Good morning Secretary General Almagro and ambassadors Lambert and Guerrero; friends and colleagues.
The Americas helped define the era of the world’s first revolutions in pursuit of liberty: Philadelphia in 1776, the 1791 slave revolt that in time won Haiti its freedom, South America’s independence struggles led by such imposing figures as Bolívar and San Martín. That pursuit of liberty, of democracy, has defined us.
We often fall short of our ideals – my own nation once fought a cruel civil war to decide whether our portion of the Americas would live, as Lincoln said, “half slave and half free.” It took until last week, only last week, for Virginia to remove a massive statue glorifying one of the leaders of that rebellion.
My country’s Constitution begins, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union,” a recognition that democracy is a process, a lived experience, a pursuit of the more perfect, not a static thing to place on a shelf and admire.
In 2001, in Quebec City, at the third Summit of the Americas, our leaders decided to create an Inter-American Democratic Charter, adopted five months later, at a Special OAS General Assembly in Lima, on an otherwise dark day, September 11, 2001.
Article One clearly states our commitment and our challenge: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.” And here’s the very next sentence: “Democracy is essential for the social, political, and economic development of the peoples of the Americas.”
Democracy is about more than just the rules of the game. Our Founding Father here in the United States, James Madison, called justice government’s very purpose, the very purpose of civil society.
The Charter speaks to our hemisphere’s high ambitions for justice and democracy’s social content, for what we need to do together to enable our citizens to pursue to the fullest their individual and collective destinies.
We know that poverty, inequality, and social exclusion threaten our liberties and welfare. Chastened by this pandemic, we include ill health and disease in that list of threats.
We build democracy on the bedrock of free and fair elections, but we also need independent courts, so that the rule of law prevails over narrow interests; a competent and effective public administration, free of corruption, transparent and accountable, to reliably provide essential social services, including health services and quality schools.
We need to embrace and vigorously defend the freedom of citizens to speak their minds; to engage in inclusive, peaceful, and constructive dialogue; to write and communicate freely; and to organize and associate without government interference.
No true democracy heedlessly invades the rights of its citizens, represses people’s thoughts and actions, their ability to speak their minds, their ability to organize. Only a despot would resort to intimidation and force, silence legitimate opposition, turn public security forces into tools of oppression. Democracy withers wherever citizens wait for the late night knock on the door, where they rightly fear arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
President Joseph Biden has placed democracy’s renewal among his highest priorities. We know we must do more to make our own society more inclusive, our institutions more responsive. That’s our “more perfect union” challenge. We take it up with great humility but also with confidence. We’ve sometimes fallen short of our ideals, but we’ve worked to bend the arc of history towards justice since the founding of this republic; we know that we’ve made progress even as we know we must do more, much more.
As we prepare to host the next Summit of the Americas, we want to work in partnership with you, those in government and those from civil society, to promote and defend democracy and human rights across the Americas.
The Charter remains a remarkable accomplishment, but no agreement itself defends or promotes democracy. People do that work, people like us; people of good will from across our hemisphere; but when put to good use, the Charter is a powerful tool, and we should use it.
We consider the Summit of the Americas a process, not just an event. It started with Miami and will continue through next year, when our leaders meet, and beyond.
Here’s our challenge: To ensure that this process strengthens our commitment to democracy, so that we can show our citizens and the region and the world that democracies and their institutions can meet society’s needs and deliver results, not just for the few, but for all.
President Biden believes that to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, and those of the hemisphere that we share, democracies must come together, learn together, stand together, and act together.
As Summit hosts, we will work with you to do just that.