Remarks at a Meeting of the Council of the Americas

May 8, 1984

I appreciate this opportunity to be with you today. You may have heard that I will be speaking to the American people tomorrow evening on the very subject that you are discussing here, our responsibilities in this hemisphere. As members of the Council of the Americas, you've fostered cooperation and understanding between the United States and our neighbors in the south.

Having been Governor of California, I've long been aware of the rich Hispanic heritage of our country. The Hispanic heritage that we appreciate so much in our Southwestern States reflects not just our traditions but on the many things which all the peoples of this hemisphere share.

Simon Bolivar, the Great Liberator, saw this natural bond between all Americans. Early in the last century, he said of us, ``We are a special kind of human being. We have a world apart.'' Well, building the ties between our people and the 380 million people in the 33 countries of Latin America has been of utmost importance to this administration.

Our policies toward Latin America are aimed at achieving three consistent and mutually enforcing goals. First, we seek to encourage the development of democratic political institutions. Second, we want to see all the peoples of the Americas better their standard of living and improve the vitality of their economies. Third, we want to help our friends defend themselves from Soviet bloc and Cuban-sponsored subversion.

Some of the most inspirational heroes of human liberty emerged from the struggles for freedom and independence in Latin America. One of them, Jose Marti, a Cuban patriot who found refuge in the United States from a despotic regime in his native land, once said, ``Like bones to the human body, the axle to the wheel, the wing to the bird and the air to the wing, so is liberty the essence of life. Whatever is done without it is imperfect.''

Well, that spirit is alive and growing in Latin America today. Right now, of Latin America's 33 countries, 26 with about 90 percent of the region's population, are either democratic or in transition to democracy. A decade ago, less than 40 percent of Latin America's population was so fortunate.

Transition to democracy in Peru, Ecuador, and the Dominican Republic has been followed more recently by Honduras and Argentina. All of this should give us tremendous hope for the future. No longer can Communist dictatorship be juxtaposed against rightist dictatorship as the only alternative.

In June of 1982, I was honored to speak before the British Parliament, the living monument to democracy. I proposed that the people of free countries take a more active role in encouraging and aiding in the development of democratic institutions such as political parties and civic groups throughout the world. For many years, we'd been doing something similar to that by helping build democratic trade unions. Well, with congressional enactment of the National Endowment for Democracy, another little noticed yet, nevertheless, giant step forward has been made. The National Endowment is now working to strengthen democratic parties, trade unions, business and civic associations, and other democratic institutions.

The times we live in are as challenging and as exciting as any in history. There are people in Latin and Central America who are fighting for their freedom every bit as much as our own forefathers. Last Sunday, this struggle for freedom took the shape of Presidential elections in Ecuador, Panama, and El Salvador.

In El Salvador, unofficial results indicate the winner will be Napoleon Duarte, a Christian Democrat who for more than two decades has been in the forefront of democratic reform and in opposition to the Communist left and the violent right.

We look forward to a cordial and productive working relationship with El Salvador. The fact that the Salvadoran election was held at all rejects the -- or reflects, I should say, the dedication to democracy and personal courage of the people of that troubled land.

The Communist guerrillas warned people not to vote, yet the people defied the threat. The guerrillas mined roads, and still many thousands walked miles to mark their ballots. Each one of these people who braved such threats deserves our greatest respect and admiration.

A member of my National Security Council staff, Jackie Tillman, was down there last Sunday. She was accompanying Members of the Congress and others who were there to witness the elections. She met a young 15-year-old poll watcher and asked him -- 15-year-old -- asked him how he felt about the voting, half expecting a typical, nonchalant, adolescent reply. And instead, he pointed to his heart and very quietly said, ``I feel this voting right here. Well, this is what my country needs,'' he said, ``to defeat the guerrillas and bring peace.'' That lad, and the millions of other courageous individuals like him, people who've maintained their dignity and honor in the face of such adversity, are, indeed, heroes of democracy.

The economic challenges faced in the southern half of this hemisphere appear as monumental as those in the political arena. Yet there's reason for hope. For the three decades after the Second World War, substantial economic progress was made in Latin America. Growth rates, in fact, matched those in the industrialized democracies and improved the standard of living of a significant proportion of the population. At the same time, however, a rapid increase in the population strained resources and left many in dire poverty. The leap in energy prices and the onset of global recession in 1979 was felt the world over. Few places experienced more pain than Latin America and the Caribbean.

While coping with worldwide economic currents must be the primary responsibility of each country, we're doing what we can to help. We increased by over 50 percent the level of bilateral economic assistance over the previous administration. We've continued to support contributions to the World Bank, the Inter-American Bank, and IMF programs, all of which are vital to Latin America. Discreetly, with much care and consideration for political, social, as well as economic consequences, we worked with leaders in government and the private sector to encourage the refinancing of international debts. And your cooperation has been indispensable in this effort.

And last year, the Congress enacted our Caribbean Basin Initiative, a dramatic and innovative approach to progress in Central America and the Caribbean. By opening up one-way free trade to the United States, the world's biggest market, we're bringing the vast resources of the private sector to play in our efforts to improve the lot of 165 million hemispheric neighbors.

There is no magic or instant solution to the economic woes that plague our neighbors to the south, but we can be confident because in the long run, freedom works. During the last century, a Venezuelan intellectual, Andres Bello, noted that ``liberty gives wings to the spirit of enterprise wherever it meets it.'' Well, I believe that. That's what America -- and I mean, when I say ``America,'' from the North Slope of Alaska to the tip of Tierra del Fuego -- what it is all about.

Liberty is, of course, something we can't take for granted. One of the greatest challenges faced by this generation of Americans is in Central America today. If we act responsibly, there's no reason we will not meet this challenge.

As you're aware, a bipartisan commission on Central America, headed by Henry Kissinger, came to that conclusion when they reported in mid-January. In Central America today, freedom-loving people, our friends, are under attack by Soviet bloc- and Cuban-backed insurgents. We're trying our best to help these courageous and decent people develop their democratic institutions and better their economic lot. But if we do nothing or not enough to help them protect themselves, there will be grim consequences to pay. It's not only their security; it's our security.

If the Communists succeed, if we face a flood of refugees and a direct threat on our own southern border, it will not be because we acted, but because we refused to do what was necessary to avert the crisis. And make no mistake, further Communist inroads in Central America will undermine stability in the entire region and make financial problems far more severe. Together, we can make sure that doesn't happen. I'll be speaking more about that tomorrow night.

What a mighty force for good we, the citizens of all this hemisphere, can be. What a potential we have from pole to pole. And yet one should never expect anything worthwhile to come easy. It'll take all of us working together, acting responsibly, and having the courage to face challenges head-on. But have no worry, in the end we can, with God's help, accomplish great things.

I thank you for letting me be with you today. God bless you, and carry on in what you're doing.

Note: The President spoke at 3:15 p.m. in the Loy Henderson Auditorium at the Department of State.