Ronald Reagan Building, Washington, DC
ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Thank you Mileydi for kicking us off, and good afternoon, everyone! Thank you to those of you here with us, and thank you to those joining us virtually!
A special welcome to Chris’ family. His sister Beth and his aunt Maureen are here with us in-person; welcome to you both. His sister Jenna wanted to be here, but she is in Arizona welcoming her newest grandson, Teo, and is watching alongside her son, Tyler and daughter-in-law, Eun Jeong. Chris’ brother, Jon could not make it but we know he is celebrating Chris from afar.
Here with us in person as well are two honorary members of the Cushing clan, his partner, Beni, and his friend of over 45 years, Elaine. Welcome!
The Cushings are uniquely close-knit. So close in fact that every Saturday night they partake in the “Cushing Cocktail Hour” over FaceTime—a tradition that started so they could stay connected during the pandemic. The cocktail hour consists of the general updates on their lives, but as they reach the 2nd or 3rd hour––and a few more drinks––the conversation inevitably turns to gossip. This cocktail hour is so legendary that Elaine gifted them all with commemorative baseball hats that say: “Cushing community cocktails…keeping calm amid chaos.”
Chris and his siblings have been this close their whole lives. Growing up in New Andover, Massachusetts, Chris’ parents loved to take the whole family on adventures. Hikes on the Presidential Mountain Range in New Hampshire, ski trips almost every Saturday, and canoeing—as their father said—“down the mighty mighty Saco,”—the Saco river that runs from New Hampshire to Maine.
It was this time together that cemented the great bond the siblings still have, and it is where Chris’ character truly shined.
When Chris was in high school, the family was taking a hike on Mt. Washington, but that day decided to take a more difficult trail than usual. And although she was an expert hiker, Chris’ mother was wearing a heavy backpack full of camping supplies which made her visibly nervous along the route. Chris noticed his mother’s uneasiness and eager to make her feel safer on the mountainside, took equipment and supplies out of her backpack and put them into his.
As Chris’ sister Jenna said, “Chris was always putting the needs of everyone else before his own. He was always the caretaker of the family.” And as his other sister, Beth said, “Chris is totally loyal and kind, we all knew from a young age that he was destined for a life of serving others.”
It was also in high school that Chris discovered a passion for travel. One summer, Aunt Maureen took him on a trip to Mexico and Europe. On that trip, he discovered the joy of getting to know other cultures and meeting different people, and he continued to do that during his time in Spain as a foreign exchange student. While his parents were always his biggest advocates for his world travels, his mother said if she had known that his career would take him so far away so often, she never would have agreed to his spending time abroad!
But Chris didn’t stop in Spain. His love for other cultures ran so deep that during summers in college, he, Elaine and a few other friends would drive from New Andover to MIT every Wednesday night and take a three-hour-long Israeli folk dancing class. Chris, the price of admission to get sworn in today, you have to show us some of your moves!
His wanderlust compelled Chris to join the Peace Corps after college, where he was posted to Paraguay, Costa Rica, Slovakia, the Baltics and then Ecuador where he spent three years as an agricultural extension worker. A few years later, Chris and Elaine took a day hike around the town of Bolivar in Ecuador where Chris was posted to reconnect with the people he served. Each house had prepared a massive meal to celebrate his return, a recognition of his service to the community.
Chris got to go back to Ecuador when he was sworn in as Mission Director in 2013. He traveled around the countryside to meet and talk with those same people who were shocked and thrilled to see Chris again after almost 30 years.
After over a year there, Chris oversaw the closure of the Mission when new leadership expelled USAID from the country. Such a sudden change in posture left the entire Mission worried about their future, so Chris worked to develop a re-employment strategy for each and every staff member and Foreign Service National colleague to make sure they found a job.
From there, Chris went to the Barbados-based Eastern and Southern Caribbean Mission. There, Chris served officially as Mission Director and unofficially as family scuba diving instructor.
Over the course of four years there, Chris was hard at work. The Caribbean has the second highest regional HIV-prevalence rate in the world behind sub-Saharan Africa, so he led the effort to expand access to treatment while strengthening the laboratory capacity and information gathering methods of health care systems so they were better equipped to fight the disease.
Chris also supported educational programs that bolstered the reading skills of over 30,000 children spanning from kindergarten to third grade. He worked closely with the regional governments to develop rehabilitation programs for young people that helped provide them opportunities and diverted them from criminal activity.
And Chris was always concerned about every single staff member. When a colleague was involved in a horrific car accident in Guyana and had to be medevaced to Miami, Chris dropped what he was doing and flew to Miami to spend time with them and their family.
After Barbados, Chris became Mission Director in Haiti, a tough post during most years, but especially during the past two. One month after being sworn in, the COVID pandemic shut down Haiti just as it did much of the world. And in a move that shocked the world last year, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in his home, creating deeper political instability in a country struggling to recover from the pandemic. Then, compounding all of these woes, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake struck last August, killing over 2,000 people and leaving hundreds of thousands in desperate need of food, medicine and shelter.
It was during this torturous stretch for the people of Haiti that Chris’ caretaker instincts kicked in.
When the earthquake hit, I had the chance to see Chris’ leadership up close.
Immediately following the earthquake, Chris coordinated with our Disaster Assistance Response Team and our partners at SouthCom to dispatch search and rescue teams to Les Cayes and Jeremie, communities in Southern Haiti at the epicenter of the earthquake. He led calls with our Agency leadership almost every day to provide updates on the response and detail the changing situation on the ground. Chris also facilitated my visit to Haiti so I could help muster additional support and resources for our response, and hear directly from those who were hit by the disaster.
Before I left, Chris pulled me aside. Washington’s attention will turn to another crisis, he said, so “Please keep Haiti in your thoughts.” It’s advice I have taken to heart, and even as he embarks on his post, I’m sure it is something he will take to heart as well.
Chris demonstrated the best of our Agency during such a difficult time, as one colleague put it, “By his actions, he reassured Haitians of the U.S government’s commitment to Haiti’s development and saw to it that we delivered.”
At the same time, Chris prioritized the welfare of his staff and was a fervent advocate for our Foreign Service National colleagues. He worked to provide them with greater access to real-time safety and security information and instituted a series of training on personal security and kidnapping mitigation. And he supported in-person trauma, grief, and violence counseling services and peer therapy at the Mission for all staff members.
This concern for the well-being of our Haiti family shone through when one of our own, Tresja Denysenko, suffered a sudden medical emergency while responding to the earthquake. Chris worked with our partners at SouthCom to immediately transport Tresja for urgent medical treatment in Miami, where she sadly passed. Chris was the leader who helped take in and reassure a shaken staff, including those who had lost family in the earthquake, and helped provide a sense of stability and commitment to Mission during a devastating time.
Chris has always treated his staff as an extension of his family and knowing how he treats his own family, I am ever more confident in the level of care he will offer for the people of El Salvador and those who make up our Mission there.
El Salvador, as we know, has its own significant challenges: a lack of economic opportunity coupled with significant violent crime, including some of the highest rates of femicide in the world—in El Salvador, a woman is murdered nearly every 24 hours.
The Salvadoran people deserve the chance to live peacefully and discover opportunities within their own communities. That’s why USAID is working in partnership with the private sector to expand new economic opportunities that will create more jobs for those who might be forced to migrate due to a lack of opportunity.
Governments must earn the trust and goodwill of their people, but we’ve seen troubling signs that the Salvadoran government would rather silence its citizens than empower them. So, we are investing in civil society, supporting universities, faith-based groups, business associations, organizations that work with marginalized youth, journalists who expose corruption, human rights defenders who stand up for the most vulnerable, and political parties across the spectrum. USAID will continue working to encourage citizen participation in the political process and make elections more transparent through monitoring and oversight from citizens themselves.
Chris has quite the task ahead of him, but I know he is up for it. His caring spirit and caretaker mindset bring reassurance and solace to those around him. Since he was a kid, everyone knew he would end up here, helping others.
With that, it is my honor to administer the Oath of Office.