Remarks at the Cities Summit of the Americas — As Delivered
This is the perfect place, I think, for this gathering, because in so many ways, Colorado embodies the shared cultural, and economic, and political ties all across the Americas.
Colorado — obviously — to begin with, is a Spanish word, named for red-colored water of the river that flows through our state. A state that they used to call the great American desert.
If you drive south of here to the San Luis Valley, you’ll find Spanish land-grant ranches from a time when that part of the state lay within Spain’s Mexican territory. You’ll find a stone marker of the state’s first irrigation ditch, called the People’s Ditch, with the names of farmers and ranchers who were entitled to draw water from that ditch. Among them is the name Salazar, and my predecessor in the Senate, Ken Salazar, comes from that family. And today he’s our Ambassador to Mexico.
Before I replaced Ken Salazar in the Senate, I was superintendent of the Denver Public Schools here in Denver — in fact, we used to have many of our meetings here in this very building. Denver Public Schools is a school district that’s about 60 percent Latino.
Many of Denver’s families had been in Colorado for generations — like Ken’s family had been here for generations — centuries before any English speaker had ever been here. Others were new to the U.S., brought across our southern border seeking safety or opportunity.
If these deep, rich ties across the Americas are obvious to Colorado — and they are obvious to Colorado — they’ve been much less obvious, I think, to Washington, D.C.
When I was growing up, Washington viewed its engagement in the hemisphere through the unforgiving lens of the Cold War — and as the people in this room know, this sometimes led us to make egregious mistakes and betray our democratic values.
After the Cold War, Washington replaced a fight against the Soviet Union with a narrow focus on migration and drug trafficking.
And while those issues remain critically important, they’re just a fraction of the work that we have to do together.
And during that time — the time that we were engaged in two wars that lasted for twenty years in the Middle East — China rushed to fill the void with a surge of trade, investment, and technology.
Since 2000, trade between China and Latin America grew from almost $12 billion to $445 billion — almost 40-fold.
China is now the top trading partner for all of South America, and second only to the U.S. for all of Latin America.
Since 2005, Chinese-owned state banks have lent nearly $140 billion to governments in Latin America.
China’s One Belt and Road Initiative has built dams, ports, and railways; expanded internet access; and deployed 5G from Mexico City to Rio.
And I can understand — it’s not hard to understand why so many governments in the Americas are deepening their ties with China — especially when the United States was really nowhere to be found. But this has also come at a price.
Cheap Chinese imports undercut local industries and jobs in the Americas, just like they did in the United States.
Beijing’s loans might have come with fewer strings, but they also come at the expense of labor, the environment, and the rule of law.
And what strings Beijing did attach often required governments to repay loans with precious natural resources, or to give Chinese firms privileged access to your telecommunications or energy sectors.
And at the same, Beijing has exported its surveillance state all across the Americas — as it has all across the world.
They’ve equipped some nations with thousands of facial recognition cameras.
And in one other country, they’re helping create “Fatherland Cards” for every citizen that the government could use to silence dissent and control access to vital government services.
And in exchange for internet access from companies like Huawei, some governments have risked handing Beijing a backdoor to track every conversation in their borders.
And while I know that ties with Beijing have come with real, tangible, short-term benefits, they’ve come with a troubling long-term agenda — to turn back the clock to a time when governments should ignore the people they serve and disregard concerns about human rights, and labor, and the environment.
That’s not a world we should want to live in, and it’s not a future for the Americas we should accept as stewards of the next generation in your countries or in mine.
I’m not here today just to complain about China. I came to challenge my own government to finally offer a compelling alternative.
To live up to our values in our shared struggle for democracy.
And to say that if it was a mistake years ago to make our engagement in the Americas all about the Soviet Union, it would be a mistake today to make it all about China.
We should understand and we should deepen our partnership with the Americas for its own sake — for our own sake. And there are so many opportunities for progress:
On trade, let’s bring the jobs and industry we exported back to China and to Southeast Asia to our hemisphere. Costa Rica’s partnership with Intel is a perfect example of how we can create jobs and secure our supply chains as a hemisphere.
For the first time since Ronald Reagan was our president, the United States has finally passed a bill to bring an industry — the semiconductor industry — back to the United States of America. We should build on that here in this hemisphere.
On climate, between Latin America’s abundant critical minerals and our abundant oil and natural gas, our hemisphere has everything it needs to achieve energy independence; to set an example to the world of a more integrated, secure, and resilient energy infrastructure. And to lead the global transition to clean energy. And to show people how we can create jobs while we’re doing that.
On migration, it’s past time for the U.S. to fix our broken immigration system. And we can start by passing the bill I helped write in 2013 that provided a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people that are here; that gave a pathway to the DREAMers that have known no other country but our own; that modernized our visa system; and secured our border with 21st century technology — not a medieval wall.
And speaking of medieval, we have to reform investment bodies that haven’t kept pace with the 21st century. We need to cut the red tape and make it much easier for governments and businesses in the Americas to access investments from institutions like the Development Finance Corporation, the World Bank, and the IADB.
And I see no reason — especially when I see the young people that are here — why we can’t double, or even triple, opportunities for people in our hemisphere to learn from one another — students, Peace Corps volunteers, doctors, entrepreneurs, authors, climate activists.
Whatever we do, we can’t let another 40 years pass without seizing the enormous opportunity for partnership across the Americas.
Because as Colorado shows, we share more than a hemisphere; we share a braided culture, an economy, and a people. And we share a common destiny. Let’s write that together.