Jimmy Carter photo

Caribbean/Central American Action Remarks at a White House Reception.

April 09, 1980

THE PRESIDENT. Governor Graham and members of the board of trustees of the Caribbean/Central American Action, ladies and gentlemen:

It's a great opportunity for us to be together, and it's a pleasure for me to welcome you here to the White House.

We have before us an exciting and extremely important new enterprise. I know you've spent time today discussing what might be accomplished in the future and some of the elements that comprise the circumstances under which we will be working together, not only among ourselves but with literally thousands of other Americans who share our interest in the Caribbean region, including the islands and the countries of Central America.

Tonight marks what I think will be a significant new effort to forge bonds of friendship between the people of the United States of America and our neighbors to the south. Bob Graham has named this group Caribbean/Central American Action, and the emphasis, as you well know, is on the word "action." This is important to us, because what we do will go far beyond good intentions or even good speeches or public statements. We're looking for results, exemplified by lasting friendships both between nations and between people.

This action group represents a coming together of two concerns: first, our shared concern about the vital importance of the entire Caribbean region—that concern and interest has been growing lately—and secondly, a recognition that the friendship on a people-to-people basis must be the foundation for any progress that we envision taking place.

Let me say just a few words about each one of these aspects of our interest. The United States is one of a large number of nations and peoples who are washed by the waters of the Caribbean. We are a Caribbean nation just as surely as we are an Atlantic nation or a Pacific nation. Geographically, it's not only the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, but it's also other States as well; Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas are Caribbean States.

The cultures of our regions enrich one another—language, shared music, a common interest in sports, a common historical background, a common realization of the opportunities for the future. The ties of blood kinship are very strong, and this can be a basis on which we predicate future progress. Members of the same immediate family share citizenship and residence here in our country and citizenship and residence in every other one of the nations in the Caribbean region.

We recognize the extreme strategic importance of the region. This is not of importance only to the United States, but every one of the nations in whom we are interested also must share that common strategic interest and importance. Our security is related one to another.

The waters of the Caribbean touch more than 20 independent nations and more than a half-dozen dependencies. And as you know, the formation of new nations has been an almost explosive and a very exciting event in the last few years, and in the next few years as well. Except for us and Venezuela, Mexico, and Colombia, the other nations are relatively small, but each one is important in its own right.

The economies of this area are quite vulnerable to international or global price structures and actions taken on a multinational basis outside the region. Many of these countries are heavily dependent on one or two or very few commodities. And when the prices for their products are set outside the borders of their own country, there is a tendency to blame all domestic problems on outside forces. This causes people to want to lash out or to distrust outsiders. It creates instability, and it also makes possible the intrusion of alien forces into a country who do not have the best interests of the people as a prime consideration.

The exploitation of dissatisfaction and the desire for change is a recognized fact. These factors have created an open avenue for Cuban adventurism—a Cuba supported by and encouraged by, financed by the Soviet Union. We tend to misunderstand the threat of Cuba. Certainly they contribute to violence and instability in the Caribbean region, but the real threat of Cuba is that they claim to offer a model to be emulated by people who are dissatisfied with their own lot or who are struggling to change things for the better. Cuba's promise, as you well know, is an empty one, just as Cuba's claimed independence is a myth. The inability of Cuban leaders to breathe one critical word of Soviet imperialism, even refraining from criticizing the Soviets' actual invasion of Afghanistan, shows a total absence of independence on the part of Cuba.

As you know, the Soviets prop up Cuba's bankrupt economy with an infusion of several millions of dollars every day. Moreover, Cuba is the only nation on Earth, I believe, that is more dependent on one major commodity now than it was 20 years ago. The stagnation there is debilitating indeed. And we see the hunger of many people on that island to escape political deprivation of freedom and also economic adversity. Our heart goes out to the almost 10,000 freedom-loving Cubans who entered a temporarily opened gate at the Peruvian Embassy just within this week.

We have a concern, yes, about Cuba's threatening role in the Caribbean, but our overriding interest is not to respond to threats of this kind. Our overriding interest must be the well-being, the unselfish relationship between Americans of all kinds and the people who live in that troubled region, but important region.

They're not the only ones who are troubled. Our country, as you well know, shares the same problems, the same troubles of excessive dependence on outside energy, on excessive inflation rates, on relatively high unemployment rates, on a common desire for security, on a struggle to exemplify in our own lives the principles and ideals which we hold so precious. We're not a big brother setting a perfect example in a perfect society for others who are less fortunate than we. We share with our neighbors to the south the same basic problems and also, most importantly, the same basic opportunities.

This is a time when people who suffer under dictatorships of the left and the right want a free voice to express their displeasure and their urging for change, and we are concerned when they're deprived of a right to speak or to act in their own best interest.

Democracy is a vital force in the Caribbean region. We want to encourage that vital force. We've seen tangible evidence in the Caribbean and the South American region of an improvement in the turning toward democracy by many peoples there; in the Dominican Republic, for instance, in the 1978 election-first time in the history of that country when there had been a peaceful change of administration brought about by open and free elections. In Saint Vincent and Saint Kitts/Nevis, the recent elections have also demonstrated that democracy works. In some, there've been temporary setbacks—in Suriname and in Grenada, for instance—but we hope that that interruption will be temporary.

I'd like to say that Central America, as contrasted with the Caribbean, is going through an even more turbulent time right now, when political polarization increases. The advocates of peaceful and democratic change become the targets of both extremes from the right and the left. This is happening in El Salvador. We're deeply concerned about occurrences there. It could happen other places. The Government of El Salvador is struggling with some very significant reforms in land ownership—one of the most sweeping land reform efforts that I have ever witnessed. And of course we know that this is an effort that both extremes of the right and left would like to see fail.

The challenge to us is to refrain from unwarranted intervention in the internal affairs of any other country, but in a completely proper and open way to help those who want to improve their own lifestyle, their own freedom, and their own economic well-being.

We ourselves are undergoing very rapid change. We're trying to reverse our dependence on imported oil. We are one of the players on the international scene, along with other countries. We're seeking to alter our ideas and develop better relationships with countries in the developing world. Throughout my own Presidency, we have increased our interest in democratic principles, human rights, and the individuality and the recognition of the importance of each particular country in this troubled region.

Since I was inaugurated, we have more than doubled aid to the Caribbean region. When the Congress completes action on the present aid program, which I think will pass, we will have nearly quadrupled our aid to Central America. And as you all know, this is a time of extraordinary budgetary restraint.

In addition to these bilateral efforts, we have encouraged the formation and worked very closely with 30 other nations and 15 international institutions to provide additional economic help for the Caribbean region—working with the World Bank and others. Multilateral assistance has increased fourfold between 1976 and 1980, from $110 million to more than $400 million in that brief period of time.

In short, we have put a high priority on a better aid program for the Caribbean • region and for Central America. Our values and our concerns require that we play an active role in this region. We've done a lot as a government. I need not go down any more details, but I would like to say that the relationship between our countries is shaped very slightly by actual, tangible, definite government action.

In many nations of the south, the "U.S. Government" itself is at least partially suspect—likely without good reason, on occasion with reason. And that's what makes it so important for us to expand what the Government can do in a limited way at the Federal level and encompass other elements of American life who can act more definitively and more effectively to magnify the beneficial influence of our great country among the nations and the peoples in the Caribbean region.

The talent, the scientific knowledge, the educational ability, the wealth, the technology of our country is not focused in the Federal Government. It's focused in farmers and workers and businesses and universities, in local governments; it's focused in churches; it's focused among civic groups who have a benevolent character. This is where the real strength of our country lies, and this is an opportunity for tapping the treasure of what the United States is to reach the goals that you are defining in this new entity. That's why we're here today.

I might say that we don't want to supplant the outstanding groups already devoted to similar purposes. We are not going to create a new bureaucracy. We're going to try to coordinate, as best we can, those groups already doing such a wonderful job, build on them, and bring in other thousands of Americans to help us with this common purpose. We're interested in dignity, development, and democracy.

Dignity, to be derived in the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands of our neighbors who know for a fact, because we are sincere, that we value them, that we want them to have a better life, that we want them to trust us with good reason, not because we have any selfish intent to exploit them as a customer or even as a political ally, but because we know for certain that they and we share common opportunities and common purposes.

Development, not in the form of huge projects perhaps, but community-type interrelationships that can be derived only with a clear understanding of their opportunities and their needs—here again, there is no way to separate the mutuality of benefit to be derived.

And democracy, not trying to foist on others an exact replica of our own government, but to demonstrate by how we act and what we do that our way of life, based on freedom, based on the value of the individual, is worthy of free adoption by others through their own exercise of their own judgment.

Many of you have spent a good part of the day discussing these issues; I know that. But we ought not to forget that everyone here ought to be the core of an enlarging group to encourage diversity of ideas and actions. Each one of you can very quickly think of 10 different organizations or 100 different people that might very well be interested in a particular aspect of people-to-people relationships that would build on friendship, or a business or other relationship that would give us mutually a better life. And I hope that the universities and the churches and the professional groups and others will search diligently for new opportunities for the future.

I happen to be particularly interested in the Friendship Force, because Rosalynn and I organized it while I was Governor of Georgia. We had a sister state in Latin America, and we would send back and forth every year two or three hundred Georgians to live in private homes, and that same state would send two or three hundred of their people to live in the private homes in Georgia. It never got a nickel of any government money, and it provided an exciting new dimension of knowledge of one another. And we've tried to bring that now to the Federal level.

Obviously, there are many other ideas that can be built upon or created. The Partners of the Americas have tremendous experience that can permeate this entire organization, all aspects of what we do, for the better. And of course, the Sister Cities program is another that can be expanded rapidly to encompass the people who live in the Caribbean region. A mission on agriculture is now underway, with Dr. E. T. York heading it up. And I hope that all these groups and many others will make a beneficial impact among our people and to the south.

The last point I want to make is this: We ought always to remember and let our thoughts and our actions exemplify the fact that the benefits to be derived are reciprocal. We're not embarking on this effort to do other people a favor as a handout from a more rich and more powerful neighbor. We should remember that this is a two-way street or a three-way street. We could get many people involved in these kinds of programs. It's a mutual exchange. If we are to speak to others, then we must be equally eager to listen. If we are to teach, we must be equally eager to learn. And if we are to deliver, then we must also be willing to receive, which may perhaps be the most difficult of all.

I've written every one of the heads of state in this region. I've met with several groups here at the White House and over in the Cabinet Room. The response has been very enthusiastic. I think the Caribbean, including us and other nations, are ready for accomplishment of these goals. We want to reach out and make sure that we don't fail.

This is a time when we can let this effort exemplify the finest aspects of American life. And if and when our effort is successful, then it can serve as a pattern, modified considerably or slightly, for the beneficial extension of American hands of warmth and hearts of friendship to other people throughout the world. It's kind of a test case. With your leadership and your support, with full participation by me when you request and the entire administration here, I have no doubt that we will succeed.

This is not a government program; it is your program. And I hope that each one of you will feel equally as responsible for leadership and for inspiration and for innovation as I myself feel or as your leader, Bob Graham, feels. There is no limit to what we can achieve together, and I stand ready and eager to help in any way possible.

Thank you very much.

GOVERNOR GRAHAM. Mr. President, those words captured the spirit of the challenge that is before us. This is a classic example of an idea and time meeting at the present moment. The enthusiasm which has been demonstrated by the trustees, the citizens, those who have indicated a desire to support this effort today, is illustrative of that American spirit that we hope to capture and mobilize and direct towards the common good of the peoples of this great section of our planet.

We are going to be looking to the men and women who are here today and many others to provide the tangible and the intangible resources that will make this project successful. We have talked previously with some of you about the kinds of concerns that we have and the needs that we have. We hope that you will be attentive and generous in your response.

Note: The President spoke at 6:04 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.

Governor Bob Graham of Florida is chairman of Caribbean/Central American Action.

Jimmy Carter, Caribbean/Central American Action Remarks at a White House Reception. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/250551

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