Julie J. Chung, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau Of Western Hemisphere Affairs
Trinidad & Tobago American Chamber of Commerce Annual General Meeting
June 10, 2020
I want to thank you for the kind invitation to address your annual meeting. I would have preferred to be with you all in person, but the realities of COVID-19 made that impossible. I look forward to a time when I can visit.
I met AMCHAM’s Chief Executive Officer, Nirad Tewarie, back in February at the Atlanta meeting of the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America and the Caribbean. That was the genesis of this invitation for me to speak with you today.
I would like to focus on our Growth in the Americas initiative and how it can work for Trinidad and Tobago. I would also like to lay out our priorities and concerns regarding China and Venezuela.
Growth in the Americas
Growth in the Americas is part of the U.S. government’s positive economic agenda for the hemisphere. It seeks to apply the coordinated expertise of the entire U.S. government to catalyze private sector investment in energy and infrastructure.
Growth in the Americas started in 2018 with a focus on increasing private investment in energy infrastructure, but now, in its expanded form, it encompasses all types of infrastructure, including airports, ports, roads, and telecom networks, among others.
The urgent need to combat the COVID-19 pandemic and spur post-COVID economic recovery make the impulse behind Growth in the Americas all the more relevant. Restoring jobs and growth require creating the enabling conditions to attract private sector investment. That is after all where the most innovation, growth, and job opportunities come from.
You don’t need me to tell you the best way to attract private sector investment. But I would boil it down to three things: transparency, stability, and predictability.
Transparency means bidding, tendering, contracting and related procurement processes that are open for the public to see. We support governments regionwide passing and implementing procurement legislation to improve transparency.
Predictability means standing by the agreements made by your predecessors and having faith that your successors will honor yours. It also means consulting with business leaders like AMCHAM, before passing legislation and regulations that will impact business.
Stability doesn’t just mean economic stability, but bureaucratic stability too. For example, the rules should be the same for everyone to obtain necessary permits, and the process should take the same amount of time for everyone.
Governments in the region are aware of the public hunger for quality public infrastructure and services procured in a transparent, efficient, and timely way, and are taking steps to meet these demands.
For example, I would note the efforts by the eastern Caribbean states to work with an American company in Ohio to deploy software tools to buy medical supplies for COVID response in a quick but transparent way that tracks expenditures and provides market leverage and logistical coordination. That procurement software serves immediate needs but will also help future hurricane response and ordinary government purchases.
But much more needs to be done to attract skittish investors to Trinidad and Tobago, and to the Caribbean. How often have we seen issues in the region such as: projects that do not survive a change in administration; opaque tendering processes; arbitrary taxation, and excessive Customs delays.
Growth in the Americas seeks to respond to these issues by rawing on the expertise of a broad arc of our agencies.
In Panama, for example, the United States Treasury Department experts helped a public utility modernize its accounting, resulting in a two-notch improvement in its bond rating that will save Panama at least $40 million in debt service costs and attract higher quality investment.
It is important to point out that the Growth in the Americas initiative encompasses all of Latin America and the Caribbean. Sharing best practices through technical exchanges is one of our best tools under the initiative for high income countries such as T&T. Specific topics have included government procurement, water management, and spectrum auctions.
I think many of you are aware that the new International Development Finance Corporation, or DFC for short, which took over from the old OPIC, cannot provide project financing in high income countries. That DFC limit comes from Congress.
But the U.S. Export-Import Bank is available for loan guarantees and other project financing support.
I would encourage AmCham T&T members to reach out to Matt Ciesielski, the economic officer at our embassy, who also sits on your board of directors, to discuss specific obstacles to investment to start the conversation on what Growth in the Americas-related activities might make the most sense in your country.
I would also note that Growth in the Americas works alongside a number of other initiatives we have developed to deepen our engagement with your region. The U.S. Caribbean 2020 strategy, for example, covers a broader arc of issues – security, health, energy, education, prosperity, and diplomacy. And of course there are longer-standing programs that remain vital such as the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, ten years running now with over $600 million in assistance toward reducing crime and trafficking in the Caribbean. As I am sure you know, T&T is the biggest beneficiary of the separate Caribbean Basin Initiative’s trade preferences; more than $5 billion of your products have entered the United States duty free since 2013 under this program.
I am not here today to say don’t do business with China. Our largest companies have global supply chains that include China. I am here to emphasize the partnership between the United States and T&T. That we are your largest trading partner shows the strength of our relationship.
As neighbors and partners, we have a strong interest in the well-being and prosperity of Latin America and the Caribbean. In coordination with democratic partners, we are working to strengthen responsible governance, promote transparency, and ensure respect for human rights. Unfortunately, Chinese State-Owned Enterprises do not abide by these values that we share.
I can assure you the United States has a long-cherished tradition of friendship with the Chinese people. Regrettably, the communist government in China today is not reflective of the people of China.
Among our concerns are the Chinese government’s approach to lending and development, and its motivations. A region hungry for infrastructure investment and short on finances finds Chinese concessional loans attractive, but the opacity of Chinese deals threatens to reverse the region’s hard-won gains for transparency, the rule of law, labor rights, and the environment.
One Trinidad example is the closure of the NAPA (National Academy for the Performing Arts) for more than a year in 2014 due to a litany of construction defects that raised serious health and safety concerns.
As Trinidad seeks to modernize its physical, digital and energy infrastructure, it is important for both the government and private sector companies to stay alert to the dangers of debt diplomacy and a disrespect for transparency and even national sovereignty.
The United States remains committed to the promotion of pro-market economies and open societies, and continues to work with our partners to uphold global best practices. We want to see a prosperous China that transacts business with the rest of the world on a fair set of reciprocal terms and allows its people to flourish.
Venezuela and U.S. Policy
The Maduro regime, according to the Venezuelan constitution, is illegitimate, period. This is not an ad hoc U.S. government policy decision. Venezuela’s 2018 national election was illegitimate and left the presidency vacant. According to the Venezuelan constitution, the next in line is the president of the National Assembly. Yet the illegitimate Maduro regime has refused to abide by its own constitution and Nicolas Maduro has refused to peacefully transfer power.
Instead, the Maduro regime has plundered Venezuela’s wealth for private gain, impoverished its people, caused one of the largest forced displacements in recent history with now over 5 million refugees, and has been a key factor in the instability of the continent and the region. When we look at the growing number of refugees in South America and the Caribbean – including in Trinidad and Tobago– it is the Maduro regime and its continued persecution of its people and gutting of its institutions that are to blame.
As important as it is to work together to assist these vulnerable people, we must also work together to help them achieve their aspirations to return to a Venezuela that’s democratic, prosperous, and safe.
Our goal in Venezuela is clear: the return of the National Assembly; a New Council of State that will serve as the executive branch; a new cabinet; and new presidential and national assembly elections under conditions recognized internationally as free and fair, and a gradual lifting of sanctions so that the new government will be allowed to function. Until that time, however, our sanctions remain in place, and I know the Trinbagonian business community is concerned about the reputational risk caused by sanctions.
The purpose of our sanctions is to identify those entities that are providing material support to the illegitimate Maduro regime. It is critical that the Trinbagonian business community track and comply with U.S. sanctions to the full extent possible.
I wanted to close with a note on COVID-19. A year ago none of us could have predicted the stress and dislocations of the pandemic. Now we are turning to focus, in coordination with our partners, on how to restart our economies.
I have been impressed with how Trinidad has been managing the crisis, balancing public health and economic concerns, and has become a leader in the Caribbean and indeed the world for its phased re-opening of the economy.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. government has committed more than $1 billion in emergency health, humanitarian, economic, and development assistance aimed at helping governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations fight the pandemic. This includes nearly $112 million for the Western Hemisphere and over $21 million for the Caribbean.
In addition to this direct funding from the U.S. Government, our All-of-America approach is helping people around the world through the generosity of American private businesses, non-profit groups, charitable organizations, faith-based organizations, and individuals, who have now provided more than $11 billion in donations and assistance globally, more than any other nation.
Some things will change in the wake of this crisis. Countries large and small are taking a close look at their supply chains. Complex “Just in Time” global supply chains have revealed their fragility, especially when it comes to certain kinds of medical goods.
The United States government is certainly looking carefully at these issues, and so is the U.S. private sector. Some companies may ultimately seek to “near shore” or “on shore” more facilities, but it is too soon to say what changes we will see. Some such supply chain adjustments may be to the benefit of our regional neighbors poised, through efforts to foster business and investment, to seize the initiative.
It is precisely in such challenging times when we must hold on most tightly to our core shared values of responsible governance, transparency, and respect for democracy and human rights. These are the shared values that will enable us to restore and expand prosperity.
And we will promote these values in a variety of fora, including discussions such as this one today.
Seeking out private sector input and policy recommendations is something the United States government takes very seriously. This is why the United States supported the creation of the Americas Business Dialogue (ABD) following the 2012 Summit of the Americas in Colombia. The ABD coordinates private sector perspectives across the region to inform regional policy dialogues, including at the the highest-level. This input along with input from civil society help keep the Summit process focused on practical solutions.
In 2021, the United States will host the Summit of the Americas, just as T&T did in 2009. I assure you as host we will work hard to take private sector perspectives into account as we lead the Summit of the Americas process.
Thank you. And I now look forward to your questions.