Under Secretary McHale & Panel on Social Media in Latin America

Earlier this week, Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale gave a speech to NDN/NPI and SAIS about the impact of new media on America's public diplomacy efforts in Latin America. She talked about the way the State Department is integrating online tools into its public diplomacy strategy to connect with people on a broad scale throughout the Western Hemisphere, and described a number of examples of State's work in Haiti, Brazil, Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere. A full transcript of her remarks is available here.

To my mind, the real change that social media can bring to US public diplomacy is the ability to not just broadcast ideas and arguments, but to engage in a two-way conversation with individuals.  Under Secretary McHale described this phenomenon eloquently in her speech:

[T]echnology has moved the work of public diplomacy into new arenas. Today we are connecting directly to new audiences. We are shifting the spirit of public diplomacy from one-way messaging to two-way engagement.

As we do this, Latin America and the Caribbean provide us with a natural testing ground for a more broad-based diplomacy. The population is young, connected, and hungry for education and information. Our people are united by a shared history, shared values and a shared environment. And throughout the region, people are savvy about using technology to find opportunities to connect.

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New media and connective technologies enhance our ability to listen. That is the number one improvement to our 21st century public diplomacy toolkit. Social media provides new ways for us to keep our ear to the ground. And when we better understand cultural attitudes and developing trends, social media can help us craft better policies.

Anyone with a mobile phone or an internet connection has the ability to communicate with us. We see every message, and we engage as equals. This feedback is an incredibly valuable resource - whether the feedback is positive or negative - because it allows us to better understand how our actions and decisions are being interpreted by people and governments around the world.

To learn more about the State Department's "21st Century Statecraft" initiative, you can take a look at the State website, the report I authored last September, and a blog post I wrote about it a year ago. 

We followed Under Secretary McHale's speech with a terrific panel of four individuals working at the intersection of technology and Latin American politics, governance, and civil society.

Christopher Sabatini of the Americas Society/Council of the Americas offered a critical take on the US embargo that prevents the export of information and communications technologies to Cuba, reminding the audience that no country embargoed by the US had ever seen successful democratic change, and arguing that the 1992 Cuba Democracy Act, if anything, prevents the Cuban people from creating democracy. Dr. Sabatini has written on these issues recently at Foreign Policy and the Huffington Post

Carlos Ponce of the National Endowment for Democracy and the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy spoke about the contradictory role of technology in promoting stronger civil society and better democracy in his native Venezuela.  While student pro-democracy groups have made good use of mobile phones and social media in their organizing, the Chavez government have put the same tools to their own purposes: on Twitter, Hugo Chavez has more followers than any other Venezuelan. Ponce recently wrote on Chavez and other dictators in the Latin American Herald Tribune.

Oscar Salazar, technology entrepreneur and political activist originally from Mexico, spoke about the role technology can play in increasing civic engagement and improving government accountability. His new company, Citivox, offers tools for governments to engage in a two-way conversation with their citizens and more effectively communicate what they are doing. He offered the term "WeGoverment" to describe his efforts at creating a more productive citizen-government ecosystem. The home page for his company, Citivox.com, was just recently launched.

Ricardo Castillo of George Washington University spoke on the impact social media is having in Latin American politics, based on his own experience consulting campaigns in Brazil and Peru. Latin American leaders are increasingly taking advantage of social media, particularly Twitter, but there is a challenge in helping candidates and campaigns understand that social media is neither a silver bullet nor a threat, but needs to be a part of any comprehensive communications strategy.  Slides from his presentation are available here

A video of the full event is below.  Enjoy!

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