Let’s Preserve our Hemispheric Legacy of Partnership

One of the time-honored traditions of our great democracy is the peaceful transition of power. As I reflect on my tenure as Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, I am proud to be handing over a legacy of increased cooperation, integration, and friendship with our partners throughout the Americas.

I was named the Acting Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs on May 5, 2016. Some may say that eight months is a relatively short period of time, but those who know me well understand that I am a woman on a mission. I have certainly kept busy. I witnessed history unfold while present at the signing of the peace accord in Colombia; saw first-hand the coordinated humanitarian relief efforts following Hurricane Matthew in Haiti and the Caribbean; met with inspiring youth from the region and experienced the positive and lasting impact of hemispheric initiatives such as 100,000 Strong in the Americas and the Young Leaders of the America Initiative; and much, much more.

President Obama shakes hands with young leaders during a Town Hall meeting for the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative. [AP Photo]

The Obama Administration’s accomplishments in the region are truly historic in that we have changed not only the discourse but the tone of that discourse. This Administration forged equal partnerships based on mutual respect, shared values, and common goals and created opportunities we did not have eight years ago.

In 2016, I witnessed events many thought impossible in their lifetimes. I have also cemented my long held conviction that nowhere else does the Department of State have the privilege of practicing foreign policy in a region where interests are so directly tied to ours.

This realization became increasingly clear as I witnessed history unfold this year in our engagement throughout the region. For example, President Obama’s trip to Havana marked a milestone in the long journey to normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry watches the raising of the American flag at the newly opened U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, August 14, 2015 [AP Photo]

Since the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba 18 months ago, the United States and Cuba have established dialogues on law enforcement and counternarcotics, human rights, health cooperation, economic, and regulatory issues. We have also concluded 13 non-binding agreements on issues ranging from cancer research to civil aviation and coordinated the high-level visits of the President and seven Cabinet-level officials, along with the visits of more than 80 Members of Congress. Every day, more and more U.S. citizens take advantage of regular flights and cruises to visit Cuba and we owe it to them to keep engaging with Cuba.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry checks out a vintage car during his walk through the Plaza de San Francisco in Old Havana during his historic trip to Cuba on August 14, 2015. [State Department photo]

Early last month, I chaired the fifth meeting of the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission, at which I confirmed our mutual willingness to sit at the table to find common ground where we can, and to discuss differences, including human rights issues, where we must.

This approach has proven successful in other nations in the region as well. Thanks to the courage and determination of the Colombian people -- backed by sustained, bipartisan U.S. support across multiple Administrations -- Colombia is on a path toward a more stable, secure, and prosperous future. I was proud to accompany Vice President Biden to Colombia to congratulate President Santos for bringing the Colombian peace process to a successful conclusion. We supported Colombia in times of conflict and we will continue to support Colombia in peace.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sits with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos at the Casa de Marques de Valdehoyos in Cartagena, Colombia, on September 26, 2016, as he visits the country to witness a peace ceremony between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) that ends a five-decade conflict. [State Department Photo]

Starting with my service as Ambassador to El Salvador, I’ve seen firsthand the development challenges that drive irregular migration from that region, just as I have witnessed the determination of local governments to address the underlying causes of this outflow. Under the Obama Administration, the United States worked alongside regional partners to support the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle to improve economic opportunity, enhance citizen security, and strengthen government institutions; and we have demonstrated our commitment to Central America with an investment of more than $1.3 billion in the past two years. We have a unique opportunity to support the countries of the Northern Triangle in their efforts to implement their own reform program—a program developed and largely funded with their own resources.
 

Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte participates in the inauguration of the Bridge in New Eden of San Juan, which connects the departments of San Miguel and Cabañas, as part of the works realized with the Millenium Funds. [Photo Juan Quintero / United States Embassy / Office of Public Affairs]

As Vice President Biden’s participation in the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit in May 2016 highlighted, energy security is a priority in integrating these regional economies. The prospect of secure and efficient energy will lower the cost of doing business in Central America and the Caribbean, thereby spurring investment and setting the conditions for increased economic prosperity.

In is also clear that trade relationships are vital and need to continue expanding. Nearly half of all goods and services exported annually from the United States – $669 billion worth – go to the Western Hemisphere. That’s three times more than we export to China, Japan, and India combined. The United States has12 trade agreements with countries in the Hemisphere, more than in any other region. Here in North America, regional integration between Mexico, Canada, and ourselves supports millions of jobs and improves the lives of people in all three countries as over a trillion dollars’ worth of goods and services are exchanged across our borders every year.

Under this Administration, we have enjoyed a strong partnership with Canada and Mexico in which we work hand-in-hand with our neighbors on the environment, national security, and trade. The United States has no other diplomatic relationships in the world that affect the lives of so many Americans on a daily basis.

President Barack Obama walks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Neito at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa, Canada, June 29, 2016. [AP Photo]

The events and accomplishments of the last eight years show that the region is on the right path. The United States has worked closely with the Organization of American States and others in the region to move our shared agenda forward.

Yet, challenges exist. In Venezuela, deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and the failure of the government to address the basic needs of the Venezuelan people remain deeply concerning. Effective dialogue among Venezuelans from across the political spectrum is a necessary step to finding a remedy to the political, economic, and humanitarian challenges facing the country. This begins with respect for human rights, including freedom of assembly and freedom of the press, and democratic institutions and processes.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stands with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez on June 14, 2016, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, before they held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the annual Organization of American States General Assembly. [State Department photo]

As the countries of the region seek to solidify economic advances, corruption is a threat we cannot underestimate. And sadly, many in our hemisphere still see crime and insecurity as their top worry. An integrated approach to citizen security is essential.

Addressing these challenges is critical to solidifying regional progress. Both in the United States and throughout the region, I have had the honor of engaging with many champions of this Hemisphere’s shared future. These include local, national, and intergovernmental representatives, young leaders, members of civil society, the Latino and Caribbean diasporas, and the private sector.

Images from the event “Generation Now, el Festival de Centroamerica” #YoMeAtrevo, which took place Nov 11–12, 2016 in San Salvador. Ambassador to El Salvador Jean Manes and USAID Director Larry Sacks participated. [U.S. Embassy of El Salvador Photo]

 

It is more important now than ever to continue working for social and economic progress, to defend principles that are at the core of democratic, law-based and inclusive societies, to address the interlinked challenges of energy security, low-carbon economies, and climate change; and, to improve citizen safety. I look forward to continuing to do so after I humbly conclude my service. It has been an honor to serve. Un abrazo Boricua a todos!
 
About the Author: Mari Carmen Aponte serves as Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. Department of State.
 
Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the Department's Foggy Bottom publication on Medium.com.
 
For more information:
Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte speaks with children in San Salvador. [U.S. Embassy San Salvador Photo]
January 12, 2017

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