Media Center



June 5, 2005 - Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Mr. Secretary General, Mr. Assistant Secretary General, Madame Secretary and representatives from throughout the Western Hemisphere, thank you for inviting me here this evening to join you in inaugurating the 35th Organization of American States General Assembly Meeting.

On behalf of the State of Florida and its 17 million inhabitants, I’m honored to welcome the citizens of the Western Hemisphere and their representatives to the City of Fort Lauderdale and our state.

Florida has long served as a meeting place for different cultures from throughout our hemisphere, and indeed the world.

All Floridians share a common bond with our neighbors in this hemisphere.

We all have a stake in promoting and ensuring economic prosperity, social equality and democratic values for which we base our most common understanding of life.

This year’s meeting will revolve around the theme “Delivering the Benefits of Democracy.”

This is an idea that stirs strong feelings in all Floridians when we look toward the horizon to the Americas.

Strengthening democracy and its institutions throughout the hemisphere is extremely important, and we are fortunate to have Secretary General Insulza at the helm of the Organization of American States.

Time and time again, he has proven himself a leader in upholding the democratic principles so outlined by the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

I have traveled throughout many of the countries represented in the room today -- from Canada to Colombia.

I have visited Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Uruguay, Guatemala, and Nicaragua.

I can attest to the progress that the Western Hemisphere has made toward overall democracy in our region.

We must continue to ensure that the benefits of democracy are realized for the over 800 million citizens that make up our part of the world.

I applaud the Organization of American States for becoming a leading protector of democratic principles in the Americas.

Geographically, Florida is an important and vital link between the North American continent, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Culturally, Florida has taken on the role of a true melting pot.

As the “Gateway to the Americas,” Florida has become the beating heart of the Western Hemisphere, hosting many meetings and forums to discuss the future of our region.

This General Assembly meeting represents the pinnacle of a decade of Florida’s role hosting important meetings.

These meetings have helped set a tone and establish a plan for the progress of our shared interests.

The very first Summit of the Americas was held in Florida in 1994. This marked a watershed in the promotion of democratic values in the Western Hemisphere.

In 2003, Florida hosted representatives from throughout the Americas to set the stage for regional integration -- to move forward the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

This was a significant moment in the fostering of closer ties with the nations of the hemisphere.

During the meeting, the U.S. also embarked upon free trade (FTA) talks with the Andean nations.

It was here in Florida where the U.S.-Chile FTA was signed, which has since led to stronger economic, cultural, and social ties between the two nations.

In August of last year, Florida hosted the fourth round of negotiations for the U.S.-Panama FTA.

Almost a year ago, Florida was in the midst of one of the worst hurricane seasons in recorded history.

Floridians experienced many adversities during that period that challenged our state in a number of ways.

In the aftermath and unprecedented recovery effort, a remarkable thing occurred – something which reinforced, in my mind and the minds of many in this state, our undeniable bond with our close hemispheric neighbors.

Floridians emerged from their rain-soaked and windblown neighborhoods to reach out to their neighbors throughout the Caribbean.

By the truckload, Floridians donated an array of relief supplies destined for the hardest hit regions in the Bahamas, Grenada, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

I believe that those efforts to send aid to people they had never met -- even as they were in the middle of rebuilding their own lives -- demonstrated one of the most visible testaments to inter-American cooperation.

Florida’s “Gateway to the Americas” status brings great responsibility. This is why Florida is doing its part to assist its neighbors through organizations like the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas (FAVACA), and the Americas Humanitarian Logistics Relief Team.

The relief team is a public-private partnership dedicated to bringing relief to those areas affected by last year’s storms.

Florida remains at the forefront of the inter-American system, as our relationships are not just about merchandise trade, but about neighbors helping neighbors.

In January of this year, I went with Secretary Colin Powell to Southeast Asia to make an assessment and get a first-hand account of the devastation caused by the powerful tsunamis that struck the region.

I witnessed the incredible destruction caused by this catastrophic natural event.

I also saw a lack of collaborative planning between the nations of the region to begin a recovery and rebuilding effort.

This reaffirmed, in my eyes, how important an institution like the Organization of American States is to the welfare of the Western Hemisphere.

Florida is home to the largest Haitian-American community in the United States.

Many of these people fled political and social disarray in their home country and settled in Florida seeking a better life.

In July of last year, I created the Governor’s Haiti Advisory Group, comprised of prominent members of the Florida’s Haitian-American community and individuals with extensive experience in the country.

This group provided recommendations to assist Haiti during this critical time of the country’s history.

The Group members’ leadership, perspective, and expertise on Haiti serve as a guide to the State of Florida as we look to help the Haitian people reclaim their future.

Democratic values, while inherent to the history and culture of the Haitian people, are under severe threat.

We need to turn our attention to aiding the small island nation rather than allow it to succumb to the perils of crime, poverty, and environmental degradation.

We must all work together to achieve a truly democratic hemisphere – a hemisphere that fosters a spirit of cooperation among its constituent nations.

This idea was first promoted in 1890 during the early stages of the Organization of American States. It was later solidified by the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

The continued growth and expansion of democratic principles and economic prosperity is imperative for our common future.

I commend the OAS for accepting the leading role in pursuing this crucial mission.

I wish all the best to the OAS and to Secretary General Insulza in his new endeavor.

I would like to thank the City of Fort Lauderdale and the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau for all the support they have provided to the U.S. Department of State and the Organization of American States.