Human rights and the ‘new’ Latin American left

César Rodríguez-Garavito
12 March 2014

The current Venezuelan crisis and the government’s decision to severely limit freedom of the press and the right to protest, raises a broader topic of discussion. From a human rights perspective, what has been the track record of the contemporary Latin American left?

Ten years ago, I published a book together with Patrick Barrett, Daniel Chavez and other analysts entitled The New Latin American Left. In the book, many of us expressed our hope, based on empirical studies, that the progressive governments and movements that were expanding across the region would be able to do the impossible: promote human rights through egalitarian economic policies without weakening civil liberties or collective rights like those that protect the environment, territory and culture of indigenous peoples. 

We argued that from the Partido de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) in Mexico to the “piqueteros” (demonstrators) in Argentina, there were heartening signs of a democratic left, both in the economic and political sense, that could offer a real alternative to the crises created by the neoliberal governments of the 1980s and 1990s.  Our thesis suggesting a promising and relatively homogeneous left in the region was a direct critique of Jorge Castañeda, the former Foreign Minister of Mexico. He had earlier proposed a binary typology that divided the Latin American left into a good camp that, according to him, combined respect for the rule of law with sensible management of the economy (e.g. Brazil and Chile) and a bad camp that did the exact opposite (e.g. Nicaragua and Venezuela).

We wrote in the days when Rafael Correa was an anonymous university professor, Lula’s government was only just beginning, Ricardo Lagos was continuing the centrist legacy of the Chilean Concertación (a coalition of center-left political parties) and Hugo Chávez had yet to turn toward the authoritarianism and personality cult that Nicolás Maduro embodies today. A decade later, how has it played out? Interestingly, it seems that all of us were wrong. There was not one left or two, but rather many more, as the behavior of the region’s governments has shown. 

With regards to civil and political rights, the results have been mixed. On the one hand, important progress has been made; for example, the Argentinean government’s policy of punishing the crimes committed during the dictatorship. Also, some governments on the left, including those in Brazil, Chile and Uruguay, have been loyal to the rule of law. But on the other hand, many of the leftist governments have given in to the temptation of eroding basic liberties to maintain political control.

For example, governments in Argentina, Nicaragua and Venezuela introduced legislation to control the press in ways that allow them to censor the media (laws denounced by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression). President Maduro in Venezuela recently closed independent television channels and newspapers.

Less well-known is the case of Ecuador, where President Correa’s government has harassed leaders and movements that used to be his allies, but that he now ridicules as the “infantile left.” A recent example of the erosion of rights is the government’s decision to dissolve the Pachamama Foundation, a highly regarded environmental NGO in the country. This was done on the basis of an authoritarian law that allows the executive branch to close any organization for reasons as specious as “having deviated from [its] goals and objectives” or “affecting public order.” In addition, more than 200 political opponents have been criminally prosecuted under a law that purportedly protects against “sabotage and terrorism,” but which has been used to smother all types of protest and is jealously implemented by a judicial system that Correa himself has brought into line.

 With regards to socio-economic rights the results are more positive. Governments in places like Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Uruguay and, lately, Chile (under policies promised by President Bachelet) have considerably increased their investment in education and health, raised taxes and renegotiated royalties arising from petroleum and mining, winning them the support of large majorities of the electorate.

Further, they have done this without large increases in inflation or damaging the economy, in contrast to Argentina and Venezuela. This has led to a significant decrease in poverty and inequality in these countries, which helps explain the decrease in both in the region more generally over the last decade.

The record is less positive and more consistent with regards to third generation rights. In fact, when it comes to collective rights to protect the environment and indigenous peoples, the Latin American left is indistinguishable from the right. To use the colorful metaphor of the Uruguayan analyst Eduardo Gudynas, we have a “brown left,” in which the green has been overshadowed by the red;  in other words, centrist development models inherited from the twentieth century which encouraged extractive industries have overridden environmental concerns.  

This is seen in Venezuela’s dependence on petroleum and across the region with the priority given to mining and the exploitation of natural resources in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and Nicaragua. On environmental and indigenous rights, the records of Presidents Rousseff in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia or Correa in Ecuador, are as disappointing as those of governments on the other side of the political spectrum, for example in Peru and Colombia. The rulings against the governments in the Inter-American Human Rights system in cases like the Belo Monte Damn in Brazil or the exploitation of petroleum in the Ecuadorian Amazon, home to the Sarayaku indigenous peoples, is further proof of the violation of these rights.

Overall, therefore, the scorecard on human rights in the region is, in the best-case scenario, mixed, or, in the worst-case scenario, deeply disappointing. The question that has yet to be answered is the same one we contemplated ten years ago when the “new left” was still new: how do you protect social and economic rights without undermining civil liberties or the collective rights of indigenous peoples to their land and environment?

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