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OAS Secretary General Says "Democracy in Latin America Is Much Better than Before, but There Are Still Many Challenges to Overcome"

  March 31, 2014

The Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), José Miguel Insulza, said today that democracy in Latin America is in a good shape compared with its recent past, but warned that it still suffers from shortcomings and challenges remain, during a keynote address he delivered at the Universidad Central de Chile in Santiago to mark the beginning of the 2014 academic year.

In his speech, Secretary General Insulza spoke about democracy, participation and social rights in Latin America. "The first thing I must say is that democracy is generally in good health in our hemisphere. Of course it still has many shortcomings, and also faces important challenges. But we must not forget that there is much more democracy in our region than there was just three decades ago," he said. He added that among the most pressing challenges are, "inequality, social exclusion, public insecurity and environmental degradation, which long ago ceased to be threats and have become tragic realities.”

For his part, the Rector of the University, Rafel Rosell Aiquel, said the institution he leads was founded on the principles of academic freedom, freedom of thought and commitment to society, and indicated that today it is in a dynamic process of academic internationalization. In this regard, he expressed interest in working with the OAS on a student exchange program. "We are available to receive students from all countries of the Organization, and to send our students abroad," he said.

Upon beginning his remarks, Secretary General Insulza said that "the question to ask, therefore, is whether the democracy we have achieved, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean, is enough to help overcome these problems. My answer is no."

The OAS leader said democratic demands today are much greater than those which existed a century ago. "We all understand today that a democracy is not built solely through the vote, and that free and participatory elections are a key component, but not enough," he said. There is a second dimension, he said, which is "the full exercise of the rights that citizenship confers on all men and women living in a democratic country." "Being a citizen means not only choosing rulers and enjoying their protection. It also means having human rights, that the State is obliged to respect and ensure respect for: the right to life, liberty, security, freedom of expression, assembly, association, along with other civil rights and the right to know, debate and take part in the decisions of the authority, are now also inherent to democracy," he added.

Following this line of reasoning, the leader of the hemispheric Organization said "to political and civil democracy a social dimension is added. Democracy is complete only when it is able to deliver results to its citizens, ensuring development opportunities for all." Thus, he said, you can explain and understand the citizen complaints heard in the streets of many of the countries of the hemisphere. “And the citizens of our region increasingly believe in democracy, but they also understand that it must also be expressed in tangible results in their daily lives," he said, noting that this demand will increase. “If the democratic government does not distribute the benefits of progress equally to everyone, resentment will inevitable, as it is inevitable which becomes a breeding ground for instability in democracy itself, because society as a whole -or groups which feel particularly left behind will use all means at their disposal to express their dissatisfaction," he added.

In his address, Insulza identified the three main structural challenges facing today's democracies in the region. "First, a democratic society is not compatible with the extreme levels of inequality. It cannot be that that the economic and social conditions of one's birth determines the quality of life and education, health, housing and public security.” The unequal distribution of income in Latin America is unparalleled in any region of the world. "Secondly –he added- a democratic society "is not compatible with the existence of groups that reject the norms of civil society and live outside it. The criminal expressions that exist in our hemisphere, linked to organized crime, drug trafficking, and human trafficking, configure parallel forms of life, with their own rules and organizations, that are certainly not compatible with our democratic principles."

Third, he argued that a democratic society cannot exist without consensus and essential trusts on how to govern, elect and transfer political power. Among these consensus he stressed "the existence and full respect of majorities and minorities, full respect for the possibility of alternation in power, full freedom of expression, separation of powers, independence of the judiciary, no sudden alteration of the rules for power that can create distrust among those without power, and above all, and what is more dangerous, not to create among those who have no power the fear of that they will never get there through any democratic means," he said.

The Inter-American Democratic Charter sets out these principles, summarized Insulza. "Every country and every people should be able to build and defend their democracy," he said, and explained that "international organizations are not supranational, supra-nationalism does not exist in the world except in very special cases, but there are multilateral organizations, which are organizations of countries and countries decide on them. Most of these principles may be proclaimed by the international society, but must be the product of effort, work, culture, and finally at the disposition of all countries to respect and implement,” added the OAS Secretary General.

In the framework of his speech, the OAS Secretary General referred to the situation in Venezuela today, which, he said, tests the collective democracy in the countries of the region, and reiterated that the key to achieving an exit is through dialogue between the government and the opposition. "No other solution is feasible and can only increase the existing violence. I have also insisted that for this dialogue to be fruitful, it must be realistic, and must address all the problems and not just the problems that each party sees or wants to see, and it must deal with the levels of violence that the confrontation has reached, and seek to reduce that violence by way of compromises on both sides," he said.

He maintained that the Venezuelan crisis is underpinned by the economic problems facing the country, "which are very serious, as well as the high rates of crime and other situations that today afflict Venezuelans, and they only going to find solution through effective dialogue and realistic commitments that involve all parties." "I have no doubt that the possibility that this dialogue will materialize is testing the maturity of Venezuelan democracy," he added.

The OAS Secretary General referred to the criticisms that have been made of the OAS and other subregional organizations like UNASUR, but noted that none of these institutions has fallen into the error of seeking to intervene in Venezuela's problems. "The time of interventions has long passed. To help solve the problems of a country, no other country or group of countries should intervene. They should help to encourage dialogue and even if they are called to it, they can facilitate or serve as mediators in this dialogue. But in no case to intervene in the sense that took place in sad moments of our recent past," he said, recalling Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1966 and Chile in 1973, as cases of interventions that cannot happen again.

The leader of the hemispheric institution placed special emphasis on expressing his opposition to the practices of undue interference in the internal affairs of other states, especially when it comes to governments that have been legitimately elected. "A completely different scenario is the one that occurs when a country destroys or threatens to destroy by force the democratic system," he said, recalling that the OAS has had since 2001 the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Secretary General Insulza stated that the Charter has been applied seven times since he took office in 2005, usually to defend a threatened democracy, and -only in one case in Honduras in 2009- to act in the case of a disruption of democracy. "But its implementation, which should be very careful given our history, only applies when the overwhelming majority of our member states determines that such a breach has occurred," he said, noting that "this has not happened in the case of Venezuela."

"For all the criticisms it has received, the OAS will not act, and could not act - if our member countries decide not to launch the mechanisms of the Democratic Charter, something they have not done in any way in these circumstances," added Secretary General Insulza, who recalled that the OAS Permanent Council met recently to discuss the situation, clarifying that "there was not a request for application of the Inter-American Democratic Charter."

Finally, Secretary General Insulza said the OAS is not inactive, but is aggressively promoting "solving problems through democratic dialogue among Venezuelans." "I said at the time -I think I was the first to say it-, that if it was not possible to reach, directly or through internal mediators, the minimum trust necessary for an appropriate dialogue, you could always resort to the help of the international community. And that's what we've done," he said in reference to the mediation currently carried out by UNASUR, whose work is supported by the OAS.

Ambassadors, legislators, representatives of the executive, military, academics, and students, among others, attended the keynote address by the OAS Secretary General.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-121/14