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Press Conference with Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ); Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL); Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL); Rep. Eliot Engel (N-NY)

Location: Washington, DC

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SEN. MENENDEZ: Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us. I'm joined today -- and will be joined shortly by some other colleagues as well -- by Senator Mel Martinez of Florida, who is the lead co-sponsor with me of the legislation we're about to talk about, the social and economic development fund act. And of course he brings to this issue a wealth of knowledge from his experience as well as a valuable member on an important Senate committee; that will be helpful to us as we try to move this legislation abroad, and we appreciate his input into the legislation as well as his leadership in working with us to -- in making this a bipartisan approach.

I'm incredibly pleased to welcome my dear friend Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, who is the ranking Republican on the House -- what is it called today?

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: We're having affairs these days.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Foreign Affairs.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Okay. So it's the House Foreign Affairs Committee, you know? (Soft laughter.) There was a time it was switched to only -- we could only have international relations, not foreign affairs.

So in any event, it is now the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and she is the ranking Republican of the full committee. And we will shortly be joined by Congressman Eliot Engel, who is the chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee and is the prime sponsor in the House, along with Congressman Dan Burton, who is the ranking Republican of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, who is the prime co-sponsor of that legislation. And we are very pleased to have Congressman Ros-Lehtinen's support as well. So this is a very bipartisan, bicameral approach, and we appreciate the nature of how we're starting off with that.

Let me start off to say that we're here to announce a new and innovative approach to how we invest aid and help develop our neighbor nations in Latin America.

It is a worthy endeavor because our nation is not an island unto itself. In the age of globalization, we are inextricably linked to the rest of the world, and to no people are we more connected than to our neighbors in Latin America.

In fact, in many ways our Latin American policy is as much national policy as it is international policy. We face common issues, we share common economies, and we hold common interests.

This morning millions of Americans drank coffee grown in Colombia, many drove to work in cars manufactured in Mexico, and many may have been listening to Shakira on the radio during their commute. I certainly was. (Soft laughter.)

Our shared culture, our robust trading -- why is that so funny? (Laughter.)

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN (?): It's the visual of the hips -- (laughter) --

SEN. MENENDEZ: I think her music is great.

Our shared culture, our robust trading partnerships and the 44 million Americans with blood ties to Latin American weave a tight bond between the nations of the region.

At the same time, there is a darker side to our close kinship. The drugs that ravage so many American communities are often cultivated in South America, and everyone is aware of issues related to immigration. These are the proof that with our tight bonds, problems can also arise. And many of those problems that affect our communities are born out of the social -- severe social and economic problems in our neighbor nations.

Four of every 10 people in Latin America live below the poverty level. It is the region with the greatest income and wealth disparity in the world. In fact, more than one out of every four people in the region survive on an equivalent of less than $2 a day.

From this extreme poverty, from this extreme gap between the haves and the have-nots, comes instability, not only in those countries but in American communities as well.

From these conditions come the drug trade and immigration issues. And so the challenge we are presented with is how do we partner with our neighbors in Latin America to accentuate the things that enhance our common quality of life and minimize the things that serve to weaken our security and bring instability to our communities.

What is the best approach to serve our common interests? We believe that Latin America is best served -- and consequently we are best served -- when the process of aid, investment and development is cooperative, when multiple sides have something at stake, when the odds for success are better. And that is the goal of our Social Investment and Economic Development Act. We aim to tackle poverty and inequality in Latin America, increase the middle class, and focus on the most important issue in people's everyday lives: education, health care, housing, security and economic development.

The plan will provide over $2.5 billion over the next 10 years, split between the Inter-American Development Bank and USAID. The program calls for matching funds from the IDB and corporate partners that will be invested in development in the region.

The plan includes a buy-in from recipient nations. If they seek to take part, they must put in 10 percent to ensure that they are committed to the program.

The legislation will address the social and economic challenges that threaten the region, through microenterprised development, as well as strengthening the rule of law and supporting initiatives to reduce crime. It will also improve access to financial institutions for the poor and increase workforce competitiveness. And while promoting economic growth, the Social Investment and Economic Development Fund will work to reduce the exclusion of marginalized populations, including people of African descent, indigenous groups, women, rural and urban poor, and people with disabilities.

We want to send a clear message to the hemisphere, just as the European Union did to its future members. We are here to work in partnership to help you.

President Bush as said, quote, "It is in our national interest -- it is in the interest of the United States of America -- to help the people in democracies in our neighborhood succeed." I couldn't agree with him more and I believe that it is in the national interest and national security interest of the United States to pass this legislation. From Baltimore to Boca Raton, New Jersey to Nicaragua, Kansas to Costa Rica, our communities are linked; our interests are shared. And our future is dependent on each other.

With that, let me introduce our -- my key co-sponsor in the United States Senate, Senator Mel Martinez of Florida.

SEN. MARTINEZ: Thank you, Senator Menendez.

I am so pleased to be here today and join with these other colleagues from the House side in this, as Senator Menendez said, bicameral and bipartisan effort. I'm very, very pleased to always have the opportunity to work with Senator Menendez when it comes to issues that relate to our neighbors to the south, Latin America, as well as many other issues, but particularly also in our very close friendship and partnership as we work to endeavor the creation of freedom and democracy where it doesn't exist in that region today.

The senator, I think, very fairly covered the aspects of the bill that I think are so timely and important. I was first awakened to the need for more work in the area of social justice in the region when I was secretary of Housing and Urban Development. As I traveled in the region on behalf of my nation, it became very clear to me that while we had for a long time been greatly concerned about the growth of democracy in the region, we now had achieved a certain point where democracy did exist. And for the most part, the region was enjoying the benefits of a democratic life.

However they were not enjoying the fruits of economic benefits, that we immediately associate with democratic institutions, that would then give rise to economic opportunity. In fact, the region was lagging behind. And also I believe that there was the beginnings, and there have been now more apparent signs of an ideological battle about what -- the future course the region should take.

So it became clear to me that it was necessary for our country to take an approach that really focused on issues of health, education and housing, some of the more fundamental issues that makes a family, makes a community, be successful. And so when the president traveled to the region recently, a few months ago, and emphasized these issues of social justice, when he, as was quoted by Senator Menendez, highlighted to us the strategic and national interest that we share with the region, and the importance of successful people with successful lives who have the opportunity for better health, who have the opportunity to achieve an education, who's going to then improve their lives, to have an opportunity to live in better housing, that these were the core of what the region needed to do.

So I was delighted to join with Senator Menendez and now with the accompanying House members, as well as a number of other senators who are joining in the bill, to come up with a structure, an effort, that would essentially say, we are here to help and we want to help in this very, very key and important area, in this area of social justice.

So I'm delighted that we have put together this package. It will advance freedom and economic prosperity, and I believe at the end of the day it will have a very healthy affect in promoting not only prosperity, but an enhancement of the democratic gains that have been made in the region.

So with that, I want to welcome my good friend, my hermana from Florida, and I'm delighted that Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, ranking member on the Foreign Affairs Committee, is here with us.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: Thank you so much. Thank you, Mel.

I'm just struck with this wonderful bond of friendship and working cooperation that has evolved in our Senators Bob and Mel, and it's so important. They're our voice in the Senate, and they work together on a myriad of issues are of interest to our national security and building stronger bonds of friendship and bonding strong democracies, transparent governments, full accountability on behalf of the leaders in Latin America. That is not just good for Latin America, it's good for the United States, and no leaders understand that better than Bob and Mel. What a delight it is for me when I come to their press conferences to see them working so closely together.

And this Congressman Eliot Engel's bill in the House, along with my good friend, Dan Burton. I'm pleased as the ranking member, as Bob and Mel have mentioned, to be helping them along. Bob has had a long- time interest in this kind of legislation. He was our leader, our point man in his many years in the House, where he was always talking in our committee. Back then we were having relations -- international relations, not Bob and I. (Laughter.) (Inaudible) -- trouble. And Bob was always mentioning Latin America, what about Latin America, what about Latin America. We are such a crisis-driven country. What we're looking at -- obviously, today's war, the next conflict, and we ignore Latin America at our own peril.

Bob was always there in our committee in International Relations saying what about Latin America; let's make sure that we can do all we can to improve trade, enhance economic opportunities, level the playing field for all individuals in those countries. When we have strong democracies, when we have free economies, when we don't have that marginalized society, it is the best interests of those countries, but importantly, it is in our best interest.

So he's been our leader, and now with his great partner, our wonderful U.S. Senator Mel Martinez, they're carrying forth that message that we honed in the House.

We made him what he is. (Laughter.) (Inaudible) -- senator.

And Eliot Engel, Bob, is carrying that torch for you now. He's a great leader on Western Hemisphere issues and all Latin America. And still, as Bob has left the House, Eliot and I and many others are still asking the question, What about Latin America? Here's the answer. Today we have part of the solution, and I'm glad to be a part of that puzzle.

Thank you so much, Bob.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Thank you, Ileana, and we're going to invite you here more often. (Laughter.) Let me -- and I'm glad you cleared up that one point.

Let me now invite a dear friend and colleague, who I had the opportunity to serve with in the House of Representatives on the committee, as well as jurisdiction, who's now the chairman of the Western Hemisphere, and he called me up as soon as he assumed the chairmanship and said I want to introduce that legislation in the House. And it's our privilege that he's leading, along with Dan Burton, that effort.

Congressman Eliot Engel of New York.

REP. ENGEL: Thank you. Thank you very much, Bob. It's a real honor for me to be here this morning with you and my colleagues to introduce the Social Investment Economic Development Act for the Americas of 2007. You know, Senator Menendez, I was delighted when you were elected to the Senate because I think you are a great senator and will even be greater in the future, but I was particularly happy to inherit from you the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee -- (laughter) -- of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee.

I had coveted that for a long time, and moving you upstairs made me able to achieve my goal.

And of course, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She and I have worked together so much for so many years on so many different pieces of legislation. It's always an honor to work with her as the ranking member of the House of Foreign Affairs Committee.

And Senator Martinez, it's an honor to be with you as well.

As you can see, this is truly a bipartisan piece of legislation. It's something that's very, very important.

And after many years of neglect, I believe we are finally waking up to the importance of economic and social development in our own neighborhood. And as chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee, I've put justice for Latin America at the top of my agenda. In fact, one of the first hearings I held as chairman dealt with poverty and inequality in the Americas.

In 2005, almost 40 percent of the region's population, some 209 million people, were living in poverty. And Latin America continues to have a higher level of income inequality than any other region in the world, even more so than Africa, if you can believe that. Nearly three-quarters of Hondurans live in poverty, as do over 60 percent of Bolivians and Paraguayans. Just 600 miles off the coast of Florida in Haiti, an estimated 78 percent of the population lives on less than $2 a day. And I would be remiss not to mention that poverty in Latin America disproportionately affects Afro-Latinos and indigenous people.

With such grim statistics, it's still shocking to me to see substantial cuts in core development assistance to the region in the president's FY 2008 budget. I was particularly disheartened to see that the president reduced aid to Brazil to a mere million (dollars) of his FY 2008 budget, even though Brazil is home to 50 percent of the people in Latin America defined as poor and has 35 million people living in dire poverty.

Our Social Investment and Economic Development Fund legislation will allow the United States to step up as a real partner with our neighbors to the south. Once and for all, we will be able to help our friends in the hemisphere to curb poverty and reduce longtime inequalities.

I want to end my remarks by reading a quote to you by a U.S. president regarding poverty in Latin America. The president said, and I quote: "Throughout Latin America, a continent rich in resources and in the spiritual and cultural achievements of its people, millions of men and women suffer the daily degradations of hunger and poverty."

You might think that this was a recent president; perhaps President Bush on his recent trip to Latin America, where the president said very good things. But it was actually President John F. Kennedy 46 years ago on March 13th, 1961, as he launched the Alliance for Progress.

So we introduce this bill now, and as you can see, it's clearly a bipartisan bill, as well it should be. And then let's hope that 46 years from now, our president does not need to repeat this message, and what we have done will close the gap of inequality. And I truly believe today's introduction of the Social Investment and Economic Development Fund marks in a new day in hemispheric relations.

And let me finally conclude the way I opened. I want to thank Senator Bob Menendez, because when he was in the House, he really pushed this bill. I mean, this was really his idea, and I'm honored to carry it in the House, now that he's in the Senate. So I want to thank him and my other colleagues and everyone here this morning.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Thank you, Congressman Engel.

And we are now -- all of us are collectively happy to answer questions. Yes.

Q Senator, when Senator Martinez -- (off mike) -- that there is -- (off mike) -- in the continent right now, and I wonder if he feels it's in some ways a response to the growing influence by President Chavez through the economic development of his country, as well to the ties of -- countries like China and Iran are looking for closer ties in the region through investment.

Thank you.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Yeah, I don't give President Chavez that much importance. To say that this bill is in response to him by any stretch of the imagination -- I have, as some of my House colleagues have suggested -- I have been talking about this for years. As a matter of fact, unfortunately, I've been talking about this since before President Chavez came to power.

So the reality is it is -- it -- what drives this legislation, I think collectively -- and I'll let my colleagues speak for themselves -- what drives this legislation is the understanding that the United States, in its own front yard, with its closest neighbors, have inextricable ties that are important to us domestically. This is beyond being a good neighbor. This is about our national interests and our national security interests.

If you want to not have terrorism take a foothold in the Western Hemisphere, then ensure that there is stability. Because where there is chaos, terrorism works best.

If you want to ensure that there are more and better markets for American goods and products to be sold, strengthen and grow a middle class in Latin America.

If you want to make sure that we don't have the raging debates about immigration -- why do people leave their countries?

They leave their countries for only two reasons, largely speaking -- civil unrest or dire economic necessity. And so all of these, and so much more that I could talk about, are the reasons why this bill has come forth, why we believe this investment is appropriate, and why we hope to make it law.

And I'm happy if anybody else wants to answer to that.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. MARTINEZ: (In Spanish.)

Q Senator, just to follow up, going back over your first question, even if it's not a -- (off mike) -- how does this money compare to what Chavez has done -- (off mike)? And second question, when is this going to be voted on?

SEN. MENENDEZ: I wish I had the answer to the second question immediately, but we are going to be working to build support, bipartisan support in the House and the Senate. And obviously, by virtue of the fact that we have key players here, I would hope that we're going to get this up sooner rather than later.

So, you know, we're starting on a journey. We've asked our colleagues to join us. We've got a lot of interest on a bipartisan basis with members of the Senate, as I'm sure -- well, let's see, I got a phone call from Congressman Diaz-Balart today. He's joining on on the legislation.

I'm sure we'll see many others, as well. I'm sure Congressman Delahunt and others who have expressed an interest in the past on the Western Hemisphere will do so as well. So we'll build that coalition, strengthen it, and then we'll look for the appropriate time, hopefully early next year.

Secondly, the $2.5 billion over 10 years, in my mind, has a multiplier effect too, because one of the things we're doing is using the IDB, and the IDB has a multiplier effect. We're also looking for a buy-in from the countries. So it's going to expand beyond the $2.5 billion, probably to twice that, so it's probably going to be $5 billion in effect over the 10 years. And that is a very significant investment in the hemisphere, you know.

There are others in the hemisphere who talk about what they'll do in the hemisphere, but don't do as much in hard dollars when the time comes to it. And this will be a very clear role that the United States will complement the president's trip that he recently had. We made it very clear that some of the very core issues we are trying to deal with in the Social Investment and Economic Development Act are exactly what the president talked about.

So we look forward to sending a very clear message to our Latin American brothers and sisters that in fact the United States is clearly engaged and involved in the hemisphere, has a real interest in our relationships and in our common economic and security interests.

SEN./REP. : If anybody else feels they want to answer --

SEN. MARTINEZ: I would only add to what the senator has said that in addition to the multiplier that is obviously there through the IDB, also the MCC, the Millennium Challenge Corporation, while we all wish that it would work a little faster and maybe more efficiently, the fact is that it is having an effect, and through the work of our fund, we could enhance the opportunity for countries to become MCC eligible by helping them meet the guidelines necessary for that. I think that's all.

Q (Off mike.)

SEN. MENENDEZ: Well, half of the $2.5 billion over 10 years goes to USAID, and those are for the purposes of doing what they do best -- basic development issues like education, housing and health care. The other half goes to the Inter-American Development Bank --

Q (Off mike) -- Spanish.

SEN. MENENDEZ: I'm am sorry. I forgot. Okay, well let me finish the answer in English first, since you asked it and others may be interested. The other half goes to the IDB, that concentrates on economic development issues, such as creating a strong investment climate, educating the workforce, microfinance and leveraging remittances.

Now, this would be additive, so it would enhance the amount of dollars that we have. It would be beyond the Millennium Challenge Account to the extent that there are some countries participating in the hemisphere with the Millennium Challenge Account. It would be more broader-based. And as Senator Martinez said, it would be a good way to help countries get to the point where they could qualify for Millennium Challenge dollars.

So this will be an addition, and I think it would be a robust figure beyond what's being spent.

(Remarks in Spanish.)

Q If I could ask the two Republican members whether it is at all difficult for you to be talking about expanding health care for the poor in Latin America at the same time President Bush is talking about vetoing the expanded health care for kids in the United States.

SEN. MARTINEZ: You know, I think that you're mixing politics in a bipartisan effort that I don't think merits that discussion at this point in time, so I'm not going to address that issue. I think the SCHIP debate is being plenty covered in the Florida Senate today. I had a speech that I gave on it yesterday, where you can understand where I think I'm coming from on it. And I don't want to taint the bipartisan nature of this conversation, talking about one of the issues where we don't happen to agree.

REP. ROS-LEHTINEN: And the Republicans have our own version of expanding health care coverage for children, so it's an unfair characterization.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Last two questions -- I think we're supposed to be out of here at 11:00.


Q Senator Martinez -- (off mike) -- can you talk about what else Americans have to gain from this?

SEN. MARTINEZ: Well clearly, as Senator Menendez said, this is impactful in a way that helps Latin America be more successful. We have gained tremendously in the region by the goodness that comes from having democratic systems instead of dictatorships, by the stability that comes. There's a second component to having a successful region, and that's economic well-being.

And so while we benefit people in that region by the social investment that we might make, what we're also gaining is, in the nature of national security, is a stability to a region that is so very important to us, because it's so close to us.

You know, the kinds of problems we see in the Middle East today, in Africa, hopefully will never manifest themselves in Latin America, and we'll put that day further behind us if we help them to be successful.

So it is about being a good neighbor, as Senator Menendez said. But he also indicated, and I agree with him completely, that it goes well beyond being a good neighbor. It is in our national interest, it is in our security interest.


Q (Off mike) -- to Latin American countries -- (off mike) -- some countries which had good relations with Venezuela, Iran, couldn't be part of the plan. I mean, the president of Iran is today in Bolivia. Is Bolivia one of the countries -- (off mike) --

SEN. MENENDEZ: No, the only country that is not eligible for the plan is Cuba. Other than that, every country would be eligible. Of course, eligibility includes coming to an agreement with USAID and the IDB on to standards that will be set.

One of the things that the legislation also does is it creates a bipartisan advisory committee of regional and technical experts to monitor the projects that are proposed. It implements rigorous evaluation and oversight through impact assessments to make sure taxpayer money is well spent. And so it won't be just a giveaway, there will be a lot of benchmarks. But the answer is every country is eligible save Cuba.

REP. ENGEL: Can I say something?


REP. ENGEL: In answer to your question, also the gentleman's question before, in sort of a tie in, I mean, one of the things that was really striking to me as chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere since January is that when I travel around Latin America and the Caribbean, how the people think they've been neglected by the United States. There's a general feeling that our attentions have been elsewhere, in Iraq and other places, to the detriment of our relationship with the other countries in our hemisphere. And I think what this bill does is repair a lot of that. I think it's very, very important.

While Senator Menendez, who has been introducing this bill for many, many years, said that it's not being done to counter Chavez or anybody else, the fact of the matter is that if we look the other way and don't get involved, other people will move into the vacuum. And it's true with China, it's true with Venezuela, and it's true with Iran. And I think that we really have to understand that to our own peril -- if we neglect our own hemisphere, it's really to our own peril. So despite the fact that we want to spread democracy, we want to get more money, we want to change the poverty level, it's also good for the United States because I think our future lies in our hemisphere.

SEN. MENENDEZ: Thank you all very much.

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