Vice President Joe Biden on U.S. Priorities for the Americas


"The Western Hemisphere has always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history,” said the vice president, addressing COA's Washington Conference.

“The Western Hemisphere has always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history.”

During his remarks at the 2013 Washington Conference on the Americas, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave an overview of U.S. goals for the Western Hemisphere during the second term of U.S. President Barack Obama. “It’s time, the president and I believe, to seek a much deeper engagement within the Western Hemisphere,” he said. “The Western Hemisphere has always mattered to the United States, but I think it matters more today because it has more potential than any time in American history,” he added.

Biden began by discussing Obama’s May 2-4 trip to Mexico and Costa Rica, saying it provided the American people with a “window into the unfolding progress in the Western Hemisphere.” Mexico now has a middle-class majority, while democratic elections in Central America are no longer exceptions, he said. As a whole, Latin America represents political and economic opportunities for the United States, which is why Obama made the visit, explained Biden. In the coming weeks, Biden himself will travel to Brazil and Colombia, and heads of state from Chile and Peru will visit Washington in June.

Reflecting on how Latin America has changed in the last two decades, Biden pointed out that 225 million people in the region now form part of the middle class. “Whether it’s Mexico hosting the G20 or Colombia preparing to join the OECD, this is not your father’s Latin America,” Biden noted. Another thing that has changed is how the United States views policy initiatives in Latin America, he said. Now, it’s no longer what can we do “for” Latin America but what we can do “with” Latin America, said Biden. “The changes underway give all of us an opportunity to look at the hemisphere in a very different way,” he said.

Biden discussed how Latin America represents economic, security, and democratic challenges and opportunities. “I think we should be talking about the hemisphere as middle class, secure, and democratic,” Biden said.

On the economic side, Biden explained that Latin America helps create jobs in the United States. In 2011, he noted, the United States exported $650 billion within the Western Hemisphere. Obama focused on economic cooperation during his visit to Mexico, launching a high-level economic dialogue for countries to trade faster and cheaper, said Biden. The Panama Canal expansion has inspired excitement in American port cities; “it’s a game-changer,” he said. The Trans-Pacific Partnership can also provide opportunities, he said. “Democracy does not flourish where the economy does not grow.” Brazil represents an economic partner for the United States, Biden explained. “We’re working to build an economic relationship where the reality matches the promise on everything from energy to education to trade to transparency.”

There are also opportunities for energy cooperation in the Americas, Biden explained. The hemisphere needs more efficient and cleaner energy, and must tackle climate change issues. At the same time, countries in the Americas are working toward “shifting the world’s energy center of gravity to the hemisphere.” 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, he noted.

Biden highlighted the connection between security and economic growth, since reducing crime helps inspire business leaders' confidence. It’s not only countries all over the region trying to “win back their streets” from narcotraffickers and building rule of law. Brazil, for example, is leading security efforts in Haiti while Colombia has trained over 14,000 Latin American police personnel since 2009. The United States is prepared to respond to requests to support security needs, but not impose support. “This is a partnership,” he said.

The United States plans to continue numerous security partnerships in the hemisphere. The U.S.-Mexico security partnership will continue, he noted, “because it’s too important to do otherwise.” Biden also discussed Colombia’s progress on reducing violence, as well as efforts to pursue a peace agreement with the FARC. “We’ll fully support their efforts to end the conflict at the negotiating table,” he said.

Democracy is another important issue for the hemisphere, Biden said. “We have to put ourselves on the side of democratic processes and principles rather than parties and individuals, and sometimes that’s hard.” The Organization of American States responded to tests of democracy in Honduras and Paraguay, and countries came together to stop the “watering-down” of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, he said. Through the Open Government Partnership, “we’re trying to build transparent institutions and new space for constructive engagement.” Cuba has shown “small, encouraging” signs but the United States supports “peaceful, democratic change” there, said Biden. In Venezuela, a better path exists, he said. “The inter-American community wants dialogue and sees it as the only way out of this current crisis.”

“We’ve crossed a threshold where our success depends on one another,” said Biden, notin Latin America’s growth and security is “overwhelmingly” in the interest of the United States. “We’ve moved out of zero sum game mentality.” Countries need to do their part, though; he explained that in some countries, that may mean tackling corruption, while in the United States, passing immigration reform.

Watch Vice President Joe Biden's remarks at the 43rd Annual Washington Conference.