Testimony of Roberta Jacobson
Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs (WHA)
Department of State
Before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations
Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere,
Peace Corps, and Global Narcotics Affairs
“The State of Democracy in the Americas”
United States Senate
June 30, 2011
Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to appear before the Committee today.
Mr. Chairman, I have heard you highlight the important success many societies in Latin America and the Caribbean are enjoying today. We share your assessment. That success is measureable in very tangible ways: in rising levels of political and personal freedom, greater economic prosperity, and increasing global integration. These factors work together in remarkable synergy. They generate vast opportunity. 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 new pools of talent and energy that are literally transforming very diverse countries. It is difficult to imagine this happening without the consolidation of democratic and market societies in most of Latin America and the strengthening of democratic institutions in much of the Caribbean over the last two decades.
Yet there remain significant weaknesses in democratic institutions in much of the hemisphere, so instead of being complacent, we must use this opportunity to secure and deepen democratization in our hemisphere. This requires active U.S. engagement, but it hinges fundamentally on partnership with our democratic partners and the actions of both governments and vibrant civil societies in the region. That the democratic values we seek to advance are shared ones embodied in instruments like the Inter-American Democratic Charter, strengthens our hand. Together we can build on the progress made in recent decades and attack the challenges that remain.
I know I do not need to emphasize to anyone here that we have a huge stake in the success of our neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. So, it follows logically that we have a powerful interest in strengthening and expanding the factors that sustain that success. We know this task is not finished – democratic governance is a constant project.
In some countries democratic space is being rolled back rather than expanded. Persistent government pressure on freedom of expression, the 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. In other nations, persistent inequality, or the insecurity created by gangs and cartels, threatens democratic gains. Some countries present elements of democratic advance in certain areas, retreat in others, and remain under security-related stress. And, unfortunately, Cuba remains a glaring exception to the region’s democratic convergence, as Secretary Clinton has emphasized. But the region’s commitment to democratic development, broadly put, is widespread and strong—and the values that sustain democracy are rooted throughout the Americas.
I would like to review a few examples that may not regularly make headlines but provide a sense of the scope of democratic leadership in the Americas. Then I would like to talk briefly about what we see as some of the biggest challenges.
In Brazil, strong democratic institutions have helped forge and hold consensus on combining sound economic policies with vigorous anti-poverty programs that together have lifted more than 30 million people out of poverty; Veterans of Chile's democratic transition were quick to visit Cairo following the removal of President Mubarak to talk about the importance of strong institutions, share lessons about advancing reconciliation, and ensuring that democracy delivers results. Mexico’s skillful diplomacy brought the December 2010 U.N. Climate Change Conference in Cancun to a successful conclusion. Colombia is now working with Central American nations to bolster citizen security and rule of law capacity. Uruguay’s commitment to peace and security extends beyond its borders as a recognized leader in UN peacekeeping operations throughout the world. Canadian Prime Minister Harper has made advancing democratic gains in the Americas a core focus of his foreign policy agenda, and we are working closely with the Canadians on these issues. The overwhelming majority of Caribbean nations have fair, open elections, robust civil societies, and generally strong human rights records, but continued economic weakness in some Caribbean nations has hampered their ability to implement rule of law and increases their vulnerability to crime.
We are working with governments in the region, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and others to address the needs of vulnerable, traditionally marginalized groups—women, indigenous peoples and people of African descent, youth, and LGBT persons—because we view the defense of these human and civil rights as key to the advancement of the region as a whole. Full democracy cannot be achieved when more than half of the population does not enjoy the rights that citizens are entitled to and cannot participate in the democratic process.
With bipartisan support of Congress, we are steadfast in our commitment to four coherent, interlinked citizen security initiatives of the Obama administration: the Merida, , Central American Regional Security, Caribbean Basin Security, and Colombian Strategic Development initiatives. These initiatives support regional efforts to bring security to their people. Our programs focus particularly on reinforcing the rule of law and strengthening democratic institutions that can offer protections for all citizens.
Last week, Secretary Clinton led the U.S. delegation to the International Conference of Support for the Central American Security Strategy, in Guatemala. This conference brought together the heads of state from Central America, Colombia, and Mexico, as well as other partners such as Spain, the EU, the IDB and the World Bank, to advance strategies for addressing the security crisis in Central America. The Secretary’s participation and our efforts to harmonize U.S. government security-related activities with those of our partners also served to follow up on the President’s commitments during his March trip to Latin America. The Secretary also travelled to Jamaica to meet with Foreign Ministers from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Dominican Republic, where she underscored the importance of our partnership on citizen security under the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI), as well as the Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas and efforts to engage diasporas to advance economic and democratic development.
We are, in short, a robust partner throughout the Americas in support of fundamental building blocks of democracy: rights, institutions, security. We are not complacent in the face of challenges posed by democratically elected leaders who seek to consolidate power in the executive branch through extra-constitutional means or by ruling via majoritarianism at the expense of minority rights. These tactics come in various forms, ranging from intricate legalistic maneuvers that are nothing more than an abuse of the rule of law, to brute force, intimidation, and arbitrary arrests.
A bedrock of democratic governance – media freedom—is also under pressure from transnational criminal organizations. To counter increased threats against reporters, the United States is working to promote media security and freedom. In Mexico, we are supporting .Cobertura Segura,. a program that trains reporters to work in high-threat environments, in cooperation with the International Center for Journalists. In other nations it is governments that have restricted freedom of expression; we are supporting civil society’s efforts to restore a voice to all people.
In the face of these serious challenges, we remain committed to finding ways to work positively with civil society throughout the Americas. It is not always easy to do so 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 commitments to universal rights and democratic freedoms.
In Honduras, we stood with other countries in the hemisphere and agreed that an interruption of the constitutional order by force and without due process of law was unacceptable. We are pleased that in the wake of the Honduran elections and thanks to the efforts of the Lobo government and mediation from OAS Member States, Honduras has restored its democracy and returned to full membership in the OAS.
In Cuba, we have taken concerted steps to help the Cuban people live the lives they choose and chart their own course independent of the Cuban regime. That is why we are working to expand connections between our society and Cuban society and open the way for meaningful support of Cubans who are striking their own path, whether in civil society or the private sector.
We are particularly concerned about Venezuela as President Chavez continues to disrespect the legitimate role of democratic institutions, restrict freedoms, including by closing some of the hemisphere’s most distinguished and durable press outlets, and uses the judiciary to persecute political opponents and criminalize dissent. Grave economic concerns, including the highest inflation in the hemisphere and an abysmal security situation, while felt by all Venezuelans, impact the poor and vulnerable most dramatically. In this difficult environment, Venezuela faces important elections in 2012. We believe that the early presence of a sufficient number of credible and well-trained international observers will be important to the credibility of the process.
In Nicaragua, the government has manipulated the courts and congress to extend and concentrate power in the executive. We have pressed the Nicaraguan government to invite credible domestic and international election observers and coordinated with international partners to enhance prospects for free, fair, and transparent elections, though we fear this window is rapidly closing. Other countries, such as Bolivia and Ecuador, are on complicated trajectories that have unfortunately limited the scope of our bilateral relationship. In all of these cases, we continue to uphold our commitment to fundamental democratic principles and to address threats to democracy in the region in collaboration with our international partners and regional institutions.
And yet, the hemisphere continues to come together to resolve shared challenges. As we near the 10th anniversary of the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter on that fateful day in 2001, we are reminded that the Organization of American States, while by no means a perfect institution, remains a relevant body for hemispheric nations to address regional problems. The OAS was instrumental in helping to ensure that the elections in Haiti were representative of the will of the Haitian people. Honduras’ recent readmission to that body after the democratic order had been interrupted is a testament to the region’s capacity for constructive multilateral engagement.
This is the extremely varied backdrop to our intense diplomatic engagement in the Americas. We are steadfast in our principles, reliable in our partnerships, and clear eyed about our interests. We also recognize that each nation’s citizens are the primary and indispensable protagonists in their countries’ political development. We seek cooperation throughout the hemisphere to achieve greater prosperity and security. And we share your vision that effective democratic institutions and respect for basic rights are both fundamental and critical to these goals. I look forward to working with you and your colleagues as we strive to make irreversible democratic gains in our hemisphere.