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Former Presidents, Prime Ministers Work for Democracy in Americas

Note: Following the posting of this article in 2003, Oscar Arias was re-elected president of Costa Rica.

For 12 hours in November 2001, in Managua, Nicaragua, Oscar Arias Sanchez visited each polling station on his list, diligently noting voting procedures, listening to voters, and querying election officials. Having co-led the Center's 1996 Nicaragua election mission with President Carter and former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, the responsibilities were both sacred and familiar to Arias, the former president of Costa Rica and author of a peace plan for Central America that earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1987.

"The Carter Center's presence as international observers helped to instill confidence in the electoral process among the Nicaraguan people," Arias said. "While the election was important to democratic progress in Nicaragua, we also called attention to the institutions necessary to sustain democracy."

Only the day before, he and President Carter met with former Nicaragua President Violeta Chamorro to discuss the election and Nicaragua's future. All three are members of the Center's Council of Presidents and Prime Ministers of the Americas, a group of 35 former and current heads of state from the Western Hemisphere. Council members give visibility to pressing regional issues, such as the need to strengthen democracy and promote economic cooperation among nations. They also serve as advisors to Center staff working in their regions or as representatives of the Center on special missions in Latin America.

Former Uruguay President Luis Alberto Lacalle observed the Venezuelan elections in 2000.

"What are we trying do, participating in this missions?" he said. "Well, democracy is not the same everywhere. It is a concept that has many adaptations. Democracy is not the same in Chile or Paraguay or Brazil or in Ecuador, but the fundamentals can be sown and fortified. In Venezuela's 2000 elections, I think we made all the difference. The presence of the Center was a guarantee for the people of Venezuela (that their vote would count)."

Former Council member Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, re-elected president of Bolivia in 2002, also has co-led Center election missions, to Jamaica in 1997 and Venezuela in 1998, and has been an active participant in major Council conferences at the Center.

"The Council is extremely important because it brings together the moral authority of ex-presidents who have been freely elected," he said. "They finish their term of office with a good reputation and legacy and put it at the service of their countries and the hemisphere. They are people with contacts, experience, and influence."

Council members gathered again at the Center in March 2003 for a conference on financing of campaigns and political parties.

"We come up with a set of new, fresh ideas that can be disseminated to institutions and organizations in the region and eventually can be turned into legislation and policy-making tools," said Leonel Fernandez, former president of the Dominican Republic. "So even though the members of the Council are not in office, they exercise influence in the region."

The Council's concern about the continuing weaknesses of Latin American democracy also prompted previous conferences addressing challenges to democracy in the Americas and the need to fight corruption in the hemisphere. 

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