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TRANSCRIPT: Ranking Member Rubio Questions State Department Official and Experts on 2022 Summit of the Americas
Washington, D.C. — U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) questioned witnesses during a Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere hearing on the upcoming Ninth Summit of the Americas, which will be hosted in Los Angeles next month.
A video of Rubio’s questioning can be found here and here and a transcript of the exchange is below.
Kevin O’Reilly, Summit of the Americas National Coordinator
Rebecca Bill Chavez, President and CEO of the Inter-American Dialogue
Eric Farnsworth, Vice President of Americas Society/Council of the Americas
RUBIO: …I wanted to ask you some very specific questions. Have we invited anyone from the Cuban regime to be a part of the summit?
O’REILLY: Pardon me, Senator. That will be a decision for the White House to make.
RUBIO: So we have not yet invited, as far as you would know if we invited someone, we haven’t yet invited anyone [from the Cuban regime] to the summit?
O’REILLY: That would be a White House call, sir.
RUBIO: No, I know it would be their call. I’m asking if it’s already been made.
O’REILLY: Not to my knowledge.
RUBIO: Okay. We recognize Juan Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. That’s correct?
RUBIO: Have we invited him or anyone from the interim government to the summit?
O’REILLY: We’re in constant discussions with them about how to participate and engage in the summit.
RUBIO: Have we invited them to the summit yet?
O’REILLY: We’re in regular discussions with them.
RUBIO: I know you’re in regular discussion…. But I’m asking, have we invited them or not? In those discussions, have we invited them yet? Or we haven’t made that invitation?
O’REILLY: That would be a White House call, sir.
RUBIO: Okay. So the White House hasn’t made that call yet. Correct?
O’REILLY: That will be a White House call, sir.
RUBIO: But have they made that call yet?
O’REILLY: Not to my knowledge, sir.
RUBIO: Why is it so hard to answer these things? These are pretty straightforward questions. I’m not trying to trick you. I just want to know. I get it, the answer is, “The White House has to make that call. They haven’t made that call yet.” I get it. I’m not saying that’s your call to make. I’m just asking the question, because that’s why we have these hearings.
O’REILLY: Of course.
RUBIO: All right. Have we invited representatives of civil society in Cuba, for example, people involved in what happened last July, mostly artists and things of this nature, who simply want to be able to have freedom of expression. Has anybody like that been invited to the summit?
O’REILLY: Yes, sir. We want to have as broad a participation from civil society [as possible] from every country where authoritarians or dictators are seeking to snuff out public debate.
RUBIO: So we have made those invitations.
O’REILLY: Yes, sir.
RUBIO: Okay. Have we invited the Maduro regime or any of its representatives to the summit?
O’REILLY: Absolutely not. We don’t recognize them as a sovereign government.
RUBIO: And have we invited anyone from the Ortega regime to the Summit?
RUBIO: Okay, my question is this. My understanding is that President Obrador in Mexico is, I think, probably the ringleader of this [plan] to boycott the Summit unless [the United States] invite[s] this trifecta of tyranny in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba. Is that influencing the decisions we’re making in regards to who we invite or what we do moving forward?
O’REILLY: We’re certainly having discussions with the government of Mexico and with all the governments in the region about the structuring and organization of the debate. I mean, next week I’ll be in Los Angeles to continue discussions on the agenda that I just discussed. And I know that White House and other senior officials are constantly in dialogue with the Mexicans and with many other governments. The former chairman of this subcommittee, Christopher Dodd, is currently traveling in South America as the president’s special advisor for the summit and has had consultations already with Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and will visit other countries as well.
RUBIO: It’s just, my view on it is — and I’ve seen the public statements that Obrador has made about, “Well, we’re not going to go to the Summit if these guys aren’t invited,” and so forth — my view of it is this: I don’t think the United States of America should, frankly, be bullied or pressured into who to invite to a summit we’re hosting. If [Obrador] doesn’t want to come, he doesn’t come.
In my view, one of the great things about it is, if we have a summit where we don’t invite dictators, and the people who wanted dictators to come decide to boycott it, then we’ll just know who our real friends are in the region and govern ourselves accordingly. I think it’d be a good opportunity to filter out those who are aligned with our views on the direction of the region and those who aren’t.
I want to ask you about Haiti. We’ve invited the current prime minister of Haiti, correct?
O’REILLY: Yes, sir.
RUBIO: Obviously, I don’t want to speculate about what happen[s] between now and that summit, but I have very deep concerns about Haiti, in particular. The prime minister is an interim prime minister. There’s not a lot of clarity there about what happens if, God forbid, he is removed from office via a coup or something far worse. And we’re hoping that doesn’t happen. And I imagine the topic of Haiti, its future, its direction, how it goes from here on out, is something that will be on the summit agenda. Is that something we’re proactively raising?
O’REILLY: We are very much engaged, as part of the broad sweep of our diplomacy in the hemisphere, on just that agenda, sir.
RUBIO: I think you really should highlight that, as far as understanding what we can do, first, to help, along with partners in the region, to get some stability in Haiti. Without stability in Haiti — it has an impact on multiple countries. Even Cuba is now intercepting Haitian migrants, we’re beginning to see that, there’s certainly a large number of Haitian migrants that are now transiting through Central America and presenting themselves at the southern border. The Bahamas has long had to confront these sorts of challenges.
And so I think it’s really important that that be a topic that’s highlighted and focused upon, because I do think there are countries in the region that have a vested interest, beginning with the Dominican Republic that obviously shares Hispaniola with them, but others that have a vested interest in contributing towards some level of governmental stability there and security, so that that can then be built upon to hopefully provide a better [future]. And I just hope that the topic of Haiti is prominently featured on the agenda and it’s something that we really confront.
RUBIO: Ms. Chavez, I’ll start with you…. I guess I want to ask a little bit about your statement about reinvigorating regional organizations like the OAS and using that and others to bolster democracy in the hemisphere. Isn’t part of bolstering democracy, I believe, sort of elevating those countries that are actually following democratic norms?
So how do we address those parts? What institutions beyond the summit can we use to address those challenges? I’ll start with you, Ms. Chavez, because you’ve talked about this. What other institutions and measures can we use at the summit and post-summit to address things like disinformation, the financing of campaigns by criminal groups who have…millions of dollars that they can invest in some of these campaigns? How do we elevate that issue and make it not just the topic of the summit, but [a topic of discussion] after the summit?
CHAVEZ: Thank you for the question. You make an excellent point about democracy in general, that there are cases, [an] increasing number of cases, not just in Latin America, but across the globe, where you have a leader that’s democratically elected. And then we see that leader in a very deliberate manner dismantling democratic institutions [such as] the autonomy of the courts. And we have examples, as you allude to, in our own hemisphere where that’s happening….
I have to express my gratitude for the Upholding the Inter-American Democratic Charter Act, which I think is an important statement about the importance of this charter. But one of the things I think the hemisphere could do a better job of is calling out these deliberate assaults on particular institutions and not wait until there’s this race to the bottom, not wait until it’s just a shell of democracy left. So I think that’s one of the things to look at. Look at these steps that are taken along the way. And we’re seeing this, for example, in El Salvador.
Another big issue in our hemisphere, and we see it in particular in Nicaragua, Cuba, and Venezuela, is violations of human rights. In the case of Venezuela, the UN’s role with its mission to Venezuela, where it actually went in and then reported on crimes against humanity, is another way [to combat authoritarianism]. That is not a hemispheric organization, it’s the United Nations. But I think that is also incredibly important.
As far as disinformation is concerned. I think this is an issue for our own democracy as well. I think, as I’ve said, I think that we need a more holistic strategy…. It’s my understanding that the administration is devoting resources to countering disinformation in the region, whether it be in the lead up to the Colombian elections, whether it be Russian disinformation in Mexico. Because, as you allude to, it is a real problem, again, across the Americas, across the hemisphere.
RUBIO: Mr. Farnsworth,…I’m thinking back to the importance, the symbolic but also practical importance, of who do you invite to a summit? Because a lot of times people hear me talk about, “Don’t invite Cuba.” They say: “Oh, he’s just a guy from Miami, Cuban-American. These guys want us to be stuck in the 1960s. And it’s all about blocking Cuba for political purposes.” There’s a practical implication to it. And I’ll tell you, let me describe it.
In July of last year, you had basically apolitical people, I’m talking about poets and artists and songwriters and things of that nature, that are like, “We’re in Cuba, we want to be able to express ourselves.” And…their expressions are not necessarily things about how government should be structured. They [simply] have complaints about economic performance and opportunity or, “Why do we have to run our songs and their lyrics to a government censor?” So they protest against these sorts of things. The government cracks down brutally, literally pulling children out of their homes and putting them in jail. In fact, the regime in Cuba just criminalized criticism of government officials. Not protest alone, criticism. Just the act of criticizing them can wind you up in jail.
So all this is happening. You’re one of these people. You’re standing up against that. I think for the first time in modern memory, you have a real amount of unity. You know, you have the Latin Grammys talking about this. You have people across the board sort of uniting behind this from the perspective of being against it. And then you read or hear that potentially Cuba, that regime just two weeks removed from criminalizing criticism, less than a year removed from a brutal crackdown at the street level, is going to be invited to the summit.
I don’t know if people fully understand how demoralizing that is…. The regime uses that against its opponents and internally among people that might be thinking, “We’re getting isolated, maybe it’s going to be time for a change once all the old dudes die off or sooner.” …The regime says to them: “You see, the world doesn’t really care. At the end of the day, we have the power they have to work through us. In the end, they’re going to cut a deal with us. And the evidence of it is, they invited us to a summit.”
I would say the same thing about Maduro, and that’s the argument Maduro is using around his inner circle. It’s not that the inner circle in Venezuela thinks Maduro is some great historic figure. It’s that they’re corrupt. They’ve made millions of dollars off that corruption. And right now they’re better off with him there than without him. That may change in the future, but the argument he makes to them is, “I’m the guy that can get this thing right again, I’m the one that America is now beginning to talk to and deal with.”
I would rather have a summit with 15 countries that are [democratic] than with 25 countries, and five or six of them are just blatant anti-democratic regimes. Because then it’s not a summit of democracies. It’s a summit of whoever’s in power in these individual countries. I was hoping you could talk a little bit more about both the symbolic and practical impact it has when you elevate regimes like this to that status.
FARNSWORTH: Thank you, sir. I think your points are very well made and very important…. The Summit of the Americas, from the beginning, from its inception in Miami, has been different. It has been intentionally a meeting of democratically-elected leaders to the point where the hemisphere itself, in Quebec City in 2001, created the expectation that for all future summits only democratically-elected leaders would be included…. That expectation was actually memorialized in the Inter-American Democratic Charter that was signed in Lima, Peru on 9/11. Secretary [Colin] Powell delayed his return to the United States as terrorists were attacking the United States to sign the Inter-American Democratic Charter because it was that important…. That’s the basis of the decision here. It’s not a U.S. determination about political this or that. The hemisphere itself decided that non-democratically elected leaders should not have access to this crown jewel of inter-American relations.
There are other opportunities for discussion. You can have that discussion in the context of other vehicles. But the Summit of the Americas has expressly been reserved for democratically elected leaders. At some level, this really isn’t even a decision for the United States to make, because it was a hemispheric decision…. By the way, that document was signed by no less than Hugo Chávez himself…. There’s a lot of support here, or there was at least at the time.
I think your point about platforming dictators is critically important, particularly now. You’ve had the protest from July in Cuba less than a year ago. You just had the passage of a draconian penal code. To then turn around and invite a representative of the Cuban regime to a democratic summit of other leaders frankly rewards that type of behavior. Your word “demoralizes” is appropriate in this context. It’s also been interesting to me and concerning, frankly, that…some leaders in the region have chosen to make this essentially a cause célèbre issue in terms of their own participation….
I think the OAS has traditionally had some troubles, but I do want to give a shout out to Secretary General Luis Almagro, who I believe is a real champion for democracy and has stood for democracy even when many of his member states have not supported him in that effort. There are other things to say, but the point is, I think you’re definitely on the right track.
RUBIO: …The last question I had is something we haven’t talked a lot about, and it’s not directly related to the summit, but I’d like to get both of your impressions on it, and that is Colombia. I think most of us remember a time, maybe 20, 22, 24 years ago, where there was real concern that Colombia was headed to failed state status…. You had these cartels that basically, in many cases, held the governments there hostage over extradition treaties, bombings, and things that were occurring…. I think one of the great successes of American engagement in the region is our engagement with Colombia to the point where not only did Colombia become a very stable place…, but [it] became a force multiplier.
In essence, what the Colombians learned from us, they’ve been able to take to Honduras and train their forces as an example there on how to combat these irregular groups, and so forth…. I’m always concerned about if ever there was a change in Colombia, and I know they have a presidential election coming up. And they’ll have to make those decisions. A lot of this stuff that we do with them has been institutionalized. So you hope that that will survive political changes no matter what direction they take. But I was hoping to get the input of both of you…. What would happen to our interests, not to mention to the stability of the region, if Colombia were to be lost to a direction that looks more like the instability we’ve seen, or worse, in places like Venezuela? What would that mean for democracy, for security, and for our national interests in the region?
FARNSWORTH: The U.S. relationship with Colombia is strategic at this point. It’s foundational to our ability to advance democratic and security interests throughout the hemisphere, not just in Colombia. And to have that undermined would be, in my personal view, a real setback, not just for U.S. interests, but for democracies in the region. Colombia has also been a huge partner in trying to alleviate the humanitarian crisis that’s right next door, engendered by Chavismo in Venezuela. So if you have that bulwark in some way changed, the humanitarian crisis coming out of Venezuela could, by orders of magnitude, get even worse.
But I do think Colombia is a target. Colombia has been a target for a long time, and it’s definitely a target now in terms of interests that are not aligned with the United States or are not aligned with democracy in the hemisphere. Because if you can get a country like Colombia to change path and to pursue an anti-democratic path — And let me hasten to say, I’m not suggesting that what’s going to come out of the elections will be anti-democratic. Who knows what’s going to come out of the elections? I’m simply talking theoretically here. But this is a critically important country, and it’s important for the Colombian people themselves, first and foremost, but it’s [also] a strategic partner of the United States. And were that direction to shift, then I do think you would have a real setback for the United States, but also for other countries that have clearly depended on that force multiplier impact that you so clearly discussed. The other issue I would raise is the fight against illegal narcotics, but I think my colleague here would be better in a position to discuss that.
CHAVEZ: Thank you for the question and for pointing out the importance of our bilateral relationship with Colombia. As Eric referenced, during my time at the Pentagon, Colombia was our closest defense partner in the region, I would say. And it was a relationship that was incredibly important to both Colombia [and] the United States. As far as the upcoming election goes, I think it’s too early to say whether or not Colombia will be lost. You know, it’s possible that there will be a president who has a different set of policy priorities, but we do not know whether or not he’s going to act in an undemocratic manner.
And this is just also just a reminder [that] when we’re thinking about the summit, this isn’t a Summit of Friends of the Americas. I think we’re right to be concerned about assaults on democracy. But the fact that a country doesn’t agree with us — I don’t think it is something that we should be weighing in on.
I would say that one of the core issues with Colombia, regardless of who wins this next election, and I say this [as] someone with a DOD background, is that the response to — Colombia has undergone horrific decades of conflict. And the military in Colombia has played a tremendous role. Without the military, the peace accord would not have been possible. But I think, going forward in our relationship with Colombia, we need to be focusing more on the social recovery of the territory, not just the military recovery of the territory. And this is about establishing a state presence in the previously under-governed parts of Colombia. And I think that that is something we can work on now with Colombia, no matter who wins. The military has gone in and secured territory, but now we need the other Colombian institutions to go in and establish a presence, show people and show the Colombians that they’re there to stay. I think that is the only answer to the long-term conflict and instability in Colombia.
RUBIO: As a point of clarification, by no means do I think that we should be excluding countries from the Summit of the Americas because they don’t agree with us. If you didn’t vote with us at the U.N on whatever issue, we should [not] somehow exclude you from it. The argument I’ve made is, if you’re not a democracy, if you’re an open, unapologetic dictatorship that puts presidential candidates that run against the dictator in jail, I don’t think they should be invited to the Summit of the Americas. But not people that disagree with us. I’m not arguing Mexico shouldn’t be invited, and they certainly disagree with us on a bunch of issues.
And in the case of Colombia, I think what’s happening now…is a case in point for why democracy is so important. So Petro is running, and he’s the leading candidate in some of the polling. And I would venture to guess that we probably aren’t going to agree with him on some issues. But you see his public rhetoric is moderated. I don’t know how he’ll govern. Why is his public rhetoric on some of these issues moderated? Because he’s trying to win an election, trying to get people to vote for him. And his policies will also have to take that into account if he wants to once again be elected, which is the great thing about democracy. And that is that leaders have to measure their policies by what the electorate may or may not reward. And that’s why democracies and democracy are so critical….
As long as there’s a democracy, Colombia is going to be okay. They may elect someone we don’t agree with. We may not like every decision they make. But ultimately, they’ll have to govern themselves by the constraints of an electorate that will punish them and their party. If we don’t have democracy, they can do whatever they want. And oftentimes that’s what starts wars and creates crisis. And that that really is the point that I wanted to drive. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.
CHAVEZ: And can I just say I’m in violent agreement with you and with Eric…on the issue of invitations and participation. I fully understand why Maduro, Ortega, and Díaz-Canel are not invited. Well, I guess we don’t know for sure, but I’m assuming that they’re not invited. And…a reminder that participation is a two-way street when it comes to attendance. Nicaragua has demonstrated that it doesn’t want to be involved in hemispheric discussion. It showed that the day it expelled OAS from its country. So I do agree on the issue of democracy.