The Fate of Democracy and Multilateralism in the Americas

The election of Barack Obama has raised enormous expectations around the world, including in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC).  While President Obama’s attention has understandably been focused predominantly on formidable challenges at home, in the Middle East, and in Asia during his first year in office, there are three reasons why intra-hemispheric relations are increasingly of crucial importance:

1. The social discontent in LAC, the region with the world’s greatest disparity in the distribution of wealth and incomes, threatens many of our citizens’ faith in democracy. Anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo are empowering politicians who are recycling dangerous populist formulas that place leaders above institutions.  In the streets of LAC, one can hear the sound of 200 million poor and excluded women and men who were unable to taste the economic fruits of prosperity prior to the global financial meltdown. They are demanding a job with a decent salary, access to potable water and sanitation, quality healthcare and education, clean energy, an uncontaminated environment, and equal access to justice.  The youth are eager to attain access to the digital world. 

2. While the US is absorbed with other issues, emerging powers are crossing the oceans to approach LAC, where they are making considerable progress towards their own agendas.  China’s motor is being fueled by the region’s natural resources; Iran is seeking raw materials for its nuclear weapons program, and also an alliance of convenience with the authoritarian populist governments of our hemisphere.

3. Ties between North America and LAC will continue to grow stronger in the foreseeable future.  There are 45 million Latinos in the US today (17% of the population); projections suggest that, by the year 2050, this population will nearly double.                   

If economic growth in our region is not accompanied by deliberate social policies that deliver concrete and measurable results to the poorest of the poor, and if we lack strong democratic institutions, we run the risk that poverty could truncate our economic prosperity and conspire against democracy.

The Needs of Our Hemisphere

In the past 15 years, LAC has experienced dramatic changes in the economic, social, political, and diplomatic spheres.  These shifts have prompted many attempts to redefine the relations between the region’s countries, as well as their collective position towards the rest of the world, particularly through the creation of new multi-lateral organizations, such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the South American Defense Council.  The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, launched in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, just at the end of February, is the latest attempt to redraft the region’s international relations.

The frequent creation of new institutions suggests that our region’s long-established, multi-lateral political body, the Organization of American States (OAS) (which includes the United States and Canada), must work harder to avoid becoming redundant.  The Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted in Lima, Peru, during the 2001 General Assembly of the OAS, is binding on the 35 member states.  The Charter warns that illiteracy and low levels of human development are factors that have negative repercussions on not only our economies, but also on the consolidation of democracy.  Thus, the signatory governments recognized that the elimination of extreme poverty is key to the preservation of democratic order; this crucial task is the common and shared responsibility of the American States.  Our leaders and multilateral institutions must take action and deliver results to prevent this democratic Charter from becoming little more than a collection of dead words.

The OAS, which belongs to all of the citizens of the Americas, has the enormous challenge of contributing in a significant, clear, and measurable manner to the strengthening of democratic institutions, to ensure that they be independent, participatory, transparent, resistant to manipulation, and that they provide a space of downward accountability – from elected officials toward those whom they govern.

In short, our American States need a new, shared and explicit social agenda for democracy. We must go beyond the extraction of raw materials and invest intelligently in the gray matter of our people, which is necessary to compete with other regions in today’s knowledge economies.  In achieving these goals, we must also bear in mind that we carry a great responsibility to protect the environment for the sake of our children and our children’s children.

In few times in its history has LAC had such an enormous potential to become a promising region with a leading role in the global economy and the world community of democracies, as it now has in the next 10 to 15 years. To ensure that this opportunity is not lost, together we must build a concerted Social Agenda that promotes sustained economic growth with distribution (because we cannot redistribute poverty), as well as a social inclusion that respects our cultural diversity and strengthens the sustainability of healthy political systems.         

The Social Agenda for Democracy

Luckily, the OAS need not face these challenges alone, nor build accord from scratch.  Over the last 28 months, a group of 20 former Presidents from LAC, leaders in their respective countries and in the region, have joined forces with other world leaders and top development experts, who have all generously contributed their experiences to the drafting of a Social Agenda for Democracy in Latin America for the Next 20 Years (an initiative spearheaded by the Global Center for Development and Democracy). 

The 63 social-policy recommendations for the public and private sectors contained in the Social Agenda have been presented to the current heads of state who attended the Ibero-American Summit in Portugal in December 2009.

This set of social-policy recommendations constitutes a modest contribution – but one of solid content – for promoting more inclusive economic growth and a greater solidification of representative democracy within the Ibero-American system.  These recommendations span across 16 fields, all of which are interrelated:

· Democracy and Poverty in LAC;
· Quality and Fairness in Education and Poverty;
· Conditional Direct Cash Transfers and Poverty;
· Food Security and Poverty;
· Healthcare and Nutrition in the Fight Against Poverty;
· Decent Work and Poverty;
· Fiscal Policy and the Poor;
· Potable Water and Sanitation for the Poor;
· Access to Energy and Poverty;
· Access to Microfinance and Poverty;
· Climate Change and the Poor;
· Indigenous Peoples in LAC and the Deepening of Democracy;
· Women in LAC and the Deepening of Democracy;
· Remittances and Poverty Reduction;
· Armed Violence, Personal Security, and Poverty; and
· Decent Housing and Poverty Reduction.                     

In addition to being interconnected with one another, each of these policy areas is structured for accomplishing four objectives: sustained economic growth, the eradication of poverty, increasing social inclusion, and strengthening democracy. 

The policies recommended under the rubric of “Reforming Political Institutions,” for example, are aimed first and foremost at empowering effectively disenfranchised populations by deepening their inclusion in their countries’ democratic processes.  This example set of recommendations, which the twenty former Presidents have humbly offered to the sitting heads of State of Ibero-America, includes measures for improving transparency, enhancing responsiveness, increasing deliberative democracy, and strengthening accountability: 

Improve Transparency: Governments should adopt both active transparency measures, which place as much government information as possible on the websites of government agencies, and passive measures (such as a Freedom of Information Act) that enable citizens to request and obtain government information that does not strictly need to be withheld in the interest of national security.  Government ministries and agencies should detail, in an accessible way, how they are spending their budgets.  Bidding for services, supplies, and new capital projects should be publicized on the Internet.

Enhance Responsiveness.  Governments should make more creative and energetic use of new information technologies to engage citizens in a two-way dialogue on the practical issues of governance.  Specifically, citizens should be given means to register complaints, via “hotlines,” Internet sites, ombudsmen, etc., and to receive replies to their petitions.   Citizens should be able to file complaints and petitions through mobile-phone text messaging to a free government hotline.

Deliberative Democracy.  Communications technology can be used to structure a discussion on policy choices among a representative sample of citizens, at the local, regional, or national levels.  First, a random sample of citizens is drawn.  Then they are brought together in one place to hear and debate alternative policy options (or spending priorities).  As a product of this more informed deliberation, the society may be able to arrive at a broader and more sustainable agreement on difficult policy and spending choices. 

Strengthen Accountability.  Democratically elected governments must do more, and must be perceived to be doing more, to control, expose, and punish corruption.  In addition to the above measures, they should learn from successful instances of corruption control, such as Hong Kong’s Independent Commission against Corruption (, to modernize and strengthen ethical codes and means of monitoring and enforcement.  This objective requires not only more substantial staffing and legal authority, but also vigorous campaigns of public education and innovative means for citizens to report tips and complaints about corruption.

The implementation of these measures will not only strengthen democracy and increase social inclusion, but they will also indirectly stimulate the knowledge economy that our region needs to ensure for long-term economic growth and independence. 

In a short time, various LAC countries will be celebrating their 200 years of political autonomy.  The leaders of LAC now have in our hands the imperative challenge to initiate and accelerate our second great independence: to free our vulnerable economies from being fettered to fluctuations in the prices of raw materials (gold, silver, copper, tin, oil, gas, coffee, etc.) in the international market, and to build knowledge societies that allow us to produce value-added products.  Only then can we achieve higher levels of competitiveness and flexibility to successfully adapt to an increasingly globalized world. 

Today’s social-networking technologies will permit us to simultaneously energize our economies and enable a broader distribution of political inclusion for our citizens to communicate with municipal, regional, and national governments – thus permitting a two-way democratic governance.

The Opportunity Is Now

In LAC, we are conscious of the fact that the Americas are sister continents, and that we are partners with the United States and Canada.  During our history, we have traveled a long path of common interests, although it has not always been free of obstacles.  In light of the new, urgent challenges that our hemisphere and the world face today, the authors of the Social Agenda are convinced that this recently begun mandate of the OAS is the most opportune moment to sit down at a round table to talk and listen to one another, and together to redefine the components of a new Agenda for the relationship between LAC and North America.

We seek an Agenda of commitment, mutual cooperation, and measurable results that go beyond – yet do not overlook – our obvious common interests concerning security, the fight against drug trafficking, free-trade treaties, and the Cuba issue. The future demands new inter-hemispheric relations that prioritize economic, social, political, and judicial stability, safeguarding our environment, the eradication of poverty, the reduction of inequalities and social exclusion, and the reduction of the digital gap (the Global Center for Development and Democracy has already initiated a Digital Democracy project to incorporate marginalized populations into their countries’ political processes).

This new, redefined Agenda is not motivated to attain greater amounts of foreign aid from North America; rather, it seeks a horizontal dialogue on a wider spectrum of issues that are now pertinent to our entire hemisphere. 

While a number of the policy recommendations set forth in the Social Agenda for Democracy pertain to internal governance issues, the OAS can contribute by encouraging the strengthening of democratic institutions, accountability, respect for the freedom of expression, and human rights in our region.       

Together, we must confront our hemisphere’s challenges with pragmatism, with the political will to take action, and, as always, with hope.

Editor’s Note: Contributions to this article are courtesy of Avi Tuschman, senior writer and international projects adviser for the Global Center for Development and Democracy.