U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
FOREIGN PRESS CENTER BRIEFING
WITH ROBERTA S. JACOBSON,
ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS
TOPIC: OVERVIEW OF RECENT TRAVEL TO CENTRAL AMERICA
AND THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE AFFAIRS AGENDA
WEDNESDAY, JULY 11, 2012, 3:30 P.M. EDT
THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. Today, we are pleased to have with us Roberta Jacobson, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. On June 26th through the 29th, she traveled to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. She met with leaders with from all sectors of Central American society to advance our regional partnership for a more secure and prosperous Central America. She will discuss the accomplishments of this trip and review the goals of the Western Hemisphere agenda, and it will then be opened for questions and answers. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: All right. Thank you, Jean, and good afternoon. It’s nice to see everybody again. I am relatively recently back from Central America, and I wanted to start off talking a little bit about that, about the trip, and about some of the things I saw and put it in a little bit of context, and then we can open it up to whatever everyone would like to talk about.
So let me start off saying that it had been about a year and a half since I had been to Central America, and so it seemed like a good idea to get back there. Obviously, this is a big focus for us, especially in our security programs, and the Central American Regional Security Program is obviously an integral part of all four of our interlocking security – citizen security initiatives: the Merida Initiative in Mexico, Central American Regional Security Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and the Colombia Strategic Development Initiative. So it was important for me to get back to talking with some of our Central American partners.
I think overall one of the things that you see in Central America, which is a hallmark of what we’re doing around the hemisphere, really is the – two areas in particular, one, that the engagement on security issues goes well beyond law enforcement and just the police or military side of security. When we talk about working with partners in the hemisphere on citizen security issues, we’re talking about an integrated approach to citizen security that spans the gamut, and I’m going to talk about that again in a minute.
But the other thing I wanted to mention was it was very important to me that I highlight something that the Secretary has talked about a great deal, Secretary Clinton, which is the importance of civil society. One of the things the Secretary has said – she said it at the Summit of the Americas in talking with the civil society forum, but she has repeated it since – is that for us our foreign policy really does have three legs in this stool. And those legs are government – and we obviously undertake a lot of government-to-government interaction – the private sector and the business community, and civil society writ large. And I felt that I had had a pretty good opportunity over the last year or so to interact with governmental counterparts, and obviously I was going to do some of that on this trip, but that it was most important for me to make sure that I touch base with civil society activists because that is the sense that you can’t really get in Washington. That is the value added of traveling. So that was an emphasis of the trip.
Since 2008, I think most of you know, the Central American Regional Security Initiative – we have appropriated and disbursed close to $500 million of assistance in Central America, with the considerable amount of our focus on the three northern triangle countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which were the three that I visited. Those span the range of this integrated approach, as I mentioned, which really does run from police and security, law enforcement activity, to prosecutors, judges, public defenders, working with judicial systems, alternative dispute resolution, and onto efforts that we’re making in communities to strengthen communities to withstand the impact of transnational crime. And that’s why over 90 percent of our assistance, bilateral assistance in Central America, is focused on core development issues – health, education, issues like support for civil society and economic growth.
So I traveled to the three countries in that order, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And two of the things that I think were most exciting for me were events that I was able to hold focusing on education and youth. In El Salvador, I was privileged to hand out 49 micro scholarships as part of our SEMILLA or SEED program. This has been in effect for many years, but we’ve amplified it more recently. The recipients were 50 percent female and all students that came from rural areas, students who might otherwise never have had an opportunity to go to the United States and study. And what was just as exciting as meeting the students who are going to study education, healthcare, small business development – what was just as exciting was meeting their families, people who had traveled pretty long distances to be there for this celebration of their children’s success, and I thought that was terrific. We also had the privilege of having one of the alumni of the program with us who is a two-term mayor in La Union, of a community in La Union, and former governor, who was a participant in this SEED program when he was in high school. They will be studying at community colleges across the United States.
In Guatemala, I had the opportunity to go to Coban and to visit with students in our Access English program. What some folks may not know is that the Access English program in Guatemala is the largest in the hemisphere with 1,400 students, over 700 alumni, which is a little bit surprising, I think, to many people. But these kids were just remarkable. They are incredible students of English. They were very proud of what they had done. A number of the advanced students were serving as translators and interpreters for a U.S.-Guatemalan military humanitarian exercise that was underway called Beyond the Horizon, which I also visited. And they are serving with the medics, translating not from Spanish to English but from K’iche’ to English. And so they were just performing these invaluable services as a result of being able to take these classes in English for a number of months. And they were just remarkable and very enthusiastic about their work. So those were two of the things that I did.
In Guatemala, El Salvador, and in Honduras I also met with groups of civil society, human rights, nongovernmental organizations, those working in labor, working on legal reforms. And the group that I met with that was the largest was in El Salvador, but in Guatemala and Honduras I also got a very good representation of civil society. In Honduras, that included meeting with leaders of the Alliance for Peace and Justice, which is about a three-month-old civil society consortium, which I was very impressed with, impressed with their work and impressed with their enthusiasm, including Julieta Castellanos, the rector of the University in Honduras whose son was tragically killed last year.
In all three places, I think one of the things that left me optimistic was the fact that there were such vibrant civil society organizations engaged, doing their own work, working in communities, gathering their own statistics, challenging the government on occasion, but also working with them to try and create safer communities.
The other thing that impressed me was we know from statistics that communities in which we work with municipal governments, especially USAID’s programs on prevention and on economic opportunity, those communities have seen marked decreases in crime. But one of the things that impressed me the most in El Salvador was so have communities in which we are not necessarily working, but community leaders themselves are working to organize some of those same efforts. And so it really underscored the belief that you cannot fight crime without the engagement and involvement of the community and without creating some opportunities, especially for young people.
The other things, I had meetings in all three countries, obviously, with government leaders. In Honduras, there was a SICA meeting that was taking place, and that was the reason – part of the reason that I was there. It was very exciting for me to be there for the first time as a formal observer to SICA, since the U.S. and I signed those papers a couple of months ago. The SICA meeting, as you may know, had a little bit of turbulence in one of the agreements that was being signed within SICA with Panama, but it really went very well in the end. We were able to make the statement about the importance of regional efforts and that no country can do this alone. Our programs are premised on regional cooperation to combat transnational crime.
But the other thing I thought was very exciting was that the SICA countries were able to sign the agreement with the EU, which was there to do so, which reinforces, I think, those of us who were members of the Friends of Central America group, remaining engaged and working together to coordinate our assistance in that part of the world.
So I left Central America, I think, frankly, slightly more optimistic than I’ve been in a while. I think this is a very long, hard slog that is going to take quite a while, because fundamentally, the efforts against transnational crime can only be combated by stronger democratic institutions, institutions like the police and military, institutions like the judiciary, institutions like the fiscales (ph), institutions in communities. And so that is a long-term project and not one that we’re going to see turn around immediately. But I think people are starting to know what works and starting to replicate it, and I also think we’ve seen very important movement forward over the last year or two by governments to create the structures and the legal frameworks, the policy agenda that makes success possible, which is certainly a very important first step. There is still a ways to go.
But I also came back very encouraged by what we’re doing with young people. The best part of my job – and I said this while I was there – the best part of my job is the engagement with young people on educational issues, because that – it sounds like sort of kumbaya and cliché, but that actually is the way we ensure that things get better in the future. So I was very encouraged by that.
And I will leave you finally with a reiteration of the importance of institutions. I was listening to Fernando Henrique Cardoso over the last two days and last night when he won the Kluge Prize at the Library of Congress, which is a $1 million prize for his academic study of humanity. And he talked about a phrase that we have seen elsewhere, but I really like it in this context, which is the infrastructure of hope. And in the end, the infrastructure of hope, what it means is democratic institutions that can withstand corruption, that can withstand transnational crime, that can withstand abuse, and that’s what we’re trying to construct with our partners in Central America. So let me stop there and open things up.
MODERATOR: Okay. So first question, we’ll go right here. Just wait for the microphone and state your name and –
QUESTION: Jesus Esquivel from Proceso Magazine. Roberta, I have two questions for you – one on Central America and the other on Mexico. The President-elect of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, has said he’s going to change the strategy in the war on drugs, especially with the relation of the United States. He wants to demilitarize the strategy, and second, he says he’s going to concentrate more on the issue of security for the Mexican people. And he says the measure of success is not on the number of confiscation of drugs and the arrest of the capos in Mexico.
My question to in this regard is: Is the U.S. Government worried about it? You know very well the issue of narcotics in Mexico, and that will probably increase the number of drugs crossing the border if he’s going to do exactly what he’s saying. Are you guys worried about it? I know you’re going to say, “We are ready to work with him,” but the State Department already said that.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: You’re answering your own question, Jesus. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, but Roberta, we need more –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: It’s a fair question.
QUESTION: We need more specific answer to that. And the second is on Central America. He also said that one of his priorities will be working with Central America and trying to include Brazil on that. And he says the Merida Initiative is not working as it was planned on Central America. So he says he want to have more hemisphere approach to the problem of the security and international crime in Central America. What’s your position on that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay. Thanks. I appreciate that, and let me start with the first question. I’m not going to surprise you. I’m not worried. And part of the reason I’m not worried is because I think – we’ve certainly watched and listened to everything that Enrique Pena Nieto has said before the election and now since the election, and you’re right, I’m going to say that we look forward to working with him, which we do.
But it’s also true that I have seen nothing in anything he has said that gives me cause for concern. The notion that somebody wants to re-look at a strategy and possibly make changes I think is not only to be expected but a healthy thing. Strategies get put into place to respond to a moment in time and hopefully move you forward, right, in the fight against transnational organized crime. But they also have to be adaptable. They have to shift and change, because we know that the criminal organizations shift and change.
We also know, and I would say much more broadly, that the notion that you want to go from what’s your measure of success – is it drugs interdicted, is it rates of homicide or violence – I have always said, and I think we have said from the beginning with the Merida Initiative, that there are many multiple metrics that you can use and that clearly the level of violence in Mexico is unacceptable to Mexicans and it should be unacceptable to all of us. And so the fact that that is an important metric for the President-elect, I think is entirely logical. I don’t think it necessarily means there will be less drugs interdicted. I don’t know exactly what changes to the strategy the new President may make and what those changes – what effect those changes will have on the cartels. I think we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s a very productive conversation to have. And it is clearly one of the things you hear from all over the region, is that the level of violence is too high, that that has to go down. It’s why we have seen changes in the way that people approach this problem. It’s why you see changes like the truce that was brokered in El Salvador with the gangs. There is a real desire to lower that level of violence that is entirely understandable.
But I would also say that when you talk about Central America and where Mexico may shift or emphasize engagement with Central America, I think that’s incredibly encouraging. I think that’s exactly the right message, which is that we all have to be working better together, that Mexico has an enormous amount to contribute even while it is confronting these problems at home, but that there are others in the hemisphere who have something that they can bring to the table to support efforts in Central America. We’ve seen that already, quite frankly, very actively and very positively with Colombia, in Central America, and with Chile, already engaging with those countries on ways of doing business and ways of combating corruption and criminal activity that have been successful and can be modeled or replicated or adjusted for Central America.
The notion of whether Brazil can also play a role on that, I think is a very positive conversation to have. I think certainly the Brazilians have capabilities and have experience that can be useful, and we think the more partners from within the hemisphere that can help in Central America, the better.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, we’ll go in the front here to Sonia.
QUESTION: Hi. Thank you. My name is Sonia Schott. I am with Globovision, Venezuela. Heavyweight Republicans have criticized the politics towards – the political strategy towards Venezuela. I was wondering if you have any comments on that, if you agreed on that, because it seems to be that the bilateral relations are in a freeze point. It is because the electoral year, not only here but in Venezuela, and that makes me go to my second question. You have repeatedly asked for a transparent process, electoral process in Venezuela. What did that mean? What will need to happen in Venezuela in order for you to recognize it was a transparent electoral process? Does it has to do with the electoral missions? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you. I appreciate that. I think it probably will not surprise you that I disagree with the notion that we do not have a good policy on Venezuela. I think the thing about our policy on Venezuela is – and I would argue that, yes, we are both in electoral years; yes, electoral years in every country in the world make international relations more complicated because domestic politics takes precedence in many ways. But I would argue to you that the relationship that we have with Venezuela, if indeed it’s frozen – and I don’t disagree that it is not as productive as it could be right now – but that that started before – certainly before our electoral calendar really picked up, and it was independent of that. And frankly, it is disappointing to us because we are willing to and happy to engage on practical issues where we can cooperate or we may see things the same way. But we have not had that reciprocated from the Venezuelan Government, and that’s unfortunate.
We also obviously would like to be able to cooperate on issues of regional importance, but that has not been possible because the Venezuelan Government has not seemed eager to do that, to work with us, as opposed to speaking, in the rhetorical sense certainly, against some of the United States initiatives and some of our efforts. So that is disappointing to us. And we remain ready to have that more productive relationship, but not willing to do anything more than extend that hand. And if it is not reciprocated, then we aren’t willing to take that any further. It’s just not productive.
Let me also say, though, that on the elections, I think there are very clear ways in which Venezuela can ensure that the international community at large – not just the United States, which frankly is not necessarily the arbiter here, it is the international community at large – can have confidence in the results. And the way to do that is to welcome in observers. And so we hope that that will be the case, that Venezuela will welcome in observers, whether from the EU or the OAS. I think that would make a very large difference in the confidence that those in the international community have in the results.
MODERATOR: Okay. For our next question, we’ll go to New York.
QUESTION: Yes. Hello. I am Ana Baron from Clarin of Argentina. Thank you very much for this press conference. I have two questions on Argentina. First of all, while we know that trade restrictions was one of the subjects you discussed on your last trip to Argentina, so I wanted to know since then there was the United States complaint in the WTO. Now Argentina, some time ago – some minutes ago, hours ago – has presented a complaint against the lemons and meat restrictions in U.S. market. So I wanted to know if we are assisting to a little trade war between the two countries.
And second, I have a question of narco-trafficking. You were talking a lot about narco-trafficking in Central America. Since the plane – the military plane was detained in Ezeiza, it seems that the cooperation between the two countries has diminished significantly. I wanted to know if this is a subject that worries and if you see some prospective of ameliorating the relationship at this – on this subject.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you. I think on the first point, on the trade issues, it certainly wasn’t the central part – central component of my visit there. I’m not a trade expert for the U.S. Government. But I certainly did have conversations, and we continue, obviously, as you note, in these movements more recently to continue to have conversations with Argentina about concerns that we have, whether on specific trade issues or on import restrictions and other things that U.S. companies are finding difficult in Argentina. We continue again to look for a way that we can cooperate on these issues, but we do think that there are international rules and regulations that we all have to abide by. And it’s one of the reasons why the WTO is there, why organizations like ICSID or SIAVE (ph)*, the organization to arbitrate financial disputes. What we believe in is a rules-based system in which folks actually comply with the rules, which we will do when the decisions go against us and we hope other countries will do when decisions go against them.
So we’re still trying to work through all of these issues, but I will say that there is a desire on both parties sides, I think – certainly speaking for the United States Government – to try and resolve those issues in as productive a way as we can, and to try and recognize that we have lots of other components of a bilateral relationship that can move ahead. And we want to be sure that while we work on those economic, commercial, or trade problems that we may have in the relationship, they do not, frankly, bleed into other areas of the relationship where we have a more positive engagement and we are able to move forward.
When I was in Argentina in February, two of the things that I worked on and that I think that I’m particularly excited about are moving forward on educational exchanges, which, frankly, are pretty low between Argentina and the United States. I think there’s head room there, room to grow.
And so we’ve moved forward with an agreement with the Argentine Government on some additional scholarships and pushing up those numbers. And I had a meeting with 13 rectors of universities that was very productive, as well as with the Minister of Education. But we also signed a sister parks agreement for our national parks, which I think is also very important, and was very impressed by the Argentine presentation on that.
In following up on that, we now have – we had the NASA administrator who went to Argentina. And we have Tecnopolis, I think opening this week perhaps in Argentina, with an exhibit from the United States. So there’s lots of other areas in which we can cooperate.
Getting to your second question because I think it relates, obviously cooperating on narcotics is one of those areas where I think that we should still be able to work together regardless of other problems. And it’s also true that cooperation on security issues, in particular narcotics/counternarcotics efforts, was clearly set back by the incident last year. I am pretty optimistic that we’re going to be able to move ahead on a cooperative agenda on narcotics issues. I think there is a desire on the part of the Argentine Government to move ahead on that, and I certainly will confirm that there is a strong desire on our part.
So I’m more optimistic probably even than I was when I was in Argentina four or five months ago that we can move ahead on that productively.
MODERATOR: Great. For our next question we’ll go in the front right here.
QUESTION: Thank you, Ms. Jacobson. This is Tomas Guevara, the editor of El Diario de Hoy, Salvador. When you visited recently El Salvador, the country’s in a serious political crisis now. What do you think about that situation between the conflict with the national assembly, with the supreme court, and how it can impact the relationship with the U.S.?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think it’s an incredibly important question, and I was struck obviously by that dispute between the assembly and the court when I was in El Salvador. And I obviously spoke with a lot of people about it to learn as much as I could, to hear from folks on the ground what they saw as the prospects for resolution. And this was – I was there just before July 1. Now we’ve passed that July 1 date, and so in some respects the issue has gotten even more acute.
And I would say this does concern us very greatly. This is clearly something that Salvadorans have to resolve, that we have said clearly, both I have said it in El Salvador but our Ambassador – and we were all thrilled to have Mari Carmen Aponte back in San Salvador as our Ambassador – has said publicly that we really do urge in the strongest terms possible that the two sides of this dispute really try and come together and resolve it. And I think that’s important. It is a Salvadoran dispute to resolve; it is not ours to opine on how it gets resolved. We would just like to see it resolved.
But I will say that there are some issues that are important to us that engage the court or the national assembly, and those things are being, frankly, held up by this dispute. The question of extraditions, which there are a number of extraditions pending, and we think it’s important that extraditions be part of – not the only available tool but part of the tool kit that governments be able to use to fight transnational crime. Those may not move ahead while this dispute simmers.
There is discussion in El Salvador, I certainly heard from all sides, of new investment laws and things that need to move ahead in the national assembly, which would be very important and very, I think, beneficial for the Partnership for Growth effort that we’re undertaking with El Salvador and the efforts that we’re trying to make to move ahead on economic development. If those things get slowed down by this dispute, then that’s a problem that really affects more than just El Salvador, unfortunately.
QUESTION: A follow-up?
MODERATOR: Sure. A follow-up.
QUESTION: Hi. This is Luis Alonso. Are you concerned with the stability of the President Funes Government? Because of this dispute, is there a state of – rule of law in danger by this dispute?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I confess to you, I have seen lots of breathless commentary about this. And there’s no doubt in my mind that this is a serious concern and a serious problem that needs to be worked out, but I have absolutely no concerns about the stability of the Funes Government and its sort of democracy surviving in El Salvador. This is a dispute between two branches of government. I have every confidence that Salvadorans from the various branches of government will resolve this is an amicable and legal and constitutional way, and that overall the democratic health of El Salvador will not suffer for it.
MODERATOR: Okay. The next question we’ll go here and then to Denise after.
QUESTION: Santiago Tavara from Notimex. Do you have any update on the – in Honduras the recent incidents, two incidents that involved DEA agents? And about the first incident, I think Spokesperson Victoria Nuland told us that she would release a report in the next weeks. I don’t know if you have a date. And also, the second question is on Peru regarding human rights abuses reported against people who are protesting against gold mine –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Conga.
QUESTION: -- a proposed mine in Peru from the U.S.-based Newmont Mining Corporation. I don’t know if you have any reaction.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, let me start on Honduras. Obviously, we’ve been in engaged with – in support of the Honduran Government in operations against narcotics trafficking in northern Honduras, coastal Honduras, in the last number of months. In those operations, over two and a half tons of cocaine was seized in two-plus – just over two months, which is an extraordinary record. I want to say clearly from the outset that in the first incident – and I’m not sure which first or second we’re talking about, but May 11th, in which it would appear from the reports that we’ve seen certainly from the preliminary reports that four people were killed. And that is never what you want to happen, and we regret that greatly. That was an incident in which it was not the DEA but Hondurans who were firing guns and fired upon.
But in all of these incidents, I think we have to wait until the investigations and the reviews are concluded. What we will do as things proceed is we will obviously be reviewing with our Honduran counterparts exactly what the operations – how they worked, what worked well, what didn’t work well, how can we avoid, obviously, any deaths in the future.
And I will also say that in the second two incidents, which were ones in which DEA did unfortunately – the DEA agents did unfortunately kill those who were trafficking drugs, we do expect, frankly, that those actually doing the trafficking will resist losing their cargo and being arrested. And unfortunately, it is a very dangerous game. What we want to try and ensure with our Honduran partners is that nobody who is not involved in narco-trafficking is wounded or killed as a consequence of these operations.
But I think that it does reinforce the importance of that area physically, geographically, in terms of the root of cocaine up north towards the United States. And we have seen lots of indications – polls taken in Honduras – of support for our continued engagement, and the government has made clear that they would like the United States to remain engaged in that support and training role.
The second question was on Peru and reports of human rights abuses to those protesting. It’s the Conga Mine, I assume. And to be honest with you, I’ve seen some of the press reports, but I don’t have any independent information on that. Obviously, it’s always worrisome when you have a situation in which there is violence, in which protest is not carried out peacefully. And what we would like to see – and obviously in support of the Peruvian Government, it’s not a role for us – is a resolution to the very difficult situation that has emerged between the community and the mining company. And I think the Peruvian Government is trying to resolve that as best they can.
QUESTION: I’m Denise Chrispim Marim from O Estado de Sao Paolo, Brazil. Thank you very much for this opportunity. We were waiting for a long time for this.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I’m sorry. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, I wonder (inaudible) and I wanted to ask you what is exactly the position of United States in the case of the crisis in Paraguay, particularly if you – how is your assessment on the sanctions that has already been imposed against Paraguay by regional organizations? And how could be the best approach of OAS in this case?
Secondly, if you don’t mind –
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: That was all the first? Wasn’t that like three parts?
QUESTION: No, it is – you know that there is a lot of talks and speculations on a meeting between military – American military’s and Paraguayan officials in Asuncion last days. And there is some speculations on the interest of America to build a military base in Paraguay. I wonder to know if you are aware about this information and if it is really a desire of United States.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay, let me start out with that second part, because I want to be very, very clear about this. I have no information about U.S. military meeting with Paraguayan counterparts or officials in recent days. So I’m not sure what that’s referring to.
We have no desire – no desire, let me be clear about this – to do anything in Paraguay that isn’t either requested by the Paraguayan Government or an event, an occasion, a training, an engagement that is a partnership with Paraguay. And we have no interest in promoting a base or military presence in Paraguay separate or apart from sort of our normal interaction with the Paraguayans on counternarcotics issues, on training issues, on counterterrorism. We have engaged in that kind of cooperation very transparently for years, and we hope to continue to do that. That is very different than this notion of building bases, which I really want to dispel, because it does keep coming up, which I find somewhat bizarre.
The other thing I want to be clear about is that we are not only transparent about what our interests and our opportunities or engagement is with the Paraguayans to the public, to our own officials, to the Congress, but to anybody else in the region who’s interested. And obviously we’ve had conversations with our Brazilian counterparts on what each of us are doing cooperatively with Paraguay, and so that there will never be surprises in that area.
On the crisis in Paraguay, I think one of the things that I think is important is the report of the OAS was presented to the Permanent Council yesterday, I guess, and we were obviously very pleased to be part of that mission. The mission was made up of the U.S., Mexican, Canadian, Haitian, and Honduran ambassadors to the OAS plus the Secretary General and I think one or two of his staff. I think that that mission really got a huge spectrum of opinions while they were there – all of the branches of government, President Lugo and members of his cabinet, and so – meeting with President Franco and folks from his cabinet and other organizations. So I think that was a very, very important step for the OAS to take because I do think that there were conversations that needed to take place about why things happened the way they did and what justification there was for things that hadn’t really taken place. So I think that that was a very important first step, and we strongly support the Secretary General in that mission. That was certainly clear by our sending our ambassador. And we continue to support his efforts and think the report is really quite well done.
As we look forward – because I think that what we really want to do is focus on the future and what assistance Paraguay may ask for and need from the OAS in terms of preparations for elections, dialogue on issues that are still of concern and creating tension, moving ahead to ensure that in this transition period, Paraguay gets ready for exemplary elections in April of 2013. And I think in that respect, we have an enormous amount in common with all of our regional partners who I think also want to look ahead and cooperate in helping Paraguay get to that point.
In terms of what sub-regional organizations may have done, sanctions or suspensions, I think that’s for them to comment on. We’ve been very comfortable with where the OAS is on this, and we think it’s an excellent forum for continued engagement.
QUESTION: Follow-up? (Laughter.)
MODERATOR: We’ll go to the follow-up and then to your question – or is it a follow-up as well?
QUESTION: No, it’s a follow-up, but about another issue. So we can follow up this one.
MODERATOR: Okay. (Laughter.) So – you pick.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Rock, paper, scissor.
QUESTION: Hi. Yes. You’ve said that the report by the Secretary General of the OAS was quite well done. I wanted to know what your assessment is, what your opinion is, on his concrete proposals to send a mission to Paraguay until the elections, and also if you think that, as he said, that it’s not a constructive step to suspend Paraguay from the organization.
MODERATOR: Name your media organization?
QUESTION: It’s EFE.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I will give you the short answer to that as yes on both questions. The only thing I would add is I think the report is very well done. I think the notion of sending a mission, sending technical experts – and that could change. It depends on what Paraguayans feel they need or what the skills are that is needed at the time. And as you get closer to election, different kinds of skills are needed. But I think the notion of having the OAS remain engaged with a mission in Paraguay is a very good one, a very positive one that I think would be helpful – I believe and I hope for Paraguay and for all of the rest of us trying to sort of grapple with the issue. And I think that he’s right, that at this point there really doesn’t appear to be a reason to suspend Paraguay from the OAS.
MODERATOR: So now to your follow-up question.
QUESTION: So thank you for doing this. I am Silvia Pisani from La Nacion in Argentina. Also, so first, I would like to ask you a very specific follow-up in the first question about Argentina, and then I will jump into another line. But the follow up is: Also, I saw some concern in the United States about a specific point of the currency exchange policy in Argentina, regarding the possibility of buying dollars. And this was affecting the American enterprises to their imports because they can’t buy the dollars that they need to import.
And also, it’s beginning to – now, it’s beginning to generate some fear in the population of the possibility of traveling abroad. So I would like to ask you if you still have those concerns and if you specifically raised them to the Argentinean Government, and if that is the case, if you received any answer about that. That’s the first point.
And jumping in another line, I would like to ask you: I have been seeing in the Congress particularly some concern about the freedom of expression and the freedom of press in Argentina. I would like to ask your opinion about that. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Okay. Thank you. What I can tell you in terms of the currency issue or the ability of, in particular, U.S. businesses to operate and be able to get currency out of the country, for example, which is one of the things I heard a great deal about when I was in Argentina in February, one of the difficulties that some of our companies are having is that for many of them, it may not be that difficult because they’re not – they don’t operate with huge amounts of cash. For certain sectors – and I think you can probably figure out which ones; it may be airlines, it may be others – but for certain sectors who get a lot of revenue in cash, if you will, they have difficulties. And some of these restrictions were making things difficult for them. And so what we had asked at the time was that the Government of Argentina look at the impact of some of these restrictions, which are very broad, on particular sectors which maybe have more acute difficulty with them. And so that’s a continuing discussion that we’re having with the Argentine Government.
On freedom of expression, I guess I should say: We have talked a lot about this over the last year or so. We’ve talked about our concerns for journalists in the hemisphere – all of you, every day, know this – for your brothers and sisters working in countries throughout the hemisphere, we see with a great deal of, I think the word is just sadness and anguish, when international organizations put out statements about this region being the most dangerous for journalists. I mean, that is really sometimes shocking to us. And that danger, obviously, has come from different quarters. And it’s come ferociously from organized crime, frankly. But there have been other threats to journalists’ work – not to their lives, let me be clear, but to their work and to the freedom of expression that has been mounted by governments. Whether it’s lawsuits, whether it is withdrawal of revenue or advertisement, whether it is shutting things down, there are threats that confront journalists. And that it seems to us really critically important as part of democracy in the hemisphere. A free press is not optional. It’s an integral part of democracy in the hemisphere.
Now, I think you would probably agree that in Argentina we certainly could not say that there is not an opposing view in the press to that of the government. There is certainly a healthy, open, exchange in the press. But I do think it’s important that we continue to press to ensure that governments understand that you really don’t want to start down the slippery slope of trying to reduce the amount of freedom and ability to get their message out, the news out, the information out, because it can be a slippery slope, and that’s very, very frightening for all of us.
I should say that I think there are lots of new ways of getting information, and so when people talk about press freedom and media ownership in the hemisphere as being too concentrated or it’s only one view of the situation in a particular country, it seems to us that the answer to that is essentially further democratization of media and press, which becomes easier in our digital and social media age, not a narrowing of that voice.
MODERATOR: Okay. We’ll go to Jose and then in the front here.
QUESTION: Thank you. Thank you for doing this really. Jose Diaz-Briseno with Reforma from Mexico. When talking about the understandable, well, a concern in Mexico to lower the violence, specifically the homicide rate, you mentioned the truce of murders in El Salvador. Do you think that’s a model that could be feasible and desirable in Mexico between the cartels?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I think that every case is different. And I think that truces have to be seen – and this is what – I have certainly heard from experts on this subject, and I am not one of them. I will preface with that. But I have certainly heard from experts on this that the one thing you have to be sure of is that truces – ceasefires, as they’re often called in the United States; ceasefire Chicago, Boston has tried some of these – they’re never a permanent answer, right? So they are at best, even where they work – and they don’t always work – they are at best a temporary measure while you put into place more structural and institutional changes to reduce either violence or drug trafficking or homicide or whatever or gang activity.
And so I think one of the things that we need to be a little bit careful of is the notion that a truce is what we all continue to look for, sort of the magic bullet, the single thing you can do that will solve this problem. And I think some of this – the structure of organized crime and narcotics trafficking I think is significantly different than gang activity. And so I think both the multiplicity of players and the trade that they’re in make it much more complicated and much less likely that is a productive tool in that particular setting. But I think that’s something that obviously people look at all the time, both academics and practitioners.
QUESTION: Hi, again. Just to – going back to Paraguay, just want to make sure that the assessment on whether or not the impeachment of President Lugo is a coup d’etat has been finished. Have you guys reached a conclusion, like the OAS expressed yesterday, or you’re still assessing the --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, I think what I would say is that the OAS and what the Secretary General set out in his report makes a lot of sense to us. The Secretary General talked about concerns over the rapidity or the speed of the process. We have expressed those concerns publicly. But he also talked about the constitution in Paraguay and what it provides for. And so he is striking that balance between a process that may have seemed too rapid but also is set out in their constitution. And so I think the most important thing – we support his report, and the most important thing at this point is to look for constructive ways moving forward to engage with the Paraguayans, including with the Franco government, to get to the elections next year.
QUESTION: So it was not a coup d’etat?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I’m not going to answer that question, Luis.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: That’s the implication of what I said, that may be.
QUESTION: Thank you. Silvia Ayuso from the German Press Agency. My question is related to Cuba. There are increasing reports, rumors, nothing yet still confirmed about a possible outbreak of cholera even that might have reached even Havana. I was wondering if you have some information, and would that be the case? Would that affect some kind of – I mean, the travels to the island – what could be done in this respect from the U.S.?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Let me just say that it’s my understanding actually that Cuba has made a statement that there is cholera but that it’s under control in eastern part of Cuba. And so at this point, frankly, what we know is what we’ve seen as the press, as all of you have. I will say that obviously if there has been an outbreak of cholera, whether it’s under control or not, these – this is the kind of information that we often put into – I don’t know that we will, but we often put into our Consular Information Sheets or Travel Warnings where they exist to make sure that Americans know about that possibility. But I don’t know that that’s been done yet or will need to be done. We’ll have to see how this develops.
MODERATOR: Next question here, and then to you.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I’m Lina Correa from Voice of America, also in Cuba. A few weeks ago the State Department asked for a humanitarian act in the case of Alan Gross. Have you received any answer from the Cuban Government about that? And also, how can the public opinion in United States value that U.S. policy with regard to Cuba when we cannot see any sign of change there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Well, I think on the first question, on Alan Gross, you’re quite right. We have actually repeatedly made a request of the Cuban Government to release Alan Gross on a humanitarian basis to be home with his family, to see his 90-year-old mother who’s dying of cancer, and to attend to his own health issues. And no, we have not gotten an acceptable response at this point. And obviously he is not home with his family, so that has not occurred. Despite the fact that Mr. Gonzalez was permitted by the court to see his brother, who was ill, we have not gotten that kind of action from the Cuban Government on Mr. Gross’s case.
On the issue of change in Cuba, I think one of the things that is always hard to judge is – it is difficult for us sometimes to understand, where there may be change, how much change there may be. We obviously can’t venture very far outside Havana very often, and that makes it difficult for us to know what may be happening in other parts of the country. There are a lot of economic changes that have been announced, that have been talked about, that have been rumored, but not as much that’s actually been implemented and that’s being seen, I think, on the ground and in people’s lives.
But I think it’s interesting, when you see Raul Castro going to Vietnam – Vietnam, which is a country which has made significant changes and with which we obviously want to see even further changes on the political side, but economic changes have already been made – there is no doubt, it seems to me, that there is continued discussion and studying and interest in changes in Cuba.
Unfortunately, we have not seen any conversation from the government’s side of political changes. Lots of conversation about economic changes that may or may not make a huge difference in people’s lives, but no changes in the ability of people to express themselves freely, to organize into political parties, et cetera. And that – I mean, that does not change our policy, nor do I think it denigrates it any way. But what it does mean, I think, is that continuing the people-to-people contact that we have had, the changes that this President made to the regulations both on travel and on remittances with Cuba, are important ones to try and engage with the Cuban people in the absence of our ability to engage and see change in the Cuban Government.
MODERATOR: We have time for one or two more questions. We’ll start here.
QUESTION: Thanks. Martha Avila from RCN TV, Colombia. What’s your opinion about the security in Colombia today? In the last days, the FARC has increased the terrorist attacks in the country. How see the U.S. Government the situation? The security in Colombia is worse?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: I don’t think that that’s a conclusion that I would draw yet at this point, and I certainly hope it’s one that I won’t be drawing. We certainly have seen those attacks and we are concerned about them, and we obviously deplore the violence. I want to actually make just a side comment because I failed to mention it when Jose and I were talking. I want to also reject the violence against El Norte in Monterrey, against a newspaper there.
But in the case of the FARC in Colombia, I think that it’s very clear that that is not the way forward, that the government will handle these issues and handle them well. We have confidence in the Government of Colombia. But I don’t think that anyone can yet draw a conclusion that security is worse in Colombia. And I certainly hope that will not be the case and that the FARC will not return to acts of violence such as they committed in the past, which obviously we deplored and continue to. And that’s not the way ahead in Colombia.
QUESTION: Hi. I’m Luciana Coelho, Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil. Just to bring back to the OAS a little bit, there are some concern from a group of NGOs and even within the OAS that there are a group of countries organized to kind of, I’d say, deflate the system and the OAS and its importance. And Brazil is in its group, and also Ecuador and others. So the situation in Paraguay and the divisions within the member countries since supposed risk of exacerbation of this movement. I’d like to know if the U.S. is paying any attention to that, if there is any concern, and if you see that this could harm the inter-American system.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you for the question. I actually – I think many of you may have seen some of the comments that I made, that our delegation made, and some of the things that were said at the OAS General Assembly in Cochabamba. In particular, the OAS – the inter-American system on human rights came under just fierce attack, I mean just the fiercest I’ve ever seen. And that is something that worries us enormously.
The heart – in some respects, the heart of the Organization of American States and the thing that, in my opinion, it should be most proud of is the inter-American system on human rights – the commission, the court, all of the processes that have been developed over the years. You may take issue with individual decisions. The United States is brought before the commission more than any other country in the hemisphere, and we very often don’t agree with the decisions. But we will defend the commission and its right to act forever, because the system is not designed for a particular case. It is not designed for a particular government. It’s designed to protect the constellation of rights and democratic freedoms that we have all agreed to against any kind of incursion. And sometimes those decisions are difficult for countries. But the discomfort is the price we pay for a system that defends all of us at various times and has defended very important issues of human rights in the last 40 years in this hemisphere.
So I think that the OAS General Assembly was of – I mean, the conversations that we held there, I think, were of great concern to us. And moving forward, we want to find ways to strengthen – and yes, reform, in part – the inter-American human rights system, but not to destroy it.
And I will say – I just want to be clear about this – that unfortunately, it became clear at the General Assembly that some people’s goals wasn’t reform. In fact, they didn’t even use the words reform. They used the words destruction. And that to me – it wasn’t me interpreting those words; it was what was said. So having that out on the table, maybe now we can talk about how to reform the system and in fact continue to strengthen it, even when we don’t like its decisions all the time, as will happen.
I do think that moving ahead on the issue of Paraguay, we have an opportunity here in the hemisphere. We have an opportunity to work together on an issue that concerns all of us, which is strengthening democracy and strengthening dialogue in Paraguay. I think the way the OAS has gone about this has been very healthy and very productive, but I think there are important roles for countries in South America. And we will continue to work, for example, with Brazil on this issue very closely. We will continue to be in contact with our colleagues in Chile, in Colombia, in Peru. All of those countries are important to moving this ahead and finding a constructive outcome, which I think everybody wants. We have had good conversations with our Uruguayan counterparts.
So I don’t – I see Paraguay in some ways as a way for us to come together as a region to support Paraguayan democracy, not as an issue which will exacerbate divisions.
QUESTION: Could you expand your comment regarding the attacks against El Norte, if possible?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Right. I mean, the only thing I want to say about that is we have seen, obviously, violence against journalists, individual journalists, but also against newspapers or other media outlets in Mexico in the past. These attacks just unfortunately sort of continue or take that to another level, and they have to be rejected by everyone. And one of the things that worries me the most in Mexico is the threat of physical violence, which causes both, obviously, an inability to report stories just because of physical harm but also leads to self-censorship, if we’re not careful, because of fear, a climate of fear.
And so I think that we all have to stand up and speak out against that kind of violence and hope to work with the government, because I think the current government has made it very clear that they don’t accept those kinds of attacks and that they want to work on resolving those cases and reducing the incidents of violence against journalists and media outlets, and that we’ll do everything we can to help in that area.
MODERATOR: I’m afraid we’re out of time. I want to thank Assistant Secretary Jacobson for coming here. I hope you return soon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY JACOBSON: Thank you very much.
QUESTION: Thank you.