WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, delivered the following opening remarks at a hearing on “Summit of the Americas: A Regional Strategy for Democratic Governance against corruption in the Hemisphere.”:
“Chairman Rubio, thank you not just for convening this hearing but for your leadership on these issues. Our subject is a regional strategy for democratic governance over corruption in the Hemisphere in the context of the Summit of the Americas, and you have been one of the champions in the United States Senate on these issues.
“You noted President Trump has decided not to attend the Summit due to the circumstances in Syria, and that’s certainly understandable, but it’s certainly disappointing. Clearly, the circumstances in Syria require U.S. leadership in response. Yes, I think most will be focused on what type of military action is taken, and I certainly hope that the President is in consultation with our allies and that he recognizes that the response needs to be judged and measured so that we don’t get engaged with U.S. troops into a civil war in Syria. We already have military operations in regards to ISIS, and we have to be very careful as to how we conduct that. But you and I are also in agreement that legislation we authored on Syria accountability, which has passed this Committee and is on the floor of the United States Senate, that you need to have a coordinated strategy including holding Mr. Assad responsible for his war crimes. It’s way past time to get that started, and the most recent use of chemical weapons underscores the importance for us to initiate war crimes against Mr. Assad.
“I would also suggest that we work together on legislation that passed this Committee a year ago that’s been enacted into law that provides the president additional sanctions not just that he can impose against Russia, but Iran. Russia facilitates the Assad regime, and the proxy of the Iranian military is carrying out a lot of these campaigns. So it would be appropriate for the international community to say that we’re not going to let President Assad have that kind of support, and that there are consequences. So I thank you for your leadership on so many issues.
“The Summit of the Americas does present us a unique opportunity to advance good governance here in our Hemisphere, and I thought it was interesting that the Peruvian leadership decided not to invite the President of Venezuela. That to me was a clear signal of the serious issues happening in Venezuela.
“Democratic governance is critically important in our hemisphere. We brag that our Hemisphere has more democratic countries than any other region, the ratios are much higher than in other parts of the world. We are proud of our democratic institutions, embodied in the Democratic Charter of the OAS. It’s a fundamental principle. But corruption will erode democracy; make no mistake about it. It fuels conflict and poverty, and it causes the erosion of the rule of law and democratic institutions. I think it’s the greatest threat in our Hemisphere, the rise of corruption.
“I think it’s more challenging today, Mr. Chairman, I must admit, because U.S. leadership is critically important but you look at respect for U.S. leadership today on this issue, and it raises serious questions. President Trump’s approval rating in our Hemisphere is 16 percent. There’s many reasons for that, I’m sure his immigration policies are adding to that low number, but it’s also the fact that when you look at the President, the way he handles his own personal conflicts, and we’re trying to deal with anti-corruption legislation. You look at the way he criticizes our own independent judiciary. You look at what he’s done on freedom of the media and criticizing the press. All of that are signs of concerns we have in other countries, where the U.S. leadership is going to be challenged because of what’s happening here in our own country.
“I am pleased that Congress has taken action. We restored the State Department budget which was a good thing for us to do, so we can continue to be major players in our own Hemisphere, in dealing with anti-corruption and good governance initiatives. I would suggest that the budget at 100 percent funding is still inadequate. We need to go beyond that, and I would hope this Committee would have an impact on the appropriators to ensure that there is adequate funding.
“The Global Magnitsky law was a major accomplishment in fighting corruption and I was pleased to see that the Administration is using that law, that tool. They used it against the president of Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council, Roberto Rivas. I think that was the appropriate use of the tool to make it clear that there will be penalties for those that participate in corruption.
“We have challenges, there’s no question about that. The President of Peru was forced to resign recently because of corruption. Venezuela, Mr. Chairman, you’re right on target there. You want to pick the one area where I hope there will be prime attention at the Summit, I would agree with you, it needs to be Venezuela. I support your statements in regard to humanitarian relief; it is desperately needed. I support your call for free, fair, and open elections to restore Venezuela to a democracy and call upon the OAS to invoke the charter because Venezuela is not a democratic state today.
“There are certainly other problems. Central America has been plagued by corruption. I visited Central America three years ago, and saw firsthand the challenges of that region. Clearly, Honduras needs attention. We’ve commented on the flawed presidential election. The tragic death of Berta Caceres has still not been resolved – we know there’s some progress being made but the government has not given that case the proper attention. The legislature recently passed legislation protecting itself from investigations. That should have no place in our Hemisphere. And the resignation of the chief OAS corruption official in Honduras is certainly another matter for us to be concerned about.
“I want to mention El Salvador. I’ve been to El Salvador, I know the gang activities there. They’re a real challenge for a democratic government, to be able to deal with the network of gangs that control so much of the economy of that country. I really do believe that the Administration’s decision on TPS is going to make that even more challenging. I’m going to question the witnesses about whether the circumstances in El Salvador have significantly improved enough that those who are here on TPS status, that it would be safe for them to return to their community. My observation is that no, it has not changed. But there’s a second factor here that I would welcome the views of our witnesses on, and that is, the return or potential return of those who are here on TPS, what impact does that have on El Salvador, and whether that could cause further destabilization of the government’s efforts to deal with good governance in that country.
“Bottom line, this is an important hearing. There is much going on in our Hemisphere, where we are proud of our democratic states, but where we know we have significant challenges on the growth of corruption. What can we do, the Congress, the Senate, in order to help deal with these challenges? I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.”