Latin America: A Backlash in Human Rights?

Women from the Association of the Families of the Disappeared demonstrate in front of the palace of the government during the military rule of Pinochet. By Museum of Memory and Human Rights. CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Women from the Association of the Families of the Disappeared demonstrate in front of the palace of the government during the military rule of Pinochet. By Museum of Memory and Human Rights. CC BY-SA 3.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

As a source of political upheaval, Latin America has to a large extent abandoned international news headlines. Since the two-decade-long democratization process unleashed from 1978 to 2000, countries in the region have regularized their political processes, making electoral politics the only game in town. As a result, the most terrible atrocities that shocked the world in places like Argentina and Chile during the 1970s and 1980s and the savage civil wars that ravaged Central America until the early 1990s have become things of the past. Because democratization coincided with an economic overhaul whereby most Latin American countries embraced more stable and open economic policies, there have also been important gains in economic and social rights, such as diminished levels of extreme poverty.

However, making respect for human rights a daily matter in all societies is not an automatic outcome of democratization. First, granting justice for the atrocities of the past, essential to restore confidence in the future, has been a convoluted process with greater gains in countries such as Argentina and Chile, while places like Guatemala and Colombia have experienced a slower trend toward regularization of justice. Second, democracy does not automatically lead to the abolition of human rights violations. It may be a necessary condition but it is certainly not a sufficient one. Third, the democratization process has not necessarily led to fully democratic societies. Extreme presidential regimes have accommodated the long caudillo tradition in the region, in some cases leading to important violations such as the restriction of freedom of the press in Ecuador, the denial of citizenship in the Dominican Republic to hundreds of thousands of Dominicans of Haitian descent, and the manipulation of decisions by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court to allow the president to remain in power. Perhaps the country accumulating the most ample list of violations is Venezuela, where after 15 years of excessive use of force and torture by the police, the use of the judicial system as a political weapon, political apartheid, and the use of economic measures to reduce individuals’ access to economic and social goods have become built-in features of the current regime.

A Swift Democratization

For the last two decades the preferred theme of Latin Americanists was the extent to which democratization in the region would lead to completely democratic countries. Given the 20th century tradition of autocratic forms of government, including highly personalistic rule by populist caudillos, there were justifiable concerns about democratic success in nations only recently overcoming bloody dictatorships, civil wars, or extreme political instability.

The democratization process was pretty swift, perhaps because most countries were able to get rid of one of the major reasons for political unrest: economic instability. After the 1980s, which have been dubbed “The Lost Decade”, many countries of very different political persuasions—right, right-to-center, and center-left—opted for drastic reforms in line with the Washington Consensus. Even if the social impacts were severe—and acutely so in a number of countries—economic reforms cleared the way for greater economic stability and the potential to take advantage of more favorable terms of trade of primary products, which still are the main economic endowment of the typical Latin American nation.

Democratization has been no easy task. Two major factors have been at play. One is that as the military returned to their barracks, extreme right wing forces, usually associated with powerful business groups, accepted that a democratic course was better for the rule of law and for taking advantage of a better economic environment. The second factor is that almost all parties and groups leaning to the left of the political spectrum also realized that democracy is in the interest of the majority of the population. In fact, the 21st century has witnessed a solid trend where the left has won election after election.

There are, naturally, some exceptions, such as the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia—People’s Army) and other minor guerrilla groups in Colombia. Even there, peace negotiations have been taking place for the last two years between the Santos administration and the FARC-EP and peace now seems to be an attainable goal in the longest armed conflict in the world. This democratization trend in Latin America has been amply supported by public opinion in the region. Latinobarometro, a regular poll including all countries in the region (with the exception of Cuba), shows that between 1996 and 2008 a solid majority of people responded with a strong preference for democracy over authoritarianism.

Seeking Accountability with the Past

In societies that have experienced massive political murder, kidnappings, torture, or even genocide, recovering a sense of justice is essential for democracy to become credible and stable. This difficult process of transitional justice refers to a number of mechanisms that include bringing perpetrators to justice, granting reparations to victims, hosting truth commissions, enforcing partial amnesties, and implementing a gamut of reconciliation measures. As Pablo de Greiff, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, wrote in Colombia’s Semana weekly magazine, “transitional justice is not a peculiar type of justice, far less a ‘soft’ form of justice, but a strategy for allowing rights to gain ground under transitional circumstances.”

Human rights advocates and specialists argue that without some combination of the aforementioned measures it is difficult to grant a wider sense of justice to those societies. Scholars such as Kathryn Sikkink have argued that activism on the part of international, regional, and national organizations, as well as the positive precedent set by a few countries have had an important impact in widening the response by societies to crimes committed on a wide scale.

 In Latin America, the country setting the best example for transitional justice was Argentina. A number of factors made that possible. First, the transition from dictatorship did not result from a negotiation but instead occurred after the defeat of the Argentine army in the Falklands (Malvinas) War. Thus, its leverage was at its weakest, so the amnesty executive order approved as the military abandoned power was reversed. Second, the human rights movement was very vibrant and composed of an array of organizations with different political persuasions. Given the bulk of the victims (greater than the population of Brazil, Uruguay, and Chile combined), the pressure has been permanent to this day. Third, because bringing perpetrators to justice was everything but straightforward—a second amnesty was granted to the higher rank officers shortly after they had been condemned in a civilian court—pro-justice governments and human rights advocates had to find different ways to keep the momentum. One method consisted of presenting an appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, while another involved contesting the constitutionality of amnesty laws in local courts. Finally, the Argentine criminal justice system allowing for “private prosecutions” opened new legal routes to incriminate both the big and the small fish.

No other countries experiencing atrocities similar to those of Argentina have provided such a solid response, both in legal and political terms. The extent to which justice has been granted has depended on the political-military conditions prevailing by the end of the conflicts. Chile, for instance, was reluctant to include in daily judicial decisions judgments on human rights, as the ruling elite deemed human rights a highly politicized theme. This trend continued even after the dictator was forced to step down after a defeat in a referendum. It was only in October 1998, when the British government arrested Augusto Pinochet after an indictment by a Spanish judge, that both Chile and Britain agreed that the former dictator would be prosecuted in his own country, leading to his release. This unexpected event changed the process of transitional justice in Chile and paved the way for expediting justice for many perpetrators that had remained covered by a mantle of silence.

Similarly, in January 2013 in a widely reported case, Guatemala’s former president General Ríos Montt was taken to court under charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. Allegedly, under his watch during the early 1980s around 100 villages of Guatemalans of Mayan descent were murdered by the army. A few years earlier the thought of bringing a former president to justice would have been unthinkable, but with the United Nations supporting the overhaul of the judicial system, the emergence of a new generation of legal and forensic specialists, and the revival of human rights organizations this became possible. In May 2013 he was convicted for the genocide of 1,770 indigenous Ixil Mayans but the sentence was later overturned by another judge for “procedural errors.” However, the trial, made public and shown on television, allowed Guatemalan society to watch hundreds of testimonies of family members of the victims of the massacres. Even if it is unclear where a new trial will lead, Guatemalan society will not be the same.

A witness testifies during the genocide trial of former Guatemalan military dictator Ríos Montt. By Helena Hermosa/Trocair. CC BY 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

A witness testifies during the genocide trial of former Guatemalan military dictator Ríos Montt. By Helena Hermosa/Trocair. CC BY 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

New Wine in Old Bottles

While democratization has helped settle deep political scores from the recent past, clearing the way for more credible justice systems in many countries, new problems have emerged that cloud the picture of human rights in the region. In particular, rising crime in the long stripe going all the way from Mexico’s border with the United States to Venezuela, Brazil, and some parts of the Caribbean has become a worrisome trend, as argued by the 2013 UNDP report, Citizen Security with a Human Face.

Though violence associated with crime can originate from different sources, it seems incontestable that drug trafficking has served as fuel for its expansion and deepening along the cited corridor. The drug issue has fired up violence in other forms, such as the maras phenomenon of bloody juvenile delinquency in countries like El Salvador; the control of certain border districts by criminal organizations in Guatemala and Honduras; and the collusion of the criminal organizations with local, regional, and sometimes national police in several countries. It has been argued that the recent trend of immigrant children entering the United States mainly from El Salvador originates from the uncertain future of children facing impending violent lives.

The most salient case, however, is Mexico. With the launch of a national battle against drug trafficking under the Calderón administration (2006-2012), it soon became clear that the country’s institutional mechanisms were not up to the task of pursuing the war against drugs along the entire value chain of law enforcement. This challenge forced the administration to bring in the army to confront the drug trafficking organizations. The result has been a long wave of violence that has infected Mexico for the last eight years, causing a dramatic loss of human life, a lack of security in cities, and a long list of human rights violations by non-state actors, the army, and the police. The recent kidnapping and massacre of 43 college students in Iguala, a small city in the state of Guerrero by a combination of the mayor, the local police, and the drug cartel operating in the area, has brought again to the forefront the drama of violence in Mexico—in this case a combination of politics and criminal groups. The effort made by the Peña Nieto administration to temper the national drama of violence through a forceful program of economic and social reforms has been yet again reduced to mid-term illusions in the face of the assassination of students, one of the groups that until now had been spared by drug trafficking organizations.

Another type of problem surfacing in the region is related to ethnic divisions due to differences in race, culture, language, and nationality. The most extreme case is that of the Dominican Republic, where different administrations and the judicial system have continuously taken actions against nationals of Haitian descent. A long trend of discrimination, especially regarding electoral and citizenship rights ended up in a case brought before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2005, which ruled against the Dominican state for violating its constitution when it rejected two Dominican children their right to a nationality. Sadly, the response was a greater retrenchment by all powers in the country against these Dominicans of Haitian heritage. Statelessness has become more troubling since a September 23, 2013 constitutional court decision. The ruling has the potential to increase the stateless population to over 200,000 de jure stateless persons.

The Backlash

Unfortunately, the human rights violations taking place in the region are not exclusively a matter of new trends. Democratization itself has not occurred without difficulties. For starters, Latin America’s strongmen and caudillo traditions have translated into occasionally extreme presidential regimes where other constitutional powers end up at the mercy of the strong president’s decisions or favors. In practical terms, presidential reelection has become the favored mechanism of regimes from both left and right. While presidents such as Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil or Néstor Kirchner in Argentina were reelected for one additional term only, others like Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have achieved what amounts to permanent reelection, giving birth to dubious regimes that some scholars have characterized as hybrid or “competitive authoritarian” regimes. Additionally, let us not forget that the 2009 crisis in Honduras arose in part from moves made by former President Manuel Zelaya to test the waters for a plausible reelection. The latest incumbent to announce the possibility of a third reelection has been Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa.

This trend toward presidents remaining in power has resulted in the weakening of a host of civil and political rights. During President Álvaro Uribe’s era in Colombia the balance was mixed. He had great success in combating the FARC-EP and weakening the paramilitaries’ activities. However, perhaps due to that success and the polarization that ensued, his rule resulted in many arbitrary actions against journalists, social leaders, and human rights defenders, some of whom were persecuted (and in some instances murdered) for their ideas. At the same time, some of the president’s supporters allegedly maneuvered to allow former paramilitary groups to appoint their preferred political barons in a number of regions where they exercised important military control. To the country’s fortune, even before Uribe left power things began to change in Colombia. As a result, an important number of elected deputies and senators were indicted and put in prison and, as mentioned previously, there are currently peace negotiations underway.

In Ecuador there is a different paradox. After Rafael Correa entered the political scene, the country began to recover a sense of stability. Despite promoting important economic and social improvements, the main target of the president’s powers has been freedom of the press. With full support from Congress and the judiciary, the president has promoted legislation limiting ownership of media outlets and criminalizing opinions, and he personally confronts media outlets when they openly criticize him or his administration. The most well known examples are those of El Universo, a newspaper from Guayaquil with a large audience and Hoy,  another dissenting media group. During a confusing episode in November 2010 when policemen from Quito declared a strike, the president went in person to resolve it. As a result, the police rioted and held the president captive for around 10 hours. The president reacted by accusing the police of a coup. El Universo took a different stance and one of their op-ed pieces accused the president of dictatorial manners. Correa immediately retaliated, charging the newspaper with near treason and sued it for an amount that would have led it to bankruptcy. The editorial writer fled the country and following the pattern of other media, El Universo has resorted to self-censorship. Recently, the newspaper Hoy was forced to close down after economic pressures and an equally aggressive campaign from the government. Again, the accumulation of power in presidents’ hands has proven to be a burden for achieving stronger democracies in Latin America.

However, no rulers in the region can compare to the direct damage made by Hugo Chávez and his successor Nicolás Maduro to human rights in Venezuela and the collateral damage to the region as a whole. The deterioration of human rights during the Chávez era has been well documented by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Amnesty International, and other national and international organizations. Given his long-term purpose and electoral mandate to radically transform Venezuelan society, individual and collective rights that stood in the way of that process were systematically transgressed. President Chávez, who called his regime a “revolutionary” project, always considered the political opposition an internal enemy. For him dissent was not a political right, it was short of treason and those who expressed it ought to be persecuted. As a result, through state laws and policies, the domestic implementation of international human rights standards on civil and political rights receded substantially. HRW has stated that under Chávez’s several administrations “the concentration of power and erosion of human rights protections [gave] the government free rein to intimidate, censor, and prosecute Venezuelans who criticized the president or thwarted his political agenda.”

In December 2012, before passing away, Chávez appointed Nicolás Maduro as caretaker of the revolution. In April 2013, Maduro was elected president with a margin of less than 1percent against his contender. Ever since, Maduro’s government has showed a harsher stance on human rights. When in February 2014 student unrest unraveled, the Maduro administration opted for an outright repressive police and military response. Several police branches, the National Guard, and armed militia groups—colectivos (collectives)—set out a strong wave of repression with a substantial legal backing by the prosecutor’s office and the courts. According to a recent report by Foro Penal and Provea, two prominent Venezuelan human rights organizations, as of August 2014 the balance is 43 deaths (23 shot), 854 wounded, around 3,293 detentions (of which 1,724 were freed under cautionary measures), 154 tortured, two mayors and a legislator stripped of their elected offices, and a major opposition leader accused of being an instigator of the upheaval.

Presidents of the member nations of CELAC (Community of Latin American and Caribbean States) at the first summit in 2011. By Presidency of the Nation of Argentina. CC BY-SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Presidents of the member nations of CELAC (Community
of Latin American and Caribbean States) at the first summit in 2011. By Presidency of the Nation of Argentina. CC BY-SA 2.0, accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

The international impact of the Bolivarian revolution has also been felt in the weakening of the Organization of American States and particularly of the inter-American human rights system. Venezuela has not allowed missions from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2002. Despite its promotion of a host of new regional organizations (Union of South American Nations in South America and Community of Latin American and Caribbean States in the entire region with the exception of Canada and the United States), Venezuela denounced the Inter-American Human Rights Charter in 2012, announcing the decision to quit the organization. Venezuela finally abandoned the system a year later. Other countries like Bolivia and Ecuador have on occasions made public declarations regarding similar actions and, with Venezuela, promoted an internal reform of the region’s human rights system. Had they succeeded, inter-American human rights organizations would have ended up greatly impaired. Fortunately, a majority of countries chose a prudent path. However, a number of recent decisions by the Court point to a more lenient view toward strong governments. It would seem that the spirit of strong presidential regimes has also transpired into the working of most regional organizations and their ways of doing their business.

Once again, Latin America faces a critical crossroads. What is at stake today is a path of either sustained democratization—expanding a greater fulfillment of human rights—or the advance of institutions, practices, or even full-blown regimes where civil and political rights are more fiction than reality. Hopefully the region will choose the former.

About Author

Leonardo Vivas

Leonardo Vivas is a lecturer on Latin America in the Global Studies and International Relations Program at Northeastern University. He has also served as the director of the Latin American Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy Jr. School of Government.