Q&A with Assistant Secretary of State Jose W. Fernandez

At the Miami Herald studio is Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.
At the Miami Herald studio is Jose Fernandez, assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.
Al Diaz / Miami Herald Staff

Jose W. Fernandez

Job: Assistant Secretary of State, Economic and Business Affairs

Career: Sworn in as assistant secretary Dec. 1, 2009. Partner, Latham & Watkins. For nearly three decades, his legal career has focused on Latin America, Europe and Africa.

Civic/professional activities: Served on Board of Trustees of Dartmouth College, and boards of Accion International, Council of the Americas, WBGO-FM, Ballet Hispanico of New York and the Middle East Institute. Former chair of the American Bar Association’s Inter-American Law Committee. Co-founder of TeatroStageFest, a two-week Latino theater festival in New York City.

Education: Magna cum laude graduate of Dartmouth College with a degree in history; law degree from Columbia University School of Law

Personal: Married to Andrea Gabor, a professor of business journalism in New York City; has two college-age daughters. Likes music, sports and is a big New York Knicks fan. Born in Cuba in 1955; his family emigrated to Hudson County, N.J., in 1967.


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.

No matter what happens in these countries, they need jobs, they need investment, they need access to technology and they need the ability to interact with U.S. business and government. You realize it’s not a linear exercise; there will be ups and downs. As Secretary Kerry and Secretary Clinton and the president have always said, “You can’t disengage.”

The people who are in the middle of it all tell you that you are being helpful and they need you. They don’t want you to go away. We do as much as we can. In a scenario of limited resources and insecurity, there is still much you can do.

Q. For example, in a country such as Tunisia, what can you do?

Tunisia was a classic example of a country with a large amount of young people — 30 to 40 percent — and huge unemployment issues — not just regular unemployment but structural unemployment, meaning that the kids coming out of university weren’t getting the right education and weren’t being taught the things employers wanted. So what we’ve been working on is helping them pay for their development by better administration of taxes and also working on entrepreneurship by bringing U.S. entrepreneurs to Tunisia, and if you can’t do that because of security issues, bringing Tunisian entrepreneurs to the U.S., so that they can find investors, mentors, partners. Everyone everywhere in the world, no matter how tough it is, wants to be the next Silicon Valley.

When it’s not possible [to bring in entrepreneurs], we are trying to create linkages through websites or meeting elsewhere.

Even in the very worst cases, you can always work around the edges, you can always try to do something to be helpful because they do not want you to disengage.

Q. What has been the high point or what have you been most proud of during your tenure?

What I’m proudest of is how we brought economics to the forefront of the State Department in what Secretary Clinton used to call economic statecraft. The State Department was traditionally seen as a political arm. Some of this was just the recession. We needed to do what we could to help U.S. companies export and sell, so we were asked to put economics at the forefront of what we did.

I’m very proud of the work we’re doing in Mexico [with the U.S.-Mexico High Level Economic Dialogue]. It’s basically our response to the Mexican request to elevate economics to the same level as security. There was a feeling that we were, at least publicly, focusing too much attention on drugs and thugs. President Enrique Peña Nieto came in and said we’d like to find ways to streamline our borders, find an agenda of more cooperation on telecoms and entrepreneurship and to become more competitive as a NAFTA region vis-à-vis the rest of the world.

Q. Where else has there been success?

Turkey. It’s the place where I went to the most. I saw Turkey as a country that was highly respected in the Middle East, a democratic country, a Muslim country, and that could act in many ways as an ally, a validator, a multiplier. And it was a country that was looking to strengthen its economic relations with the U. S.

In the last three years, our trade has doubled with Turkey, but moreover we have a continued conversation with Turkey on areas of cooperation such as strengthening their financial sector and strengthening their property rights regime. Electricity is a big need in Turkey, and we’d like to get more U.S. companies there.

Q. Where do we currently stand with the TPP? [the Trans Pacific Partnership, an Asia-Pacific trade agreement with countries that share U.S. economic values and priorities, is now under negotiation.]

We have 15 countries now, including the last one, Japan. Forty percent of world trade is TPP.

We are hoping to finalize it by the end of the year. There are still a number of big issues. As you know the Mexicans came in a few months ago and the Canadians did as well. All these countries have been quite helpful and gotten up to speed really fast.

We are insisting on a gold standard to protect workers’ rights as we open up markets for U.S. goods. It has to be a win-win.

Q. You’ve become a road warrior. Any tips?

Just what your mother told you, sleep and exercise, and don’t drink too much.

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