- As Delivered –

WASHINGTON—Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, delivered the following remarks on U.S.-Latin American relations at the Inter-American Dialogue’s Leadership for the Americas Awards Gala:

“Thank you very much, María Elena.  Thank you for those kind words.  Michael Shifter, thank you for your leadership in the Inter-American Dialogue.  Carla Hills, Tom Shannon: thanks to both of you for being you.  And I want to thank everyone here this evening.  I always look forward to seeing so many familiar faces at the Dialogue, and I’m grateful for all your work.

“It’s no exaggeration to say that your work is more important than ever before.  When I was first elected Chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee back in 2007, I came to know many of you and I was blown away by the wonderful work and important work that you do.  So thank you for continuing to do it.  Thank you for continuing to focus Congress on some of the things that are just so important.

“One of the legacies of the Obama years will surely be the invigoration of U.S. leadership in the hemisphere.  We knew right away this was a president, a priority for President Obama because I remember traveling with him to his first Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago.

“Shortly into his first term, he laid out a vision of an equal partnership, with simple engagement based on mutual respect, common interests and shared values.  And eight years later, I’m gratified that he and Vice President Biden have pursued that vision with great results.  I hope this continues into the new Administration.

“A few areas of progress are particularly important to me.  In Columbia, steadfast U.S. support has aided negotiations.  My good friend President Santos who is here this evening, deserves the lion’s share of the credit. But, I’m also proud that the United States could play such a supporting role.  I think the relationship between the United States and Colombia through the years has been very important.  I’ve said this to Ambassador Pinzón many times, and I treasure the relationship we have with Colombia.

“In Argentina, President Obama seized on the opportunity of President Macri’s election and has worked vigilantly to breathe new life into our long dormant bilateral relationship. 

“In Central America we are now addressing the root causes of child migration by investing in violence and poverty reduction programs.

“And finally, U.S.-Mexico relations are stronger than ever.  I know we can all agree that when it comes to our neighbors to the south, we must build bridges and not walls.  Otherwise, we risk undoing so much of what we’ve accomplished.

“Not long ago, our relationship was marked by suspicion and mistrust, and we cannot go back to those times.  Fear and divisiveness have no place in our foreign policy.  And I want to tell you, as Ranking Member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I will work tirelessly on both sides of the aisle to keep the United States on the right course when it comes to the Americas.

“And so that brings me to two key areas of unfinished business for the new Administration in Congress.  First, we must prioritize working with our neighbors in the Caribbean.  That is why I introduced legislation calling for a new multi-year strategy of Caribbean engagement and have espoused establishing embassies in the Eastern Caribbean countries where we have none.  Cuba has it.  China has it.  We don’t have it.

“So we need to focus on energy, citizen security, and economic cooperation.  The House passed this bill in June, and I hope the Senate will act and send it to the President’s desk by the end of the year.

“And secondly, I believe the U.S. government needs to reevaluate our drug policy in the Americas.  We need to take an honest look at what’s worked and what’s failed, as we continue—as we consider how to spend our counter-narcotics dollars going forward. With heroin use on the rise in the United States, our children deserve no less than a fair evaluation of our drug policy.

“Now, let me turn to the business at hand.  It’s my honor to present the Inter-American Dialogue’s Distinguished Leadership Award for Social Equity to Dr. Vanessa Van Der Linden for her instrumental role in fighting the Zika virus.

“As of November 2nd, Zika has been found in 73 countries and territories, most of which are in the Western Hemisphere.  We’ve all become familiar with the dangers this disease poses, namely the devastating birth defect that has affected children born to infected mothers.

“Last August, working as a pediatric neurologist in Recife, Brazil, Dr. Van Der Linden noticed a sudden uptick in cases in people getting sick.  While cases typically showed up every couple of months, out of nowhere, she saw dozens of infants with this once-rare condition.

“Dr. van der Linden noted another oddity: a large proportion of these mothers experienced unexplained rashes during their pregnancies, a tell-tale symptom of the Zika virus, which had been circulating in Brazil just months earlier.  She made the connection.  She shared her observation with public health authorities, setting in motion the critical research, response, and prevention that’s helping to combat this virus.

“Without Dr. Van Der Linden’s vigilance and swift action, there is no telling how long it would have taken to discover the link between Zika and the illness. Or, for that matter, if the link would have been discovered at all. This knowledge has allowed countless women around the world to take steps to avoid Zika, have healthy pregnancies, and make informed decisions for their families.

“So we commend Dr. Van Der Linden for her discovery, and also for the remarkable compassion she has shown her patients.  Earlier this year, Nadja Gomes Bezerra, whose daughter Alice was treated by Dr. Van Der Linden, told the Wall Street Journal, and I quote, ‘Many physicians who looked at Alice did not need to know how to take care of this.  Not Dr. Vanessa.  Dr. Vanessa is so special, that she even gave us her cell phone to talk to her whenever you need.’

“Lately, it felt like we’re running a bit short on acts of kindness, on remembering that we need to treat each other with decency, to appreciate our common humanity and our shared struggles.  So hearing these stories, seeing what a difference one person can make in the lives of others, is truly uplifting.  So please everyone, join me in congratulating Dr. Van Der Linden.”