We were privileged to host the 40th Annual Washington Conference of the Americas here at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, DC, on Wednesday, May 12. This event offered a vital occasion to connect with senior government officials and business representatives from throughout the Americas on critical areas for our region. Along with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, I had the great privilege of attending this conference, which was sponsored by the Council of the Americas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton opened the day by stressing that the hemisphere is a top priority for the Obama Administration, and as such she is “always thinking about what more we can do to enhance our partnerships, to make more progress together.” Assistant Secretary Valenzuela gave an overview of our policy in the region focusing on democratic institutions, social inclusion, citizen safety, and energy and climate.
The agenda boasted an impressive lineup of high-level speakers, including five foreign ministers from the Western Hemisphere and three U.S. cabinet officials. Approximately 200 business leaders heard from Jose Miguel Insulza, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Juan Carlos Varela, Vice President and Minister of Foreign Affairs for Panama, Javier Solarzano, Secretary of Labor for Mexico, and John Negroponte, current Chairmen of the Council of the Americas and the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State.
Each year the Washington Conference provides a forum for leaders in government, private sector, and non-governmental organizations to discuss the hemisphere's most pressing issues and set an agenda for collaboration. This year's themes included: boosting prosperity and social inclusion via trade and competitiveness, facing the challenge of public insecurity, addressing energy issues and climate change, and strengthening democratic institutions.
Several speakers commented on the inequity in the region. Secretary Clinton said, "We don't have the poorest people in the world in Latin America, with the exception of Haiti, but we have the most inequity. Therefore we need to have a partnership between the public and private sector to address this.” During his speech, OAS Secretary General Insulza also lamented the high levels of inequality in the region, saying that “despite the fact that Latin America is the least poor developing region in the world, we still have too many poor and too few rich.” He also spoke to the region's high crime rates which contribute to insecurity: “Two thirds of the kidnappings that happen around the world happen in Latin America.” There is no doubt that we must do a better job to address this reality and ensure that all citizens of the hemisphere have equal access to education, markets, and wealth creation opportunities.
Others focused on the positive growth figures for the region. Peru's Foreign Minister Jose Garcia Belaunde highlighted projected figures on GDP growth in Latin America, which include forecasts of nearly five to seven percent. He also argued that “ten years ago, a financial crisis like the one the world is seeing today would have caused political and economic unrest in the region.” Thanks to strengthened democratic institutions “that is not the case today.” Brazil's Deputy Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota made an example of Brazil's efforts to integrate and diversify, stating that these efforts had resulted in a 350 percent increase in trade with the rest of the world since 2003.
By most measures, the hemisphere has made great progress towards building democratic institutions, developing trade, and improving prosperity. The challenge remains to ensure that progress continues, that these institutions and economies are stable and secure, and that the prosperity reaches all. As Secretary Clinton stated, we firmly believe this can be accomplished, but it will require a multilateral effort -- one that is based on mutual respect and conducted in the spirit of cooperation and friendship.