Assistant Secretary Jacobson’s As Prepared Remarks at Brown University’s Stephen A. Ogden Lecture on “Anti-Corruption in the Western Hemisphere”

Thank you, President Paxson. It’s a great pleasure to be back at Brown—the first time in a while that I’m not taking the tour with one of my children. When I first received the invitation to give the Stephen A. Ogden lecture, I was very flattered. Then I looked up previous speakers, and thought: This is a mistake: clearly they mistook me for a head of state.

I suspect it’s not often that someone who’s been a 30-year civil servant of the U.S. government gets invited to give such a lecture. The vast majority of us toil in obscurity, trying to explain to our family just why presidential candidates hate us so much!

For the record, none of us bureaucrats is actually “faceless”, and we’re actually real Americans. But this civil servant has been pretty lucky and had a pretty unusual run, and so I’m delighted to be here, and want to start off by saying that there are thousands within the U.S. government who could tell you remarkable and confidence-inspiring stories. Dozens of them helped me along the way.

After all these years of working on the Americas, I’ve formed some pretty firm views on what’s happening in this region today, how the United States can help, how it can’t, and where I think—or perhaps hope—things will go in the future.

I’m going to start out by focusing on a trend and prescription about the Western Hemisphere in general, but I also promise to speak about the particular episode in my career that I suspect got me invited in the first place—the negotiations to reopen diplomatic relations with Cuba after 54 years. And I’ll close with just a word about my career, the vaunted “work-life balance”.

There’s a classic film, way before your time, called “Network,” in which at one point the lead character shouts that he’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. Well the citizens of this Hemisphere feel like Howard Beale in that film; So, why are they so angry? Why Should we care? And why is it actually a good thing?

Across the Hemisphere we are witnessing waves of social protests; Peaceful, democratic, and legitimate against corruption. In the Southern Cone, in the Andes, in Central America, the Caribbean and Mexico. In fact, it doesn’t stop at the Rio Grande, but that’s for another expert to analyze!

Perhaps the single defining feature throughout the hemisphere right now—regardless of economic or political policy, ethnic makeup, or geography are corruption scandals being protested by citizens. They range from the massive—the Operation Car Wash and bribery scandal in Brazil, where just a few weeks ago we saw the unthinkable—former president Lula detained for questioning, and the head of one of Brazil’s largest GLOBAL companies sentenced to 19 years in prison. To the relatively small. Indeed, personal scandals such as a girlfriend and an illegitimate child, as revealed recently about President Evo Morales in Bolivia, would have netted minimal news coverage in the past and been seen as standard operating procedure in many countries. Tellingly, the real scandal in Bolivia wasn’t Morales’ family entanglements, but the fact that said girlfriend got a job at a Chinese company, and that company then won a number of Bolivian government contracts.

But scandals, big and small, are nothing new in Latin America. What has changed is that people in the region aren’t willing to tolerate corruption that comes to light, regardless of magnitude. Partly this is due to tightening economies after the drop in commodity prices in recent years. There’s simply less largesse with which to pacify the public.

But it’s also due to another change in the region the (relative) openness of most of these societies—even ones in which traditional media have been tenaciously repressed. Everyone’s got a cell phone. And most of them are smart. So along with public knowledge and rejection of corruption, citizens in the Hemisphere are recognizing that even in institutionally weak democracies, they have the right to take action. More and more, they are organizing to act. And they are finding that in acting, they can make change—whether in Brazil, Bolivia, Guatemala, or Argentina. THIS is a huge victory for citizens, and a huge opportunity for new, cleaner, more transparent governance in the Americas. [But it is also a huge risk.]

[What is the point of the quotes I’m showing on screen—and in particular, what is the message to those of us in government, and those outside? ]

So what is the opportunity for us—in particular, for the U.S. government   It is a great opportunity for the U.S. government to be on the right side of this debate—the side of the people; the side of change. The risk is that we fail to take advantage of the moment— if we fail to heed this frustration and anger, we may well convince our citizenry that democracy cannot deliver. And we cannot afford to be distracted by our own period of electoral…upheaval, for lack of a better word.

Taking advantage of this opportunity suggests that the time for open discussions of corruption, demands for transparency, and especially accountability has arrived. We have been too complacent in our defense of democracies, without examining the strength and transparency of the institutions that underlie them.

This is a crucial moment. It is not an exaggeration to say that this opportunity would allow the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to complete the transitions to democracy which began over 30 years ago. It is often forgotten that it was the countries of this Hemisphere which began what can now be seen as a global movement away from authoritarian and military governments, toward democracy. This Hemisphere which pioneered the “Truth Commission” of public accounting of human rights abuses, and governments of this Hemisphere which put their own former rulers—military and civilian—on trial as they wrestled with the balance between truth and justice.

But while we celebrated the return of democracy in the Americas, we were slow to recognize that elections alone did not complete the process. It is only now, that newly-empowered and often newly-middle-class citizens are demanding that their governments complete the process to open, accountable executives and the real separation of powers, that it has truly sunk in.

It is a moment in which governments throughout the Hemisphere face economic slowdown exacerbated by climate change, challenges from brutally violent transnational criminal organizations, and under-educated youth with limited opportunities. But it is also one in which there are new possibilities—for peace in the longest-running civil conflict in the region, for a Trans-Pacific Partnership, for energy independence, for the inclusion of groups long marginalized from countries’ economic progress, and further reducing grinding poverty. And it is one in which the widespread consensus in favor of democratic governance and respect for human rights is being tested as never before.

Michele Bachelet, the two time president of Chile and former head of UNWomen, wrote recently in Time that the United States and Latin America must continue to define our relationship “by our shared interests of democracy, inclusion, and prosperity” and noted that “Latin America is …witnessing its most democratic period in history.” But she underscored that “the solidification of democracy’s roots in the region is possible because the people are demanding more from their governments and have developed an acute awareness that the quality of democracy can only be strengthened through combatting corruption in the public and private sectors, the orderly transfer of power, freedom of expression and respect for human rights and equality.” She seizes on an important concept in pointing out that our challenge is the “quality” of our democracies.

So how do we help those who come to office on anti-corruption platforms, buoyed by the people in the streets, only to find that the coffers are empty, and special interests—some of them criminal enterprises—are seeking to ensure the status quo is maintained?  

In 30 years in government, I have watched a huge range of foreign assistance programs developed and implemented—every one of them with the best of intentions. But in the end, I have concluded that as important as our security, counter-narcotics, climate, and economic opportunity aid might be, there is one area that is the sine qua non of all of them. One area where if we don’t help countries it get right, no amount of funds in other areas can bring about sustainable change in the quality of our democracies and create middle class societies. To paraphrase the inimitable words of James Carville in the 1992 presidential campaign: It’s the rule of law, stupid.

Without the rule of law deeply rooted and entrenched throughout the Western Hemisphere, it will be impossible to confront: climate change and agricultural disasters, the insidious destruction of narcotics cartels and transnational gangs, or the authoritarian despot—of any political leaning—who wants to bend democracy to his or her will. It will also mean that U.S. companies—companies bound by the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act when their competitors are not—will be unable to compete due to a fundamentally unequal playing field.

So what does it mean to have the rule of law? It means democratic institutions of government that are transparent—to ALL the people that are accountable—where those who do wrong in government are found and punished. And that are efficient – where services are delivered to those who need them, as opposed to only the favored few.

President Obama pointed out that corruption isn’t just immoral. It siphons off billions of dollars that could feed children, build schools or infrastructure. It stifles economic growth and promotes economic inequality, certainly the opposite of what is needed in the Americas. It aids and abets human rights abuses. It fuels organized crime and instability.

Knowing how corruption affects growth and inequality, we have to acknowledge that it matters with whom and how we do business:

Will we ensure business is done openly, with transparent competition, or in unfair, backroom deals—which some companies and countries are more comfortable with than others? It is also a moment to overcome institutional weaknesses that allow corruption to breed. That effort, which is constant in all countries, involves creation of internal and external watchdogs: inspectors general, offices of professional responsibility, and a robust civil society holding institutions accountable from outside.

And time and time again, we see that the weakest link in these democracies is the judiciary. To be countries of laws and not men means strong, independent judiciaries where both the access to, and the quality of justice are actually delivered. So many of the other things citizens seek BEGIN with the reduction of corruption within the judicial branch. And so I have become convinced that among the most important programs we can support, are those to strengthen judicial systems—including judges, prosecutors, public defenders, and mediators.

Dana Milbank wrote recently in The Washington Post that a new corporate consensus seems to be developing against some of the most extreme conservative views—in this case discrimination against LGBTI persons—in order not to offend customers and workers. As partners for governments, we need corporations to develop that same view about corruption—already prohibited by U.S. law, but we need for that anti-corruption sentiment, clearly manifest by the public in so many countries across this Hemisphere—to become a cultural norm in the private sector as well.

Peaceful calls for investigations, wherever they lead, must be supported. Institutions that are more responsive and independent, acting within the law, must be the result. We need to work with those leaders who agree, and keep good governance at the highest levels of foreign policy discussions. We need to make the Administration’s Open Government Partnership, now 4 years old and 65 countries strong, more meaningful to those marching on our streets. We need to speak up when bad behavior threatens openness. We need to empower citizens groups, as watchdogs, and the voice of those who have none.

We have a powerful ally in Pope Francis—the Americas’ Pope, who has reminded us in his electrifying visits to the Hemisphere that to those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

The segue to discussing Cuba might seem like a bit of a non-sequitur after discussing democracy and anti-corruption throughout the Hemisphere—but in many ways, they are directly linked. The impetus for the change in our Cuba policy is obviously to see how—and whether—we can hasten the day when Cubans freely make their own political and economic decisions about their future.

But it’s also about wanting to have better and more profound relationships with Latin countries—where our Cuba policy had gone from being a “pebble” in our shoe to being a boulder. And so, on December 17, 2014, President Obama and President Castro went on television and announced the two countries were going to re-establish diplomatic relations.

President Obama, recognizing that he could not overturn the embargo on his own—it would take Congressional action—did the one thing that was both within his power and would clearly signal to countries around the world that things had changed in this relationship. He made all 12 areas of authorized travel to Cuba eligible for general, instead of specific, licenses by the Treasury department, enabling the majority of travelers to go without requesting permission beforehand; He said the State Department would review Cuba’s decades-long listing on the “state sponsors of terrorism” list; and he said that State would immediately begin the negotiations to restart diplomatic relations with Cuba. And that’s where I came in.

For nearly 6 months, my Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal, and I, along with our teams, negotiated the terms under which we would reopen our embassies and renew full diplomatic relations. It was not easy. Josefina, as everyone knows her, is a very tough cookie. She is a true believer in the revolution and can be dogmatic—as I’d learned over more than a year working with her on migration issues, but particularly in my quest for the return of Alan Gross, an American aid worker sentenced to 15 years in a Cuban prison. But we had made some progress in the conditions of Gross’ confinement, reluctantly granting certain benefits to the Cuban prisoners known as the “Cuban 5” who had been convicted of espionage in some cases, and of conspiracy to commit murder in the most serious.

We began our negotiations, by deciding what we did NOT want to negotiate on: we wanted to focus ONLY on those things relevant to reopening an embassy and operating more “normally” in Cuba. We reviewed other cases of re-establishing relations—of which there had been very few in recent years. But neither Libya or Burma or even Vietnam provided any clear models. Nothing was quite like Cuba—a country where we had more than 2 million of its former citizens living in the United States, that had had a fraught relationship with us virtually from its beginning as a nation.

What was clear was that this wasn’t going to be an embassy that operated as ours do in London or Paris. But we had to be able to justify our end result as at least roughly consistent with embassies in other repressive environments.

Ultimately, we recognized that there were four areas we had to focus on: staffing/personnel for our new embassy; security surrounding it (for years designed to intimidate Cubans); provisioning our embassy (we hadn’t been able to get in containers for years and the building was held together with duct tape); and, perhaps most important of all, the ability of our personnel to travel freely around the island. For years we had been restricted to Havana except on rare occasions, with the Cubans reciprocally restricted within the beltway of Washington.

Now, 18 months later, after raising the flag over our Embassy in Havana for the first time in 54 years, and after the President’s remarkable trip to Cuba two weeks ago, we have begun to have nearly a dozen bilateral dialogues on subjects as varied as marine environmental conservation and law enforcement cooperation.

U.S. companies are engaging in permitted areas in ways that will benefit the Cuban people. One in four Cubans works in the burgeoning private sector, and connectivity to the rest of the world—while still severely limited and expensive—is giving Cubans, especially young people, more tools to take control of their own lives.

But we also have to acknowledge that deeper economic change, and ANY political change, has been slow or non-existent. There is little doubt that the President’s visit electrified Cuban citizens, enabling them to hear words of support for democracy and human rights live on television for the first time ever. Cuban Americans I know who were in Havana for that visit say their relatives have told them that every Cuban from now on will recall where they were on that day, the day they heard Obama speak.

There is a long way to go—a gerontocracy has to give way to post-revolutionary leadership, and most importantly, we need to remember that Cuba’s future will be determined by Cubans. But we believe strongly that this is more likely, and will come more quickly with Cubans of all walks of life engaging with Americans. Brown students (and faculty) have understood the need and value of that engagement for more than 30 years. Sometimes it takes a bit longer for the U.S. government to catch up.

I’ll close by saying just a couple of words about being a working mother. My former colleague, Ann Marie Slaughter, has written extensively about the tension inherent in that descriptor, and indeed seeks to ban it from our lexicon. But I began by using the phrase working mother, and not working parent for a reason—the same one Slaughter has noted: it’s simply not the case that working fathers labor under the same societal or self-imposed pressures that mothers do.

So, two comments on being a working mother at the senior ranks of government. First, inside or out of government, I don’t know any women who believe they’ve got that balance just right. At my swearing-in, I thanked my children for always being the ones to sign up at school parties for plastic cutlery—since I wasn’t going to be the one providing home-baked goods on a day’s notice. Second, we are still seriously behind as a society in supporting working mothers—starting with the U.S. government. Once, when I was about 9 months pregnant, a friend from Argentina called the U.S. Government’s lack of maternity leave “a human rights abuse”.

I’ve worked over the past four years to ensure our senior ranks—ambassadors, deputy chiefs of mission, and others—look more like America, starting with women. I’m sorry to say I haven’t made nearly as much progress as I’d like. But it won’t stop me trying—and it shouldn’t stop any of you either.

Thank you.