Fermín Toro and Nelson Pineda, the Venezuelan ambassadors to the United Nations and to the Organization of American States (OAS), respectively, spoke to a full room of students, faculty, and members of the Hyde Park community on Thursday evening about a new social charter first proposed in the OAS last June.
The event, "Venezuela: A Proposed Social Charter of the Americas," held at the International House, was a continuation of the Latin American briefing series.
Martín Sánchez, a consul at the Venezuelan Chicago Consulate, offered preliminary remarks on the importance of resolving poverty in South America. "In a continent in which 70 percent of people would choose to live under a dictatorship as long as it provides necessary food and comforts, poverty is an important issue to resolve," Sanchez said.
The ambassadors, who spoke in Spanish, had a translator speak to the audience after every few sentences. Pineda spoke first, addressing the need for a new social charter modeled after charters that were ratified in 1948 and in 2001. Pineda said that the charter should be an instrument for ameliorating poverty, inequality, and instituting social justice. "Poverty is the problem of our time and the gravest threat that democracy has in the hemisphere," he said.
Pineda cited a statistic from the Inter-American Development Bank, which calculated that some 280 million people suffer from poverty in the Western hemisphere. In his comments, Pineda drew a direct relationship between income inequality and poverty. "Only if you reduce inequality can you eradicate poverty and achieve steady economic growth," he said.
Pineda stated that Venezuela is passing through a "revolutionary" stage characterized by social forces, previously marginalized, that now exert democratic control of political institutions. He spoke extensively of the new participation of "el pueblo venezolano," referring to the common people of Venezuela. "With the Charter, we will achieve a pacific solution through the citizens exercising their rights," he said. "We seek to return to the Venezuelan his dignity, and create a democracy that transcends all political models, in which social justice prevails."
In closing, Pineda spoke in support of Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez. "Last August 15, a referendum yielded a 60 percent approval rating for Chavez, which makes him the leader with the highest approval of all constitutional presidents in the 34 countries in the [Western] hemisphere," he said.
Toro spoke about human rights in his home country. The translator, who struggled visibly throughout the event, erred in translating Toro's opening remarks, and the ambassador reprimanded him, eliciting approval from the audience as he corrected the error in English: "International society has been transforming slowly, but inexorably, into an international community," he said.
"Today there exists in the international system two conceptions, totally different,"
Toro continued in Spanish. "The first is profoundly humanitarian, planting the necessity of the protection and promotion of human rights of those whose rights are violated. The second conception constitutes a pretext for more powerful states to intervene in the internal affairs of weaker states. Venezuela supports the first conception, but not the second," he said.
Pineda spoke of the Venezuelan social charter as the most modern and extensive catalog of human rights in the western hemisphere. He cited the 1999 constitution as the point of departure for the initiative, when the Venezuelan armed forces renounced repression as a political instrument. "This decision [by the military] has restituted the Venezuela people's human condition, allowing for the unfolding of public opinion to an unprecedented magnitude."
Alicia Menendez, an economist at the Harris School of Public Policy, and the moderator for the event, spoke next. Menendez directed her comments at the audience, speaking exclusively in English. She prefaced her remarks by establishing a moderate, realistic tone.
"I think everyone would agree that levels of poverty in Latin America are unacceptable, and that we should do something about it. However, I believe that in order to find solutions we have to know where we are."
Menendez cited Chile, arguing that it has succeeded in reducing its poverty level to half of what it was in 1990. Later she and Pineda, who did not understand her English, disagreed when he asserted that every single country in Latin America had witnessed rising levels of poverty. They did not discuss the point further, though comments from the audience showed that most supported Pineda's version of the facts.
Addressing the optimism of Pineda and Toro in resolving the poverty issue, Menendez asserted that no state is capable of completely eradicating poverty. "Even richer countries cannot do all of this. I am convinced that governments cannot buy their way out of poverty. We have to set conditions for growth that we are able to sustain. We have to invest in those projects that will bring the highest social benefit," she said.
In highlighting sensible policies, Menendez elaborated the problem of education throughout Latin America. "Free education at the University level does not help the poor, but amounts to giving a subsidy to richer kids. Poorer kids do not finish high school," Menendez noted. "I want to target, I want priorities, because I cannot afford to win everything. In my experience, general statements do not work well with public policy," she said.
In a press conference before the event, Pineda and Toro voiced their anger at the intervention of non-governmental organizations, and particularly the United States, at interfering in the internal affairs of their country.
"President Bush has not respected the sovereignty of Venezuela, and we expect him to rectify his errors," Pineda said. "Sovereignty is for us more important than life itself," he added. In a more conciliatory tone, Pineda said that Venezuela was proud of being the third-highest oil exporting country to the U.S. "We want to be friends to all the countries in the world. We are close friends with the U.S. and we always will be."