March 24, 2021

Chairman Menendez Opening Remarks at Hearing on State of Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean

WASHINGTON – U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, delivered the following opening remarks at today’s full Committee hearing on the state of democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Testifying before the Committee were Luis Almagro, Secretary General, Organization of American States, Deborah Ullmer, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, National Democratic Institute, and Ryan Berg, Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute.

“Over the past two decades, we and our neighbors have endeavored to deepen our commitment to democratic governance even as significant backsliding has occurred. Indeed, we in this very chamber are all too aware, as the fencing comes down around the Capitol complex this week, that democracy is fragile and requires vigilance. Autocrats and populists alike have borrowed tactics from the same playbook: dismantling constitutional checks on power, attacking a free press, closing space for civil society, and using disinformation to sow discord and undermine citizens’ trust in government,” Chairman Menendez said. “It is time for the United States to lead the coordinated multilateral response that has been lacking in recent years… I believe that we must restore our commitment to promoting democracy as a central objective of U.S. foreign policy not just because it is right, but because it directly contributes to the security and prosperity of all Americans.”

Find a copy of Chairman Menendez’s full remarks as delivered below.

“Today, we continue our series on the state of democracy in the world with a focus on the Americas. This year, we will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter – the groundbreaking manifestation of consensus in our hemisphere that, ‘the peoples of the Americas have a right to democracy and their governments have an obligation to promote and defend it.’

Over the past two decades, we and our neighbors have endeavored to deepen our commitment to democratic governance even as significant backsliding has occurred. Indeed, we in this very chamber are all too aware, as the fencing comes down around the Capitol complex this week, that democracy can be fragile and requires vigilance.

Autocrats and populists alike have borrowed tactics from the same playbook: dismantling constitutional checks on power, attacking a free press, closing space for civil society, and using disinformation to sow discord and undermine citizens’ trust in government.

Although I am painfully aware of challenges to U.S. democracy – following the same exact playbook – including the January 6th assault on Congress, I firmly believe that the United States has to continue to fervently advocate for democracy promotion in the world and in our hemisphere. Our unwavering efforts to form a more perfect union and continuously improve our democratic institutions and processes is not only one of our greatest strengths, it is one of the greatest assets we can share with our partners.

While we know from diplomats and activists that President Trump’s actions make it harder to champion democracy and human rights in our hemisphere, we must not falter. The cost of inaction is too great.

There was a time when Cuba was the only remaining dictatorship in the Americas. However, with assistance from Havana, we have seen the rise of a criminal dictatorship in Caracas that poses risks to regional stability and U.S. national security. The Maduro regime’s unbridled kleptocracy and criminality has fueled a humanitarian crisis that has forced over 5 million Venezuelans to flee their country. And, there is growing evidence that the Maduro regime has committed crimes against humanity.

It is time for the United States to lead a coordinated multilateral response that has been lacking in the last several years.

Over the last half decade, we have seen deeply flawed and fraudulent electoral processes across the Americas. Whether it was Nicaragua in 2016, Honduras in 2017, Bolivia in 2018, Guyana in 2020, or Venezuela in 2017, 2018, and 2020, each electoral crisis metastasized into a larger political crisis that shook the foundation of constitutional order in the country.

We cannot allow this trend to continue. We must advance new initiatives to ensure the integrity of elections in the Americas. This includes ensuring that all people have the right and access to vote in free and fair elections. 

Beyond the challenges to elections, the deterioration of democratic governance in several countries has perpetuated a growing culture of impunity in which public officials place their personal interests — and in some cases criminal interests — over those of their own citizens.

In Central America, citizens see no future in their countries. They see limited social programs gutted by corruption. They experience the absence of accountability. They watch as some government officials shirk their duty to ensure public safety, and instead use public office to protect the violent criminals and drug traffickers that spread the very instability that fuels their poverty and hopelessness.

And when the United States fails to prioritize human rights, good governance, and accountability as we engage with our neighbors, Americans are very directly confronted with the consequences.

I believe that we must restore our commitment to promoting democracy as a central objective of U.S. foreign policy not just because it is right, but because it directly contributes to the security and prosperity of all Americans.

And we must be clear-eyed about the cost of inaction. Russia has expanded its support for authoritarian leaders in Venezuela and Cuba. China has started exporting its invasive citizen surveillance systems to the Americas, alongside its efforts to use economic influence for political gains.

With the 20th anniversary of the Inter-American Democratic Charter upon us and the United States scheduled to host regional leaders for the Summit of the Americas this year, it is the perfect occasion to develop a renewed hemispheric agenda. We have a unique opportunity to reaffirm consensus for the Charter’s core message that ‘democracy is essential for the social, political, and economic development of the Americas.’

With that let me turn to the Ranking Member for his remarks.”

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