Remarks by Ambassador Ronald Johnson to AmCham

Siempre hay una pregunta y yo tengo una respuesta: vamos a continuar trabajando con ustedes apoyando el país y la gente, aquí. Es importante para los Estados Unidos, es importante para nosotros.

I am going to be speaking in English today, which I have mixed feelings about, but we have an interpreter, so I’m going to do that and bear with me I mean no disrespect but this is a little emotional and a little complicated so I want to make sure that I’m clear in my message. When I arrived here, in El Salvador, it coincided with the 45th anniversary of AmCham and it’s also a very crucial moment, a very critical moment here in El Salvador. It’s certainly a time of opportunity. But it’s also  a very strategic time it’s a moment when our decisions, those that we make on how we decide to move forward will determine El Salvador’s future and the friendship between the United States and El Salvador. Not any single person, not any single country will make that determination, we will make that determination together and I think that’s important to remember. 

I’d like to begin with a with a vision or, some might say, a dream. If some of you may remember, most of you are younger than me, but in 1963 Dr Martin Luther King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. He didn’t lay out a plan, he didn’t have a plan, but he talked about a destination, about his dream because, you see, one has to know where they’re going before they can decide how they’re going to get there. So I want to talk to you a little bit today about my vision and my dream for the relationship with the United States and El Salvador, about what I would like to see in our future and it’s what we call a special relationship. A relationship where we are not just partners, and not just business partners, we are already number one trade partners, but not just that, but where we are friends. A relationship where we share a preference for each other and each others services. Where we are willing to go the extra mile to help the other, to support each other. A relationship where a US based company will want to hire salvadorans because of their reputation as good workers and talented people. Where we want to use Salvadoran products over other products because of the quality, the friendship and the proximity and because we have shared values of democracy, freedom, self-determination and human rights.

I want to be able to see a US customer walk up to the counter in a coffee shop in Washington DC and ask the guy at Starbucks or whatever the coffee shop is: do you have salvadoran coffee? Because I prefer Salvadoran coffee over the others and I think that can happen. I want to see talents, art, theater and musical interest grow closer, become more combined. When you think about it we’re already there in a lot of ways. About 30% of the people in the world who identify themselves as Salvadorans live in the United States and the remittances that they make help El Salvador quite a bit every year, it’s a large portion of the GDP here. Our native languages, English and Spanish, are the fastest growing languages in each country. Except Miami where they kind of mixed together and they’re neither English nor Spanish, they are Spanglish. But this is also an interesting phenomena that shows how closely united our cultures and our people are.

One can barely walk into a restaurant or hotel anywhere in Washington DC and I’ve done that a lot, you can’t do it without running into someone from El Salvador that’s there and you can see the pride and you see the value of their work. Many of them now that I’ve seen are in management positions but they always is funny they always recognized me and they come over and they want to say hello and they want to talk about how things are in their home country of El Salvador but they’re very proud and they’re doing extremely well there. And as you know as nature has it, they are there, they meet people, they fall in love, they get married, some to US citizens and they have US citizen children, so there’s a bond there. We’re connected. 

Looking forward I’d like to see of course more US investment, more partnerships between US and Salvadoran companies and I’d like to see the tourism industry continue to grow. I think it can. It can’t all be about tourism but about 10% of the country’s GDP is connected to tourism and I think the major thing that we need to look at when we look at the tourism industry is how do we connect that to other things in El Salvador that are also important and there’s a lot of things that can be done. I would like to see El Salvador become a destination for tourists and not just surfers but all kinds of tourists from all walks of life. I like to see more Visa opportunities for Salvadoran workers to go work in the United States, more scholarships and exchange students from both countries. I mean, can you imagine a US student that is dreaming of an exchange opportunity to come to El Salvador and work in the tourist industry near the beach and learn how El Salvador does it so that they can come back and use it in the United States. I can imagine that. It could happen.

I’d like to see a US tourist that wants to buy a t-shirt that has a picture of a salvadoran volcano on there, with some words in spanish, “Tierra del Fuego” or something, and be just as proud of that as they would be if they bought a T-shirt in Hawaii with Kilauea in the background. That could happen. 

I’d like to see both populations be more mobile, and legally traveling back and forth between the United States and El Salvador to visit family, to visit the other country, to go to school, to work, maybe to retire. That could happen.

Is this a fantasy? I don’t know, maybe, but then again so was putting a man on the moon and we did that. We dreamed it, we did it. We can do this too. 

There’s a book a friend of mine, Simon Sinek, wrote, called “Begin with why?” and he has some excellent TED videos. If you ever get a chance to watch his TED talks they are really good. Simon is an inspirational speaker, and he’s a bit of a genius. But in his book he lays out a model for how great leaders inspire people to take action and he talks about begin with why. Why are we doing this. That’s what my dream is, it’s the Why in all of this. Because when El Salvador prospers, the United States prospers. We are connected culturally. We are connected through our belief in democracy and freedom and when one country does well it’s good for the other country too. So my dream is why. That’s the easy part of my job because we feel the same way, we have the same priorities. But moving along to how gets just a little bit more difficult, but it’s not impossible. But here is how we plan, how do we get to that dream. How do we move the country and the relationship forward. All of us have a part in that. AmCham, the organization, our two governments and each of you and myself as individuals we all have a part in that and we all play key roles in moving forward.

Let’s start with the governments. The US government is already working the Salvadoran government, to help explore and implement policies that speed up the process for permits and licences, policies that reduce red tape and bureaucracy and policies that ensure that all business competition is conducted in a transparent fair business environment. A place where international business norms are common and where corruption at all levels is discoverable easily and unquestionably punished. AmCham has already laid out plans to streamlining and digitizing much of the contracting and permitting procedures and I want to commend all of you for your efforts those are very instrumental in helping to move the country. We want to continue to partner with you to help push those kinds of solutions and I can assure you that I have spoken to Presidente Bukele on those topics several times as well as you and I am encouraged by his actions in this regard.

The next part where you really play an important part is looking at sustainable job creation. It can only be accomplished in the private sector. Each year there are tens of thousands of new entrants who finish school and are looking for work and exist businesses just can’t keep pace for that demand for jobs. It’s abundantly clear that young salvadorans are creative and talented and I’ve been extremely impressed with those I have met and talked to. But the biggest impediment is the lack of opportunities. Collectively you, we, we all, can help take on this challenge. Look to broaden your networks to support downstream growth. Small businesses to provide some of those missing opportunities. Many of you already sub-contract certain aspects of your operations, like Human Resources, marketing, social media, advertising, something as simple as maintenance around your offices. But business models worldwide are increasingly looking to local subject matter experts for these types of support services and this allows the business to focus on their core priorities while local experts focus on the other issues for the business. So I encourage you to look at the possibility of providing other opportunities to smaller businesses that can work in conjunction with you on your activities. 

I think the other thing that I’ve seen and the other thing that young Salvadorans can offer is they bring an agility and flexibility to your business as well as new ideas new energies so look for opportunities where you can employ young people that are are energized, they are excited, they want to be able to contribute. And they can start out small, they can start out small, they just need help and an opportunity. 

Notably, we have already seen an increase in interest among potential U.S. investors. I’m sure some of you were talking to them now and we are too. This will channel a lot more investment in El Salvador, and it’s a priority for President Trump. He said so personally to president Bukele in New York when they met back in September and we’re proud that US investors and the US government’s Development Bank, OPIC, are supporting the largest private investment in the history of El Salvador with the Energía del Pacífico, which is a natural gas project. It’s a billion dollar project, B, Billion. It will improve the air quality and it will serve as a springboard and a center for many other investments in the region. And, this is an important message, our Development Bank is committed to making more historical Investments here. This involves much more investment than we the past several decades. I’m talking about billions of dollars and US funding available for investment ideas and that’s just in El Salvador. Our goal at the Embassy here is to channel as much of those billions as possible to places here in El Salvador. I encourage all of you to explore the possibilities and develop strategies to take advantage of this available funding. Now is the time to invest and we want to partner with you, the Embassy wants to party with you to help you support your Investments.

Now let me get to my final point. Everybody here already knows this but US businesses hold themselves to a very high standard regarding transparency and compliance. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act is the most widely enforced anti-corruption law in the world. It requires us companies worldwide to adopt business practices that maintain the highest ethical standards. And US companies are proven reliable partners. They comply not only with local laws and environmental laws, but also with international standards. US companies also conduct robust social programs for the employees, they hire local employees often with salaries that are above the norm for the area. They follow a model that focuses not just on short-term wins but in long-term growth. The United States and US investors are the kind of partner that can be counted on to help El Salvador’s long-term development. It gives me pleasure that AmCham members fall into this category whether you’re a US business, a franchise or are simply a business that’s responsible, that’s one of the many reasons that AmCham is such a great partner here in El Salvador and around the world.

When we talk about a holistic and all-encompassing approach to growth, this is what we mean. Supporting economic growth through job creation, attracting investment, improving processes, they are all key to strengthening a business culture that is resistant to corrosive investment, debt traps and Corruption. And they support both economic and social development. We see examples of these big and small already in progress. You all know that tourism is an area that can provide the country with immediate opportunities. It contributes 10% of El Salvador’s GDP . Nearly one in every 10 people is involved in the tourism sector in some way and it’s growing by more than 10% each year. We just completed and I was very proud of this, the international paddleboard competition at the beach. Theyer were 27 different countries with teams represented there and I think one of the most important things was the message that they carried back home of their experience in El Salvador. And also the message that went out over the media while they were here. I know I spoke to one of the US team members who was from Mai and Hawaii and I asked him, how is the surf here? I’ve heard it’s really good? Is it really good? You know, I don’t know. And he said: it is as good or better than the surf in Maui. And the hospitality is wonderful, I love it, I’m coming back. That’s the kind of message we need to hear.

Just last week we had a groundbreaking of a wastewater treatment plant that supports the tourism sector in El Zonte. US salvadoran investors are jointly supporting that with 9 million dollars  project. And along with clean water, we are also implementing an education program that will graduate students who will specialize in hospitality and tourism. In total around El Salvador we’re opening 46 new schools this year and we’re very proud of that because that is the future. 

I have no doubt we’ll transform the coastline into a tourist community and at the same time bringing solid economic returns and investment. I have high hopes that there will be excursions from the beach to other places in El Salvador, to volcanoes, to coffee plantations, to other historical sites. I was talking about it before I got here, I know a lot of people go to Hawaii, they take that long, experience trip from the United States to go to Hawaii, they go to the beach. They go for the surf, they go for the hotels. And after about three days at the beach they wake up one day and say let’s go do something else. And for me: “let’s go look at a volcano, let’s go look.” we took a flight, we took a tour, we went up the volcano, we drive up to it because I wasn’t going to to hike to get up there. And we were able to talk to specialists and have a tour on the volcano that taught us about that. We need to look at ways to make that here. We need to make it easy for tourists with money that are not gonna hike, easy for them so that they can get there and get to hear things about seismic sensors, the monitoring that is already occurring here needs to be linked to that industry. There are a lot of opportunities there but I don’t know if it’s a 4Runner or a cable car or horseback or what, but there are ways to make that easier and more attractive.

The private sector has an opportunity right now to influence and shape growth and development. It’s time to seek a more strategic approach, one that will help develop the country as a whole and boost the economy. I respectfully ask you to position yourself strategically to work hand-in-hand with public-sector on shared priorities. You’re already doing that in AmCham and I thank you. 

Let’s work together to improve El Salvador’s prosperity through increased opportunities for trade investment and jobs like me you’re all ambassadors, and I encourage you to spread the good word with your colleagues in the United States and other places. We have to change that typical image that’s in the mind of most people when they hear the words El Salvador and they think about tattoos on the neck and they think about violence. 

That’s not El Salvador.

So we have to change that and working together we can and that was one of the things that encouraged me so much about surfing competition, it wasn’t the surfing, it was that people could see that El Salvador was so different, much safer, and that people are much more friendly than I had ever imagined and they are going to go back and they are going to tell that story to others and that news will spread. 

Only by growing existing businesses and attracting new investments can El Salvador meet its challenge to employ the people that are entering the workforce. The next time I speak to AmCham, I hope we are in a room twice this big, I hope we will have a lot more chairs hre and a lot more members. That’s what I would like to see and I think it would be good for all of us. You can continue to count on the US Embassy and on me for support. We believe in investing in El Salvador because we have seen the return on this investment. We will continue to promote real economic opportunities and we will continue to foster and support salvadoran efforts to reach our shared goals to increase security, advancing prosperity and creating jobs. 

We are united with you to build the special relationship and the vision that I mentioned and to realize our dreams and your dreams here in El Salvador. 

That’s probably too much english, we probably necesitamos más café ahora, but thank you so much for the opportunity and for the time to be her with me this morning.