U.S. Ambassador Kevin Blackstone’s Remarks on Timor-Leste’s Customs Hotline Launch

His Excellency Dr. Rui Augusto Gomes, Minister of Finance; His Excellency Former President Jose Ramos Horta, Her Excellency Sara Lobo Brites, Acting Commissioner Jose Antonio Fatima Abílio, distinguished members of the Government of Timor-Leste; my U.S. Mission Timor-Leste colleagues; honored guests and friends.  Good morning.

Earlier this morning we launched USAID’s new Country Development Cooperation Strategy that will be implemented in cooperation with the Government of Timor-Leste over the next five years.  This strategy aims to help achieve “An Inclusive, Prosperous, and Healthy Timor-Leste that is more self-reliant.” It encompasses three ambitious themes — inclusiveness, prosperity, and health.  Now, we will launch a very specific USAID program that aligns directly with this strategy and the Government of Timor-Leste’s goals of good governance. Corruption constrains human progress and democracy across the globe. Corruption cuts across regional, cultural, and ideological divides to rob people of the freedom and prosperity they are entitled to.

Good governance is critical to a well-functioning democracy, especially in newly established, post-conflict states such as Timor-Leste.  USAID Timor-Leste is a proud partner for the Government of Timor-Leste’s efforts to build the capacity of government and citizens to model good governance and deliver quality services to Timorese. USAID has assisted the Customs Authority in a number of areas since 2017 including promoting the government’s efforts to professionalize staff and uphold integrity.

More recently, this assistance has helped keep the Dili seaport open and operating throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a very difficult period. This assistance has improved transparency and introduced time-saving procedures.  Customs agents have become more efficient, reducing clearance times for imports by nearly 70 percent. This has provided agents with more time to focus on threats such as counterfeit medicines, illegal narcotics, and businesses that habitually try to avoid paying taxes by undervaluing or misclassifying their goods.

However, it is a challenge to maintain that critical balance between regulatory control and trade facilitation.  Identifying criminal acts – which steal money from the government and from Timorese communities – can be difficult in a busy port. Now, thanks to this new, USAID-supported project, anyone with information can contact the Customs Authority by dialing: “12200.”  All calls are free, and callers can remain anonymous.  Information can also be provided through the Customs Authority website. Identifying and addressing this type of crime will help increase the government’s domestic revenue, which goes towards improving society through healthcare, education, and infrastructure projects.  Local businesses will benefit by competing on a level playing field where all imported goods are assessed for taxes and fees in compliance with publicly posted rates.

As we heard from H.E. Dr. Ramos-Horta in the hotline public service announcement:  “Now is the time to fight back”. The United States remains committed to supporting Timor-Leste to become even more self-reliant.  There has been significant progress made to date and more remains to be done.  The Customs Authority and a number of other government agencies still have work to do if they want to meet all ASEAN and World Trade Organization requirements.

Minister Gomes and Vice Minister Lobo, I would like to thank you for your support in making this hotline possible.  Thank you also to Acting Commissioner Abilio for establishing and launching this hotline and my special thanks to Dr. Jose Ramos Horta for your support helping to fight corruption.

It is a pleasure to join you today and I look forward to witnessing your successes and the positive impact it will have on the citizens of Timor-Leste.

Thank you