Making Democracy Deliver for the Americas
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
Universidad San Francisco de Quito
October 20, 2021
MS. BUENO: Buenos días. Good morning and welcome, Mr. Ambassador of the United States, authorities, members of San Francisco de Quito University, civil society, dear students. Welcome to Ecuador, Mr. Secretary, or as, humbled, that early father of environmentalism called us, welcome to the country of the four worlds. The landscape that greeted you today is part of the wonderful Andean region that joins the Amazon rainforest as well as the warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, where the breathtaking Galapagos Islands make us proud every day.
I’m Marcela Bueno, country director of the Pan American Development Foundation, or PADF, an international organization that has been working for almost 60 years throughout the continent to create a hemisphere of opportunities for all. In these four worlds, democracy was born thanks to treasured individuals of our history. One of them, Matilde Hidalgo, was the first woman to vote in Latin America in 1924.
This morning, I see remarkable people in the audience. I see colleagues from various sectors, and I know the work they have done to benefit our country. I see authorities fighting for a better world. And I see young people preparing for a future of hope. These are just some of the faces of this country, Mr. Secretary, some faces of this region. It’s an honor to have you here this morning, and an exceptional opportunity to hear from a partner and key ally as the United States, a country that was built on the fundamental principles of human dignity and also freedom.
Today, we seek to squarely face the challenges ahead for this country of the four worlds, for the region, and, of course, for the planet. This exchange of ideas with Secretary of State Blinken today reminds us that democracy is built on dialogue, on learning, openness, hard work, tolerance, and the use of inclusive and rigorous methodologies to strengthen institutions and promote sustainable livelihoods for the most vulnerable.
And in terms of this democracy that was – that we are trying to perfect every day is the fight against corruption. Corruption undermines governance, and it’s using public resources and policies for the benefit of the few rather for the common good. No country is immune to this serious challenge today. All of us here seek to defend, to strengthen, to renew democracy. And that begins by creating safe spaces for dialogue like the one that we’re sharing this morning.
Therefore, standing before you today, I celebrate the struggles that we have overcame to defend democracy in the region. I celebrate the battles won to defend freedom, and I celebrate that we can come together from all sectors, from different countries to build and dream about a more transparent world. And above all, I celebrate our most fundamental principle that is human dignity. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Buenos días a todos. Gracias, Marcela. Thank you so much. And I want to thank you as well the remarkable work that you’ve been doing to try to build greater transparency, greater accountability. And to everyone here, thank you, thank you, thank you for being here this morning. I want to thank our very gracious host, the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. What a spectacular, spectacular place. Thank you. (Applause.)
Let me start if I can by telling you why I’ve come here, to Ecuador, on my first visit as Secretary to South America. There’s a thread that runs throughout every part of United States policy, domestic and foreign, and that is working to make democracy work for all people.
That’s the focus of this trip as well. Because the ability of our democracies to close the gap between what we promise and what we deliver depends in no small part on what we do, together, to make it better. And that “we” includes not just governments, but the people we serve.
And there’s something important to be learned from Ecuador; from Colombia, where I’ll travel next; and from the region more broadly – when it comes to understanding the challenges facing democracies and how we can overcome them.
Let me start with an example. Consider a country where a leader is elected in a free and fair election, and then sets about chipping away slowly but surely at the pillars of democracy – attacking the free press, undermining the independence of the courts, threatening political opponents.
Now, imagine that leader then seeks to use the levers of democracy to pass anti-democratic reforms – eliminating term limits, packing courts, firing legislators.
That’s the story of more than one democracy in our hemisphere. And it’s one of the ways that democracies can come undone. A decade ago, that was Ecuador.
And yet ultimately, that effort did not succeed. Why? Institutions like the courts and the Electoral Council pushed back. So did human rights defenders, journalists, and other civil society advocates, including professors, students from this university, who challenged the reforms in the courts. And even when they were publicly smeared, threatened, attacked, they kept at it.
What’s more, tens of thousands of Ecuadorians took to the streets to protest – trade unionists, journalists, students, indigenous people, some of whom made a 700-kilometer trek on foot from the Amazon to Quito. And even when they were beaten, arrested by police, people kept protesting.
And while the president at the time succeeded in passing a number of anti-democratic bills over the years, others were blocked, overturned, withdrawn in the face of insufficient support. Democracy persevered.
Another example: In the spring of 2020, as much of the world locked down in response to the pandemic, COVID-19 tore across Ecuador. In Guayaquil, the mortality rate shot up nine times. Hospitals were forced to turn away the dying. Bodies were left out on sidewalks for days. A local manufacturer started making coffins out of cardboard, because morgues had run out of wooden ones.
The public health emergency was made worse by some who sought to profit off of Ecuador’s shortage of vital medical supplies, like masks, ventilators, sanitizer. In April of this year, the virus surged again, and Ecuador had the highest COVID-19 rate in our hemisphere.
This is another way that democracies can come undone: by falling short of meeting citizens’ life-and-death needs in an emergency.
But once again, things changed. Ecuador’s free, vibrant press put a bright light on the public health failure and the corruption that helped contribute to it. The country’s attorney general led a rigorous investigation that uncovered evidence of collusion between health officials and criminals to sell body bags to hospitals at 13 times their price. Multiple former officials were eventually indicted.
And, earlier this year, more than 80 percent of Ecuador’s population voted in an election that led to a peaceful handover of power between parties. The new government promised to vaccinate more than half of the country’s population in its first 100 days and – together with health care workers, community leaders, businesses, and many others – they hit the target ahead of schedule.
Approximately 40,000 people were vaccinated not far from where we’re gathered today, in the university’s arena, with the help of university staff and student volunteers. And more Ecuadorians are being vaccinated every day. Today, over 11 million people have received their jabs.
It has also demonstrated to Ecuadorians that democracies can help address some of the biggest challenges they face – and do it openly, to the benefit of all. This is so important at a time when trust in democracy – in our hemisphere and around the world – is declining.
For outsiders looking at the track record of democracies in the Americas in recent decades, the loss of trust may be a little hard to understand. It’s been two decades since our nations committed to promote and defend democracy across the region through the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Countries made this commitment not because they were pressured, or out of ideological conformity, but rather because a number of countries in the region had tried to deliver social and economic development through non-democratic systems and failed.
And while there are some exceptions, on the whole democratic governments in the region have delivered a period of unprecedented prosperity, security, and stability. Latin America’s middle class has grown steadily as the number of people living in poverty has been cut in half. Living standards and access to education have gone up. Infant mortality, maternal mortality have gone down.
And yet, for many people living in democracies in the Americas, it doesn’t feel like government is doing enough to address the biggest problems they face, or keeping pace with their expectations and their aspirations.
Economies have grown, but so has inequity. And economic growth has too often been built on environmental devastation, contributing to the climate crisis that we are now experiencing.
What’s more, rising GDPs, rising stock markets have not come with an increase in the support and protections that working families need to thrive in an increasingly competitive global economy, like affordable childcare, a living wage. It hasn’t created a safety net that catches people when the factory where they work closes, or they have to miss work to care for a sick child or parent.
All of these problems have been worsened by COVID-19, which has hit this region harder than any other, and underscored just how vulnerable the gains of recent decades are. Latin America and the Caribbean account for about 8 percent of the world’s population, but the region has 32 percent of the world’s COVID-19 related deaths. If you add in the United States, we account for more than half – more than half – of the world’s COVID-19 deaths.
The economic effects have also been devastating. Latin America’s economy contracted by nearly 8 percent last year – again, the largest decline of any region in the world – and the number of people living in poverty rose by 22 million. The region’s schools have stayed shut longer than any other, with two out of every three children still not back in classrooms.
And as with every part of the world, underserved and marginalized communities are the ones that are hardest hit. Here in Ecuador, that means indigenous communities, people of African descent, women and girls, LGBTQI people, low-income people, most of whom work in the informal sector.
By turbocharging all of these long-standing problems, COVID-19 has accelerated skepticism among citizens that democracy can deliver when it matters the most. Last year, 70 percent of Latin Americans were dissatisfied with the way democracy works – up from approximately 50 percent in 2013. And it’s not just our partners who are experiencing this. In my country, in the United States, nearly 60 percent of people are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working.
So we find ourselves in a moment of democratic reckoning. And the question for all of us who believe in democracy and who believe its survival is vital to our shared future, the question is: What can we do to make democracies deliver on the issues that matter most to our people?
So today, with your indulgence, I’d like to highlight three issues that the United States sees as critically important to answering this call, particularly for our own hemisphere. They are areas where we come with ideas, but just as important, we come to listen with humility.
The humility is in part because we know there is so much to learn from our neighbors, and it comes in part because we know that the United States has not always practiced what it preached in our hemisphere, that there are times in our history when we supported governments in the Americas that did not reflect the choice or the will of their people and did not respect their human rights.
The first challenge – Marcela talked about this – the first challenge is corruption, which is a daily reality for people around the world, including in the Americas. Corruption is estimated to cost up to 5 percent of global GDP. It stifles growth, it discourages investment, it deepens inequities. But maybe its greatest toll is on citizens’ trust in government.
In fact, if you look at the vast majority of broad-based civilian uprisings around the world in recent years –the Maidan in Ukraine, Tahrir Square in Egypt; from Romania to Tunisia, from Sudan to Guatemala – you will find at their core a total revulsion at corruption.
It affects people in every aspect of their daily lives, and it drains resources from the state that could be spent and dedicated to a school, to a hospital, to something that actually improves lives of people.
So the United States is focusing on how we can more effectively fight corruption, which President Biden has for the first time designated as a core U.S. national security interest. We’re cracking down on illicit financing, seizing and freezing stolen assets, making it harder for those who steal to hide behind anonymity.
We’re strengthening the tools that we have to hold accountable corrupt individuals and groups, from targeted anticorruption sanctions, to criminal and civil enforcement actions, to denying visas to corrupt officials and their families.
These tools will help us raise the cost of corruption far beyond our borders.
But because corruption is borderless, and because corrupt actors are very adept at exploiting the weakest links in our interconnected global system, no country can effectively fight corruption alone, or even just with the help of other governments. We need strong anticorruption partners everywhere – and in every field.
That’s why we’re developing new tools and programs to enhance the capacity of partner governments, investigative journalists, anticorruption campaigners, businesses. It’s why we’re deepening our collaboration with the European Union, the G7, the OECD, and other groups of countries that share our commitment to tackling this scourge. It’s why we’re holding ourself and our partners to the Lima Commitment we made at the 2018 Summit of the Americas, where we all pledged to advance democratic governance against corruption in concrete ways.
Across these efforts, we’re taking a hard look at what works best in fighting corruption – a question at the heart of a comprehensive review that agencies across the U.S. Government are currently undertaking at the instruction of President Biden. What we learn will help inform how we focus our energy and resources going forward – at home, across the Americas, around the world.
The second challenge is civilian security. For decades, the United States has made massive investments in reducing violence in the hemisphere through combating transnational criminal organizations. And for good reason: Latin America and the Caribbean is the most violent region in the world.
But our record on partnering with the region’s democracies to improve civilian security has been mixed. That’s because often, we tried to fix this problem by relying too much on training and equipping security forces, and too little on the other tools in our kit. We focused too much on addressing the symptoms of organized crime, like homicides and drug trafficking, and too little on the root causes. We’re working to correct that imbalance.
We’re doing more to expand economic opportunity, especially for underserved populations who might be drawn into illicit activity because they feel they have no other choice. We’re increasing our investment in substance abuse prevention, treatment, recovery for those struggling with addiction – both to reduce the profound harm that illicit drugs inflict on our communities, and to reduce the demand in the United States fueling so much violence and criminal activity. We’re supporting community-based violence prevention efforts, which empower the local actors who are caught between violent criminal organizations and abusive security forces, and give them the tools to repair the social fabric of their communities. And we’re continuing to invest in shoring up the rule of law, training prosecutors and judges who are crucial to investigating and prosecuting these cases.
This emphasis on root causes is at the heart of a series of high level economic and security dialogues that we convened over recent weeks with the Government of Mexico. The range of senior leaders from both countries who took part – drawn from justice, trade, treasury, commerce, development, homeland security, and foreign policy – reflects the comprehensive approach that we are now determined to take. We and our partners in Colombia will bring a similar approach to tomorrow’s High-Level Dialogue.
And as I discussed with President Lasso yesterday, we believe a similarly holistic approach to citizen security – one that is not overly reliant on security forces – is most likely to be effective here in Ecuador as well.
We have seen the state of exception that President Lasso declared earlier this week, and the president and I had a chance to discuss it yesterday. For the United States, I made clear that we understand that there are times democracies need to take exceptional measures to ensure the safety and security of their citizens. But it is essential to balance that need against the need to respect the human rights of all citizens. It’s also crucial that these measures are designed and implemented in accordance with the rule of law, limited in scope and duration, and subject to oversight and judicial review. The security forces that carry out these measures must abide by international standards – and be held accountable when they are not doing so.
Without these limits, we have seen how the exception can become the rule; how efforts aimed at protecting citizens from one threat can leave them vulnerable to another.
President Lasso assured me that his government is committed to upholding these standards, which are so important to the Ecuadorian people and their democratic values. And I made clear that maintaining these standards is also a priority for the United States.
The third challenge is focusing our democracies on tackling the economic and social challenges that are facing our people. Now, this should be obvious, but the reality is we’ve often put more energy into strengthening civil and political rights, as vital and important as they are – free and fair elections, the rule of law, freedom of speech and assembly – and less into strengthening people’s economic and social rights, like bolstering labor standards, expanding access to adequate education and health, providing more inclusive opportunities. People across our hemisphere are demanding that we do both, and the United States hears that call.
That’s the idea behind President Biden’s efforts to make a once-in-generations investment in our working families. It’s the idea driving massive investments the United States is making in improving the lives and welfare of people around the Americas. Since 2020, we’ve invested more than $10 billion in Latin America and the Caribbean through the International Development Finance Corporation. That in turn leverages billions more in private sector investment. Here in Ecuador, for example, we’re working with the Banco de la Producción to analyze – excuse me, to catalyze $150 million in loans to small business. Small business, we know from our experience, from your experience, is a primary driver of growth and the best way to get people jobs.
We’re not just making these investments, we’re doing it in a way that is transparent; that treats local communities as partners rather than miring them in a pernicious cycle of debt; that’s sustainable for the environment, rather than extractive; and that respects labor rights and human rights.
Making these kinds of investments helps puncture the myth that authoritarian governments like to tell about themselves: that they are better at delivering for people’s basic needs. Autocrats offer people a false choice: you can either have basic civil and political rights, or you can have a higher standard of living. But for all the promises autocrats have made about improving people’s welfare, their track record, that tells a different story. But just because the democracies may be performing better in the hemisphere doesn’t mean we’re doing well enough by our people.
And that’s especially true for underserved populations. Deep, longstanding discrimination is rife in our democracies. The roots of this injustice run deep, all the way back to slavery and colonization. And the United States’ story is inextricably bound up in this history, in ways that are humbling, because of the role our nation played in perpetuating exploitation and racism, and at the same time inspiring, because of the generations of Americans, including so many people today, who have dedicated their lives to beating back the ugly legacy of racism and all forms of discrimination.
Racism makes democracies less prosperous, less stable, less equitable. It fosters polarization and distrust. And it robs democracies of the strength, the innovation, the creativity that can be drawn from diverse and inclusive communities and workplaces. It requires a concerted, urgent effort on the part of all of our communities and institutions to address this challenge. Including government institutions like the one I lead, where one of my top priorities at the State Department is ensuring that our diplomats reflect America in all of its remarkable diversity. Our foreign policy will be better for it as well.
The Universidad San Francisco de Quito has something, I think, to teach us about this. Since the founding of this institution, the university has made promoting equity and inclusion a core part of its mission. Every year, the university makes it possible for hundreds of indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian students to study here, groups that have traditionally been under-represented in higher education due to chronic underdevelopment and unequal access to opportunity. Every student who attends this university gets a better education because of its more diverse student body.
So while we see real challenges in our democracies, we also have no doubt about the best way to tackle them. It’s putting these problems out in the open, working together, including with people that you don’t always see eye-to-eye with – that’s the way to fix them. This has always been democracy’s greatest strength: an ability to improve on itself.
In the United States, we’re founded on the basic principle that our national mission is to form a more perfect union, and by definition that’s an acknowledgment that we are not perfect and never will be, but we will constantly strive to match what we do to the ideals of our founders.
There’s no threat that we face that better democracy, more democracy cannot fix – no challenge where a closed system would do better for people than an open one.
And for all the challenges facing democracies, I think we have reason to be optimistic. Particularly in our hemisphere, where we have a deeply integrated group of partners who not only share our values, but are also bound together by culture and community, and where we are blessed with a remarkable wealth in natural resources and biodiversity, provided we protect them.
But most of all, I think we should be optimistic because of our people: the demos at the heart of democracy. Look at the march forward of any of our democracies over time and what you’ll see, time and again, is that it’s been driven not by governments, but by ordinary people. Women and men, often young ones, often with a lot to lose, who were committed to improving the lives of their families and their communities. These are the people who have consistently closed the gap between what democracies promise and what they deliver.
We have every reason to believe that citizens will keep doing so. Ecuador’s recent history shows that that’s true. So does our experience in the United States, where our democracy has also been tested.
And for all their frustrations with democracy, the majority of people in the hemisphere share that faith. Some 63 percent of people in Latin America still believe democracy is the best system of government, compared to 13 percent who feel that way about authoritarian government.
Indeed, some look at protests and mass movements criticizing democratic governments in the Americas or elsewhere and see it as a sign that democracy is in decline. I see it as a sign of democracy’s strength. I see people who believe enough in their system to want to try to fix it.
Our greatest risk is not that our citizens are too critical of democracy, but rather that they stop caring about it. That they give up.
And that’s why I’m confident in the future of democracy in the Americas. Because we have the most extraordinary individuals working to make the system better.
People like Diana Salazar Méndez. She was raised north of here, in Ibarra, by a single mother, who drilled into her from an early age the importance of serving her community and – above else – integrity. Diana paid her way through university, working days and taking classes by night, writing her thesis on the human trafficking of African migrants across Ecuador.
She said that she felt drawn to the work of social justice because she has it in her blood. Her uncle had been blocked from pursuing a career in the military because he was Afro-Ecuadorian. And after she finished her studies in the law, Diana was passed over multiple times for appointments as a prosecutor for the same reason.
But she stayed at it, eventually got her first post, and has since dedicated her career to holding powerful people to account. Mafias. Politicians, including former presidents. Businessmen. She has been smeared, threatened, was once almost lost at sea in an operation to intercept drug smugglers. But she refused to be intimidated. Asked why, she said, “El que tiene la verdad no debe tener miedo.”
“He who is right should not be afraid.” Today, Diana is, of course, Ecuador’s Attorney General. (Applause.) And people like Nina Gualinda, a leader from Ecuador’s indigenous Kichwa community. In 2001, Nina was just eight years old when an oil company came to drill on the land in the Amazon where she and her family live. Her mother and aunt led the community in opposing the project, and they endured constant threats and attacks for their efforts. But they kept resisting – through civil disobedience, organizing, legal challenges – giving Nina an education in advocacy.
When, after a decade, her community’s case finally made its way before the Inter-American Court, 18-year-old Nina spoke in the hearing on the part of the community. The court ruled that Ecuador must consult indigenous communities before licensing oil companies to do business on their land. Almost a decade later, Nina helped lead a group of indigenous women in collecting more than 250,000 signatures demanding that the government investigate the systemic attacks against women defenders of the Amazon. A petition that was handed over to the Attorney General of Ecuador, Diana Salazar.
Just think how improbable it is that the trajectories of these two extraordinary women would intersect. An Afro-Ecuadorian, once passed over for an entry-level prosecutor job because she is black. An indigenous leader whose struggle to give her community a say in its future began when she saw her community invaded as an eight-year-old girl.
And yet, the meeting of their paths is emblematic of the singular strength of democracies to be shaped by individuals. One working from inside of government, the other from outside, but both coming from places where so many odds were stacked against them. Democracy works – it evolves, it improves on itself – because of people like Diana and Nina. People who experience first-hand the consequences of a system that doesn’t work the way it should, who see the gap between democracies’ principles and its practices, and decide to dedicate their lives to bettering it anyway – for people like them, and for generations to come.
And it works because they don’t give up. They tenaciously defend every centimeter of progress that’s been made, knowing that the forces seeking to weaken democracy are just as relentless. Autocrats will never stop plotting to take power; the corrupt will never stop looking for ways to profit at others’ expense. Just look around.
That’s the reason it’s so important that each and every one of us, particularly rising generations, all of you, stay engaged, and bring others along with us. Because that’s the thing about democracy – it’s a project that’s never finished.
And as long as our societies make it possible for people like Nina and Diana to improve the system from within, we can be sure that democracy will not only persevere, it will prevail.
Thank you so much. Gracias a todos. Thank you.
MS BUENO: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. And so now we have a chance to have a little conversation with you. So to start this conversation, you were talking about some of these things, and I would love to know: What do you think about young people in Ecuador and the region? Considering the social protests that you were mentioning and that have occurred in Latin America in the recent months and years, and this year’s cases of corruption in various countries, and the growing wave of migration, it is evident the region is going through very difficult times. And the situation was exacerbated by the pandemic, which changed almost everything we knew. What message would you share at the regional level, especially with young people so that democratic values in the fight against corruption become a priority for life?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So thank you, Marcela. I think I’d say a few things. First of all, as we were just discussing, what I think we’ve seen time and again in our common history is that young people with their energy, with their enthusiasm, with their openness to new ideas, are drivers of change. And our societies simply don’t advance without that.
Those of us who do our jobs for a few years or a few decades or more, even when we try really hard, we sometimes become a little bit set in our ways. We have a way of doing things, a way of thinking about things. That constantly needs to be challenged, and the people who challenge it the best usually are younger generations, because just because something has been done one way for the last 50 or a hundred years doesn’t mean it has to be done the same way for the next 50 or a hundred years. So it’s usually important, especially for those of us who are in positions of responsibility, whether it’s in government or in the private sector or in NGOs, to make sure that we are hearing from, listening to, engaging with younger generations. That’s the first thing.
The second thing is, to your point, all of us in different ways have had a once-in-generations experience with COVID-19, and as we were talking about, that’s only put a brighter light on so many of the challenges and inequities that our societies face. But I hope that we can approach this moment with the spirit of trying to find in crisis, in catastrophe, actual opportunity. Because sometimes, something like COVID-19 is also an opportunity to reset what you’re doing, to look at how you can do things differently, how you can do things better.
We’re focused a lot, for example, on how do we build our economies back in a more equitable way. For many, many years, we looked at the measures of success in an economy just by the overall number of growth in the economy. In the United States, we often look to our stock market. And we lost sight of the fact that growth without equity is not ultimately sustainable and doesn’t do the job. So in all aspects of our life, there’s an opportunity now to use this moment to think, “Okay, how can we do what we’ve been doing better? How can we do it in a way that reaches and captures more people? How can we do it with greater equity?” And again, I think many of the young people here today will bring their ideas, their passion to answering that question.
MS BUENO: Thank you very much, and talking about young people, I would love to have Camila Becerra, president of the student government of Universidad San Francisco, she is going to ask you a question.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great.
QUESTION: Such a pleasure, Mr. Secretary.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
QUESTION: Thank you for being here, and also, welcome to Ecuador. Well, as they already present me, my name is Camila. I’m the president of the university’s student government, and, well, I have a question for you. As you said before, the instability of certain countries in South and Central America, as well, for example, Afghanistan, is clear. And this causes many people to have to leave their country due to different threats, and in this regard, Joe Biden has promised a more human immigration policy. And, well, my question is: How is this currently being carried out, and what is the plan of action regard to this? Thank you very much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much, and thank you for your leadership, for your engagement on so many things. It’s wonderful to hear. So a few things, and this is an incredibly important question. It’s also a very complicated one. Let’s start with this. We’re living in our hemisphere in an almost unprecedented moment of migration and irregular migrations of various kinds: the Northern Triangle countries; El Salvador; Guatemala; Honduras; Venezuela, as Ecuadorians know so well; Haitian populations not only from Haiti but many residing in Chile and Brazil; Ecuadorians. And all of this is coming together for a whole variety of reasons to include the fact that, as we were saying, COVID-19 has had such a devastating economic impact that it is denied opportunity in places where opportunity was already lacking. And then, of course, with the relative lifting of COVID, that’s created an environment in which people have felt like now is the time to try to do something else. So that’s one aspect of things. It’s almost unprecedented.
That means that we have to find ways to address the challenge together, because no one of our countries addressing it alone is going to succeed. We have to have a sense of shared responsibility and common action. And by the way, that’s one of the things that we’ll be talking about later this afternoon in Bogota where, with the foreign minister, we will be meeting with our colleagues to focus on that issue.
But to your point about a humane system, one that is safe, that respects the rule of law but that is humane and that is founded on human dignity – maybe the most important thing of all – we have a lot of work to do. And so I think there are two things that we need to focus on: the short term and the medium and long term.
In the short term, we do have to get a handle, as we would say, on this challenge, and that means countries taking steps to make it clear that people cannot simply move freely from south to north and they will not be able to get into the United States. There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and so we have to work together in a humane way to do that, to make sure that people who are in need of protection get it, but for those who are not and don’t have a regular way to come to our countries, they will have to return to the countries that they started from in their journeys.
But as important, that’s a – these are near-term measures that don’t answer the fundamental problem. And the fundamental problem and challenge requires a few things. First, in the United States, we are working very hard to expand and increase legal pathways to migration so that people who want to come and contribute, as generation after generation has done in my country, can do so, and do so legally. So we’re working on that.
We’re also working to put far more resources into our own asylum system and process because that system has, over many years, been overwhelmed, so that if people are coming to our country seeking asylum, as they have a right to do and as has been our tradition for many years, that they are given a very quick, effective, and open hearing, and that we can decide very quickly whether they meet the requirements for asylum or not. If they do, they can come to the United States. If they don’t, they will need to return to the countries that they came from. But that requires us to put a lot more effort and resources into the system.
Finally, and maybe most important of all, if together we are not addressing the root causes of what is motivating people to move, to leave, then we really will not get at the challenge.
Recently, I have a colleague from Central America who said that there should be a right to remain. And that means, simply put, that people have to have opportunity; they have to be treated with dignity; they have to see that they can build a future for themselves and their families in their countries of origin because if they don’t have that, it’s not really a surprise that we see these mass movements of people. The idea that someone gets up in the morning and says, you know what? I’m going to leave behind everything I know – my family, my friends, my community, my culture, my language, my experience – I’m going to make an incredibly hazardous journey that puts my life at risk to try to go to a country where maybe you’re not – maybe I’m welcome, maybe I’m not, that doesn’t just happen. It happens because there’s something driving and pushing people to feel that their only choice is to do that. We have to give them another choice, and of course we have to deal with other drivers of migration – violence, conflict, corruption. All of those things come together. Governments have to play their parts. All of us have to play our parts.
So I’m sorry for going on so long, but it’s a big, big challenge and one that has to be addressed both in the immediate, to deal with the current challenge, but also to deal with these longer-term aspects because if we don’t, we won’t succeed. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS BUENO: Mr. Secretary, you are surrounded this morning by wonderful women, let me tell you. And so I would love to call on Fernanda Perugachi. She has a question for you. Where are you, Fernanda? Oh, over there. Thank you.
QUESTION: (via translation) Good morning with everyone. My name is Fernanda Estefania Perugachi [inaudible] I come representing one of the indigenous and ancestral peoples of Ecuador, I come from the south of Imbabura province, from Otavalo county, from a rural community . I am a daughter of the sun, which welcomes you today, on this morning. Welcome to Ecuador. I come with my mom today who is an inspiration for me and she is a midwife who is preserving ancestral practices in the area of medicine. (Applause.)
I am a youth who thinks that pursuing your dreams has no limits, since dreams are yours and nobody can take them away. I have looked for and found the opportunities to participate in several programs that the U.S Embassy supports, for which I am very grateful as this has been one of the main motivations to continue with this fight, you can say, where we the youth from these indigenous peoples are motivated to have a voice and be the pioneers in the sense of education, equality, and gender equality too. And among them my question goes related to the topic and we know very well that the United States is among the countries that promotes equality and human rights, now that we have been affected by the pandemic and all of this, working on the improvement and support for gender equality, seen through the lens of inclusion, rural communities have suffered and they have been negatively affected by this inequality that we live in. From our own experience, how are we going to protect that, so that we can continue and so that you can still offer us these tools to motivate us and to tell the youth of these communities that they should not limit themselves for belonging to an indigenous community, but instead it is us that are protecting our land thanks to the support we find in you. Once again thank you, it is an honor for me to be here, talking from our own community, from our own peoples. (Applause.)
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, let me first say it’s my honor to hear from you and to be with you today, to be with your mother today. Thank you for being here, thank you for sharing that with all of us, and thank you for what you’re doing every single day.
One of the things that COVID-19 has exposed are some of the very inequities that you just described. Because we’ve seen the pandemic itself have a disproportionate impact on underserved communities around the world, including in the United States. We’ve seen violence against women and girls increase significantly during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. And, of course, we’ve seen a devastating not just health impact but economic impact – again, with underserved communities feeling the biggest part of the burden.
And this gets back to what we were saying. If we’ve now seen that even more clearly – because it’s not as if this wasn’t already the case, but COVID has made it more visible, I think, to many of us – now, do we use the opportunity to do something about it? And so for example, as we are looking at how to direct resources around the world to help economies rebound from the pandemic, one of the things we’re focused on is making sure that those resources are directed more at underserved communities. Here in Ecuador, to cite just one small example, we have a program through something called the Development Finance Corporation, which has loaned a significant amount of money to one of your leading banks, but with a focus on in turn lending that money to small and medium sized businesses, including in indigenous communities, and also to small businesses that are run by women and women entrepreneurs. That’s a way of putting resources to support people, to give them a chance to start a business, to earn a better salary. That’s one small example.
In a totally different way, we’re looking at what tools governments can have to do a more effective job in combating violence against women. In our own country, this has been an issue for many years and for President Biden maybe the most important issue, if you ask him, that he’s worked on. One of the things that he’s proudest of in his career, even – maybe even prouder of than being President, is the fact that many years ago he wrote a law called the Violence Against Women Act that worked to help the United States deal with this very, very, horrific problem that we were seeing in our communities with resources, with laws, with new tools that allowed us to combat violence against women. We now work on that internationally as well.
So it’s a long way of saying that for each of the challenges that you mentioned, let’s use this moment to see if we can’t do a better job in addressing them. And finally, let me say this. I think, again, in our – in my own country we have a challenge that’s existed for a long time: an urban and rural divide. That’s something that we also have to close. So many of us now are dependent on technology in all aspects of our lives, but we know that there’s what’s called a digital divide between communities that have access to information technology and communities that don’t. The communities that don’t are going to be significantly disadvantaged in this economy that we all live with. So we have to do a better job in making sure that that divide is closed, that rural communities benefit in the same way that urban ones do from technology as well as from investment and support.
So in many of these ways we have a lot of work to do, and it’s so important that you put the spotlight on it and help us do it. Thank you. (Applause.)
MS BUENO: Thank you. Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. And as Fernanda said, even the sunshine came out to receive you today, but also because you said things in such a beautiful way, and we’ll always remember – now more than ever – that democratic values should be the priority of our lives.
Thank you very much, and thank you all for being here, and have a very nice rest of the day and a good trip to Colombia also. Thank you for everything you are doing.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Gracias. Gracias. Thank you. (Applause.)