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March 6, 1998

Patricio Aylwin, the former Chilean president, said today that preserving and strengthening democracy and human rights was a top priority on the agenda for the upcoming Summit of the Americas. The meeting is to be held in Santiago, Chile in April.

Speaking on a panel on "The Future of Democracy in the Hemisphere," held at the Organization of American States (OAS) as part of its 50th anniversary celebration, Mr. Aylwin said democracy was having "a good time in our hemisphere." But he warned that particularly in Latin America, "our democracies suffer serious weaknesses and faces vexing dangers."

Among those dangers he listed the lack of democratic tradition in many countries of the hemisphere. "Democracy is somewhat artificial, feeble and formal, and we are not used to living in democracy." He also mentioned the weaknesses in national consensus that limit the sphere of confrontation.

"Not everywhere is the rule of law operating at full capacity," said Mr. Aylwin, referring to what he termed institutional weaknesses. "Separation of powers is not well-balanced, and too much power is invested in the executive in many countries, with parliaments lacking sufficient power, electoral systems do not always ensure better representation nor are they the most transparent, and the administration of justice leaves a lot to be desired," he explained.

The former Chilean president referred to corruption as a phenomenon linked with a culture which takes as a given certain abuses of power and hence cheapens and weakens democratic institutions.

Turning to the role of the press, Mr. Aylwin spoke as well of control and manipulation of information by huge monopolies and oligarchies that control the media. "Public opinion in our countries is not always sufficiently well-informed because information is largely manipulated."

Civic apathy, which expresses itself in voter absenteeism, the discrediting of political parties, indifference towards and rejection of the state, a decline of civic organizations and lack of participation, were also issues the former Chilean leader feels jeopardize democratic systems in the region.

On the panel, which was moderated by Peter Hakim, president of Inter-American Dialogue, views were exchanged on the future of democracy in the hemisphere by former Peruvian foreign minister, Francisco Tudela, former OAS secretary general, Joao Clemente Baena Soares, former Haitian prime minister, Claudette Werleigh, and Yale University professor, Robert Dahl. The panel then entertained questions from the floor.

Later on in the afternoon, Canadian Foreign Minister Lloyd Axworthy delivered an address in which he reiterated a call for the international community to consider Cuba's re-entry into the OAS. Mr. Axworthy expressed the view that the time had come to begin building bridges with Cuba, and to involve that country in discussions on the pressing issues as a way of encouraging positive change.

Closing the Conference of the Americas, OAS Secretary General Cesar Gaviria expressed the belief that "the Organization of American States has a long way to go to show that we can step up to the responsibilities we will be given by the heads of state and government of the countries of the Americas, and that we can assume those mandates and be useful in the process of integration now embracing all the countries of the Americas.

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