Importance of Free Press in the Americas

Published: Fri 6 Oct 2006 12:39 PM
Importance of Free Press in the Americas
Thomas A. Shannon , Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs
Remarks at the Inter-American Press Association Meeting
Mexico City, Mexico
October 2, 2006
As prepared for delivery
Thank you very much for allowing me to speak here today. From our point of view, this is an important event, an important conference, and an important way for us to underscore our commitment to freedom of the press in the Americas. And more broadly, internationally, recognizing the important role the press plays not only in informing populations, and informing political dialogue, but also acting as a voice for civil society. And recognizing that, in an increasingly, profoundly democratic Americas, the role of civil society plays only becomes more important as governments and political parties become, not controllers of actions but facilitators of actions, and responders to constituents who organize and express their interests and their values through civil society. And the ability to have a press that is free, that is vibrant, and that has the capability of framing issues, and presenting to citizens the information they need to make informed decisions is absolutely essential.
In this regard, I would like to highlight that, again, from our point of view in the Americas, the press is more or less free. In fact, it is largely free -- recognizing that in some countries the press is under pressure. But what strikes us kind of most intensely, is the degree to which the kinds of pressures that the press feels in the Americas today, for the most part don't come from governments, but they come from outside of governments, from people who do not want the press to do the kind of job they need to do. Whether it be organized crime, whether be corrupt officials or other interested parties. And it is really falling more and more to governments to make sure that we can create an environment in which the press can act freely. In which the press does not have to face self-censorship, because it's this self-censorship which is not only demeaning to individual journalists but also ultimately demeaning to the press as an institution. And the United States, working with our partners in the Americas, working through institutions in the Inter-American system, and working with governments that are also committed to free press, want to make sure that we do all that we can to create an environment in which the press can do its job well, and do it freely.
In this regard, I would like to take a few moments to talk about how we in the United States see the Americas today, how we see the kinds of challenges we face, and then close by highlighting what we think the press can do to help us do our job better, and to help all the peoples in the Americas achieve the promise that exists in the Americas today.
When describing U.S. policy in the region, I like to point out that we do not talk about the United States and Latin American, and the Caribbean as if they were separate entities. We talk about the Americas as a single entity. We talk about the Western Hemisphere as a single entity. And our approach and our policy really is a Pan-American policy. And it is based on a consensus that we believe was formed through the Summit of the Americas process, and best articulated at the Quebec City Summit of the Americas in which the 34 leaders of democratic states effectively committed themselves to democracy, to economic prosperity through free trade and economic integration, though investing in people in order to create the individual capacity necessary to take advantage of opportunity. And finally, to take a fresh look at the kinds of security challenges that democratic states face.
And in this regard, September 11 becomes an important date, and not for the reasons that you might think. Obviously, September 11 in terms of the terrible tragedies in New York, in Washington and in Pennsylvania, still reverberate through the world, through the Americas and through U.S. foreign policy. But September 11 was also the date that the Inter-American Democratic Charter was approved in Lima, Peru, at an extraordinary session of the OAS General Assembly.
I was in Lima at that time with Secretary Powell. In fact, Secretary Powell was having breakfast with President Toledo when the first information about the attacks in New York on the Twin Towers was presented to him. And by the end of that breakfast it was apparent that the United States was under attack. At that moment, Secretary Powell faced a decision: he could go immediately to the airport, get on his plane and return to the United States; or he could go to the Assembly Hall where the foreign ministers of the OAS member states were gathering to approve the inter-American democratic charter.
He chose to go to that assembly hall. And in the speech that he gave to the assembled foreign ministers, he highlighted that at this moment of attack —an attack that he described not as an attack on the Untied States, but an attack on open societies and on democracies — the United States and the hemisphere could have no better response than to approve, by acclamation and unanimously, a democratic charter which affirmed open societies, and affirmed our commitment to democracy and its principles. And he did that.
What it important about that charter and why it links to our larger Pan-American policy in the region is two-fold. First, that charter declared that democracy is a right of all the peoples of the Americas. This was a radical statement, and still is a radical statement, because for many years democracy was understood as a form of government. It was understood as a form of government that was created through individual liberties and human rights — such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of belief. But it was understood largely in terms of how you chose leaders, and how you transferred power. But the assembled foreign ministers determined that, more than that, democracy was a right. And that not only was it a right that the peoples of the Americas had inherently, inalienably, but that it created a corresponding obligation or duty for member states to promote and defend it.
The second important aspect of the charter is that it declared democracy to be essential for the political, social and economic development of the Americas. And, again, this was a radical statement because typically development —whether it be political, social or economic — had never been understood in terms of democracy. It had always been understood in terms of economic systems. But given the broad consensus or common understanding that had been developed through the Summit of the Americas process, about how you create economic growth and how you create economic opportunity through free markets and integration and trade, the foreign ministers have taken one step forward and saying that for development to be meaningful it has to be democratic. And the reason for that is the enormous social agenda that the region faces: poverty, inequality, social exclusion. And the failure of development models whether they be capitalist or socialist, but almost always managed either by authoritarian governments or by economic and political elites to fundamentally address the social problems facing the Americas.
And so what the foreign ministers through the Inter-American Democratic Charter were stating is that only through democratic means could people be allowed a share in the decisions that were required for development, and only through democratic means would that development become, not just a narrowly-defined development in the economic field or in the political and social field, but would actually take into account the forms of citizenship –which again is not just about voting, is about participating in the economy, is about participating in the society, is about feeling that -- within your nation, within your state -- you have a measure of dignity and a measure of control over your own destiny.
And through these two actions, the democratic states of the Americas have really created an enormous challenge for themselves and bred huge expectations in their populations. But they are expectations that have been responded to positively. And as we have engaged in the region, we have sought to conform our policy to this broader vision of the Americas —an Americas that is democratic, and in which development is driven not just by democratic governments but by democratic states.
As we look out over the past five years of activity in the region, and if we take the Quebec City Summit in 2001 as a starting point, in less than five years we have seen three Summits of the Americas, five OAS General Assemblies that have all focused on building a work agenda of those Summit of the Americas. We have seen a new security architecture put into place, a new understanding of hemispheric security put into place. And we've seen efforts of integration throughout the region, whether be in Mercosur, the Andean Community, the creation of a larger South American union, the creation of a single common market in the Caribbean, the enhancement of the Central American Integration System, and then the important overlay of free trade agreements, whether be our agreement with Chile, with the Central American countries and the Dominican Republic, or those which we have concluded recently with Colombia and with Peru, and our ongoing negotiations with Panama and Ecuador.
I would argue in many ways that the Americas has not seen a more dramatic, a more dynamic and a more successful period of diplomacy in action in many, many decades.
This is something we need to take advantage of. It is something that we need to consolidate. It's something that we need to root and that we need to build off of. And the U.S. government, in its response, to this has looked for ways to do that. And I would argue that how we have responded reflects our larger Pan-American commitment.
Let me just run through a few facts and figures to kind of sketch out where I think we have committed ourselves to this larger Pan-American commitment.
First, in terms of our foreign direct assistance, the Untied States since the Quebec City summit, and in fact even before anticipating it, has doubled its foreign direct assistance in the region. At the end of the Clinton administration, the United States was spending about 800 million dollars a year in the Caribbean in and Latin America. Today we spend on average 1.6 billion.
The Bush Administration has increased spending to the Peace Corps by about 30 to 40 percent, depending on which year you're looking at. And has put a 1,000 new Peace Corp volunteers into the region.
Through our trade policies we have effectively created an environment in which, through free trade agreements and through preferential access agreements, about 85% of all the goods coming from Latin America and the Caribbean to the United States enter duty-free.
And, through our debt relief efforts and programs, working first through the highly-indebted impoverished country initiative, and then through the G-8 initiative, the U.S. has worked through multilateral banks and institutions to forgive about 14 billion dollars in debt. We are attempting to take the G-8 initiative and put into the Inter-American Development Bank. If we are successful in this, that will put on about another 5 billion dollars in debt relief, coming to a total of about 19 billion dollars. That's 620 dollars per person in Latin America and the Caribbean. When you consider that, on average, countries spend about 50 dollars per person on health-care, the idea of having debt relief of 620 dollars per person really creates an environment in which countries can do significant things.
Also, the President and his cabinet members in their outreach have been just about everywhere. President Bush in five years has traveled to the region eight times; his cabinet secretaries many more times. No administration has been more active in the region; no administration has spent more time in the region. Also, in terms of leaders from the region visiting Washington, the same can be said. And, again, the point here is not to contrast or compare administrations. The point is to highlight the fact that as the United States made a political commitment to the economic and political and social agendas sketched out in the Summit of the Americas process, as it sought to make it real through the Inter-American system, through the OAS and through the Inter-American Development Bank, it just committed its own resources, its own time, its own efforts to make this real.
But, we're at an important point right now; I think, in many ways, a crucial point. Because, just as we've been successful in building a common agenda in the Americas, we are also facing a backlash of sorts. It's not a big backlash, but it could be a significant backlash, depending on how our policies move forward from here. And when I talked about our policies, I mean not just the United States' policies but, more broadly, how the rest of the region responds.
And the competing vision that we face is not a new one. In fact, it's one we've seen before. Whereas the region through the summit process, and through the Inter-American democratic charter committed itself to a democratic state, and committed itself to a form of democracy based on individual liberties and freedoms that get expressed through forms of governance to cover citizenship in all of its aspects, we're seeing a return to personalistic leadership, to authoritarian leadership, in which democracy is seen as a means to attaining power but that, ultimately the larger democratic vision, or institutional vision of achieving development is pushed aside for a return to an understanding of development as a product of class conflict, and an understanding of social justice that is so paramount and overwhelming that institutions and individual rights and liberties can not be understood as being meaningful obstacles to the achievement of social justice.
Secondly, this competing vision does not understand economic growth in terms of free markets or integration or trade. It still understands it in terms of the State having a controlling factor-- of being the controlling factor in an economy. And, effectively using the State as the driver of development, instead of attempting to create an environment in which the private sector, operating in a regulated environment, and recognizing the State's role to address the fundamental concerns of the most impoverished, facilitates economic development.
And, finally, this competing vision doesn't understand societies as bound together by consensus, but sees societies as effectively riven by conflict that can only be controlled and managed by an authoritarian State. And, in this regard it creates a degree of political polarization and conflict which is very damaging. And we've seen this before in the region, and we know what the outcome is: it's effectively broken institutions, economies that don't work and, at the end of the day, frustrated peoples. But we believe that, by focusing on a positive agenda, by focusing on an agenda which is based on consolidating democracy, on promoting prosperity, on investing in people; and by working together to protect and secure the well-being of the democratic state, we can show that democracy and development are linked. We can show that at the end of the day democracy can deliver the goods, and that it can provide the kinds of benefits and services that people demand, and that it can help the region address the profound social issues that it faces today.
And we would argue that if you look out over the electoral panorama, that there is a nascent consensus within electorates around this vision, and a willingness to provide an opportunity for governments to meet the challenges and meet the expectations that they've helped to create. And if you look out over the, say, the last six elections, whether it's Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Oscar Arias in Costa Rica, Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, Alan Garcia in Peru, Stephen Harper in Canada, and Felipe Calderon here in Mexico, it's evident that there is within the electorate a coalescing somewhere in the center of the political spectrum, whether it be center left or center right. Because all these leaders, whether they be of the left, such as President Bachelet or Alan Garcia, or of the center, such as Oscar Arias, or of the right such as Alvaro Uribe, Stephen Harper or Felipe Calderon, these are all leaders, no matter what their political tendency is, who are committed to integration, are committed to successful relations with their neighbors, are committed to trade as a driver of economic growth, and who are committed to broader hemispheric policies. And this is important to us, because we have made a commitment to work with countries in the region who are committed to democracy, no matter what their political shading, and I think we've done a very good job of it.
But, as we look forward, we recognize that this kind of nascent coalescing that's taking place in the electorate is a fragile one. It's one that requires success on the part of government; it's one that requires continual solidarity and shows of support from elsewhere in the region. And I think we are at a moment and a point in the Americas in which we can finally break loose from the rhetorical and the ideological divisions that have defined the region, and no longer see it as a region divided between north and south, but actually as a region that's united through north and south. And that through common action we have the capability of achieving great things, and showing that a region that over the past several decades made this enormous effort, an historic effort to become democratic can now reach that second stage of issues, and indicate that these democratic governments can indeed address the profound problems this hemisphere faces.
Why this is important is not just for the Americas – it's obviously important for the Americas and all the countries of the Americas – but it's also important for the rest of the world, because there is a growing movement in the Middle East and South and Central Asia to turn to democracy as a ways to address deep-seated political divisions within countries, and find new forms of political expression. And the degree to which we can be successful in the Americas – it will act as a support and encouragement for those elsewhere in the world. The degree to which we fail in the Americas – it will act to the detriment of those who are seeking to democratize and build open economies in the rest of the world, and act as a point of support or succor for those who argue that only through authoritarian means can governments address the tough issues that are required to be addressed for economic and social development.
Let me close simply by returning to the role of the press, and again, I don't need to tell you what your role is, but I would like to underscore that we are at an important moment, as I indicated earlier. We are at a moment where we can shed rhetoric and we can shed ideology. Where we can focus on a common agenda, we can focus on common values, and in doing so, we can start looking at problems, and start looking at solutions. We can start holding governments accountable for solving problems, because at the end of the day, that is what's going to determine whether or not our democratic agenda is successful, and whether our development agenda is successful. And so, I believe, that a free press as the active voice of civil society needs to be in a position to challenge governments, needs to understand the historic moment that we find ourselves in, in the Americas, the impact of a democratic state within the Americas, and then look for ways to break through the rhetoric, to break through the ideology, and to identify for all of our citizens those steps that we need to take to address poverty, inequality and social exclusion; and then look for ways to require governments to work together to find solutions. Thank you very much.

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