Speeches and other documents by the Secretary General


October 9, 2018 - Latin American Centre, University of Oxford

It is such an honor to be here at St. Antony’s College to give the inaugural lecture for the 2018-2019 academic year. There are many reasons why it is so wonderful to join you today at the University of Oxford.

There are simply too many ideas and works of those who have studied here and produced revolutions in politics, literature, philosophy, biology, chemistry, and many other disciplines.

One is suddenly hit by the fact that many of the ideas that have shaped the world throughout many centuries have come from this place.

And indeed, it is a remarkable and highly and lively meaningful space for thought, research, and frank debate.

I humbly want to share some of the ideas that we have put into action since 2015 at the Organization of American States.

I will divide my presentation in three parts. First, I will briefly mention what we have done. Second, I will refer to the main problems we are facing. And finally, I will explain what we are going to do about it.

So first, what we have done. It is key to remember that the core values and drivers of the OAS are democracy and human rights.

There was a time when the OAS was this in paper but not in reality. In addition, the Organization was not at the centre of the political agenda of the Hemisphere. It was merely an instrument, a place, a platform, in which political interests and the dominating powers of the geopolitics of the day convened, bargained, negotiated, colluded, and/or exchanged views.

It was a passive OAS. An OAS that was not active, didn’t know its purpose and was whatever the inaction of its Member States and its General Secretariat wanted it to do and be.

The OAS should not and is not what the Member States want it to be, it is what the peoples of the Americas want it to be, it is what it was agreed that we have to be.

Mind you, it is not one monolithic institution. The OAS is many different things, different vested interests, at the same time. It is the permanent council, which houses the permanent representatives of the 35 Member States. It is the General Secretariat, which I have the privilege of leading. And it is also the autonomous bodies such as the Inter American Commission on Human Rights.

When I arrived to the OAS, two things were not entirely received without a fuss: 1) to put principles and values that underpin the OAS Charter and all of the Interamerican norms first and foremost, which is democracy and human rights like I mentioned before; and 2) make the OAS work for the people of the Americas, as a function of their needs, and not as a function of the politics.

I have never fitted into a conventional diplomacy or the traditional international relations community pigeon-hole. When I was campaigning to be the SG of the OAS, in general people in the region thought I fitted into a certain pigeon hole: an Alba light candidate. Because I was coming from the Mujica government in Uruguay that was the category they assumed I belonged to. They were wrong.

So wrong that the bolivarians were trying very hard to put down my candidacy and then they started a ferocious campaign against it because of the denounces I made during my visit in March 2014. That is why I started off at the OAS facing vicious opposition both from the left and the right.

I was always, and I hope will always be, a principles-based person. At first, this was misinterpreted as idealistic. “How do you eat principles?” was a permanent question. I was transparent about my intentions when I visited different countries, and DC in particular, during the campaign. When I said that my plan was to follow principles, people simply did not get it. They could not understand what that meant in practice.

Diplomacy and geopolitics are more a game of interests on a board. So of course, they thought I was simply using rhetoric.

The plan was and still is, to guide every decision, every action, every day in my administration, by the fact that the effective exercise of representative democracy is the basis for the rule of law, by the respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, access to and the exercise of power in accordance with the rule of law, the holding of periodic, free, and fair elections based on secret balloting and universal suffrage as an expression of the sovereignty of the people, the pluralistic system of political parties and organizations, and the separation of powers and independence of the branches of government, transparency in government activities, probity, responsible public administration on the part of governments, respect for social rights, and freedom of expression and of the press – which are all essential components of the exercise of democracy.

This so-called unconventional way of doing diplomacy, honestly, I do not see it as unconventional at all. I see defending human rights, human dignity, democracy, as the normal thing to do.

We must be consistent in theory and practice. Member States must be consistent to in principle and practice.

Nobody should be uneasy because we meet with members of the opposition from all respective countries. To hear all voices, all parties, all perspectives, all citizens, is the essence of our work.

The OAS is also an organization that can help minimize ignorance and preconceived notions of one another in the Hemisphere. The goals of the Organization, as Secretary of State Root explained when the building of the Pan American Union was first inaugurated in 1908, are “to break down the barriers of mutual ignorance between the nations of America”.

So far, I have not talked about the context in which the OAS acts, where surely there is still much ignorance -real and faked- looming. Now I will refer to the real problems we are facing.

We observe toxic levels of polarization north and south. We observe two dictatorships and one emerging. The kind of dictatorship that expels people through conventional means such as torture and political persecution, as well as unconventional forms of repression such as hunger and disease. We observe extremely fragile democracies, where the cancer of corruption is widespread giving more power to the overlap gray area -that should not exist at all- between government and transnational organized crime.

The problem of democracy and human rights in Latin America was born with each one of the countries of the continent more than two centuries ago. Each political structure, constitution and institutions were built upon specific interests of specific groups. Its foundation was highly unequal from the start, and the structural inequality is continuously inherited.

They kept the tools of power in their hands, but they were not able to use them properly. They were not Washingtons or Jeffersons or Hamiltons. In fact, they managed to put down those that could have been the Washingtons or Jeffersons or Hamiltons of the new Latin American nations.

Someone once told me that to analyze the quality of democracy of a country or region, you must do so in one of two ways: you compare it to another country or region; or you compare the current state of that country or region to how it was in the past. In other words, you require a benchmark against which you assess whether the quality has gotten worse or better.

I am not going to spend time comparing Latin America to another region. If I must briefly, two negative aspects come to mind: we are still the most unequal region in the world, and we are also the most violent region in the planet. Organized crime, drug traffic, violent death, lack of access to rights, poverty and extreme poverty are trademarks of our political systems.

If you study democracy in Latin America today, compared to the past, to how it was in the 1970s and 1980s, there is a very clear mixed record.

On the positive side, the most notable progress is that we went through the transitions to democracy from dictatorships and authoritarian rule to electoral democracy that was truly a historical milestone.

In general, great efforts and political will has been invested in building democratic institutions from scratch, creating pluralistic political party systems, strengthening the judiciary and the rule of law, and liberalizing the political system to provide and protect more political rights and more civil liberties.

Socioeconomically, compared to four decades ago, another good news is that Latin America has made important progress in reducing poverty and extreme poverty, and in increasing the size of its middle class.

Latin America is not necessarily a unit of analysis and so even though from the perspective of having democracy as the preferred form of government, and as a human right such as the OAS Member States asserted it in the Inter American Democratic Charter in 2001, in some countries the never ending process of democratization has advanced at a faster pace, becoming not only solid electoral democracies but liberal and representative democracies. In some instances, it must be said, democratization has not only stalled but receded.

On the negative side, if we compare Latin America to several decades back, although quantitatively we had more authoritarian governments and dictatorships back then, we have now two dictatorships whose effects are felt throughout the region in an exceedingly intense way. Qualitatively, I dare to say, these dictatorships, one that survived the 20th century and one that has emerged in this one, are worse qualitatively. This is due to three main reasons.

First, because this region was not supposed to have more dictatorships. Dictatorships were supposed to be a thing of the past. We believed during the transitions that democracy was the only game in town. But one of the inhumane dictatorships in our recent history emerged, Venezuela, while the region as a whole remained silent at first and as such, in a way, was an accomplice.

Our behavior and attitudes as a region should have become more democratic and less authoritarian. Like Mick Jagger penned it in a song: “old habits die hard”. In Latin America I am afraid, there are yet too many authoritarian conditioned responses left, courtesy of the more than 200 years of history as nation states.

Second, because the Cuban and Venezuelan Regimes have a domino toxic effect on the rest of the region. It exports polarization, the worst imaginable government practices, including violent repression to innocent civilians, and rampant corruption and criminal activities.

And third, these dictatorships are worse because regardless of the incredible technological advances that make situations evident and in real time to the public, these Regimes overtly kill, repress and oppress its own people, but they blatantly and shamelessly deny it. And the world observes and observes and sometimes acts timidly if at all…

I must look at democracy and the problems we are facing in the region not by comparing it to the past or to other places. I have to look at it through the lens of the IDC.

I view the current situation from the normative perspective. How it should be.

It is not that we have to invent things, it is all written, Latin Americans have conventions, constitutions, laws, projects, and studies of different kind, by different political and international organizations.

I am not inventing standards either. The IDC and other inter American norms already have laid out the ideals to which we should aspire.

I can’t allow bad practices because they spread very fast and they grow viciously and immediately. Democracy is a continuous process and is our permanent never-ending job, objective, and aim.

I am afraid I have listened to far too many heartbreaking stories in the past three years as Secretary General. The victims speak indirectly of the state of our region, the state of democracy, or lack thereof.

I think of Marco Novoa, a Nicaraguan protester who was disappeared and tortured during the outbreak of the crisis for being the “water coordinator” – the person in charge of bringing water to the students who were in the barricades. This is what we face now in Latin America, which seems straight out of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

Marco survived. He told me that the experience “took his humanity”. His life changed since April 2018 completely. He was to graduate this summer, start his life as a young adult and perhaps get a job, and of course he didn’t. Now he will have to live forever with the horrific scars left by torture. And he will live seeking and waiting for justice, for him and also for those who are still detained and tortured by Regime forces.

Johanna Aguirre is another victim. In 2014, Johanna and her husband, Alejandro, were about to have dinner at their home, when Alejandro decided to join the nearby protests in Caracas. He was filming with his cell phone the deployed Guardia Nacional Boliviariana on the street, and when he refused to surrender his phone to them, he was beaten and taken. He disappeared for hours and finally Johanna found him in a hospital bed, in a comma. He died days later. Alejandro died because he expressed dissent and protested. Because he filmed the repression. And now Johanna will spend her life fighting to get justice for him.
Yesterday, two more dissidents of dictatorships were assassinated. Oscar Herrera Blandon was shot by paramilitary forces in Nicaragua and Fernando Alban was killed at the SEBIN in Venezuela. We must not forget about Juan Requesens, a Venezuelan opposition leader, now a political prisoner who is subjected to torture.

This takes us to the very basics. There are simply no human rights in many places in our Hemisphere, there are no guarantees, there are no procedures that may allow you to defend yourself. That is morally unacceptable, in addition to being utterly illegal from the standpoint of international human rights law and the basics of the rule of law.

You see, we are witnessing, and in real time with the help of the digital revolution and social media that was not the case in the last wave of dictatorships, of the cohabitation of democratic states and outright dictatorial states in the Americas.  

The challenges ahead are not only to tackle the deficits of democratic governance but the persistence of dictatorships.

It is not simply the problem of governments not having the capacity, in terms of people, budget, and management, to respond to pressing issues such as drug trafficking and gang violence. The challenge is not only to fight rampant corruption and impunity within the framework of imperfect democratic states.  The main test now is to fight those who are deliberately eliminating basic human rights of their own people, within their borders.

Venezuela is the grandest, most hurtful test to the short democratic record we have as a region. This brings me to the third part of my lecture, what are we going to do going forward.

Venezuela is not only a failed state, it is a free-falling failed state. The Regime is led by people who have been charged for corruption and drug trafficking. They know that if they leave they will face justice, si o si.

You see, this dictatorship has no comparison to the dictatorships of the 20th century. While in the past repression and oppression was motivated by a national security doctrine, framed within the ideology of the Cold War, the Bolivarian criminals are motivated by personal gain. Make no mistake, there is no ideology there.

The Regime has destroyed checks and balances and governmental institutions, destroyed free and fair elections, destroyed the economy, destroyed PDVSA, destroyed democracy completely while they are stealing millions, and persecuted, imprisoned, tortured, and killed the “internal enemies” of the State who are innocent civilians who simply did not support and agreed with them.

They have even deliberately starved infants. Reduced hospitals to nothing, where there is no running water and surgeries if done are done with the light of candles or the flashlight of cell phones.

Since 2015 the General Secretariat of the OAS has observed the situation and documented it, and we have acted - some of our actions are visible and others are not. So far, we have published four reports documenting with evidence the escalation of the crisis.

We were the first ones to call the problem by its very name: a dictatorship. In these reports that were presented to the Permanent Council, we argued why there was an unconstitutional interruption of the democratic order as included in Chapter IV of the Inter American Democratic Charter.    

It is so far beyond politics. This is a true test about principles and where our inter American community of nations stands in the moral dilemma.

This crisis is also far from a trivial discussion of left and right politics. Here we are talking about human tragedies. About a government that has intentionally and systematically crushed the human dignity of its people. This is now not only evident in Venezuela.

We are witnessing the largest migration exodos in our continent: 3.3 million Venezuelans refugees have fled the oppression and repression of the Maduro Regime; and 1.8 million more are expected to leave by next year.

Countries in the region are trying to absorb the refugees, many who arrive by foot, but it has proven a difficult economic, social, and cultural challenge. Colombia’s President recently said that migrant influx costs 0.5% of the country’s GDP. And incidents during the summer showed how xenophobia could be easily triggered.

Now we push for the principles that are already in our international instruments, the international law, and expect others to join. We have seen progress. We have 2 resolutions that have declared the alteration of the Constitutional Order (Res 1078 of April 2017) and declared illegitimate the elections of May 20th (Res 2929 of June 2018). This is a clear indication that some Member States are acting morally and according to international law by fighting a dictatorship and rejecting remaining on the sidelines for whatever national or particular reason, like many have done and many still do.

It is quite surreal that there are crimes against humanity being committed in Latin America again. But it is a reality. We cannot deny it. On the contrary, we must work to find justice for the victims. There is no other way.

The Venezuelan dictatorship is a moral test, a test of our decency. We either are individuals who act according to universal human principles of tolerance and respect, seeking for the greater common good even if it means personal sacrifices; or we are individuals who are interested in maintaining the status quo, who prefer and succumb to indifference and silence even though it means that this inaction indirectly is killing and repressing innocent lives.

The moral dilemma is: do you navigate with a moral rudder or are you rudderless and have no conscience?

Since the beginning, we unconditionally chose the first option.

In July 2017, immediately after the failure of the General Assembly of Cancun, we decided to push forward solutions for human rights abuses as well as crimes against humanity.

In September 2017 we created an OAS Panel of International Independent Experts, documenting denounces, testimonies, cases, and facts. In May 2018 the Panel published a Report that concluded there were reasonable grounds for crimes against humanity in Venezuela.

And two weeks ago, history was made in the entire international human rights regime, not just for Latin America: the first time a case was referred by State Parties to the Rome Statute regarding crimes against humanity in another State. The referral mentioned the report of the OAS.

Argentina, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, and Peru, referred the case of crimes against humanity in Venezuela to the International Criminal Court in The Hague, which symbolized the effective use of international law to get a step closer to justice for the victims of the dictatorship.

Going forward, we will continue in this path, of justice, human rights, and democracy. We will continue exerting pressure, no matter the cost. This is the new form of war we face between old enemies: freedom versus tyranny.

Although in another war, in another context, Churchill said “we shall prove ourselves once again able… to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone.”

I will continue if necessary for years, as SG or not, and if necessary alone. If you insist in putting me in a pigeon hole, let it be the stubborn one who sided with the principles of democracy and human rights.

Venezuela has become a true test for leaders (current and former), political institutions, diplomacy, and international organizations. It is a warning sign to the rest of the region and the world that no matter how lucky you are with your commodity lottery, no matter if you had some sort of democratic stability when everybody else was submerged in dictatorial rule, democracy cannot be taken for granted. Ever.

I mentioned in my speech during the Summit of the Americas this year in Peru, that the American writer Steinbeck said that the problem was not that evil does not win, it is that evil does not die. We must not let it win anywhere, that’s our job. And action based on principles is the way, not the inaction and silence.

The best partners for those who violate human rights and commit crimes against humanity are those who remain silent and inactive.

Whether you believe your fellow oxonian Hobbes that human beings are inherently wicked, and so you need a leviathan to put order and stability; or you believe they are inherently good, as Rousseau explained, and so you need a social contract, the reality is, human nature is both.

One thing is for sure. If we want a better quality of democracy in our region, if we want justice for the victims, if we want to avoid having more victims like Marco and Johanna and so many others, then we must continue to work, using what is already in international law, to protect people, and not necessarily the states.

We need to permanently address countries’ bad practices and encourage them to adopt good practices. Usually they are conveniently mixed.

Common bad practices in our political systems are lack of dialogue, co-optation of the Judiciary, blocking the action of Parliaments and/or members of the parliaments, the threat or assassination of political candidates, corruption, impunity, murder of human rights and environmental activists, blocking political participation, and the list goes on.

The good news is that we are responding to that, and by we, I mean in cooperation with civil society, we are responding to all those challenges. All those years when the corruption of Odebrecht and PDVSA was rampant in the continent are over. We have pushed impunity back, we eliminated the certainty of impunity and we have opened the possibility of justice, we would like the certainty of justice soon but it will still take a while.

We have strengthened parliaments and member of the parliaments work, we have denounced the judiciary when they start doing politics, we have habilitated political participation. Although we still need more effective mechanisms for all that, we need better follow up mechanisms of our recommendations and the denounces of the civil society, we need more efficient tools to protect activists, and to control the financing of political parties by organized crime.

So my struggle against these bad practices will go on, I will not give up, I cannot let them rest. This struggle will be a long way of failures, but that is a natural way of improvement.

But as the consumerism-based society teaches us: we have walked, and we keep walking. And we never hide. And we don’t crack under pressure. And we are insane, but not stupid.
Democracy does not happen by default. Human rights either. It requires hard work. In the one year and 8 months I have left as SG, I will continue to work towards these goals.

And I hope the OAS continues to work towards these values once I leave, and that people in our Hemisphere feel connected to the OAS, and substantively benefit from it as an Organization that defies authoritarians, champions democracy, fights for justice and to end impunity, and scrutinizes violations of human dignity.

Here in this beautiful, centuries-old University, when we are now talking about freedom and rights and democracy, we should think and honor those who are fighting for those principles, those who are desperately seeking for them, offering their lives for the freedom of their friends and family.

And so, I dedicate this opportunity, to all those students and protesters who fought and died, and those who today are risking their lives in many street corners in Venezuela, in the streets of Nicaragua. We never forget them.

Thank you.