Press Releases

    13 November 2002


    NEW YORK, 12 November (UN Headquarters) -- Following are the remarks of Secretary-General Kofi Annan at his meeting with former Latin American Presidents, New York, 12 November:

    It is a great pleasure to welcome you to United Nations Headquarters -- or should I say, welcome back to the United Nations.

    You may be former Presidents, but you continue to have a key role to play in the lives of your countries, your continent and, indeed, here at the United Nations. Thank you for taking the time to be here.

    And thank you, most of all, for agreeing to be part of a major United Nations project on the challenges of democracy in Latin America.

    Twenty-five years ago, only a few of the 17 nations of continental Latin America could be considered democratic. Today, all of those countries have elected governments. This is a major transformation of which the people should be proud.

    It also creates a rather unique set of circumstances. For the first time, an entire region composed of developing countries is also organized democratically. This in turn generates distinct challenges. It is one thing to be a rich democratic country, and quite another to be a democratic or democratizing developing country grappling with poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and disease, and the inevitable social tensions that ensue from these conditions.

    Latin America’s democratic gains have built increasingly solid foundations of electoral systems, courts and networks of local government institutions. The reach of social services has also widened, with improvements in infant mortality and maternal health.

    At the same time, many countries in Latin America are home to the most unequal income distribution in the world. Corruption and drug trafficking continue to breed violence and undermine both development and the rule of law. Indeed, the region is experiencing serious governance problems and increasing popular discontent with the political system -- discontent that is no doubt aggravated by the suffering caused by recent economic and financial crises.

    The hope that political and economic freedom would provide a formula for meeting the region’s massive social demands has in some instances given way to questions about the strength of democracy. Democratic development in Latin America seems to have reached a critical moment -- a moment when it is important to consider its strengths and weaknesses, and to identify the needs and risks for the future.

    The project launched by the United Nations Development Programme, entitled "Development and the State of Democracy in Latin America", is an attempt to meet this need. It seeks to promote dialogue and debate among political, academic and civil society actors. It hopes to help democracy in the region grow and improve itself. And by drawing attention to emerging issues and tensions before they escalate into larger problems, instability or even violence, the project could contribute to conflict prevention.

    Democracy can only function when it adequately reflects the aspirations of all groups in society. Authoritarianism is not an alternative to poverty; nor is development an alternative to freedom. Poverty and oppression often go hand in hand, while true development means being free from both. No State could be truly labeled democratic if it does not offer its people a way out from poverty. And no country can truly develop if it excludes its own people from power. But if the principle of democracy is now recognized by all, our challenge is to make its practice equally universal.

    As former Presidents, you are uniquely placed to become active spokespeople for democracy and to help strengthen the democratic agenda throughout the continent. I take your presence here as a sign of your commitment to that effort, and I look forward to working with you and hearing your thoughts on how we should move forward.

    Thank you very much. The floor is now open.

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