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Video: Special Briefing: Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela on Latin American Policy

Here is the transcript of the briefing from the State Department website:

ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Thanks very much. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today. I just wanted to let you know that I’m taking the rest of this month to do the travel that I expected to do back in July and August that I wasn’t able to complete. In fact, one of my original objectives was to try to get to the Southern Cone during the lull here in the United States, which would be the month of August, and where, of course, you can travel to the Southern Cone without too much of a problem because of the fact that they’re in business there in August, whereas we tend to be out of business, where it’s a perfect time to travel.
My objective, though, is to try to get as many posts visited and countries visited before the end of the year. I was in Canada the week before last and I traveled to Mexico this past week. And I’m traveling on Sunday to Brazil – to Argentina; is that better?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. And the purpose of these trips has been basically for me to introduce myself, to discuss with our counterparts in each one of these countries our mutual objectives – to listen, to try to engage. In the case, for example, of Canada, I didn’t really know that many of my counterparts because I hadn’t worked, really, on Canadian affairs before. When I was at the White House in the National Security Council, we didn’t have Canada as part of our responsibility, but it was a very good trip.
And my recent trip to Mexico, a country that I’ve dealt with much more in my past responsibilities, was a very good trip, too. I spent time with our Ambassador, Carlos Pascual, reviewing the nature of our programs there and our cooperative engagement with the Mexicans. And my trip to the Southern Cone is going to have the similar purpose. I will be in Brasilia on Sunday – on Monday, arriving on Sunday – and then go to Argentina, and then from there to Uruguay, and then finally Paraguay and then back to the United States, with a stop again in Sao Paulo on the way back.
That’s the – what we’re intending to do is to continue with the engagement that the principals have already initiated earlier in the year when I was still not in this position. As you know, the President went down to Trinidad and Tobago and the Vice President went down to – visited a couple of countries as well, and the Secretary has made several trips. And this is a time when we really – we’re going to try to beef up our engagement. We hope to get Ambassador Shannon to Brazil sometime soon as well.
So anyway, I’m open to any questions that you might have. Thank you.
QUESTION: Yesterday, you said that you are not – you are thinking – you are going to go slowly on Cuba. And I wanted to ask you, it is because you’re seeing the Cuban Government is on a more open track and you want to give them time, or because you think they are not ready at all? And my second question is whether the U.S. is surprised at all of the passion, the people reacted before on Honduras.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Well, on the first question, I think we’re moving ahead with the kind of speed that you would want in a situation like this where we’re examining both the situation in Cuba; at the same time, looking as we have done at measures that we can take to do two things – on the one hand, to expand the people-to-people contacts through the various different measures that we’ve taken. And we’re going to look to see whether there’s some other elements of that that we can look at, and then secondly, the engagement that we’ve had on issues that are of mutual interest to both countries. We’ve had these talks on postal matters, on migration questions, and we expect others to come up.
On your second question, your question is a very valid one because there really are strong passions on both sides; there’s no question about that. And it does show a certain degree of ideological polarization in the world, and you see it in many capitals. You see it here in Washington. It became a domestic problem as well in terms of Honduras. You see it very much in Spain and in other places. So I’m not surprised at that.
What is absolutely fundamental from our point of view, however, is that the events that took place in Honduras are simply not acceptable within the Inter-American system. A coup d’état is a coup d’état. It happened on June – 28th of June. And we’ve continued to work since then for a solution that would allow Honduras to return to the Inter-American system with – after having, in a sense, restored a basis for its democratic institutions. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done, I think, in Honduras to address some of their problems that led to this degree of polarization – probably the institutional reform, things like that. But all of that would be contemplated under the framework that the OAS has already worked on.
And that is – remember that there are two – there are three figures, really, to the agreement that we’re still working with others trying to achieve, and that is the government of national unity, in a process of verification through the Organization of American States, but also this last element, which is very, very important, which is the truth commission. And we would hope that as continued negotiations proceed in order to try to address those issues, that each of these elements is obtained. And I’ve also – since I’ve watched this primarily from afar and not – and only recently been directly engaged in it, these are very complex matters. But I am, I guess, cautiously optimistic that with the support particularly of the Central American presidents now, they have become very significantly engaged in this, that there is a possibility of coming to some kind of solution soon. So –
QUESTION: (Inaudible.)
MR. WOOD: Excuse me one second. Before asking questions, could you just identify yourself and your news organization, please?
QUESTION: Yeah, Pablo Sanchez with Univision News. (In Spanish.)
QUESTION: (In Spanish.)
Okay. Honduras. (In Spanish.)
QUESTION: A follow-up, Mr. Secretary –
QUESTION: Yeah. Just – go ahead. You were going to stop in Brasilia first. And the foreign minister yesterday said that the United States has been excessively tolerant with the Micheletti government. You have been saying today, many times, that you would want to engage presidents of Central America. Maybe should the understanding that, once outside of Central America, it would not be, in your opinion – should not be so involved. So my point to you is: Is Brazil a difficult – the most difficult part of your trip, and what do you want to accomplish in Brasilia?
QUESTION: And if I can jump on that? Yesterday, on Brazil – so, yesterday the former USTR Carla Hills talking to former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso said that Brazil and U.S. seems to be at odds in a number of issues, namely, Iran, Honduras – the bases in Colombia. Those are the issues that you are going to deal with in Brasilia?ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Look, I really welcome my trip to Brasilia. I have met here in Washington with counterparts. I met recently with Deputy Foreign Minister Patriota when he was here in town. He met also with Deputy Secretary Steinberg. I was involved in that meeting. We discussed a range of issues having to do with our relationship with Brazil, including our efforts that we want to do to renew and strengthen our strategic dialogue that we’re having with Brazil on a whole range of issues that have to do not only with elements having to do with a bilateral relationship, which are very, very important. And they’re, as you know quite well, that there are a whole range of initiatives of collaborative work with Brazil, including, for example – just to take an example, the whole biofuels initiative that we’re continuing on.
But we also discuss regional issues, hemispheric issues. And we also discussed global issues, and that’s what we want to continue to do. So I’m actually very much looking forward to this trip. It’s my first trip to Brazil in this position. I saw Patriota here. I will see him there. I’ll see other members of the Government of Brazil. I will also have some meetings with sectors of civil society and others. So it really is a courtesy visit on my part, an introduction of myself and an attempt to work on these. And I think we have a very good collaborative relationship with Brazil moving ahead on these issues, and –
QUESTION: You don’t agree with this notion that the countries are at odds?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: I don’t think that we are at odds. We may have a different appreciation of certain kinds of things as we move forward. And certainly on the matter of the statement regarding the Honduran situation, we continue to be engaged, but we welcome the – let’s remember that President Zelaya is in the Brazilian Embassy in Honduras, and – so we welcome further engagement from other countries in the region, not only in Central America, but also in other places to try to resolve the situation in Honduras.
MR. WOOD: A question right here.
QUESTION: Yeah, (inaudible). Secretary of State Clinton said that there would be consequences for any country in the region that flirted with Iran. I’m just wondering if you could explain. Is that a warning or a threat? What does she mean by consequences? And I’m curious in the case of Honduras, whether perceived closening of relations between Honduras and Iran played into U.S. policy and whether there was concern about Zelaya getting closer to Iran?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: I’m not aware of any concern of – about whether or not Honduras had any kind of – any proximity with Iran, and I’m just – I’m not aware of that. So I don’t think that that played into this issue at all. In fact, what happened in Iran was – I mean, what happened in Honduras was a coup d’etat on the 28th of June. And we joined the rest of the countries in the hemisphere in reacting to that. This – that other factor that you just mentioned is not something that’s been in the equation as far as I’m concerned.
With regard to the Secretary’s comments, I actually would refer you to her, to her spokesman, because I – that’s not an issue that I would like to comment on.
MR. WOOD: Back here, please.
QUESTION: Okay. Thank you. Mr. Secretary, the military bases in Colombia will be an issue on your trip. Some people consider that the recent revival of the Cold War in the region, so I would like to hear some comments on that. And if you can be more specific on your agenda in Argentina, because you said yesterday you are going to grant a courtesy visit, but there is no agenda. I am a little bit confused. Could you please explain that? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: I do have an agenda in every one of these countries. And the agendas are the following. We’re going to discuss broad international issues, we’re going to discuss regional issues, and we’re going to discuss various sorts of questions that come up in the bilateral relationship. And they may be different in the different countries.
But I want to stress again that the purpose of my trip is not to go down with a series of specific issues that I want to explore. I want – we’re going to discuss issues of common concern. But the real purpose of my trip is to listen. It’s a trip to – in that sense, in the real sense of the word, it is a courtesy trip on the – I’m going to go down to get to know some of my counterparts in some of these places, in these capitals. I want to listen. I want to explore new avenues in which we might be able to collaborate on various things moving forward.
And your other question was?
QUESTION: The military bases.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Oh, the military bases. Well, look, I’ve been around enough and working on this hemisphere, as well as the other places in the world, to assure you that we’re not even near any kind of a situation that would be – that is comparable to that of the Cold War. There may be differences of opinion in Latin America about various issues we’re concerned about – the tensions between Venezuela and Colombia, for example – but this is – we’re not in any way in a situation comparable to the situation that the United States was in a period of history where there was a really genuine and – a threat to some of the fundamental interests of the United States. It came from the Sino-Soviet split with the United States, particularly, a Soviet-U.S. competition.
That’s simply not the case. And there may be some rhetoric in the region that is expansive, but we’re not realistically, in any way, in that kind of situation; quite the contrary. What I see when I look at the Western Hemisphere is a continent that only as recently as 30 years ago had authoritarian governments in practically every one of the nations. Only three countries avoided authoritarian governments in Latin America in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
It’s also a continent where did you have civil wars in Central America. The one in Guatemala beginning in 1954, during the – and much of that phenomena, the authoritarianism and the civil conflicts of the period, were part of the broad civil war structure that – the Cold War structure that existed at the time. That’s gone. We’re in a different kind of world. We’re in a world where there’s much more room for collaborative work, for work that’s based on mutual respect. That’s the policy of this Administration. We’re excited about it. I think we can make significant progress by having a new tone in our dealing with the countries of the hemisphere, one of mutual respect, one of mutual engagement where we work together to resolve some of the problems that affect all of our peoples.
QUESTION: Venezuela (inaudible).
MR. WOOD: A question right here.
QUESTION: I want to ask –
MR. WOOD: Wait. I think –
QUESTION: Oh, I’m sorry. You mentioned that – earlier when you spoke that your appointment process was delayed and you were sitting in the cold office there alone, what’s – in terms of the timing, you know, you were sworn in on the 5th, and I think that Senator Jim DeMint de-blocked your nomination on the 5th. That was just two days after Tom Shannon went on CNN and said that the United States would support the elections.
What is the connection with the timing between the Administration’s decision to support elections in Honduras and recognize elections in Honduras and your appointment finalization?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: There – let me make something very, very clear about this, there is no linkage whatsoever there. And if Senator DeMint had an interpretation of that, you need to ask Senator DeMint. But what our position was – and it was articulated by my predecessor, Assistant Secretary Shannon – was that the United States, after the signing of the October 30th accord, would, of course, work with Honduras to recognize both the election, but only as it were part of a broader engagement in Honduras through a negotiating strategy that, in fact, did lead to the signing of the October 30th accord. So he never said, and that was not the policy of the United States – the United States would simply accept an election, no conditions. In fact, he made it very, very clear that the only reason why the United States would consider supporting the election is if, in fact, it was done through this agreement on both sides of the accord.
And Secretary Shannon, at that point, pointed directly to an agreement that both parties had signed – both parties, the representative of President Zelaya as well as the representatives of the de facto government on October 30th in which they had set the groundwork – the ground rules for the kind of agreement that was necessary. It was under that situation that he made that statement.
And subsequently, as the process has moved forward in Honduras, we’ve made very, very clear what was the policy all along, that the elections would be considered only a necessary condition for the reestablishment of the constitutional and democratic order in Honduras, not a sufficient condition. And that remains our policy today, and this is why we’re still very much engaged in trying to get the full implementation of that accord.
MR. WOOD: We’ve got time for two last questions, unfortunately. One here and then Goyal.
QUESTION: In Latin America this morning there is a lot of rhetoric – I don’t know if you have seen the last Mercosur meeting in Montevideo. I want to ask you if you are going to work also with some countries of the ALBA soon, if you are going to travel to Venezuela, to Ecuador, to Bolivia, to these countries where we are seeing a lot of rhetoric in the Western Hemisphere. And also, what do you think about this ideologic problem that also you mentioned that’s happening in Washington?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Listen. From the very outset of this Administration, the President himself has made very, very clear that our policy is a policy that is aimed at engaging and at having dialogue and looking for avenues where we can pursue issues of mutual interest. This is what we want to do with all of the countries of the Americas.
And let me make also clear that one of the things that’s important behind that rationale is understanding the individual contexts of each country, and that’s very important. Because what we’re talking about right here are significant differences also between countries who may have, at some times, a similar kind of rhetoric, but have fundamentally different realities that are underlying – underlining their individual political situations today.
So we could – if we had more time, we could go over this sort of thing, but it’s quite clear that the best way for the United States to think about engaging in this new era of engagement that we’re working on is to work with each country in their own right, understanding what their concerns and problems are, and looking for ways in which we can collaborate in moving forward.
MR. WOOD: Goyal, please.
QUESTION: My quick question is: Are you worried about the Chinese expansion in the (inaudible) of the United States and the region militarily and economically? And do you discuss this issue with anybody? Because this may be a threat to the U.S. national security in the future.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: No, I’m not worried about that. In fact, there has been a significant expansion of Chinese investment in Latin America. They have established posts even in some of the smaller countries. They’re very interested in looking for raw materials and other things like that, but other kinds of investment as well. Our position is that if – in fact, one of the hopes for Latin America is, in fact, to get more investment, to be able to generate more jobs, to be able to overcome some of their significant social inequities and disparities in Latin America. So the investment that comes from all over the world – and it’s not only China that’s investing significantly. India is also moving to do some significant investment in Latin America. That’s welcome.
And we trade ourselves with China significantly. And I think that it’s very – this is a welcome development to have a greater engagement on the part of the countries of Latin America with other emerging economies in the world because it helps to lift the situation of all peoples.
QUESTION: But, sir, I’m talking about –
MR. WOOD: (Inaudible.)
QUESTION: But, sir, I’m talking about – I’m sorry, militarily– expansion of China’s military expansion.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: I didn’t observe any kind of Chinese military expansion in the Western Hemisphere.
MR. WOOD: We can – one last question and that’s all.
QUESTION: Yes, just about Mexico, sir. You know, this is one of the most important partners of the U.S. in the region. And the question I have is a very concrete one: Do you trust the numbers that the Mexican Government is providing to you regarding military abuses in the drug war? Two weeks ago, the Washington Post published a story saying that the numbers were contradictory. Do you trust the numbers? Yes or no?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY VALENZUELA: Let me just simply say this: That is an issue of concern, yes. And we’ve discussed the matter with the Mexican authorities, and it’s something that we take very, very seriously. And let me say this, on the basis of our ability to have a dialogue that is a frank dialogue, that is a mutually respectful dialogue that we can advance on a lot of these sorts of issues. But that particular question is something that, yes, we’ve raised with the Mexican authorities and we are concerned about.
MR. WOOD: Thank you all very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.

It is gratifying to see my friend and Georgetown colleague is finally at work in this new position!

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Welcome! Who am I?

Anthony Clark Arend is Professor of Government and Foreign Service at Georgetown University and the Director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

Commentary and analysis at the intersection of international law and politics.