A short while ago, the world celebrated Freedom Day, marking the fall of the Berlin Wall, a Cold War symbol that thousands tried to cross by going over, under or around. Hundreds of people died in the attempt. The barrier kept Germany and Europe divided into two economically and politically antagonistic systems for 28 years, but then fell as quickly as it had gone up.
Clearly, we should celebrate the Berlin Wall’s passing. But what about other walls, some of which are being erected all across Latin America? My region’s totalitarian governments are not constructing physical walls of concrete, but they are erecting barriers nearly as oppressive. The hopes that came out of the defeat of Soviet communism are now being crushed. These walls may be less visible than the Berlin Wall, but they are just as damaging. The existing human rights machinery, moreover, is not strong enough to tear them down.
As others on openGlobalRights note, simply legalizing economic and social rights does not guarantee compliance. Arguably, we do not need more regulation than what we already have. We need better organization on the part of those of us who work for human rights, but we also need a real commitment of governments to comply with the conventions and treaties they sign. Perhaps most importantly, we need citizens to take ownership and defend those rights, and not to lose them to the hands of authoritarian governments.
The new walls of the 21st century
Latin America contains many examples of rigid governmental structures that fortify the power of the state to the detriment of peoples’ autonomy. Then, to justify their power grabs and related violations of civil and political rights, these dictators cite the importance of economic and social rights. As Pedro Pizano points out, economic and social rights are “the ‘rights’ dictators love. These leaders use their social policies as whitewash for their dismal human rights records.” Indeed, it is much easier to justify violations of civil and political rights in the name of social and economic quality, perhaps even citing social justice, instead of actually correcting these violations and protecting citizens.
But here’s the catch: many of these governments were first elected democratically and only then entrenched themselves in power, often by rewriting constitutions so they can be re-elected term after term. Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia are all clear examples of establishing dictatorial power through elections, even though the transparency of these electoral processes remains unclear.
For example, during the 2013 presidential elections in Venezuela, the Carter Center reported no evidence of transparency in the use of financial resources and propaganda by the official candidate, Nicolas Maduro, relative to the opposition candidates.
Likewise, ex-presidents from seven Latin American nations (Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico and Guatemala) brought attention to themselves over the possibility of electoral fraud, where the official candidates commandeered media outlets to campaign in their favor.
In Ecuador, Rafael Correa has been elected president three times and has passed legislations to his benefit, with the ambition of continuing to govern on behalf of the so-called “Citizens’ Revolution”. Correa has widespread popular support due to the marked reduction of poverty in the country since he came into power. However, critics question how sustainable his social policies really are, and he has come under fire for using libel laws to attack the opposition news media. Correa, it seems, is the perfect example of using social policies to justify the curtailing of civil and political rights. But many people in Ecuador still enthusiastically support him.
Demotix/Sandra ten Zijthoff (All rights reserved)
Rafael Correa celebrates winning a third consecutive term as president of Ecuador.
The new Latin American walls do not divide territory, they divide groups; ideological barriers have turned those on opposing sides into enemies. Countries that were formerly examples of economic development and freedoms, like Argentina, Chile and Brazil, have also succumbed to this new breed of divisive socialism. As Ricardo Santos Gomes, Counsel of the Institute of Business Studies (IEE) in Brazil, points out, “During the October elections in Brazil, for example, those who supported the opposition candidacy against President Dilma Roussef, were dubbed ‘elite white Paulists.’ That is, they represented a sum of three groups: an elite economic group (the wealthy), an ethnic group (whites), and a regional group (the Southeast of Brazil, the most developed group in the country.” The new Latin American walls do not divide territory, they divide groups; ideological barriers have turned those on opposing sides into enemies.
In Argentina, Christina Kirchner has taken a series of economic and political measures since she assumed power in 2007 that have generated controversy and drastically altered the direction of politics and the economy. Her populism was characterized by public ownership, excessive controls restricting business initiatives, and subsidies that keep society dependent on the government. She is now leading the nation to an imminent crisis with an inflation rate of nearly 40%.
Peru and Chile, on the other hand, represent two of the freest economies in Latin America, with a 6% annual growth rate and notable efforts to reduce poverty and inequality. Yet, Michelle Bachelet’s administration in Chile is now introducing an ambitious reform program in constitutional matters, tax reform, education, health and labor. With an overwhelming objective of increasing state power, Bachelet’s government has imposed policies that take away many citizen choices, particularly around tax reform policies and education.
Peru has erected massive barriers with its deficient regulatory framework, which brought informal employment to a whopping 70% of the entire Peruvian labor force. Costs above the salary of employing a worker are up to 60%, which is the highest overrun the region. Worker productivity is far below what it should be, but such policies have made it prohibitively expensive for companies to hire formal employment. The Andean country still has further deregulations coming that will only raise additional barriers and prevent many workers from being able to choose formal employment.
This year marks 25 years since hundreds of brave citizens demolished the chokehold that was the Berlin Wall. It is time now to reflect on the many walls that continue to be built, often by “democratic” leaders. But this anniversary must be more than just nostalgia and reflection—it should be a call to action to renew and strengthen our commitment to promote freedom, democracy and peace, and to fight against oppression in all its forms, including those masquerading as progressive socio-economic policies.