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Ros-Lehtinen Remarks at the Seventh Annual Latin America Conference - "Security Threats and Economic Opportunities in the Hemisphere"

Location: Miami, FL

These annual meetings have quickly proven to be of great importance to those of us who care deeply about our Hemisphere, and I hope you will continue to build on your accomplishments for many years to come. Although other regions often dominate the headlines, Latin America remains central to our country's security and prosperity. But as everyone in this room knows, that relationship is too often taken for granted and, as a result, our interests are in danger of being undermined by complacency.

For example, our economic interdependence often seems to be a well-kept secret. Of the top 25 markets for U.S. exports in 2011, five are in this Hemisphere. Of course, the headlines are full of stories and commentary regarding our hugely imbalanced trade with China. But how many people in this country know that Canada has long been our #1 trading partner and that Mexico -- Mexico -- is our second largest export market.

In fact, according to the U.S. Trade Representative, in 2009 our commerce with all countries in the Hemisphere totaled almost $1 trillion. Much of that was made possible by the free trade agreements we have concluded, stretching all the way from Mexico to Chile. Some required long and sustained efforts to overcome a number of special interests in Washington, as was the case with the agreements with Colombia and Panama, which encountered years of politically-motivated delay.

But I am happy to say that when Congress was finally allowed to vote on them last October, both agreements passed overwhelmingly and on a bipartisan basis, demonstrating the broad consensus regarding the importance of enhanced ties with our neighbors to the south. Although I must point out that only 31 Democrats voted for the Colombia FTA, which is dismal, considering that within hours, the FTA with South Korea captured 59 Democratic votes. When the Colombia Free Trade Agreement finally enters into force next week, over 80 percent of U.S. consumer and industrial exports to Colombia will become duty-free.

As a result, American businesses will receive a much-needed boost in a time of economic difficulty that will allow them to expand their exports and hire more workers. The benefits from this and other trade agreements extend throughout our country, but they have a particularly important impact here in South Florida. The Florida Chamber of Commerce has estimated that the recently signed agreements with Colombia and Panama will generate more than $1.5 billion in export revenue and create around 20,000 new jobs in our state.

And it's not just the big companies that will benefit; it's the small businesses as well. For example, our local flower importers will see a substantial drop in the tariffs they pay to Colombian exporters. In South Florida, 96 percent of all the flowers that are imported to the U.S. from Colombia pass through Miami International Airport.

These enhanced economic relationships are of great importance not only to the U.S. economy but to that of our partners as well. As their prosperity increases, so does the strength of their democratic systems and thus the region's stability. These agreements also strengthen our bilateral relationship with key allies and fellow democracies and enhance our ability to address common threats.

Nowhere is that more evident than the relationship between the U.S. and Colombia. Over the past decade, through programs such as "Plan Colombia," we have forged a close partnership that includes battling leftist guerrillas and narco-traffickers. This commitment has enabled Colombia to overcome enormous threats and political instability to become a thriving democracy.

Panama has also been a key ally of the United States. Its government has worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. to support our efforts to reduce the flow of illegal drugs through Central America and onto our streets. As guardians of the vital Panama Canal, the Panamanian government has cooperated closely with us to combat terrorist activity and secure our trade through the waterway. I am hopeful that the government of Panama will soon complete its work to implement our free trade agreement and that this will enter into force in the near future so that our relationship can continue to strengthen.

It is clear that the future of U.S. relations with other countries in the Hemisphere has enormous potential. But this potential can only be realized if we do what is necessary to make it happen. And that includes recognizing and overcoming the many challenges we jointly face, some widely known and others still largely hidden.

A prominent example is drug trafficking, which poses a much greater danger than is commonly assumed. In itself, the threat from illegal drug trafficking is evident, from the ruined lives of countless numbers to the violence and corruption that undermines entire societies. But the drug traffickers are allied with many other dangerous actors, such as the FARC in Colombia, which is largely funded by the proceeds from producing and distributing narcotics to international drug traffickers, which also provide it with weapons and equipment.

Although the influence of the FARC in the region has diminished greatly due to joint U.S. -- Colombia counter narcotics operations, the threat posed by the drug trade has expanded by the increasing involvement of foreign terrorist organizations. According to General Fraser at SOUTHCOM, Hezbollah and Hamas continue to use the Hemisphere as a source of funds, much of it from the drug trade, to support their illicit activities worldwide. And the threat from foreign terrorist organizations is increasing.

But even more dangerous is Iran. General Fraser has also testified that in the last 7 years, Iran has doubled the number of its embassies in the region and has launched 40 so-called cultural centers in 17 different countries. In January, Iran's Ahmadinejad traveled through the region on a "Tour of Tyrants' to Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador, trying to form an alliance based on hatred of the U.S. and a commitment to authoritarian rule.

We should not be surprised that the leaders of these countries welcomed him with open arms and reaffirmed their support of the Iranian regime. As the U.S. and its allies tighten sanctions against Iran, Ahmadinejad is trying to identify countries that will help him evade their impact. Iran has devoted particular attention to expanding its cooperation with its fellow State Sponsor of Terrorism, Cuba. Their relationship is not merely one of mutual admiration but of cold hard cash.

Seeing the potential for a new ally close to our shores, Iran has provided assistance to Cuba's failing economy by supplying the Castro brothers with loans and credits to expand their economic cooperation, particularly regarding energy.

Some have downplayed Iran's influence in the region, pointing to such things as a long string of broken promises. But the threat from Iran does not stem from bank loans and press statements with fellow dictators. According to the Department of Defense, operating under the cover its increasing diplomatic missions, Iran's elite military Qods force is expanding its operations in the region.

The mission of the Qods force is to spread extremist ideologies and to support, train, and finance efforts to undermine the democratic governments throughout the region. And it has been operating here for some time. In fact, the Qods force is believed to have provided support to Hezbollah in the 1994 AMIA bombings in Argentina. But the threat Iran poses is not in some far-away country of little direct concern to us.

In January, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reaffirmed the intelligence community's belief that Iran has become a threat to U.S. homeland security when he testified before Congress that:

"Iranian officials -- probably including Supreme Leader Ali Khameni -- have changed their calculus and are now willing to conduct an attack in the United States."

These are not just words about an abstract threat. Last October, a plot was revealed in which Iran attempted to hire individuals from the violent Mexican Los Zetas drug cartel to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador on U.S. soil. We can choose to ignore this uncomfortable reality is we like, but that will only guarantee that it will become stronger.

So let me end by referring back to my statement at the beginning, namely that the countries of Latin America are of enormous importance to our prosperity and security, and yet both the promise and the dangers receive far too little attention. But far more remains to be done, not only in Washington but around the country. That is why the work you are doing is of such importance, for South Florida is directly linked in a thousand ways to the countries of the Hemisphere, perhaps more than any other region in the United States.

Our prosperity and security are interwoven with theirs.

If we are to secure our many blessings and to avoid the dangers that threaten us all, we have no option but to recognize that we are but members of a single community and that our fates are forever tied together.

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