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Welcome to "Ask the White House" -- an online interactive forum where you can submit questions to Administration officials and friends of the White House. Visit the "Ask the White House" archives to read other discussions with White House officials.

Karen Hughes
U.S. Under Secretary of State

July 9, 2007

Karen Hughes
Good Afternoon. It is a pleasure to be with you to discuss today’s White House Conference on the Americas, and our nation’s broader commitment to the social, political and economic advancement of the Western Hemisphere. We recognize the great importance of our neighbors to the South; in fact, when I became Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, President Bush asked me to make Latin America one of my priorities.

His words have been lived out in actions, and just before his latest trip to the region in March, the President announced that the Administration would convene this conference to bring together representatives from the private sector, non-governmental organizations, faith-based groups, and volunteer associations to share experiences, network with colleagues, and discuss more effective ways to deliver aid and build the institutions of civic society.

This conference builds on the President’s commitment to advancing the cause of social justice in the Americas. As he has said, “Social justice means meeting basic needs.” Countries throughout the region have made great strides toward freedom and prosperity in the past three decades, yet despite this progress, tens of millions still live in poverty, without access to healthcare and education. The United States– in a spirit of partnership and respect – is committed to working with governments, organizations, and individuals alike, to help the countries of this hemisphere meet the basic needs of their people.

Thanks for joining me and I look forward to your questions.

Kim, from Kentucky writes:
Hi Karen, I just had a comment. I initially wondered why the Conference on the Americas will involve non-governmental organziations of both South America and the U.S. instead of focusing solely upon diplomatic issues between the two countries. Then I began to see the beauty of this whole approach--reaching out and having a grasp of issues of importance to the average South American citizen, will have an affect on a personal level. By making a positive impact in this way, there will be less of a chance for the seeds of discontent and radical ideas to take hold in areas of South America. I really hope that this conference is a success, and I feel that there will be a positive impact from your efforts. Good Luck

Also, Happy Birthday to President Bush today

Karen Hughes
Thank you for your comments and well wishes. As you’ve noted, and President Bush has said, the most important ties between the Americas are not government to government, they are people to people. Our societies are becoming increasingly connected because of our businesses, churches, and educational institutions, and this conference seeks to highlight the vital role all organizations – both public and private – play in the development and prosperity of the hemisphere.

We recognize that achieving an Americas where economic opportunity, education, health care extend to all will take more than the efforts of government alone, and that is really the purpose of today’s summit – to exchange ideas and best practices, to create new partnerships – to recognize that non-government organizations, charities, religious congregations, private sector donors are increasingly a major part of what I like to call America’s “diplomacy of deeds.”

President Bush has nearly doubled foreign assistance to the Western Hemisphere during his administration, and while government aid is vitally important, it is only a small part of the overall aid that goes from American organizations and private citizens to countries across the world. In fact, the 2007 Index of Global Philanthropy found that individuals, foundations and other private sources in the United States provided more than $95 billion in aid and remittances to developing countries in 2005 – more than triple the amount given by the federal government. When we bring those private sector partners and their committed volunteers together with government, we increase all our effectiveness.

Mark, from El Paso writes:
Our family read and enjoyed "Ten Minutes from Normal." I think historians will find it quite useful when piecing together the events surrounding the President's time as a leader. Will we be treated to a sequel covering your return to Washington and the latter years of the administration?

Karen Hughes
Thanks for your nice comments about my book. I’m too busy focusing on my current job to even think about my future, but I’m looking forward to living full-time in Texas again. When I finished my last book, I asked my husband to say one word if I ever talked about writing another one. He thought the word would be “no,” but it wasn’t. I asked him to say, “fiction,” because next time I want to make it all up!

Tom, from Miami writes:
According to data in the Pew Global Attitudes Project and other sources, Argentina is among the countries in the Americas with the most negative view of the US and of Americans. Argentines are an educated and well informed society which historically has not been very fond of the US. What if anything can be done to change what seems to be ingrained anti-Americanism?

Karen Hughes
That same poll shows that 50 percent of Argentines have a positive view of U.S. science, technology, and cultural exports. But it is clear that we must work harder to get the word out on how closely and constructively we work with Argentina on such things as educational exchanges, healthcare assistance, and Economic Development and Job Training Assistance. For example:

- The flagship of American exchange programs, the Fulbright Program, celebrated its 50th anniversary in Argentina in 2006. In the past half century, more than 4,800 Americans and Argentines have participated in the program, at a cost of $55 million dollars, contributing immeasurably to the political, economic, and cultural life of both our countries.

- In the last three years alone, the U.S. has funded visits of approximately 650 Argentines to the U.S. for professional or academic exchanges and training programs. This year, over 60 Sarmiento-Mann Scholarships are being distributed throughout Argentina to enable excellent students with scarce financial resources to study English. And last year, the U.S. Embassy also sent 25 secondary school English teachers (Teacher Ambassadors) to Austin, Texas, on a training program to improve their teaching skills and learn about American values and culture.

- We are cooperating more in crucial health areas – last fall, the Centers for Disease Control granted $900,000 to Argentina’s Ministry of Health for avian influenza preparedness.

- And we are trying to reach more people are the grassroots level by funding innovative self-help development projects. The Inter-American Foundation, a foreign assistance agency of the United States government, has invested more than $29 million since 1972 in 225 grassroots programs in Argentina that will mean more jobs and prosperity.

Finally, we are making every effort to expose young people in Argentina to the real America through exchange programs, cultural events and increased contact with Americans. I strongly believe that person-to-person contact is the most effective public diplomacy. Edward R. Murrow famously said that the most important part of public diplomacy is the last three feet. We will continue to look for ways to increase these people-to-people programs in Argentina.

Jean, from Williamsburg, IA writes:
My husband and I submitted our applications for passports for a trip we are hoping to take to Switzerland on July 15, 2007. We submitted them almost 16 weeks ago and have not received them I have been disconnected countless times from the 800 number provided for the National Passport Agency. We are very unsettled that we can not get any answers or even speak with a person from the government about this. What recourse do we have ifwhen we must pay for a trip that we cannot take because of this issue?

Karen Hughes
I am so sorry you are still waiting for your passports. My office is not directly involved with the passport issue, but I know from what I hear at State Department staff meetings that new legislation has caused an unprecedented demand for passports – just last week, the person in charge of the Consular Affairs bureau reported that as of the end of June, they have already issued almost as many passports as they had issued the entire year before. The Consular Affairs bureau is taking extraordinary measures to try to meet this new demand and get people their passports in time for their trips. All the passport related agencies are working overtime and weekends, several are working 24/7. The Consular Affairs division has brought on more than 1,000 new staff and the State Department as a whole is re-assigning personnel from other duties to work on passport adjudication. Several hundred Department employees have volunteered to work nights and weekends on passport cases, in addition to doing their regular jobs.

If you would like to give me more data about your case I will make sure it gets to the passport office. Some customers have had difficulty getting through on the toll-free number, but please keep trying. Consular Affairs recently added more telephone lines, bringing the total number available to over 400.

For other participants in “Ask The White House,” if you have a passport application pending you can check the status on If your flight is in two weeks or less, and the web site doesn't show your passport is on its way, we want to hear from you. The toll-free number is 1-877-487-2778. The call center is open from 6 a.m. to midnight, Eastern time, Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekends and holidays. You can also use the website to send us an email message about your pending departure.

Mark, from New York writes:
Ms. Huges: Whatever became of your international "listening tours"? I was excited to hear about them, as I travel extensively overseas and have sadly seen firsthand the decline in opinion among foreigners about the United States of America.

So much of the good we are doing is being drowned out by Iraq...will you be making additional tours to help turn things around?

Many thanks for listening and I hope to hear from you.

Karen Hughes
I believe public diplomacy is a dialogue, not a monologue, and I have actively continued my “listening tours.” During the last two years, I have visited close to 40 countries to reach out, listen and show America’s respect for different people, culture and contributions. My first trip this year was to China, and I traveled with Olympic skater Michelle Kwan, who we named as our first public diplomacy envoy. Michelle is a wonderful representative for our country and has a real gift for relating to young people. She just finished a similar successful trip to Russia. I’ve also traveled to Algeria, where I visited schools and met with women leaders and government officials, Mexico, where I visited health, education and economic development programs in three cities and toured a number of important historic and cultural sites; Jordan, where I met with participants in our “My Arabic library” program which has provided textbooks and teacher training in elementary schools, as well as businesswomen who are networking with American businesswomen, and India, where I traveled with a team of American university presidents to encourage more Indian students to come to the U.S. to study. India is already the leading source of foreign students in the U.S., and we would like to encourage even more of their students to pursue higher education here.

The feedback that I get as I travel helps shape our public diplomacy efforts – for example, when I visited one of our English teaching programs in Morocco, I asked a young man what difference the program had made to him and he said, “I have a job and none of my friends do.” This young man came from the same neighborhood that produced the suicide bombers – yet he now has a job and hope. We are expanding our English language teaching programs to give more young people a marketable skill and the opportunity for a better future --- a reason to live rather than a reason to die. This summer we are providing English language teaching programs, plus fun sports activities, to thousands more young people ages 8-14 in 17 countries.

One of my favorite new programs is called “Citizen Dialogue,” which sends delegations of Muslim Americans as citizen envoys to other countries. It grew out of a conversation I had with a Turkish woman when I was in Germany. She told me how isolated the Muslim community in Germany often feels. I asked her if I could visit her community and meet with people there. She told me, quite bluntly, “no.” “We’re not interested in meeting with our own government,” she said, “Why would we want to meet with yours?” I asked, “Could I send some Muslim American citizens?” She replied, “That would be wonderful.” Based on that, we launched a “citizen dialogue” program, sending Muslim Americans from all walks of life to places as diverse as Jordan, Pakistan, India, and Denmark. The group that recently went to Malaysia, including an Imam, appeared on Malaysia’s top-rated morning television program – the station was so interested that it is sending a camera crew to America this spring to film American Muslims in their homes for an 8-part prime time series on Islam in America.

These kinds of people-to-people programs are invaluable in challenging stereotypes and countering misinformation. We are expanding our people to people programs, and are making progress on many fronts, but this is the work of decades. Public diplomacy will require a strong, sustained commitment from our government and our people to succeed.

Patricia, from Urcuyo writes:
With the recent shift in the political party rule of Nicaragua, does the U.S. plan to be strictly observational of the situation?

Karen Hughes
We remain strongly committed to an active policy of positive engagement with the Government of Nicaragua. President Bush called Daniel Ortega before his inauguration to congratulate him on his electoral victory. We have followed President Bush’s call with a series of high-level visits to the country to sustain a positive dialogue that seeks consensus on a broad array of issues. In an April 19 meeting between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos, the two confirmed the importance of friendly bilateral relationships between our two countries based on respect for democracy and a free-market economy.

I like to talk about America’s “diplomacy of deeds” – the positive ways in which we are reaching out to people to help them improve their lives, especially in the areas of education, health and economic development. To create more jobs in both our countries, we are actively working with Nicaragua to take full advantage of the benefits granted by our free trade agreement, CAFTA-DR. And we are committed to implementing with our Nicaraguan partners our $175 million Millennium Challenge Compact that will help increase market access for Nicaragua’s rural communities, improve the country’s transportation infrastructure, and strengthen rural property ownership. Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt has visited Nicaragua twice this year promoting Nicaragua’s inclusion in a new U.S.-Central American health Diplomacy initiative that trains regional health care professionals at a multinational facility in Panama. We will continue to focus attention on other cooperative bilateral efforts such as our New Horizons military exercises that build schools and wells; medical services provided by the upcoming July visit of the naval hospital ship USNS Comfort (which is staffed by both Navy personnel and volunteer medical professionals from America), and security training accompanying the visit of the naval vessel USNS Swift.

All of these activities reflect and reinforce America’s commitment to the Nicaraguan people. Our policy seeks to help them combat poverty and improve living standards through a diplomacy of deeds that provides opportunity and social justice for all Nicaraguans.

Cliff, from Brimfield, Ohio writes:
Secretary Hughes: Has the job of Under Secretary brought you closer than 10 MINTUES FROM NORMAL than the Communications job did, or are you farther away from Normal? (just play on words) This thing on the Americas, does this refer to North and South America and the issues that both face? Thank You

Karen Hughes
I’m not sure I could ever describe working in Washington as “normal!” Seriously, though, I’ve been reminded at the State Department, as I was at the White House, that it is a great honor and privilege to represent our country. My current job gives me the opportunity to meet people across the world, and while our lives are sometimes very different, the things we care about most as human beings are often quite the same. Most people want education and opportunity for themselves and their families. Most of us want to be free to practice our faith, express our opinions, and participate in choosing our leaders. We want to live in communities that are safe, and we want our children to inherit a better world. In Mexico, I met an impressive young boy from Chiapas who, with a gleam of pride in his eyes, told me about his country’s rich cultural heritage. I’ve met young people from Brazil who have excelled in their local schools and are on their way to achieving their dream of higher education. Together, we’re working to expand the circle of opportunity and extend progress and prosperity across our hemisphere. We are working on important issues around the globe, but the Americas are a priority for us because this is our neighborhood. We are a community of democracies linked by history, geography and shared values.

Karen Hughes
Thank you for the opportunity to answer your thoughtful questions, and for your interest in this important topic. As President Bush has said, "Today, the most important ties between North and South America are not government to government, they are people to people."

In Texas we like to say, "Tenemos tios y tias en los dos lados del Rio Grande" -- ties of family and friendship on both sides of the river - because our histories and our futures are interwoven.

From the tip of Chile to the top of Canada, we are united in the Americas by history, geography, shared values, shared interests, and the shared promise of progress and prosperity. Together, we can create a hemisphere with an expanding circle of opportunity for all. Thank you and best wishes to you all.

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