First Lecture - Jimmy Carter

Alejandro Miró Quesada

First Lecture - January 25, 2005

“Promise and Peril of Democracy”

Speaker: Jimmy Carter, former President of the United States

The following keynote speech was delivered by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on Jan. 25, 2005, as part of the inaugural Lecture Series of the Americas at the Organization of American States in Washington, D.C.

The Promise and Peril of Democracy

I am honored to address the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States. Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, Mr. President, and Ambassador Borea for the kind invitation to inaugurate this Lecture Series of the Americas.

I have long been interested in this organization. Thirty years ago, as governor of Georgia, I invited the OAS General Assembly to meet in Atlanta - the first meeting in the U.S. outside of Washington. Later, as president, I attended and addressed every General Assembly in Washington.

Back then, I realized that most of this hemisphere was ruled by military regimes or personal dictatorships. Senate hearings had just confirmed U.S. involvement in destabilizing the government of Salvador Allende in Chile, and a dirty war was being conducted in Argentina. I decided to stop embracing dictators and to make the protection of human rights a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, not only in this hemisphere, but with all nations.

When we signed the Panama Canal treaties in this same august hall in 1977, many non-elected or military leaders were on the dais. Key Caribbean states were absent, not yet part of the inter-American system. Then in 1979, Ecuador started a pattern of returning governments to civilian rule. The inter-American convention on human rights soon came into force, and our hemisphere developed one of the strongest human rights standards in the world.

These commitments have brought tremendous progress to Latin America and the Caribbean. Citizens have become involved in every aspect of governance: more women are running for political office and being appointed to high positions; indigenous groups are forming social movements and political parties; civic organizations are demanding transparency and accountability from their governments; freedom of expression is flourishing in an independent and vibrant press; ombudsmen and human rights defenders are active; and many countries are approving and implementing legislation to guarantee that citizens have access to information.

The English-speaking Caribbean has sustained vibrant democracies. A democratic Chile is removing military prerogatives from the Pinochet-era constitution and the military has acknowledged its institutional responsibility for the torture and disappearances of the 1970s. Central America has ended its civil wars and democracy has survived. The Guatemalan government offered public apology for the murder of Myrna Mack, and a Salvadoran responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Romero was tried and convicted last year, although in absentia.

Venezuelans have avoided civil violence while enduring a deep political rift in the last three years. Mexico developed an electoral institution that has become the envy of the world. Argentine democracy weathered the deepest financial crisis since the 1920s depression and its economy is on the rebound.

Four years ago, Canada and Peru took the lead in developing a new, more explicit commitment to democracy for the hemisphere. On the tragic day of September 11, 2001, the Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed.

I am proud to have witnessed these demonstrations of the courage, persistence and creativity of the people of this hemisphere.

But I am also worried. I am concerned that the lofty ideas espoused in the Democratic Charter are not all being honored. I am concerned that poverty and inequality continue unabated. And I am concerned that we in this room, representing governments and, in some cases, privileged societies, are not demonstrating the political will to shore up our fragile democracies, protect and defend our human rights system, and tackle the problems of desperation and destitution.

Since our years in the White House, my wife Rosalynn and I have striven to promote peace, freedom, health, and human rights, especially in this hemisphere and in Africa. Our dedicated staff at The Carter Center have worked in 54 elections to ensure they are honest and competitive. Civil strife has become rare, and every country but Cuba has had at least one truly competitive national election.

Yet, tiny Guyana, where we have been involved for more than a decade, remains wracked with racial tension and political stalemate. Haiti, where we monitored the first free election in its history and where the world contributed many tens of millions of dollars in aid, has been unable to escape the tragedy of violence and extreme poverty. In Nicaragua, I was privileged to witness the statesmanship of Daniel Ortega transferring power to Violeta Chamorro; yet today that country continues enmeshed in political deadlock and poverty that is second only to Haiti.

Across the hemisphere, UNDP and Latin barometer polls reveal that many citizens are dissatisfied with the performance of their elected governments. They still believe in the promise and the principles of democracy, but they do not believe their governments have delivered the promised improvements in living standards, freedom from corruption, and equal access to justice. We run the very real risk that dissatisfaction with the performance of elected governments will transform into disillusionment with democracy itself.

How can we protect the advances made and avoid the dangerous conclusion that democracy may not be worthwhile after all? The greatest challenge of our time is the growing gap between the rich and poor, both within countries and between the rich north and the poor south. About 45 percent (225 million) people of Latin America and the Caribbean live under the poverty line. The mathematical coefficient that measures income inequality reveals that Latin America has the most unequal income distribution in the world, and the income gap has continued to increase in the past fifteen years.

When people live in grinding poverty, see no hope for improvement for their children, and are not receiving the rights and benefits of citizenship, they will eventually make their grievances known, and it may be in radical and destructive ways.

Governments and the privileged in each country must make the decision and demonstrate the will to include all citizens in the benefits of society.

Democratic elections have improved, but we have also witnessed a dangerous pattern of ruling parties naming election authorities that are partisan and biased, governments misusing state resources for campaigns, and election results that are not trusted by the populace. I include my own country in saying that we all need to create fair election procedures, to regulate campaign finance, and to ensure that every eligible citizen is properly registered and has the opportunity to cast votes that will be counted honestly.

But democracy is much more than elections. It is accountable governments; it is the end of impunity for the powerful. It is giving judiciaries independence from political pressures so they can dispense justice with impartiality. It is protecting the rights of minorities, including those who do not vote for the majority party. It is protecting the vulnerable - such as those afflicted with HIV/AIDS, street children, those with mental illnesses, women abused with domestic violence, migrants, and indigenous peoples.

Full Speech