Remarks by Ambassador John L. Estrada at AMCHAMTT AGM at Trinidad Hilton

Ambassador John L. Estrada speaking at AMCHAMTT AGM


All protocols observed,

Good day!

It is awesome to be here……finally!

After a long wait for confirmation, I have returned to the country of my birth as U.S. Ambassador.  The welcome has been spectacular.  Ravi and Nirad were among the first to welcome me.  The AmCham has such a strong relationship with the U.S. Embassy that the team felt it important for us to meet right away.  I thank them for their warm welcome and for introducing me to the business community of Trinidad and Tobago.

I am likewise honored that my first formal engagement with the business community of Trinidad and Tobago as Ambassador is this address, to you the AmCham members.  It’s good to be back in Trinidad, and it’s good to be among friends.

I’d like to recognize the investment of former U.S. Ambassador Beatrice Welters and Charge d’Affairs Margaret Diop in the relationship between AmCham and the U.S. Embassy.  It’s not only pleasant to have strong connections like this, it’s part of our core strategy to further trade between the U.S. and Trinidad and Tobago.

You can imagine how much things have changed since I emigrated from T&T in 1970.  Most every sector of society is dramatically different than I remember it as a 14 year old.  Looking around Port of Spain, the vast changes weathered by the business sector in the past decades are obvious.  It’s very different than the capital of my youth.  There are signs of economic good times and leaner times.  I see massive public and private development where fields used to be, I see increased privatization, I see a busier waterfront and airport, I can also see the wear of economic downturns, I see supermarkets where sugar cane fields used to be.

You don’t need to hear me reminiscing to know what transformation you’ve all been through.  I’m not here to repeat the old adage that “Change is Inevitable”.

But change IS inevitable.

What I’d like to emphasize today is that Partnerships are Essential.  Change is inevitable and Partnerships are Essential.

I’m grateful for the partnership between AmCham and the U.S. Embassy.  I view relationships as essential.

I think it’s spot on that I was asked today to speak about “Partnerships for Growth and Prosperity.”  In fact, I think Partnerships are the ONLY way to growth and prosperity.  Especially in times of change and uncertainty.

This is a time of uncertainty.

TT has benefitted tremendously from the oil and gas industry.  It is obvious everywhere you look.  The flip side of this is that the country’s economy is particularly vulnerable when energy prices go down.  The falling energy prices are causing your country real pain, I can see it.

Even if prices recover, twenty years from now, who knows what the oil and gas industry will look like?

So, there are good reasons to feel concern about TT’s future.

In times of uneasiness, of uncertainty or change, a natural social response is turning inward, closing off to others, protecting what you have.

You may feel inclined to adopt this protective posture.

As less energy revenue makes the economic pie smaller, you, the private sector, may want the government to protect what you have.

Local firms may want to use political connections to keep foreign companies from coming here and competing.

You could try to stop buying foreign goods.

The government could keep international companies that operate here from bringing in foreign workers, because they are seen as taking jobs away from Trinbagonians.

The government could do everything it can to maintain the jobs that people currently have.

TT could do this, but not for long.  It simply won’t work.

And I will tell you this – hunkering down and defending your territory when you are under threat might work for the short term, but as a Marine, I was taught to advance and close with the enemy.

So I would like to suggest a different way forward, a way that depends on partnership in the private sector.

If we are not going to dig in and defend the jobs in oil and gas and manufacturing that helped TT develop in the 20th century, where are the new jobs going to come from?

I don’t know where the new jobs will come from.  But you do.  In this room is the collective wisdom to solve this challenge.  And in this room are the shared resources to innovative solutions.  But you must partner with each other.

I do know that TT has a lot going for it:

  • wonderful people;
  • a good education system;
  • English speaking;
  • a stable and democratic political system;
  • close cultural and business ties to the U.K., Canada, and the United States;
  • a free press and an independent judiciary;
  • year-round warm weather and gorgeous blue seas;
  • incredible music and food;
  • a successful financial services sector;
  • companies that run free of excessive government interference;
  • a large stock of foreign reserves and a sovereign wealth fund;

… I could go on and on.

All of these things together tell me that TT has a lot of potential for the future.

This is a time of change and uncertainty.  And I see two ways forward – two strategies.  One that’s insulating, divisive and protectionist.

Or another, that must be led by the private sector, of partnership, collaboration, innovation and resilience.

If you pull together, the pain of falling energy prices can be the growing pains of a diversifying economy.

Do you want the government to lead the defense, protecting the jobs that the economy currently provides, or do you want it to lead the advance, to create the conditions necessary for new jobs and new industries to develop?

Let me tell a Marine Corps story.  I’m an Ambassador now, not an active Marine, but I don’t have any Ambassador stories yet, so bear with me.

Contrary to popular belief, Marine Boot Camp is not only about learning to follow orders.  It’s also about teamwork and problem solving.

We created a series of exercises in the last part of Boot Camp called the Crucible:  We keep the recruits up and on their feet for about 56 hours, and they have to make decisions when they are tired and hungry and dirty.

One of the exercises is called Sergeant Zimmerman’s Tank.  The recruits have to cross a mud pit full of obstacles as a team, under a certain time limit.

They are told explicitly to wait for orders from their squad leader, and to follow his, or her, direction.

The problem is, they are all wearing gas masks, so no one can hear what the squad leader is saying.

If boot camp has successfully trained those recruits, they will realize their current situation requires coordinated action amongst them without waiting for orders to get across the obstacle course on time.

In other words, they are being tested not only on their ability to follow orders, but on their ability to collaborate and lead.

Those who graduate are the ones who make this mental leap…..worked together and led through their initiative and ability to work together.  Those who stand around and wait for someone to tell them what to do, fail.

Your job is to get across the mud pit, build your company, and provide good jobs to your employees and value to your shareholders.

The government’s job is to create the conditions in which companies can compete and succeed – so they can get across the mud pit on their own.

A recently published report said that new businesses account for nearly all new job creation in the U.S.  Some new businesses succeed, grow, and employ lots of people.  Others fail.  Market conditions change, and business opportunities come and go quickly.  If companies are not prepared to compete, and adapt to changing conditions, they will fail.

After I retired from the Marine Corps, I ran a Lockheed Martin wholly owned subsidiary company that provided aircrew training and logistics services to the U.S. and our allies.  They owned us, but we had to sink or swim on our own.  We normally ran into some stiff competition for new contracts and on recompetition for old contracts.  We were sometimes surprised at losing contracts to competitors.  I had a choice:  I could have told my team to focus on not losing any more contracts, on not making any mistakes, and on keeping what we had.  Instead, I asked my team to be creative, and look for new opportunities in adjacent markets where we could bring our expertise to bear.

I am proud that during my tenure we identified new business opportunities and doubled the size of our business, but my point is not to pat myself on the back.

My point is, sometimes leadership is an insistence on looking forward, and a refusal to let fear push you into a defensive position.  Leadership requires making bold decisions to deal with extraordinary challenges.

One of my jobs here as ambassador is to help U.S. companies operate in and export to TT, so I will do what I can to ensure that TT is a hospitable place for them to work.

Let me assure you that it’s in the best interest of the United States and Trinidad and Tobago for all of you to succeed and thrive.

We want Trinbagonians to start businesses, generate opportunities, find international partners, and grow.

President Obama’s Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, or YLAI, is one way we are working toward that objective.  It’s a program where we bring entrepreneurs to the United States to build networks, linkages, and lasting partnerships to attract investments and support for their entrepreneurial ventures.  Our goal is to empower entrepreneurs to advance their ideas to contribute to social and economic development in their communities and region.  Public applications are being accepted until May 20 and more information about the program can be found on the U.S. Embassy Facebook page.

I would like to recognize AmCham for their leadership in advocating for new opportunities for growth.

AmCham has been one of the strongest and most consistent voices pushing TT forward, looking for ways to open up TT to new opportunities.

But leadership is not just for Chambers of Commerce.  It’s not just for Nirad, Ravi, and the rest of the AmCham team.  Leaders lead by example and can come from anywhere.  They lead by making good decisions – and are not afraid to take risk or think outside of the traditional box.  They show their community and those in their charge a way forward.

Right now, there is no denying that TT is in a tough position.  But, now is not the time to hunker down in a defensive position.

Now is the time for the private sector to partner with each other, to find innovative solutions and lead the country forward – towards growth and prosperity.

I would like to leave you with this one thought……..creativity and innovation does not always come from the top.  But, leadership is instrumental in setting conditions for and driving change.

Thank you for your attention.