U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) delivered opening remarks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee nominations hearing for the positions of U.S. Ambassador to Latin America and the Caribbean.
Click here for the video and read the transcript below.
When I hear people talking about [how] we need to care more about the western hemisphere, it reminds [how] they say you also need to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. It’s good for you, it’s good for your health, and you really should be doing it. But we, most of us, never get there. Speaking for myself anyway, I know I need it. So the thing is, it’s not just a good thing to do. It is essential to our national security and to our national economic interest.
Geography matters. This is important for many different reasons. But it’s important because proximity matters. We see it first hand. Look at the migrant crisis we face at the border today. These are all people who come from places where it is not good to live. And at the root of why life is not good in these countries – violence, economic deprivation, whatever – is bad governance and bad decisions made over an extended period of time. This alone is of national interest.
Without forgetting that we [also] have adversaries close to peers that we didn’t have 25 years ago. The United States lived in a unipolar world where we were the only show in town. Now there is at least one unprecedented near-even opponent. The Chinese Communist Party is a challenge to the United States, greater even than the Soviet Union was. Because they are a trade rival, a technological rival, a geopolitical rival, a diplomatic rival and a business rival. And on top of all that, they also pose a military threat to the country as they continue to grow.
And they have an interest in the region. They want to extract minerals and have mineral rights, yes, but they also want leverage. They want to control countries so they can vote with them in international forums and, ultimately, so they can position themselves – either on a rotational basis or permanently – anywhere in the world, militarily, etc. Basically, they would like nothing more than to encircle the United States and get into position in each of the countries, for example, in which you have all been appointed to serve.
But more broadly in the region, they want to be in position one day [in which] no matter who is elected in these countries, [they] do what they want because this country owes them too much money and they own too much in this country to walk away from it. This is the fundamental challenge you all face. And in this context, I think we have to guide our foreign policy. I hope we will have the opportunity to talk about it today….
In Uruguay we have a president who is trying to work with the United States on things like lowering trade barriers. But unfortunately, because we don’t have a strategic approach to this relationship— it’s not a partisan attack, I think you could say that of virtually any administration over the last 30 years, because we don’t have a well thought out and executed strategic approach in the region– you have someone who feels like their only development options are to make a deal with the Chinese Communist Party, to make a deal with the devil in this regard.
In Suriname you have a president who is struggling to manage over 1,000,000,000 in Chinese debt that his predecessor incurred. And we have this administration that’s only focused on climate change, and so they don’t seem interested in helping them develop markets and/or their capabilities because it just happens to be oil and gas .
In El Salvador, we have a very interesting situation. On the one hand, we’ve seen some of the economic chaos, some of the internal political stuff. I’m not a big fan of anything done there. But I also think it’s an important relationship that we manage appropriately. Our charge [d’affaires], I believe, left his post and kind of heralded a strategic pause in his efforts to reach them. As we talk about going over there, Mr. Duncan, [it’s a] very, very difficult situation and I would like to hear your thoughts on the way forward, because I hope that we can always have a pragmatic relationship in El Salvador. We don’t need to applaud or celebrate everything people do that we don’t necessarily think is good. But I also think we have a national interest concern here that needs to be balanced.
In Trinidad and Tobago, the Prime Minister unfortunately continues to be a supporter of the Maduro regime and to sign agreements to join the Communist Party’s Belt and Road Initiative.
Nicaragua is a horrible disaster. I think it’s the second poorest country in the hemisphere. Equally important, it is a country where [dictator Daniel Ortega] arrested each of his political opponents. If you ran for president, you would go to jail. Even Putin doesn’t stop everyone. It has at least one official opposition. Here, it’s quite amazing the direction taken.
What is even more disturbing is that they have now rolled out the red carpet with this open invitation to Chinese and Russian military personnel stationed in the area. I think the Russians have their hands full right now, but you could see a presence there. But the Chinese could one day seize it. If we were to wake up to a world where the Chinese have a military base agreement in our own hemisphere, that would be a very troubling turn in regional affairs and I think that’s a threat we can’t ignore.
In all of these places we face real challenges. I hope we can talk about it today. Again, I am grateful for your willingness to serve. But we have big problems on our hands in this region, and we had better start taking it seriously, otherwise we will wake up in less than a decade living in a world very different from the one we live in now. and from the one we grew up in.