Media Center



March 31, 2014 - Santiago, Chile

Good morning, Chancellor, members of the Board of Directors of the University. There are many people here whom I should like to greet. However, I will only mention my oldest friends here, such as Roberto Fantuzzi, with whom I went to school, although he was in the year below; Juan Pablo Letelier, whom I have known for years, and I think I even remember him from the time when he lived with his father in Washington as a young boy. And, of course, Germán Correa and Regina Clarck, friends with whom I shared many assignments; and Marcelo García, who often helped me.

I would like to thank you, Chancellor, for reminding me of the things that bind me to this university. One of them is having lectured here. However, I would also like to mention that my daughter studied architecture here. I certainly have a lot to be grateful for to the Universidad Central de Chile.

Thank you also for doing me the honor of inviting me to take part in the inauguration of the academic year and to have learned something about the current debate on the subject of universities. You have certainly touched on a number of important points, such as the difference between a state university and a public university. The public university is a much broader concept than the state university: it entails being at the service of the community without expecting to profit from it; a key concept to consider if we are to expand university education in this country.

Your description of the main issues in the debate is also very important. I believe it correctly reflects the concerns and needs of Chile’s university community, which are very much the focus of everyone’s concern in the country.

But I will not get into issues on which I am not fully qualified to speak, since I was invited here to talk about democracy in Latin America and that is what I am going to do. The first thing I would like to say–and in so doing likely contradict what some are saying in the press–is that, overall, democracy is enjoying robust health in our region. Of course it has many defects and faces significant challenges, too, which I will come to in a moment. But this state of democracy has only been around for three decades. It is the first time in our history that our states–all 34 of them–that are active members of the OAS, have governments that have been democratically elected by their citizens and renewed many times now without interruptions or upheavals.

The OAS monitors elections in virtually every country in Latin America. Our electoral observation missions, which enjoy immense prestige, have yet to find in any election that they have monitored sufficient cause to conclude that the ballot did not elect those who should have been elected. We have good electoral systems. They are electoral systems in which the people take part with sufficient degrees of transparency and ballot secrecy, and in which the officials elected really are those who obtained the most votes.

It is true, also, that there have been critical situations in some countries in our region. In at least one of them the OAS determined that the manner in which its president had been deposed constituted a coup d’état; I am referring, of course, to Honduras in 2009. In that instance, we all agreed that there had been an interruption of the democratic order and the appropriate collective decisions and penalties under our Inter-American Democratic Charter were imposed. But once in the past eight years, which is all the time that I have been Secretary General, is remarkably few compared to other, sadder times in our common history when the number of dictatorships outstripped the number of democracies.

Today, all those sitting at the OAS Permanent Council are representatives of legitimately constituted governments that were elected in monitored democratic elections and, therefore, represent their peoples in the multilateral arena. This is another important fact to remember because there is debate as to whether the OAS should belong to the region’s peoples or their governments. Under my conception of representative democracy, of democratically elected governments, it is the government that represents its people in international organizations. I should add that the OAS has itself developed mechanisms aimed at giving a direct voice to civil society organizations. Every year we hold a dialogue with civil society, attended by at least 500 such organizations, which mobilize to participate in that dialogue and hold vigorous debates on the most varied topics with the broadest possible participation. Having said that, the name of the OAS is the Organization of American States and when it comes to adopting resolutions, that is the task of the American states represented by the governments that the peoples elected.

Crises there are, such as the one that Venezuela is currently experiencing, and it would be unfair and remiss of me not to address it. It is a situation that is putting democracy in our region to the test. It is being tested both internally in that sister nation, and in terms of the collective action of the other democracies in our region.

In recent days, time and again I have said and written–indeed, I was the first to put pen to paper in that regard–that the only solution to the current situation in Venezuela is dialogue among all the forces opposing each other in that country. All other alternatives are unfeasible and can only result in worse violence. I have also insisted that for dialogue to succeed it must be realistic and address all problems, not just those that each party recognizes or wants to acknowledge. It has to deal with the levels of violence that the confrontation has reached and reduce them through compromise on both sides. It has to address the human rights violations that have been committed. It has, perforce, to tackle the country’s grave economic maladies, the high crime rate, and other problems afflicting Venezuelans today. They can only be solved through effective dialogue and realistic binding commitments from both sides. I am in no doubt that the possibility of this dialogue coming about will be the real test of the maturity of Venezuela’s democracy.

But the Venezuelan situation is also testing the collective democratic capacity of our countries. I would like to emphasize here that, despite charges to the contrary, neither the OAS, nor subregional organizations like UNASUR, nor the vast majority of governments represented there–and I would like to dwell on this because many people make a distinction between the governments and the organization in which they are represented–have made the mistake of seeking to intervene in that country’s problems. I have also repeatedly said that interventions are a thing of the past and that to help solve a country’s problems, no country or group of countries should intervene in it; rather, they should help by encouraging dialogue and, if they are invited to do so, by facilitating dialogue or acting as mediators. On no account, however, should they intervene in the ways that occurred at sad moments in our recent past.

I should clarify what I mean by intervention because very often the word is understood differently in different regions or countries, depending on their own experience. In Latin America intervention usually occurred covertly; Guatemala in 1954; the Dominican Republic in 1966; Chile in 1973, just to recall the most recent ones, which everyone acknowledges. We all reject the practice of improper interference/intervention in the domestic affairs of other states, especially if the aim is to attack legitimately elected governments.

It is certainly an entirely different scenario when democracy is destroyed or threatened with destruction in a country. The principle of collective action against such events was first recognized by the OAS General Assembly in Santiago, Chile, in 1991, at a time when democracy in our country had recently been restored, and it was permanently enshrined as a common policy of the Americas in the Inter-American Democratic Charter in September 2001. Since then collective action has been applied on a number of occasions and seven times since I have been at the OAS. On several occasions it was at the request of governments who believed that a threat existed to democracy in the region, and in only one case–that of Honduras, as I mentioned–in response to an interruption of the democratic order. However, its application, which must be approached with immense caution, given our history, is only appropriate when an overwhelming majority of our member states decides that such an interruption has taken place.

This has not been the case in Venezuela and, however much the OAS has been criticized it cannot and will not act unless our member countries decide to activate the mechanisms of the Democratic Charter, which none has done in these circumstances. This is because what happened a few days ago was a request for a special meeting to discuss the issue; not a petition invoking application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter.

This does not mean that we should stand idly by and ignore what happens in a sister country. On the contrary, what we should be and have actively been doing is to encourage a solution to the problems through democratic dialogue among Venezuelans. There is currently talk of mediation led by UNASUR in Venezuela. We fully support such efforts. I have said, and I believe I was the first to do so, that if a minimum of trust for the necessary dialogue could not be reached, either directly or through internal mediators, then assistance could always be sought from the international community. Therefore, I sincerely hope that the mediation efforts of a group of UNASUR foreign ministers can make it possible to bring the sides together without excluding anyone who should be involved in that dialogue.

I said at the beginning that democracy has never been as widespread in Latin America as it is today. But does that mean that democracy has grown stronger in the region? Does it mean that we are in the clear? Of course not: along with the democratic stability that has begun to become a hallmark of our region–and perhaps precisely because of it–we are detecting problems that we did not previously realize we had or that have become dramatically more acute in recent years. Obviously some are more pressing than others, such as inequality, social exclusion, public insecurity, and environmental degradation, which long ago ceased to be threats, becoming instead dramatic realities.

The big question, then, is if the democracy that we have attained, particularly the democracy that we now have in Latin America and the Caribbean, is enough to help us overcome these problems. I certainly do not think so. I do not believe that the quantity of democracy that we have today is sufficient to solve our problems because the quality of that democracy remains wanting. As important as the quantity of the democracy in the many elections that we hold–or perhaps more so–is the way in which we use democracy, and it is in that area, namely governance, that we still have a long way to go in our region if we are to successfully address our urgent needs.

Moreover, the demands placed on democracy are now much more stringent than they were only a century ago. Democracy starts with the right of suffrage, the right to elect and be elected. And that is not something that can be conditioned or relativized. Elections make democracy happen; elections that are free, clean and fair, in which the ballot is secret and open to the participation of all voters, so that they can elect and stand for election. But it does not stop there. Today we are all too aware that a democracy is not built simply through the exercise of the right to vote. Free and participatory elections are a fundamental component, but it takes more than that. Political democracy requires the exercise of critical citizenship, that is, the full exercise of the rights to which all men and women living in a democratic country are entitled as citizens. Being a citizen no longer just means electing authorities and enjoying their protection; it also means having human rights that the State has a duty to observe and ensure: the right to life, liberty, security, freedom of expression, assembly, association. And with them come other civil rights: the right to information, to discuss and participate in the decisions of the authorities. Those, too, are now also inherent rights of democracy. That is what we call civil democracy, the rights that a citizen enjoys in the democratic order.

Rousseau and others defined the social compact as the granting of certain rights to the sovereign in exchange for protection. These days, citizens, the inhabitants of our countries, want more from their State than just protection. They want recognition of their rights. They are not prepared to swap their rights for protection; rather, they are willing to grant legitimacy in exchange for citizenship. And that poses an enormous challenge.

In addition to political and civil democracy, there is a social dimension. Democracy is complete only when it is able to deliver results to its citizens, ensuring opportunities for advancement to one and all.

This is the reason, in my opinion, for the protests of citizens that we hear on the streets in most of our region’s countries. The citizens of our region–and the polls bear this out–increasingly believe in democracy; however, in their view it must also yield tangible results in their daily lives. Democracy is not simply a matter of principles. We practice democracy and engage in politics according to our principles, but we also demand results. And those demands are growing more and more. If a democratic state fails to deliver the benefits of progress to all equally, resentment is the inevitable result, and that also becomes a breeding ground for instability in our democracies, because society as a whole, or the groups that feel especially deprived, will continue to use all the means to which democracy entitles them to voice their dissatisfaction.

Our rulers are learning from experience that governing well requires more than feeling or acting like a democrat or achieving high growth. The real challenge is to maintain a stable democracy and ensure economic growth, while simultaneously delivering to citizens all the benefits and solutions to their problems that a properly functioning democracy and a prosperous economy promise.

Disregarding those needs will invariably be a factor for destabilization and latent violence. However, I must insist at this point that that is neither the only nor the main reason for creating opportunities for growth and development. To do so is also a moral obligation of our institutions and an undertaking that our rulers give when they agree on the new social compact with the public that elects them.

These rights, furthermore, become visible when the citizenry demands them. That is why it is essential for a healthy democracy to ensure participation channels both for organized civil society and for the private citizen. Far from becoming sources of competition or threats, such mechanisms strengthen our systems of representation by offering channels for direct dialogue that can generate opportunities for negotiation with the citizenry. Creating such forums is the best way to avert the possibility of tensions and violence.

When talking about democracy it is necessary to bear in mind that an informed, actively involved democracy in which the people demand respect for their own rights and those of others, is a complement to our formal systems of representative democracy and not an enemy of them.

To ensure that complementarity, however, a number of problems need to be addressed because full democracy, which entails more than holding elections at regular intervals, needs effective government, government that responds to demands. To be effective, a democratically elected government must have the power and wherewithal to govern its country effectively. This has to do with the rule of law, strengthening political institutions and systems of representation, and, in particular, the existence of permanent state institutions that are fully respected. Democracy is not a matter of persons, but of institutions; a question not of individuals, but of collectives. And those collectives, when they govern the country, must enjoy, or at least aspire to, the respect of all the citizens they govern. One thing that happens frequently in Latin America is for people to talk more of rulers than representatives; authorities rather than people who represent the citizenry. I remember as a young man being in a country in Europe where a problem arose. So the person I was with picked up the telephone and said, “I’m going to call the congressman.” I said to him, “But it’s Sunday and it’s six in the evening.” “I elected him,” he replied, “I’m calling him because I need him and I elected him.” And the congressman answered the telephone. That was in Holland, which is one of those countries that we admire greatly for its effective, daily practice of democracy.

Because, more than a system of government, democracy is a lifestyle based on a culture of institutions, values, and practices. A culture whose components include justice, liberty, tolerance, plurality, division of power, probity, participation, accountability both given and asked, transparency, solidarity, fair competition, mutual trust, respect for the rights of others, respect for the laws and the rules of play, political dialogue, negotiation, consensus-building, and peaceful and civic settlement of political disputes.

Having thus defined democracy, I would like briefly to refer to the three main structural challenges that face our democracies today. Overcoming them is essential, not only because they are important issues of the sort for which the public demands fulfillment or resolution, but also because, from one extreme, the presence of these phenomena affects the very notion of democracy.

In first place, a democratic society is not compatible with the subsistence of extreme levels of inequality. As one well-known political commentator who died a few years ago once said, democracy is not compatible with the existence of castes in society. In such a society, people are born, live, and die in the same social condition without the possibility of mobility within it. In a democratic system, the economic or social circumstances into which we are born cannot dictate the quality of life and education, health, housing, and public security to which we may have access. Latin America’s skewed income distribution is unequaled by any other world region. As Fernando Henrique Cardoso once said, this is not the poorest region in the world, but it is the most unjust. And that injustice is not only economic, because there is also injustice in access to education. It is unfair to have a situation in which those who had the opportunity to go to a private school then go to public universities, while those who did not have that opportunity and went instead to municipal high schools are forced to opt for private, sometimes expensive universities. All of this amounts to different lifestyles and qualities of life too disparate to be consistent with the notion of democracy.

In second place, a democratic society is not compatible with the existence of groups that choose to turn their backs on the rules of civil society and live outside them. The manifestations of criminality that exist in our Hemisphere, associated with organized crime, drug trafficking, people trafficking, constitute–and especially markedly in some of our countries–parallel ways of life with their own rules and organizations that are utterly at odds with our democratic ideals and principles.

Finally, a democratic society cannot exist without a basic consensus and trust in the systems of government, election, and transfer of political power. The existence of and full respect for majorities and minorities alike are fundamental, as are, alongside them, the possibility of alternance in power, full freedom of expression, separation of powers, an independent judiciary, and transparent public administration. Deserving a separate mention is the need to avoid abrupt rule changes in generating power, which breeds mistrust in those who do not wield it and, most importantly, since it is more dangerous still, the fear that they will never attain power by democratic means because they will always fall foul of some eleventh-hour institutional change that will deprive them of it.

Everything I have said here is part of the Inter-American Democratic Charter, though even the Charter itself may not have all the instruments for applying them. Very often I hear someone say, “Invoke the Inter-American Democratic charter against this or that,” but I do not have the power to enforce those principles on anyone. What we can do is to caution, be vigilant, and offer recommendations.

International organizations, some of which I belong to, are not supranational. There is no such thing as “supranationality,” except in very exceptional cases. What we have are multilateral agencies, which are organizations made up of countries, but countries decide on their domestic affairs.

Thus, international society can proclaim the majority of democratic principles; however, observing them and putting them into practice must be the result of the efforts, work, dedication, culture, and ultimately, the willingness of countries. When all is said and done, each country and each people must be able to build, improve, and defend its democracy for itself.

Thank you very much.