Speeches and other documents by the Secretary General


March 23, 2018 - Pennsylvania

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When faced with difficult challenges to democracy in Latin America today, we must speak up and defend the principles we share as an Inter-American community. As citizens of this Hemisphere, we have the choice to carry hate or add value to democracy in the decisions we make every day. We must take sides. The side of democracy, human rights, solidarity, cooperation, tolerance, and openness – putting a price on principles is not an option.

Dear friends, I am honored to be with you today at the 8th Wharton Latin American Conference.

This is my first time visiting the University of Pennsylvania in my capacity as Secretary General of the Organization of American States. I have had a tremendous day, and I hope this is the first of many visits to Penn.

Before I begin, I would like to thank our Penn partners for their support over the years, it demonstrates a genuine trust in our multilateral organization.

I would especially like to thank Tulia Falleti, Cathy Bartch, the Wharton Latin American Students Association and of course, our host today at the World Perry House, William Burke-White.

The theme for this year’s Wharton Latin American Conference is “From Vision to Action”. I would like to focus on the “action” part of that theme.

Latin America -along with the rest of the world- is navigating a highly fractured international environment characterized by uncertainty, technological advances have changed the shape of the world around us, and keeps moving at a faster and faster pace.

We have also seen an emergence of nationalism and along with it a greater appetite for an exclusionary approach.

We find ourselves in something of limbo between the old and a new international order. The rules of engagement we learned from the past, from the Cold War, even of the transitions to democracy we saw in the 1990s, no longer seem to apply.

The straightforward bipolar framework is long gone. The enthusiasm and momentum attached to our democratic transitions has faded. Now we face the growing pains of exercising and strengthening democracy in what is still the most unequal region in the world.

We do not know what the new world order, looks like, so we do not know the new rules. Are we building more open globalized societies, or are we moving towards more closed, nativism? Will democracy continue to be a truly universal ideal?

The task at hand is to dedicate time and effort to serve timeless principles to which our hemisphere has already committed itself; the underlying principles and values that determine how a democratic system works. It is time to focus on the quality of our actions and on the process, and not the quality of the outcome.


Latin America may be living at a time of global uncertainty, but it is facing more pressing challenges that demand action from both leaders and citizens now. It is time to act and speak up based on principles, on a solid moral compass.

It is important to mention that when I refer to principles, I am not speaking theoretically or tacitly. I am describing the tangible commitments enshrined in international agreements signed by our Member States.

The OAS, one of the oldest multilateral organizations in the world is not only a pioneer for including the word “democracy” in its foundational charter, but also in declaring democracy “as a right of the peoples of the Americas” in the 2001 Inter-American Democratic Charter approved unanimously by all Member States.

The foundation principles; democracy, human rights, openness, and cooperation are unequivocal.

When faced with difficult challenges to democracy in Latin America today, we must speak up and defend these principles. We must be willing to act when they are sometimes forgotten or ignored, in favor of short-term political and power opportunism.

First and foremost, we must address the enduring crisis in Venezuela. For many, we believed that the era of persistent dictatorships in our region was mostly a trend we left behind in the 20th century. We were wrong.

Even after the third wave of democratization and the reconciliation processes after the collapse of these authoritarian regimes, even after the recognition of the centrality of human rights for stability and progress, even after finding consensus to approve an Inter-American Charter in 2001, and even after social gains were achieved during the economic boom during the past decade, we still had to bear witness the tragedy of a new Latin American dictatorship emerging in the 21st century.

President Nicolas Maduro, as I have documented in four detailed Reports published over the last two years, has named as “enemy”, anyone who dares to criticize or oppose the Bolivarian Revolution. This Regime retaliates against innocent civilians with complete disregard for human rights, or human life, let alone the due process of law.

This week, there are 241 political prisoners in the country. During the wave of protests in 2014 and 2017 more than 150 civilians were killed. More than 12,000 have been arbitrarily detained and hundreds have been tortured. The have eliminated the rule of law, and now civilians have even been unlawfully tried in military courts.

The Regime controls the production and distribution of food. Despite being an oil-rich country, children are dying from malnutrition. With the military controlling all the countries’ imports as well as the exchange rate regime, the scarcity of medicines and medical equipment has led to a health crisis of unparalleled proportions in the hemisphere.

There is widespread corruption, zero accountability, and a total absence of the rule of law. State institutions, including the judiciary, act based on political criteria, always acting in the interests of the Executive. The most fundamental democratic principle of democracy, the separation and independence of powers was shattered with the Supreme Court’s decision to assume the authorities of the democratically elected National Assembly.

These are just a few of the heartbreaking examples of the ongoing humanitarian, political and economic crisis in Venezuela.

What happens to Venezuela matters to the rest of the region. It matters to all of us not only because of the effect it is already having on its neighboring states. Colombia, Peru, and Brazil, have already welcomed Venezuelans by the thousands, citizens who are fleeing the crisis.

It matters to us because it is a test of our principles and a test of our commitment to democracy.

For Latin America and the international community, Venezuela will be a measure of who we are and what we truly believe. We must decide, when faced with challenges, who will sit on the sidelines and who will speak up and act for what is right.

The principle of non-intervention has too often been used as an excuse not to speak or act. In this case, silence is action. Non-intervention is the action of supporting a dictatorship that violates human rights and has declared war on its citizens.

A second issue that requires us to reaffirm the commitment to our guiding principles is this year’s intense electoral cycle. In 2018, close to two out of three Latin Americans will have the chance to exercise their right to vote. A core element of democracy, elections will be held in eleven Member States with, at least, thirteen electoral processes. Six are presidential races.

From the perspective of the OAS, we do not care who wins. We care about the quality of the electoral process. That it is true and that it is fair.

The role social media now plays in our lives is important because we have seen its effect on elections and ultimately, the quality of democracy.

Technology has amplified the space in which people can voice their opinions and demands. While this is healthy for freedom of expression, words matter more than ever on the internet commons.

The dark side of technology allows for hate speech and fake news to magnify. We are vulnerable more than ever to our cognitive biases.

Politics has always been an ugly business. The difference is that now we have a mirror held before us.

As individuals, whether you are a student, faculty, a business woman, or a policymaker, we must participate responsibly. Our words affect perceptions, they affect the global conversations.

If we want a better quality of political speech, we must start with our own speech. New tools should be used for the betterment of elections and democracy, not to their detriment.

The third challenge is social and structural. Latin America is a vastly rich region. This is true for our natural resources, culture, human talent, diversity, and economic potential.

We are also rich in contrasts. We continue to be the most unequal region of the world. Even though millions have been lifted out of poverty over the last decade, too many are still excluded from the system.

Our structural problems remain. There is lack of incentives for transforming the informal sector into the formal sector. We lack the accessibility of good quality education. There is a lack of decent jobs. Exclusion and inequality remain a reality, maintaining the poorest in a place of vulnerability.

In this a place, there is no freedom from want and there is no freedom from fear.

Latin America is also the most violent region in the world; a statistic that should be unacceptable to all of us.

We must not forget those who have no voice. Or rights.

Those of us who are lucky enough to speak freely, to act freely, to live with freedom from fear and from want, we must continue to work together to fight inequality and promote sustainable development.

Last but not least, we must be mindful of the slow erosion of democratic institutions. We have seen the consequence in Venezuela. And so we must be conscious that it is also happening elsewhere.

Corruption is a cancer for democracy. It spreads and rotting institutions from within. Its persistence is one of the reasons why Latin American citizens are increasingly disenchanted with democracy, political parties, and other government institutions.

The lack of trust in government is a trend that has been heightened by the Odebrecht scandals and the Panama Papers leaks.

While the fact that these cases are coming to light and those responsible are being prosecuted by law, does mean that the system is working and holding people accountable for their actions, at the same time these events fuel sentiments of anti-politics and anti-establishment.

Democracy is not to blame. It is those who misuse or abuse democracy that must be held responsible.

Strengthening democracy requires patience. We must work diligently, every day. In the words of Aristotle, “As it is not one swallow or a fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man (or a woman, I would add) blessed and happy.”

Daily, we must speak up and stand for those who have no voice. Words matter more than ever. But there are not enough. We need principled-based actions.

Our Member States have the roadmap already; our Charters, conventions, and numerous agreements formalize these values. Our Citizens can and must hold Members States accountable.

As citizens of this Hemisphere, we have the choice to carry hate or add value to democracy in the decisions we make every day.

We must take sides. The side of democracy, human rights, solidarity, cooperation, tolerance, and openness.

We cannot put a price on principles.

From this vision of shared, timeless principles and values protected from the multilateral sphere, we can take action and contribute to a Latin American neighborhood that is more just, inclusive, and respectful of human rights.