Secretary General's Speech


February 12, 2011 - Bogotá, Colombia

In order to speak about democracy, I believe it would be best to start with some recent publications on the evaluation of democracy in the region and then develop our thinking.

Recently, The Economist Intelligence Unit published for its subscribers its analysis of democracy in the world. It covered 167 of the world’s countries, including all the major ones, almost all the global population; I would say that only the micro-States were left out. It is interesting to note in both the 2008 and the 2010 study how much Latin America has advanced in this regard. Of the 24 States in the region – 19 Latin American, plus 5 Caribbean, including Haiti in the Caribbean in this case – 17 of them are democratic according to the study, even though the majority – with the exception of Costa Rica and Uruguay – fall into the category of imperfect or flawed democracies, and this relates precisely to the issues involved when democracy extends beyond elections. Usually, they are not failures in the system of the generation of power, but rather failures in what occurs before or after the elections. If we compare that figure with the situation in 1985 – going back 25 years – probably at that time The Economist Intelligence Unit would have classified more than half the Latin American governments in the category of dictatorships. Now there is only one, which is Cuba; six are classified in the category of so-called “hybrid governments” – evidently, there could be different opinions in this regard – which are the countries that one imagines would be in a report on democracy by The Economist Intelligence Unit.

There is no doubt that, from the perspective of the creation of democracy, of the way in which democracies generate their authorities, what we call democracy of origin, we have made enormous progress. Since I have been with the OAS, we have carried out 60 election observation missions and, in none of them can we say that evident fraud has been committed; that the will of the people has been distorted. Moreover, participation has been fairly numerous, with limited exceptions, as for example in the recent first round of elections in Haiti. It is after the elections that the problems and questions begin; partly because The Economist’s report calls attention to them, but, above all, because the Inter-American Democratic Charter calls attention to them. By approving the Inter-American Democratic Charter, our States, our governments, stated clearly that the electoral aspect, what is called democracy of origin, is only one aspect of democracy.

There is also what is called democracy of exercise or the democratic exercise, and I have said many times that it is not enough to vote or to be elected cleanly, but it is also necessary to govern democratically. From that perspective, I believe that the democracies of Latin America continue facing a series of problems, some of which are being overcome, while others are losing ground. In summary, I believe that, today, our democracies face three types of problems.

A first problem, as Charles Tilly has wisely indicated, is to speak of democracy when the place of the individuals within it is relatively predetermined, as happens in a caste society; this is not democratic. Therefore, in Latin America we have a first major challenge, or a de-democratizing factor, which consists of poverty, inequality and discrimination. And, I place them together because we cannot ignore them; on this continent, the Afro-American populations are poorer than the rest of the population, the indigenous populations also; and most poor households are single-parent and headed by a woman. When one tries to separate poverty and inequality or poverty and discrimination, the reality hits us: poverty has a race and has genes. This is a first problem regarding which it could be argued that we have made progress over the last decade. Despite the crisis, the last decade, perhaps because it was a decade of greater economic growth than the two preceding ones together, resulted in an eight percentage point reduction in poverty; the poverty level peaked at over 40 percent in 2002 and, today, it must be around 32 percent. However, one-third of Latin Americans are poor; but with the economic growth and the development shown by this continent, one-third of the population should not be poor – that is too many people.

At times comparisons are odious, and just as I do not like comparisons between the economic growth of Chile and India, neither would they be good in this case. Until recently, 40 or 45 percent of people living in extreme poverty in the world were in India; so we cannot compare one with the other. But, in our region – where the per capita income corresponds more or less to the global average – there is no reason for us to have such a widespread situation of discrimination and poverty. We have made progress, but we have a long way to go.

The second problem of the Latin American democracies, which has been discussed at length here, is of a structural nature. I have always said that when we speak of organized crime we are not referring to street crime; what is dangerous for democracy is the organized crime that has drug-trafficking as its core, its basic nucleus; although it is also expressed in people trafficking, money-laundering, arms smuggling, piracy, organ trafficking, and suchlike. Every enterprise, including criminal activity, tends to expand and become a conglomerate when successful. In the case of this problem, contrary to the previous one, we have backtracked, rather than advancing. Today this problem is a greater factor of de-democratization than it was 20 years ago and, in this regard, I agree with the conclusion of the previous panel.

Unfortunately, there have been no success stories in the fight against drug-trafficking and organized crime in recent decades; to the contrary, they continue to constitute a threat to democracy. Once again I refer to Charles Tilly, grand master on these issues, when he says that there is no democracy when there are some individuals who clearly place themselves outside the law and do not accept the normal rules that govern society. But, in addition, organized crime tends to insert itself into political affairs. Some years ago, someone said: at one time criminal gangs bought or threatened the governments and authorities within our countries, now they simply place themselves in government. This is happening in our region; organized crime has been meddling in politics, creating an urgent need for transparency in our democratic system to avoid them coming to dominate the whole of society, especially in the smallest countries.

The third problem, which is generally the one that causes most concern, as President Gaviria has mentioned – and about which not enough is said, or at least it is not seen as a political problem in some spheres – is the issue of democratic governance, and this causes The Economist Intelligence Unit to classify 15 of the 17 Latin American democracies with flaws, defects, imperfections: as flawed democracies.

I don’t want to discuss all the issues raised by the foregoing; rather I will examine only three of them. First, institutional weaknesses persist and are marked by growing tendencies towards what is called “caesarism.” In our countries there is still a propensity to change too often the government of republics, the government of the law, the collective government, for individual governments. We have a well-known inclination towards successive re-elections in the region. This is not in the Inter-American Democratic Charter. As Secretary General of the OAS, I should not have to concern myself with this, but I believe that democracy is a system that requires limits; power must be shared, it cannot be concentrated. We are experiencing a tendency towards seeking the concentration of power, and this is complex, complicated.

Second, we can also observe a tendency to weaken those institutions that exercise some form of control within society. In many countries, the judiciary is not independent, and when the separation and balance of powers is referred to, the truth – especially with regard to the Executive and the Legislative powers in presidential systems – is that this has never really existed. I would say that the key issue in a democratic society is the independence and autonomy of the judiciary, its strength. And I believe that this is where we have a major difficult as regards the supervisory and the constitutional powers: to ensure that they really function independently, guaranteeing the rule of law and that the law reigns.

Third, we have some difficulties in the exercise of civil sovereignty and human rights. I believe that democracy does not exist unless there is total freedom of expression; in reality, politics does not exist without freedom of expression because freedom of expression is not necessary under dictatorships, since a dictatorship is founded on the basis that everyone thinks the same. The dictator bases himself on the concept that everyone thinks the same as he does and, consequently, there is no need for others to express an opinion. And not only democracy and politics, but also flawed democracy require freedom of expression. However, different types of threat to freedom of expression exist; I have always denounced that, when seeking to limit freedom of expression bureaucratically by means of State norms and by repression, legal mechanisms are used. Furthermore, in our region, there is an excessive concentration of the media in a limited number of hands and there is also something much harsher, which is the violence exercised against freedom of expression by the same criminal groups mentioned above. I consider that the rights of the people to freedom of association and expression are not yet fully guaranteed.

There are many other problems; I could mention, for example, the issue of transparency, but I have concentrated on the above because I believe that the democratic governance of our countries is what has really been on the discussion agenda in recent times.

Despite the foregoing, I continue to think that we are experiencing a very positive democratic period; we are making excellent progress; we are advancing well; I think that the region is today much more democratic than it was 25 years ago, even as regards the culture of the people, although we still have these flaws that could cause us to backslide in the face of any crisis or difficulty.

I will end with a more somber comment regarding the willingness that exists today to collectively defend the democratic achievements of recent times. Lately some regional institutions have drafted agreements which state: “In order to belong to this, it is necessary to be democratic.” In fact, the democratic clause is a European invention from the beginning of the 1990s when Europe began to negotiate cooperation agreements with some recently-democratized countries of Latin America. And in all these treaties a clause was included that stated: “The foregoing, provided we are democrats; in the absence of democracy this agreement is not valid, it is annulled.” Later, this same type of clause was included in MERCOSUR and in other mechanisms.

The problem of these clauses is that they often refer to the hypothesis of the fall of the government and, therefore, they are clauses in defense of governments. But there are other ways of transgressing democracy that constitute a massive violation of the democratic system: a massive electoral fraud, a situation of organized corruption in society, the massive violation of the human rights of specific sectors, the closing down of one of the powers of the State. When Alberto Fujimori closed Congress in April 1992, our countries rushed to condemn it and there were problems; there was no Inter-American Democratic Charter, but even so, this was unacceptable. When General Noriega altered the institutional framework of Panama in December 1989, naturally it was excluded from all the system’s organizations.

I confess that I am concerned about the real willingness to defend democracy, especially in those cases that do not affect the stability of the Executive. Honduras demonstrated this. Nowadays, a coup d’état is not acceptable in Latin America, and that is significant progress. The question is how much more progress could we make if we had the capacity, the means and the collective will to act when a country violates flagrantly and massively the constitutional order that it has given itself.

Thank you very much.