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IRI Vice President Testifies on Americans Promoting Democracy in Latin America

March 21, 2005
“Americans Promoting Democracy in Latin America”
Testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Peace Corps and Narcotics Affairs

Georges A. Fauriol
Senior Vice President
International Republican Institute

Thank you, Senator Coleman, for the opportunity to testify at this field hearing.  I am particularly grateful for the opportunity to visit Minnesota once again.  Like many others coming here, I think of the description of Lake Wobegon that Garrison Keillor gives – “Where all the children are above average.”

The latter is probably statistically impossible, but it is quite true that Minnesotans are above average in the way that they take their values to heart, and put them into action.  In terms of philanthropy and volunteerism, Minnesotans are remarkable.  That is easily noticeable in Latin America, whether it is Minnesotan veterinarians helping dairy farmers in Uruguay, or the large number of Peace Corps volunteers this state has sent throughout the region.

You can see in the economy, too, that Minnesotans take their values with them when they trade.  Minnesota’s largest foreign trading partners are all democracies, as are the countries that provide most of the foreign investment in the state.

This is why, Senator, I was particularly glad to come here for the hearing.  I am lucky to be part of a small but growing group of specialists and volunteers who reach out to help countries around the world learn how to make democracy work for them.  And if that helps to create a few new economic partners for Minnesota along the way, that is a nice bonus.

Promoting the Practice of Democracy

Let me begin by telling you a bit about the work that we do.  The International Republican Institute (IRI) is one of the four core institutes of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), along with the National Democratic Institute (NDI).  When we were formed, IRI and NDI were strictly separated from the political parties in the United States that give us our middle names.  IRI and NDI are party institutes that do the same kind of work, but our separation emphasizes the bipartisan nature of the work of assisting the campaign for democracy abroad.

NED has two other core institutes.  The Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) was established to provide assistance for work on market reform issues such as transparency and fighting corruption.  The American Center for International Labor Solidarity, also called the Solidarity Center, promotes worker rights.

CIPE and the Solidarity Center are important because they help people to address the economic issues that often make the difference leading up to, during, and after a democratic transition.  People around the world associate democracy with prosperity and with their own hopes for a better life—for themselves and for their children.  When democracy is introduced without the economic reforms that CIPE and the Solidarity Center promote, it is easy to see why people blame democracy when their own situation does not improve.

This has been the case across Latin America, and the issue of extreme poverty in the region needs to be examined through the prism of economic reforms.  Voters grant legitimacy to political leaders based on more than an election – they also expect that the performance of the government in office will justify their votes.

To demonstrate to voters that a party understands their concerns, party platforms and communications strategies need to be developed in a way that ensures that those living in poverty have a stake in the decision-making process.  In 2004, IRI launched a pilot project in El Salvador to work with political parties, formal and informal sector business leaders and civil society representatives to promote the adoption of policies that seek to integrate the poor into the market economy and establish legal property rights for their assets.  IRI works closely with CIPE and Hernando de Soto’s Institute for Liberty and Democracy.

In new democracies, disagreements among political leaders usually outnumber agreements, and debates can turn into feuds and civil disorder.  This is one reason that George Washington condemned parties as “factions” that would sow discord rather than help to build up the country.  IRI works with political leaders to teach them the skills of coalition building, developing a platform that addresses the concerns of voters, and running campaigns that aim to widen their support so that they can compete and win elections.

Latin American Case Studies

IRI is active in ten Latin American and Caribbean countries, from Mexico to Argentina.  The content of the work varies greatly, influenced by local and changing circumstances.  IRI President, Lorne Craner, in recent testimony before the House Committee on International Relations noted that “IRI is retooling its Latin America program – evolving it from a focus on developing capacity within parties to compete in elections to programs designed to develop leaders and organizations capable of translating the promise of an effective campaign into effective governance.”

I take the opportunity of today’s hearing to focus on several specific case-studies.  Venezuela is a country that was once considered a model democracy: it had two parties that alternated power through reasonably free and fair elections.  But these parties were elite parties that had little connection to the concerns of ordinary citizens.  Even with plentiful oil resources, the rich benefited and the poor seemed to fall deeper into misery.

President Hugo Chavez tapped the popular discontent and rode it to victory at the head of a loose coalition of supporters that he has since struggled to transform into an effective party.  The opposition is now fragmented and also needs to coalesce.  Political space needs to be open in Venezuela and confidence must be restored in that country's courts and electoral authorities.  The only peaceful and constructive way to break the impasse in Venezuela and restore civility to the political discourse is by enabling an open debate through a healthy and open democratic process.  Using public opinion polling, IRI can help party leaders figure out how to refine their message to widen their appeal.  And, IRI will help parties with similar priorities to see the advantages in forming an alliance, or even merging.

Basic organization is the key to party strength.  A good party has a reliable list of its members, knows how to contact them, and engages them not only at election time but in between elections.

Today in the Western Hemisphere, an elected government rules every country except Cuba and Haiti.  And the Haitian case in many ways stands out even further.  Haitian institutions are weak, and the personalities that have dominated national politics have been strong – which is a terrible combination.

In the near term, Haiti’s electoral system is the institution most in need of international support.  In each of Haiti’s last four elections – two in 1995, one in 1997, and in May 2000 – political manipulation and poor technical management caused a breakdown in the electoral system and in turn, led to contested outcomes.  Since 1990, the United States has provided more than $100 million in technical assistance to Haiti to support an electoral process that has yet to deliver a free and fair election.  Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Commission has produced an electoral calendar detailing each step leading to the local municipal elections in October, and legislative and presidential elections in November 2005.

The development of a new generation of political parties and leaders who campaign on issues – and not on the strength of personality – is as important as well-administered elections for Haiti’s future.  IRI’s Haiti program is anchored by democratic political party training and leadership development among women and young people.

The lessons we can share with Haitian party leaders are simple to state, but difficult to put into action.

Successful parties develop ways to find out what the public wants, either by conducting formal opinion research, by engaging with civil society organizations that advocate on policy issues, or by developing party positions with the participation of their own members.

Parties that want to win elections have to learn how to run a campaign to communicate their ideas to voters, through good candidates, campaign materials, rallies and even door-to-door campaigning.

Women and young people can provide organizational muscle and energy to parties and can inform party decision-making on platforms and campaign messages.  Public trust is key for any party that hopes to earn the support of skeptical voters.  That trust can be fostered through transparent decision making within the party, and accountability of party leaders to members.

Unfortunately, the reality is that in many places where IRI works, parties are weak and even illegal.

In places such as Cuba, IRI works to help dissidents to bear witness to the suffering of their people and to prepare for the day when change comes, and these dissidents become national political leaders.  No matter how unlikely this seems sometimes, preparing these individuals for democracy can make a huge difference.  Think how South Africa’s transition to democracy would have been if Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were unprepared to lead the country to peaceful, national elections.  The situation today in Zimbabwe offers us a glimpse of the challenge of what needs to be done to prepare for a new day when democracy is allowed to shine.

Regional Trends

IRI has worked for many years to sustain the hope and energy of those waiting impatiently for a chance to be free.  A small nongovernmental organization like ours does not force change, but we believe that the universal hunger for liberty will eventually bring about change on its own.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves; and, under the rule of a just God, cannot long retain it.”

Latin America has never been more democratic than it is today.  In only two decades, the region has seen dictatorship give way to democracy and seen citizens, rather than soldiers, become the final arbiters of political outcomes.  As recently as 1977, Freedom House identified three electoral democracies in Latin America.  Now, only Cuba and Haiti do not meet this standard.

It is important to note how far Latin America has come in so short a time.  Remember Mexico’s break with over seven decades of one-party rule, El Salvador’s steady progress since peace and democracy replaced civil war, and Chile’s ability to boast of not only the region’s most successful economy, but a robust democracy and newfound respect for human rights.

As we witness democracy’s progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, we are reminded of the significance of allowing citizens to elect their own leaders in places where they have not done so before.  We are also reminded that this revolutionary act can precipitate democracy and freedom, but is not an end in itself.  For the most part, Latin Americans enjoy the ability to openly support a particular political option, to vote, and to engage in a civil society that allows citizens demands and opinions to be freely vetted.

Despite these accomplishments, Latin Americans are disappointed because their expectations of democracy have not been met.  According to the Chilean polling firm Latinobarometro; only 29 percent of Latin Americans are satisfied with the ability of democratic governments to solve economic, political, and social problems.  This figure is alarming, but should not be surprising.  In countries where majorities live in or on the brink of poverty, where job creation is stagnant, health care and education are elusive, crime is pervasive, and where disparities between the privileged and the poor are so pronounced, democracy for many is seen as one competing option among others.

Conclusion

The state of democracy in Latin America is very uneven.  Citizens are expressing their skepticism over the relationship between democracy and their ability to provide an adequate standard of living for their families.  At the same time, a robust and energetic civil society freely challenges policies and leaders.  Political parties proliferate, offering platforms that cross the ideological spectrum.  In many countries in the region, electoral laws are designed to ensure transparency and competitiveness.  Elections in countries like Guatemala and Peru are referred to by citizens as fiestas civicas – a testimony to the degree to which they celebrate their democratic rights.

This spirit, Latin Americans celebrating democratic values while pursuing a better life for themselves and their families, reminds me a lot of – the Minnesotan spirit.

So, let me conclude by expressing my hope, and the goal really of all of us in the democracy promotion community, that soon we’ll be able to celebrate Latin America as a place where all democracies are “above average!”

Thank you Mr. Chairman.