On Senate Floor, Portman Discusses Bipartisan Trip to Latin America, Highlights Challenges and Opportunities for Cooperation and Development
Also Discusses Need to Support Cuban People
WASHINGTON, DC – Today on the Senate floor, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) recapped the bipartisan Congressional Delegation (CODEL) he participated in last week to four countries across Latin America – Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. Portman, the Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights, and Global Women’s Issues, highlighted the challenges he and his fellow senators discussed with leaders of these four countries, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, unlawful migration, combating corruption and narcotics trafficking. Portman also discussed the areas of opportunity with Latin America, particularly with regard to increasing trade and economic development as a driver of stability for the region. Portman concluded by urging his colleagues to remain engaged with the region, which is vital to U.S. interests.
A transcript of his remarks can be found below and a video can be found here:
“I thank my colleague from Vermont, the President Pro Temp of the United States Senate, and I was able to listen to some of his remarks regarding Cuba. This is a truly historic time in that island country. The demonstrations, I’m told, are as large as they have been since at least 1959. And my hope is that the countries of the Americas, all of whom – I just visited four of them down in Latin America – that believe in democracy, that believe in the ability for people to come together and gather and express their opinions, that believe in strong human rights, would come together and support the Cuban people at this critical point.
“My understanding is there are some opportunities to ensure that Internet access continues among those demonstrating. And my understanding is that there are human rights abuses occurring even now as we talk with regard to those demonstrators. So I appreciate my colleague. He has spent a lot of time trying to take the Cuban relationship, which has been a fraught one, and make it better. And my hope is that what we’re seeing right now on the streets of Havana and elsewhere around that country will lead to a better day for the people of Cuba.
“I did just return from a bipartisan trip to the area. I went with Senators Tim Kaine, John Hoeven, Ben Ray Luján, Mike Crapo, and Chris Coons to Mexico, to Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala. I want to talk a bit about what we learned and a bit about some of the ways forward to help these countries and frankly to help ourselves here in America more by changing some of our policies, not just asking them to change what they do, but changing some things that we do.
“It was an opportunity to show our support for these countries. These are our neighbors in Latin America. All of them are allies. I understand this is the first major congressional delegation trip since the COVID-19 crisis began to abate. And we chose Latin America. They’re our neighbors. They’re at our front door, in effect. And I did find when we were down there that there was a lot of appreciation for the fact that we were showing up and talking about America’s role in the region, and frankly the role of China and even Russia and Iran and other countries, at least in the Venezuela area with regard to Russia, and in Iran and Cuba, has been increasing at a time when sometimes the U.S. presence is not felt as acutely.
“So it’s important for us to be there as a country that is still a beacon of hope and opportunity for those who seek democracy and freedom and human rights. And that’s our role, in my view, is to continue to be that model, but also to provide assistance, more trade, to provide a way for these countries to be able to see more prosperity and peace themselves. And so I thought it was an important trip, an important opportunity to be there.
“We had the opportunity to meet with the presidents of each of these four countries. In fact, none of our meetings with the respective presidents went for less than two hours. These were very honest dialogues. We got into some depth, into the issues. We were able to discuss the COVID-19 crisis. Each president was appreciative of the fact that the American taxpayer has helped to provide some vaccines to these countries. It’s not everything that they want, of course. They still need a lot more vaccines because their vaccination rates are far lower than ours. But each of these countries has suffered in terms of the impact of COVID-19. And each of these countries is eager to get back on their feet, to get their economy working again, to get people back to work, back to school, back to a more normal life, just as we are in this country.
“We also talked about the surge of migration to the United States and the pressure on our northern border, but also here in America in the interior. And what’s happening with regard to more and more migrants surging at the border. We are looking at 170,000, even 180,000 per month now in the months of April, May, June. So we do have to deal with that issue, and many of these countries are sending their young people and others to our borders.
“By the way, the presidents of these countries all said the same thing. They want their people to stay in their country. They want their people to stay there to be part of the future of their country, to be able to help develop the economy and the prosperity that they seek in their democracies.
“So sometimes that, I think, is not understood even by American policymakers who think with all great intentions, we’re opening up more in the sense of providing a magnet, really pulling people to the north. And that treacherous journey north is also something that many of these presidents commented on. Ecuador as an example, you might not think of as one of the countries that sends a lot of migrants to the United States – you think of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. My understanding is they surpassed Honduras last month in the number of migrants they are sending to our border from Ecuador. And they want those people to stay in Ecuador and to be citizens there and to help contribute to that country’s growth.
“Unfortunately, this impact of COVID-19 has made things more difficult in each of these countries, so their economies have been weakened just as ours was weakened. They were hit even harder and they’re being hit even longer, again, with the lack of vaccines. Again, we’re helping them with that. I support that. I think it’s very important. By the way, the Chinese are also selling a lot of vaccines throughout Latin America and trying very hard to influence what’s going on in this part of the world, which is our hemisphere. The United States needs to be there for many reasons, and that is one.
“We also talked about the need for the continued battle against corruption in these countries and throughout Latin America, and to ensure that you do have more transparency and a governing environment that’s driven by the rule of law, so there can be more investment from the United States and more trade between us. In Ecuador, in particular, we talked about the need for a new trade agreement, which I support, which would really help to strengthen our ties with Ecuador at a critical time in their history, but also would be good economically for both countries. Mutual benefit.
“With regard to Colombia, Guatemala, and, of course, Mexico, we have trade agreements. But we talked about how to improve those trade agreements, how they operate, implement on the ground. I’m a former U.S. Trade Representative. I helped negotiate the Colombia trade agreement. I also helped with regard to the CAFTA agreement, which included Guatemala. And those agreements were helpful at the time. They could be even more helpful if they can be improved in certain respects and we talked specifically about that.
“Each president basically said the same thing – they’d prefer trade to aid. They’re not against U.S. assistance, they appreciate it, and we do assist those countries in a number of different ways. But what they really want is the ability to have more commerce, more U.S. investment, more jobs, therefore more economic growth and more opportunities for their young people so they’ll stay in those countries. Continued support from the United States is crucial in all these matters. With regard to COVID, we can supply more personal protective gear, they still need it. Certainly the donations of vaccines has been very helpful.
“When we were in Guatemala, the Biden administration announced they were delivering 1.2 million doses of vaccines, approximately doubling the number of Guatemalans who can now be vaccinated. Now, I will tell you that is still only something like 10 or 12 percent. So it’s still relatively low. But this is a first good step, and we need to try to do more. As was the case here in the United States, once these populations are vaccinated, they’ll be able to get their economy back on its feet.
“Our trip also allowed us to see firsthand the problems associated with the surge of migration that’s been playing out on our southern border for so many months. In many cases, families in Latin America leave their homes for economic opportunities so they can find a better way for their kids and their grandkids in the United States. But while we are impacted here, so are the countries the migrants pass through. And each of them told us. Our allies to the south, we were there with them, are overwhelmed sometimes with providing shelters and services for those who are migrating through their country. Even in the case of Guatemala, having a number of migrants there from Honduras and El Salvador and Ecuador who they were providing shelter to.
“We visited some of these migrant shelters, one in Ecuador and one in Guatemala. We saw some of the very good work that nongovernmental organizations are doing there, including those supported by USAID. They provide housing, counseling, and education to migrant families. We mostly saw young women, and young mothers with young children. And many of these women had been trafficked. In other words, they had been promised the ability to go north, but in effect, their trafficker had put them in a situation where they had been abused. And therefore these shelters are there to try to protect them as much as anything else.
“It was very emotional, their stories were heartbreaking. And again, I would just say that in terms of the role the United States plays here, there are a number of policies we have in place that allow these coyotes, as they call the human smugglers, allow these coyotes to go to a family in a poor country in Latin America and say, ‘Pay me a lot of money’ – say $10,000 - which for a family in a poor part of Honduras is their life savings and their mortgage on their home and probably money they have to borrow – ‘And we’ll take your kids to the United States. And because the United States allows those children to come in as long as they claim asylum, we will commit to you that we can get those kids into the United States. And they’ll go to school and everything will be good and maybe they can bring you up later.’ And the coyotes can say that because of our policies.
“And by the way, it’s not good for many of these children, for many of these women in particular. What happens on that dangerous journey north is something that would break your heart when you hear the stories. Many are assaulted, some are left in the desert. Others are mistreated in other ways. But the point is U.S. policy contributes to this. And I know this is a hard truth and it may be that my colleagues and I can never figure this out, but it seems to me that we should not have an asylum policy that encourages people to come to the north and then to come into the country pending approval of their asylum case, when, in fact, only about 15 percent, that’s one-five, 15 percent of these migrants will ever receive an asylum claim, and yet virtually all of them stay in the United States. In 2019, the last time we had a big surge like this, it was mostly children, unaccompanied minors, virtually none of them have been deported, even though only 15 percent of them, on average, have had a successful claim.
“What does that mean, that means that in the United States, I said earlier, it’s a magnet. We are pulling people north. These countries don’t want to lose their people. Many of these migrants are being mistreated along the way, including children who are placed by U.S. agencies into sponsor families that sometimes mistreat them and we have done studies on this. We’ve done two studies in the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, bipartisan studies, where we’ve concluded that we do not have effective ways to place these children who are, again, brought to the U.S. border and allowed into the United States because of our policies. So I know this is a tough issue and our hearts go out to these migrants. They really do. But we have to have a policy that makes sense and a policy that allows people to come legally to the United States in an orderly way, in a humane way, and not continue this policy that effectively gives the coyote – the human smuggler – a pretty good narrative, pretty credible one that if you pay me, I’ll get you into the interior, into Ohio, where I’m from, or some other state.
“And again, the way our system works, because there’s a backlog of about 1.2 million people for these cases, and because only 15 percent at the end of the day, on average, are going to get the asylum claim approved, these people tend to stay in the community. And I don’t blame them for coming. I really don’t. Every family I’ve talked to along the border when I’ve been there or down there, when I was in these four countries over the last week, they tell me the same thing – they want more opportunity.
“Some truly do have a fear of persecution in their countries and they should be given asylum. And again, that’s about 15 percent. The vast majority, of course, live lives that are lives of poverty. And they want more opportunity and we want to provide that opportunity. This is why there isn’t an issue right now with regard to how does the United States best help in their home countries. We talked about the pull factor, which is U.S. policy. And by the way, when Title 42, which is a provision that’s in place now with regard to adults, to say you can’t come into America because of COVID-19, when Title 42 ends, which will happen at the end of the health care emergency, the administration needs to be prepared for a further surge of individuals coming to America. This time adults. Already for kids, Title 42 has been ended by the Biden administration and, therefore, we’ve seen what’s happened. Already for most families now, Title 42 has been ended, and we’ve seen what happens. We’ve seen these surges, 170,000 – 180,000 people a month.
“When it’s ended for adults, it will be even more difficult. And at a minimum, I would urge the Biden administration to be prepared, as they weren’t last time. You remember the huge influx and the children who were left in Border Patrol detention facilities for far longer than they were legally allowed to be there under U.S. law and living side by side on the floor, on pads, in a time of COVID, without any COVID tests. That was wrong, just as it will be wrong if we don’t prepare for the adults. My view is we should keep Title 42 in place for now. We still do have a COVID issue and the countries to the south have an even larger COVID issue, much more pronounced than ours.
“We should put in place policies to allow people to come legally in higher numbers. I support that. Temporary worker programs, in my view, is something that’s good for both sides right now. We have a work shortage. We also have a need to ensure these people are coming in a legal way, through proper means. But we should also have rules that work, laws that mean something. And people who wait in line for years in these countries to come legally are looking and saying, ‘Why should I wait when my neighbor can just walk up to the border and come to Columbus, Ohio?’
“So I do think there’s an opportunity here, having been down there and talking to these countries, for us to do a better job helping these countries to develop their own economy, to provide opportunities to people in those countries. This avoids the so-called ‘push factor.’ Now getting at the root causes is not going to be easy and it’s not going to be done quickly. And I know many are saying $4 billion that the Biden administration is promising these countries is going to make all the difference. It will start and that’s good.
“But we have to acknowledge that we also need to change the pull side because it’s going to take time, decades in fact, to allow people in these countries to have the economic opportunities close to the kind of economic opportunities they would have in coming across the border. The United States is a country where there still is opportunity for everyone, including these migrants. And that’s a great thing. But we’ve got to be sure there’s also a system that is orderly and legal to allow them to come here in a safe and humane way. So that’s one thing we talked about a lot down there.
“The other thing we talked about a lot, as you can imagine, is the issue of Venezuela. And I mentioned earlier what’s going on in Cuba. Cuba influences Venezuela greatly. The fact that the Maduro regime in Venezuela can survive is because of Cuba, and some other help, by the way, from the Russians and others. But there’s a problem, which is the country is a basket case right now economically, and, therefore, people are leaving. They’re surging out of the country as fast as they can. There are 1.7 million Venezuelan refugees in the country of Colombia. Think about that. And Colombia, to their credit, has said, ‘We’re going to take care of these people.’ They’ve given them temporary protective status. They have given them places to live and shelter, and they’re taking them in as refugees. But also I saw this in Ecuador, where they have hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan refugees. So this is impacting not just Venezuela, but it’s impacting our allies in the region who are required – and again, I commend them for this – to be able to help in this crisis. It’s one reason that we need to be sure that we deal with these issues in Cuba and in Venezuela to try to give people the ability to live in a free and open society and with a democracy because then they will tend to stay home and develop their economy compared to what we’re seeing on the streets of the cities of Cuba today and seeing the misery that we see in Venezuela. We talked about that a lot, as you can imagine.
“Finally, we talked a lot about the illegal narcotics issue because the narcotics trade is devastating these countries, not just because people are using in those countries – which they are, by the way, in increasing numbers – but more because of the transit going through these countries and the corruption that results from the huge amount of money that’s involved in the drug trade. So in a place like Colombia, unfortunately, the cocaine production is up. During COVID, they increased production of cocaine, not decreased, as you might think. And where is this cocaine going? I pushed and pushed on the data here with the U.S. Embassy, with our Colombian counterparts. Roughly 90 percent of this cocaine, they believe, is coming to the United States of America.
“Are we helping these countries? Certainly not by our drug policies. I mentioned the immigration policies earlier. They’re not helping these countries. How about drug policy? If we can’t do a better job of reducing demand in America, it’s hard to see how these countries in Latin America, all of which are affected. The transit through Ecuador is their big issue and the corruption that results. In Mexico, of course, the drug cartels control parts of the Mexican countryside right now. There’s terrible violence in Mexico because of the cartels, because of the drug trade. I was impressed with every president I met with, including President Lopez Obrador, who is doing his best in a very difficult situation. What would be helpful to him to have less, in his case, crystal meth, heroin, and fentanyl demand in the United States because that’s coming to his country and then going up north. But it’s creating huge problems in his country, including, again, higher usage in each of these countries as well. So they’re impacted also by the deadly nature of these drugs.
“Fentanyl, as you know, is killing more people by overdose deaths than any other drug right now. Our overdose deaths in the United States of America are increasing to the point that over the last 12 months from every data point we have, it looks like we had the worst year in the history of our country in terms of overdose deaths. Before the pandemic we were making progress. We were actually reducing use, reducing overdoses, reducing overdose deaths. What we did here was making a difference, roughly $5 billion of additional spending, this chamber approved in the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act. But also another legislation to help the states to be able to provide better prevention, better treatment options, more long-term recovery. We were actually making progress, and then the pandemic hit.
“We’ve got to get back to it, folks. We have to redouble our efforts. We have legislation to do that, Senator Whitehouse and I, called the Comprehensive Addiction Recovery Act 3.0 – the third version of it. We need to be smarter on telehealth options, we need to be smarter on encouraging what works on prevention because that’s good for us as a country. But also again the devastation it is causing in every country I was in, every one of them. They want us to do a better job here so that they won’t have to suffer the consequences there. When I talked to President Duque in Colombia whose commitment to fighting the narco-traffickers and eradicating the coca production is absolutely critical and we appreciate him so much for what he is doing, he had to tell me, ‘The real issue is the demand in your country. Hard for me to solve the problem here.’ And he’s absolutely right.
“So we can, and I think we will, as a Congress begin to refocus on this issue, I hope, post-COVID, and get back to a situation where we’re seeing progress in reducing use, in reducing overdoses, and reducing overdose deaths and, in fact, helping these countries to be able to get back on their feet.
“Finally in terms of trade, not aid, and commerce, it’s a great opportunity for us right now. Certainly China thinks so. They’re investing in these countries. We should be too. We should be looking at these countries not just as neighbors, but as true allies who have been with us on democracy building, on human rights, with us on international issues, with us as vecinos, neighbors that really care about the relationship between our countries. My hope is that our trip, small as it was with just six senators and just a few days in the region, was helpful to ensure those ties are deepened and to establish new ties and to perhaps, with some of the follow-up we’re going to do, encourage more investment and more trade and more commerce with these countries. But also I hope that it was an eye opener for all of us, that we’ve got our role to do here. We need an immigration policy that makes sense, not just for us, but for these countries as well.
“We need to have a policy with regard to drugs where we are doing a better job in reducing the demand side of the equation. Not that we shouldn’t stop on the eradication of crops and interdiction of drugs, that all helps to reduce the issue because the price of the drug will go up if there is less supply. And that is particularly true with fentanyl, which is so inexpensive and so deadly and so powerful, but the most important by far is to allow people to get into treatment, understanding this is a disease, to allow people to have longer-term recovery options, to come up with more effective ways to prevent the use of the drugs in the first place and to ensure that we are working together with our Latin neighbors and with our communities here in this country to do just that.