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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

US Asst Secretary of State Jacobson: Our Shared Challenges in the Americas

By Roberta S. Jacobson
Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

MIAMI -- What I wanted to do today, and I think this is, I hope this will be especially of interest to the people who, “A,” know the policy better than I do, and “B,” have heard me speak before about what the general outlines of our policy are. When you move into the fifth year of a presidential term, you’re really not talking about new policy in any way. So what I wanted to focus on today is some of the challenges that we have. In some ways these are not the upbeat, this is not the upbeat discussion of, “Here’s how our policy is working and all of the success stories.”

But I want to start out by saying there are a huge number of those. This is a region in which there is so much that is going right. And I just had a brief conversation with the Consul General from Mexico this morning, who I had the privilege of meeting last night, and we worked together on the Mérida Initiative years ago. But watching the news and looking at the press this morning and seeing the movement on the energy reform, it to me in a way is emblematic of so many of the good things that are happening in the hemisphere. And so because I’m not going to spend all my time on the good things happening, I do not want the headline that comes out of this event to be, “Nothing good is actually happening in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

Last month, Secretary Kerry gave a major address on hemispheric policy at the Organization of American States, which I think was a particularly important and conscious decision in terms of venue. And he talked about partnerships and the equal partnerships that we are undertaking in the hemisphere, and he framed his remarks around three central questions.

The first was whether we will work together to promote democracy, security, and peace in the Americas.

His second question was whether we will seize the chance to advance prosperity throughout the hemisphere, including educating our young people who will drive the economies of the future and sustain the growth that we’ve already seen.

And the third area, which really should surprise nobody who knows this Secretary, focused on how we work together to harness new energy resources and combat global climate change – and the trail-blazing role that the Americas can play in that effort.

The answers to those questions, it seems to me, matter to all of us in this hemisphere – including in the United States and our neighbors north and south.

The administration is committed to sustained, productive engagement in the Americas. You all know so well, that what gets accomplished every day is managed by our diplomats, our trade people, our commercial attaches, our cultural attaches, all of the people who make up the U.S. government overseas, our military representatives, our law enforcement agencies. But, for those who have been paying attention, the pattern of trips and high-level visits over the past year has also been pretty striking.

President Obama had a meeting and lunch with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos in the White House just last week. That was the latest example. And although not all of it has been in the headlines, our high-level engagement has particularly focused on the creation of jobs, on competitiveness, and expanding the breadth of our economic and commercial ties.

In early May, President Obama traveled to Mexico and then on to Costa Rica, where he met with all his Central American counterparts and the Dominican Republic. In both stops, he talked with partners about how we can expand the benefits of our free trade agreements and our economic ties. How can we ensure that the benefits of those agreements, and those relationships, support what our citizens want most: jobs and security. And how can we ensure that the benefits of those relationships reach people who have not yet benefitted from this global surge in the hemisphere.

The presidents of both Chile and Peru visited the White House in June. Each of these Pacific Alliance countries is a partner in the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations about which you’ve recently read, as well as important bilateral partners.

Secretary Kerry led the U.S. delegation to the Organization of American States’ General Assembly in Guatemala, as well as visiting Colombia and Brazil over the summer, and I wanted to take one minute to talk about the OAS General Assembly in Guatemala. I think for me, having been a participant and the head of delegation in the previous OAS General Assembly in Cochabamba, the difference between progress made in those two general assemblies in only one year’s time could not be starker I think Guatemala was a victory for human rights institutions, and for moving ahead on importance of democracy and putting it back into its central place at the OAS.

Vice President Biden also went to Colombia, Brazil, and Trinidad and Tobago, where he met with Caribbean leaders. I’ve now traveled over the last couple of years five times with Vice President Biden to the region. He’s becoming a regular on the circuit.
The Vice President also traveled to Mexico as we launched the High Level Economic Dialogue and recently led a delegation to Panama with a group of local U.S. officials to highlight the need for infrastructure investment in the United States and throughout the Americas.

So all of this activity underscores the Administration’s emphasis on strong, productive relations with Latin America, and so many countries in the hemisphere are reciprocating. This is a very exciting time for those of us who have dedicated our careers to advancing these relationships. Governments and citizens throughout the hemisphere have made important and difficult choices to get their countries to where they are today, and there's a strong determination to keep moving forward.

From human rights to energy security to inclusive economic growth, leaders across the region are creating new opportunities. Later this afternoon, I will participate in the showcase event and final selection for the Latin American IdEA Partnership, or La Idea, which connects entrepreneurs in the United States and Latin America to each other, and to resources that help them grow innovative businesses that generate jobs and growth.

And having met these kids last night - and they were kids, I think the average age was about half mine – they are extraordinary. And for deskbound bureaucrats, they are the best antidote to becoming jaded and cynical. They are doing extraordinary things on their own with partners in the United States, putting a lie to the myth that small business cannot export and be part of the international market, and creating everything from a line of swimsuits to healthier homes for workers, to a mobile app to call a taxi in Bogotá. It is extraordinary what these young people are doing, and they are the reason that we keep trying to do what we do.

So one of the things I want to talk about today are the challenges that we face together and how we can better address those challenges. And the first one I want to address, and it really was brought home to me in some respects last night talking to these young people, is education, and the quality and access of education in the hemisphere. If we’re blunt about it, we have to acknowledge that this is an area where we, collectively, are falling short.

Last year, when the Economist Intelligence Unit published its report ranking global education standards in 40 countries, only one country from this hemisphere made it to the top 10, and that was Canada.

The United States appeared on the list at number 17, and the bottom 10 included Chile, Colombia, Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil.

Last week, the OECD issued its highly regarded assessment of high school students in 65 countries and territories, –and again it showed similar results. Again, other than Canada, no country – including the United States – made it into the top half of the rankings, and again the bottom 15 included Chile, Mexico, Uruguay, Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and Peru.

So improving education is a critical component of social and economic development, and yet, on average, Latin America spends about one-fifth as much per pupil as the typical OECD country. And while we can’t always measure our progress by the amount of dollars invested, unfortunately we do seem to see a connection between that emphasis and priority, and where we’re ending up. The momentous gains of the last decade can only be sustained if we devote attention to improving education at all levels, and making it accessible to all citizens. This is an area where the whole hemisphere can improve, and where we can all learn together.

That’s why in 2011, President Obama launched 100,000 Strong in the Americas to promote increased international student exchanges between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean. Our goal is to reach 100,000 exchange students annually in each direction, roughly doubling the current numbers. These exchanges will prepare students for the 21st century global workforce, they’ll foster business ties, and strengthen bilateral relations. We have seen in the Open Doors survey for 2012 that the numbers are up in these exchanges. Four percent more students are coming from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States, and the numbers from the U.S. to Latin America went up by 12 percent, and that’s terrific, but we’re going to have to accelerate that trend.

I have already enlisted five private sector partners and 280 institutions in the region have now joined our information network. And we are just completing the first round of competitive grants that will expand universities and institutions’ capacity to send and host international students, and we’re very excited by that.

We were delighted to receive more than 100 very strong proposals for this program, which will be a mixture of public and private funding. And those programs will not fund individual students coming to the United States. They will help create institutional linkages, either schools that don’t yet have connections with institutions in the United States or overseas, or ones that have programs and want to expand their capability to have these exchanges.

But I also want to talk today about how we view our citizen security initiatives and those relationships to our drug policy. The past couple of years have seen a renewed debate – in the United States and throughout the hemisphere – on how best to deal with the challenges posed by illicit narcotics and organized criminal networks that thrive on this trade.

In the popular media and among some U.S. and Latin American political circles, a critique of our engagement on counter-narcotics and citizen security initiatives has emerged that can be divided roughly into three parts: one, the United States is out of step with the region on the drug question; two, the United States has “militarized” its approach to the problem; and three, the United States has focused solely on the supply side of the equation while doing nothing to reduce demand at home.

So let me take these assertions individually.

Are we out of step with the region by focusing on criminal violence and its connection to drug trafficking?

Certainly not by the metric of public opinion surveys, which suggest that preventing crime and violence remains a top priority for Latin American countries. The widely-cited Latinobarómetro Report for 2010 noted that crime had supplanted unemployment as the most important problem in the region and concern has only grown.

And I think this is a very important thing to keep in mind. In that survey, in the vast majority of countries in the hemisphere, the top concern was not economic or unemployment - it was personal and citizen security.

Moreover, the notion that the U.S. has been locked into a 1980s-style “war on drugs” while the region’s governments have pursued a more progressive approach is not reflective of today’s realities. For one thing, you will never hear an Obama Administration official say, “war on drugs.” We retired that phrase quite a while ago.

The fact is, as Secretary Kerry told the OAS General Assembly in Guatemala last June, “the Obama Administration understands that no country has cornered the market on how to deal with this problem, which obviously continues and vexes a ll of us. We understand that without adequate demand reduction, without adequate treatment, which must go hand in hand, we will never deal with the problem.” So we are actively engaged in this conversation; and our own approaches have evolved, which is very much in tune with the sentiment in the region. The evolution of this is most evident in the 2013 National Drug Control Strategy, which focuses on a balanced public health and public safety approach to drug policy.

What about the second charge – that U.S. counter-narcotics policy is militarized?
There are a very large number of you in this room who I know can dispute that premise. But our view is in fact the opposite, that strengthening the civilian institutions that uphold the rule of law must be at the core of any citizen security program.

President Obama, ONDCP Director Kerlikowske and others have noted very clearly that they understand that we cannot, quote, “arrest our way out” of this problem. There can be no substitute for an effective police force, a functioning judiciary, a free press, and an engaged civil society. But strengthening institutions takes time, courage, and political will. And we all know that Americans are not always the best at waiting and patience.

That is the basis on which President Obama recommitted the United States to creating practical partnerships in the hemisphere to expand our common security and protect all of our citizens.

The heart of our efforts to combat crime and strengthen the rule of law are indeed rooted in our flagship security initiatives: the Mérida initiative in Mexico, CARSI, or the Central America Regional Security Initiative in Central America, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and of course, our long-standing security cooperation in Colombia.

These citizen security initiatives are about way more than just counter-narcotics. For example, when Secretary Kerry was in Guatemala in June, I joined him for a meeting with an extraordinary woman, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz of Guatemala. The Attorney General has made progress in combating corruption and organized crime, protecting women from violence, and prosecuting human rights violations. During her tenure, the conviction rate for homicide and other types of violent crime in Guatemala City has risen from 2% to 30%, which is an incredible achievement.

This type of progress, painstaking but real, on which we build a culture of lawfulness that is at the heart of citizen security, is what our programs are all about. Creating a culture of lawfulness and the rule of law - which are phrases that we use all too glibly – what they mean at their simplest – is, they are about playing by the rules, whether inside or outside of government.

It’s critical to understand what it means when we call these initiatives partnerships. In each case we sat down with our counterparts, at great length and in great detail, to understand their vision, their priorities, their needs, and discuss what we could do to support them. Each side made contributions based on their areas of comparative advantage.

We can’t do everything, we don’t do everything well, but there are areas where we believe we brought value to the table. Those of us in those initial discussions, and the ones who continue today and continue to have those conversations, remember how slowly it seemed to be progressing at times, and we felt more than a little pressure, especially from the U.S. Congress, to hurry up and make deliveries.

But we didn’t try to implement the Colombia playbook in Mexico or the Mexican playbook in the Caribbean. We worked together to identify not just the local problems but the best local solutions, taking lessons learned from Colombia, or Mexico, or elsewhere, and making sure that we fit them to a local reality.

One thing I’ve learned in all my years working on this is that helicopters get all the headlines. But while our partners did indeed want and need some updated hardware, our real contribution was in fact in the software, many things that are unseen. They were new skills, they were training, they were discussion of norms and standards and procedures. They were a community-based approach driven by the fundamental metric of helping people feel safer in their neighborhoods, of changing that metric in Latinobarómetro and making personal safety farther down on that list in terms of a need unmet.

The community-based approach is fundamental in helping people feel safer, being supported by efficient and effective justice and law enforcement they can trust. This does not always make a dramatic photo in the local newspapers or grab the attention of congressional delegations, but the vast majority – about two-thirds or $989 million – of our citizen security funding is directed towards rule of law activities and crime prevention, and only a third to the more traditional counter-narcotics activities. Of that third, less than half is dedicated to traditional eradication and interdiction. And I really want to emphasize that, because everybody focuses on the eradication, and even sometimes on the interdiction.

Our goal is to help our partners strengthen and extend that rule of law to all citizens. Increasingly, capable regional partners such as Canada, Chile, Colombia, and Mexico contribute to that effort. In recent years, Central American governments have also stepped up to the plate.

To cite just a few examples, Costa Rica and Honduras approved security taxes and Panama raised its security budget by 11 percent over 2011; Honduras passed a constitutional amendment permitting the extradition of its citizens; and Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras passed legislation on judicially authorized wire intercept programs. Every one of these efforts came with a tough domestic political fight, and many of these countries unfortunately are no closer to having reliable, continuous funding for citizen security that all citizens can rely on.

Let me touch just briefly on the third criticism of our policy, that U.S. demand for drugs is the source of much of this problem.

Let me start out by saying that’s obviously true. U.S. demand has been acknowledged to be a critical factor in this, acknowledged by President Obama, by Secretary Clinton when she was Secretary, and by Secretary Kerry.

But sometimes lost in the debate is the fact that we are doing a great deal to address the demand-side of the drug problem.

From the very beginning, President Obama acknowledged the shared responsibility we have in managing this issue with regional neighbors, and we’ve backed that up with serious investment. Since 2009, more than $30 billion has been invested in domestic drug control programs, including $10.7 billion in 2013 for substance abuse reduction and treatment programs.

Over the last five years, we have reduced domestic cocaine abuse by almost 50 percent – over the last five years alone. If you look back over the last twenty or thirty years, in many other drugs, we have seen similar significant cuts in use. Gil Kerlikowske, the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, has said “Drug policy should be rooted in neuroscience, not political science. It should be a public health issue, not just a criminal justice issue. That’s what a 21st century approach to drug policy looks like.”

In fact, when many former leaders have argues for changed strategies, their recommendations look a lot like what we are doing now. We’ve expanded access to drug treatment for millions of Americans through the Affordable Care Act and overhauled outdated mandatory minimum sentencing policies that have fueled very high rates of incarceration. We’ve placed a historic focus on lifting the stigma associated with substance use disorders, while making our communities safer by expanding a wide array of “smart on crime” innovations that are diverting thousands of non-violent drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. Every 4 minutes someone in America is sent to treatment instead of prison through our drug courts.

So let me just say in closing: none of that was designed to sound overly defensive. But it is a frustration to us, to policymakers in Washington and elsewhere, that people continue to argue against policies that are no longer in effect. And so one of the things I think all of us who care about this region need to do, is be better advocates for what is actually happening. It is not enough yet.

It is not making the kind of difference on the ground in these communities that all of us would like to see, and we have to keep committed to this issue.

But I think if we do everything we can to strengthen these relationships, to explain to Congress the way in which this benefits U.S. taxpayers, not just citizens throughout the hemisphere, we can create the environment in which we are working together on these issues, and not working at cross purposes.

But when we also focus on strengthening democracies, on expanding education, and on perfecting our citizen security initiatives, we also recognize that this hemisphere can be the global platform for promoting the values that we share throughout the world. We have an opportunity to set a high standard for fair and open economic competition, well beyond this region.

So we have an incredibly important and robust agenda. It keeps me very busy, thankfully, and all of the folks that I work with and my great team, but we will keep working with our neighbors on common security and common prosperity. And I hope that all of you will be part of that effort, as so many of you have been, and in helping to challenge us on our assumptions, and also help us get the word out on what we’re doing.

Roberta S. Jacobson was sworn in as Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs on March 30, 2012. She was the Acting Assistant Secretary since July 18, 2011. Jacobson holds a Masters of Arts in Law and Diplomacy from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (1986) and a Bachelor of Arts from Brown University.

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