Ambassador Joey Hood Interview With La Presse


H.E. Joey Hood, U.S. Ambassador to Tunis to La Presse :

” When you consider the history of bilateral relations and what we’re doing today, we see a bright future ahead of us “

By Chokri Ben Nessir
Published on 28/08/2023


Today, August 28, the United States and Tunisia celebrate the 226th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship concluded in 1797. Tunisia was among the first countries to recognize the newly independent United States. An act reciprocated by the United States, which was the first world power to recognize Tunisia’s independence in 1956. Our two countries have maintained strong diplomatic and economic relations ever since, and share a special bond. On this occasion, H.E. Joey Hood, U.S. Ambassador to Tunis, reflects on the past and considers the future.

Your Excellency, let’s take a look back at the history of Tunisian-American relations.
And it’s a very old one at that. I don’t think most of our peoples are really aware, be it in America or Tunisia, of the fact that just two years after our independence, the man who would become our second president (editor’s note: John Adams), publicly called for a treaty with Tunisia, as Tunisia was very important for trade in the Mediterranean, security, and regional stability.
So in 1797, on August 28, the first treaty of friendship and trade between the two countries was signed. And that’s what we wish to mark, to commemorate every year, in order to remember this long history. And I think perhaps you’re aware that immediately after that, the Bey sent the first Muslim ambassador to the United States, who spoke English, perfectly…
In fact, I found one of his letters sent to the Secretary of State in 1805, in which he said “yes, we have a fabulous treaty, but it goes without saying that now it would be very normal if the United States would support us with a little military aid”. And so I told this story to a group of the Tunisian National Guard this morning, so they too would know that our security cooperation goes all the way back to 1805. It’s incredible. But beyond that, we know, for example, that one of my predecessors asked the Bey, “How did you manage to abolish slavery? At the time, we were tearing ourselves apart, in fact, waging a civil war. So we were really seeking the Bey’s advice, which was very useful and much appreciated by the President of the USA. Looking further forward, of course, Tunisia’s independence and the period before the Second World War left their mark on relations between our two countries.
This particular period is all the more personal for me because my grandfather was serving in Bizerte. And he worked very closely with the Tunisians, loading and unloading the various military ships to supply the troops leaving to liberate Italy at the time. My grandfather had always told me about his experiences in Tunisia, and I grew up with his stories about the country.
And so, even after that, we come across the story of Fahad Hached, who was invited to the United States to speak and raise the voice of the Tunisian people before the whole world. He was invited by a group of American trade unions. I think it was in 1952.
Then came independence, hamdoullah, we were the first country, that is to say among the great powers, to recognize Tunisia’s independence and also to receive Bourguiba on a state visit.
So Bourguiba, the Supreme Fighter, decided that we were going to be the partner of choice when it came to security. And that was very astute. Because he saw the day coming when the United States would be the dominant military partner and also the most technologically advanced. And he also saw that the interests of the United States and the Tunisians were more or less the same: regional stability, Tunisia’s security, economic development, democratic development – these are the pillars that govern our bilateral relations to this day.

Is this what gave rise also to bilateral economic cooperation?
Absolutely. In the early days, we built the Tunis-Cartage airport, the Oued Nabhana dam, quite a few highways, bridges and so on. Those days are gone. You don’t need us any more to carry out major works. You’ve got your companies, you’ve got your ministries, and so on. Now, what we need to do is try to promote Tunisian human resources, and I believe that this is a renewable resource that cannot be exhausted, which is why you’ll be able to see most of our activities as I travel around the regions. It’s a job that also focuses on SMEs, especially in the renewable energy sector, tourism, crafts and so on. Over the past four years, the U.S. government has helped more than 53,000 Tunisian small and medium-sized businesses increase their sales by over $610 million and create more than 56,000 new jobs.

Why choose the private sector?
Because that’s Tunisia’s economic engine. It’s not the public sector. As we all know, the government can play its part in clearing the way, but it’s the private sector that has to take over. And it’s off to a good start, since you’re exporting more than you import from us, and that’s creating jobs. It’s also giving us top-of-the-range products such as textiles, olive oil and even the harissa found in our supermarkets. Not to mention Tunisian handicrafts, you know, maybe we’re the world’s leading importer now. None of this happened by chance. It’s thanks to an investment in equipment, training and marketing, especially the women in Jendouba, the men in Kairouan, for example, who produce olive wood, the women who produce essential oils, carpets and so on. It’s fabulous.

What about fishing?
You seem to have a problem with what fishermen call Daesh or blue crabs. They’re as bad for fishermen as Daesh terrorists are for humans.
But in America it’s a delicacy, people love blue crab. So we’ve started catching them here and sending them to the States. We think it will soon be a $100 million-a-year industry. Not to mention the number of jobs it will create for Tunisian fishermen and the people who also work on the product. Because we don’t like buying in bulk like that, especially as the United States is such a great distance away. So for fresh produce it’s a bit difficult, but like olive oil, if it can be bottled here, if the crab can be preserved here, it’s better for us, it’s better for you.  So I set myself the goal, before the end of my mandate, of seeing the United States become the world’s number one market for Tunisian bottled olive oil. Now, we’re number three.

Is there any direct American interference in Tunisia’s internal affairs?
There’s no interference. There’s a partnership. It’s true that there are ups and downs. There are also misunderstandings. And I think it’s even easier to have misunderstandings nowadays, compared to the 60s for example, because information runs so fast and lies run even faster than that. And there are so many adversaries around us who want to see this partnership fail for their own interests, so we always have to be careful. That’s why I always try to see the ministers and directors-general of the various Tunisian ministries and agencies, to get their take on things. I also encourage international journalists who cover Tunisia to come and find out the facts for themselves. Now that we’ve come to an understanding, now that we’ve seen the reality. We’ve exchanged information and points of view, sometimes there are differences of opinion, but that’s normal. People can’t agree every day. You have your own way of seeing things, so do we, but the most important thing is that we talk to each other, that we exchange views on a regular basis, and that we also understand where the most important interests lie for each country.
For example, you have countries close by here, for whom migration may be the number one interest. For us, that may not be the case, because we’re 7,000 km away. So immigration is important, but it’s not the number one priority for us. So it’s also a question of priority. And not just a question of experience. But when it comes to democracy, we have more experience, dating back two hundred years. So when we say, for example, that freedom of expression is important. We know why we say that, because we’ve seen how useful freedom of expression is for the development of our society and our schools. You know, for example, there has never been a famine in a democratic country, because in a democratic country there is freedom of expression, which allows the market to function as it should, and which allows us to set things in motion when they don’t work, or when there are blockages due to corruption, for example.

Do you think the American democratic model is right for all countries?
No, we don’t want to impose our system on anyone. Because every democratic system has to be sculpted, carved, according to local specificities. So what works for us may not work for Iceland or Tunisia. That’s normal, but I think that to be a democracy, there are certain values you have to take into account. So we have to dream, we have to try to work towards that. For example, freedom of expression, free and transparent elections, parliamentary representation of the population and a democratically elected president.
There are certain pillars on which everyone agrees. Now, how do we manage and organize them? That’s different in every democratic country.

Are there any laws governing online social media in the U.S.? Does the justice system intervene to regulate this space?
It’s a topic much debated in the U.S. and around the world. Generally speaking, since 1776, we’ve always believed in freedom of expression to allow those with whom we disagree to have their say.
However, since the beginning, there have been laws forbidding people from knowingly lying about others or inciting people to violence. It was much easier to enforce these laws when there were only newspapers, radio and 3 or 4 TV channels. This is no longer the case, especially with the arrival of social media.
For the moment, in general, what we’re trying to do is ask the companies that govern social media to organize themselves, to set the rules themselves, just as journalists do. But as I said, this is a subject of great debate in the U.S. Congress. We can clearly see that there are slippages, that there is influence, misinformation or lies, I would even say false information. Still, we believe that the solution to all these problems, generally speaking, is to show the truth, the facts and all the context. And that’s why we encourage our partners like Tunisia to do the same. If you see someone lying on social networks or saying nonsense, you have to show people the reality. Because the Tunisian government will have a more credible voice than anyone else on social media.

Awarding a prize to Saâdia Mosbah raised a controversy about Tunisia’s indigenous population. In fact, you amended the press release on the subject. What really happened?
Well, the fact that Saadia Mosabh received this award was a great moment for Tunisia. Because by winning this prize, we were recognizing the work that Tunisians have done in the fight against racial discrimination. So, by working to pass the first law in the entire Arab region against discrimination, it’s an effort to be congratulated. What the Secretary of State was doing in awarding this prize was to recognize the work of Saadia and her organization, which is called “Mnemti” ….
Unfortunately, we at the embassy made a mistake: we simply posted an Arabic translation of the State Department’s press release on the entire event, which included six people, not just Saadia.
There was the person from Bangladesh defending the rights of indigenous people, and someone from Brazil who was indigenous herself. Unfortunately, in the Arabic version, the press release mixed up all these people. And so people began to believe that Saadia Mosbah was being recognized for having defended the rights of black Tunisians as the country’s indigenous people. But that’s not what we meant at all. The award was in recognition of the work she did to get a law passed against discrimination for all Tunisians. And once again, Tunisia is a beacon on this subject, like so many others in years past. So this is a moment to celebrate, to offer congratulations. Other people have also done good work in their own countries to combat discrimination against indigenous people. Don’t worry, we know Tunisia’s history, and I’ve read Ibn Khaldun’s Moukadema, which, a few centuries ago, was already disserting on the subject of racism and discrimination. And I think that, once again, we have a lot to learn from the Tunisians.
There was the person from Bangladesh defending the rights of indigenous people, and someone from Brazil who was indigenous herself. Unfortunately, in the Arabic version, the press release mixed up all these people. And so people began to believe that Saadia Mosbah was being recognized for having defended the rights of black Tunisians as the country’s indigenous people. But that’s not what we meant at all. The award was in recognition of the work she did to get a law passed against discrimination for all Tunisians. And once again, Tunisia is a beacon on this subject, like so many others in years past. So this is a moment to celebrate, to offer congratulations. Other people have also done good work in their own countries to combat discrimination against indigenous people. Don’t worry, we know Tunisia’s history, and I’ve read Ibn Khaldun’s Moukadema, which, a few centuries ago, was already disserting on the subject of racism and discrimination. And I think that, once again, we have a lot to learn from the Tunisians.

Do you have any specific programs to help empower vulnerable people?
As I said a moment ago, we pay a lot of attention and give a lot of support to the private sector, because in our experience, the private sector is the engine of economic growth. So we work with more than 50,000 small and medium-sized businesses throughout the country, whether in agriculture, tourism, crafts or fishing, to name but a few. We have projects in all these areas. In particular, to help them gain access to financing, American technology and American coaching, and if necessary to gain access to the American market. So, I think things are going well. Every time I travel around the country, I see this.  Whether in Jendouba, with women producing essential oils, for example, or in Sfax with the famous olive oil company that has become a major exporter to the United States. In Nabeul, I visited a ceramics factory where we supplied a machine that enables 2 colors to be applied, 2 glazes, at the same time.  It looks simple, but for the factory, it’s transformative. So they can produce 40% more. That means more jobs, more profits, and it’s fantastic. These are just a few examples of what we do.

How do women figure in aid and cooperation programs?
You mentioned the most vulnerable. In Jendouba, in the craft industry, or in Kairouan, I had the pleasure of receiving some women on the occasion of the celebration of Women’s Day, who spoke of our support for a cooperative they had set up to organize safer, more reliable transport for their work. And to ensure their safety in the fields.
Meanwhile, we know that Tunisia is going through an economic and social crisis. Thanks to our partnership with Unicef, and in coordination with the Ministry of Social Affairs, we have provided financial assistance to 305,000 of Tunisia’s most vulnerable children aged 6 to 18, including an additional allowance for disabled children.
As part of this same partnership, we also funded back-to-school allowances to encourage more than 425,000 school-age children from low-income families to stay in school and attend classes for the 2023 school year.
But it’s a rather discreet thing to do. Because for these families, it’s a particularly difficult time. But it’s not a solution.
When I went around to see how well it was working, the families were satisfied and grateful. But that’s not the solution. It’s just a patch-up solution.
What we need are good jobs, and that’s why we need to work even more with the private sector, so that parents can have stable incomes and send their children to school. Then children who finish school can find work.

Does the United States still support Tunisia in its negotiations with the IMF?
We’ve always supported Tunisia’s bid for an IMF loan, and I’ve made that clear several times. So did the US Secretary of State, Blinken. And that’s why we reached an agreement with the IMF in October 2022. The reform program presented by the Tunisian government to obtain IMF loans had been finalized. The United States agreed and lent its support. Now, if there’s another vision, it’s up to the Tunisian government to pursue a new program. In principle, there will be American support at IMF level.

You don’t want to go into details?
As I said, the program was presented and approved, but no action was taken. So it’s up to the Tunisian government to act, which has posed a problem. The President of the Republic has clearly expressed his concerns about this agreement.  Now it’s up to the Tunisian government to review its program and tell the IMF that the program has changed and that we need more time. It’s not up to us to do this, it’s up to Tunisia, a sovereign country, and its government to tell the IMF. And as soon as the ball is in the IMF’s court, we, as the leading voice in this body, will lend our support. The IMF’s programs have not been perfect; all over the world, loans have been granted in exchange for economic and social reforms, but this is more or less the formula that the IMF believes can work.

With the rise of the BRIC countries, are we facing a geopolitical shift?
According to the information I have, this is not yet an enlargement. There has been an invitation to certain countries to join the BRICS group. We’re not against countries that want to have relations with other countries. It’s up to them to decide. As far as we’re concerned, we’re going to stay focused on our priorities and objectives. These are economic growth and regional stability. As far as Tunisia is concerned, the objectives of our relations are economic growth, regional stability and democratic development. The question now is whether this grouping can advance these different objectives for the countries wishing to join it. Let me give you an example: the WFP (World Food Programme).
Last year, the United States provided half of the WFP’s global budget. The WFP’s global budget was $14 billion, of which the USA provided $7 billion. Russia, on the other hand, contributed 0.2%. So I invite readers to consider these figures. Do Tunisians dream of studying in these countries, or in the USA? Was it these countries that helped Tunisia win the battle of Ben Guerdane, for example, to reduce the terrorist threat and save tourism, or was it the United States?  Are these the countries that give a different idea of the future? So, we’re not against these countries seeking to unite and have cooperative relations with other countries, but we’re going to focus on our objectives with Tunisia and with the rest of the countries.

You and the US Special Envoy to Libya recently met the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Is there any news regarding the resolution of the Libyan conflict?
As I said before, it’s normal and even essential for diplomats and the Tunisian authorities to exchange information and views on a regular basis. So that’s what happened with the Tunisian Foreign Minister. On this point, we simply confirmed that the interests of Tunisia and the United States with regard to Libya are common, because we all want to see a Libyan-Libyan solution that will lead to stability and development in this country, which is good for the United States and for Tunisia, given that this country was Tunisia’s biggest economic partner not long ago, and a very large market for Tunisian products and services, particularly in the medical and agricultural sectors, etc. We are also very interested in the future of Libya.

In terms of tourism, how is the Tunisia-USA exchange shaping up?
Speaking of tourism, I was delighted to discover that since the beginning of this year, over 1,000 young American tourists have visited Tunisia, an increase of 57% over last year. And, of course, I’d like to see that number rise even higher next year. And to do that, we’re trying to help small and medium-sized businesses get better prepared to receive tourists. So I mentioned the project we call “Visit Tunisia”. We invest in financing, equipment, marketing and support for these SMEs seeking to develop or even start welcoming tourists. Imagine, for example, a Tunisian widow who owns a rural house with a few small improvements, she can rent out rooms to Algerian or other tourists.
Sure, she’s got to fix it up, she’s got to put in a solar panel, she’s got to learn how to do her marketing, we can do all that with our project. And we’re doing it with thousands of companies all over the country. I think this will help Tunisia to attract not only Americans, but also Algerians, Germans and so on. As far as the profile of the American tourist is concerned, it’s important to note that the American tourist spends a lot compared with the Italian, who is an hour’s flight away and can come and go every weekend. For the American tourist, it’s really a trip, so we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible, because they basically come on a cruise. That’s fine, but they only have a few hours to discover the Medina or maybe just a restaurant. So I’d like to see a lot more American tourists who can come and spend days and nights, not just a few hours. There are a lot of Americans who are going to discover beautiful landscapes and fabulous sites.
You touched on the history of the Second World War, and that’s very important. There are Americans like me who had parents or grandparents who fought in the war here, trying to fight the Nazis. For them, it’s a good reason to travel. Fortunately, there are also the archaeological sites you mentioned. I visited a site not far from here this morning where they’ve discovered some new finds with the support of an American team, and I’ve learned that next year there’s going to be a touring exhibition in the United States of some of the artefacts from Carthage to try and give Americans a taste of coming here and discovering the country. I think that’s fabulous and has nothing to do with the American government. That’s between the universities and the museum and the National Heritage Institute. That’s the kind of exchange we should be trying to promote.
I haven’t mentioned our work at El Jem and Oudhna. It’s true that we help SMEs to develop in this field, but we also don’t forget the major sites that can attract tourists from all over the world, as in the case of El Jem, which benefited from a grant from the United States to preserve the site. The same goes for the Oudhna cisterns, which I visited. One issue you have here is that you find so many objects that you now need to store them securely so you can classify them.
And so, that’s what we’ve done with the cisterns that were previously empty, now we’re putting them back together. And it’s going to be used as a storage facility. Yes, we do a lot of things, whether it’s cultural, professional or academic exchanges. That said, through our Visit Tunisia initiative we aim to increase tourist visits to Tunisia by 20%, visitor spending by 10% and create 3,000 new jobs.

What about scholarships and student travel?
As far as scholarship programs are concerned, at secondary school level, over 500 Tunisians have been to the United States to date, and we have over 600 students at the university level. We also have programs for advanced studies (doctorates, etc.) and professional exchanges. I’ve also met American students who came to study Arabic here, and I’d like to see a lot more cooperation at this level, because the exchange goes both ways. With the Tunisian government, we’re launching a new initiative under the Tunisia Jobs project, which will enable over 55,000 students from five major Tunisian universities – Tunis- El Manar, Jendouba, Sousse, Kairouan and Sfax – to take soft skills courses and benefit from career guidance services as they navigate the global job market.
The American Embassy, through USAID, is renovating and modernizing nearly 50 youth centers across the country.

The war in Ukraine has led to food insecurity in several countries, including Tunisia. What is the USA doing to alleviate this situation?
As I’ve already said, we initially provided half of the WFP’s global budget. We’ve been doing this for a long time, and we’ll continue to do so, because it’s part of our principles.
We also give food aid directly to certain countries, especially the most vulnerable ones, and I think the most important thing is to convince Putin to stop this war, because that’s the solution. Why continue the war? He’s already lost.  All it does is make people suffer needlessly. And it’s only creating huge problems for the most vulnerable countries. We do what we can to support them. Here in Tunisia, I’ve talked about our support for vulnerable families, but I think that in the medium and long term, we’re going to make the Tunisian economy more resilient, stronger through the private sector and through support for SMEs in particular. I would like to take this opportunity to call on all our partners to try to convince the Russian President to stop this war.

What is your message to Tunisians on the occasion of the celebration of the Tunisian-American friendship treaty?
For me, it’s a message of optimism, a message of hope, because looking at the history of bilateral relations, and looking at everything we’re doing today, I think there’s a bright future ahead of us, working together.
You established trade unions 100 years ago, while there are countries that still don’t have a union in 2023. You established the equality of women, while 60 years later, there are countries where women are still not equal to men under the law. You abolished slavery 120 years before other countries. Tunisia is geographically the keystone of North Africa.
With our support, Tunisia has become not only a stable country, but one that exports stability. What do you do with these American C-30 aircraft? You use them to support UN peacekeeping operations. That’s invaluable.
Imagine what we can do together in the future, when you have, for example, the highest percentage of engineering students in the world, second only to Malaysia. Let’s work together with our schools, our universities, our NASA and imagine what we’ll be doing tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow will be even more significant.