6 February 2006

Entire World Has Stake in Debate about Fate of Democracy in Latin America, Deputy Secretary-General Tells Conference on Governance

NEW YORK, 3 February (UN Headquarters) -- Following is the text of remarks by UN Deputy Secretary-General Louise Fréchette to the conference entitled "Crisis of Governance:  The International Stake in Sustaining Democracy in Latin America", New York:

Senator [Tom] Daschle [Distinguished Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress], Mr. [Richard] Leone [President, Century Foundation], Mr. [Juergen] Stetten [Director, New York Office, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung], Mr. [Morton] Halperin [Director, Security and Peace Initiative],

Thank you, Mr. Halperin and Mr. Stetten, for those kind words, and for welcoming me here today.

My thanks go as well to the Security and Peace Initiative, the Ebert Foundation, the United Nations Development Programme and all others involved in making this timely conference possible.

Just a few months ago, the Secretary-General said, "Latin America is a region that truly hangs in a delicate balance.  It is in many ways, a microcosm of the world in which we live, and it is, therefore, a place in which all that the United Nations stands for is put to the test."

Over the past 25 years, most Latin American countries have made a remarkable transition from authoritarian to democratic rule.  Never before have so many countries in the region been democratic.  Never before has democracy endured this long.  The region is largely at peace, unlike other parts of the world.  Elections are free of widespread fraud.  The press is relatively free.  Opposition parties can and do win.  A new wave of leaders is coming to power:  a woman in Chile, an indigenous person in Bolivia, a member of the working class in Brazil.  This offers strong evidence of the dynamic nature of electoral systems in Latin America, and of tremendous progress in overcoming the political and ethnic exclusion that has been such a profound source of trouble.

The region has also achieved good results in terms of macroeconomic fundamentals.  It is expected to enjoy its third consecutive year of economic growth, driven by a resurgent export sector.  It has made important advances in key areas of health and education, as reflected in the Human Development Index.  And 22 countries in the region, as well as a number of subregions, have prepared reports on the Millennium Development Goals, thereby signalling their intent to place greater political weight behind their achievement.

And yet, there are worrisome trends.  Latin America remains the most unequal region in the world.  The number of people in poverty and extreme poverty has almost doubled since the 1980s.  Labour markets remain largely dominated by informality and high levels of unemployment.  Spikes in crime and violence, linked by some observers to increased inequality and the weakness of the State, represent not only a threat to citizens' lives but also to growth by hampering precious income sources such as tourism and foreign investment.

Although democracy has made great inroads, there is disillusion with the democratic process and with newly propounded economic models.  And there is frustration at the inability of Governments to respond to the deeply felt needs of the citizenry.

Our challenge is to consolidate the best of what is happening in Latin America, and sustain the vigour with which change is being pursued, while at the same time addressing the backlog of need.  It is very encouraging that so many of Latin American's current generation of leaders were themselves formed politically through their struggles against authoritarian regimes, and so are committed to promoting and protecting democracy.  The adoption of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Democratic Charter is further testament to the region's commitment to democracy, and provides another instrument through which democracy can be strengthened.

But leadership from the ground up is equally important -- a necessary counterpoint to top-down, paternalistic models.  Latin American civil society is increasingly active and robust, and is at the forefront of social change.  The empowerment and involvement of such groups will be crucial in advancing democracy and the rule of law.  Indeed, recent polling suggests a need to give politics a truly people-based capacity to bring about change.  Only a fifth of those questioned express much faith in political parties, and only a quarter in the Congress and the courts.  Only one in three is satisfied with the way democracy works in their country.  It is in these areas that efforts are most needed, as suggested two years ago by the UN Development Programme report, Democracy in Latin America:  Towards a Citizens' Democracy.

In that same spirit, the UN system will continue to be Latin America's close partner.

One of the most encouraging steps taken at last September's World Summit was the establishment of the UN Democracy Fund, to which many countries have already made significant pledges and contributions.  The Fund's primary purpose is to provide assistance for projects that consolidate and strengthen democratic institutions and facilitate democratic governance in new or restored democracies.

The United Nations also stands ready to support Governments which request technical support for elections.  Indeed, this will be a big electoral year in Latin America, with one presidential election already held and eight more scheduled -- including in seven of the region's eight most populous countries.  These important national choices offer an opportunity for citizen participation and a broad reinvigoration of democracy.

The United Nations is committed to helping Latin America meet the formidable challenge of strengthening its political institutions.  We are working closely with Governments to prevent conflict, defuse political crises and promote inclusion and reconciliation.

In Bolivia, for example, interim President Rodríguez requested UN assistance to ensure an adequate transition to a new, democratically elected Government. The United Nations made recommendations which the interim Government largely followed.  The Organization was represented at the inauguration of President Morales, and while there offered our continued assistance to the new Government.

In Ecuador, the United Nations undertook an inter-agency mission to examine the situation along the border with Colombia, and produced a report that offered suggestions to the Government.   The United Nations also made recommendations regarding the selection of a new Supreme Court of Justice following the dismissal of the old one.  Those recommendations were adopted almost in their entirety by Ecuador's Parliament, and a new Court was sworn in at the end of last year.

And of course, the entire UN system, including its country teams and its regional commission -- the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean -- will continue to support the region in its effort to reduce poverty and raise standards of living through our policy advice, through our research and statistics, and through technical assistance encompassing key concerns such as development, human rights and environmental protection.  We see the twin goals of shoring up democratic governance and addressing socio-economic problems as closely related.

As I stressed at the outset, the entire world has a stake in the debate about the fate of democracy in Latin America.  The issue is on the agenda of the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and other important institutions -- not least our co-hosts today, the Ebert Foundation and the Security  and Peace Initiative.  Academia and non-governmental organizations are likewise fully engaged.  This conference offers an opportunity to harmonize the strategies of Latin Americans and their international partners as they approach the challenges to be tackled, and especially the decisions to be taken, in 2006.  I very much look forward to the ideas and policies that will emerge from this dialogue.

Finally, my remarks on this subject, to this audience of friends of Latin America, would not be complete without some words of praise for my colleague and friend Elena Martinez.  Although Elena is not able to be here with us today, her commitment to the well-being of Latin America is renowned.  Much to the sadness of her colleagues, she will soon reach the end of a long and very productive career at the United Nations that saw her make a very impressive rise through the ranks, with important contributions all along the way.

And now I would like to wish all of you my very best for a productive session.

Thank you very much.

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