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Under Secretary Marisa Lago Remarks - February 16, 2022

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Remarks to the Association of American Chambers of Commerce in Latin America and the Caribbean (AACCLA)
Outlook on the Americas 2022 Conference
Washington, D.C.
February 16, 2022

As Prepared for Delivery

Good morning, and thank you for that kind introduction.

I am grateful to AACCLA and Chair [Luis] Laguerre for inviting me to your conference, and I am so grateful to the attendees from 23 [American Chambers of Commerce] for your engagement. Together, you represent over 20,000 companies and 80% of U.S. dollars invested in Latin America and the Caribbean. Your organizations are vital partners who live at the intersection of the public and private sectors.

I am delighted to deliver my very first public remarks as Under Secretary at Outlook on the Americas because commerce within our own hemisphere is so vital to the U.S. economy, businesses and workers. How vital? The U.S. is the top trading partner for over two-thirds of the region’s nations. 

The International Trade Administration (ITA) is fully engaged in the region on behalf of U.S. businesses and workers, most especially through the crucial, constant work of our Foreign Commercial Service, who are present in 23 offices across 14 markets. 

In recent years, we have experienced both new and recurring obstacles to doing business in Latin America and the Caribbean. The pandemic exacted a devastating human toll and sparked the deepest recession in the region’s history. During this time trade dropped by over a fifth. While last year’s return to growth offered some relief, the pandemic continues to be a drag on our economies, with the burden falling hardest—sadly, though not surprisingly—on underserved and marginalized communities.   

The pandemic also derailed a regional wave of mass protests—some quelled violently—that had roiled the region since late 2019. The momentum of those civil actions stalled, but long-held outrage against social injustice, corruption, and inequality of opportunity remains.

After three decades of broadly expanding freedoms and growth, sadly the region faces a difficult path forward, with faltering economies, weakening rule of law, and citizens losing faith in democracy—conditions that also drive migration, which further destabilizes the region.  

Reversing these trends—and building a sustainable, resilient, and equitable future—in the Americas is a Biden-Harris Administration priority that guides our work at ITA.

ITA is deeply committed to building a more prosperous and inclusive economy through strengthening the competitiveness of U.S. industry and workers, promoting trade and investment, and ensuring fair trade practices.  

Within our hemisphere, three key pillars shape our pursuit of these priorities—competitiveness, transparency and security. I will address each of them.  

Competitiveness is at the core of our economic agenda. The Administration is driving crucial investment at home that allow us to compete and win abroad. But strengthening competitiveness also means ensuring fair and open markets and expanding export opportunities. 

For U.S. businesses and workers to compete on a level playing field, they need fair and consistent rules. This foundation already exists in parts of the region—in fact, most of the nations with which the United States has free trade agreements are in our Hemisphere.

Still, we need to do more to advocate for U.S. businesses, including combatting trade barriers, bolstering intellectual property protections, and promoting predictable legal and regulatory structures.

Achieving robust trade policy commitments is important, but we must also expand export lanes. This starts with growing our pool of exporters, especially small businesses, which account for 98 percent of identified U.S. exporters, supporting some four million jobs. Walk through the business district in any U.S. town or city, and chances are that you will see a small business achieving growth through exports—not to mention creating more jobs and paying higher wages than non-exporting peers. 

To ensure that the benefits of exporting reach more broadly, last year ITA launched the Global Diversity Export Initiative (GDEI), which aims to promote international opportunities and trade resources to underserved communities. Commerce’s U.S. Field team is undertaking intensive outreach, including recruiting for the first GDEI trade mission in May and collaborating with WELLTI, or Women Empowered Leave Legacies Through Trade and Investment, on activities at the Department of Commerce’s signature Trade Winds conference in Dubai next month. I look forward to participating in Dubai and hope to see many of your companies represented there.

ITA is also committed to developing new export opportunities that support the Biden-Harris Administration’s priorities. We are working to develop and implement a Clean Technologies Export Competitiveness Strategy to combat climate change globally, while creating good-paying jobs at home. We are also expanding U.S. companies’ infrastructure procurement opportunities through Build Back Better World, or B3W, which seeks to address infrastructure needs in the developing world in a manner that is consistent with our values. ITA is excited to pursue these high-standards projects across four vital workstreams—climate, digital connectivity, health and health security, and gender equality. 

One key focus of B3W is transparency, which distinguishes it from the opaque conditions in which predatory competitors seek unfair advantage. Transparency—in access, procurement, and regulation—is also a broader regional priority of ours. It ensures that markets are not just attractive for their export potential, but also good places to do business.

Without transparency, corruption can fester, distorting markets and raising the cost of doing business, including adding as much as 25 percent to public procurement costs. A four-billion-dollar bridge becomes a five-billion-dollar bridge, and nobody benefits except for the corrupt. As I saw time and again when I led the international development assistance portfolio at the Treasury Department, corruption deters investment and reduces opportunity for U.S. and local stakeholders alike. 

That is why we are working to improve transparency through harmonizing regulatory practices, simplifying trade facilitation processes, and promoting sector-based ethics frameworks—among other efforts.
 
In addition to competition and transparency, the third pillar of our engagement is security. At ITA, our efforts focus on ensuring economic security, but we also support broader foreign policy and national security goals.

We are working with partners across the U.S. Government to sharpen tools spanning a range of threats and a range of industries—from cyber, to climate, to investment screening, to critical minerals. Today, I want to briefly highlight a topic that is on the mind of so many globally: supply chains.

As business leaders who depend on international trade, you understand the importance of resilient supply chains to our prosperity and security. Pandemic disruptions exposed pre-existing vulnerabilities and made clear the need for focused government action to improve transparency and coordination. 

Over the past year, the Biden-Harris Administration has led global efforts to enhance transparency and coordination, including in Latin America and the Caribbean. We are prioritizing critical sectors in partnership with industry, labor, and civil society stakeholders. Later this year, Secretary Raimondo and Secretary Blinken will co-host a Supply Chain Ministerial Forum to expand cooperation with partner nations. 

We also look forward to the United States’ hosting the Summit of the Americas in June, seeking to build a more sustainable, resilient, and equitable future with our closest neighbors. The three pillars that shape our approach to the region—competitiveness, transparency and security—will also guide our engagement at this Summit. ITA is already working across the U.S. Government to elevate trade priorities for the Summit.

As we approach the Summit of the Americas—and look beyond—our work to boost competitiveness, facilitate trade and investment, and enforce fair practices continues. We look forward to working closely together with you and your members to address obstacles to trade and to ensure that the benefits of commerce are more broadly shared—in the United States and throughout the Americas.