I want to thank the Trinidad and Tobago American Chamber of Commerce, the team at the U.S. Embassy, and the regional Foreign Commercial Service team based in Santo Domingo, for the invitation to be here with all of you today.
I would have preferred to see all of you in person, in beautiful Port of Spain. It’s a place I’ve been fortunate to visit a number of times. It is my sincere hope that conditions improve soon. I have every confidence that the efforts of all Trinbagonian citizens will soon defeat COVID-19.
Since the confirmation of our new Secretary of Commerce, we have been working steadily on President Biden’s commitment to sustained engagement with our partners throughout the Western Hemisphere to advance our shared vision for a future that is democratic, middle class, and secure.
Our over-arching goal is to support a prosperous, safe, and democratic region where the United States can partner with other countries to advance our shared interests.
Strong and healthy regional economies are good for the United States and for our regional partners.
The United States is Trinidad and Tobago’s top trading partner, as it is for over two-thirds of the hemisphere’s countries, and U.S companies have invested over one trillion dollars in the region. The United States is the destination for 39 percent of Trinidad and Tobago’s exports, and accounts for 26 percent of Trinbagonian imports. The closeness of our relationship isn’t just geographic; it’s material.
The United States trades twice as much with the countries of North, Central and South America as we do with China – and we export more to our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere than we do to all of Asia combined.
Over 42 percent of total U.S. merchandise exports went to the Western Hemisphere in 2020 and U.S. goods trade with the Western Hemisphere totaled $1.3 trillion in 2020.
Ultimately, I do not think it is possible to overstate the importance of our economic engagement with the Americas.
But it is particularly critical at this moment. The pandemic has had devastating effects on us all, both in terms lost lives and suffering and lost jobs and livelihoods. I know the people of Trinidad and Tobago are acutely aware of these impacts.
The IMF’s latest estimate is that GDP in the region contracted by well over 7 percent in 2020. For Trinidad and Tobago that contraction is estimated to have been nearly 8 percent.
Trade is estimated to have declined by well over 20 percent, matching and even exceeding declines we saw in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The responses of governments across the region have varied, but in all cases the reduction in revenue and necessary emergency expenditures have strained budgets, added to debt loads, and tested the ability to deliver services. Investment decisions by the private sector, and plans for infrastructure by the public sector, have been deferred or suspended until the future becomes clearer.
While we expect to begin to recover this year, IMF and World Bank projections suggest that the world economy won’t reach pre-crisis levels of economic activity until 2023 or later.
So we are all facing a monumental challenge. How do we deliver prosperity, jobs and—at its heart—the hope for our people that tomorrow can be better than today?
I would argue that our best chance for success lies in working together to address the challenges of competitiveness, transparency, and security.
The Department of Commerce works to bring the U.S. private sector’s viewpoint to the U.S. government decision-making process. This is how my Department plays a role in spurring economic growth and broad-based prosperity both at home and in the region.
As I think we can all acknowledge, governments cannot address problems alone. Our respective private sectors are the engines that will ultimately drive growth and job creation in our countries.
Which brings me to another of the roles of the Department of Commerce, which is to take the advice of the private sector and work to create the conditions under which our companies and entrepreneurs can drive economic growth and job creation.
Based on that advice, we have focused our work in the region in three areas.
When we speak of Competitiveness: we must focus on strengthening the ability of companies in the region to compete, to make them recognized as efficient producers of quality goods and services. With that kind of foundation, we can continue to be strong trading partners for the world, and with each other. We are working to improve the landscape for fair competition, by removing barriers to trade and discriminatory regulations. The issues our companies face on the competitiveness agenda --challenges with sustainability, education and job training, supply chain resilience, and infrastructure—are similar across the region.
When we speak of Transparency, we are advocating for better and more open policy decisions and procurements, and helping support transparent government processes. U.S. and Caribbean companies benefit from commitments that facilitate transparent rulemaking, predictable legal frameworks, strong intellectual property protections, and regulatory certainty--at home as well as in global markets.
When we speak of Security, we mean the ability to improve public safety and border security, but also the ability to preserve integrity and sovereignty to counter malign influences.
On competition, transparency, and security, I commend the AmCham for its commitment to working with partners, including the U.S. Embassy, to advance a rule of law committee. This committee is a perfect example of joining forces to advance the conditions that we know will lead to greater prosperity, stability, and democracy.
I know that the work of this committee will difficult, but issues such as public project continuity, arbitrary taxation, and unusual and excessive customs delays hinder economic development and undermine the confidence of the private sector. As the agenda of this committee develops, it is my hope that it will provide a channel for resolving issues like these that have a practical impact on the business environment.
Few factors rival the rule of law in importance when one considers what foundational criteria predict a company’s ability to do business profitably and to maintain a sustainable business model over time.
President Biden characterized America as being in an era of “extreme competition” with China, but no one should conclude that the United States sees our relationships with other countries through that lens, as merely fields in which U.S.-Chinese competition plays out. Nor are we presenting nations in the Western Hemisphere with a choice of either doing business with the United States or doing business with China.
We are proud of the achievements of U.S. companies across many industries -- from healthcare to high-speed computing, and from renewable energy to entertainment. We are, have been, and will continue to be eager to have U.S. companies compete with those of any other country. Because fair competition in the marketplace is what delivers the best value and results for consumers, taxpayers and business.
We are redoubling our efforts to bring forward the solutions, technologies, approaches, and discoveries of the United States’ private sector. We share their “thought leadership” with other countries in order to begin a discussion -- to see how these ideas might apply to a given country’s challenges, opportunities and priorities.
Our businesses have the potential to develop these solutions together. Whether it is the application of IT tools to improve the transparency of tax collection, of AI to increase the productivity of natural resource sectors, of new technologies to combat climate change, or of new research to the healthcare challenges we all share, our businesses have the potential to achieve these goals together.
I mentioned the strains on public finances due to COVID leading to the deferral of public infrastructure projects or worse: causing countries to turn to new sources of debt finance that do not operate with the same transparency as private capital markets. Public Private Partnerships (PPP) in the form of concessions or similar agreements are a proven model for equity investments and private operation of public infrastructure. However, not all PPPs are created equal, and not all private partners are truly private.
The U.S. Government and private sector can work with governments in the region to make certain their PPP legal frameworks reflect best market practice and reach a high standard. We need the expertise of U.S. financial services firms and private investors to help in that work and to help define a system in which they are able and willing to participate. Otherwise, our efforts to de-risk the investment environment will only benefit our competitors.
CARIBBEAN REGION TRADE MISSION AND BUSINESS CONFERENCE - OCTOBER 24-29, 2021.
Up to this point, I’ve spoken in relatively abstract terms about how we can work together and what we’re focusing on, but I can assure you that our undertakings have real-world expression.
So now, I want to take this opportunity to talk about an important upcoming example of how we are working toward creating genuine and robust connetions between U.S. companies and the region. I’m happy to share that we are planning a Caribbean Region Trade Mission and Business Conference for October.
This program will offer U.S. companies the opportunity to explore the fourteen markets in the Caribbean Region.
The Trade Americas – Business Opportunities in the Caribbean Region Conference will feature region-specific sessions, market entry strategies, export compliance, legal, logistics, disaster resilience and recovery and trade financing resources. We have included in the program sessions on financing and legal/transparency issues, which I hope you will find useful.
While we are not yet certain whether pandemic conditions will allow an in-person program or require it to be held virtually, or some sort of hybrid model – we do know that we are committed to connecting U.S. companies to the tremendous opportunities in the Caribbean region, including here in Trinidad and Tobago.
We will be offering match making services for U.S. companies interested in the Trinidad & Tobago market and will help identify and connect potential partners.
Please let me and my team know if you are interested in learning more about the conference.
So in concluding these remarks, let me return to our three areas of emphasis. We are focused on Competitiveness, Transparency and Security because we have identified them as pillars on which we can help build economic growth and job creation in the United States and in the Caribbean more broadly to support recovery.
At a more granular level we are working to:
- Improve IPR protection and enforcement,
- Promote good regulatory practices,
- Improve trade facilitation, with an emphasis on regulatory transparency at the border,
- Facilitate the development of private sector ethical frameworks in the region,
- Reduce standards related barriers to trade,
- Use trade tools, with our allies and partners, to combat climate change, and
- Facilitate the participation of U.S. firms in infrastructure procurements abroad
There are many common challenges across the region, including addressing climate change, accelerating energy transition, ensuring security, improving healthcare, and the need to build infrastructure.
Our efforts to address them cannot and should not be developed by governments alone.
Our business communities are incredible strategic assets. The modern reality is that our economic and commercial vitality are as important as our military and diplomatic strength.
Our private sectors must also be key partners in enhancing regional competitiveness, increasing regional stability, and promoting democratic values.
I believe that the United States acts in its own and in the region’s best interest when we help neighboring nations build open economies and create opportunity for all of their people.
Let me assure you that the United States will remain a steadfast and committed partner as we work to move our region towards its enormous potential as an engine of growth, opportunity and poverty reduction for its own citizens and for the global economy.
We look forward to working with your members, the broader U.S. private sector, and the governments in the region to bring solutions to these challenges.
Thank you again for the opportunity to address you this afternoon. I wish you a fruitful conference and look forward to another occasion to meet with you – in prosperous and healthy times.