Ambassador Michael Kozak is Acting Assistant Secretary (A/AS) of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. He previously served as Senior Bureau Official for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, following tenure as Senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary. Ambassador Kozak has served as Acting Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism and negotiated a UN resolution respecting freedom of expression. As Senior Director on the National Security Council staff, he had responsibility for Democracy, Human Rights, International Organizations, Migration, and Detainee issues, and authored the first National Security Presidential Directive on Democracy and Human Rights since the Carter administration.
inFOCUS: You have had a long career, serving in many difficult places. Can you give us a sense of the transformations you have seen economically, politically, and in the daily lives of average people?
Ambassador Michael Kozak: When I joined the State Department nearly 50 years ago, there were only a handful of democracies in our hemisphere. Today, the vast majority of the countries in the Americas–the Hemisphere of Freedom – are democracies. We are getting ever closer to the ideal that OAS member states committed to when they signed the Inter-American Democratic Charter in 2001.
We’ve also seen a trend toward increasing economic integration and pro-market policies throughout the region. If you look at U.S. trade numbers, it’s very clear. We are the largest trading partner in the region, because the United States supports policies that protect the rule of law, promote transparency, and provide an attractive business environment for entrepreneurs. U.S. firms operate according to values that produce good deals and quality work. These practices are critical to building sustainable, prosperous economies throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. This is particularly important now, as the region continues to combat COVID-19’s challenges to economic growth, transparent governance, and sustainable development, and looks towards recovery.
The security situation in the region has evolved significantly since I first started. The fact that there is currently no war in the Western Hemisphere stands out. The region’s longest-running armed conflict ended in 2016 with Colombia signing a peace accord with the FARC. The region has come a long way since the days of civil wars and dictatorships.
That doesn’t mean that we don’t face new and different security challenges. Combating transnational criminal organizations and the permissive environment that allows these groups to operate across our borders are critical elements of defending our sovereignty, and that of our partners. But in general, our Hemisphere is much more secure and prosperous because of our commitment to democracy, free trade, and freedom.
iF: How does the U.S. see its responsibilities regarding not only the influence of other powers in the region, but also militarization in the region by others including China, Iran, and Russia?
Kozak: I like to think that our neighbors like to work with us because we’re a pretty good partner. We respect their sovereign rights. We try to do what we say we will. On security we have reciprocal commitments with our neighbors to help protect them from aggression. The Rio Treaty was a model for the NATO treaty. It was invoked in 2001 to provide for a collective response to the 9/11 terrorist attack on us. We also try to create a fair playing field for businesses. We tend to believe in the same things as our partners. I’ve seen my counterparts from across the region grow very wary of partnerships with countries from outside our region, because they just operate differently. So, despite a few unfortunate, but noteworthy, exceptions we’ve had extraordinary partnerships with other countries in our region. I expect that will grow and expand, so long as we stay true to our common values.
iF: How are we doing on sharing responsibilities in the region?
Kozak: We may not always agree on policy or rhetoric, but the United States respects our neighbors’ sovereignty, and right to democratic self-determination. When our neighbors are tested, and when authoritarians subvert the democratic rule of law to retain power or unlawful profit, we as a Hemispheric community have an obligation under the OAS and Inter-American Democratic Charter to come together and support those who push back through democratic, constitutional institutions.
As a region, we have been coming together like never before to defend and promote democracy where it is threatened or repressed, as in Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Some of our programs, including the Merida Initiative in Mexico, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and the Central America Regional Security Initiative, provide support and training to the institutions responsible to investigate and prosecute complex allegations such as those in money laundering and asset forfeiture cases.
The U.S. is working with neighbors in Mexico, Central America, and other parts of the hemisphere on a regional approach to stop dangerous, illegal immigration and to encourage migration through safe, legal, and orderly channels. And to build societies that provide everyone the opportunity to advance economically, in their own countries.
The América Crece program channels the resources and expertise of the U.S. government to create attractive business and investment environments that will catalyze private sector investment in energy, transportation, and telecommunications infrastructure across the region. Restoring jobs and growth requires creating the enabling conditions to attract private sector investment. We have built strong partnerships by providing training, mentoring, and other assistance to help partner governments address the permissive environment that allows Transnational Criminal Organizations to operate.
iF: Tell us about The Clean Network and the 5G Clean Path, designed to keep China’s IT vendors out of our communications — because those vendors are controlled by the Chinese communist party.
Kozak: I believe our Clean Path partners recognize that 5G security isn’t a choice between the U.S. and China, but part of their obligation to protect their citizens and safeguard the trust of their networks.
Members of the Clean Network are concerned about their information and the security of their telecommunications networks based on internationally accepted digital trust standards. We have been working closely with many countries in the region to help them access cost-effective 5G technologies without sacrificing economic security or the integrity of their most sensitive data.
In recent months the Clean Network has grown to over 50 countries. We were proud to have Brazil, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic take positions of leadership on 5G security. These countries recognize 5G security is essential to safeguarding their interests, their democracy, and their free-market values.
iF: Would a “Free Trade Area of the Americas” give Washington more soft power in the region?
Kozak: Our economic engagement with the Americas cannot be overstated. This region is home to our biggest economic partnerships. We support entrepreneurship and free enterprise. We believe in transparency, and that transactions should go to the best bidder. We expect deals to be made respecting laws on corruption, labor standards and worker safety, and environmental sustainability. Not every country can say that.
The United States is the top trading partner for over two-thirds of the region’s countries. We have free trade agreements with 12 countries in the Americas. The United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) fulfilled President Trump’s promise to modernize and update this trade agreement. More than just the modernization of an existing agreement, it is a new engine for growth in the 21st century that will keep North America the most economically competitive region in the world.
U.S. goods and services trade with the Western Hemisphere totals nearly $2 trillion annually. We sell more to the Western Hemisphere than we do to all of Asia combined. In comparison, China’s trade within the Western Hemisphere is around $330 billion. So, while there is always room for improvement, we are happy with our regional achievements on Free Trade.
iF: Is the OAS still the primary body for cooperation and communication in South America?
Kozak: Yes. There is no doubt that the OAS continues to be the premier organization for addressing regional issues. There have been a number of other sub-regional organizations, but none of them have the breadth of member states, the mission, or the impact of the OAS. The OAS helps ensure democracy through highly respected Electoral Observation Missions to help safeguard elections throughout the region.
iF: How deep is the pandemic-related destruction in Central and South America and how is the U.S. responding?
Kozak: Look, every country is dealing with the battle against COVID-19 according to the challenges in its unique environment, just as U.S. governors and mayors are working in their respective environments. But no country has invested as much as the United States to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States has allocated more than $20.5 billion to address the global COVID-19 crisis, with over $1.6 billion in State Department and USAID emergency health, humanitarian, economic, and development assistance aimed at helping governments, international organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) fight the pandemic.
We will continue to seek opportunities to collaborate bilaterally or multilaterally. And we are achieving real results, helping nations around the world respond to COVID-19.
iF: What do our neighbors need most from us?
Kozak: The United States has provided billions in foreign assistance, but our programs yield the best outcomes when coupled with political will in our partner governments. The U.S. cannot be more committed to achieving prosperity in Central America than the host nations.
This summer, Secretary of State Pompeo announced the Administration’s intent to provide $252 million in additional U.S. foreign assistance for El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
Beyond our foreign assistance money, we stand poised to mobilize billions in investment via the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (DFC). The DFC is a critical tool in driving investment in support of laying the foundation for private sector investment in energy and infrastructure, while promoting good governance in Latin America and the Caribbean.
And we’ve seen great results! The U.S. government’s vision for economic development is an investment-led approach that includes working with regional governments and the private sector to remove barriers to economic activity and opportunity, expand access to markets, and improve the environment for business and for new entrepreneurs. This includes overcoming the resistance of entrenched oligarchies to changes.
The programs we fund complement the development and security plans for each government. They help to address root causes of migration. They augment a private sector-led approach to create economic opportunity in Central America. This approach works because it removes barriers to economic activity, promotes government transparency and good governance, and improves the environment for business.
iF: Americans tend to turn off foreign crises. How can we remind Americans about what’s going on, and how the U.S. government can help the people of Venezuela?
Kozak: Venezuela’s current crisis has always been a test of the international community. We believe the way forward continues to be international cooperation to restore democracy, economic stability, and rule of law in Venezuela.
We remain committed to the people of Venezuela, who are suffering the impacts of an ongoing political and economic crisis created by the illegal Maduro regime’s corruption and mismanagement that has led to severe food and medicine shortages, and left seven million Venezuelans in need of humanitarian aid.
The extent of economic collapse and associated suffering in Venezuela under Maduro and his cronies is staggering to consider. His abuses and ineptitude have caused Venezuela to experience the greatest collapse any economy in the world has ever suffered without war or natural disaster.
Today, 59 percent of Venezuelan families are unable to buy enough food, and one-third of the population struggles to meet their food needs. In addition, the crisis has forced over five million Venezuelans to flee their homeland, according to the UN. It’s clear that Maduro is Venezuela’s biggest problem, as well as the primary opposition to free and fair elections.
We are working with the international community to exert maximum political and economic pressure on the illegitimate Maduro regime to convince them to participate in real negotiations leading to a transitional government and presidential elections. Meanwhile, we continue to support the National Assembly led by Interim President Juan Guaidó because they are the last legitimate democratic representation in Venezuela.
iF: What should we do about Cuba?
Kozak: In Cuba, the regime continues to repress the Cuban people while it actively undermines democracy in the region. Most observers agree the human rights situation has deteriorated over the last decade. We continue to pressure the Cuban regime to stop the repression of its citizens and its intervention in other countries, particularly Venezuela. Cuba’s communist economic system has never been able to produce the resources it needs to feed its own people. Its economy is parasitic – depending for years on massive subsidies from the Soviet Union, and later on a revenue stream from its relationship with Venezuela.
But now the combined efforts of Maduro and the Cuban communist economic advisors have destroyed the wealth of Venezuela as well. It is affecting Cuba profoundly. Note that even as Venezuelans face extreme shortages at home, the Maduro regime continues to rob its people’s oil and ship it to Cuba. So, our policy is to restrict the other key sources of revenue for the regime, to force it to face the deficiencies of its own model and allow freedom to its people. To this end, we are exposing the truth about the Cuban medical missions program – a money-making scheme based on human trafficking disguised as humanitarian assistance. We discourage travel that involves staying in hotels run by the Cuban military, and we are trying to break the the Cuban military’s monopoly on processing remittances.
We are seeing a greater appetite for change in Cuba. Thanksgiving week hundreds of artists not normally affiliated with the dissidents demonstrated and obtained some promises from the regime to respect freedom of expression. The regime promptly reneged, but the very fact that they felt compelled to negotiate with their own people for the first time in decades is notable.
iF: Is the FARC returning to Colombia?
Kozak: Colombia is a vital strategic partner, and we are proud to stand with the Colombian people as they continue on the path to lasting peace and prosperity. We recently reaffirmed our support for the peace process in Colombia. The Columbian Government continues to implement the Havana accord to secure lasting peace.. This accord has led to the disarming of over 7,000 FARC ex-combatants, and the demobilization and reincorporation of almost 14,000 former FARC members. Only a very small number of people have sought to return to arms. This demobilization has resulted in a significant improvement in security, and therefore opportunities for prosperity, in many parts of the country.
Of course, challenges remain, and we strongly repudiate any calls to resume the conflict and engage in terrorism and violence. We also condemn the continued terrorist activities of the ELN and those who enable it.
iF: From your work as the Acting Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combatting Anti-Semitism, do Jews in Latin America find unique challenges living in the region?
Kozak: Hezballah’s presence in the Tri-Border area presents a destabilizing factor to all of Latin America. We know that they are a particular threat given the attack on the AMIA in Argentina in 1994, the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in the Americas since WWII. In Chile, a small Jewish community lives alongside a very large (400k-500k) Palestinian ex-pat community, which has imported aspects of Middle East conflicts to Chile. Unfortunately, this year, we saw two members of Chile’s Congress call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of Israeli goods and services. As Secretary Pompeo stated on his recent visit to Israel, any BDS legislation runs counter to U.S. policy.
In Venezuela, the majority of Jews have fled that country in the face of anti-Semitic actions by Maduro and other senior regime officials. Our State Department Human Rights reports reveal evidence of governmental bias against Jews.
But we have bright spots. Brazil has applied for inclusion in the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. And Guatemala has moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv. Honduras has announced plans to do the same by the end of the year, and the Dominican Republic is considering such a move.
iF: As a follow-on, there is an increase in the numbers of Protestants in South America. Are governments living up to their promises of religious freedom?
Kozak: Religious freedom is widely respected and upheld throughout our hemisphere. Fortunately, our hemisphere has not experienced persecution on the scale seen in places such as China and Iran. The 2019 Organization of American States’ General Assembly meeting in Medellin, Colombia, approved the OAS’ first-ever religious freedom text, and we renewed our support for religious freedom this year at the 50th OAS General Assembly. And in February Secretary Pompeo launched the International Religious Freedom of Belief Alliance, a first-of-its-kind coalition, with 32 members and counting. The Alliance had its first annual foreign minister-level meeting last month hosted by Poland.
But there continue to be challenges. In Nicaragua, the government continues to harass and intimidate religious leaders and worshipers. Since July there’s been a significant uptick in attacks against Catholic churches by presumed government proxies. In Cuba, the Castro regime employs persistent harassment and intimidation campaigns against religious leaders. Through threats, detentions, travel restrictions and even violence, the regime has sought to control religious activity and curtail religious freedom. In Venezuela, religious leaders stated the Maduro regime and aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
iF: Thank you for your time, Ambassador Kozak.