Kerry at Summit of the Americas 20th Anniversary Event

man giving speech
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks on the 20th anniversary of the Summit of the Americas, at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on December 10, 2014.

SECRETARY KERRY: Roberta, thank you very much. Thank you all for being here. Thank you for your patience. I apologize for – I know we’ve kept you a little bit, and I apologize for starting late. I was stuck at the White House at a meeting, and I think some of you know what that’s like, right? I mean being stuck, not at the White House. (Laughter.)

Roberta, I really appreciate your incredible stewardship. Thank you for your partnership in all of this. I tell you, I couldn’t have a better person to work with, and I hope all of you feel that way. She’s doing an extraordinary job. I see a lot of heads nodding, let the record show. (Applause.) And the first head to nod was Roberta’s. (Laughter.) No, I’m joking, just joking. (Laughter.)

I think all of you will agree that she has led our engagement in the hemisphere with characteristic skill and humility. She has spoken out forcefully on behalf of civil society, for freedom of expression. She is widely known as the author of our security cooperation with Mexico, and she has deepened our partnerships in North America on everything from trade and investment to energy security to climate change. And she has made it a priority to promote educational exchanges with the next generation of leaders, from Costa Rica to Peru to Chile. And Roberta, we are all profoundly grateful for the great work you do. Thank you.

It’s more than appropriate that we gather here on Human Rights Day, and it’s a time to stand with those who are struggling to realize a more peaceful and humane world. This day is about visualizing and seeing those possibilities, putting them in our sights. And few regions in the world could ever define the possibilities of this century more clearly than the Americas.

Twenty years ago this week, President Clinton – hard to believe it’s 20 years already – brought together 34 democratically elected leaders in Miami for the first Summit of the Americas. And the President was unequivocal about the mission. He called on leaders from across the region to open new markets and to create new free trade zones, to strengthen the movement towards democracy, and to improve the quality of life for all our people. He said simply, “If we’re successful, the summit will lead to more jobs, opportunity and prosperity for our children and for generations to come.”

Today, as we gear up for next April’s Summit of the Americas in Panama, we find ourselves really closer than ever to realizing that vision.

The progress hasn’t always been steady. It hasn’t always been even. It hasn’t always been forward. But progress has been hard won. And I think about the first trip that I made to Central America as a United States senator in 1986. It was a period when the hemisphere seemed to land in the headlines only for the wrong reasons – violence, repression, corruption, narcotics – you name it. Few people could at that time imagine a brighter future, let alone think that we were actually going to be able to turn the tide.

Well, today, the tide is turning and it has been turned for some time.

In country after country, the people of this hemisphere have established democracies that respect human rights and fundamental freedoms of their citizens. And today, you can safely say the torch has been passed to a new generation of leaders. And one thing we know: When the peoples of the Americas, when they move forward, they never again want to go back. Not to the days when military juntas or one-party rule would steal opportunity from millions for a few. Not to the days when their countries were torn apart by terrible massacres and civil wars.

And if you just look around, you could see the progress toward democracy that has brought not only freedom from fear, freedom from want. But over the last decade, the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean grew at a rate of 4 percent a year. Incomes are rising. Inequality is declining. And the gap between the rich and poor – though still far too wide – is narrowing faster than any other region. In the past decade alone, as trade between the United States and the Americas nearly tripled, more than 73 million people across Latin America were lifted out of poverty. That is really an extraordinary transformation.

So today, it’s clear that if we play – we, all of us, and I think Your Excellencies, those ambassadors who are here – if all of us play our cards right, the Western Hemisphere can become the most stable, the most prosperous in the world. And that is precisely why one of my very first visits I made when I was Secretary of State was to Central America. And it’s why, as Roberta explained to you, I am getting on the plane tomorrow to go to Lima and to Bogota, because what we do together in this hemisphere matters to people everywhere.

Now, I’m a big believer that we are more than just neighbors or trading partners. We share a community of values. The opening clause of the Inter-American Democratic Charter makes that crystal clear. It reads simply: “The peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.”

Our hemisphere was ahead of the curve in defining democracy as a right – a right to a government by the people and for the people. And we can really be proud of that. But I want to be clear about something: Even as we celebrate the democratic values that have spread through the Americas, we have to acknowledge that there are places where those values are being challenged.

Ultimately, what we’re really talking about today here is our shared vision for the hemisphere and the risk that this vision will be distorted by governance that is autocratic, corrupt, or ineffectual, and distinctly and definitively not in the service of all of the people and for the people.

That distorted vision believes that elections are the end of the democratic journey. It sees a free, open, and inclusive society as a threat to the power of the state, not as an asset to the power of the state. So what do these states do – the ones that I’m describing? Well, they concentrate power instead of checking it. They do away with term limits instead of living by them. They muzzle journalists and civil society activists instead of empowering them. And they chip away at the institutions and freedoms that the people of our hemisphere have fought and bled for since the earliest days of independence.

By contrast, the democratic vision holds that elections are the beginning, not the end; that democracy must rest on independent, accountable, and responsive institutions. It has to respect individual liberties and a vibrant civil society. Timely elections really matter little if they’re not free and fair with all of the political parties competing on a level playing field. And a separation of powers is of little comfort if institutions are not able to hold the powerful to account. And laws that guarantee the freedoms of expression, assembly, and religion are of little consequence if they’re not respected. Democracy is not a final destination; it is an endless journey. And we see that right here at home. Believe me, we don’t speak out of one side of the mouth and another the other.

I think America in these recent days has seen this and we own up to it. Even yesterday with the report that came out from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence – we hold ourselves accountable to an ugly, horrible period, and we should be proud of our ability to do that. The democratic vision that I’m talking about has inspired popular movements from Eastern Europe all the way to the Middle East. But it will not be fully realized unless we – and I mean all of us when I say “we” – have the courage to put our ideals into practice. And that is why this moment and the Summit of the Americas is so important.

The question now is: Where do we go from here?

Well, let me answer that question by stating the obvious: We know well here at home, as I mentioned a moment ago, that democracy is a work in progress. We know that the eyes of the world are on us, and as President Obama made clear in his address to the UN General Assembly, we welcome the scrutiny. From the streets of New York City to Ferguson, Missouri, we are learning in painful, searing ways that justice and equality are not things that you can just parse out to some and deny to others. And nor can you take for granted that everybody has what you think they have, but what you say is part of your fabric. We have to strive continually to perfect our union, and we are doing that. We must work constantly to reconcile the demands of globalization with the traditions of tolerance that define us as a nation, and we will. And as the Senate report that was released yesterday makes clear, one of America’s strengths is our democratic system’s ability to recognize and wrestle with our own history, acknowledge mistakes, and correct course.

That is why our mission here today and in the months ahead is absolutely clear: We need to build democracies that are accountable, inclusive, just, and strong. Let me tell you quickly what I mean about each of those.

First, the need to build democracies that are accountable. The latter decades of the 20th century brought free and fair elections to virtually all of the Americas, with one important exception. But make no mistake: We have to, all of us, remain vigilant in defending the bedrock elements of accountability, which is a level playing field for all candidates, the integrity of voter information and electoral authorities, independent media in civil society, a clear separation of powers, a strong independent judiciary, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.

To create economic opportunity and spur innovation, you need an open market. But you also need a free and open marketplace of ideas. Now more than ever, we have to reaffirm our shared values and revitalize the institutions that are dedicated to defending them. And to protect those institutions, we need to make certain that no leader stays in power indefinitely. Democracy actually demands nothing less.

And that is why we still continue to stand up for constitutionally mandated term limits, and we will continue to speak out against those leaders who manipulate laws and electoral bodies in ways that subvert the electoral process, steal away the promise from the people themselves, and undermine democracy. That is why we strongly support proposals in the Organization of American States to ensure full implementation of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. And that is why we support an independent and effective Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Second, we need to build democracies that are inclusive. Democracy is measured not just by the work of governments or the quality of our bilateral and multilateral engagement. It’s also measured by the quality of our civic engagement – by the role of citizens and civil society in shaping their future of a country, and in particularly shaping their own future.

In order to ensure that all voices are heard, we need to continue to empower historically marginalized groups. That includes women and girls, people of African descent, indigenous populations, the LGBT community, and persons with disabilities. Our citizens have an inherent right to express themselves. And we cannot let states, private or public monopolies, criminals, or politicians infringe on that right or limit our – the information that citizens receive. Because we recognize a basic truth: Social and economic exclusion anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

My friends, we together, as we gather here today, are able to say we’re making progress in addressing the underlying causes of inequality and exclusion in our hemisphere. We are partnering with civil society – many of you here are on the front lines of being engaged in that. We’re working with governments, we’re working with regional institutions to confront racial and ethnic discrimination in order to improve access to services and to economic opportunities. We are speaking out forcefully against state interference, criminal threats, and violence. And we are standing together against practices that threaten an independent media and press that literally engage in outright closure of the press or censorship or arrests, or perhaps even burdensome regulations that prevent people from doing things, newsprint restrictions, arbitrary allocations of state advertising, and politically motivated legal challenges. All of these things undermine the ability of the people to have their voices heard and the ability of democracy to be upheld. The truth requires that we call these practices what they are: Corruption, a form of corruption that is contrary to the Pan-American values that we think exist from Patagonia to Prudhoe Bay.

Third, we need to build democracies that are just. Basic democratic freedoms appear on paper, but they’re not enough when you can’t go to school without the threat of violence; when you can’t run a small business without paying somebody off; when families are forced to pay ransom for the return of their loved ones. Basic democratic freedoms are not enough when there is impunity for criminals, when you can’t trust the police, when you can’t rely on a fair, impartial justice system that protects your safe streets, safe neighborhoods, and safe communities, all of which really depend on upholding the rule of law for everybody.

Now, we’ve seen progress on this in the region. We’ve seen major progress. Last year in Bogota, I saw firsthand Colombia’s progress in combating violence and promoting economic opportunities for people. And later this week, I will again meet with President Santos to continue our support for his courageous effort to achieve an enduring and just peace that Colombians deserve.

I can remember serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a young senator in the 1990s when we began the process of putting together Plan Colombia, and I remember the doubts about it, and everybody said no, it won’t work. Then people said it’s too much money, and so on and so forth. This was a time when I remember, I think, about 13 members of the Supreme Court had been assassinated in the room in which they were gathered to deliberate. It was a time when if you ran for president you could be assassinated. And nobody thought they could bring it back from the brink. But under President Uribe and others in the leadership that stood up and said, “We’re going to reclaim our country,” they reclaimed their country. And today, Colombia is one of the strongest economies and strongest rule-of-law countries in all of Latin America and, indeed, a beacon in the world for turning around.

Earlier this year, I traveled to Mexico and I met with innovative entrepreneurs and inspiring students. And their example underscores the potential of our great partner and our neighbor. But Mexico is obviously facing a very difficult moment. The recent disappearance of 43 students in Iguala is gut-wrenching for all of us who have worked to ensure a better future for both Mexicans and Americans. Those responsible for this heinous crime have to be held accountable, must be, and communities throughout Mexico must regain their sense of security. Parents whose kids go out and travel from one place to another shouldn’t have to worry about whether they might ever return or they find them again. And we will support President Peña Nieto in his efforts to promote the critical security and justice reforms that Mexico deserves.

Frankly, the United States is playing today as critical role as ever in the pursuit of peace, prosperity, and stability in the hemisphere. Just last month, Vice President Biden joined the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras to revitalize our partnership. And we are leading the effort to help them address gang violence and the other challenges that drove last summer’s large migration of families and unaccompanied children. I was encouraged to receive the “Alliance for Prosperity” plan proposed by the leaders of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. And I met with the presidents when I was in Panama and we had an opportunity to talk about this challenge to the region.

The plan that they gave me is an historic first step, but the toughest decisions are still ahead. Vice President Biden summed up the mission: Corruption needs to end, courts need to be fair, police forces need to win the trust of the citizens, and effective tax rates cannot remain among the lowest in the world and expect to meet the challenge of communities to build the infrastructure for people that is necessary to safety and security and education and health and a future.

The United States needs to do its part, and we will. We must stop the flow southbound of weapons from the United States to Mexico. We must continue reducing the demand for drugs on this side of the border, and we accept our responsibility for that. Too many Americans are the consumers of drugs that transit Mexico and Central America, and that trade will exist as long as there is demand, and we need to do more to cut that demand.

But what it underscores, my friends, is that our problems are interdependent. But so, too, are the solutions.

Finally, we need to build democracies that are strong. I am convinced that the choices we make today will determine the security and prosperity of our own people and the security and prosperity of the planet itself. By accelerating social and economic progress and strengthening the bodies and mechanisms of the inter-American system, we can create a better foundation for global peace and security. We – all of us – have a responsibility to remain united in defense of our shared values beyond the hemisphere, but one thing I know for certain: Our engagement, our effort together really matters.

Our engagement matters on trade and investment. NAFTA has made North American one of the most competitive regions in the world. Our free trade agreements with 12 countries, from Canada to Chile, have expanded economic opportunity for millions. Pacific Alliance countries are pursuing the vision of an open, integrated, global Latin America. I am – that is the future. I’m absolutely convinced of it. No question in my mind. The question is how quickly we get there and how fairly we distribute the benefits of the process of getting there.

We’re working with Canada, Chile, Mexico, Peru on a high-standard Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, which will build prosperity throughout the region. And guess what? It will do so on the basis of shared principles. It’s not just a technical trade agreement. It’s a strategic opportunity for all of us, and we need to all of us be at the table and make it happen together.

Now, our engagement obviously also matters on something like climate change, and clean energy, which is, after all, the solution to climate change. While many of the hemisphere’s largest countries are global energy producers, many of the hemisphere’s smallest countries are bearing the greatest burden when it comes to the effects of climate change. And we know exactly what we have to do. This is not some crazy, hard to define, impossibly out of reach public policy issue. The solution to climate change is energy policy. Make the right energy choices, you solve the problem. And it takes leadership to do that.

Just as climate change presents the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean with a common threat, the need to develop secure, sustainable sources of energy represents a remarkable shared opportunity. I can’t – there’s no way to describe it as tangibly as people need to have a sense of this possibility. The market that made America unbelievably wealthy in the 1990s – I don’t know how many of you know that. Everybody thinks the 1920s was the greatest period of economic growth in America; and sure, we have great names that come out of that period, from the Rockefellers to the Carnegies and the Mellons and Fricks, and you can look at great buildings in cities in the east, particularly, that came out of that. There was no income tax, too.

Guess what? More money and wealth was created in the 1990s than then. And it was distributed more fairly across America when every income level saw their incomes go up. It was a $1 trillion market with one billion users. The energy market we’re looking at today is a $6 trillion market with four to five billion users, today, going up to nine billion users in the next 30, 40 years. It’s the biggest market of all human history. And if we start to seize it and the infrastructure that can build around it and the innovation and technology that will come with it and the security and the health and the environmental protection and all these benefits, we can actually deal with the problem of climate change, make a lot of money, create a lot of jobs, and have prosperity.

We all know that building a new clean energy revolution for the world will require each of our nations to make some very fundamental choices. And I’ll be speaking at greater length about those choices at the conference of the parties in Lima tomorrow.

Our engagement also matters on human rights. Already we’re seeing the benefits of these partnerships on these issues, that the Human Rights Council this fall – Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Uruguay – came together in an unprecedented effort to sponsor the second-ever resolution on LGBT rights. And we are working to enhance global transparency efforts through the Open Government Partnership which the United States launched with Brazil and Mexico now chairs.

Our nations believe that every citizen can make their full contribution, no matter their background, no matter their beliefs. And this century, one that will continue to be defined by competing models of governance we are proving that democracies can deliver for their citizens.

So that’s our agenda, and this is our moment to drive real change. Our engagement matters with partners who share our vision as well as with those countries that don’t. And I want to emphasize: The United States of America will not shy away from tough conversations on democracy and human rights with governments or leaders who may see the world differently.

Over the next months, we will zero in on a robust democracy and human rights agenda for the Summit of the Americas. We want this to be the “how” Summit – focused on how we tackle a few big challenges and how we seize a few big opportunities. But we also want this to be something else: an “inclusive” Summit. Why? Because if there’s one thing that I’ve learned in my years in public life, it is that all societies are stronger when all of the citizens have a say and a stake in the success of that society. That is why we are insisting that this Summit include meaningful and direct participation not just from leaders in government, but from businesses, human rights defenders, other credible civil society voices representing all the nations of our hemisphere. And that is why we must get beyond the perennial debate about attendance – who comes – and focus on the substantive issues at the Summit that will be crucial to ultimately building a better future for the Americas.

We all know there are a lot of hurdles that remain. But I take heart in the struggle of those who have come before us, who have put their lives on the line for peace and reason and fairness. And there are a lot of examples of that. One of them right there on the wall, the person after whom this room is named, Ben Franklin – founding fathers of our country who took great risks in Philadelphia to give birth to this country.

Iris Yassmin Barrios Aguilar is president of one of Guatemala’s high-risk court tribunals. She made it her mission to take on some of the most difficult and sensitive cases from the country’s decades-long internal conflict. She’s stared down white-collar criminals, drug cartels, human rights abusers. She has faced death threats, nearly daily attacks in the media, and calls for her disbarment. On more than one occasion, she had to wear a bulletproof vest to leave the courthouse at night.

Last year, she served as the presiding judge in the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Efrain Rios Montt. The stakes were enormous. No former head of state had ever been brought before a tribunal in his own country on charges of genocide. And the magnitude and the consequences of Judge Barrios’ decision are almost impossible for me to convey to you adequately. She exposed the truth. She gave voice to thousands of Ixil-Mayan victims, and she provided a crucial legal precedent for genocide cases worldwide. Judge Barrios is a stranger – is a – clearly a stranger to fear, and her commitment and courage in the cause is exactly what gives me confidence about the future.

There are few ideas more powerful, more infused with universal aspiration, than democracy. But democracy has never been an automatic fact. It’s not a birthright on autopilot. We’ve seen that too many times. It is an inheritance of opportunity that comes with a major responsibility to do your part to keep it going. It requires citizenship. It has to be renewed and revitalized by each generation. And the great Argentine poet Juan Gelman wrote of “dark times filled with light.” Our own times are not as perilous. We’re very, very lucky. Our own struggles are not even as great in many places, most places. But the promise of democracy has to continue to light our path. And that is how we are committed to building a more peaceful and prosperous future for all the Americas. That is how we intend to live up to our responsibility. I hope we will join hands and hearts and minds in this effort and endeavor, so that together we can write the history that I know you come here committed to, but we need to make certain is available to all of our people all of the time. Thank you for the privilege of sharing thoughts with you. Thank you. (Applause.)