Administrator Samantha Power at the Swearing-in Ceremony for Latin America and the Caribbean Bureau Assistant Administrator Marcela Escobari

Speeches Shim

Wednesday, January 12, 2022

Thank you, Isobel, for getting us started. And thank you especially to Marcela’s family, so many of whom are tuning in today: her husband, Beran, her two sons, Nico and Lucas, her mother, Irene, her father, Raul, her brother, Martin, and her sisters, Valeria and Marita. We are all here to witness something special: lightning striking twice. We are here to welcome back Marcela Escobari, as we swear her in once again as our Assistant Administrator for the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Given Marcela’s more than two decades of experience in academia, the private sector, and government, including her eight-month stint as Assistant to the Administrator five years ago, it’s clear that Marcela had her pick of what she could do next. But like many at USAID, once they get a taste of this work to make the world more free, peaceful, and prosperous in the face of so many challenges, it’s hard to pass up the opportunity to serve again.

Marcela’s passion for tackling poverty and injustice began at a young age, growing up in Bolivia. Her parents, both pediatricians, practiced in public hospitals, with donated medical equipment. There, they consistently saw how parents were losing their children, not to disease, but to poverty, unable to afford the medicines needed to keep them alive. Those grueling tales from the pediatric ICU made their way to the family dinner table, where they exposed Marcela to the shocking disparity of our world—and filled her with resolve to change it.

That early commitment to others was matched by an ability to defy expectations at a young age. As a child, she was an accomplished gymnast and even qualified for the gymnastics team in her state in Bolivia. And you would think, gymnasts probably wouldn’t make the best basketball players. But undeterred and resilient, Marcela not only held her own in the paint, she became a volleyball and track star too. From there, Marcela was constantly leaping to action. After coming to America to attend college at Swarthmore, she leapt at the chance to head back to Bolivia to help support a local indigenous community during the summer of her sophomore year. I mean that literally. To reach the rural community where she was to work for the summer, she had to ride a freight train for eight hours, and then jump from the moving train since it didn’t stop in the village. Later in life, as a young parent, she once dove—fully clothed with a handbag full of electronics—into a swimming pool to save the one-year-old child of a friend who fell into the water.

Beyond revealing what her husband, Beran, describes as her ability to “spring into action” in times of crisis, these examples show, as Valeria, Marcela’s sister, puts it, just how much she cares and her unrelenting belief that “she can make a difference in other people’s lives.”

Marcela’s career thus far has given us an illustration of how big that difference can be. For eight years, she served as Executive Director of the Center for International Development at Harvard. Ricardo Haussman, former Venezuelan Minister of Planning and a current Director there of the Center’s Growth Lab, touted her tremendous job expanding the Center’s reach. In fact, Marcela oversaw the Center’s expansion from three people to over 60 staff and fellows and 80 faculty, launching development projects across five continents to tear down economic barriers so that people could pursue better livelihoods and lead better lives.

And then there was her relatively short stint the last time she was at USAID. One of Marcela’s colleagues summed it up best when she said: “In eight months she accomplished more than most achieve in eight years.”

When the Bureau’s Central America budget more than doubled to tackle the root causes of irregular migration in the region, Marcela sprang into action to secure staffing increases both at missions and in Washington. She challenged her Bureau colleagues to be ambitious with their programming, while keeping in mind what the data was telling them.

It was under Marcela’s leadership that the Bureau commissioned a study that found—for the first time ever—a statistical relationship between violence and migration in the Northern Triangle region, allowing USAID to more strongly make the case for increased resources to promote violence reduction programming in the region.

From her work on U.S. efforts to support Colombia’s peace process to a long-term development plan for Haiti to a strategy to confront the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the intellectual infrastructure Marcela developed still guides the Bureau’s powerful programming to this day.

And now she’s back, as she undertakes to confront a slew of challenges faced by our partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.

First and foremost, Marcela will spearhead the Bureau’s efforts to vaccinate the region—a region which has suffered nearly 30 percent of the world’s total deaths from COVID-19. And as we work to end this pandemic, she will lead efforts to build back better health, food, and education systems along with stronger economies.

Alongside COVID-19, the climate crisis is contributing to record droughts, more powerful hurricanes, and increasingly deadly wildfires in the region, leaving crop yields devastated, homes destroyed, and untold suffering in their wake. Marcela will oversee Bureau efforts with partners to address needs on the ground, reduce emissions, and strengthen efforts to adapt to extreme climate events. Countries like Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala continue to see outflows of irregular migration. Marcela will put her rich experience to use as she works with the Northern Triangle Task Force to address the root causes pushing families to attempt migration in the first place, including climate change, poverty, corruption, violence, and human rights abuses.

She’ll also help lead our efforts to offer more direct support to local organizations, diaspora groups, and other underrepresented aid partners to help communities take ownership and decide how they can fight corruption, boost good governance, deliver services, and create equitable opportunity.

Finally, from Nicaragua to Venezuela, El Salvador to Cuba, democracy is withering and civic space is shrinking in the region. That’s why Marcela will be a critical voice in defending human rights and mobilizing humanitarian assistance for those persecuted by authoritarian regimes.

Marcela, you of course won’t be alone. You will be leading a tremendous Bureau of nearly 850 dedicated staff who are working in over a dozen missions and offices abroad as well as here in the U.S. to advance our goals throughout the region.

And because of their exceptional work, we won’t be starting from square one. The United States has already provided more than 50 million vaccines to 29 countries in the region. We are helping countries transition to renewable energy and adapt to climate emergencies. And we are expanding legal pathways to migration and economic opportunity in order to stem irregular migration and advance the dignity of the citizens of the region.

Your work may be cut out for you, Marcela, but as the Bureau’s leader, your grit, your evidence-based decision making, and your compassion leave me no doubt that you’re the right person to help pave the way toward a more open, inclusive, and prosperous Latin America and Caribbean. “It’s not just that she can do anything,” says Anne Morris, Marcela’s colleague, mentee, and friend for more than two decades, “It’s that she makes you believe that you can do it, too. Everything seems possible with Marcela in the room.”

It is a privilege to have a leader like Marcela in the room at USAID. It is a blessing to have that same caring, bold, determined leader return for another go. We are so thrilled to have you lead the Bureau, Marcela, and we, like you, are ready to “spring into action.”

Last updated: January 12, 2022

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