Video: John Kerry at COA's 46th Annual Washington Conference on the Americas

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry participated in the 46th Washington Conference on the Americas on May 3. Kerry addressed the changes taking place in Latin America today and commented on the anti-corruption trend sweeping the region. "Corruption as a whole robs the future of a country," he said. He also commented on new trade relationships in the region, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. On climate change, Kerry announced USAID funding associated with the Caribbean and Central American renewable energy projects.


Thank you very, very much. Mr. presidents, distinguished prime ministers, ministers of everything – (laughter) – minister de todos, whatever you – but you’re masters at many, many things here – and distinguished ambassadors, distinguished guests all, we are very, very grateful to you for being here. And I can actually feel an energy in here. I’m – you’re here to talk about energy, but I can feel the energy. (Laughter.) And I am enormously appreciative of my privilege of being here and being introduced by John Negroponte. And it is scary when you have reached that age where people introduce you and they said “known him for decades.” (Laughter.) Scares – reminds me the President the other night at the White House Correspondents Dinner said – he was joking about how Hillary wondered whether or not he’d be awake for that 3 a.m. phone call and able to make it, right? He said, “Hell, I’m awake now because I’ve got to go to the bathroom.” (Laughter.) So I’m not going down that journey any further. That’s enough.

But this is a celebration both of the Council of the Americas Conference and the U.S.-Caribbean-Central American Energy Summit. And as everybody here knows, this is not – this is not sort of light duty, because in so many ways these are two of the most critical conversations we could be having in the context of our hemisphere and the context of what is happening in the world. Global climate change – just this morning, I think it was today’s paper. The days are sort of blurs and I forget which paper I’ve read, but I think there was a story this morning about climate refugees. There was, in fact, in America. And some of us have been talking for years about the potential of climate refugees, going back to, I remember, Rio in 1992, and so now suddenly this is a reality with it. So there’s so much reason to be talking about energy transformation, particularly in the context of economies and of what is happening with respect to the price of oil and other options that are available in the world.

So I want to begin by just welcoming so many of you here – many of you just back to Washington, some of you are here for the first time as prime ministers or as representatives of your government – and we are really delighted to have you here. I want to particularly recognize Prime Minister Andrew Holness of Jamaica and Prime Minister Keith Rowley of Trinidad and Tobago, who are both making their first official trip to Washington in those capacities.

I also want to take the opportunity to congratulate our newly confirmed, extraordinarily capable, long overdue, Ambassador to Mexico Roberta Jacobson. (Applause.) Roberta is going to do a spectacular job in Mexico City – and I know that and you know that – because for about half a decade she has been leading the charge on our efforts within the hemisphere with tremendous skill, with sound judgement, and with good humor. And in the past 12 months, she has demonstrated yet another critical virtue – extraordinary patience.

I also want to begin by saying to everybody that although recent years have not been trouble-free in any part of the world, Latin America and the Caribbean have stood in sharp contrast to more troubled and conflict-ridden regions. And it has become – I think everybody would agree – more democratic, more peaceful, and more prosperous. And that is due to the extraordinary leadership of many of you here in the Ben Franklin Room this evening.

But as everybody knows who is assembled here, none of what has happened happened by accident. It takes hard work and it takes smart policies. It takes responsible leadership, people who have a vision who are willing to articulate that vision and take the risk of going out and running for office, which is not easy in today’s world. And I think it also takes unprecedented cooperation across governments, across sectors, and clearly, regionally through the efforts that we make here tomorrow and going forward.

And I think that if we don’t commit to work together and if we don’t commit to double down on the hard work that has gone in front of us, the next five, ten years could look very, very different from what we all hope they will look like.

Now, that is true on any number of issues – from democracy to human rights to security – and it is absolutely true when it comes to the region’s economic future. And as everybody knows, I mean, Mr. President, you know – if you don’t have a strong economic policy and you’re not offering people a better life and you can’t raise their standard of living and you’re not able to provide them with opportunity and a future, it is tough under any circumstances. And where we don’t see that happening, we tend to see the more repressive and retro movements that work against the progress that we’ve made.

Now, it’s no secret that growth has slowed. The low-hanging fruit of recent years – the relentless demand for local commodities – has inevitably begun to recede somewhat. And that means that keeping the hemisphere competitive is going to require even deeper commitment from all of us and more creativity – more entrepreneurial governance, in effect.

The fact is that if we want the economies of Latin America and of the Caribbean to grow and thrive tomorrow, then we’re going to have to make the right choices now, today, tomorrow. And I’d like to briefly touch on just a quick few areas where we ought to be concentrating that cooperation in order to drive the growth we want.

Number one, trade. The best way to nurture prosperity and economic opportunity for all is to extend the benefits of free and open trade and investment across the entire hemisphere. The United States now has free trade agreements with a dozen countries in the region – more than we have in any other part of the globe. And I will tell you, as a senator I spent 28 years plus in the Senate and succeeded in winning my party’s nomination even as I supported the trade agreements. Why? Because I believed and I believe now even more, as does President Obama, if 95 percent for the United States of America in an economy our size – 95 percent of the customers of the world live in other countries, and no one is going to grow by trading with themselves alone. And we’ve been in that place where you begin to put the high tariffs in place and you prevent the capacity of competitiveness and of hard work and ingenuity to take hold by putting in place artificial barriers. That’s a stomp on creativity and it prevents the capacity to go forward.

Last fall we successfully concluded the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That includes the strongest labor and environment standards ever negotiated in such an agreement and ultimately is going to benefit every single country along the Pacific Rim. And in the United States we are now working with Congress for approval of that agreement, just as we’ve committed to working with you, in order to continue transforming the Americas into an open, integrated platform for global success. That’s how you create and support jobs, and that is how we encourage innovation and that’s how we drive growth. And what we’ve achieved with the TPP is taking 40 percent of the global economy and actually lifting up the standards – a race to the top rather than a race to the bottom – and that will affect every country in the world.

So we need to expand this trade among nations, but we also need to focus on the second priority: supporting entrepreneurs and supporting innovators as they strive to get their businesses up and running. President Jimmy Carter created the U.S. Small Business Development Center Network almost 40 years ago, and the network now serves nearly 1 million small businesses every year and creates three new businesses and eight new U.S. jobs for us every hour – every hour.

With this model in mind, President Obama launched the Small Business Network of the Americas to connect thousands of small business service providers throughout the hemisphere. And when I was in Valparaiso last year, last fall, President Bachelet and I had the privilege of opening one of these centers in Chile. This initiative deserves strong support, as does the WEAmericas program, which specifically focuses on supporting women entrepreneurs. Now, economic experts agree that new businesses are a major source of new jobs, but our policies ought to reflect that by smoothing the way for people who have a good idea to be able to translate that idea into a company that will strengthen communities and build prosperity one step at a time.

Third, we need to promote accountability and transparency in government institutions. Now more than ever, citizens all around the world are making clear to everybody that corruption is not going to be tolerated. Remember that that fruit vendor in Tunisia who started the Arab Spring did not begin that movement based on any religious concept whatsoever, based on any ideology, based on any extremism. That fruit vendor was tired of being slapped around and asked for bribes by the police officers who were telling him where he could sell his fruit. And on one given day he exploded with rage at being told he couldn’t sell it, and the rest of the population exploded with rage in empathy with him for what he had gone through. And that’s what began what happened.

Tahrir Square – those kids in Tahrir Square, not one of them came there based on religion. They were there with their tweets and their Instagrams and their smartphones, communicating with each other because they knew what the rest of the world had and they knew what they didn’t have, and they wanted something better. Same thing that happened in Syria, and we’re now paying the price for the response of one man to people who went out there who wanted health and jobs and education; and when they demonstrated and were beaten up by the thugs that were sent to beat them up, they turned around and their parents came out, and their parents were met with guns and bullets instead of with a program for dealing with the future. That’s what this is about. These two days here in Washington have everything to do with fighting back against that kind of negativity and nihilism in response to the aspirations of people.

So corruption as a whole robs the future of a country. It steals not just money from citizens; it steals their trust in government. It steals their sense of – their national wealth. There are some countries in some parts of the world where I can tell you there are just tens of billions of dollars have been squirreled away in bank accounts that somehow they get to do. And these are people on a public payroll, yet they’re billionaires at the expense of their nation. It limits a country’s GDP growth and thus reduces economic opportunity, and it disadvantages all those businesses that don’t want to pay a bribe or can’t pay a bribe that want to have a fair shake on the competitive playing field.

The good news is that more and more citizens all around the world are saying “no mas” to that – not anymore, none – and they’re stopping it, and they’re working to increase openness, to increase accountability and hold leaders to a higher standard. So we can all of us help in creating a higher standard of accountability, and that includes the private sector. It is essential for corporations to do their part to ensure that laws – not sweetheart relationships, but laws – actually shape decisions and that investigations into wrongdoing are actually independent and that contracts are won not based on how much you pay somebody under the table but on the merits of how people in the country are going to benefit by whatever the product or the company does.

So finally, I’ll just close by saying one of the most important ways that we can grab onto the future – those of you who were in New York the other day get a good sense of this, and we can do this in development all the way from Vancouver in Canada down to Valparaiso. We can – everybody – benefit from this.

Last December, I had the privilege of being in Paris when 200 nations came together to adopt the most ambitious climate change agreement in history. And last month, on Earth Day, the 22nd of April, I had the privilege of being in New York with my little grandchild and signing our signature to an agreement that some 200 nations came together to take part in. My friends, I’ve got to tell you something: I’ve worked 25 years plus or something on that and led efforts in the Senate to try to pass something. This is not a small thing. This is an enormous signal to the global marketplace that this is the future. The energy market is the future. The choices we make with respect to energy are going to define whether your country is up or down, where it’s going, whether you’re moving in the right direction or staying in the past or even moving in the wrong direction.

I’m convinced of that. I represented Massachusetts, home of MIT and Harvard and a bunch of places that do a lot of research and have developed incredible products. And in the 1990s, a lot of millionaires were created in Massachusetts, in California, in Texas, in various parts of our country that invest smart in that future. It was a $1 trillion market, my friends, with about a billion users. The energy market is already a multiple-trillion-dollar market with already 4 to 5, 6 billion users – not quite 6 yet because we’ve got a bunch of people who don’t have access, who still live on a dollar a day or two dollars a day and don’t have electricity even.

So imagine what happens as we begin to build out the infrastructure and seize the opportunities and as the marketplace begins to grab onto the virtue of investment in that future. It’s extraordinary, the low-carbon future. Places that take the energy from abundant sunshine, from windy places, and already we’re seeing trends that are showing remarkable transformation taking place as we have a 20-fold increase in solar in America. We have a three-fold increase in the use of wind in the United States. And it’s happening in many parts of the world.

So I believe that that is the future. Renewable energy is growing; there is no question about it. Last year, for the first time in history, more money was invested in clean energy projects than in fossil fuel development. So we all need to grab onto this. I’m very pleased to announce that USAID funding associated with the Caribbean and Central American renewable energy projects is going to come online tomorrow, May 4th, and we’re going to begin taking project applications right away in order to support this kind of energy and future and investment.

And every one of us, I think, should take note of the fact that the Caribbean and Central American nations continue to pursue legal, regulatory, and policy reforms. They’re going to modernize and integrate their energy systems and make private sector clean energy more attractive in all of those places.

So I promised that I would keep these comments brief. Let me just say to everybody that we are unbelievably grateful to you for joining us here at the State Department tonight. I want to thank you for what has been a very productive Council of the Americas conference, and I thank you in advance for what I’m sure tomorrow with Vice President Biden and others will be a terrific – Energy Secretary Moniz, who’s superb on these issues – it’s going to be a terrific energy summit tomorrow, and I think all of you are going to leave charged up and excited and ready to go out and make this difference. And in the end, it’s going to help showcase the unbelievable engagement that we have had over the past four years under President Obama’s Central American and Caribbean Energy Task Force.

So please, I hope you enjoy the rest of the evening. Get some rest before the work tomorrow and come back together with a mandate to ensure that the enormous economic promise of the region gets fulfilled, and in doing so, a whole bunch of you are going to get reelected and lionized. (Laughter.) Thank you. Appreciate it. (Applause.)