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Noriega Highlights Value of International Exchange Programs

Assistant secretary of state interacts with program alumni in State Department "Web chat"

Posted: July 19, 2005

Washington -- Roger Noriega, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, underscored the United States’ commitment to advance international understanding in a July 6 online discussion of Western Hemisphere issues and U.S. policy in the region with alumni of several prominent U.S.-sponsored exchange programs.

For decades, the U.S. government has sponsored a number of international exchange and training programs "that help promote knowledge about the United States and mutual international understanding," says the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).

One program, in particular, has become known as the United States' "flagship international educational exchange program," according to ECA. Established in 1946, the Fulbright Program was named for then-Senator J. William Fulbright, who introduced the legislation that launched it.

An estimated 267,500 "Fulbrighters" (as its participants are known) have taken part in the program since its inception nearly 60 years ago: roughly 100,900 from the United States, and 166,600 from other countries. The Fulbright Program currently operates in more than 150 countries.

Ever since the United States renewed its emphasis on public diplomacy efforts following the September 11, 2001, attacks against New York and Washington, the mission of these exchange programs -- to enhance international understanding through extended contact between academic and professional colleagues from around the globe -- has assumed a higher profile.

CAFTA-DR

Noriega began by responding to a query on the proposed U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR), which would eliminate or severely reduce trade barriers between the United States, five Central American nations (Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua) and the Dominican Republic. Passage and implementation of CAFTA-DR is "crucial," Noriega said, because the trade pact "will advance our policy of economic engagement" with Central America by helping to "build more open economies and more just political systems," thereby producing "stability and growth that will benefit all of our people."

CAFTA-DR serves the essential purpose of consolidating democratic gains in many countries where democracy remains vulnerable, he said. By expanding economic opportunities to traditionally disadvantaged segments of the regional population, Noriega said, CAFTA-DR will be a force for stable, transparent governance -- and a powerful antidote to corruption. "One obvious benefit is that the agreement will apply 'rules of the game' without discrimination," he said. "Therefore, entrenched interests will be broken down, allowing people from all walks of life to take advantage of what the accord has to offer."

While "there will be some growing pains associated with the accord, ... we predict that the benefits in terms of prosperity and stability will be profound for all of the parties in the agreement," he added.

SUPPORT FOR DEMOCRACY

Asked to comment on the recent political turmoil in such countries as Bolivia and Ecuador, and the erosion of certain democratic safeguards in Venezuela, Noriega reiterated his belief in the democratic system.

"It is not time to rethink democracy; it is time to get democracy right," he said. "In some of the countries in the Americas," politicians have concluded "that it is too hard to solve the people's problems, so they've settled on solving politicians' problems -- that results in immunity laws and impunity [from legal prosecution], pacts that advance narrow selfish interests, and political parties that stand for little more than controlling power. All of this has bred cynicism among our people, which can hardly come as a surprise to our politicians."

But "we believe that what the region needs is more democracy, not less: more transparency, more access to civil society, more accountability -- and zero tolerance for corruption," he said. "There are not short-cuts around these measures to make democracy work."

Noriega expressed dismay that some countries in the region have resisted a larger role for the Organization of American States (OAS) in defending democratic principles throughout the hemisphere. He recalled that "the United States and its key allies" advanced the idea of strengthening the OAS's mandate at the OAS General Assembly in June, "but to our surprise, many delegations fought us on measures to make the OAS more effective in the defense of democracy and [on becoming] more open to civil society."

HUMAN RIGHTS

One interlocutor wanted to know whether the Bush administration is willing to support U.S. ratification of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights, which already has been ratified by many countries in Latin America. "I hope that ... our defense of human rights will not be measured by how many treaties we sign (or don't), but what we actually do to advance human rights in the real world," Noriega replied. "Our inability to ratify the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights is related to federalism and death-penalty issues. We are not alone in this regard."

At the same time, "the United States respectfully responds to the commission's request for information, and we abide by our commitments under the American Convention on the Rights and Duties of Man," he pointed out. "We are also the largest single contributor to the work of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights."

Noriega also addressed the subject of how the region is educating its children, and emphasized the hemisphere's need for an educated work force. Education "is absolutely critical," he said. "The Summit of the Americas process is taking on this issue by encouraging every country to develop 'education report cards' to measure whether school systems are producing educated students effectively." He said "Latin American countries have some of the highest [school] drop-out rates and repetition rates in the world, which is an obstacle to our competitiveness in the world economy."

Ultimately, "governments have to be held accountable for how they are performing in this crucial area," he added. "That starts with accountability by local and provincial authorities and legislators."

HAITI

In response to a question about the ongoing violence in Haiti, much of it attributed to partisans of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Noriega said: "I have been very outspoken personally about the very unhelpful role that former president Aristide still plays in Haiti today. Now, he and his followers are determined to use political violence and criminality to undermine progress toward elections in Haiti in October and November."

Yet despite severe security and economic problems in Haiti, "we have high hopes for Haiti's future, because we know her people to be talented and productive," he said. "What they need is the good government and honest leadership that they have not had for many, many years."

FREE TRADE AREA OF THE AMERICAS

On the topic of trade and regional economic integration, Noriega reiterated the United States' support for the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would create a free-trade zone encompassing all the democratic nations of the Western Hemisphere.

"On the FTAA, we continue to believe that the region will be best served through a regional accord that breaks down barriers among all of our economies," he said. "I understand that this will only be possible as we reassure one another that we will address the pressing issue of agricultural subsidies, ... [but] in the meantime, we will press forward with bilateral accords" with individual countries in the region, "and hope that Brazil and our other partners will see the benefits of the rules-based trade and investment accord encompassing all of the Americas."

Finally, Noriega thanked the participants for their questions and urged them to stay in touch through the ECA's Web site for exchange program alumni. The site also offers information on the full range of international exchange programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

The July 6 online discussion attracted participants from Costa Rica, Mexico, Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, Canada and the Dominican Republic.

All were alumni of four ECA-administered exchange programs: the Educational Partnership Program, which enables U.S. and foreign post-secondary institutions to pursue educational objectives related to mutual understanding and scholarly cooperation on subjects of enduring common interest to the United States, to other countries, and to participating institutions; the Fulbright Graduate Student Program, which offers fellowships to U.S. and foreign graduate students for study and research abroad; the Fulbright Scholar Program, which awards grants to foreign and U.S. scholars to lecture and/or conduct post-doctoral research at institutions worldwide; and the International Visitor Leadership Program, which brings participants to the United States from all over the world each year to meet and confer with their professional counterparts and to experience the United States.

Many alumni of U.S. government-sponsored exchange programs have gone on to establish successful careers in government, academia, the business world, jurisprudence and other fields, says the State Department. Meanwhile, the exchange programs are perpetuating the United States' long tradition of outreach to scholars, educators and professionals from every corner of the world -- and continue to serve as a symbol of the U.S. commitment to global understanding and cooperation.


Lauren Monsen
Washington File Staff Writer


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