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49th Annual Washington Conference: Disruption and Transformation in the Americas

May 10, 2019

Washington, D.C. May 10, 2019 — U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Kimberly Breier sent a powerful message in defense of Latin America’s democratic order during the 49th Annual Washington Conference, coorganized Tuesday, May 7, by the Council of the Americas and the U.S. Department of State.

The event gathered top U.S. and hemispheric officials, as well as private-sector leaders who discussed the region’s economic and political outlook around the theme, “Disruption and Transformation in the Americas.”
“This partnership between the State Department and the Council of the Americas—the premier business association in the hemisphere—is a strong reminder of the positive relations that need to be continually forged between the public and private sectors to advance business in the hemisphere,” said AS/COA President and CEO Susan Segal, who opened the conference along with AS/COA Vice President Eric Farnsworth.
Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, highlighted the importance of the inter-American relationship: “We believe that the Americas has an incredible opportunity—the chance to cement a future of democracy and prosperity for this hemisphere through deeper U.S. engagement, greater business investment, and stronger people-to-people ties, and we are committed to working to achieve results in these areas.” 

Breier was followed by a keynote interview by Michelle Caruso-Cabrera of CNBC with Nayib Bukele, the president-elect of El Salvador. Bukele is eying that investment in particular to boost El Salvador’s economy when he takes office on June 1, which he sees as the best way to stem emigration flows. He said he estimates that every one job created in the country will prevent five people from emigrating. He also said the outgoing administration’s decision to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China was not a done deal. “I’ll be frank. We’re not going to do what’s in the U.S.’s best interest or China’s. We’re going to do what’s best for El Salvador,” he said. “That might be going back to Taiwan, it might be staying with China. It’s an ongoing discussion.” (Listen to AS/COA's Latam in Focus podcast on Bukele's remarks).

Following the interview, AS/COA Chairman Andrés Gluski honored U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, with the Chairman’s Award for Leadership, noting the senior senator from Florida’s leadership on Capitol Hill promoting U.S. policy toward Latin America. Following the award, Rubio gave remarks on the importance of democratic order in the region: "We have a chance for the Western Hemisphere to be, truly, the first free hemisphere in all of human history. We have two or three places left to go. But just imagine, that as a legacy of our time in public policy. To be able to say that we were able to be a part of having the first truly free hemisphere in the history of all of mankind.”

Jan Van Acker, president of Latin America and Emerging Markets for Merck, introduced the panel “Prospects for Investment, Innovation and Inclusive Growth in the Americas.” Moderated by Shery Ahn from Bloomberg, the panel included U.S. Senator from Louisiana Bill Cassidy, Axel van Trotsenburg of the World Bank, and BNDES President Joaquim Levy.

Next, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence took to the podium, after an introduction by Gluski. “It’s unquestionable that over the last two years, there has been profound transformation in Latin America… Since my first visit to Latin America two years ago, the people of the Western Hemisphere have voted in election after election for prosperity, security, and transparency from their governments—and the United States has stood with them every step of the way,” said Pence.

Pence referred to Nicolás Maduro’s regime as “the single greatest disruption to peace and prosperity in the Western Hemisphere.”  He also stated that the United States reaffirms its “commitment to the Venezuelan people—and to our partners in the region—to support the transformation that is now taking place.”

Additional top speakers at the conference included U.S. Representative Eliot Engel, Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez, Canadian International Trade Diversification Minister James Carr, Mexican Foreign Affairs Minister Marcelo Ebrard, and U.S. Acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan.
“A policy that cuts off aid, that turns our back on anti-corruption efforts, that keeps out migrants and refugees, and that stokes trade wars doesn’t help United States citizens or anyone else. It leaves America standing alone,” said Congressman Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “I’m concerned with U.S. policy toward Latin America, starting with a wall on our southern border…I would never slam the door on immigrants who come here now because I wouldn’t have wanted the door slammed on my grandparents.”
Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez, who spoke next, said she doesn’t feel “honored” when people note that she’s the country’s first female vice president. Instead, she said she feels the mantle of responsibility to hold such a title for women in Colombia and throughout the hemisphere. She also talked about ways the Duque administration is working to strengthen the rule of law, gender equality, entrepreneurship, and economic development.
Canadian Minister James Carr spoke about Ottawa’s global trade agenda and leadership in advancing meaningful and pragmatic improvements to the World Trade Organization in a conversation with the Financial Times’ James Politi. “Canada’s relationship with the Americas is an enduring one because of the deep ties between our people and the growing trade ties that contribute to our mutual success,” he said. “It is important that together we support efforts to modernize the World Trade Organization so it reflects the realities of a trading system of the twenty-first century.”
Marcelo Ebrard, foreign affairs minister for Mexico, discussed the country’s foreign policy agenda and the relations between Mexico City and Washington. He shared that the current Mexican government is working to achieve four main goals: tackle corruption, combat poverty and inequality, promote the growth of the country as a whole, and make the society safer. “We are shifting the focus of policymaking toward the benefit of society as a whole,” he said. On the bilateral relationship with Washington, he emphasized that it’s based on mutual respect, cooperation for development, and negotiated solutions to common problems.
To close out the conference, acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan spoke about the regional security and prosperity. He said that 63 percent Central Americans cite lack of food as a primary reason for migration. “This crisis is about children, their safety, and the future of our region,” said McAleenan. “The status quo should not be acceptable for anyone who cares about the region and its people…The loss of energy and youth from whole areas of Central America could be devastating for its future.”

For more information, please contact AS/COA Media Relations at or +1—212-277-8333.

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