The economy of Latin America is experiencing robust growth, but for democracy to take root in the region, it must aspire toward fundamental principles associated with other world democracies, said a Latin American statesman on Sept. 21.
José Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), expressed his hopes to more than 200 Fordham University faculty members and students that the next century will bring social, economic and political harmony to his home region. He spoke at the Rose Hill campus on “The Dangers for Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
Born and raised in Chile, Insulza played an active role in Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government until it was overthrown in a 1973 coup led by General Augusto Pinochet. Insulza spent 15 years in exile before returning to Chile in 1988 and rising to prominence as minister of the interior and vice president of the republic in a new democratically elected government.
“Today the primary reason to be optimistic in Latin America is economic,” said Insulza, who was in New York to speak at the United Nations General Assembly.
The region, he said, is showing vigorous growth that has moved tens of millions out of poverty and has led to the rise of a middle class. The recent global recession was felt less in Latin America than elsewhere because of sound macroeconomic policies and a responsible banking sector, he said.
However, although Latin America’s democratic governments have grown stronger with a strengthened economy, they still face myriad challenges—political and social—that have made Latin America “not a poor continent, but an unfair one.”
“There is clearly greater respect for human rights today than just 20 years ago, when people were just ‘disappearing,’” Insulza said. “Yet violations continue, including police abuse, subhuman conditions in prisons, persistent violence against women and discrimination against vulnerable groups.”
Insulza said that the OAS has helped promote democratic governance by acting as an observer in 50 recent elections, and by drafting an Inter-American Democratic Charter that emphasizes the critical role of citizenry in any democracy. Essential elements in a democracy include transparency, respect for social rights and freedom of the press.
“[A government] must not only be democratically elected. It must also govern democratically,” he said. Insulza noted that the historic development of democracy is “not linear, but sprinkled with advances and setbacks.”
“These ups and downs are normal symptoms of a complex process,” he continued. “But in others they constitute actual breaches of the foundations of democracy.”
He listed four areas that threaten to curtail or unravel democracy in Latin America.
• Even with the rise of a middle class, one-third of Latin Americans still live in poverty and 1 percent of the population holds 50 percent of the national income;
• Drug-trafficking and money-laundering “criminal corporations” control large areas and populations, working outside of governmental authority with their own private armies;
• Many governments are poorly financed;
• Often newly elected “democratic” governments believe that they can disregard the losing side and use their office to preserve their own power and thus never build a national “consensus.”
“In a democracy, all power must have limits,” Insulza said.
Time will tell whether “our region takes advantage of the major opportunities offered by the global economy or if it will remain, as it has so many times in the past, at the threshold [of democracy],” he said.
The Office of the President and the Latin American and Latino Studies Institute sponsored the event.