Keynote Address by Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield at the Second Summit for Democracy in San José, Costa Rica

Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
San José, Costa Rica
March 30, 2023


Good afternoon, and thank you, Foreign Minister André, for that very generous introduction. I’m very honored.

The United States is pleased to co-host this second Summit of Democracy with the Governments of Costa Rica, the Netherlands, Republic of Korea, and Republic of Zambia.

And thank you to everyone joining us, in-person, and online. I’m particularly excited to see all of the young people who have joined us today and who are engaging in this event. We’re here today to focus on you – to promote your role in political and democratic spaces. After all, you are not only the future of democracy. You are also the present. And so, I’m glad you are present with us today.

I want to start by thanking President Chaves and the Government and people of Costa Rica for welcoming us to your country. All of us, across the hemisphere, are so grateful for your hospitality. As a career diplomat, coming here made me curious about the long history of distinguished American ambassadors here in Costa Rica.

Right now, we’re proud to have Ambassador Cynthia Telles representing us. Welcome, Ambassador. In this role – (applause) – she follows in the footsteps of her father, the great Ambassador Raymond Telles, the first Hispanic American ever appointed a U.S. ambassador. Speaking of firsts, Terrance Todman, a personal hero of mine, became one of the first Black ambassadors from the United States to a Latin American country when he took up residence here.

But before any of these legends came, there was Alexander Dimitry. He served here from 1859 to 1861. He came from the great state of Louisiana, which is where I grew up and which is still very close to my heart. He attended Georgetown University, an institution where I also proudly taught before this role. He then returned to Louisiana and created and organized the free school system there. He spoke 11 languages. He was a brilliant man.

But there was something else that was very unusual about him for an American ambassador of that day and age: He was not white. His father was Greek, and his mother was creole, a mix of African, Greek, and French descent. Which made him the first person of color to attend Georgetown, and arguably the first-ever ambassador of color from the United States.

Here in Costa Rica, he was respected for his intellect and his deep love and knowledge of the region. So, it might have been surprising that in 1861 he quickly dropped the job he loved and returned back to Louisiana. The reason: the United States was at war with itself.

And here’s the twist: Alexander Dimitry chose the wrong side. He betrayed his country by taking an administrative post in the Confederate government. He not only failed his country, but he failed a hard test of democracy. He supported a rebellion against our democratically elected president, Abraham Lincoln.

I share this story to make a simple point: democracy is difficult. Every country has to grapple with those who seek to undermine it. So, I’m not here to lecture you, or to lecture any person or any country, on how to be a democracy. I’m not here to say it’s easy, because it’s not.

Instead, we come here with humility and with lessons learned that we want to share. As the world’s oldest surviving democracy, the United States has seen its fair share of challenges. From the Whiskey Rebellion during the first years of our nation’s history, to the Civil War, to the attacks on our Capitol on January 6, time and time again we have been forced to face down those who would undermine the will of the people. And so, it’s no wonder we see the challenges all around the world today.

For many years, the civil society group Freedom House has tracked the number of countries that have become more democratic and compared that to the number of countries that have seen democratic declines. For 17 years in a row, the number of countries that have lost freedoms has been bigger than the number of countries that have gained freedoms. In other words, overall, the world has consistently become less democratic. Less fair. Less free.

But according to this year’s report, we may be approaching a turning point. The gap has shrunk. For the first time in nearly two decades, the number of countries that became less free was about the same as the number of countries that became more free. We’ve begun to change the tide.

For his part, President Biden similarly believes we are at an inflection point. He believes that the decisions we make in the coming years will determine the course of the world for decades to come.

The question is: Can we still do big things, together?

Can we seize the future and all of its possibilities?

Can we demonstrate once and for all that democracies deliver for their people?

Right now, we are. And I see at least three reasons why.

First, people around the globe are recognizing the limits of authoritarianism. From Moscow to Managua, from Beijing to Caracas to Tehran, these regimes have chosen corruption and control over care and competence.

In the People’s Republic of China, for example, the authoritarian government enforced a strict zero-COVID policy through repression and propaganda. This resulted in communities desperate for food, in whole cities where people were barely able to step outside. This led to a cascade of deaths. And that led to powerful protests, people standing up for their fundamental freedoms.

Similarly, in Iran, Mahsa Amini’s death at the hands of the so-called “Morality Police” sparked peaceful protests across the country. The Iranian regime responded by torturing peaceful protestors, arresting tens of thousands of people, and killing men and women and children in the streets. This is not a convincing argument for authoritarianism.

Russia has also helped disabuse the world of the notion that autocracies are ascendant. Putin thought that when he invaded Ukraine, Kyiv would quickly fall, and Europe would crumble and bend to his will. He did not believe that the democracies of the world would stand together. He was sorely mistaken. By striking at the heart of the UN Charter, Putin only helped band us closer together, and reminded us of what we value most and what we share in common. Now, Russian families are questioning why their husbands and sons are being sent to die in a pointless, needless, illegal, immoral war. If you were to choose – if you were free to choose to live anywhere, would anyone choose to live under such a regime?

The same is true right next door in Nicaragua, where people live in fear of their oppressive government. The regime targets anyone it deems a threat and has used repressive laws to strip the legal status of thousands of NGOs trying to help local communities. The result has been a total loss of hope. Refugees, vulnerable migrants, asylum seekers are fleeing their homes in search of a better life – somewhere where the government supports the people.

All of this leads me to my second point: that democracies are currently demonstrating with vigor, together, that we can better – we are better at delivering for our people. At our first Democracy Summit, nearly 100 governments made commitments to advance democracy, defend human rights, fight corruption, and counter authoritarianism. Then we called on the democracies of the world to deliver during a “Year of Action.” And we have.

Over the past two days, we have heard a great deal about the breadth and depth of that progress. And it is astonishing. For our part, the United States is proud to have delivered major advances on infrastructure, healthcare, climate, and manufacturing for the American people. We are building roads and bridges across America. We are providing healthcare reforms that save lives, and jobs that pay a decent wage. We’ve made the biggest climate investment in history, one which will spur clean energy investments all over the world. And we’re delivering both at home and abroad. Our shared prosperity is deeply connected to our shared security.

Of course, we’ve been proud to see other summit partners make good on their commitments too. In the Dominican Republic, for example, the government promised to modernize its anti-corruption laws. Last year, the government did exactly that, signing a bill that established dozens of local-level anti-corruption commissions and ethics offices around the country.

Similarly in Ecuador, where I just came from, the government followed on a summit commitment and established a National Anti-Corruption strategy.

These commitments and so many others show the people of the world that democracies deliver. Democracies are making our daily lives better. And democracies have our backs. Because while I don’t want to speak for other countries about your domestic agendas, your accomplishments speak for themselves.

Our citizens are seeing results. Our societies are freer. Our economies are stronger. Our efforts to combat challenges like COVID-19 are more effective. Our people are happier. We have much to be proud of. But we also still have so much work to do.

Which brings me to my third and final reason that we are closing the democracy gap: young people are stepping up. We see this in repressive regimes, like in Iran and Burma and China, where protests are being led in particular by young people who refuse to give up on human rights and fundamental freedoms. But we are also seeing young people leading in places like Chile, where you recently helped elect a 37-year-old president. That kind of representation is important, because right now, more than half of the world’s population is under the age of 30. You are the world’s largest generation of young people in history. And you have been calling our attention to the crises that matter to you most, from climate change to universal human rights.

After the first Democracy Summit, governments, civil society, and the private sector came together to form democracy cohorts. These are platforms to collaborate on a wide range of issues, from financial transparency to media freedoms to information integrity.

The Youth Political Participation cohort is particularly active and has been a central supporter of today’s event. Through the leadership of your co-leads – the European Commission, Ghana, Nepal, Costa Rica, the European Partnership for Democracy, the European Youth Democracy Network, and AfricTivistes – you have produced a whole slate of outcomes, including a Handbook on Youth Participation and a menu of draft commitments, which were presented to me today by young people.

Unfortunately, despite these and so many other extraordinary efforts, far too many young people are still excluded from informing the policies that impact their lives. That’s especially true for those who experience discrimination and marginalization. When I spoke to a number of you earlier, you told me how important it is that your voices are heard, that how important it is for us to invest in you. From my vantage point, we do need to invest in you. We need to engage you. We need to empower you. After all, you are inheriting not only our successes, but also our failures and our challenges.

The truth is my generation has not always gotten it right. That’s how it always goes. The folks who come before you try our best. But we know that we get a lot wrong. So, for every generation there comes a moment where you have to learn new lessons and find new ways of building a better world. And for you, that time is now.

We’re looking to you for your leadership. We’re looking to you to rebuild and refresh our policies, our economies, our health systems. We’re looking to you to steward our communities, our countries, our hemisphere, our world, in the right direction. But it’s on you – it’s on us to include you. To not just give you a seat at the table, but to put you at the head of the table.

And that’s why today, I’m thrilled to announce that, together with the Community of Democracies, we are launching the global Youth Democracy Network. The Youth Democracy Network will provide a direct line for young people to reach government officials. It will ensure you are essential players in the policymaking process.

We will also select Network participants for an annual Youth Democracy Fellowship. These fellowships will provide opportunities that will strengthen our democracies. Opportunities like studying how to end corruption, working with civil society to defend human rights, or engaging with international and domestic government officials.

Our vision is to inspire, to train, and unite the next generation of civic leaders and activists. And we’re asking everyone to join us in building this out. Because we need you to transform this turning point into a trendline. To ensure that governments around the world include all people in political life and decision-making.

Young and old. Men and women and children. LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, Afro-descendants, and Indigenous people. All religious groups. All minority groups. Everyone. Democracy must be representative. It must be inclusive. And it must be universal.

This year, we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We need to make these rights real, for everyone. This year, we mark the halfway point to the Sustainable Development Goals. We need to come together and meet those goals, no matter what it takes.

This year, we have talked a lot about democratic backsliding. But backsliding implies a straight line. That you can only move forward or backward. The reality is there will be twists and turns. There will be ups and downs. Curves and arcs and spirals.

But it’s up to us to make sure that line gets where it needs to go. To bend it forward toward freedom, toward justice for all.

The work is far from finished. We have so much left to do. Let’s do it together.

Let’s show up to our elections. Let’s do the hard work of showing up between elections. In public service and through civil society, by backing the freedom of the press and the work of the judiciary. And let’s show up where there are no elections, where the elections are far from fair and free, and help those who seek to have their voices heard. Let’s ensure young people are at the forefront of that work, leading the charge.

And together, let’s build a freer, more democratic world for us all.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)