Administrator Samantha Power’s Remarks at the InterAmerican Dialogue VI Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala

Speeches Shim

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

InterAmerican Dialogue

Woodrow Wilson Center

Washington, DC

ADMINISTRATOR POWER: Great to see you all. Thanks especially to Chairman Meeks - where is he - alright, great to see you. And thank you Madame President, your Excellency, for that amazing introduction, and above all for your decades of public service and commitment to the democratic flourishing of Costa Rica and the hemisphere.

In so many ways, Costa Rica serves as a model of progress for Latin America and the Caribbean—and an example of the progress our hemisphere can make when we work together in the spirit of mutual respect, partnership, and dialogue.

Let’s flashback, and some of you were very involved back then. But in the 1980s, Costa Rica was mired in the grips of a devastating financial crisis. In 1982, its GDP shrank by over seven percent, inflation hit 90 percent, and living standards were in freefall. But despite this period of grave economic hardship, Costa Rica had an advantage that many other countries in the region did not: decades of peace and democratic rule. 

After a bloody Civil War that left over 2,000 dead in just 44 days, Costa Rica disbanded its military, ratified a new constitution and transitioned to a democracy back in 1949. Today, as you all know, it remains the oldest continuously functioning democracy in Latin America, and has been a model for sustaining democratic progress when many other countries around the world, including those we know well, have been backsliding. 

To address its widening economic crisis in the ‘80s, the U.S. and others provided billions of dollars of economic assistance while the country underwent major structural reforms. USAID, the Agency I am now privileged lead, partnered with Costa Rica as it boosted its agricultural productivity, balanced its budget, and diversified its exports. Thanks to the country’s strong governance and bold leadership, smallholder farmers were drawn into a booming agricultural sector, inflation and unemployment fell, the economy roared back to life, and foreign direct investment soared. 

In 1996, these are great days when this happens, USAID closed its mission in Costa Rica in recognition of the country’s successful shift away from a relationship based on aid, to one based on trade. Today, Costa Rica boasts a growing middle class. Its top export was once bananas; now it is medical equipment. Every year, we sell more American goods and services to San José than we do to Sweden. And in a normal year, more Americans travel to Costa Rica than to destinations like Japan, Greece, or even my beloved home country of Ireland. But we aren’t in a normal year, are we? 

Despite tremendous resilience and dynamism across the region, as you well know, Latin America and the Caribbean are in the midst of a once-in-a-century economic downturn, public health crisis, and political reckoning. After three decades of expanding freedoms and growth, economies are faltering, the rule of law is weakening, and citizens are losing faith in the ability of democracies to deliver. In a recent AmericasBarometer survey, fewer than 40 percent of people in Latin America and the Caribbean said they were satisfied with democracy, the lowest point recorded since the question was first posed in 2004.  

One could make similar observations about other regions, or indeed about the United States itself, but the strength of Latin America’s headwinds are in many ways unparalleled. Though the region represents eight percent of the world’s population, it accounts for more than 30 percent of the world’s reported deaths from COVID-19. 

The region’s economy contracted by nearly eight percent last year, compared to less than a 4 percent drop globally—and some Caribbean nations that depend on tourism saw their economies decline by well over 15 percent. The region’s schools have stayed shut longer than any other, with two out of every three children still not back in classrooms - look at that, two out of every three children in the region. 

As a whole, even though the countries of the region have not gone to war with each other for decades, Latin America and the Caribbean remains the most violent region in the world. The countries there are also being battered by more ferocious and frequent storms, and crop yields throughout the region are increasingly vulnerable to a changing climate. 

As if these developments were not worrying enough, after a growing democratic consensus that defined Latin America and the Caribbean in recent decades, too many of the region’s countries are either ignoring or rewriting their own constitutions to eliminate term limits; restrict human rights; persecute political opponents; and weaken the separation of powers, and the rule of law. 

We know how this story ends. Leaders who see themselves as the only answer to the ills their people face end up shattering the institutions necessary for governance, investment, and opportunity, while becoming increasingly autocratic. And their citizens, faced with governments that don’t work to advance their dignity sufficiently, seek opportunity elsewhere, as we have witnessed with the millions of people who have been forced to flee immense hardship and repression in countries like Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela.

For the United States’ part, since President Kennedy launched the Alliance for Progress way back in 1961, we’ve offered a fairly familiar refrain to the people of Latin America and the Caribbean—a pronouncement that the region is vital, an acknowledgment that we’ve often taken the region for granted, and a commitment to a new spirit of partnership. 

Yet this refrain has frequently been undercut by an approach toward the region that tended to privilege attention to a few specific countries at the expense of the full scope of what mattered in the region as a whole. And our priorities at times seemed dictated by Cold War battles or whatever immediate challenge manifested at our southern border. 

These issues matter, of course. What happens in Latin America and the Caribbean touches Americans’ lives more tangibly than what happens anywhere else. Immigrants from the region, and their descendants, have made and continue to make profound contributions to the United States in every arena. Immigrants and the children of immigrants from the region are leading public servants as you well know in the Biden Administration. This rich heritage, and the importance of investing in deep relationships with countries of the region, is reflected in the fact that of the three trips abroad I have taken so far as USAID Administrator, my first was to Central America, my third was to Haiti, and, as it happens, my next trip in the coming days will be to the Dominican Republic. 

But if we only view the region through the prism of our domestic situation, there is much that we are missing. We risk missing the new and diverse coalitions throughout the Western Hemisphere agitating for transformational change, and working to support those agents of change. This is true in the United States, and it is true in Latin America and the Caribbean itself in terms of what we can miss. A broad range of Chileans have been elected with a mandate to draft a new, more inclusive constitution. Women are leading the charge for gender equality and against gender-based violence, insisting on “Ni Una Menos.” Thanks to determined activists and advocates, a growing number of countries in the region now have marriage equality and laws prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. Wearing my old hat as a former UN Ambassador, I had no greater partners than our Latin American friends in pushing for LGBTQ rights to be recognized as human rights. It was extraordinary and they were often out in front of everybody else in the UN system. And that is why the norms at the UN have been changed. It is leadership from this region that has occurred globally. In Central America, students, professionals, and indigenous leaders have joined in the streets to protest corruption and impunity. And when their leaders let them down, they take to the streets again.

We also risk failing to see the issues trending in the wrong direction, from the growth of the illicit economy to the eroding faith in democracy that I’ve mentioned to the waves of people seeing migration as their only option of a better future, for what they are, for what those symptoms are: they are symptom of a loss of hope. A reflection that in certain communities people lack legitimate means to provide for themselves and their families in their own communities. And a belief that self-interested officials will never care enough to make things better. 

We cannot choose to ignore this reality. We cannot choose to look the other way while governments move to consolidate power and dismantle accountability mechanisms. And we cannot allow our domestic divisions to obscure our values as a nation or our national interest in a Latin America and Caribbean region that prospers alongside the United States. 

In President Biden we have a leader who knows we will never overcome those symptoms of hopelessness without treating root causes. He believes, to his very core, that our fate is tied up with the fate of our neighbors. That our shared history, culture, and belief in democracy underwrites a shared destiny of peace and prosperity. He believes that the hemisphere’s challenges are our challenges. That more Americans will thrive when more people in Latin America and the Caribbean can thrive. 

In his two terms as Vice President, across 16 visits to the region, Biden served as the United States’ lead emissary to Latin America and the Caribbean. As you know, he helped craft President Obama’s “Paz Colombia” program and launched the U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America. He helped pioneer the U.S.-Mexico High-Level Economic Dialogue, which he and Mexican President López Obrador relaunched this month and which I participated in, interestingly to discuss not only USAID’s programming and work in Mexico but actually our trilateral work with AMEXCID, Mexico’s development agency, that we are now doing and seeking to expand in Central America. Next summer, the U.S. will host the Ninth Summit of the Americas, and it is no accident that of the 160 million COVID-19 vaccine doses the United States has shared worldwide, more than a quarter were donated to countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris are committed to strengthening America’s commitment to the hemisphere as never before, adopting a foreign policy rooted in shared values. It is part of President Biden’s vision of a region that is healthy, secure, middle class, and democratic. And it’s that last part of the vision—focusing on democracy—that I believe will be key to building back better across the Americas. 

Development sits upon three legs of a stool—security, one leg; economic growth, a second leg; and democracy and rule of law and governance, that third and final leg.

The United States has focused our investments over many years in the hemisphere on each leg, but strengthening the democratic leg of the stool has proven a persistent challenge. While we made important strides together to curb violence, spur economic growth, and to hold free elections it must be said, the weakening of institutions and fragility of democratic progress today call upon us to find new and innovative ways to support reformers.

Now, we must learn from our experiences and look back critically. Rather than an over reliance on prescriptions and solutions fashioned from afar, the United States, and certainly USAID, is committed to investing more in local organizations and in diaspora groups, and engaging much more intentionally, proactively with women, young people, and traditionally excluded groups.

We stand ready to help countries in the Americas strengthen democracy, fight corruption, and lay down the basic good governance necessary to attract that private investment, deliver services, and create the opportunities that young people seek and deserve.

In Central America, President Biden has committed to investing $4 billion across the next four years to expand economic prosperity, and strengthen governance in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, with a focus on making more significant investments again in community-based NGOs, in local cooperatives, in universities, in faith based groups, in local businesses and in other partners right there in the region so as to help them grow and to help those institutions themselves develop more sustainable capacities. These are the institutions that will deliver results over the long-term.

In the United States and across the Americas, we have a lot of rebuilding to do. The pandemic has exposed deep inequalities in all of our societies, holes in our safety nets, and selfishness in some of those entrusted with the power to lead us. 

But it has also provided evidence of tremendous resilience and courage, often from those with no formal power whatsoever. Across Latin America and the Caribbean, we see citizens, civic groups, and entire communities working to make their schools better, their streets safer, and their countries places where they and their children can build that hopeful future. They, alongside government leaders who lead with integrity and embrace accountability, will be true and lasting partners.

Key to the success of all our investments is the fight against corruption, a fire that can consume democracies from within. President Biden is the first U.S. President to issue a memorandum identifying corruption as a core national security priority, recognizing its capacity to steal from taxpayers, cripple societies, and break down trust in institutions. At USAID, for the very first time, we’ve launched an Anticorruption Task Force to build our capacity to support investigators and reformers who are working to expose corrupt actors and dismantle the systems that abet them. We’re working with colleagues at the Departments of State, Treasury, and Justice to prevent our money from fueling corrupt regimes or particular politicians.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, revelations of mass corruption have upended politics and brought citizens into the streets to demand accountability. When leaders show a willingness to respect checks and balances, and demonstrate commitment to fight impunity, as they have in Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, they will find a very strong ally in the United States.

When governments prove unreliable partners, or are unwilling to address poor governance or heightened graft, we will and must respond. In El Salvador, President Bukele has taken his mass popularity particularly among young people as a license to cement the country’s balance of power in his favor. He has intimidated lawmakers by sending troops into parliament, sacked the Attorney General and five members of the Supreme Court, and used newly installed Justices to void his term limit, in contravention of the country’s constitution. As a result, we in the U.S. government have of course spoken out, and we at USAID have redirected our resources to local civil society and advocates for democracy and justice. 

And when politicians undermine fights against corruption or weaken checks and balances, we will hold them to account, as we did last week when the U.S. sanctioned the Attorney General of Guatemala, Consuelo Porras, for her role in obstructing corruption investigations, including by firing Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the country’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity. 

I spoke to Juan Francisco just last week, as part of a broader conversation with anti-corruption activists. As he put it “There is no sustainability, in economies and societies that are based on impunity toward corruption.” If democracies are weak on tackling corruption, again a very vivid phrase to describe that, if they are trying to “cover the sun with one finger” as he put it, corrupt officials will continue to rise and citizens will continue losing faith in democracy.  

Let me wrap up, so you all can eat dinner and get-on with the dialogues. When it comes to the role of the United States, we recognize that being a trusted partner in Latin America and the Caribbean does not mean offering rhetoric about the importance of global leadership. It means demonstrating an ambition to get big things done that will make a difference in the daily lives of people in the region, and a willingness to support those driving change and building democracies that can deliver. 

We have to rise together to meet the challenge of the climate crisis, partnering with countries in the region to help them meet what are usually very ambitious climate commitments. We have to seize the opportunities of the green economy presents, and help our partners there become more resilient in the face of these intensifying and more and more extreme weather events. We have to work with the people of the region to realize sustainable economic growth and more inclusive growth, mobilizing significant local resources and engaging our private sector and the diaspora, as well as the private sector across the region and elsewhere as catalysts for development, but also as catalysts for good governance. 

We must build upon transformational partnerships we have cemented with the private sector to do remarkable things, like investing in peace in Colombia, linking small businesses and farms to profitable global supply chains, and conserving the region’s incredible biodiversity and tropical forests. Again in Colombia, USAID partnerships with the financial sector have enabled local banks since 2015 to mobilize more than $1 billion in commercial money to nurture licit economic development in areas affected by the country’s 50-plus-year war. We have to leverage our support in that way.

And we have to invest, together, in the region’s greatest resource—its people—by ensuring that public goods are not stolen or captured by the well-connected but used to build the education systems, the health systems, the public safety systems that will allow citizens to prosper in their own communities where they most want to prosper.

To meet this moment, we must embrace the people of Latin America and the Caribbean as partners in the quest for a more equal, prosperous hemisphere. In other words, we will approach the region in the same spirit Michael Shifter has demonstrated over nearly thirty years of service and leadership at the Inter-American Dialogue. 

Michael - where’s Michael, there’s Michael, glasses are part of the issue here - Michael,  your analysis and insights into the region have been required reading for a generation of U.S. officials, your mentorship key to the trajectory of many policymakers in the United States and in Latin America—including many who work at USAID not only American officials but our local staff in the region so influenced, so mentored by you—and your office, an obligatory stop not just for visiting heads of state, as we know, and ministers eager for insight into Washington, but for educators, economists, activists, NGO leaders, and people of all backgrounds and political persuasions who care about strengthening relations throughout the hemisphere. 

As we gather tonight to honor Feliciano and Blanca, both of whom are partners I’m proud to say of USAID, I hope you see in our work together—in this partnership a reflection of your optimism that you have always carried for the region. Feliciano, who has long spearheaded efforts to fight HIV/AIDS in Latin America, has become a leading voice of conscience fighting for humanitarian relief and respect for human rights in Venezuela. Blanca, whose leadership of Softtek has helped transform it into a nearshoring giant and IT powerhouse, has marshalled the company's resources toward job training programs for young people seeking to escape violence and find that opportunity. And our work together is an example of your belief, Michael, that a better, more values-driven, less transactional relationship between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean is there for us to build. You have spent years crafting a bridge that unites our hemisphere, resting on this bedrock of dialogue and democracy. Now, it is up to all of us to take your inspiration and work together to strengthen it. I thank you so much.

Last updated: December 02, 2022

Share This Page