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Ambassador Gonzales speaks in farewell interview

by Lesotho Times
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  • US$302, 9 million worth of goods exported to the US under AGOA in 2021,
  • Lesotho ranked 2nd in terms of value of goods exported under AGOA, 
  • US-Lesotho relations will grow from strength to strength

TODAY is exactly four years and two days since United States Ambassador to Lesotho, Rebecca Gonzales, presented her credentials to His Majesty King Letsie III.

Her tour of duty will soon come to an end and another career diplomat, Maria Brewer, will take over as US Ambassador to Lesotho.

With Ambassador Gonzales’ imminent departure in mind, the Lesotho Times (LT) Editor, Herbert Moyo, this week engaged her to share her thoughts on her time in Lesotho — a period of which she is extremely proud and grateful for.

Below are excerpts of the interview:

LT: How would you describe your tour of duty in terms of the highs and the challenges?

Ambassador Gonzales: I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work closely with the government of Lesotho to strengthen accountability for US-funded development projects, combat trafficking in persons, advance discussions regarding a second Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact (MCC) for Lesotho, support educational exchanges, and to provide additional training for security and law enforcement personnel, among many other things.

In terms of challenges, the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted us all.  However, despite the pandemic, the people of Lesotho and my team at the US Embassy, our Peace Corps staff, and our staff at the American Corner have all demonstrated great resilience.

LT: What goals had you set yourself when you first arrived?

Ambassador Gonzales: When I arrived, I intended to deepen the already strong bonds of partnership and friendship between Lesotho and the United States and to promote a healthy and prosperous Lesotho.

LT: Would you say those goals were achieved?

Ambassador Gonzales: I can honestly say that after four years of partnering on everything from HIV/AIDS to law enforcement collaboration, I think our bilateral relationship is as strong as ever.  Every day, we are moving closer to achieving our shared objectives to promote a healthy, prosperous, and safer Lesotho for all its citizens.

LT: What are the areas in which the United States is actively supporting Lesotho?

Ambassador Gonzales: The United States assistance to Lesotho spans democracy and governance, security assistance, health, nutrition, and economic development.

Our PEPFAR funding in Lesotho has totalled nearly US$630 million (M10, 5 billion) and continues to support vital health work across all ten districts.  In addition to donating over 600 000 doses of Covid-19 vaccines through COVAX, the US government has rapidly deployed other assistance to Lesotho to help fight the pandemic.

Lesotho has also been selected as a priority country under the McGovern-Dole International Food for Education Programme.  This program will support maternal, new-born, and child nutrition, early childhood development, and to augment the country’s School Feeding Programme over the next several years.

Last year, the historic signing of a Memorandum of Cooperation between our two countries enhanced bilateral border security and criminal justice programmes, and this year, the United States plans to further partner with Lesotho security sector personnel to offer additional requested training in anti-corruption, protection of Lesotho’s borders and national security, and rapid response capabilities.

The United States also supports a potential second MCC compact for Lesotho, which would benefit the people of Lesotho by strengthening healthcare systems and services, increasing rural incomes through irrigation infrastructure and human capital development, and improving the business climate by empowering local businesses and improving financial services.

LT: We know that the United States has been actively involved in efforts to end the scourge of human trafficking in Lesotho. Lesotho had in the past year improved its ranking to Tier Two Watchlist and the target had been that by February 2022, it should upgrade to Tier Two. Has that been achieved? You had indicated that the Lesotho government needs to do more especially by way of prosecuting government officials accused of complicity in trafficking activities. There haven’t been any prosecutions to date. Have you engaged the authorities and if so, how have they explained the failure to prosecute?

Ambassador Gonzales: You are correct that the government of Lesotho must increase efforts to investigate, prosecute, and convict traffickers through independent and fair trials, including officials complicit in trafficking crimes, among other recommendations, to avoid falling to TIP Tier 3, thereby triggering assistance restrictions.

We set an initial target of February 2022 because it is during this time that the Department of State’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons is conducting its review of each country’s progress towards meeting the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

We do not yet know whether Lesotho will move to Tier 2, but we remain hopeful and expect to know in the coming months, and we have continued to engage government stakeholders on the need to advance prosecutions.

LT: Lesotho is headed for elections possibly in September and it had been hoped that by then, there would be tangible progress with regards to the implementation of the multi-sector reforms. Are you satisfied with where the country is at the moment vis-à-vis the implementation of the reforms?

Ambassador Gonzales: We are glad to see Lesotho’s progress toward the adoption of national reforms.  I join the Southern African Development Community in applauding Lesotho for the progress that has been made, while urging expediently the adoption and subsequent implementation of reforms.

As the country prepares for elections this year, we encourage its leaders to pass good legislation, conduct credible oversight, and deliver for the good of all the people.  I continue to urge all of Lesotho’s political leaders to focus on their people’s needs (including the marginalised and voiceless) and adhere to the fundamental principles of the rule of law as enshrined in the constitution.

We will continue working together to promote inclusive political participation, transparent and accountable governance, an enabling environment for civil society, respect for freedom of expression, and an independent media — all of which are key to strengthening democratic institutions and defending human rights and fundamental freedoms.  During the recent Summit for Democracy, President Biden reminded us that promoting adherence to international democratic norms is not a zero-sum game.

The United States calls on all nations, including our own, to deliver on both international and domestic commitments that advance these goals, demonstrating the promise of democracy and delivering real results that allow all people to lead lives of dignity, respect, and possibility.

LT: What does that mean in terms of reaching an agreement on the Second MCC Compact?

Ambassador Gonzales: Separate from the national reforms, MCC remains concerned about passage of the Counter Domestic Violence Bill, and progress on the Harmonisation Bill, which we understand has yet to be tabled before the National Assembly.  Meaningful efforts to pass the Harmonisation Bill or otherwise address gaps between the Legal Capacity of Married Persons Act and customary laws are an important factor toward the development of a second MCC compact.

LT: How would you describe the volume of trade between the two countries? What is its value in US Dollar terms and who is the balance of trade in favour of?

Ambassador Gonzales: In 2021, US$302, 9 million worth of goods were exported to the US under AGOA. Lesotho is ranked number two in terms of value of goods exported and number three in terms of the volume of goods exported under AGOA.  While there is still a lot of room for growth, this amount of trade is a great achievement.  AGOA has created over 45 000 jobs in the textiles industry since its inception.  However, we know those jobs have significantly declined due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

LT: What are the main items of trade? How can the trade be improved? Which areas could Lesotho tap into?

Ambassador Gonzales: Lesotho currently exports textiles and garments to the United States.  However, the AGOA strategy demonstrated Lesotho has the potential to export handicrafts, bottled water, canned food, fruits and vegetables, wool, mohair products, and leather products to the United States.  I therefore remain hopeful Lesotho will take advantage of additional product lines for export under AGOA, and I also hope to see more Basotho-owned businesses take advantage of this export opportunity.

To maintain AGOA eligibility, Lesotho must continue to improve the protection of internationally recognised worker rights and continue its work in combatting gender-based violence in the workplace, particularly sexual harassment in Lesotho’s garment factories.

 LT: From here, what is next up for you?

Ambassador Gonzales: Next, I will head back to Washington for my next assignment, but I look forward to welcoming many friends from Lesotho when they come to visit.

LT: Who will take your place here?

Ambassador Gonzales: The incoming US Ambassador is Maria Brewer, who will come to lead our Embassy team following her most recent posting as the US Ambassador to Sierra Leone.  She is a great friend and leader. I have known her for 20 years.

LT: Your parting words to the nation? 

Ambassador Gonzales: I am proud and deeply encouraged by all we have accomplished together during my tenure in Lesotho, and I will always be deeply grateful for the warm hospitality you have shown me over the past four years — Kea Leboha (thank you).

During my tenure, we have also identified many talented Basotho who have gone on various exchange programs and trainings in the United States.  I trust they will continue to use the tools and knowledge gained for the betterment of Lesotho and its citizens.

The Sesotho name given to me — ‘Mamafolo-folo, or mother of energy and action –rightly sums up our very fruitful partnership, and the United States will continue to be here, alongside you, as a trusted friend and partner, as we have been for over half a century.

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