WASHINGTON, DC - House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) appeared before the Council of the Americas today to accept the 2012 Chairman's Award for Leadership in the Americas and lay out his vision for continued U.S. engagement in the Western Hemisphere, declaring “now is not the time to ‘turn the page’ on Plan Colombia” and similar U.S. efforts in the region.

Last year, Speaker Boehner urged President Obama to abandon plans for a slower approach and to instead send pending U.S. Free Trade Agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea to Congress at the same time to help boost American job creation.  The president ultimately did, and in October 2011, all three agreements were passed with strong bipartisan support.  In January, Speaker Boehner led a bipartisan delegation to Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, the top three U.S. export markets in Latin America.

“Free People and Free Markets: A Vision for the Future of the Americas”
Remarks by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH)
Council for the Americas
As Prepared for Delivery
Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It is an honor to address the Council of the Americas, and truly a humbling thing to receive this award. 

As the Council notes, its members 'share a common commitment to economic and social development, open markets, the rule of law, and democracy throughout the Western Hemisphere.'

These are the principles that have shaped the course of many nations in our region, including the United States.  And they are the principles upon which the future of the Americas must rest.

I stand before you today as an admirer of Latin America and a believer in the potential of our hemisphere. 

I’m a believer in the power of free markets and free people, and a student of how both, together, have transformed the nations of the Americas and positioned us for the future. 

The free enterprise system gave my family the opportunity to succeed, and it has done the same for generations of families throughout our hemisphere, when it has been allowed to flourish.

I was, and am, a strong supporter of NAFTA, CAFTA, and our trade agreements with Peru and Chile, which have led to greater prosperity and security throughout our region.  I was, and am, a strong supporter of Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative, which have been instrumental in securing those gains.

I have had the honor of serving as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives now for about a year and a half. 

When my colleagues and I took over the House, we did so with a lengthy agenda focused on jobs and the economy. 

Most of our agenda has now been passed by the House -- and in spite of the challenges of divided government, some of it has been enacted into law. 

I’m pleased to say this includes the free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama that were stalled for years under the previous House majority.

Shortly after I was elected by my colleagues to serve as Speaker-designate for the 112th Congress, in fact, President Obama and I had a conversation about trade.

At the time, the United States had free trade agreements pending with three different nations – South Korea, Colombia, and Panama.

The president and I agreed that enacting these agreements would support job creation in the United States.

The president mentioned the idea of moving ahead on one of them – probably Korea – and depending on how that went, maybe talking about moving one of the others.

I told the president that we needed to move on all of them at once.  I told him he could be confident that the House would move them swiftly.  I urged him to send them all to the Hill at the same time. 

And eventually, to his credit, he did.  In October 2011, the House and Senate overwhelmingly passed all three trade agreements.  And just last month, the president stood with President Santos in Cartagena to announce that the Colombia FTA will formally take effect in May. 

In January, just three months after passage of the agreements, I led a bipartisan delegation to Latin America focused on our  economic and security partnerships in the region.

One of the highlights of the trip was presenting President Santos, and our Ambassador to Colombia, Michael McKinley, with framed 'red-line' copies of the signed Colombia Free Trade agreement.

The emotion I saw from both men when they were presented with this symbolic gift was genuine. 

It spoke volumes about the importance of the agreement for the people of both countries, and the hard work that went into enacting it on both sides.

The impression was reinforced a day later, when, upon learning of our delegation’s visit to Colombia, President Martinelli of Panama made an unscheduled trip from Panama City to join us as guests of President Santos. 

President Martinelli knew we were going to be talking about implementation of the free trade agreements, and he wanted to be there.   

President Martinelli made that impromptu journey across the South Caribbean Sea for the same reason I made my own trip to Latin America: because the friendship and economic partnership among our countries is vital to the future of our region. 

When the Colombia Free Trade Agreement enters into force this month, it will be an important moment for the prosperity of our hemisphere. 

It is equally important that the Panama Free Trade Agreement be fully implemented in the months ahead. 

These trade agreements are a tangible manifestation of how the United States views the region. 

They are a roadmap to an enduring partnership among allies, working together as respected and trusted partners.

And it’s important that we keep the momentum going. 

I'm disappointed the Administration has not moved to build on these achievements by seeking Trade Promotion Authority. 

TPA would help to ensure continued expansion of free trade and open markets, to support job creation here at home and abroad.

Trade, though, is but one vital component of our partnership. 

Without a sustained political commitment to a common vision based on respect, dignity, and opportunity, the main narrative will continue to be the contest for leadership in Latin America and how the U.S. interacts with the competing blocs.

During my journey to Latin America, I saw vibrant nations brimming with the promise of prosperity, security and democracy. 

The nations of the Americas share a hemisphere, but we also share more than that. 

We share a respect for democracy, and an appreciation for the superiority of a free economy. 

We also share an opportunity – a chance to secure freedom, prosperity and security for our people by working together.

Free-market capitalism and representative democracy go hand in hand, and they have worked hand in hand to lift nations out of chaos and into competitiveness. 

I returned from Latin America convinced that our objective should be to make the entire Western Hemisphere a free enterprise zone – free markets, free trade, and free people. 

I had a vision of neighbor countries, each with a distinct identity and unique national character, but with a shared, ironclad commitment to freedom and democracy.

It’s an attainable vision, but challenges exist.  I believe there are three major threats.

The first such threat is Iran, which has made little attempt to disguise its global ambitions, or its interest in gaining a foothold in Latin America that can serve as a base of support for those ambitions. 

The same week our delegation was visiting Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, another foreign leader was conducting a Latin America mission as well.

That leader was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

It was telling that his itinerary included none of the nations we visited, including Brazil – which, to President Rousseff’s great credit, has spurned Iran’s recent advances.

Instead Brazil has opted to pursue a path that demonstrates it seeks a responsible leadership role on the global stage – a role that corresponds with its considerable economic potential and role in the region.

Indeed, while I and the members of our delegation were visiting three of Latin America’s most vibrant democracies, Ahmadinejad was being hosted by nations such as Venezuela and Cuba, whose governments have been linked to state-sponsored terrorism and have isolated themselves internationally.

His trip underscored the designs Iran has for expanding its influence in Latin America, and its eagerness to forge bonds with governments in the Western Hemisphere that have demonstrated a lesser interest in freedom and democracy.

While the influence of Iran and other rogue nations represents the external threat to the prosperity of the Americas, there also continues to be a threat from within.

This is the second challenge I want to identify: the ongoing threat posed by international drug cartels, anti-democratic insurgents, and trans-national criminal organizations that have long sought to destabilize Latin America and its democratic nations’ economies. 

There has been unmistakable progress made in the fight against such lawlessness in Latin America.  I witnessed it first-hand this winter.

In Colombia and Mexico, I saw the aggressive, state-of-the-art methods being employed by national police forces in those nations, often using U.S.-built or supplied technology.  

Support for U.S. engagement in these vital efforts has traditionally been bipartisan, starting with Plan Colombia, implemented under President Bill Clinton and Speaker Denny Hastert, and the Merida Initiative set in motion by President George W. Bush.

For more than a decade, a major focus of the United States has been to partner with countries whose governments struggle to maintain legitimate state authority over significant portions of their territory. 

When our neighbors have faced these situations, we’ve worked with them to develop, adjust, fund and execute the strategies needed to stem the tide.

These initiatives have been largely successful.  But the threat remains.

We know, from years of hard experience, how insurgents, criminal gangs, and terrorist organizations operate when they’re left to their own devices.

They form transactional relationships to leverage resources, and create networks for their own survival – carving out zones that allow freedom of movement and operation outside the government’s control.

We know such organizations can still spread rapidly in Latin America if left unchecked, partly because of the region’s unique characteristics.

The geographical proximity and close cultural connections among the countries, the uneven strengths of the central governments, and other factors lend themselves to a 'spillover effect' in Latin America when such bad actors are given an opening to exploit.

We have to continue to deny them such an opening. 

We have an unavoidable responsibility to anticipate this threat and to understand the potential for it to grow as a regional problem in Latin America – one that threatens the smaller countries in the region in particular.

That leads me to the third and most serious challenge, which is the one we don’t talk about: the question mark that exists in many of the region’s capitals regarding the future of the U.S. commitment.

There are voices in both American political parties calling for the United States to adopt a new posture of isolation and reduce our level of engagement in Latin America, arguing for a halt in aid to nations such as Colombia and Mexico. 

The head of the AFL-CIO has called on President Obama to shelve the Colombia Free Trade Agreement.

And the Obama Administration itself, even as it has touted the benefits of free trade with Colombia, has spoken of 'turning the page' from Plan Colombia.

The threat of U.S. disengagement is the most serious of the three threats I have identified because if it occurs, the other two threats will multiply exponentially. 

This in turn will wipe out economic opportunities -- not just for the United States, but for all the nations of our hemisphere. 

The vision I have described – a community of nations, committed to free people and free markets – will be in peril.

The best defense against an expansion of Iranian influence in Latin America – and against the destructive aspirations of international criminals in the region – is for the United States to double down on a policy of direct engagement.

The economic potential of Latin America will never be reached if the forces of lawlessness in the region sense that the United States is no longer engaged and committed to their eradication. 

For 12 years, Plan Colombia has been the vanguard – the manifestation of the U.S. commitment to a secure, free and prosperous region.

We learned important lessons with it. 

We learned that ongoing challenges to the sovereignty of the state were the foundational problem in Colombia. 

And we learned the solution required strengthening the state’s control of legitimate force, and undercutting the adversaries’ ability to use force.

We didn’t do everything perfectly with Plan Colombia. 

But one point of which we should all be very proud is the special emphasis we placed on training the trainers, which gave our Colombian neighbors the ability to take the lead in providing for their own security.

Colombia still has the second largest insurgency in the world, and we need to take seriously the threat it still poses to the people of Colombia and to the region.

At the same time, there is shared consensus that Colombia has developed training capacity that can be appropriately shared with other like-minded nations in the region.

Rather than drawing down our engagement, the United States should continue to support security assistance and training assistance for Colombia – for continued internal activities, for regional activities, and abroad.

Now is not the time to 'turn the page' on Plan Colombia.  We need to renew the commitment, and write the next chapter. 

There must be no turning of the page until we have worked together to break the back of the threat once and for all.

In both Colombia and Mexico, and the entire hemisphere, the U.S. must be clear that we will not disengage in the fight for free markets and free, secure people. 

We must be clear that we will be there, with our friends and partners in the region, committed to fighting and winning the war for a free, stable, and prosperous hemisphere.

We must also be clear about what we expect from all of our neighbors. 

We will insist that every nation honor the rule of law, meet its obligations, and respect international norms. 

That means paying debts to bondholders; honoring legal commitments and the decisions made by international arbiters; and respecting private property. 

Some governments in the region have demonstrated an alarming willingness to drift away from such norms when it suits their objectives. 

When this occurs, it's harmful not only to the people of those countries, but to the potential of all of the Americas.  And it cannot be excused.

In making speeches, one is always admonished to 'know your audience.'

I am saying to all the ears in this room – both domestic and international friends – that I am committed to working to ensure this partnership continues, in terms of both policy and resources.

Let me close with an anecdote. 

Back in January, when our delegation traveled to Casa de Narino, Colombia’s presidential palace, to meet with President Santos, we arrived a bit early. 

Having a few minutes to kill, we strolled around Bolívar Square, which had a giant Christmas tree in the center of it and was teeming with people. 

A little girl – probably two years old – was walking around the square with her mom, carrying a Mickey Mouse doll. 

She dropped the doll as I passed by with my security detail, and I stopped to pick it up for her. 

It was just a simple human reflex. . .dictated by, if nothing else, manners.

The next morning, in the front section of Colombia’s largest newspaper, there’s a color photo of the Speaker of the U.S. House in the middle of Bolivar Square picking up a Mickey Mouse doll for a little girl. 

I didn’t plan that moment, but to me, it was worth a thousand words in describing the relationship we strive for among the neighbor nations of the Western Hemisphere. . .a relationship built on fundamental kindness and respect. 

My steadfast resolve is to build on the success of the recent past so that one day in the near future, fundamental kindness and respect are attitudes that are taken as ‘givens’ in these relationships.

We should strive for the kind of relationship in which we’re never too busy to stop and help a neighbor – especially a younger one, filled with dreams and potential for the future.

Free markets and free people are the key to a secure, prosperous future for all of the Americas. 

It may seem like common sense, but sometimes the most important things are the most obvious ones. 

Such is our relationship with Latin America – a relationship vital to the future of our world. 

I’m grateful for the opportunity to be with you today.  Thank you for listening, and for the honor of this award.