Media Center



January 27, 2005 - Washington, DC

English translation provided by the Permanent Mission of El Salvador

I am deeply grateful to the countries of the hemisphere, represented by their ambassadors, for allowing me to share my thoughts regarding our hemisphere and the OAS.

I will, in the interest of time, concentrate on those issues that as of today have a unique importance for the countries of the hemisphere, such as extreme poverty, economic growth, and natural disaster vulnerability, and, of course, touch on certain organizational issues that have gained major importance for the OAS. Allow me to do this from my personal experience and perspective.

Poverty alleviation is the first priority of every serious and responsible country. As we all know, poverty is synonymous with isolation. For a community that lacks access roads to communicate with the rest of the country its ability to reap the benefits of growth ends where the road ends.

Those of you who have had the opportunity to go into the poor communities of our hemisphere can attest that when the inhabitans of isolated communities are asked what they need most, “a road” is the answer they give with astounding frequency.

If they have to choose one thing, they will not ask for a school or a health care center, or low cost housing, or sources of income. They will certainly ask for a road.

This does not mean that they do not need education, or to cure their sick, or to have shelter from nature, or to find a job, but rather that a road means all these things to them.

They access schools and health centers by road, they can sell their goods, and buy construction materials and consumption goods at better prices, if they have a road.

Similarly, when a community lacks a power supply, it cannot lengthen the hours of the day to become more productive, or replace human muscle with machines to free the creative forces of its population and in this way contribute to the solution of their problems.

The absence of mass telecommunications at affordable prices, is also a form of isolation. Support networks, risk alerts, information sharing, and time saving are not possible when communications are non-existent.

In other words, without these investments it is not possible to prosper, to leave poverty behind.

To combat poverty, each member state of this Organization must invest strongly in roads, energy and telecommunications.

This commitment to basic infrastructure investments exceeds the budgets of the majority of poor countries.

Developing countries, overwhelmed with debt, and facing enormous demands beyond the cost of education and health, and without the possibility of accessing fresh funds, will not be able to obtain the resources necessary to provide their people with the infrastructure to generate development opportunities.

It has been my experience that, only those projects devised under a regional integration vision, and that make it possible to view the possibilities of a region as a whole, will develop new mechanisms to overcome the restraints those states experience when they act alone.

For instance, I believe that a regional system of state guarantees, capable of providing the necessary incentives to involve multilateral financial institutions, the private banking system and cooperation agencies into a regional development project, is the right track to access fresh resources and earmark them where they are most needed, to endow developing countries with the tools to face the challenges ahead of them.

I recently met with Prime Minister Patrick Manning of Trinidad and Tobago. On that occasion, he talked about his vision of a regionally integrated Caribbean.

I believe that his idea of a trade harmonization platform on which to build an integration project to produce a Caribbean economy is the wave of the future for this region, one so rich in possibilities.

In Central America, we decided to integrate our economies, keeping our differences in mind, and joined under a shared vision of our future. We set up a Central American negotiation team that was able to successfully conclude the free trade agreement with the United States of America.

The agreement encompasses the mechanisms that the region needs to take advantage of the opportunity offered by having the door of the largest economic power open to us.

The most important thing about this negotiation is, in my opinion, that by accepting among ourselves the rules that we negotiated with third parties, we thus generated a de facto Central American economic integration agreement.

This process has spurred other Central American integration issues, such as the integrated customs system, and has laid the foundations for a regional financial superintendency, a coordinated joint police force, a holistic approach to infrastructure, and the development of concrete projects to meet integration goals.

El Salvador led the regional integration effort during my term in office. In my opinion, to build an integration vision, to awaken the interest in this idea, to create the necessary credibility within developed countries, and to move forward to make it a reality, is neither theory nor speculation.

The integration of the Caribbean and the Central American regions, within and among each other, with the possibility to send their products to the US market, could transform the Central American region into a powerful economic force and thus trigger a new engine for growth.

Central America alone has become an important trade partner of the US, with a volume of trade more sizable than that of Russia and India combined.

The will of the small Central American nations to strengthen their economies and pursue a common project has put an end to the traditional tensions with the US.

If the OAS Member States grant me the opportunity to serve this Organization, they will find in me someone who has already walked that path, who enjoys sufficient credibility to propose such a far reaching project to developed countries and multilateral financial institutions.

More importantly, budget constrained small member economies, would have a strong believer in integration working hand in hand with them, in a tangible and specific project from within the Organization.

The benefits are enormous. Central America has risen from a period of conflicts and hopelessness to become a land of freedom and opportunities. Even during the difficult recent past, characterized by a severe economic crisis, Central America grew at positive rates, achieving the long yearned for stability.

Critical poverty has dropped in 20% in the last twelve years in El Salvador, a fact that fills us with pride and profound satisfaction.

Unimaginable potential is unleashed when people break away from the conceptual barrier that prevents them from thinking about their nations beyond their national borders.

Some of the benefits of choosing the future as an option, will translate into an integrated network of ports and airports, a regionally articulated economy growing at a sustainable pace, the standardization of jurisprudence to successfully combat crime in the area, and the creation of a national security system.

The OAS was conceived to articulate a hemisphere eager to live in freedom, overcome dire poverty, reach growth levels that would satisfy the needs of its people and produce higher security levels. The OAS is the organization called to articulate this vision and become an essential support for all those nations that pursue this aspiration.

Natural disasters cause an impact on small and vulnerable countries such as my own; this is not always understood. I recently visited Prime Minister Keith Mitchell from Grenada, after hurricane Ivan.

The devastation was incredible. The amazingly strong winds had lifted the containers off the cargo vessels stationed at the harbor, scattering them up in the hills of the island.

The roofs of the houses and buildings had been ripped off. Ninety percent of the households suffered damage. Local residents sat on the doorsteps of their former houses, stunned by the destruction before their eyes.

The Prime Minister understood the need to provide fast relief; to take care of the injured and repair water pipelines, reestablish power lines, and instill hope in a population that had not quite digested the destruction of everything they had worked so hard for during many generations.

He needed a prompt response from the international community, since he faced a phenomenon beyond his government’s financial and organizational capacity.

I have been in the position of the Prime Minister. Four years ago, my country, El Salvador, was shaken by two major earthquakes in a period of thirty days. Sixty percent of our municipalities were turned to rubble. We faced the worst catastrophe of our history.

During the first stage of the disaster, we focused on saving lives. It became necessary to relocate the population at risk who lived at the foot of the mountains and to move them and to build camps furnished with adequate sanitation facilities, and establish supply lines, as well as providing care for the elderly and children, the most vulnerable members of our society.

We only had four months to build temporary housing for a total of one million two hundred thousand inhabitants, before the beginning of the rainy season with its torrential rains and the danger they pose to already unstable soil.

By mere definition, a disaster of this magnitude surpasses the possibilities of a country. Prompt and sufficient relief is only possible with the assistance of the international community, together with a previously arranged support system, ready to trigger an immediate response.

Basic elements of air transportation, health care, food, temporary shelter, power generation and potable water supply are always urgent during this first stage. Financial and logistical resources are also pressing during the immediate aftermath of a disaster, but become crucial during the reconstruction phase.

These, however, can only be provided when a previous emergency response system is already in place.

The lesson learned from this experience allows me to affirm that the solidarity of our hemisphere is available to any country that is stricken by a natural disaster. It is not a question of resources. It is really a preparedness issue.

Here is where I envision an enormous challenge for an organization with the legitimacy to call upon those resources, to structure the support mechanisms that countries need to face such an abysmal crisis.

I have been in the shoes of Prime Minister Keith Mitchell. I know exactly what he and his fellowmen are going through in Grenada. I hope to have the opportunity to work with an organization that is capable of setting up efficient support systems, and supply an effective channel for the OAS Member countries to provide relief to those who need it most.

Our hemisphere is quite diverse, ranging from small island nations to the most powerful global economy. Our hemisphere is the cradle of a wealth of cultures and geography, but also an area of great disparities.

This is why I believe that an organization that aspires to be the center of political discussion, should appoint a Secretary General with the perspective of a small country.

It is impossible to understand the hardships small nations go through, the graveness of their problems, the awareness of what works, and the many solutions that because they do not stem from the perspective of a small, poor nation, end up being problems in themselves.

I believe that a sense of balance should prevail during the upcoming election of the future Secretary General of the OAS. In light of the enormous weight of large nations, it is essential to open the way to the perspective of small nations.

The hemisphere faces many difficult situations, but the case of Haiti stands out due to its political complexity, and the severe deterioration of the living conditions of its people.

I had the privilege of discussing this issue in depth with two outstanding leaders highly committed to this nation. I refer myself to the prime ministers of the Bahamas, Perry Christie, and of Jamaica, P.J. Patterson.

The prestige these two figures enjoy outside their borders prompted calls for them to assist in the crisis of Haiti. I will not summarize their ideas, since you are probably more aware of them than I.

Nevertheless, I must say that they experience a high degree of frustration with the happenings in that nation, and are also highly committed to seek the best way to solve the Haitian crisis.

When we had the opportunity to talk in depth about this topic, I related my experience throughout the cruel war that destroyed my country from 1978 to 1992.

I returned to my country in 1983, in the midst of the conflict, dreaming of finding a place back home to dedicate myself to my books—I am a teacher by vocation and that is how I earned my livelihood. I am a farmer by nature. For a few years I thought I had escaped from the war, until the guerrilla forces targeted my family in 1989, murdering my father in law as he held my daughter in his arms. Miraculously, she was spared the same fate. That event placed me in the dilemma faced by every citizen of a war stricken country—what to do with the anger that overcomes you when all human dignity has been violated?

Many choose revenge, take justice into their own hands and become part of the problem.

I am not one to judge them; I have been there and understand them. Notwithstanding, I decided that the only possible way to live in a country at war was to pursue the quest for peace. That is why I became a politician, for the love of my country.

I accepted to become part of the cabinet that achieved the historical peace accords in 1992. I led the discussion forum of civilian forces, and devised the reconstruction agenda.

Later I became a member of our legislative assembly and was elected unanimously as the speaker of a congress partially consisted of the former participants in our conflict.

I was later elected President of the Republic.

I am narrating these facts not to speak about my merits but rather to explain that I have been in the midst of a bloody war, and have contributed to the peace process, the reconstruction of our nation and the transformation of my country into one of the great success stories of our hemisphere.
I understand Haiti, and know what it is enduring.
This reality does not fill me with pessimism, but rather pushes me to contribute to its solution.

Other places have managed to solve this problem, why not Haiti?

Those of you who experience this Organization day by day, might wonder what my thoughts are regarding the OAS as a structure.

As the defender of the system of liberties by guaranteeing the transparency of electoral processes, the OAS enjoys great credibility.

I must say that in general it is necessary for the OAS to get more involved in the great decisions of the hemisphere.

I have been part of many presidential summits in the last fifteen years , both in my capacity as minister and president, and I did not see the OAS where it should have been – at the center of the hemispheric debate, acting as the articulator and support structure, or following up on major decisions.

The role of the secretariat in the presidential summits must be taken seriously, and the gap leaders face today by not having a permanent forum to discuss the fundamental issues of their countries, must be filled.

Therefore, the great challenge ahead of us is to link the OAS with the core of the hemispheric debate, and consequently return to this organization its relevance and prestige.

It is important that this organization preaches by setting an example. To maintain hemispheric balance. Important positions cannot be monopolized by the large countries. The organization should be an example of that to which it aspires.

I wish to acknowledge the organizational effort made by the former Secretary General. The organization invested much time and many resources to meet this end.

The only thing I have to say about this task is that the decisions made regarding the human rights commission should be reassessed. To the extent possible, the decisions of this commission should not be tainted by political considerations or pressures.

The Acting Secretary General, Ambassador Luigi R. Einaudi, has greatly contributed to this effort. I must say that we have to build on what has already been constructed.

In closing, I would like to suggest that you should advance the election of the Secretary General to a date before the last day of February. Why prolong an abnormal situation, when the Organization has so much to do?