Assistant Secretary General Speech


July 17, 2020 - Washington, DC

Distinguished Ambassadors, Permanent and Alternate Representatives, Permanent Observers, estimado Luis, Secretario General, Staff of the General Secretariat, Ladies and Gentlemen:

Five years ago, on July 17, 2015, I had the honor of addressing a Special Session of the Permanent Council in the Hall of the Americas at the initiation of my first term of office as Assistant Secretary General. It certainly was a different world back then, different from our present reality which has been totally upended by the Covid 19 pandemic. Today, from the safety of home and a computer screen, I am honored to once again address this body, and I wish to start by saying a heartfelt thank you on two counts: first, thank you for your consistent support to myself and the work of my office over the last five years, and second, and just as important, thank you for the reaffirmation of your confidence in my person by electing me by acclamation for a second term as Assistant Secretary General. A very special thank you as well to the Rt. Honorable Prime Minister of Belize, the Minister and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Belize and the Permanent Mission to the OAS for presenting my candidature and for their unwavering support to make it successful. This second term is a mandate that I embrace with full knowledge of the enormous challenges that lie ahead as our organization not only adjusts and evolves in tune with the new conditions imposed by the pandemic, but more importantly, as we institute the necessary retooling to continue to respond to the needs and mandates of member States.

Como muchas veces en su trayectoria de más de setenta años, hoy nuestra organización indiscutiblemente atraviesa un momento decisivo, y la forma en que nosotros reaccionemos imprimirá una marca imborrable en nuestra institución y su historia. Nuestra nueva realidad nos empuja y compromete a pensar y actuar de manera diferente, ya que no estamos en tiempos normales. Sin embargo, como el Secretario General mencionó durante su discurso de inauguración, y con lo cual concordamos plenamente, nuestra organización definitivamente estará a la altura del desafío. En lo personal, no me queda la menor duda de que somos plenamente capaces de desempeñar esta misión, y que nuestra institución saldrá fortalecida y florecerá en un mundo post covid.

This brings me to three issues I would like to address today: they are leadership, determination combined with hope, and new ideas. On the issue of leadership, now more than ever, our organization is being called upon to assume its rightful leading role in assisting our member States address the impacts of the pandemic and we must discern where our contributions as the OAS could unleash the greatest positive results. The leadership of the OAS will be critical, and as we rethink how we do business, we must identify our strategic niches, and we must anchor our work on the commitment that the four pillars of the OAS must be given equal attention and they must be mustered in an integral way as we move forward. In assuming its leadership mantle, the OAS must also embrace its role at the center of the Inter-American ecosystem, and engage the other Inter-American Institutions and sub-regional integration organizations to share information, avoid duplication, and to complement each other’s efforts as much as possible. Such coordination is a unique role that the OAS alone can undertake, and we must not be shy about it.

The other main issue I wish to address is the combination of determination and hope. There is no doubt that our collective horizon portents formidable challenges. According to Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, the recently appointed World Bank Vice-President for Latin America and the Caribbean, approximately fifty million people in the Americas are expected to fall below the poverty line as a result of the pandemic, which is equivalent to a traumatic setback of about twenty years of progress in the fight against poverty. In addition, the World Bank estimates that we will see a contraction of about seven percent of GDP across our region, with some countries, especially those with smaller economies and inherent vulnerabilities, faring much worse.

Señoras y señores, este tipo de pronóstico, si bien representa una gran amenaza para nuestros países y nuestras sociedades, también es un llamado urgente a todos nosotros, a nuestros países y nuestras organizaciones a repensar como trabajaremos y procederemos en la nueva realidad, y sobre todo, debe ser un punto de partida que nos oriente a divisar las oportunidades en la adversidad. We must look for opportunity in the midst of adversity. This is not a moment to despair, but to remain resolute in our determination to look beyond the surface and to understand the inherent positive prospects that are waiting to be discovered in the quagmire of the crisis. We need to capitalize on these and bring hope to our people, and even as we focus on the social and economic aspects of the recovery, we must not lose sight of the other institutional fundamentals, namely, the persistent work to construct stronger democracies, more equitable societies where the rights of everyone, particularly the most vulnerable are safeguarded, and where our people feel safe and secure to live their lives and raise their families.

The third issue I wish to address pertains to the new ideas and initiatives that will need to flourish to permit our adjustment to and successful disembarkation in the post covid world. I would like to briefly touch on a few:

A very important issue that has once again come to the fore is the matter of middle-income countries and the obstacles they confront in accessing concessionary funds, a realistic mechanism to manage existing debt, and other critically needed innovative financial vehicles to enable them respond to the crisis. These challenges are largely tied to the criteria that has been set by the international financial institutions that look only at GDP to determine when a country should be graduated from its ability to access concessionary funds, without taking into account issues related to absolute size and all types of inherent vulnerabilities. This issue is of particular importance to but is not exclusively a preoccupation of the Caribbean countries. The CARICOM countries have reached out to our General Secretariat on this matter, and they have asked the Secretary General to use the weight of our organization to promote political momentum leading to a change of the aforementioned criteria. I will remain fully engaged on this important issue along with the SG.

The issue of food security has also emerged as a central preoccupation for many of our member States, and although we have not in the past dealt with this matter as a core mandate, it is now clear that such a concern will remain with us and we will need to address it with the combined strength of our four pillars. Food security is a complex topic that has elements that are transversal to many fields, with clear aspects that pertain to the development pillar such as those related to entrepreneurship in innovative production and distribution of food, it has elements that touch on Access to Rights and Equity, and elements that have a bearing on security, because a community that lacks access to food is vulnerable to social instability and even violence. This means that in addressing this matter, we must respond in a coordinated, integrated way, using a whole of the organization approach. My office has initiated an internal exercise compiling an inventory of what the OAS is already doing, directly or indirectly, in the field of food security. The nature of this subject, and the danger of food shortages in our region, will also require that we work very closely with the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation in Agriculture, the Pan-American Development Foundation, the World Food Program as well as with our Permanent Observers, especially Italy, which is a global leader in this topic and with whom we are already in discussions.

The development pillar as linked to the post pandemic economic recovery will require special attention and perhaps even placement at center stage of our work. In this regard, we need to step back and take a clinical view of our institutional toolbox to see what facilities and initiatives we have that can either be directly deployed to help our Member States in the economic recovery, or which can be retooled for said purpose. We have ongoing programs such as the Small Business Development Centers, all those that have to do with entrepreneurship and innovation, and others that specifically target and work with youth and women, that will be central to the economic recovery, especially in the smaller and more vulnerable economies. These will require particular attention.

My Office will also continue its leading role as a strong advocate for the rights of Indigenous peoples and persons of African descent. As our region plunges into economic trauma, the negative impact on the most vulnerable, all of them, is something that I intend to keep front and center in our work, as we prepare to work with all partners in this important mission. If we are to maintain our profile as a champion of rights, much more work remains to be done in these areas. Clearly, the massive wave of protests against racism and intolerance which recently reverberated around the world, is an indication of how persistent social and racial inequalities remain in our region and how much more remains to be accomplished.

Ladies and Gentlemen: We also must not forget, that despite having UN Sustainable Development Goal number five, gender equality is often still overlooked in many of our countries. The empowerment of women and girls has become even more critical for our societies and indeed for our economic recovery. The household can be a crucial and largely hidden site of inequality. In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, it has become abundantly clear that a drastic transformation of how we as a society approach these and other wider issues of equality for women in the labor force is long overdue. At the OAS, we are committed to achieving gender equality and as the Assistant Secretary General, I am honored to continue working alongside the Inter-American Commission of Women until gender equality becomes a reality for all.

Many of the issues we deal with on a regular basis have developed a sense of urgency under today’s conditions, but it is very important, as we focus on economic recovery and stability, that we do not lose sight of that existential problem of climate change that we have hanging over our heads. As we build back better after the pandemic, any innovative solutions must also focus on this issue and the accompanying natural disasters which many times are the manifestations of these global problems.

We will reinvigorate our support for and coordination with our affiliated agencies such as the Young Americas Business Trust, the Pan-American Development Foundation, and the Trust for the Americas. All of them are important partners and are already working in the field in the recovery efforts, and we must be smart about complementing efforts and presenting a unified OAS front.

In the same manner, our ongoing work with the Permanent Observers is even more critical than ever, and we will continue to engage in the existing areas in which we work together and the new ones that emerge.

Our new reality is also permeated with real concern for funding and resources for existing and emerging initiatives, and therefore the importance of developing and strengthening strategic Public Private Partnerships is not only desirable but is now actually an imperative. We must assiduously pursue these partnerships in a smart and practical manner.

Ladies and gentlemen, the importance of the work of our National Offices network has once again been underscored as the pandemic gripped our region, emphasizing the need for continued contact on the ground while curtailing travel. The visibility and value they yield to our entire organization is substantial, and we need to support and strengthen them.

During my presentation on February 12, 2020 before the OAS, I spoke about an information product we were developing internally at the OAS under my leadership, and which would enable us to produce and share on a regular basis a full and updated compilation of the work our organization is undertaking at any given moment in all our Member States. I am pleased to inform that we are finalizing the technical aspects and this product will be ready for roll out shortly. And it could not have come at a more opportune moment, when more than ever we need to regularly and objectively apprise our member States about the benefits and value added our initiatives represent in each of their jurisdictions.

Quisiera también dirigirme brevemente a todo el personal de la Secretaría General de la OEA, gente dedicada y trabajadora. Muchas gracias por su ardua labor, por su compromiso, y por estar a la altura del desafío, lo cual nos ha permitido poder continuar nuestras operaciones lo más normal posible a pesar de las circunstancias. Será un verdadero placer seguir trabajando con todos ustedes. A mi estimado Luis Almagro, Secretario General, estoy listo para seguir trabajando de la mano contigo, y estoy seguro que nuestra organización saldrá adelante, más fuerte y fortalecida que nunca.

Ladies and gentlemen, in the last months we have been forced to migrate our work and many aspects of our daily routines to a virtual world, a world that can be efficient, sometimes impersonal, but that bridges distances and is very likely to stay with us, some aspects of it, for a long time. We need to learn from it, and for sure we need to adapt. The Fourth Industrial Revolution that canonized innovation and a proliferation of smart technology sadly did not reach everyone in our Americas, and our habitation of the virtual world is driving this point home in a forceful manner. In the face of all of this, we need creativity and common purpose, we need to join hands for this mission of surviving and flourishing in the new reality.

It is often said that a major crisis, while visiting untold suffering and damage on our societies, also many times brings out the best in people. I believe that such is the case right now, that our people across the Americas are rising to the challenge, and when this chapter has passed, our organization and our Member States will emerge strong, peaceful, and hopeful. I am praying, and am ready to work with all of you, for this to be the case. We owe it to our people.

Muchas gracias. Thank you.