Briefing with Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Acting Assistant Secretary Julie J. Chung On Secretary Blinken’s Upcoming Virtual Trip to Canada and Mexico

Julie J. Chung, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

Via Teleconference

MR PRICE: Thanks very much for that. And good morning, everyone, and thank you for joining this on-the-record call to preview Secretary Blinken’s virtual travel tomorrow to Mexico and Canada. As I mentioned, this will take place tomorrow, February 26, and this will be his first virtual trip as Secretary of State.

Today we’re really thrilled to have with us Acting Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung. She’ll provide a rundown of the itinerary for tomorrow, discuss our objectives for the Secretary’s first virtual trip as Secretary of State, and offer some detail on his forthcoming engagements with our North American neighbors and partners.

The acting assistant secretary will begin with a short introductory statement, and then we’ll have some time for your questions. Just a reminder, the content of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call, but it will be on the record after that.

So with that, and without further ado, I’ll turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Chung. Go ahead.

MS CHUNG: Great. Good morning. Thanks, Ned.

Good morning, everyone. It’s a pleasure to be with all of you today to preview Secretary Blinken’s virtual visit to Mexico and Canada tomorrow. This is his first trip as Secretary of State. I’ll start with an overview of the itinerary and our trip objectives, and then I’ll be happy to take your questions.

The Biden administration values our longstanding partnerships with Mexico and Canada. Both President Biden and Secretary Blinken made their very first calls with their counterparts from these countries. And this first world trip by Secretary Blinken is another sign of our commitment to these relationships.

The trip also follows President Biden’s meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Tuesday of this week, his first bilateral visit with a foreign leader. Our relationships with Canada and Mexico touch on so many areas critical to our security and prosperity. Through this trip, we hope to reaffirm our strong partnerships with our Mexican and Canadian counterparts, and to deepen conversations at the most senior levels about our shared priorities. Whether it’s combatting the COVID-19 pandemic, tackling the global climate crisis, expanding trade and economic opportunities, or strengthening cooperation on defense and security, Mexico and Canada are critical partners and key to our success.

Secretary Blinken will begin his trip to Mexico at the Paso del Norte border crossing between El Paso, Texas and Ciuadad Juarez, Mexico, where he will meet with CBP counterparts and tour the port of entry. While at the port of entry, Secretary Blinken will speak on our continued partnership with Mexico and efforts to ensure safe, orderly, and humane immigration processing at our southern border. Secretary Blinken will also speak with Mexican Foreign Secretary Ebrard, and this will be the third call actually between the two. And they’re expected to speak about continued collaboration on shared concerns such as migration issues, including the winding down of the MPP, the migration protection protocols, as well as COVID-19 security, regional economic competitiveness, climate change, and other issues of mutual interest.

Secretary Blinken’s final meeting in Mexico is with the Mexican Secretary of Economy Tatiana Clouthier. The two are expected to discuss various economic topics, including how to strengthen even further our deep and dynamic trade and investment relationship.

Finishing his trip to Mexico, Secretary Blinken will host a town hall at our embassy in Mexico City and with our nine consulates throughout Mexico to thank the men and women, both Mexican and American, whose hard work contributes to making Americans safer and more prosperous.

Then Secretary Blinken will meet one-on-one with Foreign Minister Garneau to continue conversations about our bilateral partnership and our close cooperation to advance democracy and protect human rights throughout the hemisphere and around the world. Following his meeting with the foreign minister, members of the Canadian cabinet will also join Secretary Blinken to discuss a range of issues, including COVID-19, climate change, rebuilding our economy, continental security, the Arctic, and multilateralism.

In Canada, Secretary Blinken will also host a town hall with staff from our embassy and seven consulates to thank them for their contributions to our bilateral relationship, and work to improve the lives of Americans and Canadians alike.

Prior to concluding his trip, Secretary Blinken will also meet with the Students on Ice Foundation to discuss our shared responsibility for the North American Arctic, engage with local leaders and youth from the Arctic region on climate change, and appreciate a performance of Inuit cultural tradition.

At the conclusion of this trip, Secretary Blinken will host a press avail to share the accomplishment from the trip and answer questions.

So as you can see, we’re very excited this week in the Western Hemisphere, both engagements with Canada and Mexico by the Secretary, and earlier in the week by President Biden with Canada.

And with that, I’ll stop there and take questions.

MR PRICE: Great. Operator, if you want to offer instructions for asking questions.

OPERATOR: Certainly. Just as a reminder, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to ask a question, please press 1 then 0. Pressing 1 then 0 will remove you from the queue.

MR PRICE: Okay. We will start with Nick Wadhams of Bloomberg.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Can you guys hear me?

MR PRICE: We can.

MS CHUNG: Yes.

QUESTION: Hey, thanks. Can – I just have a logistical question. Can you tell me how the virtual visit differs from just doing essentially a bunch of Zoom calls? He’s not actually going anywhere, is he? This will all be done from the State Department. Is that right?

MS CHUNG: That’s right. The visit is virtual. And because we are concerned about the current state of COVID, and so the – in order to protect our staff both out at the embassies and here, we decided to do this virtually instead of waiting for the time when it would be safer to travel. But we really came up with a creative agenda of events, again, the engagements. And this is the new world we live in through virtual platforms, but we thought it was really important to engage with both Canada and Mexico early on.

MR PRICE: Thanks. We’ll go to the line of Will Mauldin, Wall Street Journal.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for having this. Will Mauldin. Wanted to ask, just would the whole thing be accessible publicly, or which parts would be at YouTube or at state.gov, and just curious how we could cover this and whether they’ll be pooled coverage, or whether we’ll all be able to watch the whole thing, and whether the final press conference – how that would work, exactly.

MR PRICE: I’m happy to take that one. It will be – Will, it’ll be a combination of BNET coverage, camera and press sprays. And then as the acting assistant secretary mentioned, there will be a press avail at the end of the trip that will be pooled between U.S., Mexican, and Canadian journalists. So we’ll have more information on all of that. And I know the Correspondents’ Association is working on it as well.

Let’s go to the line of Jennifer Hansler.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) doing this. I was wondering whether we can expect any sort of joint statements or resolutions or concrete actions out of either or both of the meetings tomorrow.

MS CHUNG: We won’t be having a joint statement, but we are going to be discussing a range of the priorities that affect both of our countries, relationships with Canada and Mexico. So again, as I’ve said, we’ll touch upon security, immigration, climate change, economic prosperity. We’ll just touch upon all those issues and both of the bilateral meetings with both countries.

MR PRICE: Okay. We’ll go to Matt Lee, AP.

QUESTION: Hey, Ned. Hey, Julie. Thanks. I just want to follow up extremely briefly on Nick’s original question about the idea of this virtual trip. I mean, it’s a bit odd, and it’s not really any different than a Zoom call, so why did you guys decide that you wanted to do this? I get the COVID thing, and – but I just wonder advertising it as a trip just seems a little bit weird.

And then policy-wise, Julie, on the – with Canada, how much do you expect the Keystone decision to play here? Thank you.

MR PRICE: Julie, I’ll take the first question. Matt, we have advertised this as a virtual trip. And obviously, as the acting assistant secretary said, we have an important diplomatic mission to accomplish, but we also have another prerogative, and that is to protect the health and safety of not only of our staff but also those with whom the Secretary would be coming into contact, were we to do a physical trip. And so we’re calling it a virtual trip because it will include many of the elements that a physical trip would – embassy meet and greets; meeting with civil society; bilateral meetings; meetings with other government ministers; and then a press avail at the end of the day. So we have designed this trip to be – to resemble as closely as we can a physical trip. And we’re doing the best we can to fulfill our diplomatic mission and to further our relationships with our close North American partners, given the reality in which we currently live.

So Julie, over to you on the other question.

MS CHUNG: Thanks. Yes, the Biden administration revoked the presidential plan for the Keystone. But we’re going to have a whole range of issues related to energy between the United States and Canada that we’ll continue to engage upon. Canada and the United States are each other’s largest energy trading partners, and there’s a lot we need to discuss on shared economic security and environmental priorities. So energy in terms of – comprehensively between the United States and Canada. We’ll continue to discuss our top priorities on those issues.

MR PRICE: Great. Let’s go to Deirdre Shesgreen, of USA Today.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks so much for doing this. Could you talk about whether Secretary Blinken plans to discuss reopening the borders and map out a way forward on that?

MS CHUNG: Are you talking about both on the Canada and Mexico borders?

QUESTION: Right.

MS CHUNG: For COVID? Yes. Right now, the borders are closed except for essential travel. And we have consistently been engaging both leaders about COVID and addressing the emergency situation of the pandemic. Now, we want to make sure to ensure that essential services and essential travel and trade continue. And we’re very proud of that, that we’ve been able to continue on that with a lot of the trade continuing unimpeded. And so we will just continue to consult each other, because this is a dynamic issue, and there are constantly changes, whether it’s COVID variants or other issues that we need to address. But we fully respect those measures that Mexico and Canada have taken. We’ll constantly assess whether we need to take new measures in terms of the border.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Ariel Moutsatsos of Televisa.

QUESTION: Yeah. Hi. Thank you for doing this. I’d like to ask – I have a doubt – it’s not clear to me the part in which he is – they are going to visit – I assume it’s a virtual visit – the border in El Paso. Are they – what does that entail? Are they going to have a talk with someone else there? Is someone else going to be included in the conversation in both sides, and who would that be? How is that going to play out, that part of the agenda? Thank you.

MS CHUNG: Well, for the El Paso visit, we chose that port of entry because it is so significant for the Mexico-U.S. border in terms of the trade, but also the people-to-people ties. So the virtual visit, he will enter and be greeted by our charge d’affaires and the consulate general, and also be greeted by the port director at the site and have a discussion there with the folks who are working at the border – at the port of entry site.

MR PRICE: We’ll go to Jose Diaz, Reforma.

QUESTION: Yes. Thank you for doing this. I really appreciate it. This is a question for Ms. Chung: Do you expect that Secretary Blinken will be addressing the proposed changes in the Mexican electricity sector that U.S. companies think is a breach to the USMCA?

MS CHUNG: Yeah, there are a whole host of issues related to USMCA implementation that’s ongoing. In terms of the electricity and energy issues, that’s another area that we’ll be discussing in the medium term and long term because there are many aspects that we’re hearing from the private sector about their concerns. But this is where we encourage Mexico to listen to the stakeholders, to listen to the private sector companies and really provide that culture, the atmosphere of free investment and transparency so that companies will continue to invest in Mexico.

MR PRICE: Go to the line of Nike Ching, VOA.

QUESTION: Morning. Thank you, Ned, and thank you, Julie, for this call. The United States recently joined Canada for a statement against arbitrary detention with regard to the campaign to free the two Michaels, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. How much is that going to be addressed during Secretary Blinken’s virtual meeting with his Canadian counterparts? Should we expect further actions from both the U.S. and Canada? Thank you.

MS CHUNG: Yeah, the issue of arbitrary detention has been high-priority for the United States Government. As you saw earlier this week, we joined Canada and more than 50 countries on that declaration against the arbitrary detention. And we’ve been consistently for the past year talking about the two Michaels, Michael Spavor and Kovrig, and calling for Beijing to release these two individuals and stop the arbitrary detention. Human beings should not be used as pawns. And we stand by Canada, our strong friend and partner, in the issues of arbitrary detention and for the release of the two Canadian citizens.

MR PRICE: We’ll got to Tehinder (ph) Singh.

QUESTION: Is that me? Tejinder Singh?

MR PRICE: Yes. Yes, that’s you.

QUESTION: Yes. Yes, the question is that there is a secessionist movement, Khalistan movement, that’s going on from the U.S. and Canada, and for which the Canadian prime minister was not very well treated during his trip to India. So will the Secretary be talking to his Canadian counterpart to how to counter this particular movement? It’s called Khalistani movement, the secessionist movement that wants to take Punjab out of India.

MS CHUNG: Well, I think that the Secretary will discuss with his counterparts a range of global and regional issues, but I think that just speaks back to what President Biden said about the United States being back in diplomacy, using all multilateral tools, being back in international fora like the World Health Organization and the Human Rights Council. We want to consult very closely with our great likeminded partner Canada across a range of global and regional issues.

MR PRICE: And we’ll take a final question here from Conor Finnegan of ABC.

QUESTION: Hey, thank you for doing this. I was wondering if you expect the two sides to discuss the U.S. arrest of Emma Coronel Aispuro, the wife of El Chapo. And more broadly, can you speak to this administration’s satisfaction or not with the Mexican Government’s counter-drug trafficking operations, especially after the last administration released the former defense minister, Cienfuegos? Thank you.

MS CHUNG: Thanks. We continue to have a very strong level of cooperation across all levels between the United States and Mexico. We have a range of programs, capacity building programs with our International Law Enforcement and Narcotics Bureau, but across law enforcement agencies in the United States Government. We will continue on that whether it’s arms trafficking, trafficking in persons, carrying drugs. We share a large border and a lot of that, the porous border, also causes the trafficking of malign products and people.

So we’re going to make sure we address those law enforcement issues together, and we’re committed more than ever to utilizing every tool to address that. And just to add, the U.S. and Mexico, be sure – 2,000 miles of that border, but 55 active ports of entry. With Canada, it’s over 5,000 miles with 120 land ports of entry. So to ensure the security and safety of people and across both borders, we need to be engaged and we will continue to be engaged across a whole range of security and economic fronts.

MR PRICE: Well, thank you very much to you, Assistant Secretary Chung, for your time today. And thank you very much for everyone for dialing in. We’ll obviously be speaking to you in the coming hours, and obviously tomorrow as well as this goes forward. As a reminder, this call was on the record and the embargo is now lifted. Thanks very much.

MS CHUNG: Thank you, everybody.

More from: Julie J. Chung, Acting Assistant SecretaryBureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs

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    The Venezuelan economy's performance has declined steadily for almost a decade and fallen steeply since the imposition of a series of U.S. sanctions starting in 2015. For example, the economy declined from negative 6.2 percent gross domestic product growth in 2015 to negative 35 percent in 2019 and negative 25 percent in 2020. The sanctions, particularly on the state oil company in 2019, likely contributed to the steeper decline of the Venezuelan economy, primarily by limiting revenue from oil production. However, mismanagement of Venezuela's state oil company and decreasing oil prices are among other factors that have also affected the economy's performance during this period. U.S. agencies have sought input from humanitarian organizations to identify the potential negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions related to Venezuela and taken steps to mitigate these issues. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and Department of State (State) have solicited input from U.S.-funded humanitarian organizations on challenges they face, including the impact of sanctions. The U.S. Department of the Treasury (Treasury) and State have also taken steps to mitigate negative consequences. For example, Treasury issued licenses permitting various types of humanitarian assistance transactions in Venezuela (see figure). Treasury also maintains a call center and email account through which organizations can receive assistance with compliance issues or other challenges related to sanctions. While Treasury officials told GAO they respond to individual inquiries, Treasury does not systematically track and analyze information from these inquiries to identify trends or recurrent issues. Without collection and analysis of this information, Treasury and its interagency partners may be limited in their ability to develop further actions to ensure that U.S. sanctions do not disrupt humanitarian assistance. U.S. Humanitarian Assistance Supplies for Venezuelans U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela have likely had a limited impact, if any, on the U.S. oil industry. Despite an overall lower supply of oil in the U.S. market from the loss of Venezuelan crude oil due to sanctions, crude oil and retail gasoline prices in the U.S. have not increased substantially. Many other factors in addition to the sanctions simultaneously affected the oil market and the price of crude oil and retail gasoline prices, including production cuts in January 2019 by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and decreased demand for energy during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to industry officials to whom GAO spoke, U.S. refineries have adjusted to these changes by shifting to alternative sources and types of crude oil. Venezuela has been experiencing an economic, political, and humanitarian crisis. The U.S. government has imposed sanctions on Venezuela's state oil company, government, and central bank, among others, in response to activities of the Venezuelan government and certain individuals. Treasury and the Department of State lead the implementation of the sanctions program, and USAID is primarily responsible for implementing humanitarian assistance for Venezuelans. GAO was asked to review U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela. This report examines: (1) how the Venezuelan economy performed before and since the imposition of sanctions in 2015; (2) the steps U.S. agencies have taken to identify and mitigate potential negative humanitarian consequences of sanctions related to Venezuela; and (3) what is known about the impact of U.S. sanctions related to Venezuela on the U.S. oil industry. GAO analyzed economic indicators, reviewed documents, interviewed agency officials, and spoke with representatives from selected humanitarian organizations and the U.S oil industry. GAO recommends that Treasury systematically track inquiries made to its call center and email account, including the specific sanctions program and the subject matter of the inquiry to identify trends and recurring issues. Treasury concurred with GAO's recommendation. For more information, contact Kimberly Gianopoulos at (202) 512-8612 or GianopoulosK@gao.gov.
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  • VA Construction: VA Should Enhance the Lessons-Learned Process for Its Real-Property Donation Pilot Program
    In U.S GAO News
    The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) has received one real property donation through a partnership pilot program authorized by the Communities Helping Invest through Property and Improvements Needed for Veterans Act of 2016 (CHIP-IN Act) and is planning for a second. This Act authorized VA to accept donated real property—such as buildings or facility construction or improvements—and to contribute certain appropriated funds to donors that are entering into donation agreements with VA. Under VA's interpretation, its ability to contribute to such funds is limited to major construction projects (over $20 million). The first CHIP-IN project—an ambulatory care center in Omaha, Nebraska—opened in August 2020. Pending requested appropriations for a second CHIP-IN project, VA intends to partner with another donor group to construct an inpatient medical center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (See figure.) Other potential donors have approached VA about opportunities that could potentially fit the CHIP-IN pilot, but these project ideas have not proceeded for various reasons, including the large donations required. VA officials told us they have developed a draft legislative proposal that seeks to address a challenge in finding CHIP-IN partnerships. For example, officials anticipate that a modification allowing VA to make funding contributions to smaller projects of $20 million and under would attract additional donors. Completed Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) Ambulatory Care Center in Omaha, NE, and Rendering of Proposed Inpatient Facility in Tulsa, OK VA has discussed and documented some lessons learned from the Omaha project. For example, VA officials and the Omaha donor group identified and documented the benefits of a design review software that helped shorten timeframes and reduce costs compared to VA's typical review process. However, VA has not consistently followed a lessons-learned process, and as a result, other lessons, such as the decision-making that went into developing the Omaha project's donation agreement, have not been documented. Failure to document and disseminate lessons learned puts VA at risk of losing valuable insights from the CHIP-IN pilot that could inform future CHIP-IN projects or other VA construction efforts. VA has pressing infrastructure demands and a backlog of real property projects. VA can accept up to five real property donations through the CHIP-IN pilot program, which is authorized through 2021. GAO previously reported on the CHIP-IN pilot program in 2018. The CHIP-IN Act includes a provision for GAO to report on donation agreements entered into under the pilot program. This report examines: (1) the status of VA's efforts to execute CHIP-IN partnerships and identify additional potential partners and (2) the extent to which VA has collected lessons learned from the pilot, among other objectives. GAO reviewed VA documents, including project plans and budget information, and interviewed VA officials, donor groups for projects in Omaha and Tulsa, and selected non-profits with experience in fundraising. GAO compared VA's efforts to collect lessons learned with key practices for an overall lessons-learned process. GAO is making two recommendations to VA to implement a lessons-learned process. Recommendations include documenting and disseminating lessons learned from CHIP-IN pilot projects. VA concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Andrew Von Ah at (202) 512-2834 or vonaha@gao.gov.
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