“This first is a law that President Obama signed just before leaving office, called the U.S.–Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act which I authored with my, with my good friend from here in Miami, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.
“Let me say that as the former Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Ileana has a long list of accomplishments in her career, although I am certain that she would say being alumni of FIU is at the top of her list.
“Our legislation requires the Secretary of State, working with the Administrator of USAID—the U.S. Agency for International Development—to come up with a multi-year strategy for engagement with the Caribbean and send that plan to Congress. Here’s what we want the plan to focus on: improving energy security, strengthening the rule of law, reducing drug trafficking, and enhancing economic cooperation.
“We also need to look inward as we work toward the best policy. An estimated three and a half million immigrants from the Caribbean live in the United States. They account for nine percent of the total foreign-born population here. Six million people self-identify as members of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States.
“Many of these men and women and families are my constituents. Nearly a third of Caribbean immigrants live in New York and particularly in Bronx, where I’m from, and Kings Counties which is Brooklyn. And I know there are many Caribbean-Americans who would be happy to help the countries of their heritage take their rightful place in the 21st century.
“We’re, welcoming in this country. That’s why I continue to favor immigration.
“So what kind of people come here as immigrants? Lazy people stay home. People who come here are industrious. They are bettering our country.
“My grandparents came to this country as immigrants over a hundred years ago. Today, people are coming for the same reasons that my grandparents came.
“They want a better life for their families and a better life themselves and again, they deserve that. They help our country –not hurt it.
“We shouldn’t be scared of immigration. We certainly have to make sure that we don’t let everybody come. We have to have a system, but we shouldn’t discourage people from coming. Because, what makes our country stand out from some of the other countries is immigration and immigrants.
“This group has so much to offer, and we would be foolish not to take advantage of this base of expertise. That is why I will push the State Department and USAID to consult with the Caribbean-American diaspora as they develop this new strategy.
“We want to see this community more involved in economic development and citizen security in the Caribbean. We need to tap knowledgeable sources to help bridge the waters separating our countries and advance prosperity throughout the region. After all, according to a World Bank report, 90 percent of the Caribbean diaspora wants to engage more deeply in the region. And that’s a resource that we must take full advantage of.
“Our law also requires the Secretary of State to improve diplomatic engagement with the governments of the Caribbean region, particularly at the Organization of American States—or the OAS—and the United Nations.
“With the political and economic crisis in Venezuela and electoral challenges in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the region, it’s more important than ever that the United States and the Caribbean redouble our efforts to find solutions at multilateral bodies like the Organization of American States.
“Now, increasing our diplomatic engagement in the Caribbean also means being physically present. I have long believed that we do a real disservice to our country by having no physical embassy or diplomatic presence in five of the islands in the Eastern Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. And I am pushing an effort to establish a much-needed U.S. presence on each of these islands.
“It just makes no sense for us to continue to conduct diplomacy on these islands from our embassy in Barbados. They say you cannot conduct diplomacy from a bunker; it’s also true that you cannot conduct diplomacy from hundreds of miles away.
“How do our diplomats get to know the key officials? How can they judge what’s happening on the ground? The answer is that we need to have an embassy or consulate in each country.
“And I am not talking about multimillion dollar embassy compounds. I recognize the need to ensure the United States gets the most bang for our buck in establishing new embassies in the Caribbean.
“Do you know that even Venezuela and Cuba have embassies on each of these five islands, and yet the United States has no presence? To me, that’s deeply troubling. And it’s a missed opportunity.
“I anticipate that as Venezuela’s Petrodollars continue to dry up, our friends in the Caribbean will need us more than ever. And quite frankly, we shouldn’t just be present because Venezuela’s influence is waning. We should be present because the Caribbean matters deeply to the United States.
“And I plan to continue to push the State Department to expand our diplomatic presence in the Eastern Caribbean as soon as possible.
“And finally, I want to turn to another law that I authored which President Obama signed in December: the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act.
“This creates an independent commission to take a fresh look at U.S. drug policy in Latin America and the Caribbean.
“In 2015, opioid deaths in our country exceeded 30,000 for the first time in recent history. Our first duty as government officials confronting this epidemic is to ensure Americans have access to the drug treatment services they need.
“At the same time, we have spent billions and billions of dollars on counter narcotics programs in the Americas in recent decades. So we need to step back and figure out which efforts have worked and which have not, so that we can decide how to focus our spending moving forward.
“As just one example, poppy cultivation in Mexico is on the rise. Poppy, as you know, is being used to produce the heroin that is flooding our streets.
“As we look to support our friends in Mexico in moving away from poppy production and into more viable economic sectors, it would serve the United States well to learn from our multi-year investment in Colombia.
“When it came to coca eradication and alternative development programs over the past 20 years, a lot worked and a lot didn’t work. Let’s figure out what worked and what didn’t work so we can move forward.
“The Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission is set up to ask those questions and find answers.
“These are just a few examples. It’s easy to talk about big-picture strategy in the Americas, but what’s going to make a difference is pinpointing the areas where we need stronger collaboration, finding the weak spots in our relationships and working hard to make them stronger.
“And then rightly, that’s why we turn to institutions like FIU. That’s why the next generation of leadership is so important. That is why I appreciate you coming here to listen.
“So I’m grateful to all of you. I hope you stay involved and engaged, and I hope you see the tremendous potential of the United States’ relationships with our neighbors in the Americas.
“So, I thank you all for your focus and your interest. And I’m looking forward to your questions. Thank you very much.”