Since becoming assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs in 2009, Jose W. Fernandez has crisscrossed the globe to promote entrepreneurship and work on topics as diverse as the final details of free trade deals with Colombia, Panama and South Korea, energy security, and combating terrorist financing.
Next Wednesday, he’ll leave office to return to his New York practice in international corporate law, mergers and acquisitions, investments and emerging markets. But even during his final days at the State Department, he’s still traveling.
Recently he flew to El Salvador, then to Mexico to take part in the first U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue on Sept. 19-20. The annual meeting of cabinet-level officials seeks to elevate economic issues between the two countries to the same priority as security issues. One of his last official trips was a meeting with European officials to see if they could find common ground in U.S. and European efforts to improve worker safety in garment factories in Bangladesh; he’ll also attend a meeting of the United Arab Emirates Dialogue on Tuesday. “This is something I started because little UAE imports as much U.S. merchandise as all of India,” he said.
En route to El Salvador earlier this month, Fernandez, 58, stopped by the Miami Herald to reflect on his time with public service.
Q. All told, what has been your experience in government service?
It sounds trite, but it’s been a privilege — you know from Day One it is a finite privilege — to have the ability to get an idea and implement it and work with these people you admire such as President [Barack] Obama and Secretaries [Hillary] Clinton and [John] Kerry and do things you always wanted to do and to have the ability to work with other countries to promote more jobs for women and to deal with ways for countries to collect more revenue so they can pay for education. It’s been the experience of a lifetime.
Q. How many countries have you visited?
Maybe 60 or 70. I cover the world in this job. I spent a lot of time in the Middle East because of the Arab Spring. Even before the Arab Spring, at the urging of Secretary Clinton, we were working in North Africa. We knew we had a powder keg in some countries because of unemployment, the youth bulge and a stifled government sector.
Obviously Asia has been critical — we’ve been working in countries that we believe are part of the future, countries like Indonesia and India — and in Latin America, which is my first love.
Q. What can you really do in the Middle East when things are just so unstable politically — and also dangerous — to advance business interests in that climate?
The first thing you need to do is realize your limitations. The Middle East is not a solid bloc; there are countries in chaos, but the rest are moving along. We’ve spent time in the Gulf, quite a bit of time in Jordan, Morocco. Those are countries where our economic relations are booming. They want more U.S. investment; they want more U.S. entrepreneurs. Then you have the countries that have had turmoil such as Tunisia where I’d spent a lot of time, and Egypt and Libya, where I’ve also been a couple times, and you realize that you try and work, given your limitations on security and the like, on things you can change.