USA

Briefing With Western Hemisphere Affairs Assistant Secretary Brian A. Nichols On the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Colombia and Ecuador

October 18, 2021

MR PRICE:  Thanks very much, and thanks, everyone, for joining us today.  We’re happy to have you for this call previewing the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Colombia and Ecuador.  We announced that on Friday, and we depart bright and early tomorrow morning.  Just a reminder, this call is on the record but embargoed until the call is completed.  And we’ll, of course, focus on answering questions related to the trip.  As we always do, we’ll post a transcript after the fact on state.gov.

It’s all too infrequent that I can say this, but it’s my pleasure to have our newly confirmed assistant secretary on the line with us, our Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Ambassador Brian Nichols.  He’ll offer some opening remarks, and then we’ll take your questions.

With that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Nichols to begin.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  Good afternoon.  Thanks, Ned.  Thank you all for joining us today as we preview the Secretary’s upcoming travel to Quito and Bogotá.

Tomorrow, Secretary of State Blinken will lead a U.S. delegation first to Quito, then to Bogotá.  I will accompany the Secretary on his trip, along with Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Todd Robinson, State Department Spokesman Ned Price, and National Security Council Senior Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez.

Before talking about the priorities for this trip, I want to share why we are visiting Ecuador and Colombia.  The United States and Ecuador share a rich history of partnership and cooperation that spans almost 200 years when we appointed the first U.S. consul to Guayaquil, Ecaudor.  We’re quickly approaching our bicentennial celebration with Colombia as well, and share mutual interests in economic prosperity, democratic governance, regional security, environmental sustainability, and academic exchanges with both countries.

The United States supports the Government of Ecuador’s determination to strengthen democratic institutions, counter transnational organized crime, and increase economic prosperity while respecting the rights of the people of Ecuador.

With respect to Colombia, the United States first established diplomatic relations in 1822 following Colombia’s independence from Spain.  As one of the oldest democracies in Latin America, Colombia shares our commitment to promoting security, prosperity, and democratic governance across the Western Hemisphere.

In Quito, the Secretary will meet with President Guillermo Lasso and Foreign Minister Mauricio Montalvo, crucial partners and a strong example of the benefits democratic governance can provide its people.

The Secretary will also deliver his first remarks on the importance of democracy through which he will showcase how inclusive and responsive democratic institutions fend off corruption and implement economic policies that emphasize inclusive growth and environmental protection.

The Secretary will end his visit to Quito by participating in a business event highlighting opportunities for collaboration with small and medium-sized businesses, which are the engine of job creation and sustainable economic growth.

In Bogotá, the Secretary will meet with President Ivan Duque and Vice President and Foreign Minister Marta Lucía Ramírez to highlight our shared priorities, including advocating for strong democratic governments throughout the region, supporting sustainable peace and reconciliation, and addressing irregular migration.

While in Colombia, the Secretary will lead a migration ministerial co-hosted with Colombia to address irregular migration with our regional partners to support safe, orderly, and humane migration policy.  Additionally, the Secretary will open the U.S.-Colombia High-Level Dialogue, participate in a conversation on human rights with Colombian youth leaders and civic activists, and attend an event highlighting Colombia’s diverse ecosystems and market-based solutions to reduce deforestation and address the climate crisis.

The Secretary’s visit to both Colombia and Ecuador sends a clear signal that we support vibrant, inclusive democracies that respect the rights of their citizens.  We look forward to discussions with our Ecuadorian and Colombian counterparts during this trip to meet today’s challenges.

With that, I’m happy to take your questions.

MR PRICE:  Great, thanks very much.  Operator, do you mind repeating the instructions to ask a question?

OPERATOR:  Of course.  And ladies and gentlemen, if you do wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone.  You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing 1-0 again.  If using a speakerphone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers.  And once again, if you have a question, please press 1 then 0.

MR PRICE:  Great.  We’ll start with Tracy Wilkinson, please.

QUESTION:  I have nothing to add.  (Laughter).  Okay.

OPERATOR:  Tracy, your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Oh, hello.  Yes, thank – oh, thank you, hi, yes.  I wondered how much the need to counter China and China’s influence in Latin America is forming a part of this conversation – of these trips and your dialogue with Lasso and Duque.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  Thanks very much.  The focus here is on our shared democratic goals, vision, and priorities and how we can support those efforts in our partner countries like Colombia and Ecuador, but also how we can work together to promote a more democratic hemisphere.  I think when we look at our hemisphere, we are one that has enshrined the values of democracy in our crucial documents – the Inter-American Democratic Charter, for example.  And I’m reminded of that with the passing of Secretary Powell, who led our delegation for the signing of that on September 11th, 2001.  And promoting those shared values really will be the focus of this trip and promoting those shared values to the benefit of our peoples is something that all of us will be working on.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Will Mauldin.

QUESTION:  (Inaudible) much for having this.  I was wondering about the migration ministerial, which countries will be involved, and what Secretary Blinken’s message would be.  We’ve heard in the Central American trip that there’s sort of a right to remain in your country.  Is that the message that the U.S. will be bringing?  And then what he will be asking the other countries to do to stop irregular migration and what sort of leverage the U.S. has on that.  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  Thanks very much.  So we are focusing on both short and long-term goals in this ministerial conversation.  There’s an unprecedented migratory flow through the Western Hemisphere right now, and we’re going to talk about our shared responsibility for humane migration management.  And we’re also going to talk about the long-term needs to address the causes that drive migration in the Americas.

We will look for countries to work to address the situation within their borders in terms of whether or not they are transit countries, whether or not they are countries where migrants have been staying for an extended period of time, and whether or not they can take steps to both protect migrants and ensure that they are not moving in an irregular fashion around the hemisphere.  We’ll look at legal pathways and explore options to create new pathways for labor movement within the region, strengthen law enforcement to deal with human trafficking networks, facilitate returns to countries of most recent residence.  Those are broadly the types of things that we’ll be looking at during the ministerial.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Shaun Tandon.

QUESTION:  Hi, there.  Thanks for doing the call.  Could I ask you about Venezuela in the context of this trip?  In both Ecuador and particularly in Colombia, to what extent are you going to be speaking to the two countries about what’s happening in Venezuela?  Do you think that they could play potentially roles in the future in trying to sort out what’s happening there?  Thanks.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  Well, Colombia in particular, but also Ecuador have a deep interest in promoting a return to democracy in Venezuela.  And we talk about issues of interest with them on a regular basis.  Colombia in particular hosts nearly two million Venezuelan migrants, least – at least 1.8 million.  And Ecuador similarly has a large presence of Venezuelan migrants who have had to depart their home country because of the lack of respect for fundamental freedoms in that country.

So that will certainly be something that we discuss in our bilateral conversations.  And as one of the – Venezuela is one of the countries that has among the worst human rights records in our hemisphere, it’s certainly a topic that is germane to our discussion about what we can do to promote democracy in the Americas.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to the line of Gustau Alegret.

QUESTION:  Thank you for doing this.  I have a couple of questions.  The first one is, Ecuador and Colombia are both countries where drug trafficking are part of the main concerns for the U.S.  And my question is:  Is Secretary Blinken going to announce any new agreement or task force to confront the increase of drug trafficking, particularly in Ecuador?  And the second question is regarding to the agenda of the Secretary Blinken.  The death of Colin Powell is going to change in any way this trip to Latin America?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So I’ll take the second part first.  So I’m not aware of any changes to the agenda for our travels, but the passing of Secretary Powell, as I said in my earlier remarks, is certainly foremost on all of the minds of those who had the pleasure to know him and to work with him, and we mourn his loss deeply.

The issue of transnational organized crime and narcotics trafficking is a key issue in our relationships around the hemisphere, particularly with Colombia and Ecuador.  We have robust cooperation with those countries to address transnational organized crime, and we’ll continue to talk about that as we move forward and look to ways to continue to strengthen democracies in those countries, to support implementation of the peace accords in Colombia, to look at ways that we can provide a stable, productive, licit livelihoods for the peoples of those countries.  And that’s an ongoing conversation that we’ve had with both countries for many years, and this will be yet another opportunity to discuss those issues.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Regina Garcia Cano, please.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  You just mentioned the crisis of Venezuela and democracy.  Over the weekend, as you know, the – President Maduro decided to pull out of negotiations following the extradition of his close ally to the U.S.  Why is the reaction of the department to his decision to pull out of negotiations?  And how will this potentially impact your discussions while you’re in Colombia?

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So we support Venezuela-led negotiations between the Unity Platform and the Maduro regime.  They should lead to the peaceful restoration of the democracy that Venezuelans deserve and the end to the deeply troubling and horrific human rights abuses in that country and alleviation of Venezuela’s dire humanitarian crisis.  By suspending participation in these negotiations, the Maduro regime places its own interests and the interests of perhaps one person over that of the Venezuelan people.  So we’re going to continue to work with our Venezuelan and international partners to provide assistance to help the Venezuelan crisis and support its people.  And we call on our international partners to join us in doing that.

MR PRICE:  We’ll go to Laura Kelly.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for taking my question.  Mr. Assistant Secretary, how will the COVID-19 pandemic be discussed on this trip?  And are you concerned over the risks presented by possible instances of Havana syndrome, given reports that U.S. diplomats have suffered from these anomalous health incidents in Colombia?

AMBASSADOR NICHSOLS:  So let me take the second part first.  The health and welfare of our people is our highest priority, and we will do everything that we can to support them.  The Government of the United States and our partners around the world work closely with us to support the health, safety, and welfare of our people.  And I’m going to leave it at that.  The – so sorry, I forgot the first part of the question.  I apologize.

MR PRICE:   COVID-19.

QUESTION:  Also, I’ll go in another – can you hear me?

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  Yeah.  So COVID-19.  Great.  So we will in our bilateral meetings talk about COVID-19 and our joint response.  We have done a lot to support COVID-19 vaccines and assistance to both Colombia and Ecuador, and we will continue to do that.  We’ve donated six million COVID-19 vaccine doses to the Colombian people, and we are very much focused on the importance of overcoming this pandemic to ensure that countries can rebuild and build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic.  And in addition to vaccines, we’ve provided a wide variety of health and economic infusions to ensure that the people of both Colombia and Ecuador have the opportunity to rebuild from this pandemic.

MR PRICE:   Over to Simon Lewis.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thanks for doing this.  I just wanted to follow up a little bit on the question about sort of democracy, the promotion.  I wonder if there’s anything you can preview on what the Secretary’s going to be saying about the influence of democracy in the region.  Is there sort of a landmark speech on that that we can expect?  What kind of things – what kind of things is he going to be saying?

And then specifically in these two countries, are there messages about these are the dividends of taking the democratic path when, as you sort of said, that’s under threat in a lot of countries in the region?

And then, connected to that, I wonder if there’s a tie-in with the upcoming Summit for Democracy?  Are these two countries going to be part of that?  Will you be discussing tie-ins for that, and do you expect there to be a lot of countries from this region who take part in that event?  Thank you.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So the Secretary will highlight how specifically countries like Ecuador and Colombia have been able to build on their democratic values and commitment to benefit their peoples.  And I don’t want to get into the specifics because I think that’s for the Secretary.  But I will say that if you look in the case of Ecuador, for example, the immediate progress that President Lasso made in delivering COVID-19 vaccinations to the people of his nation in comparison with the administration that preceded him is a concrete example of what a transparent and democratic government can achieve to the benefit of its people.

I should note that I did mention the donation that we did to Colombia for vaccines, but I didn’t mention Ecuador.  So I’ll just note that we provided two million Pfizer doses to Ecuador and over $32 million in pandemic-related assistance to Ecuador, so to make sure that both countries are captured in our assistance number.

When we see – turning back to the focus on democracy, transparency, when we see democratic governments that are committed to the values of rule of law and transparency operating, they deliver real benefits for their people.  And we believe that both of the governments that we will be visiting have shown that commitment and it’s translated into real and concrete benefits for their peoples.

MR PRICE: We’ll take a couple final questions.  Anthony Zurcher.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you for taking this this call.  You talk about South American nations serving as transit countries.  How much of the upcoming migration discussions are going to be specifically about what took place with the recent surge of Haitians that came through South America, what its causes were, and what kind of steps can be taken to prevent that from happening again, or at least to prevent the United States from being apparently caught off guard by the size of the movement?

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So that will be a substantial focus of the conversation.  The two largest migrant flows on the continent are Venezuelans and Haitians at the moment, and we will talk about specific steps that countries can take to mitigate the situation.

And it is a – no two countries are precisely the same, and we’ll be looking at what each of us can do.  It’s a shared responsibility.  It’s not something where we point at Country X and say, “You need to do better.”  We all need to do better to promote safe, humane, regular migration, to deal with the transnational networks that are facilitating this, to ensure that – and to the extent possible in countries where migrants are departing – that they have opportunities and don’t feel the need to migrate.

That’s particularly difficult in a country like Venezuela where the government ignores the basic human needs of its people.  And in the case of Haiti, it’s a country that unfortunately has suffered a series of natural disasters as well as political unrest and high levels of crime.  So working to address those longer-term root causes in all the countries where migrants are moving is something that we will be discussing.

And while this is going to be an important milestone, it’s not going to be – it wasn’t the first.  We’ve discussed some of these issues with key partners in New York on the margins of the UN General Assembly, and there will be continuing discussions with our foreign and international partners for quite some time to come.

MR PRICE:  We’ll take a final question from David Alandete.

QUESTION:  Thanks for doing this.  I wanted to ask you – last week, European Union foreign affairs secretary was here, Josep Borrell.  And he was very – he was defending here the need to actually send a mission of observation to the elections in Venezuela in November.  When we asked him about the U.S. position, he said that he hadn’t heard anything against it.  So I wanted to ask you if you think, given that Maduro pulls out, as we – as you guys were discussing before, from the negotiations in Mexico, if the United States thinks it’s a good idea to still send an observation mission to the elections in November.  Thank you so much.

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So let me plug my favorite book, which is called How to Rig an Election by Nic Cheeseman and Brian Klaas.  And in it, they discuss the fact that things that make elections free and fair often in the modern world occur well before the day that people go to the ballot box to vote.  And I think that a comprehensive look at all of the elements that form an electoral process should be considered.  And while I think it is useful for the European Union to send a delegation to observe what’s going on, but that should be a broad lens that they are looking through.

The preparations and the run-up to a vote, for example, we’ve already seen candidates disqualified and people detained and unable to participate in the process leading up to an election, and limitations and restrictions on – in access to the media, and other challenges for the opposition to compete on a level playing field.  So those factors need to be taken into account, not just what happens on election day when people go to the polls.  So within the context of taking a broad look at the entire situation, I think that’s very valuable.

MR PRICE:  And we’ll take one final question – actual final question this time – from Lara Jakes.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you so much for picking up my question.  I was hitting my dial pad to no avail for a while.  Regarding the stalled political negotiations for Venezuela, Mr. Secretary, are you now saying that the ball is in Maduro’s court for returning to them?  And might the discussions in Ecuador and Colombia touch on how it might be – how Mr. Maduro might be enticed or encouraged to return to these talks, especially at a time that some of the Lima Group states are withdrawing or abstaining from their support for Mr. Guaido?

AMBASSADOR NICHOLS:  So if the Maduro regime is serious about wanting to forge a better future for its people, addressing the humanitarian issues that are on the table now for the round of talks that the regime decided to boycott, the Maduro regime could demonstrate that by returning to the table.  The Unitary Platform is ready to meet with them.  They said – they had that in their – the press conference that they held over the weekend.  And I think that if the Maduro regime were serious about its stated concerns for the Venezuelan people, they would actually sit down with their fellow countrymen and work toward solutions.  And if they make progress in that regard, the United States will welcome it.

MR PRICE:  Thank you very much, Assistant Secretary Nichols.  Thank you very much for everyone who dialed in.  We will have more to say from the region, and we look forward to speaking to you from there.  The embargo is now lifted.  Have a good afternoon, everyone.

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