Media Center



November 23, 2003 - Cartagena, Colombia

President Uribe, esteemed friends:

I thank the people of Cartagena, for their generous hospitality. Thank you, President Uribe, for welcoming us into your home. We are pleased to hold this forum under your auspices because of the extraordinary efforts you have made to improve political practices, to strengthen Colombia’s democratic institutions, and to uphold the rule of law, and because we all identify with your struggle against terrorism and corruption, and your struggle against poverty and social exclusion. Those of us who have convened this democratic forum regard your governance as an example of democratic leadership. You clearly embody the image of a good governor; you are a serious, ethical, intelligent, and visionary leader, a tireless worker.

The topic that brings us together today is profoundly linked to the defense and promotion of democratic values. Every day new, manifold, and very significant threats to our democracies emerge. But to fully comprehend the magnitude of these challenges, we must share, in the broadest sense, our current understanding of democracy in the Americas.

First, its meaning has come to encompass everything that we consider to be part of the political system: free, fair, transparent elections; independence and balance between government branches; transparency and the fight against corruption; citizen participation; strengthened political parties; decentralization and strengthening of local government; the Congress, its powers and functioning; the opposition’s access to information, accountability; freedom of the press; freedom of speech; a role for civil society.

Meanwhile, over the past decade, we have witnessed the crisis of capital instability, the most undesirable aspect of globalization. One way or another, millions of citizens of all social strata feel vulnerable; they feel threatened by what they see as uncontrollable forces creating economic insecurity, social uncertainty, class and culture conflicts, and environmental degradation. This has brought enormous pressure to bear on our political parties and systems.

Without doubt, the primary task of our political parties is to work effectively to ensure a better future for all of those who are left out of the market economy, for those living in misery, for the malnourished, for indigenous peoples, for the illiterate, for the elderly, for the most vulnerable populations.

Moreover, above and beyond the immense challenges posed by economic globalization, the phenomena of political globalization also have presented enormous challenges for our democracies. Political globalization has generated a planet-wide awareness in the quest for social justice and the defense of citizens’ rights. It enables us to perceive the failures, weaknesses, and vices in our political systems and parties much more quickly and acutely than the economic shortcomings.

Until recently, countries had the option of having a political system replete with shortcomings, but with the advent of political globalization this is no longer possible. We have observed problems of election fraud, or the lack of equity in electoral contests, or the problems of discrimination against indigenous peoples, women, children. All of these things are translated instantly into the pervasive discrediting of our political systems and parties.

Further, respect for the right of every citizen of the Americas is an imperative that is all of our responsibility. The unrelenting war against corruption to achieve greater transparency and accountability is inescapable.

Likewise, NGOs and civil society, with their powerful mobilizations, today enjoy much more freedom of movement; their voices increasingly find echo; their cries are heard across the continents. Today there are more agents, more spokespeople, more organizations pointing out the failures of our institutions, revealing their limitations, and demanding their reform.

And as if this weren’t enough, democracy has to confront the legacy of the preceding economic model, the greatest inequality on the planet and, in some cases, even more acute poverty caused by the dramatic adjustment, palpable decreases in per capita income, and poor education systems.

We should not be surprised, then, if sometimes it seems as if the scaffolding of the entire political system is becoming unhinged.

Secondly, when we speak of democracy, we are referring to the effective functioning of the State and to government institutions responsible for supervision, regulation, or control, or providing public services: education, health, police, justice, or security. And there is no question that this constitutes a huge challenge for political parties, as they are the ones who must be held accountable for the effectiveness of public institutions.

In other words, each country’s democracy ends up being responsible for all of the acts or omissions of the state, the government, or any government agency, as well as for their past acts and omissions. Democracy has to confront the consequences or limitations of economic policy or social policy, just as it has to shoulder the malaise, the tensions, caused by the acute economic, social, and political changes of the past decade. And political parties must take on these enormous responsibilities.

And it is in the midst of this complex panorama that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was issued in 2001. The Charter is a guide for democratic conduct. It demonstrates the profound commitment that we Americans have to democracy. It describes the effort to share a vision and a series of objectives, needs, and aspirations. I am not going to go into its content, but clearly it has an extremely broad vision of the aspects comprising democracy and it requires us to take preventive and disciplinary action whenever necessary. Its main purpose, however, is to help democracies receive hemispheric support when their political or institutional process is in jeopardy or when the legitimate exercise of power is at risk. These considerations fully justify our presence here in Cartagena to examine the array of experiences relating to how to strengthen American democracies from the standpoint of what is perhaps one of the greatest needs, strengthening its political parties.

Obviously we need political parties with the capacity to build consensus around fundamental issues while leaving other matters up to free democratic competition. Parties must be in a position to design essential policies for implementing a successful party platform and to do so in such a way as to be able to rally public opinion around its proposals. If, instead of a stable institutional climate, parties exist in a volatile situation, or one of economic precariousness or slowdown, then it will be impossible to ensure that agreements are respected over time.

The fact is, however, that over the years, political parties have become less and less influential in society. According to recent surveys with which you are all familiar, they currently represent the least trusted institution in our societies, lagging far behind the Church, the Executive Branch, the Judiciary, and the Armed Forces. The question and challenge for us, then, is how to reverse this trend.

The Inter-American Forum on Political Parties, now meeting for the third time, has sponsored, for two consecutive years, a profound and open exchange on this issue among protagonists from the political arena, international organizations, academia, and civil society. The purpose of this meeting is to create an Inter-American Agenda for the Modernization and Reform of Political Parties.

The issue of political parties is also very important in Latin America because, over the past decade, the focus has been entirely on strengthening civil society, transparency, corruption, and accountability, and the criticism has been directed against political parties. Many people were operating under the mistaken notion that it was possible to build democracy in the Americas while disregarding or merely attacking political parties. Time has shown how misguided that premise was.

Now we are going to examine some ideas for creating the agenda I mentioned. First, we must recall that the cause of most democratic ruptures has been rooted in the weakness of the executive branch and the fragmentation of the legislature. The region learned a number of lessons from the democratic debacle and a second round for presidential elections has been established in most constitutions or legislation.

This has been only a partial solution since, while we must acknowledge that it can help prevent a democratic breakdown by bolstering the legitimacy of the executive, it does not, however, solve the governance crisis.

There are many facets of governance, one of the most important of which involves the impossibility of advancing reforms when the government is faced with a divided Congress and is unable to move ahead with the tasks it promised to the electorate. It is therefore necessary to revise the institutional framework in which political parties operate. If we want strong parties, we need legal frameworks that facilitate their functioning, not only as an electoral apparatus, but also as tools for strengthening democracy, whether they are carrying out governmental functions, or acting from the opposition.

This requires a guarantee of at least a minimum of public resources in order to maintain a solid party apparatus and enable parties to carry out their most basic tasks in terms of informing their constituents and the political development of party members.

Reform of this institutional framework also must include better guarantees for opposition activities as well as improving parties’ capacity for action in the parliaments, their natural setting. The crisis in the Congresses is but a reflection of the crisis affecting parties; as long as the latter fail to surmount their own difficulties, it is unlikely that the Congresses will be able to do so on their own. All of the surveys reveal a dangerous, negative trend in which Congresses and political parties receive the lowest ratings in terms of citizen regard.

Political financing must be central to this effort to change institutional frameworks. I already mentioned the need to allocate a basic minimum to ensure that parties are not just phantom institutions.

Citizens have a right to know where politicians’ campaign financing is coming from. This requires an underlying commitment to transparency in divulging the origin and use of public and private funding. According to data from the World Competitiveness Report, (a publication on competitiveness) the Latin American region has the highest rates of illegal political financing, and the highest rate of corporate co-optation of laws, policies and regulations. In terms of financing, an appropriate balance must be struck between accountability, caps on campaign contributions by individuals and corporations, spending levels, and finally, repayment of campaign expenditures and effective oversight mechanisms. These mechanisms require an independent electoral authority, one that is well equipped to investigate and to impose penalties.

In the area of financing, it is easy to imagine the kinds of distortions that arise between the government apparatus and political campaigns. In any event, creativity is necessary to prevent corruption, to ensure equality, and to avoid excessive increases in campaign costs, since it is necessary to preserve the credibility and integrity of the process.

While it is virtually impossible to come up with definitive solutions in such matters, finding answers for particular contexts and engaging in a valuable exchange can be very enriching.

However, neither a conducive political environment nor favorable regulations will restore citizens’ confidence in parties unless their leaders have a strong commitment to party democratization and modernization.

The first element to consider is that parties have to reclaim their vocation to prepare themselves to govern. What we have observed is that parties, and particularly candidates, invest enormous quantities of financial, personal, and institutional resources to win an election. Huge sums of money are spent on consultants, advertising, and other aspects of the electoral debate. Yet campaigns fail to reserve resources for the transition or for setting up the government and, at the same time, States do not make such resources available to the incoming president.

As a result, governments frequently take office essentially lacking basic information about the financial situation or the status of many public policies. Compounding this, the task of governance often does not fall to the party but rather to certain elites or technocratic groups; this defeats the notion of political competitiveness, thereby increasing public skepticism and the malaise afflicting party structures.

This brings us to an issue that we must examine very seriously and that is that weaknesses in presidential systems are becoming apparent in Latin America. Besides the weakness of governments lacking a parliamentary majority, we have observed many cases of destabilization caused by rapid political mobilizations through weak institutional mechanisms. We are starting to see, for example, how indigenous communities’ historical feeling of exclusion has had sometimes devastating effects on the political system in several countries.

This leads us to a situation in which merely strengthening political parties is insufficient. We need to enter into pacts or agreements with representatives of certain minority groups regarding the rules of the democratic game. In this case, mechanisms based on democratic majority are insufficient in dealing with minorities.

In such situations, marginalized groups must receive public resources to organize and to articulate their demands. Both the parties and the NGOs, however, must act responsibly and refrain from encouraging extremist positions that block consensus and could result in a spiral of violence.

This leads us to a situation in which we must agree that certain types of political participation should be encouraged, while others must be restricted or prohibited. This is particularly important in order to defend democracy, the rule of law, and to reject violence from any source.

Therefore, regulations governing political party operations and financing must include strict regulations that prohibit discrimination, uphold freedom of speech and the press, and create a climate of tolerance, diversity, and pluralism.

It is essential to ensure that parties respond to the needs of their constituents. It is very dangerous when citizens have the impression that countries are governed by small elite groups operating in the capitals and, with the pressures brought to bear by globalization, it is easy to arrive at the notion that the government is no longer representative of the country.

The task of parties is to govern. They compete in elections to take power, implementing the programs and ideas that they proposed to citizens. Unless parties make a serious internal effort to ensure that they develop the knowledge and the people required to govern, it will be impossible to regain the public trust.

A UNDP report that will be published next year includes a figure that merits our complete attention: 64% of Latin Americans believe that politicians lie to win elections. Unless a concerted effort is made to propose serious government platforms, it will be impossible to garner the public support necessary to carry out needed reforms in the region.

Within this effort, parties must build their own capacity to generate knowledge. Parties cannot rely on information from third parties in debating and analyzing the main problems facing a country. Likewise, parties must regain their capacity to fulfill their basic function of recruiting and training the political personnel needed for the task of governing.

Finally, parties must play a more active role in the new dynamics of globalization. International party organizations must become valid interlocutors for major international powers, much as civil society organizations have succeeded in doing in their own way.

Our parties and our governments, therefore, must learn to govern around globalization, while simultaneously moving forward collectively toward greater democratic governance. It is necessary to take the pulse of international transformations, understand them, adopt strategies to deal with them and modernize public and private institutions, so that they can operate in this new context.

At the hemispheric level we must use this experience to strengthen our integration and to promote hemispheric cooperation; to set in motion, using the tools at our disposal in the Americas, an integration process that incorporates balances, counterweights, and compensations so that it is viable and fair; to ensure that each country can conclude that integration is to its benefit, that more open, but regulated trade strengthens it, and that we can construct agreements more inclusive of our governments. This is the only way for our parties to successfully articulate broad sectors of national opinion. Simply put, we must have a profound understanding of the national reality in order to articulate it through political parties.

Our governors and our political leadership must create a new political ethic, a new social policy, strengthened political parties and organizations, and a much stronger commitment to poverty reduction. They likewise must strengthen our educational systems, make our economies more competitive, and find effective mechanisms for improved income distribution.

In Latin America in particular there is an urgent need to reassert the notion of a strong, effective, prestigious government. A government that has the capacity to supervise, regulate, and monitor. We need a democratic government, one that respects and ensures the rights of all people.

We need strong political parties in order to consolidate democracy in the region and to promote urgently needed reforms. A prerequisite for this new phase of reforms is political reform that strengthens political parties across the Americas. I invite all of you to leave this third forum with a commitment to work toward this common aim.

Thank you very much.