Monday, March 19, 2018

Column: Connecting Florida to the region

Florida boasts one of the more diverse populations in the nation, with proud heritages and strong cultural and economic ties throughout the world, particularly within the Americas.

International trade is a significant factor in Florida's economic growth and prosperity, and of increasing importance moving forward.

Trade relationships within the region are vibrant and expanding. Gov. Rick Scott's trade missions to Chile, Colombia, Brazil and Panama underscore that point.

Curiously, however, when the Legislature had more revenue at its disposal than at any time in recent memory, legislative leadership defunded Florida International Volunteer Corps, an agile and very lean not-for-profit launched in 1982 under then-Gov. Bob Graham that is memorialized in statute.

As a casualty of the 2013 state legislative session, it's now struggling to survive.

Better known in the region by its acronym FAVACA than by its official name, the Florida Association for Volunteer Action in the Caribbean and the Americas facilitates sustainable relationships among private- and public-sector interests and educational institutions to respond to "in-country" requests for short-term technical assistance.

It received appropriations at varying levels over the course of the past three decades. Given the state's overall budget, the relatively small annual investment of several hundred thousand dollars paid substantial dividends and was leveraged to secure federal and host country funds, foundation grants, corporate and individual contributions.

A significant portion of this funding was spent in Florida.

Jimmy Buffet's Singing for Change Foundation is one of FAVACA's principal strategic partners.

Gov. Jeb Bush frequently referenced FAVACA while promoting Miami as a potential hub for a proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas given the not-for-profit's visibility and favorable reputation in the region.

Govs. Lawton Chiles and Bush called upon FAVACA to help facilitate their respective Florida/Haiti Initiatives.

Florida's first lady, Ann Scott, visited FAVACA's women's empowerment project in Bogota during the governor's trade mission to Colombia in December. FAVACA leveraged State Department funds to support that project and establish a professional exchange program that later brought Colombian officials to Florida, a common aspect of FAVACA's engagement.

U.S. Southern Command collaborated with FAVACA to sustain humanitarian assistance programs.

The Washington-based Migration Policy Institute recognized Florida for its unique approach to "smart development" in a report, noting FAVACA's role in delivering demand-driven, short-term technical assistance and training, and facilitating engagement by diaspora groups and individuals generally to improve the quality of life.

Simply put, there's nothing quite like it anywhere else.

A convergence of compelling circumstances in the Caribbean and Central America that affected Florida during the early 1980s, and recognition that Floridians could play a meaningful role in shaping the stability and prosperity of the region, prompted Gov. Graham to establish FAVACA.

As many readers know, an estimated 125,000 Cubans fled the Castro regime from Mariel in virtually anything that would float, and substantial numbers of Haitians set out for Florida in unseaworthy vessels to escape extreme poverty and an oppressive government in Port-au-Prince.

Others throughout the region looked to the Sunshine State for a brighter future, stretching available health, educational and public safety resources to the breaking point.

It was in Florida's best interests to take a different tack.

From small island nations like Grenada and Dominica to Haiti, Nicaragua and Panama, the region faced significant challenges, sometimes the kind that highly skilled Floridians, many with regional ancestry, could help address.

Since its inception, 3,000 FAVACA volunteers have trained 30,000 people in 30 countries and territories to prepare for and respond to hurricanes and other natural and man-made disasters, target gang violence and an array of transnational threats, including disease vectors and agricultural blights that, if left unchecked, could adversely impact Florida.

Its volunteers have trained air and seaport managers and customs officials; helped advance preventive health initiatives, including on HIV/AIDS; worked with small farmers to increase productivity and eliminate medfly; and helped local authorities to protect fish stocks, coral reefs and mangroves.

Sometimes, host nations enter into contracts with FAVACA volunteers for longer-term support, generating revenue for Florida businesses and institutions of higher learning.

A Haitian proverb says: Beyond mountains there are mountains. Given today's increasingly interdependent world and the challenges that lie ahead, ensuring that FAVACA's history of constructive engagement on behalf of all Floridians can continue is a mountain worth climbing.

Mark Schlakman, senior program director for FSU's Center for the Advancement of Human Rights, is FAVACA's immediate past board chair. He served as senior adviser to the White House Special Envoy for the Americas during the Clinton administration.

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