all of this?  I mean, what's going on with that?  Can you talk to us a little bit about that? 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: Oh, totally.  From the onset of the pandemic, I knew intuitively that this is more than a healthcare crisis.  I mean, we saw it here in the United States as well.  This is going to lead to economic contraction.  So one of the first things I did when everything started going with the pandemic, I tried to get my staff to lift their eyes from the crises of the inbox, from the moment, to think about the second and third order effects, because I knew intuitively there was going to be economic contraction.  So how is that economic contraction throughout the world going to play out?  Is it going to hit the world evenly?  What are the second and third order impacts of the pandemic going to be and specifically in the Western Hemisphere?  So I started something called Over the Horizon Task Force, did a complete study, over 70 interviews, 400 data sources, in terms of looking how things are going to be playing out in the future.  We're already seeing things play out in Latin America in very disturbing ways.  So one of the things that the IMF just released, they released an estimate of economic contraction of 8 percent in the region.  That is a really high number. 

So, take a step back.  I mean, that affects everything in terms of people's livelihood; it threatens all of the development work we've been doing in the region.  One of the things I like saying is that the majority of victims of the pandemic will have never caught the virus. 

The health aspects, I mean, you can't deny -- it's absolutely terrible, 11 million confirmed cases in the region, over 400,000 related deaths.  But it's to other victims as well from the economic contraction.  One of the things particularly systemic in Latin America is the informal economy.  So what we have we notice with the economic contraction, the informal economy are the ones who get hit the hardest. 

And, you know, this also affects women more than men in Latin America, because by percentage wise, more women are members in the informal economy as well.  So what does this mean to USAID?  So what we're doing right now is we're relooking at the way we do our programming in the countries.  We cannot put blinders on and think of the COVID-altered world having the same challenges and opportunities as the pre-COVID world.  So we're cognizant of how this has changed, and we're doubling down in certain areas like women's economic empowerment.  We're doubling down on any number of challenges that COVID is bringing about to the region.  You're mute, can't hear you.

Mr. Franco: What exactly is USAID -- and I know Chair Kerns mentioned it, on the immigration, he clearly stated that one of the things that we can do as a country is help those countries prop themselves up, right?  The immigration, crisis could resolve itself if we just go out there and help those countries stand on their own.  Right?  So, what are some of the things -- I know we talked a little earlier, and I think that's a great topic to discuss on the heels of his comments.
 
Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: No, I mean, so again, Omar, you and I, so many of the people participating in this conference, we are either the children of people who had to flee their countries, or we, fled from the countries ourselves.  And certainly, somebody is not born into this world saying, hey, I'm going to get pick up and leave.  It's obviously -- there are push, pull factors in migration.  So certainly with you and I, as you know, communism was doing to our families and they had to leave.  So, USAID really is a wonderful place to work because, where else can people get paid to help the betterment of the human condition throughout the world?  I mean, it's just a really incredible mission. 

So if you look at what we've been doing, you know, throughout Latin America and the world, again, helping countries on their Journey to Self-Reliance, we are trying to create the economic conditions and safety conditions, so people don't feel like they have to leave.

Mr. Franco: Right.

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: So we're working on civil society organizations.  USAID actively tries to spread the seeds of democracy in places where it's not welcome sometimes.  So we have civil society programing in Cuba.  We work with Juan Guaido of the National Assembly to get democracy in Venezuela again.  Again, because we're looking to build these stable societies.  And on the economic development front, we would love to be in a place where there's enough economic development, there's enough opportunities for jobs.  I mean, we all want the best for our children.  We're working to be in a place where the parents of every child in Central and Latin America and the Caribbean doesn't have to worry about their own children having a career path, the ability to take care of their own families. 

So the kind of things we do on economic development, how to ensure that the private sector grows, doing leverage investments, working with Adam Boehler at DFC, working with Mauricio on the IDB.  If there's any sliver of doubt in anybody's mind that Mauricio is the right guy for the job, let me take a step back to one of the things he did when he was in the White House.  He was one of the prime architects of this thing called America [inaudible].  America [inaudible] is this whole of government approach, USAID, the Development Finance Corporation, the Department of Commerce, to basically counter, you know, what China is doing with Belt and Road Initiative.  I mean, again --

Mr. Franco: In terms of dollars, I mean, what are we looking at?  What specifically?  I mean, how does that flow?  I mean, is it just the dollars to other governments?  Is it just economic development?  Are you giving to civil society groups?  Is it a hybrid of all those things? 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: The vast majority of USAID investments do not go to governments at all.  I mean, almost like 98 percent.  We do not, as a rule, hand that money to governments.  We work with local organizations.  We'll work with NGOs on the ground.  We'll work with the private sector on the ground.  So we work to catalyze our investments and leverage dollars with the private sector.  Some of the things that we do is we back loans; we do loan guarantees.  So $1 of investment by USAID can lead to $20 of a loan to actually get something done.  So our work with our financial partners, again, IDB, DFC, international organizations, and organizations on the ground.  So USAID doesn't work with other governments.  We work with organizations on the ground, and we always -- so Mauricio was talking about, nearshoring with investments, trying to get companies to go here.  We always buy local, invest local. 

And again, the contrast with China can't be clearer.  So one of the benefits of sitting in the position of not just leading the Latin American Caribbean Bureau, but of all of USAID, I get a really good view of what China is doing around the world.  And it gives context to what they're trying to do in Latin America.  I was in Kenya last month, so I'm flying over what is the most expensive railroad in the history of the planet.  It was built by China, and the Chinese made all these promises to the Kenyans, "Oh, we'll use your local labor.  It's going to benefit you."  Forget it.  The cost per mile [inaudible] went through the roof.  They brought in their own labor from China, their own products, instead of buying local within Kenya or within Africa; they were paying more for parts and supplies coming in from China because it benefits -- it's not even debt diplomacy.  Yes, they do debt diplomacy all over the world.  So one of the things we do with our missions throughout Latin America and the Caribbean is we tell these host governments, oi cuidado, they're promising you a bag of goods.  They did the same thing to this other country.  Don't fall into this trap. 

Mr. Franco: So what would you say?  I mean, so China is a problem, right, I mean, across the hemisphere specifically?  I mean, are they, you know, debt diplomacy?  I know you mentioned that, but what else?  And this will be our last question.  I know we're running out of time.  You obviously have a lot of things.  But I just wanted to ask that because I know a lot of people are looking at that, you know, as we move forward.  What's China doing now? 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: So China's game is a global game.  I'll tell you right now, but it is stunning how active and aggressive they are being in the Western Hemisphere in terms of building up ports, infrastructure.  So they use the same playbook all over the world, which is why it's kind of easier for us to capture horror stories from other parts of the world and through our missions on the ground, share with ambassadors, and other countries to try to wave people off and to say, "Hey, I know they're singing sweet nothings in your ear, but it doesn't really work out that way."  So, yes, part of it is debt diplomacy.  They're using every tool they can because at the end of the day, the Chinese Communist Party is doing everything it can to stay in power. 

Mr. Franco: Right. 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: So part of it --

Mr. Franco: By creating a one-party system. 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa: Exactly.  Well, again, so you and I and others who fled Cuba, you know Venezuela, you know, Nicaragua, we know, you know, for everybody who hasn't seen the movie, Communism doesn't work. [laughter]

One of the things they're doing is they're trying to prop up their own economy by getting favorable markets for their goods and again trying to get their labor employed.  So the U.S. position of Journey to Self-Reliance is, really, what a great country we live in, where it is in the United States' strategic national interest to have other countries being free, independent, and economically viable.  My God, wonderful.  Whereas the Chinese, they just want to keep other countries subservient, beating them, and basically being this satellite you know, just abuse.  So if this was a cowboy movie, we would be wearing the white hats without any doubt in my mind. 

Mr. Franco: That's what Senator Rubio talks about American exceptionalism, you know, that's where it is.  I mean, we have to be the leaders in that space because nobody else will.  Well, I see Marianne.  So I think our time has come to an end here.  But, John, thank you so much for joining us.  We'd actually love to have you back at some point and do this for a little bit longer stretch of time.  I feel like we could have stayed here for another half hour talking.  But again, John, very good friend of ours, good friend of mine, you know, thank you for all you do and all the public service you've done through the years.  You are exactly -- when I think of a public servant, you are exactly the person I think about. 

Acting Deputy Administrator Barsa:  Well, thank you, Omar.  Thank you for everything you do.  And thanks to Lincoln and all the leaders in the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute; you guys are changing the world.  So thank you for all that you do. 

Ms. Gomez Orta: Thank you, sir, for being with us.  And as Miles said, we'd love to have you back for another deeper dive discussion.  But as you mentioned earlier, our hearts and minds are with the people in our neighboring countries in the Caribbean, and hope they are doing well.  Please let us know how we can help out as well.  Gracias.

Last updated: January 18, 2021

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