Washington — Much of the Western Hemisphere has experienced positive political change and achieved greater freedoms over the past 10 years that have led to greater opportunities in the region, but a senior State Department official says the United States still needs to continue its support for democratization and civil society groups in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson told the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the Obama administration is working to make “irreversible democratic gains in our hemisphere” by partnering with governments and organizations.
Testifying June 30, Jacobson said the past decade has seen important successes in Latin America and the Caribbean that have shown that allowing greater freedoms will bring more prosperity.
“Rising levels of political and personal freedom, greater economic prosperity and increasing global integration ... work together to generate vast opportunity,” Jacobson said. “They strengthen institutions. They have helped lift scores of millions of people out of poverty in the last decade and in the process brought forth huge pools of talent that are transforming very diverse countries.”
Jacobson said the United States is working to address the needs of vulnerable and traditionally marginalized groups in the region, such as women, indigenous people, people of African descent, young people and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons.
“We view the defense of these human and civil rights as key to the advancement of the region as a whole,” she said.
The Obama administration also remains committed to the Merida Initiative, the Central America Regional Security Initiative, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative and the Colombia Strategic Development Initiative, she said.
The U.S. programs in all four citizen-security initiatives “focus particularly on reinforcing the rule of law and strengthening democratic institutions to bring security and protection to all citizens,” she said.
Jacobson said that despite the region’s overall progress, “democratic space is being rolled back rather than expanded” in some countries.
“Persistent government pressure on freedom of expression through criminalization of dissent, a centralizing and controlling executive branch and disrespect for the legitimate and essential role of political minorities are our principal concerns in this regard,” she said.
In some countries, she said, democratic gains are threatened by persistent inequality or the insecurity caused by gangs and cartels.
Jacobson said Cuba “remains a glaring exception to the region’s democratic convergence,” while Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez “continues to disrespect the legitimate role of democratic institutions, restrict freedoms, including by closing press outlets, and use the judiciary to persecute political opponents.”
She also criticized the Nicaraguan government for manipulating its judiciary and legislature to concentrate more power in its executive branch, and warned that the “window is rapidly closing” for the international community to enhance prospects that the November 6 presidential and parliamentary vote will be free and fair.
The United States is being active in response to “democratically elected leaders who seek to consolidate power in the executive branch through extraconstitutional means,” she said, even though it is “not always easy to work positively with civil society when governments seek to limit our presence.”
“Because we respect the rights of people in all societies to choose their futures, we stand steadfast in our commitment to universal rights and democratic freedom,” Jacobson said.