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Remarks by the Vice President at a Plenary with Central American Leaders in Guatemala City, Guatemala

March 02, 2015

THE VICE PRESIDENT: President Molina, thank you for once again hosting us all. And to all the Presidents -- I've never been with so many Presidents at one time -- to all the Presidents, including the president of the Inter American Development Bank, President Moreno. He and I have been through this once before in Plan Colombia when he was the ambassador of Colombia to the United States.

And I want to also introduce to you -- I have with me a leading member of Congress, Congressman Meeks, who very much wants to see this plan come to fruition.

It's good to be here again. It's good to be here with folks who are becoming old friends. We've kept you waiting. You probably thought we became too close friends by our discussions in private, but we got a lot done.

We've had -- we've been very hard at work over the last year, and I think it's fair to say we've come a long way. When I was here last June, we came together to craft a response to the surge of immigration on our southern border of the United States of unaccompanied children. We met again then in July in Washington with President Obama. And we reviewed our progress and began to talk about Plan Colombia. I'm not sure which of you brought it up, but simultaneously all three Presidents talked about why can't we do what you did with Colombia to address Central America's interlocking challenges of security, governance, economic development.

And you announced that plan, Alliance for Prosperity, last November. And President Obama and I committed to supporting your efforts. For those who are here in the press, it is a detailed plan. It is a detailed plan put together with the help of the Bank and the Presidents that we think meets the requirements of what has to be done.

That's why we -- the President and I -- requested $1 billion for the 2016 budget from the United States Congress for Central America.

We're here today because our teams, for us to get down to the business of implementing the details of this plan. As that old expression goes, the devil is in the details. That's why I brought with me leading members from the State Department, the Commerce Department, the Justice Department, the Agency for International Development. General Kelly, you're more popular down here than I think anybody is. I don't know I keep talking to the President of Honduras to make sure he doesn't have you move your headquarters to Honduras. (Laughter.) He likes you so much. But the Commander of the United States Southern Command, as well as senior members of the Foreign Affairs Committees in the House and the Senate and representatives.

Look, we're gathered here because we're united in a simple shared belief -- so long as the political will exists, there's no reason why Central America cannot become the next great success story in the Western Hemisphere. It's as simple and basic as that. You can and you should.

Mr. President, you said that we've recognized our responsibilities. We have. And you're recognizing your responsibilities, as well. This is a two-way street. And we, your neighbors, have every reason to help you succeed. Because what happens in Central America, as my colleagues have pointed out, is a matter of intense interest to the United States of America. Six million young people will enter the labor force in Central America in the next 10 years -- 6 million young people will enter the labor force in the next 10 years.

So it's in our self-interest, and I would suggest -- respectfully suggest yours -- to help them find jobs and physical security. Because the people who tend to leave are the people with the most talent. The people who tend to leave are the people who can be the greatest -- make the greatest contributions to a community.

And if we don't do this, all of us will feel the consequences. You know better than I could ever how formidable the challenges can be. But we're here today because this is a moment of genuine opportunity. I can't think of a time when the opportunity has been so great to ensure that your economies no longer stay bogged down while your neighbors surge ahead; to reinforce the rule of law; to roll back corruption; to attract billions, tens of billions of dollars in investment from around the world -- foreign direct investment. I come from a state that, in fact, is the corporate capital of America. More corporations are headquartered there than anyplace else. They want to come here. Corporate America wants to come. The rest of the world wants to come. There's great opportunities in human capital here. But you have to end once and for all the climate of endemic violence and poverty.

That's why I've made it clear to the leaders of the region that if they're ready to take ownership of this plan, we, the United States, and I predict the international community will be ready to make significantly greater investments to help you solve each of the problems that you face.

That's why the Alliance for Prosperity you've put forward is so very important. It recognizes the urgency of the moment. I remember when we talked about Plan Colombia, and the president of the bank will remember, I said, well, what is your plan? Its recommendations, if implemented, will transform the region -- not from the outside, but from the inside. That's how regions get transformed.

Let me be frank, some in my own government and in the U.S. Congress have asked me, "How do we know this isn't just going to be business as usual? How is this any different than anything that's come before?"

Well, the President and I believe that this is the time that it will be different because the effort starts with a demonstration of political will from within the region.

Look, we had a basic choice to make, and we all had to make this choice: Do we continue to just try to mitigate the problems we're talking about? Or do we attempt to solve them? Mitigate or solve? Now is the time to attempt to solve these problems. No amount of foreign money can succeed without it coming from within. This time can be different because you're asking to be measured and held accountable for the progress in implementing your own plan.

In the last year we've been working together, I've seen you take steps to implement reforms. El Salvador passed a law to attract investors by offering more stability and predictability -– through assurances that tax and customs regulations will not change over the time of an investment. That's standard practice everywhere in the world. But now it's standard practice in El Salvador.

Guatemala has removed senior officials suspected of corruption and aiding human trafficking. You're ending business disputes to clear the way for new investment. You're improving Guatemala's power grid, expanding coverage, reducing prices.

The Government of Honduras signed a unique accountability agreement with Transparency International. You should be complimented on that. That's a big deal -- featuring a commitment to share more information with the public about government procurement, including for your security forces.

Again, you're moving in the right direction. That is standard operating procedure for countries that are doing well. You've taken steps to tackle criminal networks responsible for your region's security challenges, at great personal danger to yourselves. It takes a lot of courage, Mr. President.

After a lifetime in government, I understand the wisdom in the words of a famous Guatemalan poet who said, "Every task, whether literary, political, or scientific, should be backed up by action." Every task should be backed up with action.

That's what we're here today to talk about, and we'll talk about it in much more detail tomorrow.

These Presidents have committed to reforms and given themselves deadlines to take concrete steps. We agreed on the actions required of us, the United States -- actions like promoting a better business environment for investors and small business owners; actions in your case like strengthening police and justice reforms; actions to make your government more transparent, increase revenue bases, make your streets safer.

For our part, we pledge to find the resources and expertise to help you in support of those efforts. We focused on areas you've raised in the Alliance for Prosperity -- governance, security. Together, we've reached a window of opportunity that will not stay open for very long.

This is the year that we're going to reach a trade deal that links dozens of nations in the Pacific region closer together. We're ready to help you fully implement your own trade agreements -- with you to help keep Central America up with the rest of the region.

This is time when major private companies will make decisions about where to invest, and so will the United States Congress. This is the moment when opportunities can be made or lost.

I want to talk about the work ahead and how we make the most of the moment.

First, let me start with security, which makes everything else possible. We want to help you stabilize your neighborhoods, take on the transnational criminal networks endangering your people and ours. Some communities in Guatemala and El Salvador are already seeing the benefit of U.S.-funded programs like community policing. Matter of fact, I'm going to a facility after this today to see that.

As I mentioned, and I hope -- I apologize for mentioning it again, I learned in crafting the 1994 crime bill in the United States, when we had -- when violent crime was at an all-time high, that specialized police training and youth centers like Boys Clubs and Girls Clubs can and do reduce crime. I look forward to discussing tomorrow the prospects for holding a regional dialogue this year to forge joint responses to community challenges.

Second, good governance, which is an integral part of security. You can have all the security in the world. Without good governance, your folks don't have much of an opportunity. You know better than I do the work that needs to be done to make the courts, the government, contracting, tax collection come to be perceived as fair and transparent because the truth is they are not perceived that way right now.

Victims of crime need to know that criminals will face justice. Citizens and businesses need to believe that the legal system works for them, ordinary people, not against them. We know strong judicial institutions aren't built overnight. We face similar challenges back home. That's why the work of organizations like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala are so important. One idea I'd like for us to consider tomorrow is asking the United [Nations] to stand up a regional body.

Right now your countries have among the lowest effective tax rates in the entire Western Hemisphere. The only way to collect funds necessary to invest in your future is to do others to do the same, is to take action to collect and manage the revenues and make sure they are managed effectively, efficiently, and transparently so people know where the money is going.

Government money alone won't get the job done. This simply isn't enough to offer. You need private investment to create jobs for your people in the formal sector, with good wages, and secure futures. For that, you need to make a compelling case for companies around the world to invest in Central America and for patriotic Central Americans to invest at home, not abroad. It's awful hard, gentlemen, to convince foreign companies to come and invest when your own companies will not invest. They're investing abroad. In other words, we need the right business climate.

And while there's no formula for success, there are certain common ingredients that everyone knows. There's no mystery in the 21st century what is basically required. Clear rules and regulations, protection for investors, courts that adjudicate disputes fairly, serious efforts to root out corruption, transparency to ensure the international assistance and your own tax dollars are spent accountably and wisely.

Up and down the hemisphere, countries are succeeding by integrating their economies. Canada, the United States, and Mexico now have $1 trillion of trade under NAFTA -- $1 trillion. We're jointly working together.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership promises to unite economies representing 40 percent of the global trade in a new economic community defined by rising standards and lowering barriers. Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Peru are acting with urgency to build a Pacific Alliance around similar principles. It remains far too slow and far too costly to move legal goods through Central America. The Inter American Development Bank estimates that goods move at only 10 miles per hour from one end of this region to the other.

Your place at the geographic crossroads of this hemisphere should be viewed as a remarkable asset and taken advantage of. We want to help you make the most of that. That means reducing tariffs, investing infrastructure, and borders, streamlining customs, partnering with each other and your neighbors on issues like roads and energy.

And we're ready to work with you to get more out of the free trade agreement you have with us, and integrate your economies with each other.

As you take these steps, we in the United States are ready to do our part. That's why in addition to the billion dollar request for Central America, we're working with Congress to significantly increase our assistance to you in this region this year because we need to start showing results now.

At the same time we're streamlining how we can do assistance so it's faster, more flexible, expand what works and revise or eliminate what doesn't work in what we're doing. We don't have it all perfectly down. We have to get it right, as well.

I recently wrote in the pages of The New York Times to make the case to the people of my country for a $1 billion investment in Central America next year. But nothing makes the case more efficiently and effectively than your own actions. Nothing better demonstrates your seriousness, because we -- the Obama administration and our Congress -- believe the question is no longer: What can we do for the hemisphere? It's: What can we do with countries in the hemisphere together?

We all have a role to play. For example, Mexico can help facilitate trade between North and Central America and make the border with Guatemala safer and more efficient. That benefits everyone. International financial institutions can help make it easier to start businesses, help businesses and governments partner together to train workers, help the region lower energy costs, and fully integrate Central America's energy grids eventually to North and South America. It won't be easy, but it's within our wheelhouse, as we say. We can do it. We can get this done. We know because it has been done here in the Americas.

In 1999, I spent more time with this man, the president of the bank, and I was the architect of Plan Colombia for the United States' Senate. Today Colombia is a nation transformed, just as you hope to be 10 to 15 years from now. And the key ingredient in that effort was not U.S. money; it was Colombian political will. It was a series of leaders willing to make significant reforms when it came to security, governance, and human rights. Colombians paid higher taxes. The government cleaned up their courts at great cost. They vetted police forces. They reformed the rules of Congress.

Yes, the United States invested $9 billion over those years in Plan Colombia, but Colombia invested $36 billion. That's what it takes. Think about what it would mean if we get this right. Central America would become the embodiment of this hemisphere's remarkable rise -- not the exception to it, the embodiment of it, a place where success is measured by hard work, not by who you know; where criminals don't escape justice; and citizens are treated fairly and with respect; where 43 million men, women, and children can find dignity, safety and the lives they want in the communities where they grow up, not having to leave.

As the saying goes, if you will it, it's not a dream. This is not a dream. This is eminently possible. And so long as you demonstrate the will to move forward, we will try to get better. We will try to do our job even better. We will stand by your side, and we will help you realize those dreams. And we will benefit as much as you as well. This is in our mutual best interest, and it's totally within our capacity to get it done.

I look forward to tomorrow when we get into more detail, and I thank my colleagues for their indulgence. (Applause.)

Joseph R. Biden, Remarks by the Vice President at a Plenary with Central American Leaders in Guatemala City, Guatemala Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/321741

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