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Engel Remarks on U.S.-Caribbean Relations

Nov 17, 2017
Press Release

– As Delivered –

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, today made the following remarks as he accepted an award from the Institute for Caribbean Studies on outstanding leadership in Congress on U.S.-Caribbean relations:

“I promise I won’t give a long speech.  Thank you all for being here. This really means a great deal to me. It really does and thank you, Claire for everything you and your colleagues do at the Institute of Caribbean Studies. Your work really helps to ensure that policymakers can take full advantage of the vast contributions of the Caribbean-American diaspora community.

“You know, there are some people who want to build walls and fences or shut people out, there are others like myself who realizes the wonderful contributions that immigrants made to this country.

“It’s one of the reasons I think we’re at the top of the heap. Who comes to this country from other countries—not lazy people, people who are industrious, who are bright who are working who bring a sense of work ethic from the old country to the new country.

“And as a result, America flourishes because we have so many ties with so many different countries all around the world, and I’ve certainly seen that with the Caribbean-American diaspora in my district—Bronx and Mount Vernon, New York.

“Lots of people, lots of hardworking, industrious people trying to live the American dream. We talk a lot about the American Dream on the House floor, but people who come and work two jobs and work three jobs and just do everything that this country was supposed to do for them. They don’t want the country doing for them what they want to do for themselves and working with our country.

“So, I think unless somebody was an American Indian or a descendent of them, we’re all immigrants—my grandparents were immigrants 100 years ago—came from Eastern Europe.

“We flourished as a country because of that and it irritates me when certain people in the highest quarters of the government talk disparagingly of immigrants. So, you have my pledge that I will always support an enlightened immigration policy—it doesn’t mean that we will let everybody in, it doesn’t mean that we let bad people in, but there are so many good people who just want the opportunity, the same opportunities that my grandparents wanted.

“And then there are families of those people back in the old countries and we should do everything we can to reunite families. I think it’s an important policy that we ought to have.

“So those are things I’ve always been interested in, and I’m the Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“The way this works is that each party, each political party picks its leader, and then the party that wins the majority—that leader gets to be chair, and the one who is in the minority – that leader gets to be Ranking Member.

“So I’m a Democrat, we’re in the minority.  I am the Ranking Member in the next election, if we get the majority, I will be the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee. I want to tell you that when we were in the majority between 2006 and 2010, I made the Caribbean one of my priorities.

“The Committee was called Western Hemisphere, and when people talk about Western Hemisphere they think of Central America, South America and that kind of thing, and I always said ‘and the Caribbean, and the Caribbean’—it’s very important when we look at our country and countries that are close to us geographically, it’s the Caribbean, we have the diaspora bringing the ties together, it’s the Caribbean.

“So it’s very, very important for all of us in Congress in both parties to remember that and I’m certainly cherishing it.  And I want to also thank you for this wonderful award, which is first of all beautiful, and thank you for offering it to me today.

“I will be out of the country starting tomorrow and that’s why I wasn’t able to come on Saturday to accept the award.  So this is a wonderful thing for me and a great honor for me to accept it here today.

“On the House Foreign Affairs Committee, we’re pulled in a lot of directions, and if you look around the world it’s easy to see why.  There are conflicts and crises popping up all the time all around the world, and it’s rare to find a crisis internationally where the United States has no role to play.

“But, you know, I’ve always believed that members of Congress, as they say, should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  And that means not only paying attention to whatever international news is grabbing headlines, but also focusing on longer term foreign-policy priorities—that’s how I feel about the Caribbean.

“As far as I’m concerned, the U.S.-Caribbean relationship is near the very top of that list. But for far too long in my view, the United States has not given the region the attention it deserves.

“You know, again, when I was Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, I made a point to prioritize our relationship with the Caribbean.

“When I was Chairman-elect at the end of 2006, I led a House delegation to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. It was no accident. I wanted to show early on that I was making the Caribbean a top priority for me as Chairman—and that I wanted to make it a higher priority for American foreign policy in general.

“And since then, I think we’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m hopeful that Congress’s recent attention to the Caribbean will turn the page on our past neglect.

“When President Obama signed into law the legislation that I authored working with Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen—the U.S.-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act—last December, we put ourselves on the path to a much-improved partnership.

“And I was pleased when the State Department and USAID released the Caribbean 2020 strategy mandated by our bill – that was in the bill. It’s an ambitious strategy and a terrific starting point to guide future U.S. engagement with the region.

“Now comes the hard part: we need to work together to ensure our Caribbean 2020 strategy is fully implemented and has the resources that it needs to succeed.

“And it won’t be easy, in my opinion.  

“President Trump and Secretary Tillerson have proposed a short-sighted and draconian 33 percent cut to our international affairs budget. It’s disgraceful and we’re going to fight it every step of the way.

“Let me break down for the Caribbean just to show how bad this could be: In the Trump budget, overall assistance for the Caribbean would decline by 28 percent, assistance to Jamaica would be cut by 90 percent—that’s not 19—that’s nine-zero, 90 percent, aid to Haiti, the poorest nation in the hemisphere, would be reduced by 17 percent, assistance to the Dominican Republic would drop by 51 percent, aid to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean would be cut by 41 percent, and Caribbean Basin Security Initiative funding would drop by 37 percent to $36.2 million.

“These cuts could be devastating and would be devastating. That’s the bad news; the good news is that Congress, not the President, has power of the purse. So hopefully the last say would be Congress.

“Congress considered our 2018 foreign assistance bill in the House in September and, frankly, it was disappointing. The house bill included a significant cut. The Senate bill – believe it or not – is significantly better.

“So we did achieve one victory in the appropriations bill.

“Earlier this year, Representatives Ros-Lehtinen, Clarke, Love and myself led a bipartisan letter to the Appropriations Committee rejecting the 37 percent cut to the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative or CBSI.

“I’m happy to say that we scored a tremendous victory and that CBSI will now be funded in 2018 at the same level it was funded in 2017, which is $57.7 million. That’s a good victory for all of us and we’ll keep fighting for more victories that way.

“It’s an important first step, but we will need to see many more improvements to the President’s international affairs budget if we really want to enhance our engagement with the Caribbean.

“And, that’s where I need your help. The Caribbean-American diaspora can play such a vital role in advocating for resources for the Caribbean and pushing back on the Trump budget cuts.

“Now is the time for action, and none of us can afford to be complacent.

“Let me touch on two other areas where I think the role of the Caribbean-American diaspora community will be especially important.

“The first is ensuring that the Caribbean receives not only the disaster assistance it needs to recover and rebuild after this year’s brutal hurricane season, but also the technical expertise necessary for islands to become much more resilient in the face of future threatening storms.

“I met with the Prime Minister of Dominica recently, and I have also seen images of the damage in Barbuda and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

“What happened on these islands is heartbreaking.

“And unfortunately, with climate change here to stay, we can expect hurricane seasons like this year’s to keep on coming.

“That means the reconstruction of Dominica, Barbuda and the other islands alone will not suffice.  Every island in the Caribbean—even those not affected by hurricanes this year—needs to be better prepared for future storms.  We need to see improved building codes and smarter construction.

“You know I always talk about the earthquake that hit Haiti several years ago. Shortly thereafter there was an earthquake—an even bigger earthquake in Chile.

“And yet the damage in Haiti was so much more devastating than the damage in Chile because most of the buildings in Chile were built up to code, and unfortunately in Haiti that was not the case.  So we have to ensure that reconstruction will see improved building codes and smarter construction.

“The diaspora community in the United States could contribute a great deal as we all work to create a more resilient Caribbean region.

“And finally, let me say that I have become increasingly aware of the challenges Caribbean countries face as U.S. banks de-risk and choose not to do business in the region. We’ve got to put a stop to that. U.S. anti-money laundering and counter-terror finance laws are crucial.

“But we need to make sure that they don’t have unintended consequences. We shouldn’t be leaving Caribbean countries out of legitimate banking systems. We got to make that fight and see it through.

“More and more policymakers are recognizing this problem, so I would welcome proposals from the diaspora community on how best to address this issue.

“Let me close by saying that I believe the U.S.-Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act provides all of us with a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to increase our engagement with the Caribbean.

“As I said before, we are a step forward, we are a step ahead of every other country because we have the diaspora, and that is a natural bond between the United States and the countries of the Caribbean.

“So, we have to increase and keep increasing our engagement in the Caribbean. We must take advantage of this opportunity and turn the strategy into specific, concrete actions with the strong support of groups like ICS who care so deeply about the Caribbean.

“So, I’m going to rely on you, I want to hear as the days and weeks and months and years go by, I want to hear from the diaspora what should we be doing, what should we be pushing, what paths should we be walking down together.

“And I think doing that would be okay. You have my word that I am going to look out for the region and that I’m going to do everything I can to work with you and making sure that our priorities are correct and that we see the priorities through.

“Thank you again for this wonderful honor. It’s really wonderful for me and it’s wonderful that people have realized that some of the things that we’ve been doing. We’re going to keep working together and thank you so much for this great honor.”

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