- WHARTON LATIN AMERICAN STUDENT ASSOCIATION (PENN MUSEUM IN PHILADELPHIA)
As you may know, the Organization of American States has four principle pillars: democracy, human rights, multidimensional security and development. These four pillars are interconnected with one another, and one cannot exist without the other.
We have to deal with the most critical issues in the Western Hemisphere, permanently, day by day, in a region that is confronted with a lot of political challenges that debilitate the socio-economic fabric and threaten democratic stability in our member states.
The work of the Organization is crucial as it aims to prevent or mitigate the eruption of constitutional and electoral issues in the region. We take things as they come, and quickly discredit any and all attempts to violate the political will of the people.
As it relates to the first two pillars, democracy and human rights are the most susceptible to erosion by criminal elements that have no regard for peace, the dignity of man, or respect for the rule of law. It is certainly a great challenge in the region, or elesewhere, as these two concepts of democracy and human rights are politically sensitive matters, but it is only made sensitive due to the selfish agendas by those wanting to thwart the democratic process for their own political expediency.
But we can never be fearful about condemning undemocratic actions because it does not serve us in the short-term, and certainly not in the long-term.
The important thing in all of this, particularly in a political context, is to always remain rational when fighting against the weight of unfairness, injustice, and undemocratic manifestations.
Over the past four years, especially since the pandemic, the polarizing effects in the region have doubled, if not tripled.
When I first came into office as Secretary General to this Organization in 2015, there was only one authoritarian state, Cuba. But now, there are a total of three, including Venezuela and Nicaragua. I would say myself, just to make it four!
But in all honesty, if it was not for the existence of the Organization of American States, which is the oldest regional body in the world, we would have more dictatorships in the Americas.
The work of the OAS has been crucial in maintaining the sanctity of the vote during the 2020 electoral period in Guyana, and more recently in Guatemala, where efforts to block the 2023 electoral and transition process were unashamedly overt and widely condemned by the international community.
Unfortunately, the pandemic exposed a lot of democratic vulnerabilities. There are screws that require more tightening in order to preserve human rights and civil freedoms, such as freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of the press and our sovereign and territorial rights.
But more importantly, it is essential to safeguard the right to life – where governments actually function as caretakers to their people in order to mitigate and ultimately eliminate the political, socio-economic inequalities that are experienced among our people in the Americas.
We need to continue to promote the independence of the justice system and enforce anti-corruption policies that serve as a shield to state institutions and its actors from becoming co-opted by criminal organizations and illegal intentions.
You know, Nelson Mandela perfectly said it when he stated: “I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” And that is one of the purposes of the OAS: to conquer the fears of the vulnerable communities, the minority voices and even the silenced ones through pluralistic dialogue among member states to channel their resources to promote democratic security and respect for the rule of law.
This is why dialogue, and the participation in engagements such as this at the 12th Wharton Latin American Conference are important because it allows us to build on the mutual consensus that a solution is needed to dismantle the long-standing institutional issues that stunt growth and prosperity, especially in developing countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The task of overcoming these challenges is a shared responsibility.
As of 2021, Latin America and the Caribbean accounts for about 8.37 percent of the global population and is home to approximately 656 million people. We are too large of a population to fail. And I know that with quality leadership and enough investment to empower our people in areas of health, education, access to credit, food security and business development, our democracies can thrive.
We must relentlessly work towards defending democracy and human rights, all whilst respecting our ideological differences that each person may have. We must be flexible in this regard, but never tolerant of autocratic behavior or dictatorships, as one rotten apple ruins the bunch.
Respect for humanity and territorial integrity must remain central to our cause. All these pioneering principles are the foundation on which the four pillars of the Organization are built on and we must not stray away from these democratic principles for the own good of our communities.
Who are now leading multilateral organizations around the globe such as the OAS and others, we have had the privilege of growing up politically and being educated politically in a context where the normal is everything digital, everything with instant communication. Through social media, the reality of conflicts, wars, and humanitarian crisis is communicated much more effectively and rapidly than in the past. Information from the field can not only be found in diplomatic cables and reports, but on real time and real-life testimonies from victims of human rights violations and conflicts.
We should be more aware of global challenges – not only due to technological innovation but to the experience of the global Covid-19 pandemic.
We should be more aware and conscious of the challenges in terms of human rights. What was “not a given” before, now it is certainly a given for you: gender equality, race equality, and climate change.
It is obvious as well that international relations is a tool for everybody, not just a few. It is a tool that should be at the service for every human being.
International relations should not be an elitist profession, and it should never be perceived as such. Multilateralism is a noble profession that attempts to support people who are in need, who lack basic human rights, and in which case their own countries are not able or are not willing to help them.
Multilateralism in the 21st century must be a more modern one, acting quickly to prevent and resolve crises, and sensitive to the realities on the ground, not to the top diplomatic and political interests.
Double standards in multilateralism are pervasive and is a dangerous reality. Many States participate in the global multilateral community at the same time they show contempt for international norms. If there ever was a doubt about this problem, the invasion of Ukraine has certainly cemented the trend.
In a short period of time the world has been struck by events that could have seemed as fiction years ago – Covid-19 and Russia’s aggression in Ukraine.
If it has taught us something so far, it is the value of principled multilateralism. Multilateralism based on principles is equal to stability. It is equal to cooperation, to coordination, to trust. Lack of cooperation, of coordination, of trust, only leads to war and violence. We can’t go back to the old archaic ways of resolving conflict through violent means. It is the opposite that the international system pursues.
In this sense, I am hopeful that your generation of ‘zoomers’ will outdo my generation. You have more tools, more access, more information, and more awareness, and well, more international norms at your disposal. This of course must be matched with actions. I trust you will defend principles of human dignity, you will remain committed to the cause of human rights, democracy and freedom, and that you will always be close to the needs of vulnerable populations who live without freedom from fear and freedom from want.
Unfortunately, despite all the technological progress that has brought the global community virtually and physically closer than ever, as I have already mentioned, the global situation is not necessarily one characterized by solidarity and empathy.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, the global community was in the trend of a sort of “push and pull”. A push and pull between globalization and nationalism; openness and protectionism; solidarity and individualism; global and local; archaic and modern; democracy and dictatorship; human rights and submission; entitlement and responsibility…
The pandemic exacerbated the polarization and divisions within the global and regional community. The threat of an invisible enemy, a virus, continues to test both political institutions within Member States and in international fora. This test is one primarily of values and ethics. It tests nations and leaders on whether the values they espouse are really implemented when push comes to shove.
Should a country only worry about vaccinating its population against Covid-19? Or should it mind contributing to collaborative efforts to achieve a fully vaccinated world population? Some will do the former, others the latter.
Some will only care towards getting their population vaccinated, even if this is against science and logic because nobody is safe until everybody is safe.
In a way, the way the pandemic is testing nations and leadership is similar to how other global challenges have tested them in the past.
Should democracy and human rights only be guaranteed within one’s own borders? Or should it be guaranteed globally? The Inter American Democratic Charter of the OAS signed by Member States in 2001 resolved that democracy is a right of all peoples of the Americas. In that sense, we believe that democracy is a right and a public good that transcends borders, and as such it must be promoted and defended regionally.
Should climate change be approached only within one’s borders, or is it better to deal with it globally? It does not make any sense to deal with climate change within borders. Climate change, as well as many other global challenges and global values, are transnational problems than need transnational solutions.
Global citizenship should be defined as a vocation grounded on empathy, solidarity, and collaboration; as viewing the suffering of others as one’s own; as not swayed, contaminated or tempted by politics and privileges attached to diplomatic life. Being a global citizen should be characterized by honesty and not double standards.
This is easier said than done. In the Americas, we constantly fight against double standards.
The OAS is the oldest regional organization in the world, and it is quite clear what the principles and standards are for our 34 Member States. Democracy and Human Rights are the cornerstone of the OAS, it is what defines the nature of this Hemisphere.
However, some stay away from that democratic and human rights path, which is a legal path because these objectives are part of foundational documents and inter-American norms. Member States voluntarily committed to following these norms.
Despite the clarity in our purpose and aspiration, we face many challenges. As the most violent and most unequal region in the world, where the benefits of growth have not distributed for the majority of the population, it remains a fertile ground for populism and dictatorships.
At present the Hemisphere is home to many democracies, but three dictatorships. The effects on human rights have been devastating for these three countries and beyond. There is vast evidence of crimes against humanity being committed in Venezuela. The Cuban dictatorship continues with practices such as arbitrary detention, torture, and political persecution, which are contrary to international and inter-American law. And in Nicaragua, while the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts found that crimes against humanity were committed in the context of the 2018 events, the government has not made efforts to bring those responsible to justice. It does the exact opposite to rationality, imprisoning and torturing all presidential candidates.
Sovereignty is not equal to absolute authority, it is responsibility. Unfortunately, many States have forgotten that.
It is not an easy task to manage these crises and ensure that principles and standards are not violated by Member States, intentionally or unintentionally.
Through the OAS you have had a taste of real-world problems and you have probably felt the responsibility on your shoulders of finding sustainable solutions to these challenges.
In real life, what diplomats do – or don’t do – have tangible effects on the lives of many people.
So next time, when we find ourselves discussing whether to add this word or another to a resolution, whether to “condemn” or “take note”, etc., think of the victims of the problems you are tackling. Remember: international politics is a humble profession and values should always guide your work. Not interests or short-term political gains.
Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean stands at a deadlock due to the region’s own doing, but also because of actions of extra regional actors in recent years.
Most states are (still) democracies. According to Freedom House’s 2020 report, all countries in the region are free except for 10 states that are “partly free”, and three that are classified as “not free” (Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba).
V-dem Democracy Report from 2020 classifies the region as having 1 closed autocracy (Cuba), four electoral autocracies (Nicaragua, Venezuela, Honduras, and Haiti); most electoral democracies, and only five liberal democracies.
Thus, an obvious conclusion is that the record of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean has been mixed since the transitions period that started four decades ago.
The transition from authoritarian to democratic rule, from military control of government to civilian control of state institutions, did not translate automatically into effective, functioning democratic institutions.
Old grievances have not been properly addressed, and these are finding a protagonist role in political affairs and political rhetoric today, in addition to new grievances derived from the digital divide and effects of the pandemic.
Democracy to be effective and strengthen going forward must address old wounds that have become new wounds, plus the new wounds created in recent years.
What do I mean by old and new grievances and wounds?
Old grievances are determined primarily by the most powerful and persistent sin that characterizes the region: inequality. This does not just mean income inequality, which remains the highest in the world, but inequality in the access to basic human rights.
Even though there was some progress in terms of reduction of extreme poverty and inequality through progressive social policies implemented in the first decade of this century, the wide gap between haves and have nots, remains, and widens. Democracy does not have a real shot of developing strongly if a person’s fate and chances of accessing basic rights is determined by what economic class and barrio they are born into, what color of skin they have, what gender they are, what school they attend…
It is true that the region is unique because it holds one of the largest collection of democracies in the world; it is after the new world, where institutions and self-determination of peoples originated out of liberal ideals of freedom, equality, and fraternity. Yet this history and being the largest collection of democracies contrasts sharply with the actual quality of life that most people endure, and well, try to survive, every day.
According to a March 2021 projection by the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), due to the pandemic the region’s GDP fell by 7.7%, poverty increased, and inequality widened. By 2020, extreme poverty increased to 12.5% and poverty to 33.7%. The number of poor people increased after the pandemic, there were 22 million more poor people… This number is six times the population of my country, Uruguay. And of course, poverty hits and affects the most vulnerable groups: youth, women, indigenous and Afro-descendent persons.
This basic contradiction in the identity of Latin America and the Caribbean, between being born out of liberal ideals yet being a highly paternalistic, unequal, racist region, needs to end.
Inequality does not only mean less access to rights for millions of people, but it also contaminates the way politics and democracy is practiced.
Inequality is synonymous to exclusion, to polarization. And unfortunately, these old grievances of exclusion and polarization have significantly found their way into politics and democracy today. It has translated also into electoral results almost perfectly. Most recent presidential electoral results in the continent show that the top two contenders, were diametrically opposed. This zero-sum mentality, which stems from rancid and outdated left-right characterizations, but also the reality of persistent and crosscutting inequality, is undermining democracies. Elections in 2024 will likely reflect the underlying trend of polarization, with two diametrically opposed options on the ballot for voters.
In the 1990s the mentality was not a winning mentality, it was a conciliatory mindset, aided as well by the optimism of the international environment at the time. At the OAS there was even consensus between all Member States when the Inter-American Democratic Charter was signed in 2001. For democracy to strengthen, the region’s political leadership must move from a zero-sum to a positive-sum mindset.
I will tell you why: simply because we can’t afford to dig our own grave with a zero-sum mentality when the old grievances, and especially the new grievances and challenges, are too overwhelming. I can’t decide whether some are in denial about this or decide to continue by looking through the lens of the rear-view mirror… Or they are too afraid to move ahead looking through the lens of the windshield glass.
While most are stuck in the past, or instrumentalizing the past to continue with corrupt ways and maintain power indefinitely, resorting even to last century tactics of overt electoral fraud, for instance, Latin America and the Caribbean is falling behind from the rest of the world in terms of relevance, and frankly, in terms of how aligned to the democratic and liberal values that define its core.
The world, in the meantime, moves and changes drastically. A 20-year war, which distracted the attention of the region’s superpower away from the region, ended last year. While attention was placed in the Middle East, extra regional powers as well as other non-state actors such as Hezbollah, drug cartels, transnational organized crime, filled in the vacuum somewhat. The Cuban Regime also took advantage of the context and positioned itself in key political agendas in the hemisphere, for example, the Colombian peace process and its surgical intervention in Venezuelan domestic affairs.
Just 6 months after the end of one war, another full-scale war is about to start in Europe due to irredentism and brinkmanship. What is Latin America and the Caribbean’s place in global affairs? Latin America and the Caribbean’s global relevance is mostly determined by how superpowers and large economies view it in relation to how useful it is for their own interests, and not determined by LAC’s own will and determination.
Intra state polarization that already had its roots in longstanding inequality, may consolidate with interstate polarization due to the zero-sum outlook the international environment shows between democracies and autocracies.
Democracies in the region will likely align with democracies internationally. And autocracies in the region will likely align with autocracies internationally.
This poses a challenge for democracy in the region because the sacred process of multilateralism that is based on inter American law, norms, and values, can be eroded by how states take sides, either in favor democracy and basic human rights and the notion of sovereignty as responsibility, or in favor of autocracies and the concept of sovereignty as authority.
The OAS has an irreplaceable role to play in this scenario- it must continue strengthening multilateralism, fostering cooperation, inclusion, and constructive diplomatic relations amongst the 34 member states. The OAS must employing every diplomatic tool it has – deterrence and coercive measures – to promote peace, to prevent conflicts from happening, to prevent conflict escalation where conflict is already present, and to find resolutions to conflicts that have become too costly and destabilizing.
The opposite of multilateralism is instability. As such, the OAS is a force of stability, not instability as other ad hoc groups pursue. The goal is that the OAS Member States once again see each other as allies, not as untrustworthy colleagues that sit around the same table to speak and discuss resolutions.
New grievances within the region are also posing great challenges to democracy and development. I will give you four examples, representative of each of the pillars of the OAS.
In the development pillar, our Caricom Member States face an existential threat. For our Caribbean Member states, climate change is not an issue that is discussed far away in Scotland or Paris, or an opportunity to demonstrate power on a global scale, it is a matter of life and death. They are at the front of the trenches in the fight against climate change and its disastrous consequences on the livelihoods of millions of people.
The natural disasters and the impacts are greater than ever before. Hurricanes are occurring at a more often pace. For instance, the regional response mechanism was activated 8-9 times in this decade, a sharp increase from the 2 times it was activated in the previous decade.
Building resilience to face climate change and other impactful external shocks such as the pandemic, is key to their survival and sustained development.
Regarding security, the region’s record and position is appalling. It is the most violent region in the world. Out of the top 15 most dangerous cities in the world by murder rate per inhabitants, 13 are in Latin America – in three countries of the region (Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela). The region also is home to a country that is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists outside war zones. There is a parallel transnational power structure of organized crime, cartels, gangs, that coexists -and unfortunately in some cases interacts – with the democratic rule of law.
In democracy, I have mentioned some of the effects of structural inequalities and polarization that affecting the way politics is conducted today.
An additional major challenge is corruption. It seems that public institutions and public service are generally more used to operating under conditions of lack of transparency that in conditions of probity. This must change, from the micro to the macro-top level. In recent history there are many examples of former presidents either jailed, self-exiled, persecuted, or dead under tragic circumstances. One just joined the list last week.
What does this say about the quality of political culture? Not good news.
Still, I have faith in the new generation, millennials and Gen Z I understand they can see little incentive to participation and engagement in the public sphere when they see in the news how politics is equated to corruption, insecurity, and with the advent of social media, ruthless scrutiny. Politics is a noble profession. It is not a self-serving career. On the contrary, it is a path that is dedicated to the service of others. This must be restored.
Regarding the human rights pillar, I wish to reiterate that as of today, Latin America and the Caribbean is a region where dictatorships are back. Perhaps worse than ever. They connect more efficient with the use of technologies. They share their “practices” of repression, torture, intimidation, and crushing dissent. What has been called the playbook of autocracies.
If we want to see a future with more democracy and more rights in our region, Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua should be at the top of the agenda. There is no place for dictatorships that have eliminated basic human rights. It is contrary to international law, inter American law, but also it is immoral. It contradicts our essence and identity as a region, like I mentioned before.
We are in a deadlock in which we are cohabitating – democracies and dictatorships. But we can’t normalize such deadlock. It will have dire consequences.
Some were victims of dictatorships before and are becoming the aggressors of democracy today.
Some only start conflicts, but do not end it.
The merit is not winning an election, assuming power, it is the capacity to leave power.
Until we improve the quality of the political culture; We reset the mindset to a conciliatory mentality; We address old grievances and new grievances, instead of playing political games, we will remain in a deadlock. We will remain irrelevant as a region to the rest of the world. We will have a harder time escaping a mediocrity trap, unable to fully consolidate democracy and achieve sustainable development for the benefit of the peoples of the region.