Marco Rubio: ‘There Are…Real Opportunities in the Western Hemisphere…We’re Missing’

Last week, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., delivered opening remarks at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere hearing regarding the upcoming Ninth Summit of the Americas, which will be hosted in Los Angeles next month.

A lightly edited transcript of his remarks is below:

Thank you, Chairman Kaine. I think this is actually a very timely hearing, and I appreciate all the work you did to make it come about.

I, too, remember that 1994 summit in my hometown of Miami. I was a 23-year-old, just completing the eighth grade for the fifth time. But all kidding aside, I remember it because in 1994, we were in that sort of post-Cold War hubris. Everyone was headed towards not just the liberalization of trade and democracies, but everyone was going to look more like us. There was no Soviet Union, and the world had changed. And there was a tremendous amount of optimism about the direction of Latin America, which had been plagued throughout the 50s, 60s, 70s by right-wing dictators and left-wing strongmen. And suddenly you saw all these countries from Nicaragua to Paraguay, Bolivia, all of these emerging from that era to something very different. There was a tremendous amount of optimism.

But obviously, history did not end in 1991. And human nature being what it is, that’s an ongoing challenge. And we fast forward to today.

I remember the last Summit of the Americas that I attended in Peru, and it was my suggestion to the then-Trump Administration that they issue an invitation that the next one be in the United States. And my hope was that it would be in Washington, because if it were in Washington, we would have an opportunity for our colleagues here in the Senate and in the House to interact with those foreign leaders. They would be in town, and it would really highlight the importance of that event. For whatever reason, they chose another site, and that’s fine. That’s not our biggest challenge.

Here’s the biggest challenge. With all that’s going on in the world, and it’s very important, we’re in a very pivotal moment when it comes to the region. There are an enormous number of rising challenges that need to be addressed. That post-Cold War hubris about democracy is being directly challenged, including in places that elect people who win elections and then don’t govern as democrats, and in fact, use the power they acquire electorally to undermine the functioning of institutions. That’s been the case in a number of places. Nicaragua is one, Venezuela is another. And so you have the real challenge today, not just of a long-term dictatorship that’s been in Cuba for a very long time, but what basically are now dictatorships in Venezuela, in Nicaragua, and the fear that that could spread to other places. The rise of anti-American leaders in a number of places, including places where they’re elected, whose rhetoric is openly hostile, or at least certainly counter, to our national interests. Perhaps the biggest challenge in the region is the sense that America is just not engaged, that we just don’t care.

And unfortunately, I think that’s reflected in a number of places, including, frankly, with all due respect, here in the United States Senate, where a handful of us do care a lot about what happens in the region, but others just don’t spend a lot of time on it. And I understand the world is a busy place, and there are a lot of issues to cover. But in the framework of public policy, the Western Hemisphere is neglected given its importance both strategically and geographically to what’s happening in the United States.

We have real challenges in migration, one that’s largely driven by the fact that people feel they can no longer live in their countries. And so these countries in the Western Hemisphere aren’t just sources of migration. It’s one of the things that people don’t talk enough about. They’re not just sources of migration, they’re transit points for migration. And the transit alone is an extraordinary burden on these countries. Talk to the government leaders in places like Panama, talk to the government leaders in Mexico, and they will tell you that becoming a transit point for migration from people from over 70 or 80 countries around the world poses an extraordinary challenge [for] them.

[That is] in addition to the fact that there are countries, for example, in Central America, Honduras, Guatemala, where the youngest people in that country, their future, their workforce, the ones that should be building the future of the country, have decided that their future belongs somewhere else and are trying to figure out how to get out. And that’s driven by, not just lack of economic opportunity, but violence, murder, extortion by local criminal gangs and corrupt government leaders, oftentimes in the pockets, in some places, of these elements.

And then you also have Chinese interest in the region, China’s policies of exploitation, its attempts to trap developing economies in debt traps that they never can get out of, get their hands on natural resources and things of this nature. And then Russia, which is always seeking ways to harm the national interest of the United States in low-cost, high-yield propositions like their involvement in Venezuela, like their hope of potentially establishing a military presence in Nicaragua, like the spread of propaganda over 100-something individual online outlets that the Russians are now behind to spread propaganda in the region. That needs to be countered.

All that said, there are also real opportunities in the Western Hemisphere that I think we’re missing. I asked myself, as we watch these supply chain disruptions because stuff is made halfway around the world and now it’s shut down because of a pandemic or whatever it may be, why aren’t more things being made, if it can’t be made in America, why aren’t they being made in places closer to America? Why don’t we have huge factories in Haiti or in Guatemala and Honduras, places that could provide opportunity for employment in those countries, and by the way, are located much closer to us in terms of supply chains and disruptions? Why aren’t they there?

There’s a lot of reasons. A lot of it has to do with the decisions of these local governments. But some of it, I think, has to do with the fact that we haven’t had a strategic vision to encourage that, what role we’re playing there. And I think that’s really an important opportunity for us to provide some leadership in that direction and then add to that the opportunity to provide a counter in many of these countries that come to us and say: “Look, we don’t want to do investment deals with the Chinese, but they show up with a bunch of money, no strings attached. And you guys offer no alternative. There’s no alternative.” And I think that has to change. And some of that’s begun to change, but I think it has to change much faster.

These are the things that have to be covered. But in the end, we can never forget what the summit was always about. This is called the Summit of the Americas, but what it really should be called is the Summit of Democracy in the Americas, because the purpose of the summit is to bring together democratically-elected governments, to show that democracy can work, that democracy can lead to actions that solve the real problems of real people. It’s why I think it’s so disturbing that so much pressure is being placed on this administration, which is still unclear about exactly what kind of summit this will be.

I’ll close with this, and this is an important point. This is not about not inviting Cuba because we want to send a message, or not inviting Nicaragua because we want to send a message, not inviting Maduro because we want to appease some electorate in the United States. It’s this: You can’t claim to be a summit of democracies if at the table are seated elements that are clearly anti-democratic. Actually what it does is it gives them credibility. There’s credibility attached to being invited to these forums. There’s credibility that’s damaging, by the way, to those who oppose them, to people that have risked their lives, risked their fortunes, risked their futures, risked everything to stand up to these people and are being told, well, those are the leaders of that country, and we have to deal with them. It is demoralizing to those who stand up and oppose them to see the people they oppose [and have] been so vicious and harmful to their countries being treated as legitimate governments deserving of the same recognition and the same standing as democratically-elected leaders in places like Costa Rica. It’s demoralizing, and not only is it demoralizing, it’s uplifting to these regimes. [These regimes] laugh at it, they brag about it, and they use it to further demoralize their opposition and to further coalesce the internal support for their own leadership in their country, among their inner circle.

So these are important things that we have to consider. I appreciate you being here today. I’m obviously not pleased by the lackluster rollout, but I’m glad someone’s on the job, trying to pull this thing together. But I think it’s really important that it be done the right way, because I would rather have no summit at all than one that is counterproductive. And I fear that potentially this is where we might wind up.

So thank you for being here. Thank you for your willingness to work on this issue, and I look forward to hearing your testimony and then asking you some questions.

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