The New Left Agenda of Human Rights in Latin America: Which Rights Matter?

The resurgence of socio-economic claims and a greater emphasis on cultural rights have created a more diffuse and nuanced debate. Few areas of the world exemplify these changes more than Latin America. Español

Lorenza B. Fontana Jean Grugel
26 November 2017

Human rights activists protest against femicide and violence in a demonstration at Guatemala Consulado in São Paulo on March 21, 2017 to demand justice for the recent fire that killed 40 girls at a government-run children's shelter in San Jose Pinula, Guatemala. Photo by Cris Faga/NurPhoto/SIPA USA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

The human rights landscape has become particularly complex in recent years. Traditionally, most attention has been paid to rights as freedom from state oppression or political and civil rights. But the resurgence of socio-economic claims and a greater emphasis on cultural rights have created a more diffuse and nuanced debate. Few areas of the world exemplify these changes more than Latin America. The region witnessed the election of ‘new Left’ governments in the early twenty-first century that, in different ways, sought to open a debate about alternatives to paradigms of neoliberal development and liberal citizenship. What has this meant for how human rights are understood and for patterns of human rights compliance? We conducted a systematic analysis of qualitative and quantitative evidence and our results reveal shifts in how human rights are being interpreted by leftist governments, as well as significant differences in the rights they prioritise. There are advances in the delivery of some human rights and retreat in others, but in general, it is clear that a broader understanding of human rights was adopted across the region.

Assessing human rights compliance

All left-wing governments won power (and were reelected) through generally transparent and free processes. Citizens seem to place particularly high value on democracy in these countries. Yet, while Latin America is not improving overall in terms of freedom of speech and association and the independence of the judiciary, Andean left-wing countries in particular are significantly below the average. Similar trends in the respect of political rights and civil liberties as well as in their overall freedom status are highlighted by Freedom House, with Andean countries showing a consistent and significant deterioration while the Southern Cone has been above average since the early 2000s (Fig. 1). One of the root causes of these problems –especially marked in the Andean countries - is the concentration of authority in the hands of a strong executives, permitting a ‘winner takes all’ approach to key positions within the state, as well as the strong reaction of traditional political and economic elites to the demands for radical change that carried the new Left into office.

Not surprisingly, new Left governments have sought to take socio-economic rights more seriously than in the past. Hugo Chávez’s statement that social rights are ‘public goods’ that ‘cannot be privatized’ is, broadly, a view shared across the region’s Left. The commitment to second-generation rights constitutes ‘a quiet revolution’, without precedent in the region, according to Magdalena Sepúlevda Carmona, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. From the introduction of pensions for workers in the informal sector to the shift from conditionality in child welfare programmes, from the advancement of domestic workers’ rights to new forms of ‘health diplomacy’, the new Left – whatever its problems – has set fresh standards for social inclusion. Yet, there are some important social and economic rights that remain unaddressed, including women’s economic rights and workers rights (Fig. 2).

Finally, there has been an expansion of the human rights agenda with the inclusion of third-generation rights, namely cultural and environmental rights. This is the case across the Left but it is especially marked in the Andean countries. In Bolivia and Ecuador, both ILO Convention 169 and the UN Declaration on indigenous rights have been incorporated in new constitutions. The adoption of a new ‘plurinational’ form of statehood has triggered a process of institutionalization of new local autonomy regimes as well as the introduction of parliamentary seats for ethnic minorities. Andean countries have also become the first to include the rights of nature within their legal frameworks. Nevertheless, even more than indigenous rights, radical environmental rights are really only embryonic. Governments speak of the introduction of concrete measures such a ban on genetically modified crops, the creation of a ‘biopolis’, the protection of biodiversity, payment for ecosystem services and establishing an Environmental Ombudsman, but in practice, little of this has been achieved. There are also some contradictions between these outspoken endorsements to environmental rights and the practices of government-sponsored intensive exploitation of natural resources.

Uncertain Legacies

For Arnson, ‘regardless of whether the predominance of Left or populist governments in Latin America today is a transitory phenomenon – another “swing of the pendulum” – or whether it represents a more enduring shift, the specific practices and policies adopted by these governments will mark the future of democratic politics in the region’. This early assessment of the new Left governments was remarkably prescient. It is now clear that the Left’s electoral dominance in the first fifteen years of the twenty first century has significantly reshaped the region’s engagement with human rights ideas and practices. But it has done so in complex and sometimes contradictory ways for it makes little sense to treat the New Left as a single unified phenomenon. The human rights agenda in the region is complex not simply because it is more diffuse, but because it is now clear that different rights matter in different countries and sub-regions. Without going as far as accepting Castañeda’s simplistic and over-determined notions of the ‘two Lefts’, but challenging at the same time more uniform assessments of the regional Left, it is hard not to acknowledge that there are different understandings of human rights at play between the Andes and the Southern Cone that reflect a combination of cultural patterns of historical engagement and the priorities of governments.

Beyond sub-regional differences and at a time when the era of leftist governance begins to draw to a close, it is time to ask what has the engagement with human rights mean for the region and whether this new agenda is secure. Major challenges remain in the respect of civil and political liberties, which are exacerbated by the radicalization of the political confrontation in coincidence with the recent turn towards the right in many countries in the region. Moreover, with the end of the economic boom that underpinned the expansion of second-generation rights, there are concrete risks of inequality and poverty rising once again. And, particularly in those countries that have adopted a broad rights agenda, challenges remain around the tensions and trade-offs between different kinds of rights (socio-economic and development rights vs environmental and cultural rights). There are therefore serious doubts as to whether the more radical reforms will survive.

The new Left in Latin America has certainly created a broader and more diffuse rights agenda. There has been a shift away from purely political and civil rights associated with liberal variants of democracy. These changes challenge the still widespread view that socio-economic and collective rights are somehow ‘lesser’ rights than political and civil entitlements. Framing issues such as welfare, land ownership and the environment as human rights implies a major rethink in the purpose of policy and the nature of social policy. Likewise arguing that the three-generation of rights should be regarded as equally important is, in practice, challenging traditional views that have tended to protect political and civil rights whilst resisting the justiciability of other sorts of rights. Ultimately, unpacking the human rights agenda of the Latin American Left opens important questions about how can the pursuit of socio-economic, cultural and environmental rights be made compatible with the agenda of democratization and full respect for political and civil liberties. 



Blue = Southern Cone sub-region:  Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay (average)

Red = Andean sub-region: Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela (average)

Black = Other Latin American countries, excluding the Caribbean (average)


Fig. 1A: 0 = complete government censorship of media / 1 = some government censorship / 2 = no government censorship  (authors’ calculation based on CIRI data, 2014).

Fig. 1B: 0 = severely restricted or denied / 1 = limited for all or restricted/denied to a certain group / 2 = virtually unrestricted (authors’ calculation based on CIRI data, 2014).

Fig. 1C: 0 = no independent / 1 = partially independent / 2 = generally independent (authors’ calculation based on CIRI data, 2014).

Fig 1D: 1 = not free / 2 = partially free / 3 = free (authors’ calculation based on Freedom House data, 2017).

Fig 1E: 1 = No respect of political rights / 7 = Full respect of political rights (authors’ calculation based on Freedom House data, 2017).

Fig 1F: 1 = No respect of civil liberties / 2 = Full respect of civil liberties (authors’ calculation based on Freedom House data, 2017).


Blue = Southern Cone sub-region:  Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay (average)

Red = Andean sub-region: Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela (average)

Black = Other Latin American countries, excluding the Caribbean (average)


Fig. 2A: Social public expenditure as percentage of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (authors’ calculation based on ECLAC data, 2015).

Fig. 2B: GINI coefficient (authors’ calculation based on WB estimates, 2015).

Fig. 2C: Extreme poverty headcount ratio of households (US$ 2.5 at 2005 PPP) based on national estimates (National Statistical Offices) (authors’ calculation based on SEDLAC, 2015).

Fig. 2D: Percentage of pupils starting grade 1 who reach last grade of primary, both men and women (authors’ calculation based on ECLAC data 2015).

Fig. 2E: Share of salaried workers with right to pensions when retired (authors’ calculation based on SEDLAC data 2015).

Fig. 2F: Deaths per 1,000 live births (authors’ calculation based on ECLAC data 2015).

Fig. 2G: Deaths per 1,000 live births (authors’ calculation based on ECLAC data 2015).

Fig. 2H: SERF Index (authors’ calculation based on SERF Index data, 2012).

Fig. 2I: 0 = no economic rights / 1 = some economic rights under law but not effectively enforced / 2 = some economic rights under law and the government effectively enforced these rights in practice while still allowing a low level of discrimination against women in economic matters / 3 = all or nearly all of women’s economic rights guaranteed by law and the government fully and vigorously enforces these laws in practice (authors’ calculation based on CIRI data, 2014).

Fig. 2J: 0 = workers’ rights severely restricted / 1 = workers’ rights were somewhat restricted / 2 = workers’ rights fully protected (authors’ calculation based on CIRI data, 2014).

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