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New Beginnings: Living Together in the 21st Century

Remarks by Jimmy Carter  at FLACSO University, Quito, Ecuador

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveled to Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Peru from April 27-May 4 as part of a Carter Center delegation.

It is a privilege for me at this moment in our history to be here in Ecuador. Thirty years ago this nation began a new wave of democracy in the region while I was President of the United States, and my wife Rosalynn attended the inauguration of your new president. Now, Ecuador is beginning a new cycle with a new constitution, and my own president has proposed a new era in relations between the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean.

We are in the middle of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, not to mention global warming, the scourge of narcotics and the violence associated with it, and one billion people on this earth still live on less than one dollar each day. We need to come together, as countries, as a region, as world citizens, to address these collective problems. We need to return to our ethics and values, including a profound respect for the dignity and rights of each human being. For these reasons I was pleased to see the cooperative atmosphere at the Summit of the Americas one week ago, and I am excited to see the possibilities of new beginnings throughout our hemisphere.

When I became President there were only two democracies in South America, and one in Central America. In Argentina, and Chile, and Bolivia, and Brazil, and – I could go down a long list – Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay; they were all dictatorships. Now they're democracies and the people have a new awareness of their own basic rights. We need to take a closer look at the progress we have made in defending these basic rights all over the hemisphere.
I am 84 years old, and in my lifetime many changes have occurred. I was born in 1924 and I lived and grew up in a legally racist environment; it lasted for more than 100 years. I was immersed in it. Mine was the only white family in our community and all my playmates, all my friends that nurtured me and taught me, were black. But they were restrained, by law, from having equal rights. When I went to the Naval Academy in the mid-40s, the first black midshipman was admitted, and he was severely persecuted by many of the other midshipmen who didn't know blacks and thought that they shouldn't be there. I was in the submarine force in 1948 when my commander in chief, President Harry Truman, issued an executive order over the intense opposition of members of Congress and the general public. The Order declared that in all the military forces, there would be no racial discrimination. It was a revolutionary and extremely courageous thing to do. In the same year, more than sixty years ago, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was declared unanimously, by The United Nations.

It was seven years later that a turning point came in our society when Martin Luther King Jr. transformed not only our own country but, I would say, the attitude of the world. I was elected governor in 1970 and I gave my inaugural address, the shortest one in history -- eight minutes long -- but one of the things I said was a very simple declaration: the time for racial discrimination is over. At that time it was a profound statement, the most shocking words that I could possibly have proclaimed. Three weeks later I was on the front cover of Time Magazine, as an unknown southern governor, simply because of what I said.

When I became president later on, I announced, among other things, that America didn't invent human rights; human rights invented America. I soon found that although we had made great improvements in my own country there were still international problems. The United States was still in bed with every dictator on earth that would protect American business interests against the "Communist" menace. This was particularly true in South America where most of the countries were led either by individual dictators or military "juntas". The United States was supporting them all. I thought that was wrong and so we decided to protect the human rights heroes who came forward to condemn the abuses. I announced in my inaugural address that human rights would be the foundation of our foreign policy and that every ambassador that worked for me in every country in the world would be my personal human rights representative. And that every United States embassy residence in the world would be a haven for people persecuted by their own government.

Now there are no more dictatorships in South America, every country is a democracy. Political rights – to vote and to run for office - have generally been accepted by all, and all governments have been freely elected. But civil rights are not consistently guaranteed – discrimination still exists in many of our countries, especially against indigenous and Afro-American citizens, and access to justice is not equal for all. The region also has a long way to go to guarantee the economic, social and cultural rights which, for a person who is starving or has no place to live, who doesn't have food or their children don't have the right to education or healthcare, are just as important. Civil rights protect citizens against abuses by others or by their government. Social, economic and cultural rights are the things a government should do for its people -- to provide them with a decent life including peace.

We have made a lot of progress but we need to go further. I am happy to see the strong desire of the people of Ecuador to end decades of instability and chaos using democratic means, such as elections, and promoting human rights. I am pleased to know the rights of women are especially protected in politics and half of the elected positions will be women under the new constitution. I also know that Ecuador has had a law giving the right of access to public information and it is important to fully implement and use this law in the new constitutional period.

Ecuador has a new Constitution and now a new administration is beginning. Just like in my own country, a new President is awakening hopes and expectations that were dormant for too long. We face many challenges, but we hope that the leaders of our peoples, as well as the citizens that make up our countries, are up to the challenge.

At the Carter Center we have closely followed the social and political process taking place in Ecuador and we believe that if this country can build strong and independent institutions, it will more easily forge a common destiny and a shared identity.

What do we mean by rebuilding institutions in Ecuador today? Of course no one can come in from the outside to tell the Ecuadorian people what they should and should not do. The nature and quality of the institutions being built are the sole prerogative and responsibility of the Ecuadorian people, both the leaders and the citizens together. But we do know that building institutions requires three basic elements: persistence, transparency, and consensus. Experience has shown us that the institutions of democracy are not merely a body of laws, they are not limited to pretty phrases written on paper. Such words are important as a point of departure and a basic reference. And if they are fundamentals like the ones enshrined in the Constitution or the ones brought to life in organic laws, they are vital to a society.

But what bring institutions to life are the actions of the men and women who involve themselves in public service. Sincerely democratic conduct by political representatives is absolutely fundamental, because their actions are a model for social behavior. The leaders of each sector of society can demonstrate how to build consensus, promote coexistence and especially to follow the letter of the law, even when this may incur political costs or affect party interests. Consistency and perseverance in this democratic conduct are the best guarantee of the staying power of the institutions they embody.

Private citizens also bear a portion of the responsibility and a call to action that is no less important to the process. We cannot build institutions, just as we cannot build citizenship, out of empty complaints, irresponsible action, or the easy road of constant criticism. A well-founded demand and relevant critique, along with responsible participation and compliance with the law, are essential contributions from citizens in a democracy. We all have rights, and also obligations. If we as citizens only demand our rights without fulfilling our obligations, democracy suffers just as much as when leaders only protect their own interests rather than act in stewardship of the common good. The quality of democracy in a country resides more in the ideals and commitments of citizen than in the changing regimes of the leaders of the day.

In my country we have suffered a great deterioration in the quality of our democracy. Our values became diluted and for a long time we were overcome by fear, apathy and lack of interest in public matters. The attack on 9/11 paralyzed us as a community and we became blinded to the abuses of our government. We have allowed basic human rights and the principles of our democratic system to be violated.

Some months ago, before the elections in the United States I was interviewed by a newspaper in Great Britain. The journalist and myself were on the stage together and he asked me if I thought that a future president of the United States, whoever it might be, could change the image of America around the world in the first 100 days. And my response to him was that it could be changed in the first ten minutes. Everybody in the audience scoffed and laughed and then the interrogator asked me how that could be and I said that the next president can open his inaugural address by saying "While I'm president, we'll never torture another person. While I'm president, we will never launch an attack on another nation unless our own security is directly threatened. While I'm president, the United States will be the leader in addressing the issue of global warming and all the other issues relating to the environment. While I'm president, our tax policy will benefit the poor and working families and not the richest people in America. While I'm president, we will restore our adherence to all the nuclear arms control agreements that have been negotiated in the last 50 years, all of which have now been abandoned. And while I'm president, we will raise high the Jeffersonian wall between church and state." Actually, that may not take ten minutes, but the rest of the world will react and see a new America.

President Barack Obama did not use my exact words, but he is pursuing many of these principles and I am sure, as he reiterated during the recent Summit in Trinidad & Tobago, that he will adopt the basic principles of protecting the human rights not only of Americans but of people around the world.

Just as in the United States, the Ecuadorian people face many different challenges at this moment. In addition to the challenge of building institutions, along with the vast majority of other Latin American countries, one of the greatest and most urgent problems to face is the unacceptable inequality between the rich and poor. To address the challenge of inequality, especially during financial crisis, requires a new social contract between governments and citizens, rich and poor. The social contract includes the idea that governments, representing the populace, will ensure at least a minimum well-being for all citizens, for it is in the interest of the entire society that all citizens have the capacity to contribute to the national well-being and make basic decisions about their own destiny based on human dignity and physical capacity. For a government to be able to ensure this minimum well-being, it must have sufficient revenues. And this requires a fiscal pact in which citizens and corporations contribute towards agreed-upon goals for the good of the country.

Today, Latin America has one of the lowest tax burdens in the world and relies on regressive sales taxes. At the same time Latin America has the highest regional average of inequality in the world. These two facts are inextricably linked. To make progress on inequality requires a more progressive tax system, but it also depends on a national agreement that progress for all – in economic growth, in personal security, in human development – will only be possible if inequality is addressed. And those with more resources will be more willing to share them if they know the revenues will be used effectively and efficiently, if they have some certainty that the agreed-upon rules will be respected rather than arbitrarily changed, and if they can participate in the decisions on revenue-sharing. This is an area where an open and frank national debate must occur to address the inequality challenge.

Finally, I want to address the relations between my country and yours. Latin America has inserted itself into world affairs, with diversified markets to the Pacific and the Atlantic, insistence on trade and relations based on basic fairness, and unwillingness to accept models and rules imposed by others. This growing independence represents a healthy maturing of the relationship between the United States and Latin America. Within this framework, I am confident that U.S.-Ecuador relations can be strong and based on mutual respect. This kind of dialogue is the key element today for building better international relations.

One week ago at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, President Obama reiterated his commitment to begin a new relationship with Cuba. I have called for an end to the embargo for many years, as I believe that engagement is much better than isolation and absence of communication to address common problems and bring about change. Thirty years ago I established Interest Sections in Cuba and my country so that diplomats would be available to talk about our differences and advance our relationship. Without the ability to talk, change is not possible. So I am heartened by this real possibility for change today in one of the rivalries that is preventing all of us from living and working together in peace in the Americas.

There are other international conflicts in the region we need to solve as well. I know very well how the national dignity of Ecuador was hurt by the Colombian incursion in Angostura last year. I also know how the people of Colombia suffer the presence of that violent group of criminals that deal in drugs and call themselves "revolutionary" forces. I hope that Ecuador and Colombia will soon reestablish diplomatic channels in a way that both parties find mutually acceptable. It is urgent for both governments to be able to find effective ways to coexist and defend their common border, as good neighbors working together on protecting their citizens and implementing agreements already made.

We are all aware that politics has changed drastically in the last few decades. It has changed all over the world, but the change seems more evident on our continent. The revolution in communications and the ability to access boundless information in real time have had a profound impact on the practice of politics. In the beginning it seemed that politics as we knew it could be replaced by marketing and propaganda machines, and today there are still some who believe this. Undoubtedly the role of political parties as a source of information and mediation between leaders and voters is severely weakened. Strong, independent and unbiased news media can generate a decisive political impact. At the same time, we can shape a better society and make it more and more difficult to conceal arbitrariness, dishonesty or bad faith.

This is a time of rebirth for ethics and public morality. In my inaugural address as President, I quoted my high school teacher, Miss Julia Coleman. She said: "We must accommodate changing times, but cling to unchanging values". There is no way to build institutions, reinforce democracy or promote general well-being without respect for fundamental moral values. No leader has survived history who was not been characterized by putting common interests first, being fundamentally truthful, having compassion for those in need and working to resolve differences.

I want to conclude by returning to President Obama when he told us in his inaugural speech:
Our challenges may be new. The instruments with which we meet them may be new. But those values upon which our success depends - hard work and honesty, courage and fair play, tolerance and curiosity, loyalty and patriotism - these things are old. These things are true. They have been the quiet force of progress throughout our history. What is demanded then is a return to these truths. What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility - a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task.

In conclusion, to address the challenges of the new historic cycle we are facing today, we need to recover our ethics and values, give a new quality to our dialogue, strengthen our shared vision and develop our ability to work together, within nations and between nations.
Working together we can succeed; divided and alone we will fail.

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