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From an anti-rights rhetoric to public policy: the rise of authoritarianism in Latin America

Érica Guevara, regional director for Amnesty International in Latin America: “Social movements are the only thing challenging the increasing number of repressive policies in Latin America.” Interview. Español

Francesc Badia oficial.jpg
Erika Guevara Francesc Badia i Dalmases
1 July 2019
he Tijuana side of the U.S.-Mexico Border. (Photo by Michael Nigro) PA Images. All rights reserved

Francesc Badia i Dalmases: Perhaps with the exception of Mexico, the presidential elections of 2018 have resulted in a significant shift, highlighting the end of the Pink Tide alongside the arrival of more authoritarian and conservative governments, among which Bolsonaro particularly stands out. What have been the advances and setbacks in recent years?

Érica Guevara: From the perspective of Amnesty International, we feel a sense that things are going backwards in the region. Setbacks closely linked to the anti-rights rhetoric have gained strength in the region; it is not that it didn’t exist before, but now it is much stronger, and it more evident than in the past.

Because of this, I think that all the social and rights-based movements in the region take the up the role of resistance, reaction and they not necessarily proactive in trying to move the agenda forward. In the last 2 years, with the change in the political climate, we are witnessing setbacks that are go beyond the symbolic – they are not just discourse or rhetoric , but are becoming public policy, legislation and are reflected in how countries in the region are being governed.

The case of Brazil is talked about a lot. But we can’t forget the United States and the election of Donald Trump because, although US policy has remained similar, (perhaps with a more aggressive tone), the truth is that Trump’s election signifies a different way to do politics. Since Trump’s election campaign anti-rights, discriminatory, racist, negative language has come into the open. And even so, it took Trump into office.

Then in South America, we have Brazil. Bolsonaro started the campaign with a reputation of not only being anti rights, but also racist and discriminatory. Now six months into his administration we are seeing how he is trying to transform this into public policy through changes in legislation, decrees and public expenditure in ways which end up affecting the historically most marginalized communities and social groups, such as the indigenous communities, quilombolas, women, and LGTBI groups.

These are two very clear examples of how the region is experiencing setbacks in terms of human rights. And there is also a failure to address other challenges in the region: Latin America continues to be the most violent region of the world in terms of homicide rates. Latin America and the Caribbean has 8% of the world’s population but between 35 and 37% of the of the number of homicides, and a quarter of the world’s homicides happen in only four countries of the region: Venezuela, Brazil, Colombia and Mexico. States have failed to respond to this. The countries of Latin America rank higher even than countries in other regions where there is armed conflict.

The Colombian situation is a matter for despair, it is very worrying.

FB: Speaking of armed conflict, there is a lot of disappointment in Colombia…

EG: Four years ago, we were talking, perhaps with too much optimism, about the peace process in Colombia and the end of the last internationally recognised armed conflict in the region. But despite an agreement being signed between the government and FARC and the commitment to initiate the peace process, what we see today is a total failure.

Armed groups are reorganising and, a stronger version of the paramilitary groups and of guerrilla group such as the ELN and some dissident factions of FARC now occupy whole areas. Once again, Colombia ranks as the second country in the world in terms of the numbers of internally displaced people, and additionally, there is a refugee crisis in neighbouring Venezuela with 1.6 million people in the border area.

If security continues to deteriorate, at some point Colombians will begin leaving for Panama or Ecuador again, now that Venezuela is no longer an option for those looking for refuge from the violence of the conflict. The Colombian situation is a matter for despair, it is very worrying.

FB: The pressures of migrants has been a factor that has been emphasised a lot in the past two or three years. This unprecedented crisis has impacted host and transit countries which has led to the tightening of migration policies. How can we tackle this issue?

EG: This crisis is the result of failed policies of states when it comes to protecting the people who live in their territories. The fact that people have been forced to leave their countries is a key symptom of this complete failure.

We already had a crisis, which we called the crisis of invisibility, before the Central American situation, particularly in the northern triangle (Honduras, El Salvador y Guatemala) due to the constant flow of people in need of protection travelling through these countries that served as a transit corridor through Mexico to the United States.

For many years we have documented the very serious human rights violations that this population has faced, not only in their countries of origin but also in transit with massacres, rapes and forced disappearances.

Even so, today we now see a different phenomenon in Central America and a new form of mobilisation: the ‘caravans’ of migration have made clear the need people have to leave. But it is not clear that there is a significant increase in the numbers of people leaving.

The caravans do not seem to mean that more people are in transit along these routes. They represent, above all, new ways of migrating and if you listen to people’s experiences what you hear is that people are simply looking for better protection. They have greater visability when travelling and they get more attention from states. The caravans provide organisation which creates a degree of protection, which they haven’t received from states of origin, transit, or destination.

Despite the hardening of the US migration and refugee policy, as well as in its neighbouring countries such as Mexico (the current government has significantly increased the number of Central American deportations), the flow of migrants is not going to stop, it will continue, just with greater risk and increased vulnerability.

We also have the Venezuelan crisis. According to the UNHCR, 3.7 million Venezuelan people have had to leave their country in search of protection, of which 90% are in South American countries such as Colombia or Peru. These are countries that don’t have a tradition of asylum. Nor do they have the capacity to absorb this population. In other countries like Brazil, historically some of the host populations have been marginalised and vulnerable. In general, we are no longer seeing the warm welcome that some communities received when the numbers were much smaller.

Then there are the serious violations of human rights in Nicaragua. This has resulted in a refugee crisis of its own, which largely remains invisible, the UNHCR says there 55 thousand people waiting for their refugee requests to be processed. These are emerging crises that have not yet been seen by the international community.

November 18, 2018, Mexico, Tijuana: Guadalupe Barrarera meets a sign "No more caravans" in a demonstration against migrants. On the left, a protester with a sign "Let's save Tijuana - No more caravans." Photo: Ameli. All rights reserved.None

FB: There is also the worry about the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which is suffering from a number of financial problems. Although there have been some interesting developments in the Court, many difficulties persist. How do you think we can tackle this challenge?

EG: I would say that is not only the Court but the Inter-American system as a whole that is in crisis. The Court has often been the only way in which people can access certain elements of justice and truth and which it has created the possibility of ensuring that the voices of victims and the organisations that accompany are heard by states or before a Commission or a Working Group.

Despite this there are attempts to undermine the independence and autonomy of the system through for example, the reduction of financial contributions from the state. There is also political interference in Inter-American human rights mechanism from states.

When it comes to condemning the serious violations of human rights in Venezuela and Nicaragua everyone applauds but when the Commission begins to challenge human rights in other countries, such as Brazil, Colombia or Chile, then these states become defensive and make arguments about sovereignty and external interference.

Recently, there was a declaration signed by five countries (Brazil, Colombia, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina) arguing that the Inter-American system should focus on the undemocratic countries, and let the democratic states preserve their independence and autonomy. This is an example of attempted interference, trying to undermine the role of the Inter-America system.

And the system, in and of itself, faces other big challenges linked to the lack of financing and the political obstacles imposed by the states. The Court has accumulated delays in relation to historical cases, its proceedings are long, and a case may take up to ten years to receive a judgement. The sentences are, binding but end up not being implemented.

But even so, the Inter-American system will continue to be a fundamental pillar in the demanding of human rights in the region. And it must continue, therefore, to demand autonomy and independence.

FB: Another worrying topic, with regards to human rights, is the situation in prisons. Prison policy, the massacres that occur regularly, the overcrowding. What can we do in the absence of evolving prison policy in this region?

EG: The issue of mass incarceration continues to be one of the greatest challenges of the criminal system. In the region, the criminal justice system is closely linked to the fact that states respond to social problems in the region by militarizing them. The state tries to respond to violence but instead it feeds it, for example by relaxing the law on firearms, as in Brazil.

The prison population, in the last 10 years, has increased across the Americas (including the USA) by 20%. There are some countries where it has increased by up to 40%. In some cases, the state has passed its responsibility to provide for the needs of its prisoners to the private sector and in other places the justice system simply doesn’t work. In extreme cases, such as Brazil, more than 50% of the prison population is there because they have been on awaiting final sentence for between 7 and 10 years.

In the US there are challenges of overcrowding; there are prisons which have a capacity of 500 prisoners but are holding 1,500 people. There are extreme cases, like in Honduras and El Salvador, where prisons have become centres of operation for organised crime groups and the state has lost territorial control within prisons. Mixed in with these is the prison population that is not linked to armed crime and those waiting years simply to come to trial, whose rights are being violated by prolonged detention.

Cases of torture have been increasing in the region. In Mexico torture is a common practise and there are no investigations into allegations of torture even when there is evidence. The situation in prisons reflects the serious human rights crisis that the region is facing.

Movements of indigenous peoples, rural movements, and more organized movements such as the feminist movement, have undoubtedly achieved something extraordinary which is to change the social paradigm

FB: There are a number of topics that have gained relevance in the region because of increased mobilisation, such as the struggle that indigenous people face and sexual and reproductive rights. Are there steps forward, at least in terms of a growing social consciousness of the rights of women and minorities, even though legislatively no real change has been noticed?

EG: I would say that it is the social and human rights movements that continue to resist, in spite of the violence they face. Above all, the citizenship movements that arise spontaneously and are organised using social media or in the streets. They continue to be the challenge to repression.

Movements of indigenous peoples, rural movements, and more organized movements such as the feminist movement, have undoubtedly achieved something extraordinary which is to change the social paradigm. This is the example in Argentina, which has enjoyed greater visibility lately, where there has been a social movement for decades and which is now paying off. They have succeeded in mass mobilisation mostly of young people, young women, who have taken to the streets not only as an act of resistance, but also to challenge Congress. For the first time, they have brought together a coalition of politicians who pushed for a legal reform. Even though the law did not pass through Congress, it will come back, and the fight will continue on the streets.

The green handkerchief has become an emblem across the continent and in other countries across the world as well. This shows that, although the legislative changes were not achieved, something even more important was the change of the social paradigm, an acceptance that issues such as abortion can be talked about more openly as a way influencing policy makers. This is something admirable, a lesson that we have to continue to learn.

FB: As activists, and in terms of the human rights agenda, what would be your priorities? What is the most urgent issue?

EG: Any human rights agenda should be focused on the exercise of the fundamental social and economic rights. We need to look at how states are responding to the basic needs of their population, to climate of violence that is linked to the infringement of these rights. In many cases repressive and violent responses are creating a climate where social and economic rights are becoming a utopian idea.

The priorities on the agenda include the protection of marginalised groups such as indigenous people and rural communities and the defence of their territories. Equally important, and increasingly more urgent, is the protection of the environment. Especially in a global context, where all of humanity is at risk.

For us, as Amnesty, it remains a priority to protect those who lead the struggles. This is important across the region; we see violations in Canada. Today we are once again confronted with a situation in which civil rights are being attacked by states.

Not only torture, but also systematic policies of repression such as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, or the increase in assassinations of leaders of social movements in countries such as Brazil or Colombia, should also be a fundamental issue on the agenda.

We must unmask the pretence in states which call themselves democratic, when in reality we are once again confronting authoritarian apparatuses that are installed through pseudo democratic process, that perhaps were not being made visible by social movements, as was the case with rise of Bolsonaro.

Finally, there is the fight for the rights of women and LGBTI communities. The fundamentalists are trying to attack democracy when they speak of an “ideology of gender” through what is nothing more than a fundamentalist interpretation of religion. Advancing sexual and reproductive rights is crucial. In this difficult moment we face, this issue, remains a priority.

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