Representative Eliot L. Engel, Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, yesterday made the following remarks at an Institute of Caribbean Studies National Caribbean-American Legislative Forum on Capitol Hill:
“Claire, it’s a real pleasure to join you and ICS for your annual legislative forum, and to celebrate National Caribbean-American Heritage month with all of you, so that’s great. And the weather, it feels like the Caribbean, right? Not Washington.
“As this crowd knows better than anyone else, an estimated three and a half million people, immigrants from the Caribbean live in the United States, which accounts for nine percent of the total foreign-born population here. That’s pretty good. And six million people self-identify as members of the Caribbean diaspora in the United States.
“Many of these men and women, as I said, are my constituents, and nearly a third of Caribbean immigrants live in New York and particularly in Bronx and Kings Counties which is Brooklyn.
“You represent a really rich and vibrant part of the fabric of America, and this is a community that can do so much to make our country stronger, and to help strengthen our ties to countries across the Caribbean.
“You know the ridiculous argument that some corners, I won’t mention who, bring up in terms of anti-immigrant feeling. You know, unless you trace your roots back to the American Indians and rural immigrants–my grandparents came to America more than a hundred years ago from Eastern Europe.
“You know, I couldn’t say, well you know, my family got here, so now the hell with everybody else. Pull up the draw bridge, that’s not really right.
“And if you look at the total picture and why the American economy is growing and why we are doing so well, immigrants fill the void of population. You know, in places like Europe, the aging population, people aren’t having children, the population is shrinking, it’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for the society. In America, we have immigrants to fill their place.
“And I always say, you know, I know people from the English speaking Caribbean, we all have in common we were all once colonies of Great Britain, so we speak English.
“But there are many people from all around the world who come here and don’t speak English, don’t know the language. But they come here and then we say ‘what immigrants?’ They’re industrious people, lazy people can stay home.
“But immigrants come because they want to better their lives and the lives of their families and in doing so they better the lives of the United States of America. I believe that with all my heart, and I will continue to argue against the President or anyone else who talks foolishly about keeping out immigrants, and talking about immigration.
“So, let me say that we took an important step on Tuesday with the release of the new U.S. Government strategy on future engagement with the Caribbean, which was highlighted by Deputy Secretary of State Sullivan during his remarks at the OAS General Assembly in Cancun.
“The strategy came about thanks to the U.S.–Caribbean Strategic Engagement Act which, as you know, I authored along with my good friend Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, and which was signed into law by President Obama in December.
“Unanimous passage of our legislation in the House and Senate made it clear that Congress will prioritize U.S.–Caribbean relations for many years to come. And let me just tell you, I was very pleased by many of the commitments made by the State Department and USAID in this strategy.
“So now comes the hard part: we need to work together to ensure that this ambitious strategy, which all of us share, is fully implemented and has the resources it needs to succeed.
“Frankly, with President Trump and Secretary of State Tillerson proposing a draconian, disgraceful 32 percent cut to next year’s international affairs budget, this certainly will not be easy, but we’re gonna fight it.
“So, I urge you to work closely with Republicans and Democrats in Congress to ensure that the Trump budget is completely discarded.
“And fortunately, the legislative branch, which is the code for Congress, has the final say on this matter. We have what’s call the power of the purse, and so I ask all of you here to please play an active role in advocating for funding for the Caribbean in Congress.
“Now let me provide you with just one example of the dangerous funding cuts proposed by the President that’s relevant to the Caribbean.
“Between 2010 and 2017, Congress appropriated roughly $500 million for the Caribbean Basin Security initiative, also known as CBSI. About $57.7 million was appropriated in 2017.
“This was over $9 million above President Obama’s request and was in part the result of a successful push that I led with Rep. Ros-Lehtinen for additional CBSI funding.
“But now we have our work cut out for us. Thank you for the applause, I appreciate it.
“President Trump has proposed cutting CBSI funding for 2018 to $36.2 million. That’s $57.7 down to $36.2. That’s a lot of money. That’s a 36% cut.
“And I am working to try to make sure that doesn’t happen, but your help and support on this front is needed now more than ever.
“Now with Venezuela on the brink of collapse and its petrodollars drying up, I firmly believe that our friends in the sub-region need us more than ever.
“And quite frankly, the United States shouldn’t only be engaged because Venezuela’s influence is waning. We should be engaged, because the Caribbean matters deeply to us in a range of ideas, from security to energy to trade and economic cooperation.
“So let me mention briefly a few pieces of the State Department strategy that I am particularly pleased about.
“First of all, I believe that the creation of an annual U.S.–Caribbean Dialogue is essential in institutionalizing our relationship and ensuring steady communication between the United States and the sub region.
“I appreciate that this is also being done on the economic front through the announcement of a trade and investment conference. This gathering will focus on increased bilateral trade and improving business and regulatory environments so businesses are willing to invest.
“The commitments to expand internet access in the Caribbean, to include more Open Skies agreements with Caribbean nations by the end of 2020, and to provide technical assistance for education policy training are also steps in the right direction.
“Now with regard to energy, we need to sustain the Obama Administration’s engagement in the energy sector, which has made such a difference.
“Caribbean and Central American countries have struggled with energy security for decades, but with help from the United States and other international partners, we’ve seen remarkable progress transitioning to cheaper, cleaner energy sources.
“Now, it’s posited that we cannot slide backward.
“I was pleased to see that the State Department strategy notes the Administration’s intent to leverage U.S. and international public finance resources to help energy project developers mitigate technical and political risks and reduce their reliance on imported fuels.
“Countries of the Caribbean have vast, indigenous energy resources, and the United States can play a key role in helping our friends in the region develop these resources.
“And finally, the strategy’s recognition of the need to expand the U.S. diplomatic presence in the Caribbean is good news. And as you know, something I’ve been talking about for years, the strategy states that an expansion of our presence should happen if and when funding becomes available.
“So, let’s make it easy. Let’s make funding available immediately. Time is of the essence, and we’re going to fight to do that.
“Now, many of you know because we’ve talked about this through the years, I have long believed that we in the United States do a real disservice to our country by having no physical diplomatic presence in five of the countries in the Eastern Caribbean: Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines. We need embassies in those countries and we need them now.
“It makes no sense for us to continue to conduct diplomacy on these islands from our embassy in Barbados. They say you cannot conduct diplomacy from a bunker; it’s also true that you can’t conduct diplomacy from hundreds of miles away.
“How do our diplomats get to know the key officials? How can they judge what’s happening on the ground? The answer is: We need to have an embassy or consulate in each country.
“And on the issue of funding, I am not talking about multimillion dollar embassy compounds. I recognize the need to ensure the United States gets the most bang for our buck in establishing new embassies in the Caribbean.
“So do you know that even Venezuela and Cuba have embassies on each of these five islands, and yet the United States has no presence? And to me, that’s deeply disturbing.
“Our glaring absence in the Eastern Caribbean does a real disservice to our country and to our friends in the region.
“So I plan to continue to push the State Department to expand our diplomatic presence in the Eastern Caribbean as soon as possible.
“And finally, I’d like to say how happy I was to see the State Department’s commitment to working closely with the Caribbean-American diaspora community in the further development and execution of its strategy.
“After all, that’s what this conference and ICS is all about–ensuring that the diaspora community’s vast skills and knowledge are used to improve conditions throughout the Caribbean.
“The release of the Caribbean strategy is just the beginning of what I hope will be a long-term dialogue between the Executive branch, Congress and the diaspora community in enhancing the strategic partnership between the United States and the Caribbean.
“And before I conclude, I just have one final request on one more topic, and that’s Venezuela.
“As I make my case to my colleagues in the Administration about the need for increased engagement with the Caribbean, my job becomes more difficult when some of the countries in the region vote against OAS resolution supporting democracy in Venezuela. I was disappointed that a resolution on Venezuela failed in the OAS General Assembly in Cancun this past week.
“This is a country—Venezuela—that suffers at the hands of a repressive government on a daily basis. We can and must do better at supporting the Venezuelan people at multilateral forum and we can all play a part in assuring that to happen.
“And we can all play a part in working to ensure that ties between the United States and our Caribbean neighbors are as strong and prosperous as they should be. We need to stay focused and committed, so we can meet that potential. You know I’ll be there right with you in the trenches.
“I look forward to working with you to do just that in the years ahead. And you can always count on me. Thank you very much.”