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Noreiga: Indigenous Advancement in the Americas

Indigenous Advancement in the Americas
OpEd By Roger F. Noriega, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs

See below for publication information
October 7, 2004

While touring the newly opened National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, the first indigenous Peruvian democratically elected in 500 years, said he believed that ''we are witnessing a movement that is going to be very difficult to stop. What we are asking for is to be included into the life of this country and the Americas. . .we the people who were originally here.''

Indeed, improving access to the political process for the region's long-marginalized indigenous communities is essential to solidifying democracy in the Americas.

No effort to institutionalize democracy and economic opportunity in the hemisphere will succeed if these groups, numbering some 40 million, do not believe they have a stake in this historic process and that their involvement will bring meaningful benefits to their lives.

It is an important foreign policy goal of the United States to reach out to these traditionally disadvantaged populations throughout the hemisphere and work to incorporate these groups into their country's political and economic mainstream.

I recently returned from a trip to the Andean region where I met with indigenous leaders and was able see first-hand the impact of U.S. development programs on their daily lives.

In Bolivia, important U.S. resources are focused on economic and social development projects in the city of El Alto, with its heavily indigenous and politically active population. In Ecuador, the U.S. Embassy is pursuing a comprehensive program reaching out to native communities. U.S. officials regularly meet with indigenous leaders to discuss their concerns and how such issues as free trade negotiations and Ecuador's relations with the IMF can positively affect their lives.

Our development programs throughout the Andean region now promote economic alternatives to coca production by encouraging the cultivation of other kinds of crops in an environmentally sustainable way and improving access to markets. In Peru, voluntary coca eradication programs with complementary alternative development projects have benefited many communities in the coca-affected areas--in fact, they have been so popular that we have requested additional funds to expand the program.

Within the inter-American community, the OAS has proposed an Inter-American Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Discussion of the Draft Declaration, under way since 1999, has led to in-depth exchanges among hemispheric governments and indigenous representatives over many sensitive issues. Progress has been steady, and the United States will redouble its efforts to reach final agreement on the text of this declaration.

Working with indigenous communities offers great opportunities for strengthening democratic reform and for overcoming the legacy of poverty--to the potential benefit of all the hemisphere's citizens. No government can be deemed truly democratic unless all its citizens enjoy access to the country's political and social infrastructure and are afforded a real chance at economic opportunity.

Not only is the inclusion of neglected groups important to maintain political and social stability, but it also brings important economic benefits. In order to defeat poverty and remain competitive in a globalized world, individual governments must take the essential measures to unleash the productive capacities of all their citizens.

But in order for this process of inclusion to be realized, the region's present political leadership must accelerate efforts to reform outdated and ineffective institutions--including government agencies, political parties, and judicial systems--so that they are better able to meet the increased demands and expectations from marginalized groups in an orderly, coherent fashion.

If not, what should be hailed as a major accomplishment on the road to solidifying democracy may instead bring increased socio-ethnic strife, political polarization, and economic stagnation.

The United States will continue to support necessary reforms by promoting democracy, defending human rights, fighting poverty, and promoting prosperity. As the region's largest market, we are keenly aware that trade benefits and preferences are a crucial component of any effort to assist the region economically and socially.

It is in both the United States' and the region's interest to continue working together to close the gap between the promise of democracy and its practice throughout the hemisphere today. Indeed, the true test of any fully functioning democracy is the manner in which it protects the most disadvantaged of its citizens.

This Op-Ed was published in the following newspapers: Noticias (Paraguay) 10/7/ 04 and El Heraldo (Honduras) 10/9/04.


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