Other Remarks by President Obama at the Seventh Summit of the Americas

On April 10-11, U.S. President Barack Obama attended the Seventh Summit of the Americas in Panama. In addition to the previously reported speech at the plenary session and his comments before and after his private meeting with President Raul Castro, Obama made the following remarks on April 10 that will be summarized in this post: (1) Speech at the CEO Summit; (2) Responses to Questions at the CEO Summit; and (3) Remarks to the Civil Society Forum.

 Obama’s Speech at the CEO Summit

“When I came into office, in 2009, obviously we were all facing an enormous economic challenge globally.  Since that time, both exports from the United States to Latin America and imports from Latin America to the United States have gone up over 50 percent.  And it’s an indication not only of the recovery that was initiated — in part by important policies that were taken and steps that were taken in each of the countries in coordination through mechanisms like the G20 — but also the continuing integration that’s going to be taking place in this hemisphere as part of a global process of integration.”

“[S]ome trends . . . are inevitable. . . . [G]lobal commerce, because of technology, because of logistics, it is erasing the boundaries by which we think about businesses not just for large companies, but also for small and medium-sized companies as well.”

“[T]echnology is going to continue to be disruptive.  I’m glad that my friend, Mark Zuckerberg, is here.  Obviously what he’s done with Facebook has been transformative.  But what’s important to recognize is, is that it’s not just companies like Apple and Google and Facebook that are being transformed by technology.  Traditional industries are being changed as well.  Small businesses are being changed as well.  How we buy, sell, market, all that is shifting.  And that’s not going to go away.”

“And what that means is, is that going forward, for the hemisphere to continue to experience the growth that’s necessary, I think there are a couple of principles that we just have to follow.”

“The first is, our people have to be the best trained in the world.  We have to not only educate our children, but we have to give our people the capacity to continue to learn throughout their lives — because the economy is changing and workers have to adapt.  It’s going to be very rare where somebody works at one place for 30 years with just one skill.  So the investments that all of us have to make in education, not just through primary or secondary schools, but if young people are not going to universities, they can still at least get technical training and advanced degrees.”

“And this is where technology can be our friend.  We initiated something called “100,000 Strong” to improve the exchanges between students in Latin America and the [U.S.].  And part of what we’re doing is starting to figure out how can we use technology to reach more young people, not just the folks who are at the top of the economic pyramid, but reach down and access remote areas where suddenly a young person in a small village, if they are linked through the Internet, have access to the entire world.  And companies I think can play an important role because public-private partnerships will make these kinds of investments more effective.”

“Point number two —We have a lot of infrastructure we need to build in the [U.S.] and obviously there’s a lot of infrastructure that needs to be built throughout the region.  The more we can coordinate and work together on infrastructure, the better off we’re going to be. . . .”

“Number three, the issue of broad-based economic development.  [There are] areas . . . that are isolated, that are not part of that growth process — all of us have to deal with that. And that includes [the U.S.]. Because one of the challenges that we’re all facing, when you look at global growth patterns, is that even when economies are growing, the gaps between rich and poor oftentimes are accelerating, and not only is that not good for social stability, not only is that not good for opportunity, it’s not good for business.  Because the truth of the matter is, is that when you have a growing middle class and an aspirational poor that are able to access their way into the middle class, then those become the consumers that drive the marketplace much more so than folks at the very top.”

“[A]t a certain point, if only folks at the top are doing well, and we’re not focused on broad-based growth, then growth starts to stall.  And so taking the steps to train, to educate, to give access to opportunity, to make sure that infrastructure is reaching everyplace and not just some places — that becomes a very high priority.”

“And the last point I’ll make is the issue of governance. . . [V]iolence . . . is still a problem in portions of the hemisphere.  And a lot of it has to do with lack of opportunity. But part of it also has to do with the difficulties of establishing strong security if we also are not combining that with transparency, with government accountability, with a criminal justice system and a judicial system that is perceived as fair and legitimate. . . ”

“And again, this is an area where we have to work regionally as opposed to separately. . . . But issues of personal security, reducing corruption, governance — those are economic agendas.  Those are not simply security agendas.”

Obama’s Responses to Questions at CEO Summit

“One of the advantages that we may have today that we didn’t have, let’s say, 15 or 20 or 30 years ago is I think it used to be viewed as either you have a government-status economic model, or you have a complete free market, and everything was very ideological sometimes in this region in discussing how economic development went forward.”

“[B]y virtue of wisdom and some things that didn’t work and some things that did, everybody . . . throughout the hemisphere, I think has a very practical solution — or a practical orientation.  Maybe not everybody, but almost everybody. . . .   And so the question then becomes, what’s the appropriate role for government, what’s the appropriate role for the private sector, and how do we fill gaps to get results.”

“I believe that the free market is the greatest wealth generator and innovator and is a recipe for success for countries.  And I think it’s very important for us to initiate reforms that can free up the entrepreneurship and the talents of our people.  But I also think that there are going to be market failures.  There are times where the market isn’t meeting a social need that is necessary in order for businesses to thrive and societies to thrive. Where is it that both businesses and government can work together to address a gap or a market failure?”

“One area is in education.  I think that we have to make a public investment through good schools, paying our teachers, training them properly, building infrastructure for schools.  But one of the things that we’ve learned in the [U.S.], for example, is that we have an outstanding community college system. . . . But for too long . . . these community colleges weren’t talking to businesses to ask, what should we be training people for and how should we train them.  And by soliciting input from business, suddenly the training programs in these community colleges became much more effective and were much more likely to lead to jobs in the future.  That’s the kind of collaboration that’s I think very important.”

“The same is true with respect to connectivity. . . . [T]he Internet wouldn’t have been created without government investment.  It didn’t just kind of spring to life on its own.  But now in every country we recognize there’s an infrastructure that has to be built. We also have to be working together with the private sector to make sure that it’s built in a way that anticipates how rapidly things are changing because there may be circumstances here where people can entirely leap-frog old technologies and go straight to new technologies.”

“[O]ne of the questions . . . all of us as leaders, and regionally, should be asking is, to what extent are we making joint investments that aren’t protecting the old models, but rather are opening up new models that may be more efficient and reach more people.”

The third point is . . . technology and globalization are disruptive.  And usually somebody is doing well with the status quo and they don’t want change, and so sometimes breaking down regulations is painful politically.  That’s a very sensitive thing and a very difficult thing.

“[O]ur strategy has to be to recognize that there are going to be some regulatory barriers, and we have to work in concert to try to break some of those down and harmonize regulations across countries and across, in some cases, industries.  But in some cases, we may need new regulations to adapt to new times. . . . ”

“[E]ven as we end old regulations that no longer make sense, or are inhibiting innovation and growth and investment, in some cases we may need new regulatory approaches to, for example, limit and reduce carbon.  And we should do it in an efficient way so that we’re harnessing the ingenuity of the private sector — we set a bar, we set a price and we say, you tell us how you are you going to reduce carbon. . . .”

“And that approach to regulation — thinking what regulations work today in a practical way to meet our goals, and how do we do it in a way that is the least bureaucratic and the least disruptive, but recognizing that there are still goals that have to be met. . . .”

The U.S. “is very committed to working with all the countries that are participating in this summit.  We are consulting intensively on a bilateral basis, but we’re also very interested in working on a regional level. . . .”

It “does require some joint investment and recognizing that we have to think beyond our borders in order to do the right thing for our people.  It is good for the [U.S.] for some young person in Honduras to have access to the Internet, have access to education, and have access to opportunity.  It’s good for the [U.S.] if Brazil is growing at a rapid pace.  It’s good for the [U.S.] if Panama continues to thrive, or Mexico is continuing to succeed.”

Obama’s Civil Society Forum Speech

“I am proud to be with you at this first-ever official gathering of civil society leaders at the Summit of the Americas. And I’m pleased to have Cuba represented with us at this summit for the very first time.”

“We’re here for a very simple reason.  We believe that strong, successful countries require strong and vibrant civil societies.  We know that throughout our history, human progress has been propelled not just by famous leaders, not just by states, but by ordinary men and women who believe that change is possible; by citizens who are willing to stand up against incredible odds and great danger not only to protect their own rights, but to extend rights to others.”

“I had a chance to reflect on this last month when I was in the small town of Selma, Alabama where, 50 years ago, African-Americans marched in peaceful, nonviolent protest — not to ask for special treatment but to be treated equally, in accordance with the founding documents of our Declaration of Independence, our Bill of Rights.  They were part of a civil rights movement that had endured violence and repression for decades, and would endure it again that day, as many of the marchers were beaten.”

“But they kept marching.  And despite the beatings of that day, they came back, and more returned.  And the conscience of a nation was stirred.  Their efforts bent, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, the arc of the moral universe towards justice.  And it was their vision for a more fair and just and inclusive and generous society that ultimately triumphed.  And the only reason I stand here today as the President of the United States is because those ordinary people — maids, and janitors, and schoolteachers — were willing to endure hardship on my behalf.”

“And that’s why I believe so strongly in the work that you do.  It’s the dreamers — no matter how humble or poor or seemingly powerless — that are able to change the course of human events.  We saw it in South Africa, where citizens stood up to the scourge of apartheid.  We saw it in Europe, where Poles marched in Solidarity to help bring down the Iron Curtain.  In Argentina, where mothers of the disappeared spoke out against the Dirty War.  It’s the story of my country, where citizens worked to abolish slavery, and establish women’s rights and workers’ rights, and rights for gays and lesbians.”

“It’s not to say that my country is perfect — we are not.  And that’s the point.  We always have to have citizens who are willing to question and push our government, and identify injustice.  We have to wrestle with our own challenges — from issues of race to policing to inequality.  But what makes me most proud about the extraordinary example of the [U.S.] is not that we’re perfect, but that we struggle with it, and we have this open space in which society can continually try to make us a more perfect union.”

“We’ve stood up, at great cost, for freedom and human dignity, not just in our own country, but elsewhere.  I’m proud of that.  And we embrace our ability to become better through our democracy.  And that requires more than just the work of government.  It demands the hard and frustrating, sometimes, but absolutely vital work of ordinary citizens coming together to make common cause.”

“So civil society is the conscience of our countries.  It’s the catalyst of change.  It’s why strong nations don’t fear active citizens.  Strong nations embrace and support and empower active citizens.  And by the way, it’s not as if active citizens are always right — they’re not.  Sometimes people start yelling at me or arguing at me, and I think, you don’t know what you’re talking about.  But sometimes they do.  And the question is not whether they’re always right; the question is, do you have a society in which that conversation, that debate can be tested and ideas are tested in the marketplace.”

“And because of the efforts of civil society, now, by and large, there’s a consensus in the Americas on democracy and human rights, and social development and social inclusiveness.  I recognize there’s strong differences about the role of civil society, but I believe we can all benefit from open and tolerant and inclusive dialogue.  And we should reject violence or intimidation that’s aimed at silencing people’s voices.”

“The freedom to be heard is a principle that the Americas at large is committed to.  And that doesn’t mean, as I said, that we’re going to agree on every issue.  But we should address those issue candidly and honestly and civilly, and welcome the voices of all of our people into the debates that shape the future of the hemisphere.”

“As the United States begins a new chapter in our relationship with Cuba, we hope it will create an environment that improves the lives of the Cuban people -– not because it’s imposed by us, the [U.S.], but through the talent and ingenuity and aspirations, and the conversation among Cubans from all walks of life so they can decide what the best course is for their prosperity.”

As we move toward the process of normalization, we’ll have our differences, government to government, with Cuba on many issues — just as we differ at times with other nations within the Americas; just as we differ with our closest allies.  There’s nothing wrong with that.  But I’m here to say that when we do speak out, we’re going to do so because the [U.S.] does believe, and will always stand for, a certain set of universal values.  And when we do partner with civil society, it’s because we believe our relationship should be with governments and with the peoples that they represent.”

“It’s also because we believe that your work is more important than ever.  Here in the Americas, inequality still locks too many people out of our economies.  Discrimination still locks too many out of our societies.  Around the world, there are still too many places where laws are passed to stifle civil society, where governments cut off funding for groups that they don’t agree with.  Where entrepreneurs are crushed under corruption.  Where activists and journalists are locked up on trumped-up charges because they dare to be critical of their governments.  Where the way you look, or how you pray, or who you love can get you imprisoned or killed.”

“And whether it’s crackdowns on free expression in Russia or China, or restrictions on freedom of association and assembly in Egypt, or prison camps run by the North Korean regime — human rights and fundamental freedoms are still at risk around the world.  And when that happens, we believe we have a moral obligation to speak out.”

“We also know that our support for civil society is not just about what we’re against, but also what we’re for.  Because we’ve noticed that governments that are more responsive and effective are typically governments where the people are free to assemble, and speak their minds, and petition their leaders, and hold us accountable.”

“We know that our economies attract more trade and investment when citizens are free to start a new business without paying a bribe.   We know that our societies are more likely to succeed when all our people — regardless of color, or class, or creed, or sexual orientation, or gender — are free to live and pray and love as they choose.  That’s what we believe.”

“And, increasingly, civil society is a source of ideas — about everything from promoting transparency and free expression, to reversing inequality and rescuing our environment.  And that’s why, as part of our Stand with Civil Society Initiative, we’ve joined with people around the world to push back on those who deny your right to be heard.  I’ve made it a mission of our government not only to protect civil society groups, but to partner with you and empower you with the knowledge and the technology and the resources to put your ideas into action.  And the U.S. supports the efforts to establish a permanent, meaningful role for civil societies in future Summits of the Americas.”

“[W]hen the [U.S.] sees space closing for civil society, we will work to open it.  When efforts are made to wall you off from the world, we’ll try to connect you with each other.  When you are silenced, we’ll try to speak out alongside you.  And when you’re suppressed, we want to help strengthen you.  As you work for change, the [U.S.] will stand up alongside you every step of the way.  We are respectful of the difference among our countries.  The days in which our agenda in this hemisphere so often presumed that the [U.S.] could meddle with impunity, those days are past.”

“[W]e do have to be very clear that when we speak out on behalf of somebody who’s been imprisoned for no other reason than because they spoke truth to power, when we are helping an organization that is trying to empower a minority group inside a country to get more access to resources, we’re not doing that because it serves our own interests; we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do.”

“I hope that all the other countries at the Summit of the Americas will join us in seeing that it’s important.  Because sometimes, as difficult as it is, it’s important for us to be able to speak honestly and candidly on behalf of people who are vulnerable and people who are powerless, people who are voiceless.  I know, because there was a time in our own country where there were groups that were voiceless and powerless.  And . . . world opinion helped to change those circumstances.  We have a debt to pay, because the voices of ordinary people have made us better.  That’s a debt that I want to make sure we repay in this hemisphere and around the world.”

Conclusion

These comments show that President Obama’s interest at the Summit of the Americas was not only fostering the further normalization of the United States’ relations with Cuba. Indeed, he has set forth a broad vision of improved hemispheric relations that acknowledges past errors and emphasizes the need for the U.S. and other countries of the Americas to focus on current and future problems and opportunities. Thank you, Mr. President!

 

 

 

 

 

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dwkcommentaries

As a retired lawyer and adjunct law professor, Duane W. Krohnke has developed strong interests in U.S. and international law, politics and history. He also is a Christian and an active member of Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. His blog draws from these and other interests. He delights in the writing freedom of blogging that does not follow a preordained logical structure. The ex post facto logical organization of the posts and comments is set forth in the continually being revised “List of Posts and Comments–Topical” in the Pages section on the right side of the blog.

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