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Perspectives on Inter-American Relations

By President Jimmy Carter
Former Member of the Inter-American Dialogue September 6, 2012

Speech delivered at the XVI Annual CAF Conference
Click here to listen to audio

President Garcia, Secretary-General Insulza, Dialogue president Michael Shifter, President Leonel Fernandez, ladies & gentlemen: it is an honor and pleasure for me to attend this conference and to give my personal perspective on inter-American relations.

As president, I valued my nation’s membership in the OAS, and made every effort to attend annual meetings personally. It was from my Latin neighbors that I understood the need for the United States to correct its troubled relationship with Panama concerning the canal. Although several of my predecessors had failed to keep promises to negotiate a new agreement, I decided to take action, and thirty-five years ago, tomorrow, I signed the Panama Canal treaties with Omar Torrijos. During my speech, I recognized “the commitment of the United States to the belief that fairness, not force, should lie at the heart of our dealings with the nations of the world. If any agreement is to last, it must serve the best interests of both nations.”

That agreement was very costly politically to me and other supporters of the treaty. For instance, of the twenty senators who voted for the treaty and faced re-election that year, only seven of them returned to office. But we believed it was the right thing to do, and history has born it out. Despite the warning of opponents that Panama could not manage the canal, they have done it superbly, and I was proud to join Panama’s president a few years ago in exploding the first dynamite to begin to double its capacity. The treaties exemplified how two disputing nations can, with fairness and mutual respect, agree to serve the best interests of both.

Fairness means respect for each society’s decisions about its own course, but it also means recognizing the inherent value of every individual. In this hemisphere, we have sometimes confused respect for another country’s sovereignty with the notion of absolute non-intervention. I know this is partially a response to my country’s history of imposing its own ideologies and interests on others, sometimes with force. This was mostly when we were in bed with military dictators. This past is regrettable, but it cannot be an excuse today for denying human rights or rejecting collective approaches to our shared problems.

The concept of fundamental human rights is our common dream, but all of us fail in some way to honor these principles. It is only with a shared commitment that we can build confidence among both citizens and governments that universal rights will be protected. This is a challenge we all face each day. As a new president I announced a Latin American policy of non-intervention and the championship of human rights, and the progress of freedom and democracy has made me proud.

But I am worried about our common future. Across the hemisphere, societies are struggling with the basic relationship between government and citizens, the role of the state in the economy, and how to ensure that the most vulnerable in our societies can live a decent life. But as we debate and experiment with different ways to address these fundamental issues, we often fall into the trap of disrespecting or denigrating other points of view. When our societies fail to agree about the best way forward, we become polarized and paralyzed.

We have seen these deadlocks evolve not just within but also between our countries. When we fail to listen and refuse to communicate, we lose our capacity to resolve problems together that cannot be addressed alone -- challenges like illicit drug-trafficking, transnational crime and terrorism, enhancing commerce, and dealing with climate change.

It requires courage and leadership to take the first step toward mutual understanding. I have been impressed with President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia as he reached out to two of his neighbors to restore diplomatic relations. They don’t agree on everything, but they can now work together on threats to security within and across their borders. And I am pleased that he has begun talks with the FARC.

Likewise, the relationship between my country and Cuba is one that requires courage on both sides to improve. I am distressed that the United States continues its economic embargo against the people of Cuba long after the end of the Cold War, and that we display no interest in improving diplomatic relations.  We should all continue to press the Cuban government to respect individual rights and more political openness, but the embargo undermines U.S. credibility in calling for improvements there. I also fear that our so-called “democracy aid” program is aimed at regime-change and does not promote democracy. Unfortunately, the program is used by some in Cuba to justify keeping the American contractor Alan Gross in prison.

A more sincere dialogue would be possible if the United States removed Cuba from the state-sponsored terrorism list.  They are on the list because the FARC and the Basque ETA have offices in Cuba, but when I was in Havana the Colombian and Spanish ambassadors told me that this offered them an opportunity to dialogue, as evidenced by Colombia’s announcement of the new peace talks in Cuba.

When our governments cannot or will not take the first step, then business and civic leaders - like many who are here today - should exert your full leadership for harmony and justice. The beneficial results for politics, commerce and trade would be almost unlimited.

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Security of its citizens is the first responsibility of government. The state must prevent individuals from engaging in criminal and violent acts and punish those who do. However, our governments must strike a proper balance between acting decisively against danger, be it domestic or foreign, and maintaining the fundamental right to due process of law.  We must safeguard the hard won gains we have made to prevent the abuse of power that inevitably results when the executive claims for itself unchecked power to detain and even kill persons it considers to pose a threat. A fear of terrorism has led my own country to take steps in the wrong direction - with indefinite detention in Guantanamo, and surveillance of American citizens without warrants - which i hope we will correct. 

In the struggle against terrorism and crime, it is essential for democracies to take steps to provide security without violating human rights.

One of the most pernicious consequences of the international struggle to combat illicit drugs is the harm to non-violent users and their families. Latin American societies pay a disproportionate price in lost lives, corrupted justice systems, and overcrowded prisons because we have over-emphasized drug eradication and interdiction over reducing demand for drugs. As president, 34 years ago, I called for decriminalizing – not legalizing – the possession of marijuana. 

Since then, U.S. drug policies have been very harmful to our own country, and caused an explosion in prison populations. At the end of 1980, just before i left office, 500,000 people were incarcerated in the United States; now there are five times as many – the highest incarceration rate in the world. The number of people imprisoned for nonviolent drug offenses has increased more than twelvefold.
Not only has this policy destroyed the lives of millions of young people and their families, especially minorities, but it is wreaking havoc on state and local budgets. It is time to look for an alternative approach, beginning with treatment instead of imprisonment for people who use drugs but do no harm to others.

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In 1977 I signed the American Convention on Human Rights, saying: “as far back as the 1820s, Simón Bolívar put forward a concept of human freedom and the responsibility of government to protect the rights of individuals.... This blank place on the page has been here for a long time, and it's with great pleasure that I sign on behalf of the United States this convention on human rights which will spell out in clear terms our own belief in the proper relationship between free human beings and governments chosen by them.”

Although the United States Senate has not ratified the convention, 24 other countries of the hemisphere signed it, and the Inter-American Court on Human Rights was born in 1979. The court and the commission on human rights - that was created much earlier by the OAS - form one of the most comprehensive human rights systems in the world. It is an achievement of which we should all be proud, and which we must all strive to protect. These institutions serve citizens who may have no other way to assert their basic rights and demand protection. We should not see them as an affront to the authority of our governments, but rather as our shared obligation to promote and protect the universal human rights that we all hold dear.

I was proud that my administration gave strong support to the commission because it played a central role in reducing human rights violations and reinforcing the march toward democracy.
But I am concerned about ongoing problems like the violence suffered by indigenous groups in disputes with governments over natural resources, and government actions that infringe on freedom of expression of NGOs and the news media. I am disturbed about reports of human rights violations by some government security forces. And I am alarmed at inhuman prison conditions in many countries that threaten the lives not only of indicted prisoners, but of many citizens detained for long periods without charge. The inter-American human rights system strives to protect citizens in all of these situations.

We must look for additional ways to strengthen the commission on human rights and ensure its independence from political pressures. Strong and effective rapporteurs are needed to address crimes of violence against women and children, discrimination against vulnerable groups, and freedom of expression. The commission may need some reforms to be more efficient, but its autonomy must not be reduced. The OAS should carefully consider the proposals that are being advanced, but we must never let this citizen’s treasure be weakened.

I call on my nation and all others to ratify the American convention and join the Inter-American Court. I’ve asked Venezuela to reconsider its plans to withdraw. I offer the Carter Center as a place to examine both of these institutions and seek ways to ensure that the achievements we have made together as a hemisphere are not abandoned, but instead will live beyond us.

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Finally, I cannot ignore two significant election campaigns now underway. Venezuela will elect a president on October 7, and the United States one month later. Despite the many differences between our two countries, we have some important similarities. One is that both countries are debating the fundamental relationship between state and society. What guarantees do our governments want to provide to all our citizens, especially the most vulnerable? Who will pay for these guarantees? What mechanisms need to be strengthened to ensure that core human rights and fundamental fairness are protected? These are difficult issues, and neither country is handling the debate very well.

The political debates are influenced by another unfortunate policy our two countries share. The United States and Venezuela are anomalies in the hemisphere in that they do not provide public financing for political campaigns. Actually, the U.S. offers public funding for presidential campaigns (which I accepted), but the candidates now reject the financing and the limits on spending that come with it. Money in politics undermines the fundamental tenet of democracy - political equality.

For some countries, the challenge is how to keep illicit money out of politics, especially drug money. For the U.S., the issue is how to prevent undue influence of money in politics, while not infringing on freedom of speech. With candidates no longer accepting public funding, and with the U.S. Supreme Court allowing unlimited and often anonymous private contributions, wealthy donors and special interests now flood the airwaves with negative ads not subject to campaign regulation.  As a result, basic political equality is undermined since the wealthy have a far greater opportunity to influence the election of candidates and then to shape public policy.

The problem in Venezuela is that an incumbent running for reelection can place government ads that look very much like campaign ads and command broadcast coverage of his speeches. The concern is not private money influencing the campaign, but rather the extensive use of public money and state resources in favor of the governing party.

On this and other election issues, several Latin American countries offer better practices that can benefit us all. Brazil, Mexico, Chile, and many other countries regulate television advertising. Mexico just elected a new president under laws that prevent the incumbent president from campaigning for his own party’s nominee. It prohibits negative campaigning and provides $24 million in public financing to each candidate. In contrast, the U.S. campaigns for federal office this year will cost more than $6 billion, much of it spent on destroying the reputation of opponents.

In both Venezuela and the United States, the elections will be of great importance. We believe they’ll be honest and we encourage a maximum participation of voters in both countries. 

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Fairness and human rights. These are basic qualities in both human and international relations. We may have different visions of how to address the fundamental challenges facing us, but we will never be able to address them satisfactorily unless we return to basic civility and a willingness to cooperate to find solutions based on common values. We must begin with a concern for the most vulnerable among us and a commitment to treat each individual with equity and fairness. This will provide in our western hemisphere a bright future – to all of us.