Good Evening. Welcome.
I sincerely appreciate the presence of each one of you here tonight. Your presence is a testament to the work we have done together and reflects your commitment to continuing this work our two nation’s share of making the world a safer and more just place.
I know first-hand that you are busy folks, so I am personally honored that you have taken a moment to reflect with me as I prepare to depart next week. I will successfully conclude my tenure as U.S. Ambassador on January 20th. Mr. Prime Minister, I am especially humbled by your presence. It has been a privilege to partner with you as you work tirelessly to better this beautiful twin island nation. Thank you.
Who would have guessed when I boarded a plane at the age of 14, an unaccompanied child, leaving Laventille to start a new life in the United States that I would return almost half a century later as the U.S. President’s direct representative to the country of my birth?
Who would have guessed that I would live on Flagstaff Hill, in a house on a hill with a beautiful garden from which I could see the church of my youth illuminated in the distance at night high on the hill of Laventille?
Who would have guessed that my twin daughters, born far away in the middle of the winter in the northern part of North America, would learn to walk and talk on the same tropical island where I learned to walk and talk.
Who would have thought that after leading the U.S. Marine Corps in the fight against Terrorism, I’d continue that battle as a diplomat, striving daily to secure the lives and livelihoods of our citizens and allies?
No one could have imagined it.
But I know how it happened.
It happened NOT because I was more special than everyone else, or more connected than everyone else. Not because I was wealthier than anyone else. Not even because God is a Trini. It all happened because from the time I became a U.S. Citizen, I was an *engaged* U.S. Citizen. Such is the power of the citizen.
The saying goes that the most important title in a democracy is not “President” or “Prime Minister” or “Ambassador” or “15th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps” or … and I can’t believe I’m saying this… even “Marine.” The most important title, the most powerful position, is “Citizen.”
President Obama said recently, and I quote: “When citizens are free to speak their minds, to organize for what they believe in and to hold their leaders accountable, governments are more responsive. When communities, including minorities are free to live and pray and love as they chose; when nations uphold the rights of all their people – including and perhaps especially women and girls – then those countries are more likely to thrive. If you want strong successful countries, you need strong, vibrant civil societies”. End quote.
I want to mention here a few special citizens, women and girls in my life who also take their mission as citizens to heart. My wife, Dr. Elizabeth Cote Estrada, our daughters and my mother-in-law, left their lives in the U.S. to serve their country by supporting my work here in Trinidad and Tobago. I worked my heart out, but my heart for the work here was bigger because of the gift of their hearts. They are not here tonight because they are continuing their mission as engaged citizens. They’ve moved to rural Northern Maine where my wife is serving a long-ignored community of Native Americans as their sole physician. She has shown me the power of the deeply engaged citizen.
And so have many of you.
Our U.S. – Trinbagonian partnership has proved President Obama’s point, that when citizens are free to organize and work together across borders to make communities healthier and the world safer, that’s when real change occurs.
During my long wait for confirmation as Ambassador, it was closely watched by citizens of both of our countries. Supporters in the United States and here in Trinidad and Tobago viewed my pending assignment as special… both countries were full of pride. For the United States… An immigrant, now a U.S citizen who lived the American dream and personified what’s great about the United States of America… A country where there’s opportunity for all to succeed.
For Trinidad and Tobago… A son of the soil who did well and was coming back to the place where he was born as the top U.S. diplomat.
Trinbagonians would often say to me… Mr. Ambassador, we know you are American now and represent American interests, but you are a son of the soil and will always be. We are proud of you and the work you are doing here on behalf of your nation and ours.
Just 10 months after you welcomed this Son of the Soil home, look what we’ve accomplished together. We’ve strengthened our Partnership in areas of security, governance, education and exchange programs.
Despite obstruction, Dr. The Honorable Prime Minister Keith Rowley has pressed forward for real change. I couldn’t have asked for a more courageous partner. The Honorable Prime Minister and his government have shown the political will to go after corruption, face a faltering economy, deal with the threat of terrorist fighters, and start to tackle startlingly high crime. The seeds of these problems were planted before this government took power and they have deep roots.
These problems did not manifest in the last 15 months. Turning them around will take time, patience, self-honesty but most importantly a sense of urgency and a demand for accountability by the citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.
On a personal note, rediscovering my roots, actually in many cases discovering aspects of my rich Trinbagonian heritage for the first time has been invaluable. I am more deeply connected to the red sun, white waves and black soil of the land of my birth than I could have ever hoped. I revisited the communities where I lived and played as a child. Among the first words spoken by my twin baby girls were the words: Parrot, Mango and “Later.”
And for me personally… reconnecting with my roots also included re-learning the meaning of words I had long forgotten…such as… getting licks, getting a cut-ass, and cocoa in the sun… I would have been remiss if I did not mention those.
I found the most joy visiting over 21 schools throughout this beautiful country where I was able to speak with and listen to students. They are why I am so deeply optimistic about the future of Trinidad and Tobago. These young citizens are curious, intelligent and full of life. If we think of our youngest citizens first, if we place the future of our youngest citizens above our immediate gains, if we unify behind them instead of dividing along partisan lines our future will be bright.
In conclusion, as I prepare to depart, know that our Embassy is in good hands with John McIntyre as Chargé. I would ask you all to reach out to John and my/our team as the Embassy will remain deeply engaged in Trinidad and Tobago. You probably just won’t see John as much in the press! I think he is okay with that. I would like to thank all of my Embassy team for their exceptional support the past year. I also want to thank all of you for being here tonight. Thank you for working together to make the world a more safe and just place. And, thank you for your continued support as I am promoted to my next position, a job that comes with equally great responsibility – the role of an engaged Citizen striving for a more perfect union.
Remarks by Ambassador John L. Estrada at his Farewell Reception — Flagstaff Hill, Long Circular Port of Spain. January 12, 2017.