Ministers and distinguished guests:

In my welcoming remarks I mentioned natural disasters in Central America. I now want to express our appreciation for the assistance the nations represented here today extended in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita — the effects of which our people are still feeling. All of you have been most generous. I should make a particular reference to the generosity of Mexico in feeding several thousands of those affected by the floods in Texas. Thank you all.

We are also today active in responding to the natural disasters in Pakistan and South Asia — terrible tragedies of huge proportions.

It is clear that the better organized we are and the closer we cooperate on security matters, the better able we will be in cooperating on natural disasters.

I have had an opportunity to witness quite a few truly remarkable events over my years:

— The spread and collapse of Communism;
— The rise and fall of Nazism; and
— The rise and fall of the Berlin Wall.

And I remember when our region was a considerably more dangerous place. Many nations were once dominated by dictatorships or torn by civil strife. It was even asserted by prominent Americans that those advocating economic and political freedom for Central America were on "the wrong side of history."

I say this to point out that history teaches that determination and persistence can bring about impressive transformations, even in a single lifetime.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sweeping changes that are taking place and have taken place in much of Central America. Today, the dictatorships of previous decades have given way to democracies, and rivalries that once threatened stability are now past.

As I’ve traveled through many of your countries, I’ve seen leaders working together, and recognizing the truth that cooperation with respect to security matters is central to political and economic success.

Indeed, there is a close relationship between security and political and economic freedom, as was thoughtfully examined in a report for our last ministerial by the Council of the Americas. It outlines the links between security and economic growth.

There are still some who want to obstruct the path to social and economic progress, to return Central America to darker times of instability and chaos. They form an anti-social combination that recognizes no borders and preys on the vulnerabilities that exist: drug traffickers, smugglers, hostage-takers, and terrorists and violent gangs.

These threats are serious, but our countries are combating them, and together we can defeat them.

However, it’s clear that they can be effectively fought only if countries work together even more closely than we are today, because no one nation can deal with those kinds of cross-border threats. That’s why the United States is working with other nations to strengthen the inter-American system. It is a reason:

— Why Central America and Colombia are closing ranks against narco-terrorists;

— Why Honduras and Nicaragua had their first combined patrol in the Miskitia region; and

— Why Central American units are serving so successfully in the United Nations mission in Haiti.

All this reflects the understanding that democracies need work together in our increasingly interconnected world. The specifics of the next great crisis are known to no one. But we do know the effects will be felt by all.

Of course to meet a number of today’s security challenges, the military is not the answer. Differing threats require differing instruments of national power, and each country needs to determine the role of the military and its security forces in its own way, according to its own history and distinctive constitutional principles.

Yesterday’s convenient division of bureaucratic duties has been deemed today to require some adjustment.

Those in the business community understand intuitively the nexus between security and economic opportunity. Money is a coward. It flees uncertainty and instability. Companies tend not to want to invest in countries or regions that they believe are unstable or unsafe.

A sense of insecurity is fueled further when government institutions are corrupt or ineffective, creating seams for anti-social combinations to operate and thrive. In particular, the lack of border security in many areas is a vulnerability that such elements can and do take full advantage of.

Fortunately — thanks in great part to the leadership of many here — there are a number of constructive steps being taken today in Latin America to meet these challenges.

For example, in Colombia — a valued observer at this conference — President Uribe is confronting some of the deadliest threats to security and democracy in the region. Due to the efforts of brave Colombians, foreign investment is increasing, and many Colombians are welcoming the calm of a relatively normal everyday life. The metrics President Uribe tracks are all improving.

El Salvador — which lost, I’m told, something like 75,000 lives in 12 years of guerrilla warfare — has revamped its police forces and worked closely with all of us and its neighbors to extradite gang members and drug traffickers, as well as to share intelligence across borders. And I should add our appreciation for El Salvador’s valued assistance in the global war on terror. We appreciate it a great deal.

And throughout much of the region, the principle of civilian control the military is increasingly well established today. This has given people increasing confidence in the integrity of the armed forces.

Of course, security challenges are not the only threats posed to the progress now under way in the Americas. Poverty also threatens to derail economic progress, which in turn can threaten democratic governance. Currently, one of the greatest challenges to maintaining freedom’s forward momentum is to demonstrate to more and more people the truth that free political systems and free economic systems offer the best hope for tangible benefits for them and for their children.

If we were able to look down from Mars on this globe to see which of the countries are creating an environment that is most hospitable to economic opportunity for their people, they would readily see that it’s the countries with freer political systems and freer economic systems. Conversely, the ones that have command economic systems and repressive political systems are not doing well for their people.

In the Americas — as in all regions — economic challenges share similarities with security challenges. Most notably, neither can be confronted by one nation alone.

For that reason, CAFTA can be a key step for the Inter-American system. It will help the region feel the tangible benefits of freer systems.

Because of the relationship between security, economic progress, and political freedom, I joined President Bush in encouraging Congress to ratify CAFTA for national security as well as for economic reasons. We believed its passage was vital to continued stability, security, democracy and economic progress in Latin America. Fortunately, the United States Congress — along with many governments in the region — agreed.

I recognize that no one can know what history will write when we look back 10, 20, or 30 years from any period, including this period.

But I’ve been struck by the fact that all the leadership represented here seems to be leaning forward from a political standpoint, from an economic standpoint, and also from a security standpoint, and that they recognize the advantages of cooperation, as do each of us. I am convinced that the opportunities ahead are limited only by our countries’ commitment to defending our free systems that so many have fought so long and so hard to secure.

So, I salute your leadership. I thank you for being here. And I look forward to our discussions. Thank you.