Thursday, February 25, 2010

Feb 25/10 | The English Version of Arias' Speech in Cancun

Translation from the original in Spanish

Speech delivered by President Oscar Arias Sanchez of Costa Rica at the Cancun Summit, February 23, 2010

Excellencies, Heads of State and Government from  Latin America and the Caribbean, friends:

This is my last appearance at an international summit. I do not expect to say goodbye to Latin America nor to the Caribbean. I keep the dreams of this region bound to the center of my life. But I do have to say farewell to all of you, my colleagues, brothers and sisters, fellow travelers. I must say goodbye to this audience that summarizes, in a cluster of voices, the hopes of 600 million people, nearly a tenth of humanity. It is on behalf of that Latin American lineage that I want to share with you some thoughts. It is on behalf of the generation that dwells beyond these doors, and demands from us the boldness to build a more dignified place under the sun.

Despite the speeches and the applause, the truth of the matter is our region has made little progress in recent decades. In certain areas, it has stepped back with resolve. Many want to climb aboard a rusted out railroad car headed toward the past, to the ideological trenches that divided the world during the Cold War. Latin America runs the risk of adding to its amazing collection of lost generations. It runs the risk of wasting, once again, its opportunity on this Earth. It is up to us, and those who come after us, to prevent that from happening. It is up to us to honor the debt we owe to democracy, to development and to peace for our peoples, a debt which matured centuries ago.

Honoring the debt to democracy means more than enacting political constitutions, signing democratic charters or celebrating periodic elections. It means building a reliable set of institutions, beyond the anemic structures that currently sustain our state apparatuses. It means guaranteeing the supremacy of the law and the effectiveness of the Rule of Law, which some insist on pole vaulting.

It means strengthening the system of checks and balances, deeply threatened by the presence of tentacular governments who have erased the boundaries between ruler, party and State. It means ensuring the enjoyment of a solid core of fundamental rights and guarantees, chronically impinged upon in much of the Latin American region. And it means, above all, the use of political power for achieving a greater human development, the improvement of our people’s living conditions and the expansion of our citizens’ freedoms.

One must not confuse the democratic origin of a régime with the democratic operation of the State. There are governments in our region that avail themselves of election results so as to justify their desire to restrict individual freedoms and persecute their opponents. They make use of a democratic mechanism in order to subvert the foundations of democracy. For a true democrat, if he has no opposition, then he must create one. He shows his success in the fruits of his labor, but not in the product of his retaliations. He demonstrates his power by opening hospitals, roads and universities and not by curtailing freedom of opinion and expression. A true democrat demonstrates his power by fighting poverty, ignorance and rampant crime, and not foreign empires and imaginary conspiracies. This region, tired of hollow promises and empty words, needs a legion of increasingly tolerant statesmen and not a legion of increasingly authoritarian rulers. It is easy to defend the rights of those who think like we do. Defending the rights of those who think differently: that is the challenge for the true democrat. Let us hope that our peoples have the wisdom to elect rulers for whom the democratic shirt is not too large a fit.

And may they also resist the temptation of those who promise rose gardens behind the participatory democracy that can be a dangerous weapon in the hands of populism and demagoguery. Latin America's problems are not solved by replacing a dysfunctional representative democracy with a chaotic participatory democracy.

Paraphrasing Octavio Paz, I dare say that democracy in our region does not need to take on wings; what it needs is to take root.  Before selling tickets to paradise, let us worry first about consolidating our feeble institutions, safeguarding the fundamental guarantees, ensuring equal opportunities for our citizens, increasing the transparency of our governments, and above all, improving the effectiveness of our bureaucracies . My experience as a head of state has shown me that what we have are sclerotic and hypertrophied States, unable to meet the needs of our people and to provide the benefits that democracy is obliged to deliver.

This has serious consequences for our capacity to honor the second debt that I wanted to mention to you, the debt owed to development. A debt which, I repeat, we must honor. Neither Spanish colonialism, nor the lack of natural resources, nor the hegemony of the United States, nor any other theory resulting from the eternal victimization of Latin America, explains the fact that we refuse to increase our spending on innovation, to tax the rich, to graduate professionals in engineering and the hard sciences, to promote competition, to build infrastructure or to provide legal certainty to businesses. It is time for each mast to endure the sails of its own own progress.

What right does Latin America have to complain about the inequalities that divide its peoples, if it collects almost half of its fiscal revenues in indirect taxes, and the tax burden in some nations in the region hardly reaches 10% of the Gross Domestic Product? What right does Latin America have to complain about its underdevelopment, if it is the one that has demonstrated a proverbial resistance to change every time there is talk of innovation and adaptation to new circumstances? What right does Latin America have to complain about the lack of quality jobs, when it is the one that allows the average schooling to be around 8 years? And above all, what right does  Latin America have to complain about its poverty if it spends, each year, nearly 60 billion dollars in weapons and soldiers?

The debt to peace is the most shameful of all, because it demonstrates the amnesia of a region that feeds the return of an arms race, in many cases aimed at fighting ghosts and mirages. It also shows the complete inability to set priorities in Latin America, a practice that prevents the realization of a true agenda for development. There are countries suffering internal conflicts who may justify an increase in national defense expenditures. But in the vast majority of our nations, increased military spending is inexcusable in view of the needs of a people whose real enemies are hunger, disease, illiteracy, inequality, crime and environmental degradation. It is regrettable that there are gathered at this Summit of Unity countries that are arming against each other. It is also regrettable that one finds absent from this Summit of Unity the Government of Honduras, whose people are victims of militarism and do not deserve punishment, but rather help instead.

If I had been told twenty years ago that in the year 2010 I would still be condemning the increase in military spending in Latin America, I probably would have been surprised.

How, after having seen the mangled bodies of young people and children wounded in war, could this region long for a return to arms? How could one allow the horrific parade of rockets, missiles and guns that passes by in view of rickety school desks, empty lunch boxes and clinics without medicines? Some might say that I was mistaken to trust in a peaceful future. I think not. Hope is never a mistake, no matter how many times it is short-changed.

I still hope for a new day for Latin America and the Caribbean. I hope for a future of greatness for our peoples. The day will come when democracy, development and peace will fill the saddlebags of the region. The day will come when the recount of the lost generations will cease. It may be tomorrow, if we dare to make it so. It may be next year, in the next decade or in the next century. As for me, I will keep fighting. Regardless of the shadows, I will continue to wait for the light at the end of the rainbow. I will continue to fight until such day arrives.

Dear friends. It has been a high honor and a true privilege to partake in this forum with you, just as it has been at many others. This is my last summit and in saying goodbye I want all of you to know that Óscar Arias will always be your true friend.

Thank you very much.

Óscar Arias Sánchez

Note: non-official translation by MO&WK