Nicole Stone/Assistant News Director
Members of South Florida’s legislature and an ambassador of the United Nations gathered in the University’s Graham Center to discuss the current state of Latin America on Friday, March 2.
Those in attendance were Senator Marco Rubio, Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Congressman Mario Diaz Balart and Representative Carlos Curbelo, and University President Mark B. Rosenberg.
Rosenberg opened the conference with a statement regarding the University’s pivotal international role in the community.
“Our FIU is the right place to have this conversation on foreign affairs and on Latin America. You all know that geography is our destiny and demography is our destiny, so where better than right here to have this conversation?” said Rosenberg before handing it off to Haley, who began by referring to this year as “the year of the Americas.”
Haley, who had recently returned from a visit to Honduras and Guatemala explained that now is the right time for the United States to improve and strengthen its relationship with the Latin American region.
“You would be so impressed to see the collaboration that’s taking place when it comes to narcotic efforts, anti-gang efforts – all of those things that are working very well,” she said. “A healthy and strong Honduras and Guatemala makes a healthy and strong United States.”
Mention of the corruption of Venezuela’s government was not left out for long, either.
“Both presidents [President Hernández of Honduras and President Morales of Guatemala], in spite of all the pressure that has been on them, have been vocal critics of Maduro and have really worked hard to fight for the rights of the Venezuelan people,” Haley said.
The floor was then handed to Ros-Lehtinen. She welcomed Haley warmly, stating that the University and the FIU community, Ros-Lehtinen’s alma mater for both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees was “pleased as punch” to have her.
“For us here, at FIU, foreign affairs are really domestic issues. This is an audience of people who have first been victimized by the Castro regime, been victimized by the Maduro regime. They understand what it is to lose one’s homeland to authoritarian rule,” Ros-Lehtinen began. “Rather than us being the impressive ones, you in the audience are the ones who are really the ones carrying that torch for us.”
Ros-Lehtinen’s Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), is a bill that proposes cutting off support for Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega until he moves to improve conditions for the people of Nicaragua and restore democracy.
“Our investment and your efforts in these countries are important. We need to build off the successes in the region and use this as a model to spread our ideals in the region. That’s why I introduced the NICA act,” she said.
Ortega, Ros-Lehtinen said, is following the Castro playbook, which according to Ros-Lehtinen, the Obama administration perpetuated and rewarded.
“In my homeland, for 60 years, the Castro regime denied the Cuban people their most fundamental and basic human rights, yet the previous [Obama] administration not only allowed that behavior to continue, it rewarded it by providing concession after concession,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
But that is not the case today under President Donald Trump, she said.
“Thankfully President Trump has taken steps to reverse the damage caused and has made it clear that the United States stands with the people of Cuba and not with the oppressors of Cuba,” Ros-Lehtinen said.
The pressure being placed on Cuba by the Trump administration will not ease until basic human rights of the people of Cuba are restored, Ros-Lehtinen said, and that that same pressure should be placed on Venezuela. The previous administration, according to Ros-Lehtinen, did not employ any of the tools available to them, unlike the Trump administration.
Turning to ambassador Haley, in spanish, Ros-Lehtinen said: “Thank you so much, Ambassador, we are so proud of everything that you [the administration] are doing. Your voice is an important voice for democracy, for strengthening the democratic institutions in the entire hemisphere.”
Rubio spoke next, calling FIU a place of American dreams.
“This forum is what the University provides a voice for, it is a place where thousands of american dreams come true on a regular basis, as the congresswoman said, for people who have made their lives in this country because of the tragedies that have occured in this hemisphere,” said Rubio.
And “The year of the Americas” was not simply rhetoric, he said.
“Beginning early last year, we saw the president take decisive action both on Venezuela and then on Cuba and continues to take decisive action, moving us in the right direction. This is the year of the Americas because we’ve already seen the secretary of state travel to the region and the ambassador of the United Nations travel…” he said. “It’s also an important year in the Americas. It is a year in which there are going to be free and democratic elections in Columbia and Mexico, and a year where there will be fraudulent so-called elections in Venezuela… There’s a lot of good news in the hemisphere and there are some challenges.”
The Latin American region, Rubio said, must continue to choose between embracing freedom, liberty, democracy and partnership with the United States or the continuation of authoritarianism, which according to Rubio, appears either blatantly or behind a mask of democracy.
“Oftentimes, their elections aren’t real. When you have an election where you know how everybody votes, and you can change the outcome if it isnt to your liking, then you hold an election where anybody who can possibly beat you can’t run because they’re in jail. That’s not an election, and it’s important for us to be a clear voice in that regard,” Rubio said.
Balart added that, in the past, Latin America had not received much positive attention.
“When it got attention, it was all the wrong attention. It was, in essence, looking at helping to solidify [Latin America as] anti-democratic enemies of the United States and enemies of freedom. Those days are over in this administration,” said Balart.
The floor was then opened for questions. Miriam de la Peña, who lost her son Mario de la Peña after he was murdered by the Castro regime, was the first to speak.
“22 years ago, Congress urged the President to seek in the international court of justice indictment for the act of what they labelled terrorism by Fidel Castro. Are the years of impunity over?” Peña asked.
The United States took a step back under Obama when the administration tried to “normalize relations” with Cuba, but Trump understands that the lives of the Cuban people cannot be improved with the current Castro regime. And that will change under Trump, she said.
“You have a president that is a friend of the people of Cuba, one that is not going to sit there and try to normalize relations. One that is going to continue to hold accountable those who have tried to suppress the people there in Cubam” Haley said, mentioning that under the attempt to normalize relations, funds going to Cuba were going straight to the regime, not the Cuban people.
Next month, Haley will be visiting Haiti and Columbia to continue developing relationships with Latin America’s countries.