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Recap: The 47th Washington Conference on the Americas

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross (Image: Mark Finkenstaedt)

May 10, 2017

Speakers:

  • Wilbur Ross, U.S. Secretary of Commerce‏
  • John Hickenlooper, Governor of Colorado
  • John McCain, U.S. Senator from Arizona
  • Marco Rubio, U.S. Senator from Florida
  • Francisco Palmieri, Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • François-Philippe Champagne, Minister, International Trade, Government of Canada
  • Michael Barone, Senior Political Analyst, The Washington Examiner
  • Susan Glasser, Chief International Affairs Columnist, Politico
  • Charles Lane, Editorial Writer, The Washington Post
  • Simon Rosenberg, President and Founder, NDN
  • Demetri Sevastopulo, Washington Bureau Chief, Financial Times
  • Andrés Gluski, Chairman, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • John Negroponte, Chairman Emeritus, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • Susan Segal, President and CEO, Americas Society/Council of the Americas
  • Eric Farnsworth, Vice President, Americas Society/Council of the Americas

The Council of the Americas hosted the 47th Annual Conference on the Americas at the U.S. Department of State on May 9. As the first iteration of the top event on U.S. policy toward Latin America during a new U.S. administration, the 2017 event “carries a particular importance given the historic changes that are occurring in Washington,” said AS/COA President and CEO Susan Segal in her opening remarks.

Venezuela

Many speakers of the day touched on the escalating crisis in Venezuela. Republican Senators Marco Rubio and John McCain both seemed wary of direct U.S. involvement in Caracas. McCain said that U.S. sanctions end up hurting innocent people and that Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro “probably doesn’t give a damn.” The most important response from the United States in this moment, he said, would be for U.S. President Donald Trump to speak up on the issue, comparing it to how much it encouraged pro-democracy advocates living in the USSR when then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan spoke out on the matter.

For his part, Rubio said that one of the most “uplifting…encouraging developments” was seeing other nations in Latin America such as Argentina, Mexico, and Peru stand up for democratic values in Venezuela.

The State Department’s top diplomat for Latin America similarly used strong words for Maduro, in particular the Venezuelan leader’s recent announcement of plans to rewrite the country’s Constitution. “We know the solution to Venezuela’s problems is not less democracy, but more democracy,” said Francisco Palmieri, the acting assistant secretary of state of Western Hemisphere Affairs. “An autocratic, top-down authoritarian exercise dressed up as a constituent assembly, having already lost legitimacy at home and abroad, will not help either.”

Cuba

Palmieri also said that one can expect the U.S.’s landmark policy on Cuba to, at the very least, change, as the U.S. State Department is in the middle of a comprehensive review of the current approach of rapprochement. One area of focus, he said, was ensuring that Cuba makes “more substantive progress” toward greater respect for human rights inside country.

Palmieri said the department was considering input from lawmakers such as Rubio, a first-generation Cuban-American from Florida whose parents emigrated from Havana in 1956, and one of the leading critics of the rapprochement initiated by the Obama administration in 2014. “I hope that we will, in a strategic way, recalculate the concessions that have been made with the dictatorship in Cuba,” said Rubio. “I fear that too much time has been used to placate hostile governments.”

U.S. tariffs on Canadian timber

One of the more contentious issues was the topic of the Trump administration’s April 24 decision to impose a new 20 percent tariff on Canadian timber imports. U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross defended the move, saying it was made based on an objective presentation of the data available, and he reiterated that, should the Canadians have other data that indicates otherwise, they’d be happy to consider it. “Threats of retaliatory action are inappropriate and will not influence final actions,” Ross said.

Ottawa is nonetheless responding and “taking steps to defend our industry,” said François-Philippe Champagne, Canada’s minister of international trade, who called the tariffs “unfair” and “unwarranted” and said the country was looking for other markets for its lumber exports.

McCain also raised the issue, asking: “Couldn’t we have tried to negotiate this first rather than send a message of retaliation?”

NAFTA

One of the other big issues for the day was the Trump administration’s stance on the North American Free Trade Agreement. Many speakers spoke about modernizing the 23-year-old agreement, although Ross spoke about why he and Trump prefer bilateral agreements over multilateral ones. “Multilateral trade deals, by their nature, take an extremely long time to negotiate because they have so many moving parts,” he said. “Often, as a result, they are somewhat obsolete by the time they’re signed.” That said, once the administration decides on its strategy, Ross said people can expect negotiations with Canada and Mexico to proceed quickly.

Central American security

One of the best ways for the United States to secure its southern border, said both senators, is to partner with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Rubio stressed the importance of spreading economic prosperity within the region as a way to bring more stability and reduce the public security problem that’s causing so many—10 percent of Northern Triangle residents in the last two years, per McCain—to emigrate and try to find a way north. To support economic growth of U.S. neighbors “is not a zero-sum game,” said Rubio.

McCain, who chairs the Senate’s Armed Services Committee and sits on the Homeland Security one, was candid in acknowledging U.S. responsibility for Northern Triangle instability. Citing U.S. Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, he said that 80 percent of violence in the region was fueled by U.S. demand for illegal drugs. “We’re not doing enough here on the demand side to stem the demand. It’s Economics 101,” said the senior senator from Arizona. “I’m not letting Northern Triangle countries off the hook,” he added, “but I’m not sure that we’re doing our side of the mission as well—besides pour more money into it.”

Some believe that one solution to stem demand for illicit drugs is to legalize marijuana for recreational use, something Governor John Hickenlooper’s state of Colorado did in 2012 through a voter initiative to amend the state’s Constitution. The Democrat said he’d talked with, among others, former Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Arturo Sarukhán at length about the implications of legalization, and that, by and large, none of the potential risks laid out came to pass. Moreover, Hickenlooper said, there’d been no significant increases of recreational marijuana users, with the exception of the senior community.

Other U.S. policy issues: Colombia and immigration

Ever since the end of the Cold War, U.S. policy toward Latin America has lacked a “strategic focus,” said Rubio. Unlike other areas of the world, “There are no partisan lines” when it comes to policy in the region, he said. “It’s an open blank slate and it allows us to write it in a way that benefits Americans,” he said. As Capitol Hill reviews the 2017 budget, Rubio said the United States should “reassure Colombian people that the U.S. supports Peace Colombia,” conditioned on the full compliance by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, aka the FARC, to the peace agreement it signed with the government.

McCain said that Congress would have to address the issue of immigration reform “sooner rather than later,” and that especially as the Latino population in the United States grows and comes of voting age, it’s critical for GOP lawmakers to know how to engage the group. “Spanish was spoken before English in Arizona,” he observed.

During a panel discussion, Simon Rosenberg of the New Democrat Network said that “the intensity, ferocity with which [the Trump administration is] prosecuting immigration…could end up having a real impact on how Latin American populations view the U.S.”

The Americas and the New Washington

A panel of senior political journalists debated how the capital had changed since U.S. President Donald Trump took office. Michael Barone of The Washington Examiner said one thing that was particularly unusual compared to previous U.S. administrations was how many of the hundreds of posts that require Senate confirmation—including several ambassadorships in the Western Hemisphere—remain vacant past the 100-days mark of the Trump presidency.

“I see Washington as very frightened. No one knows where to go,” said The Washington Post columnist Chuck Lane. “It’s the tip of the iceberg of latent chaos.”

Cultivating that chaos has been one of the most consistent parts of Trump’s management strategy throughout his career, said Politico’s Susan Glasser. “If you talk to his advisers, the one thing they all agree upon—and they don’t agree on a lot—is that Trump is using his unpredictability as a pillar of what he’s trying to do,” she said. In the midst of the confusion, “it’s his role to make deals.” Both Barone and Glasser urged the room that Trump’s statements (and even tweets) should be taken seriously, even if not literally. Moderator Demetri Sevastopulo of the Financial Times closed by quoting from the book the president wrote in 1987, Trump: The Art of the Deal. “A little hyperbole never hurts. People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular,” he read. “I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and a very effective form of promotion.”