Media Center



March 30, 2010 - Santiago de Chile

I thank Alicia Bárcena for the invitation to speak before you this morning. This is important for me, not only given that ECLAC, relevantly, is one of the principle seats of the Inter-American System, but also for the opportunity afforded to me, only a few days after my recent reelection as Secretary General of the OAS, to address an issue that was central to a debate around it: the state of democracy in the Americas, its strengths and weaknesses, and the role it has played and may play for the Organization of American States in its consolidation.

Democracy has expanded substantially in the hemisphere in recent decades. The political process that culminated in South and Central America before and after the end of the Cold War in these regions generated an unprecedented number of elected governments, which together with those of North America and the newly independent Anglophone Caribbean, shaped a continent where de facto governments ceased to be the general rule and became the undesirable exception. At the recent Summit of the Americas, held in Trinidad and Tobago, the 34 Heads of State and Government whom sat at the table had been elected in democratic elections in their countries; the elections were fair, done by secret ballot, were competitive, and the results were recognized in their societies.

This process, unprecedented in our history, occurs in the context of a major surge in democratic ideology in the world. Along with the democratization of Latin America, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the so-called “socialist camp”, giving rise to processes of democratization in that region. Elections were also common elsewhere in the developing world, such as in West Africa, where electoral processes had been absent. Suddenly, democracy seemed to have arrived in the ‘90s and most world leaders seemed bent on being identified under the ‘Democrat’ label, although the legitimacy of its origin was questionable.

Not much later, in 1997, Fareed Zakaria - current editor of Newsweek - questioned the character of many old and new democracies, noting that, although they originated in electoral majorities, these governments adopted policies at odds with the concept of a liberal democracy, upon eliminating or limiting the opposition, violating the separation of powers, or violating human rights and basic civil liberties. In other words, these governments were elected by a popular vote, but before long, at times supported by the majority, closed parliaments, repressed the opposition, restricted freedom of opinion, and intervened in the tribunals of justice, thereby violating their independence.

Faced with the reality of these illiberal democracies, so termed by Zakaria, there were two possibilities: the concept of democracy would be reduced to a question of origin (majority government elected by popular vote); or these governments would be denied their democratic nature, stating that democracy requires other attributes that relate not only to its origin, but also to its exercise.

Although the debate has continued, this has been resolved by the Inter-American System through judicial means, when our countries, at the Extraordinary General Assembly of the OAS on September 11, 2001, in Lima, adopted the Inter-American Democratic Charter, which adopts unequivocally the latter interpretation. For all of our countries, democracy is both about origin and exercise, and to be deemed democratic, a government must not only be elected democratically, but it must also govern democratically.

It seems unnecessary to state that all the democratic requirements established in the Charter are not fully complied with by either any of our countries or anywhere in the world. Therefore, we speak of a “program,” an ideal that must be aspired to and that can always be perfected. This program allows us to do two things: first, to compare its principles with the political reality of the region in order to assess the amount of progress that has been made in recent years, and second, to determine the contribution that regional organizations bear in this process.

Strengths and Weaknesses of Our Democracies

Many of our democracies are new and, therefore, their institutions still lack the stability that only the passage of time can provide. Nevertheless, it can be stated that in the Americas, elections have had remarkable progress, and as a consequence, our democracies have, in general terms, legitimized their origins. Governments are created by means of fair, secret, and universal elections, regularly changing hands between the various political forces without such change implying a major disruption. In recent years, the period of duration of a government has normalized, which in the nineties tended to end early.

Notwithstanding, the institutional framework remains weak. In some countries, there have been recent substantive constitutional changes that must still prove their ability to build stable governments. In others, the temptation to modify the regulations governing the terms of office and reelection appear each time there is a political advantage, while the laws regulating fundamental aspects of democracy are frequently modified. This includes the exercise of civil liberties. Latin America is in a constant process of revision of its political institutions, and in many cases, this is has not arisen from a legitimate concern to create a better and more stable consensus, but rather to make use of electoral advantages in order to preserve or increase power.

If one attends to each of the elements that the Charter defines as being essential to democracy, both advances and limitations are evident: respect for human rights is notoriously higher than it was merely two decades ago, but there are still limitations such as police abuse, inhumane prison conditions, violence against women, or discrimination against vulnerable groups. Transparency and probity have been the subjects of special legislation in many countries, and there is, in general, more control of the exercise of authority, while in other countries there is still the absence of controls, contempt for the opposition, and abuse of authority. There have been important judicial reforms, but access to justice remains limited and biased in favor of higher income groups.

These limitations highlight a region that has had significant democratic progress, in general, but that is still in transition towards having stable democracies. I would like to place an emphasis on some limitations and risks that seem especially critical for more effective progress.

1 .- Poverty and inequality remain a major factor slowing the progress in our region, and this affects the quality of our democracies. Despite progress in poverty reduction in recent years even before the 2008 crisis, Latin America has remained a particularly unjust region. The fact that more than a third of its inhabitants continue to live in poverty is not in line with the level of development of our continent. Also, the fact that 3 to 5 percent of the population makes more than 50 percent of the national income is not consistent with a democratic discourse.

Some social programs of recent years have faced, in a relevant manner, the problem of poverty. However, neither the tax system or the labor laws have been reformed so as to bring about a better distribution of wealth, as evinced by recent studies by the OECD regarding the almost non-existent change in the Gini coefficient after taxes in our region.

The paradox is that the greater the development of political democracy in Latin America, the greater the delineation of segmented and unequal societies, in a common landscape where many people look at the conspicuous consumption of a few and lack the ability to do the same. The solution is in the Democratic Charter: to make development, equity, and democracy interdependent. Nevertheless, political will has not existed until now; if the democratic state does not equally provide to all people the benefits of the progress, it causes resentment and is a breeding ground for instability and populism.

2.- Although democracy has progressed more in what regards its origin rather than its exercise, this does not mean that setbacks do not exist. Undemocratic temptations are present in various sectors of our region, particularly in two ways.

The first is based on the false premise that whomever has a hold of the majority also has the right to change the system according to their will, accumulating more power and disregarding the rights and the participation of the minority. The explanation used to justify this temptation is always the need to “finalize a task” or to face an urgent crisis in society. However, by changing the institutions and the regulations for these purposes, the institutionalization is weakened along the way, and thereby, the democracy it seeks to defend is also weakened. Although political success has to do with results, these cannot be the only justifications for changing the regulations and to extend, in any manner, a government period. In a democracy, all power must have its limitations; otherwise, those governing replace the institutions, giving rise to new forms of “Caesarism” already seen in the hemisphere.

Moreover, in societies as unequal as ours, it is common that the dominant sectors look with apprehension at any process for reform. Attempts to correct the democratic process through nondemocratic means were common in our hemisphere in the second half of the last century, and contrary to what many think, they have not been completely extinguished. After the era of dictatorial “national security” governments, of a much greater brutality and duration, the “coup corrective” seems to be an interesting praetorian option, as demonstrated by the recent coup in Honduras, which many tried to justify.

3.- Freedom of expression is a requirement very essential to democracy, and it is the only human right that the Democratic Charter identified separately. If human beings are unable to communicate their thoughts freely, it is difficult for them to take part in the formation of a democratic government and participate in the political process. The exercise of democracy begins with freedom of expression, and hence, placing limitations on this right is particularly negative.

Although formally enshrined in all the legislations of America, freedom of expression has been threatened in recent times by three forms of conduct:

-the first is repression, by means of authority, legislative or bureaucratic, of critical manifestations against governments or government authorities. The natural restrictions on the dissemination of blatantly false information has, at times, led to the punishment of any criticism, to close access to media or prevent its operation, and to establish severe penalties for those who publicly dissent.

- The second constraint is the lack of access of the majority of citizens due to the concentration of media ownership in the hands of very few people or companies, which are sometimes also working with those who hold economic power. It is true that sometimes the argument is used of a concentration of power to justify measures restricting freedom of expression, and this is not acceptable. However, legislation that fully guarantees the free flow of ideas of all citizens can also set objective limits to the degree of concentration of the means by which information is disseminated in society.

- A third constraint, especially dramatic in some countries, is physical violence exerted against journalists, the media, and even people who report certain crimes. The murder or assault of journalists and members of the media is the most brutal and primitive manner used to suppress freedom of expression, and often leads to self-censorship. Organized crime and violators of human rights are the main perpetrators of these assaults, which unfortunately occur without governments that are able to stop them to protect this essential freedom.

4.- Separation of powers is an essential aspect of democracy that is often not effectively practiced in the Americas. While it also occurs, in some cases, in the relationship between the Executive and Legislative Branches in presidential regimes, (for example, in the excessive transfer of power to legislate that some Congresses delegate to their Presidents) the most worrying situation is evident in what regards the Judicial Branch, which sometimes becomes a tool of the ruling majority. Without an independent judiciary, it is difficult to have effective ways of protecting the rights of citizens or to combat the traffic of influences and corruption.

5.- Corruption is still a problem in the region despite the progress in transparency and probity in many countries. Corruption joins the poor handling, throughout the hemisphere, of the relationship between money and politics, which has suffered setbacks in recent times. The direct involvement of business in politics, not only to do “lobby” but also to finance campaigns and political activities, is contrary to our concept of politics as an activity set for persons of equal footing.

To this, one can add the lack of transparency in many parts of campaign finance, in a continent where organized crime has increased its presence in recent years. Defending the clean up of the political process is now an essential task, not only to ensure the equal participation of citizens but also, especially in vulnerable countries, to avoid the presence of drug trafficking and organized crime in the public.

Multilateralism and Democracy

All the problems we have noted here largely coincide with the agenda of the Organization of American States. We have said many times that the action of the OAS is articulated around three pillars: democracy and human rights, integral development, and security.

The area of democracy is responsible for matters relating, more directly, with the Democratic Charter: a) elections. In these five years we have seen over forty voting processes, which include presidential, parliamentary, primary, regional and referendum elections; also, we have provided cooperation so as to improve the standards and electoral systems in many countries. b) transparency. The OAS monitors the Inter-American Convention against Corruption, performs peer review proceedings with the participation of governments and civil society, and it also cooperates with countries to improve legislation and conducts oversight on issues regarding transparency and corruption. We are also starting an ambitious program on transparency in political spending and campaign spending. c) institutional strengthening, through programs like the Civil Registry, which seeks to ensure the right to identity in a hemisphere in which more than 15 percent of people have no documents of any kind, or those of support for Congress and regional governments. d) improving the quality of government, through access to justice and electronic government programs.

The area of democracy also deals with the crisis experienced in the hemisphere. And I want to dwell on this issue a bit because it has been a particular cause for criticism in recent months after the events in Honduras. Many people point to the OAS for this alleged failure, which would demonstrate the “irrelevance” towards the institution and the limited application of the Democratic Charter and the Charter of the OAS. In a moment, we will discuss what the OAS can do. What is relevant in this regard, is that the coup in Honduras was the ninetieth crisis in which we had to act in the last five years. For some reason I ignore, it is forgotten that in Nicaragua (2005) we avoided an impending crisis and our mediation allowed the government of President Bolaños to conclude his mandate in a normal manner; that in Haiti (2005-2006), the OAS worked closely with the United Nations to support the presidential election that ended the transition and installed a constitutional government and parliament; that in Ecuador (2005), the OAS contributed to normalizing the situation of the Judicial Branch, leaderless for nearly a year, paving the way for elections and reforms that took place the next three years in this country; that in Colombia (2004-2010), the Mission in Support of the Peace Plan has been verified in the last six years, the disarmament and reintegration of paramilitaries and the proceedings related to the conflict are now heard in Courts; that in Bolivia (2006-2009), we participated in each of the stages of the process by which the new Constitution was passed, until the election just a few months ago; that in Guatemala (2009), the OAS moved swiftly to defend the constitutional government whose stability was being threatened by false accusations against it; that in the Colombia-Ecuador conflict (2008), we took on a decisive role in controlling the crisis following the Colombian bombing of a FARC camp in Ecuadorian territory without the knowledge of the government of this country, and followed up with a mediation mission which exists to this day; that in the Belize-Guatemala territorial dispute (2004-2010), the parties are almost at a peaceful solution after accepting the proposal to refer the matter to the International Court of Justice, while maintaining a Permanent Mission in the Adjacency Zone to prevent any incident that may deviate the countries from a solution; to all this, we must also add the successful outcome of the efforts to lift obsolete sanctions against Cuba (2009), whose return to the OAS depends on the willingness of that country in order to engage in a dialogue with its Council, leading to its acceptance of the same rules that apply to all members of the Organization.

There has not been little successful activity of the OAS in regards to crises in recent years, nor have there been few occasions in which it has successfully applied the Inter-American Democratic Charter. I am convinced that if the Government of Honduras had asked the OAS to take action in a timely manner, we could have controlled this conflict before it reached a coup. In all the cases listed above, the government requested this assistance, and in six of them, through the Democratic Charter. When the government of Honduras asked for it, it was agreed that same day, June 26th, to send a mission on Monday the 29th. The coup took place on Sunday the 28th.

The Role of Multilateralism

To address these and other weaknesses, the Organization of American States has a set of instruments. In the field of human rights, there is the most recognized and prestigious institution, the Inter-American Commission and Inter-American Court of Human Rights. In regard to the issue of corruption, there is a Monitoring Mechanism of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption. Electoral Observation Missions verify the proper functioning of the origins of a democracy and deliver recommendations on ways to improve it. Verification mechanisms exist in regard to policies on drugs, violence against women, and others that I will not discuss in detail. But, what is common to all these instruments together with the Inter-American Democratic Charter is that the ultimate decision regarding its implementation rests primarily on the Member Countries.

In this regard, it should be noted once again that the OAS is not a supranational body; rather, it is a multilateral body. The OAS is not an authority over the States; rather, it is instead an instance in which Member States come together to resolve issues.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter contains the fundamental obligations assumed by Member Countries for the preservation and strengthening of democracy. But as for its specific application, it refers only to three scenarios, all three of which are linked to a threat or rupture of the institutional order. And, in the first two scenarios, the will of the government concerned is crucial.

In Article 17, it says that when the government of a Member State considers that its democratic political institutional process or its legitimate exercise of power is at risk, it may request the General Secretariat or the Permanent Council to support the strengthening and preservation of democratic institutions. That is what the governments duly did in the cases I detailed prior, and what was done too late in the government of Manuel Zelaya.

Article 18 states that the General Secretariat or the Permanent Council may decide to act when, in a Member State, a situation arises that may affect the development of the political process or the legitimate exercise of power, by sending missions and making arrangements. But in this case, they must have the prior consent of the government concerned.

The third situation arises when there has been a change in constitutional order (Articles 20 and 21). In this case, the Permanent Council takes the first steps to restore order, making diplomatic efforts to return to normal conditions. If this fails, or if we consider the situation is too urgent (as in Honduras, where the President had already been expelled from the country), an Extraordinary General Assembly is called to take appropriate actions, and if in it, it is deemed that a rupture has occurred and that efforts to restore it have been unsuccessful, we proceed with the suspension of the Member State.

These are the only provisions for “action” of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Those who often demand or ask the Secretary General “why is the Democratic Charter not being applied,” should first read it. In it there are three kinds of limitations, which I pointed out in a report to the Council in April 2007, proposing the consideration of actions for this:

1 .- The first is that the possibility of implementing preventive action before a crisis occurs is subject to the decision of the government concerned. This is certainly a serious limitation as it may be the government itself that is causing the abovementioned situation, and it will be reluctant to call upon the OAS. Therefore, I proposed to extend the range of actors who could request preventive actions, to thereby include other branches of the State concerened.

2 .- The second is the lack of authority of the General Secretariat to undertake a more active role in monitoring and prevention. Therefore, I proposed to extend the capabilities of the Secretariat in order to better anticipate or prevent a crisis. This should include the ability to take the steps without necessarily having the invitation of the government concerned, but with the full knowledge of the Council.

3.- The third is that the Charter did not sufficiently define what acts constitute a threat or a rupture of institutional order. Of course, this can not be any fact that is inconsistent with the Charter, which we have already said to be a political program for its use. But, it can also not be limited to coups, taking into account that there are other acts, such as a large-scale electoral fraud that could be considered institutional ruptures. Therefore, I proposed to initiate a study for the Council or the Assembly to refine this definition.

These three proposals and other similar proposals have been studied by the Inter-American Juridical Committee and are before the Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs.

However, I think it is important to note, before concluding this speech, that upon acting, States of the region will surely want to fully review whether with it implementation lines are not being crossed regarding what is permissible by a multilateral organization of sovereign States. The Inter-American System, in short, is made up of independent States of great geographical, demographic, economic, and political diversity. It also has a negative history of interventions and violations of sovereignty. Its progress depends therefore on an appropriate balance between the principles and values we share and the preservation of the principles of nonintervention of self-determination that are in the founding Charter of the Organization.

Thank you very much