Remarks: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the 43rd Washington Conference on the Americas

Read Vice President Joe Biden's remarks at the 43rd Annual Washington Conference of the Americas.


Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Justice, it's an honor to be with you. When I hear an introduction like that, I think I can't be that old. (Laughter.) It's not possible. But I did learn a few things along the way and I learned many of them from Ambassador Negroponte. And I mean that sincerely. There's been few folks who have worked in this building that have been more gifted than John Negroponte and few that have been handled more difficult assignments in his career through several presidents than Ambassador Negroponte. So it's an honor to be introduced by you, Mr. Ambassador.

The timing of this conference, in my view, couldn't be better. President Obama has just come back from a trip to give the American people a window into the unfolding progress in the Western Hemisphere. Much has changed in the last 20 years, let alone the last 40 years that I've been in this town.

In Mexico, President Obama met with President Pena Nieto, the new president who presides over a country that has a middle class majority today. In Costa Rica, we met with Central American leaders of countries where democratic elections are no longer exceptions, but have become the rule. These and other significant changes portend, in my view, a significantly new day, significantly and a -- and a number of new opportunities not only for those in the hemisphere, but for us as well. We are part of the hemisphere. And now, it's time, president and I believe, to seek a much deeper engagement within the Western Hemisphere.

My grandfather would say with the grace of God and the good will of the neighbors, there's considerable political and economic opportunities that exist in this hemisphere. And this is a moment to look forward to build -- build the friendships and the partnerships that are going to allow us to deal with the shared challenges and shape -- jointly shape a global system 10, 20, 50 years from now. It all begins now, it seems to me.

That's why the president traveled to Mexico and Costa Rica and that's why I will travel to Brazil and Colombia in the coming weeks. And that's why we are welcoming heads of states from Peru, Chile, in June, more Latin American visitors this fall, and all told we will have the most active stretch of high level engagement in the Latin America in a long, long time because there're so many opportunities. There's so much more we believe we can do.

But before I talk about where we're headed, I'm going to speak for just a moment about how things used to be. As was pointed out, I joined the Senate when I was a 29-year-old kid in 1973. And across Latin America, there were guerillas and strongmen, civil wars, wars between right and left, hyperinflation, human rights abuses, and grinding, grinding poverty. It was a difficult chapter in our history because our struggle with the Soviet Union sometimes put the hemisphere in the crossfire -- in the crosshairs. Sometimes it divided the world between us and them, and that left us sometimes on the side of leaders who didn't always shared our values.

Today, the civil wars are over. Guerillas and strongmen mostly have given way to democratically elected presidents and prime ministers. Hyperinflation has given way to growth rates that many countries -- in many countries -- that, trust me, many of our European neighbors would welcome.

Two hundred and twenty-five million people in Latin America, in the Caribbean are now part of the middle class. As my brother would say, they all could qualify for a gold card. And the Western Hemisphere has always, always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history.

More of our prosperity, thanks to that new middle class, those new middle class consumers, energy producers and trading partners. More to our security, in a world where transnational crime seeks out the weakest links and violence rarely respects borders. And more to our shared values as neighbors to take more prominent seat at the table of global politics. Whether it's Mexico hosting the G20 or Colombia preparing to join the OECD, this is not as the old expression goes, your father's Latin America.

Things have changed a great deal. Now, it's true that each new administration, although we're getting old, we're in the second lap here, each new administration comes with priorities and promises of a deeper and more equal partnership with Latin America. But I would submit to you that we have already changed the way we do business and the way we frame it.

The question isn't like it was the years, John, early on, when I was in the Foreign Relations Committee. It was always about what can we do for Latin America, what can we do for the Americans. It's no longer that. It's what can we do with Latin America? What can we do with our partners in the hemisphere?

We're not naive. There're still real problems and a lot more work to be done. Not all countries have found the right formula for growth. And Ecuador remains an incredible serious problem. There are underserved indigenous and Afro descendants communities, countries where every few months seems to bring an attempt to -- a new attempt to chip away at the democratic freedoms and civil -- that the civil society is just now establishing, places where the rule of law is in jeopardy and areas where the stereotypical notions, looking north and south, continue to prevail.

In the region, we're still viewed by many as a disengaged, domineering, or both, but I would argue that's not us anymore. Too many in my country still look south to the region of 600 million people and see mostly pockets of poverty and strife. But that's not you anymore. Neither stereotype is accurate. And they haven't been, I would argue, for some time.

The changes underway give all of us an opportunity to look at the hemisphere in a very different way. Just as in the 1990s, we began talking about -- and many of you in this room, diplomats, know this -- we began talking about Europe in a different way. We can talk about Europe as whole and free, a whole and free Europe, as the Soviet Union began to crumble.

We hadn't talked about Europe like that in the previous 60 years -- free and at peace. Now, we're talking about the hemisphere. I think we should be talking about the hemisphere as middle class, secure, and Democratic. From Canada to Chile and everywhere in between. So the question is, if I'm right, how do we carry through on that -- carry forward on that journey of a middle class, secure, and democratic hemisphere? To me, the answer's pretty clear. It's by venting our shared prosperity, security, and values.

Let me start on the economic side. When we talk about shared prosperity, it's not a euphemism for helping others. That's what it's always been in the past. How are we going to help. This is truly a two-way street. We are counting on new trade, investment, and consumption from Latin America to create jobs in the United States of America. So it's not surprising that economics plays an ever larger role in our relations across the Americas.

In the first term, we signed into law and implemented a free trade agreement with Panama and Colombia and launched a wide range of new economic initiatives.

In 2007, we exported $490 billion in goods within our own hemisphere. In 2011, that number was $650 billion and rising. Canada, the United States, and Mexico already represent a trillion dollar trading partnership, already. Imagine us saying that 25 years ago. It already represents $1 trillion trading partnership.

And President Obama, as he made very clear last week, economic cooperation, not just security, is at the top of our agenda with Mexico. Our president launched a new high-level economic dialogue focused on helping countries trade faster and cheaper. Imagine what can happen if we extend such deep economic partnerships to growing markets up and down the hemisphere, all across hemisphere, from Colombia to Brazil to Peru to others.

The planned expansions of the Panama Canal is already sparking massive new investment within the United States and plans for ambitious trade throughout the region. I see my old friend, Bennett Johnson, from Louisiana, former senator.

Bennett, I'm having every governor, senator, and mayor of every port from Texas to Maine, coming to me to appeal that I get more investment money so they can deepen their harbors. It's a multibillion dollar deal. (Applause.) Billions of dollars. It's a game changer. It's significant. But it will also significantly help the region and will help sustain democratic middle class countries.

Democracy does not flourish where the economy does not grow. They are directly connected. Most people outside this room would be surprised to learn -- none of you would be surprised because, as that old saying goes in English, you forgot more about many of these subjects that most people will ever know. But the truth is that most people outside this country are surprised to learn that we're further along on this route to a hemisphere that's more united and prosperous than anyone might think.

The U.S. has free trade agreements with partners stretching just continuously from Yukon to Tierra del Fuego. In fact, we believe that collective communities that we -- communities -- we connect them to free trade, if it's done right, it can help shape the character of an entire global economy.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership currently under negotiation is an ambitious, high standard agreement that we're driving forward together with Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, as well as our partners in the Pacific. But I would emphasize it's a high standard agreement. It's demanding a different level of trade, cooperation, one part of a broader effort to strengthen the global trading system.

This is a race to the top, not to the bottom, in which we want to -- we want our close partners benefiting with us and helping us. And we're hoping to get it done by the end of this year.

People used to say -- all of you Brazilians, please forgive me -- people used to say Brazil was the economy of the future. The joke was they always would be. But the future's here. It's now. It's real. Brazil is neck-in-neck with the U.K. to be the sixth largest economy in the world. And we're working to build an economic relationship where the reality matches the promise on everything from energy to education to trade to transparency.

And finally, we're working to help advance transformational changes that are literally shifting the world's energy center of gravity and it's shifting the world energy center of gravity to this hemisphere.

Again, excuse me for referring my old friend Bennett, but, Bennett, when we were debating energy in the '70s, when we go there, no one, no one talked about the hemisphere. The partnership of Colombia and others, we launched to connect 2022 -- launch called Connect 2022 and set a goal that within a decade all citizens of hemisphere will have access to reliable clean and affordable electricity.

In the meantime, U.S. companies help provide four gigawatts of low-carbon electricity to Mexico and Central America. That's the equivalent of building two Hoover Dams. We have unique technology and expertise to help countries responsibly lay the foundation to become, and most importantly, remain major energy producers.

By one estimate, the Western Hemisphere will account for two thirds of the growth in the world's supply of oil over the next two decades. Two thirds of the growth in the world's supply of oil over the next two decades. But folks, we can't just look at that. We'd be kidding ourselves if we think we can develop all these new energy sources and expect to be OK without finding ways to also get cleaner and more efficient energy and fast.

Today, we face an urgent and growing challenge from climate change. Latin America and the Caribbean with their storms and shorelines are especially at risk. It's real. It's not made up. In spite of what some of my friends in this town think about global warming, there is a science. It's real. We can argue about the extent. We can argue about the rapidity. We can argue about when we've passed the point of no return. But it is real.

That's why countries like Mexico and Costa Rica become world leaders on this issue. That's why we launched the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas.

Over the next -- these are -- much of this is in its infancy. But for the first time, in my view, there's an opportunity to take ideas in their infancy and maybe bring them, so they're not stillborn, bring them to birth, because so much is changing in the hemisphere.

Over the next four years, we will intensify our partnerships on biofuels, geothermal, energy efficiency, connecting our grids and continue to protect tropical forests to remain the lungs of the planet and one of the best defenses against having climate change rapidly increase.

In the end, prosperity is deeply connected to security, though. The security that will give the people in the countries in the region and businesspeople and investors the competence to set up shop. It matters.

And here I want to say something that cannot be said often enough. Our friends in Mexico, Colombia, and across Central America, and the Caribbean, have made great sacrifices, great personal sacrifices, physical sacrifices to win back their streets for their families and their children from criminal gangs and narcotraffickers. Their courage amazes me. I've been dealing -- and those of you from Colombia know I've been dealing with this issue for over 25 years on an intensive basis. It astounds me.

Mr. Justice, we set a policy here and we don't worry about whether we will be on the other end of the assassination attempt for laying out a policy. That's not the case and was not the case in many places over the last 20 years. Real courage, physical courage.

Meanwhile, this administration is working hard to reduce the flow of illicit money and weapons and making major investments in reducing the demand for drugs, which is always our part of the problem.

In today's Western Hemisphere, there are many countries in the region ready to partner. The Brazilians are leading vital U.N. stabilization efforts in Haiti on security, the Brazilians. The Colombians have trained over 14,000 international police personnel from 25 Latin American countries since 2009. Think about that. Americans don't know that. U.S. citizens don't know that.

Canada today is funding Chilean trainers to develop Guatemala an air force and a navy. The U.S. is prepared to respond the request -- and I emphasize this -- U.S. is not imposing, as the president pointed out. The U.S. is prepared to respond to requests to support the security needs of our neighbors, including training, equipment and technical support, but respond to the request. This is a partnership.

Everyone involved with this problem understands the need for judicial reform, anti-corruption, youth programs, human rights training for police and militaries faced -- forced into policing roles, and as well as economic development.

This is the one area I've been dealing with most over the last three decades in the region. It is hard. It is hard. But it's necessary and there is a recognition with every president with whom I met in the hemisphere: As difficult as it is, it has to be dealt with.

All the building blocks for an environment where the rule of law is respected are available. President Obama and President Pena Nieto discussed these issues last week. And I'm confident that the strong security partnership will continue because it's simply too important and too much in the interest of both our countries to do otherwise, but as a partnership.

We've all seen how countries can pull themselves back from the brink. Back in 1999, I was one of the champions, as John will remember, of Plan Colombia, in the U.S. Senate at the time, when Colombia seemed to be in permanent economic crisis. Cartels operated with impunity. Guerillas shelled the presidential palace. Remember taking out part of the Supreme Court back in those days as evidence that we can do whatever we want to do. Later this month, I'll go back for the first time in 13 years to see a country transformed.

Today, Colombia's pursuing its historic pace -- excuse me -- pursuing a historic peace effort with the FARC. And just as we have supported Colombia's leaders in the battlefield, we'll fully support their efforts to end the conflict at the negotiating table.

Working with our partners, we hope we'll be able to build our half trillion dollar investment to help neighbors protect citizens throughout Central America. The Central American Regional Security Initiative. We will disrupt criminal traffickers and gangs through the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. And we'll help countries across the Americas put in place all the ingredients they need for lasting security if they wish.

We all seek an Americas, a hemisphere, that is not just secure and prosperous, but that is democratic. Ultimately, we are putting our faith in the people of this hemisphere. We have to put ourselves on the side of democratic processes and principles, rather than parties and individuals. And sometimes that's hard.

Together with the OAS, when democracy's put to test in Honduras and Paraguay, we responded with the OAS. When some in the region attempted to water down the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, together we responded and prevailed -- together.

And through the Open Government Partnership, we are attempting to build accountable, responsible, transparent institutions and create new space -- new space for constructive engagement. In Cuba, we've seen some small encouraging signs, from our perspective, in recent years. The release of a number of political prisoners, lifting restrictions on travel, small economic reforms.

We've also seen continued arrests and abuses of people for speaking their mind and seeking a voice in their own affairs, including many arrests in the last year. The United States has made it possible for Cuban Americans to visit and send remittances home to their families, but what we -- what we really want to do is encourage the next level of cooperation with Cuba, real change, meaningful change, permanent change. The kind of peaceful democratic change courageous Cubans such as Oswaldo Paya and his fellow reformers advocated and promoted for so many years. So we'll continue to take steps to support the Cuban people and a prosperous democratic future they deserve.

And I can't talk about Cuba without mentioning one case that is the one of our biggest obstacles in our bilateral relationships of late, the Cuban detention of Alan Gross. It's important to note that many supporters of engaging with Cuba have weighed in with the Cuban government to urge that he'd be released.

We are committed to seeing Alan Gross come home. And we'll work to make that happen.

When it comes to Venezuela, whether your perspective on that hard fought and close election, whatever it is, there should be no debate inside or out that any Venezuelan government has a basic responsibility, no matter who won, to allow freedoms of expression and assembly, to promote and protect people from violence, to engage in genuine dialogue in a deeply divided country. And I think -- respectfully suggest that's not what's happening. That's not -- that is not what is happening right now.

A better exits and it's not just the United States saying that Venezuela's leadership take that path. The inter-American community wants dialogue and sees it as the only way out of this current crisis. The fact is, in the 21st century we've never had so many partners whose successes give a lie to the old notion that the region isn't ready for democracy or the countries have to choose between freedom and growth.

And the one point -- the one additional point I'd like to make to you, I firmly believe if we do all we can in this hemisphere to strengthen our relationships that this hemisphere can be a global platform for promoting the economic values we share worldwide, a hemisphere that champions fair and open economic competition, even beyond our region, as we have through the G-20 APAC, the Alliance for the Pacific, as we're hoping to do with the Trans-Pacific Partnership we're negotiating. But there're a lot of tough choices that have to be made. In some places, that means demanding that elites pay -- pay their, as they say in this country, their fair share, to pay for the police in the streets and the basic services for the poor. In other places, that means taking on corruption head on. In the United States, it means reforming our immigration system and 11 million undocumented men, women, and children being able to come out of the shadows and be full participants in American life, granting them the dignity.

My father would say, it's all about dignity -- granting them the dignity and respect they deserve. Without doing that, it's hard to make the case, in my view, to 600 million people in the hemisphere that we genuinely respect you all, but we do not show respect for 11 million people here in America who hail from the very countries we talk about respecting.

I don't know how that's done. I don't know how that's done. That's why we are absolutely committed to genuine immigration reform.

The poet John Donne famously wrote, "No man is an island entire of itself, each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main." In my view, that captures the core truth about the hemisphere and the world we live in today. We've crossed the threshold where our success or the success of our neighbors, the success of our nation depend on one another like never before.

We've moved out of the zero-sum game mentality that if others prosper in the hemisphere, anywhere in the world, somehow that diminishes us. It is the exact opposite. You all know it. You all know it. We know it. The growth -- the economic growth, the security in this hemisphere is overwhelmingly in U.S. interests, exceeding almost any other interest in my view. So we're well-past the zero-sum thinking to recognize that what benefits the hemisphere benefits the United States and vice versa. Freedom and opportunity that once felt like exclusive possessions of the lucky few in this hemisphere are now a reality for people in more places than ever before. We have the opportunity because of the all the work you've done -- not what we've done, what you've done.

I think that's something to celebrate. I think that's something to educate our publics about. And let's just dream of an even bigger successes and let's just dream of them together as partners.

So for the sake of all those in our country and our region who call ourselves Americans, let's take up together the work of building the hemisphere where every child in every country grows up with opportunity, security and freedom -- a piece of the continent, a part of the main.

I've been here a long time. As my grandpa Ambrose Finnegan would say, I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday. (Laughter.) The reason I'm optimistic is because I know the history of the journey of this nation. I know the history of the journey of this hemisphere in the last 50 years. This is all within our grasp. Hard as the devil to get there, but for the first time really within our grasp.

So I thank you, John, and Madam President, I thank you for this organization who leads in this, I think, generic belief that I've expressed that the opportunities are not doing nothing but getting greater and deepening. I thank you all for listening. May God bless you all and may God protect our troops. Thank you. (Applause.)