Media Center



May 24, 2010 - Washington, DC

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to all of you for accompanying me today at the start of my second term as Secretary General of the OAS.

On a day like this and at the same time, five years ago, I arrived in Washington to bring to an end a long period of transition, conducted firmly and realistically, in very difficult moments, by our dear friend, Ambassador Luigi Einaudi. It was an occasion to reaffirm what had already been said in the course of a lengthy and hard-fought campaign: my commitment to the three fundamental pillars of the work of the OAS: democracy and human rights, integral development, and multidimensional security; and my resolve to focus on those aspects that were most relevant for the citizens of the Americas, namely, the strengthening of the institutions and conditions needed for democratic governance; concentration on those areas of development in which we could make a difference; and public security, including the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime. I also expressed my commitment to make the OAS a more relevant organization, both internally in the dialogue of its members and through a more visible presence in the regional and international community.

I asserted then that I was taking office at a complex moment in time, and I was not wrong about that. Between April and June of that year, two governments in South America ended prematurely and one of my first activities in office was to take steps to avoid a political crisis that threatened the stability of a Central American country. Other crises were to follow over the next few years in which the OAS was called upon to act for lengthy periods of time.

I do not necessarily see all those developments as negative. Several of the most politically unstable countries in the region became unstable as a result of processes of far-reaching change, which reverberated in all segments of their societies and triggered considerable unrest. In other cases, there were sometimes unexpected incidents between neighboring countries, which also required us to act. Whenever we approached those cases, we did so constructively, seeking solutions rather than promoting divisiveness or exclusion. Those who try to point to a dormant OAS have to face up to the fact that the OAS is always present; those who accuse the OAS of complicity or partiality end up citing examples in its past, for lack of evidence of partiality today.

On another recent occasion, I provided an exhaustive list of those crises. Now I would like to underscore one statement. We have acted in a dozen crises in these past few years and we have observed a large number of electoral processes, and nobody can, in good faith, claim that, in all those events, the OAS has adopted anything other than a conciliatory approach in the quest for unity. When many have demanded that we take sides in crises, when elements of displaced governments demand that the OAS (or, usually, “Insulza”) “enforce the Democratic Charter,” without much of an idea as to how that is done in practice, I have always answered that it is not the job of the OAS to exclude anyone and that we do not seek to punish, but rather to repair and reconcile. As I commented once, during a meeting in Europe: “We are not soldiers nor policemen, but firemen. We don’t fight fire with fire, we fight it with water.”

That approach is by no means based on passivity or indifference to the problems some of our Member States undergo. Whenever possible, we have acted directly, in the Permanent Council, the General Assembly, or the Commission on Human Rights, to face the issues, always in accordance with our internal rules of procedure. However, I have formed certain convictions, based on my five-year experience at the OAS, that I would like to present to you, because they will shape my actions during this second term.

First. – I believe that democracy is making headway in the Americas. Just compare the situation today with that of a couple of decades ago. I am not just pointing to the impressive fact that we have observed 50 electoral processes in the interim, but also to a clear, albeit incomplete, institution-building process in most Member States. If one examines objectively the status of each of the features of democracy defined in our Democratic Charter, in most cases and in most countries significant progress has been made. It may be that much remains to be done and, along the way, we may well experience setbacks and difficulties. But there can be no doubt that, after Europe, the Americas is the most democratic region in the world.

Second.- Despite that progress, I believe that there are risks to democracy, posed by some of its worst shortcomings. The inability of many governments to generate adequate economic growth, reduce poverty, govern efficiently, or establish and respect stable institutions, coupled with the existence of greater freedoms for citizens, generate conditions conducive to authoritarian rule. This takes the form of one-man governments or a lack of separation and balance of powers, or to the resurgence of oligarchies, paradoxically strengthened by inequalities.

Lurking next to those two dangers, lies a third, even more serious threat: the rise of drug-trafficking and organized crime, which explains the dramatic fact that a continent that has had no wars for over 80 years or armed clashes that one might describe as political, has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Crime is undermining our countries’ institutions. This very day, one Caribbean nation has had to decree a state of emergency because of the actions of criminal groups that refuse to accept the judgment of a court of law against one of its leaders. In other countries in Latin America drug traffickers are beginning to infiltrate politics, promoting their own candidates and threatening or assassinating those who oppose them.

I believe that a consensus exists regarding the links between these threats to democracy and the social phenomena underlying them, such as poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and inequality. It is these endemic scourges in our region that thwart the full expansion of democracy and sap the strength of its institutions. In most cases, they also induce the citizens of Latin America and the Caribbean to emigrate from their countries in search of a better life.

Third.- I believe that multilateralism and hemispheric multilateralism have an important role to play.

President Barack Obama just recently delivered a major speech on this topic, pointing lucidly to the distinction between a policy based on the capacity of a country to determine on its own the direction of an increasingly complex world and a policy founded upon partnerships and international cooperation as the only way to achieve peace, bring development to all the inhabitants of this planet, eradicate violence, and avoid global warming and environmental degradation.

Undoubtedly, the countries in our region are striving to find the best ways for them to act in unison. That is actually what underlies the recent creation or proposal to establish new international institutions and forums. This idea that may appear untidy, but it is geared precisely toward finding multilateral room or opportunities to solve together what cannot be resolved by just a few.

Some are wondering whether that “room” is the Hemisphere or whether more appropriate spaces exist. To answer that question, it suffices to look at the nature of the problems we have just listed. There are issues that are country-specific and it is up to that country to resolve them; others may be bilateral or subregional in scope. But there are certain phenomena, like drug trafficking and organized crime, climate change, migration (and, therefore, the poverty and inequality that give rise to them), arms trafficking, and the energy challenge that are clearly hemispheric in scope. In addition, there is the fact that, for all its defects, this continent is one of the two most advanced parts of the world in terms of democracy and human rights. Ignoring progress such as the Democratic Charter, the Convention on Human Rights, the Convention against Corruption, the shared approach to the drugs problems and numerous other achievements is now unthinkable. We are joined in those areas by other influential hemispheric bodies, such as the Inter-American Development Bank, the Pan American Health Organization, the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, and others devoted to development and cooperation in our region.

Fourth.- Hemispheric multilateralism is necessary. I think that it is not only necessary but feasible, if we all accept in good faith the three principles at the root of our regional entente:

First and foremost, our common adherence to the fundamental values set forth in our Inter-American Democratic Charter. Despite the significant differences illustrated in some of our recent debates, it is heartening to see that none of our Member States is prepared to abandon the principles established in the Charter. Once we have taken due note of that, it is possible to contain our disputes and together find ways of strengthening democratic institutions.

Second, our full acceptance of the principle of non-intervention upheld in the Charter of the Organization of American States. If one acts, as I said earlier, in good faith, there is no reason why there should not be a “peer assessment mechanism,” (whereby the peers are none other than the other members of the Permanent Council) that may cast doubts on the progress of democracy in our Member States; nor any reason to query the autonomy of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Ultimately, non-intervention in a system such as ours does not consist of hushing up debate or discrepancies. Rather it means granting each country the option of accepting or rejecting the reservations or recommendations put to it.

Third, our conviction that, as a matter of principle, there must be room in the OAS for all its members, which, according to the Charter, are all the independent countries of the Americas. Those who repeatedly and blithely demand that we punish some country or other, are not only ignorant of our rules and system of governance; they also renege on this fundamental principle. For multilateralism to be hemispheric in scope all Member States must partake of it.

This does not preclude suspensions, such as we saw last year. Nevertheless, the suspension of a member state is a lamentable occurrence, a setback for democracy in our Hemisphere and one that should be treated as such. The OAS must always be ready to help correct the situations it diagnoses as anti-democratic and to promote a prompt return of the offending country.

As I said in my presentation to the Permanent Council during the election process, “I want to see a genuinely multilateral OAS, forged by all of us together, on the basis of the principles we share.” In keeping with that vision, in that same presentation, I listed five areas to work on in this new term. Here, let me just cite the headings:

1.- Develop a broad, modern, and inclusive form of multilateralism, eschewing the path of sanctions, exclusion, and divisiveness that has done us so much harm in the past, and, at the same time, being prepared to discuss the problems that may arise within our common democratic objective.

2.- Enhance our support for democratic governance, by fostering such areas as respect for the rule of law and institutions, an independent and effective justice system, full freedom of expression for all citizens, transparency and accountability of the authorities, full respect for human rights, and the fight against all forms of discrimination.

3.- Strike a better balance between our democracy-building and our integral development efforts, focusing in our activities on the mandates of our Summits of the Americas with respect to poverty, decent work, energy, the environment, climate change, technological development, and education, coordinating our work with that of the other agencies of the inter-American system.

4.- Continue to give priority to public security-related issues, such as drug trafficking, money laundering, organized crime, arms trafficking, and trafficking in persons.

5.- Rekindle the issue of gender in the OAS, in areas such as violence against women, equal employment opportunities, access to public and private executive positions, and the poverty of most women heads of household.

Fulfilling our mandates presupposes the availability of resources that the Organization lacks. In recent months, there have been some malicious or misinformed statements on this matter. Fortunately, our latest Board of External Auditors’ report pinpoints our principal financial problem:

“The Board was pleased that the OAS has made considerable efforts to seek administrative efficiencies and savings. The Board encourages those continuing efforts but warns that savings from these efforts will only represent a minor fraction of the projected Regular fund shortfall. The OAS continues to face a difficult situation, which grows progressively worse, as the demands for its programs and activities exceed its resources.”

This is not a new state of affairs. Returning to where I began this speech, let me recall what Ambassador Luigi Einaudi said when he handed over to me the office of Secretary General:

“Unfortunately, despite the restructuring, our finances are still rickety. It is as if no maintenance had been done on the engines of our great ship and all it had to sail with were the damaged sails of a run-down catamaran. Even with the savings from the restructuring and even if the existing quotas were paid in full and on time, revenue would be insufficient to attend to minimal operating requirements.”

Not long after I took office, our Secretary for Administration and Finance--of five years--echoed those remarks more bluntly: with the funds available, it would only be possible to pay that year’s wages through October. These were the organization’s conditions when I arrived.

And yet, the ship has survived and the engines spluttered back to life. That was thanks to something lasting, namely the continuation and expansion of a far-reaching improvement in management; but it was also due to a transitory occurrence: the countries in arrears on their quotas began to come current with their payments. In that way, on a year-on-year basis, we were able to count on increased revenue, which allowed us to continue financing fulfillment of the mandates, avoid the loss of staff year after year, and mitigate the financial damage done by the decision of the General Assembly a decade and a half ago to pay annual cost of living adjustments, in parity with the United Nations, without establishing a parallel procedure for increasing quota contributions. In these past five years, only twice have Member Countries consented to those increases.

Thus, Luigi’s predictions have come true, albeit five years later. Because of a lack of surpluses this year -- because all the major countries have paid their arrears -- what the OAS receives is insufficient to fulfill all the mandates that its own Member States have assigned to it. Our dilemma is obvious: increase quotas or reduce mandates. Doing the latter is not easy, as a recent exercise of our Permanent Council showed. The range of priorities in the OAS reflects the diversity of our Member States, which attach very different levels of importance to issues, thereby creating a mosaic that is hard to shrink.

Now is not the time to discuss why this problem has arisen and why quota contributions to the OAS have been practically frozen for over 20 years. Possibly, the ideologies in fashion in recent decades, which attached little or even negative importance to the political sphere may have led to the quintessentially political hemispheric Organization being relegated to one side, with resources being transferred to other organizations. Now, when the need for politics is more clearly appreciated, when more heed is being paid to the strengthening of democracy and good governance in public administration, now perhaps is the moment to strengthen the OAS. I hope that our governments see it that way, too. For our part, I can assure you that you will continue to have the modern, inclusive and relevant Organization that we have developed in these past years.

Thank you very much.