Congressman Sires’ Remarks at Hearing on The Health, Economic, and Political Challenges Facing Latin America and the Caribbean
(Washington, D.C.) – Yesterday, Congressman Albio Sires (D-NJ), Chairman of the Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Civilian Security, and Trade, delivered the following opening remarks at the subcommittee hearing he convened on The Health, Economic, and Political Challenges Facing Latin America and the Caribbean:
“For the last six months, countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. This region has suffered nearly one third of all coronavirus deaths globally. Some governments took COVID-19 seriously and enacted strict lockdown measures, but still struggled to contain the virus, due in part to structural challenges like high levels of informal employment, which made it impossible for workers to make a living while under quarantine. Other leaders, like Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, regrettably followed the lead of President Trump, who intentionally downplayed the virus and dismissed the guidance of public health experts, with profoundly tragic consequences.
Even today, as case numbers have begun to level off in some places, five of the ten countries with the most coronavirus cases globally are in Latin America. This virus is far from being under control. We also know that the region will be confronting the secondary impacts of the pandemic for decades to come. In Haiti, where the United States has invested billions in taxpayer assistance, international organizations are worried that infant, child, and maternal mortality rates could rise, as many people avoid hospitals altogether and children are not receiving routine vaccinations. Economically, analysts are warning of a lost decade, where regional growth rates could return to the levels of ten years ago and forty-five million people could fall back into poverty.
The challenges to democracy and human rights that existed before the pandemic have become more acute, with human rights defenders and journalists coming under increasing attack and some governments using the pandemic to consolidate power. In Venezuela, the Maduro dictatorship has predictably exploited the pandemic to further crush dissent, targeting journalists, doctors, and aid workers who dare to speak out. In Bolivia, the interim government has persecuted over one hundred opposition leaders on charges that Human Rights Watch contends were politically motivated. In Honduras, attacks on human rights defenders have continued with impunity, including the kidnapping of four Garifuna community leaders by individuals dressed in police uniforms on July 18th.
At this difficult moment, the United States should be offering a steady and helping hand to our neighbors and allies, and providing consistent, principled leadership in our hemisphere. Unfortunately, President Trump has shown he is not interested in bringing people together or in providing values-based global leadership. Instead of offering safe haven to those fleeing political persecution, his administration has exploited the pandemic to expand its policy of using cruelty to deter asylum seekers.
Two weeks ago, six colleagues and I sent a letter to President Trump condemning his administration’s actions after three Nicaraguan asylum seekers who had been tortured by the Ortega regime were expelled at the U.S. border. President Trump has talked tough on Nicaragua, but when it was time to stand with those who put their lives on the line to challenge the Ortega regime, his administration placed its radical anti-immigrant agenda above protecting American values and U.S. foreign policy interest.
During this hearing, I hope we can explore ways for the U.S. Government to use our diplomatic and foreign assistance tools to support our partners and allies in the region.
I believe the U.S. has a critical role to play in helping to lift up this hemisphere, as it emerges from a period of such darkness. Today, on the first day of Hispanic Heritage Month, we must reaffirm our shared commitment to working with countries across this hemisphere as they combat the coronavirus pandemic and the many economic and political challenges that the pandemic has exposed or exacerbated.”