An Interview with D. Brent Hardt, U.S. Ambassador to Guyana

Guyana ambassadorA career Senior Foreign Service Officer, D. Brent Hardt was sworn in as Ambassador to Guyana on August 19, 2011. He also serves as Plenipotentiary Representative of the United States of America to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM). Hardt has previously served as Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy to Barbados and as Chargé d’Affaires at U.S. Embassies in The Bahamas and the Holy See in Rome. In Washington, he served as Team Leader for NATO Policy in the Office of European Political and Security Affairs in the Department of State. Hardt has received various Department of State awards, including the Director General’s Award for Reporting, five Superior Honor Awards, and two Meritorious Honor Awards. A graduate of Yale University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, Hardt is married with three sons.

The Politic: As a Yale alumnus, you have a perspective that particularly resonates with readers. What originally motivated you to join the Foreign Service, and what’s made you stick with it for the past 25 or so years?

Well, I can honestly say that I was inspired to join the Foreign Service by a course I took my freshman year at Yale. It was the History of American Foreign Policy, and I was particularly fascinated by twentieth century American foreign policy. I had always loved history, political science and economics and had always had an interest in public service. As I was reading about how our foreign policy developed by way of these great diplomats around the time of WWII and beyond, the Foreign Service struck me as an ideal way to contribute to our country. It would not only expose me to different cultures and different histories that people have around the world, but also help me to better understand the United States. Once you are overseas, you have a better perspective on the United States and what is great about our country. There are many things that are great about our country and also areas where we could do better, where we’re learning from others. I found that to be the case over the course of my career.

As to your question of why I stuck with it, I think, as my career has evolved, each job I’ve had in many different parts of the world has really challenged me — and that is the key in considering what job or career path to pursue. Finding something that you really enjoy and that will continue to challenge you is essential. With each new position, I had to learn a new language, a new culture, figure out what made that society tick, identify a common interest between that country and the United States, and try to work together to advance those interests. [The Foreign Service] has given me many experiences that I would not have had working a 9-to-5 job in a law firm or in an office somewhere back in the United States.

The Politic: You speak Italian, Dutch, German and French. Did you learn these while on the job, or while studying for your degrees?

It was a combination. I had studied French for five years before coming to Yale and continued studying at Yale. I took one year of Italian and two years of German at Yale and one of my first overseas assignments turned out to be in East Germany. At that time, East Germany was part of the Communist Bloc and you really had to speak German well because East Germans generally spoke German and Russian. The background I had from Yale as well as training I received from the Foreign Service — we have a tremendous language institute — helped. I also learned Dutch through the State Department. When I went to Rome, I finished developing the Italian I had learned at Yale and through the Foreign Service. I strongly encourage young people to study foreign languages and to continue learning through overseas opportunities.

The Politic: What does your job as Ambassador to Guyana — but also in the more general sense as a Foreign Service officer — entail?

Ambassadors serve as the President’s representative to a foreign country. In my case, I serve both as Ambassador to Guyana and as U.S. Representative to the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), which is the established regional organization where Caribbean countries coordinate their trade and foreign policies, as well as some social and cultural policies. We also look after the American people when they travel abroad.  Ambassadors, as the heads of our embassies, represent a broad range of U.S. agencies and different elements within the State Department that are working to advance our country’s diverse global interests.  In advancing our interests here in Guyana, we build partnerships to ensure that this country is prosperous, secure, democratic and healthy. There is also a tremendous interaction between many Guyanese in the United States — especially in the New York area — who are part of a sizeable Diaspora community.

We gear ourselves toward what specifically affects the country; for example, health problems — we have a major HIV/AIDS program here that has been going on for a decade and has significantly reduced the incidence of AIDS. We also focus on economic empowerment, especially for women and young people. There are many ways that we can encourage the countries we are in and the region as a whole to be good partners with us, to trade and invest and expand our economic relationship. The Caribbean is a region of proud democracies that are facing challenges to the rule of law from international criminal organizations. So when we can help reduce crime, violence or drug trafficking, we are helping to make our broader region — the western hemisphere — safer and more prosperous, and that is our broad goal.

Now, the general role of the Foreign Service officer depends in part on the area of specialization. You can be, for example, a political or economic officer, management officer, consular officer or public affairs officer. While there is a degree of specialization, we are also encouraged to broaden our scope and work in different areas. Wherever we serve, we interpret what happens in our assigned country for policy- and decision-makers in the United States in order to help identify those things that are important for our interests. At the same time, coming from the United States, we have clear global interests and priorities. It is our job to convey these interests and priorities in a way that is likely to build support for what we’re trying to do in the world. It is a two-way communications and interpreting job, and that’s why it is really vital to have somebody on the ground overseas.

Years ago there was a presidential candidate named Ross Perot, who was among those saying we don’t need Foreign Service Officers overseas anymore, that we have phones and faxes and can just call people directly from Washington.  But we have found that the ability to really understand what is driving a foreign country and its response to us on an issue — it may be a hesitation because of something political going on — makes it vital to have somebody there. I have seen firsthand that turning up in someone’s office day after day to request support for a peacetime or humanitarian mission makes it more likely for that country to support us sending troops than if we had sent a fax, email or made a phone call. There clearly is a role for both our diplomats in the field and our senior officials in Washington to be able to make our views known and to understand the perspectives of others.

The Politic: What are some barriers or challenges that the Foreign Service encounters in the Caribbean region specifically?

I think one of the biggest challenges the region faces is overall security and violence. Countries face threats from drug traffickers — the drugs originate largely in Colombia and move through Venezuela and Guyana up through the Caribbean. Obviously, there is more in the Western Caribbean these days, though there used to be more on the Eastern side. But drug trafficking leaves its mark: social problems develop and crime rises. And for tourism-based economies, as is the case for many Caribbean states, if it appears that a country is violent, that is immediately recognized by visitors and their core economic lifeline and industry is endangered. So security is not only important for people’s personal safety, but also for their economic survival.

Ambassador Hardt launches the American Spot at the National Library in Guyana
Ambassador Hardt launches the American Spot at the National Library in Guyana

President Obama launched the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative back in 2009. It is a comprehensive, integrated partnership for which we sat down with the Caribbean and basically said: “We want to support your efforts to deal with this complex security threat. But we want to hear from you what the challenges and priorities are and how we can support your efforts.” So we have done that over a series of meetings and eventually put together a program that is providing both infrastructure — from boats and police equipment for enforcement — and capacity building, the training that people need to protect their borders and be more effective in prosecuting cases and putting criminals behind bars. The program has a core component that seeks to address not just the end result, the criminal activity, but also the root causes, meaning the social factors that are driving criminality in the region. For example, we have programs for at-risk youth that have been very successful in trying to give young people life skills and job skills. So instead of getting involved in the underground economy, they are getting involved in the legitimate economy and finding good jobs. So that is the one key area in which we’ve been working.

Also, as I mentioned, we are focused on public health and HIV/AIDS relief in this region. We have a regional program that was founded some years ago that is trying to build the capacity of all the health sectors to combat what has been one of the higher HIV/AIDS prevalence rates in the world (apart from sub-Saharan Africa), and the success rates have been pretty good. We are also active in social policy areas, including advocating for LGBT rights, which has increasingly become a priority. In a regional atmosphere that has been hostile to LGBT individuals, we have helped to broaden minds and encourage consideration of removing outdated laws that criminalize same-sex behavior. Domestic violence is another challenging area for the region. Many of our embassies are finding creative ways to make people more aware of the issue. These are just some of the many examples; we’re not just looking at big policy — security, trade and other engagements — but also at the social factors that underpin successful societies.

The Politic: With specific regard to U.S.-based NGOs contributing to foreign countries, what sort of exchange or community outreach programs do you believe do the most good?

With NGOs, it really depends so much on the structure and the leadership. We have seen many U.S.-based NGOs that are doing tremendous work. While other governments and people tend to focus on what the U.S. government is doing overseas, much of the work, in fact, is done by Americans who donate their time, their energy or their money to support NGOs overseas. I am going to be speaking next week at a dinner for Food for the Poor, which is a U.S.-based NGO very active in the Caribbean and Central America. They collect $54 million annually for Guyana alone, which is donated as food, furniture, schoolbooks, learning materials, and in help to build houses. That amount is actually greater than the sum total of U.S. government assistance that we provide, and that is only one NGO working here — there are many others as well, such as Habitat for Humanity. So I have great admiration for what Americans do as individuals and for the work that NGOs do.

I think people need to take a good look when they’re considering working with or supporting an NGO. Look at cost ratios and how much of what is donated is overhead versus actual assistance to people who need it, because there is a great range. People have to do their own research and figure out if a certain NGO is delivering on its promise, or if it is getting caught up in its own process and meetings and whatever else keeps you from actually focusing on the people that need help. All that said, it really is critical that NGOs are supported, and this is something that we try to do locally as well, because the willingness of people in a society to form a group and say, “Hey, here’s a problem, we can form a group and solve this,” is the kind of engagement that is making a difference here in Guyana. I would also venture to say that this is one of the things I have come to admire about the United States, having seen different perspectives overseas. It is precisely that willingness and ability of Americans to say, “Here’s the problem. We can do something about it. We don’t have to wait around for a government or a process to do something, we can come together and solve things.” That is the spirit of the United States that I am very pleased to be a part of and to represent.

The Politic: Can you comment on what you are currently working on? Are there any new initiatives that you can mention?

I can spend quite a while talking about what we are working on. Over the past year, we have been working in a couple of key areas. Guyana had an election in 2011 that, for the first time, brought two opposition parties to a majority in parliament. So for the first time in its history, Guyana, which has a constitution that very much favors a strong executive, had all the parties ready to bring their voices to the table. This gives them a chance to overcome what have been some historical racial and ethnic divisions between Indo-Guyanese, whose party is currently in power, and the Afro-Guyanese, whose party was in power back in the 1960s through the 1980s. There has always been an underlying racial tension. So we’re trying to take advantage of the opportunity presented by this parliamentary configuration to forge a win-win scenario. We want more people to feel that they can become involved in politics, in their National Assembly, and make some advances for openness and transparency in governance.

Guyana's parliament building since 1834
Guyana’s parliament building since 1834

This year, we are supporting a historic local elections process. Guyana has a national government and it has a form of regional government, but constitutionally, it is supposed to have local government. The last local elections, however, were held in 1994, so there has been a long gap. Basically, this means that there is no local government. I have been encouraging my British, Canadian and European Union counterparts to speak out and write joint op-eds to encourage the parties to come together and prepare a foundation for local elections. It is something that all parties here called for in their party manifestos, but there was no movement on the issue for almost two decades. Through our public and private diplomatic interactions, we have been trying to move this forward. Just this week, the Guyanese National Assembly actually passed four bills and it now increasingly looks like they will have their first local elections in almost two decades. The impact of that should be quite substantial. Over time, a disconnect developed between people and the government because problems exist in the local communities, but there is nobody to turn to at that level. At the core, democracy is really about, “I have an issue; who can I turn to in order have that issue addressed?” and I think this will go a long way toward answering that.

On the economic side, Guyana has significant potential for oil and gas exploration. There are sizeable oil and gas deposits offshore from Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela. We have been supporting American companies interested in exploring these deposits as they try to negotiate their interests with the governments. This should have an impact on America’s overall energy situation as we try to become increasingly independent within the hemisphere, as opposed to being dependent on broader, global oil and gas resources. So those are a couple of things that we are involved in.

Regionally and globally, the Caribbean has 15 members within the United Nations, so we try to gain support for our candidacies in the UN and the Organization of American States. Last year, the U.S. was competing for a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, and we were able to win the support of 15 CARICOM [Caribbean Community] countries to for our candidacy. More recently, we were competing against Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Ecuador for a seat on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Again, we earned widespread Caribbean support to have our candidate elected, which is vital for our country’s ability to advance human rights within the hemisphere. These are just a few of the many things we are working on to advance America’s interests abroad.


Embassy of the United States to Guyana:

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