Media Center



March 5, 1998 - Washington, DC

Let me extend a warm welcome to all of you whom I have the honor of greeting today: illustrious citizens of the Americas who have come here from all corners of North and South America and the Caribbean to share your concerns and your views about the problems and challenges currently faced by the Hemisphere. And, may I express special thanks for your acceptance of the challenge to come here and think out loud about the way we are going to face our future. You are here to tell us about your ideals, your hopes, and your dreams. Your presence graces this hall, which has witnessed some of the most important events in the history of this Hemisphere.

In the course of this century, the people who have shouldered responsibility for public affairs in the Americas have reshaped this distinguished institution and given it a new look, transforming it to meet each successive crisis, leaving only the traces of what it once was. While the clock of history is ticking away at a faster pace and century-old institutions have suddenly found themselves outdated and incapable of coping with the reality that overwhelms them, the OAS has emerged in new forms, with other names and other aims.

We have gone from the Continental Trade Office to the Pan American Union, and thence to the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance and the OAS. And in that transition, we went from the quest for intensified trade and the Monroe Doctrine to containing communism and defending the Hemisphere from external aggression--and thence to the search for a more even political balance among the nations and the embodiment in our Charter of the principles forged during the century-long process of relationships fraught with one incident after another: international law as the guiding rule governing the conduct of states; juridical equality of all nations; nonintervention in internal affairs; the peaceful settlement of disputes; and the signing of the first American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man.

This was actually the first major effort to unite the Hemisphere, based on principles, rather than economic or strategic interests. Unfortunately, those efforts were overshadowed by the priorities of the Cold War, when the democracy to which our peoples were entitled was sacrificed in order to muster a united front against the opposing ideology.

A trajectory marked with ups and downs, achievements both great and small, depending on one's viewpoint. A history of rivalries and mistrust, of some common undertakings and no few missed opportunities, of utopian visions, as well as frustration and disenchantment. A history in which the real unifying factor was fear.

Those were difficult years for our hemispheric Organization. Fortunately for all of us, however, its relevance does not come from its seniority or its continuity; nor does it derive from the many obstacles it has faced or the difficulty of achieving its essential aims. It stems from the ability to adapt to a constantly changing Hemisphere and world and its ability to meet the changes of the moment.

And today, now that the Cold War is over and globalization is in full swing, we are obliged to reshape the OAS and the inter-American system of institutions so that they will respond to the objectives which our peoples have pinpointed: a tomorrow of integration, peace, and democracy. But also of equality, justice, and freedom, one of solidarity, environmental protection, growth, and prosperity. And at the same time, a future in which we can face the problems that compromise the legitimacy of our democracies, such as drug trafficking, terrorism, corruption, impunity, and extreme poverty.

The transformations we have wrought thus far have been motivated by a determination to adapt our agenda to the new problems and new realities of the Hemisphere--to the goals set by our heads of state and government.

Friends, your presence today in this Hall of the Americas should enable us to transcend those realities, get beyond the problems of the present and look toward what our future should be. In a scenario that allows us to devote more thought to our ideals, our values, and faith in our common destiny. Because those of us who are responsible for operating this system day by day sometimes run the risk of losing our way amid the stumbling blocks, difficulties, and thorny patches we encounter on our path.

If we manage at this meeting to review the status of our Hemisphere and, at the same time, to think about what our societies and our institutions should be, we will have covered a goodly amount of the road we have proposed to take in order to commemorate our half century of existence. And we will assuredly have made considerable progress on the proposals we shall offer to our leaders in Santiago, and we will be able to give them a fresh, revamped, and--why not?--enlightened point of view, which we can also transmit to our foreign ministers in Bogota and Caracas.

But what I can tell you unhesitatingly and with complete certainty here and now is that those of us who work in these halls, at this time of reflection, have high hopes for this new phase of hemispheric relations, in which we share common values and ideals.

We have closed the curtain on decades of isolationism, confrontation, and mistrust. We have managed to agree not only on the essentials of democracy and how to protect it from the dangers that threaten it, but also on what it means to defend individual rights and civil liberties. But at the same time, and for the first time since our independence, we have arrived at a dual convergence: on the one hand, on economic values reassuming the role played by private enterprise and market forces in assigning productive resources; and, on the other, the concept of the state, with its social responsibilities and its functions in the area of regulation, oversight, and control.

Little by little, in such seminal areas as arms control and the fight against corruption, drug trafficking, and terrorism, the nations of America have signed conventions or endorsed regional strategies which unite them--legally and politically--in the search for common objectives and results.

And we are in the midst of a transition from the old order to one which we are just now outlining. Many of the fetters which immobilized the OAS in the past have disappeared. Now there is more room for a rewarding exchange of experience, for partnership, and for collective action with regard to an agenda that is expanding in record fashion. There is no doubt that the Organization we have today is better, more balanced and more universal in its political objectives.

We know that the challenges are enormous, but then so are the opportunities. We still have a long way to go in making our Organization useful and effective. We need to reorient it as a stage for agreement on regional policies for facing our common problems. We also need more solidarity in our cooperation programs and to gear them more directly towards the countries and people who most need them. And of course we will still have to discharge the mandates and responsibilities our leaders will give us in Santiago. And we doubtless are in need of their enlightenment and perspective.

Nevertheless, I believe that neither the new order nor the adaptation of inter-American institutions to meet the challenges which of today and tomorrow will come about spontaneously. If they did, if we let things take place in impromptu fashion, that new order would doubtless arise--but without the necessary consensus and balance, without the parameters which inspire confidence in us all. And we will have outdated institutions, fashioned for our past, not for our future.

Hence the importance of this meeting at which we shall speak of democracy, trade, education, the protection of human rights, sustainable development and the struggle against poverty in the Americas: the same topics that will be addressed by the presidents and prime ministers in Santiago, Chile.

Ladies and gentlemen attending the Conference of the Americas:

I am sure you will understand and forgive me for not mentioning each and every participant in the various panels because, first of all, our distinguished guests need no introduction, and, also, because if I tried to introduce them I would have to make a speech about each of them, since each represents an aspect of the best the men and women of the Americas have to offer. What I would like to say is that we are not here to listen to the people we see every day but rather to those who can give us a critical, different, unorthodox, and perhaps irreverent point of view. This is a time not for complacency but for reflection, a time to ask ourselves where we have room for improvement, how much we have left to do, and how long the journey will be.

What I should do in all fairness is thank Tom Bruce and his team for this dedication and professionalism and, most of all, for their great patience in organizing an event such as this at the OAS with such limited resources.

We began with the topic of globalization and trade, a field of endeavor that finds a natural setting here in the historic Pan American Union building. We must take action in search of answers to countless questions: How to maintain dynamic trade in the midst of negotiations? How to make this a political and not solely economic exercise? How to adhere to the political will of the governments, congresses, and public opinion throughout the Hemisphere? How to link the benefits of a large free trade zone to the smaller and lower per capita income economies? How to make the potential agreement compatible with the global GATT agreements? How to make the existence of regional agreements not only a prerequisite for moving ahead with negotiations but also a significant asset within the Free Trade Area of the Americas? How to address the consequences of the Asian crisis without compromising our commercial ties?

And these are only the most pressing issues. Surely there will be a chance to study the enormous demands that globalization and the information revolution place on our economies and our societies: the increased volatility of capital, the enormous demands on the educational system, the immense pressure on social security systems, the risks looming over our cultures.

We then move on to the matter of education, which is the backbone of our efforts to mold independent, informed, responsible, and tolerant citizens today, citizens who can look at information with a critical eye, who value the democratic process and the peaceful settlement of disputes, who learn how to reason and to educate themselves, who have the knowledge, values, and skills for personal and professional growth, to enter the work force, to compete internationally, to progress toward greater equality.

In the era of globalization the countries' most important resource is people, not natural resources or land. But in order for our citizens to have access to better educational systems, we must solve problems with resources, institutions, educational processes, and the quality of instruction, especially for inhabitants of impoverished urban and rural areas, for members of ethnic minorities, and for those who need special education.

We will begin with the topic of human rights this afternoon. As Secretary General of the OAS, I should say first of all that no institution enjoys more prestige or has earned more praise for the Organization's efforts than its human rights bodies. Both the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights operate today with complete independence and autonomy, as they should. But we are all committed to a process of reflection that should lead to their enhancement in the administrative, budgetary, and structural senses, increase their operational autonomy, allow them to hear more cases and do more to actively promote human rights, strengthen investigatory mechanisms, permit them to give more support to and receive more support from national systems, broaden the scope of human rights protection, and secure universal ratification of the American Convention on Human Rights and recognition of the Court's jurisdiction.

We will end the day with the meeting of Nobel Laureates of the Americas. Our intention is to bring about a stimulating, creative, and provocative dialogue among them, without speeches or formal statements, on how they see the future of the Americas. Without a doubt, bringing together those who are foremost in intellect, science, humanitarian action, and peacemaking in the Americas is a unique opportunity that will shake foundations we thought were unshakable. I hope that is the case.

Then we have the subject of sustainable development where together we will look for a way to implement the proposals from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, proposals which identified the western hemisphere as the first region to come up with a sustainable development plan as part of the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. These proposals were designed in such a way as to reflect the specific circumstances in the Americas and have set certain priorities for us within a broad range of the subject headings in Agenda 21. It is our hope that the Conference discussion will help us move forward in terms of defining the OAS forum that will help to develop the initiatives and define objectives, means, and executing agencies, the forum that should be used for an exchange of experience and the negotiation of regional positions. We must be sure to do everything in our power to introduce effective sustainable development criteria in our activities.

The second meeting tomorrow addresses another topic that is crucial for the 800,000,000 people living in the American orbit during the high-level discussion of social development and the fight to overcome poverty. How will America cease to be the most inequitable region in the world? What role does economic policy play here? What role do the government and its institutions play? The urgency of this debate is ongoing. Despite progress in recent years, a large proportion of the Hemisphere, and Latin America especially, continues to have the worst indicators on the planet as regards income equity and distribution. It is an unacceptable paradox that this Hemisphere that is rich in resources and potential has left millions of its sons and daughters in abandonment, trapped in the jaws of poverty.

We shall end our meeting with the future of democracy in the Hemisphere. It is important to recall that the OAS is the only international organization that mentions democracy in its Charter and, what is more, that includes promoting and defending democracy as one of its principles. We have acquired our own experience and expertise in human rights advocacy, in electoral observation, and in assisting countries that have endured internal strife, and we have used that capacity to rebuild democratic institutions.

Today, the entire scaffolding of our diplomacy for defending democracy and constitutional government, the use of peaceful means to settle disputes and for crisis management and post-conflict activities have combined in unparalleled fashion on the world stage, making the focus of our existence. This is our paradigm of democratic solidarity.

But over and beyond these activities, we must be capable of developing mechanisms that help us do more to promote and strengthen democracy, that help us in research, training, an exchange of experience, in the promotion of democratic values, and especially, in facing the problems that threaten democracy.

We shall also hear at our Conference overall assessments by those we see as our beacons of intellect, who will surely take us back to the true historical origins of our institutions to help us understand our original past, or by those who can offer with an enriching regional vision.

Guests and participants at the Conference of the Americas:

Perhaps the final question that we must ask ourselves is: "Do we truly want our peoples to unite in common destiny?"

Beyond the economic interests is our supreme goal of dignity for all people of the Americas, their civil liberties, prosperity, right to equality and peace.

For the moment I shall conclude by saying that we cannot forget for one single moment that the ultimate focus of the multilateral system of institutions is not the on states, but rather on the individuals to whom we must provide education, security, job opportunities, a healthy environment and, of course, freedom and protection of their rights.

They are the ones who must benefit from this entire effort to build consensus in our Hemisphere. They are the ones that inspire our work: the millions of Americans who share this fertile land and who, like ourselves, continue to dream of the ideal of unity promoted by Bolivar, San Martin, Morazan, Hidalgo, Juarez, Marti, Garvey and Washington.

We must take maximum advantage of the strengths we have built in 50 years, but we must weed out the negative to build in the Americas the promise of well-being, peace, prosperity and the unity of our peoples.

Thank you very much.