The Common Good
March 2006

Divided States of the Americas

by Eric Olson | March 2006

Human rights and democracy in Latin America: A progress report.

A recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border brought to mind the old saying that the more things change, the more they remain the same. I was traveling with a congressional delegation to look into the murders of nearly 400 young women in Ciudad Juarez and Chihuahua since 1993. The area was transformed by passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which proponents promised would be a “win-win” for Mexico and the United States—more jobs would bring increased wealth, which in turn would bring greater stability to the area and lessen migratory pressures.

Economic activity and cross-border trade did increase dramatically along the border as state-of-the-art assembly plants (“maquilas”) were built. But the slick NAFTA propaganda told only half the story. As we traveled from the modern offices of the city’s “maquila” association to the communities where workers live, the crushing poverty was unmistakable. Unpaved streets were caked with the thick, gritty accumulated dust and grime of the surrounding desert. Old shipping crates and scraps were carefully assembled into houses and perched precariously on a denuded hillside. Some lucky residents had running water and one electrical line to illuminate their house; no one had heat to protect against the chill of the howling desert winds.

Just over the hill on a distant range, the bodies of several young women were found, often showing signs of severe sexual torture. These murders are a vivid reminder that even in modern Mexico where trade and economic opportunities are growing, poor people, especially women, are vulnerable to violence and can expect very little from the authorities, who themselves are often implicated in the brutality.

Although there are similarities, the point is not to make Ciudad Juarez a microcosm of what is happening throughout the rest of Central and South America, but rather to illustrate that dramatic changes in the region over the past 20 years have not resolved many of the underlying factors that gave rise to social and political unrest and armed conflict of the recent past.

Two of the most important changes in Latin America since the 1980s have been the gradual transition from armed struggles and military dictatorships to elected civilian governments in nearly every country; and “economic modernization” with its free market- and free trade-oriented policies demanded by Washington. Despite these changes, security forces continue to violate the rights of civilians at alarming rates, with impunity. Polls suggest that a majority of Latin Americans have little faith in their democratic governments and institutions. And as the example of Ciudad Juarez suggests, poverty and economic disparity remain unchecked.

While the absence of military governments in Latin America is clearly a positive sign, the lessons learned from the era of military rule seem to be evaporating quickly. Disgraced militaries that left power in the 1980s are re-emerging as powerful actors in the region. Civilian authorities are once again calling upon their armed forces to involve themselves in internal security matters. Militaries are now involved in policing streets and combating organized crime in Mexico, Brazil, and Guatemala and confronting indigenous social movements throughout the Andean region.

Popular demands for greater public safety, and the failings of civilian police forces—which are generally understood to be corrupt, abusive, and ineffective—often have resulted in citizen support for remilitarization. The trend is most visible in Central America, Mexico, and Colombia, where the popular appeal of dealing with serious social problems with the mano dura (iron fist) is undeniable. For instance, El Salvador and Honduras have increasingly used the mano dura to deal with the problem of youth gangs and public security. Draconian laws criminalize entire sectors of society for merely wearing a tattoo. Tough sentencing has led to even further overcrowding of grossly inadequate and inhumane jails.

“Not surprisingly, recent studies conducted in Central America suggest that the mano dura has done little to weaken the gang phenomenon, and has likely contributed to an increase in violence,” said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an independent policy and advocacy group.

The United States has encouraged expanded roles for the military, initially for greater cooperation in its “War on Drugs.” But the U.S. interest has now pushed beyond the expanded drug mission. “U.S. and Latin American militaries are spending considerable effort defining a list of current or ‘emerging’ threats such as gangs, drugs, organized crime, illegal migration, and natural disasters,” according to Erasing the Lines, a December 2005 joint study by WOLA and other policy groups. The study continues, “while all are serious problems in the region, none are the kinds of threat that lend themselves to military solutions.”

While the role of the military expands, democracy itself has also come under increasing question. In a recent poll by a Chilean organization, Latinobarómetro, citizens in 12 of the region’s countries had a lower opinion of democracy in 2005 than they had in 1996; only 26 percent of respondents believed that there was equality before the law in their country; one in five expressed any confidence in political parties; one in four trusted their legislature or the courts.

The experience with democracy has not been uniformly positive. In many countries, military dictators were replaced by traditional parties headed by political and economic elites that readily adopted pro-Washington trade and economic policies. As billions of dollars in foreign investment poured into the region, and billions more were made through the privatization of state-owned enterprises, corruption grew, and with it greater exclusion of Latin America’s poor. The so-called modernization, or neo-liberal, reforms adopted throughout the region meant an influx of consumer goods from abroad, and declining government investment in education, public health, and agriculture. Poor and working-class Latin Americans saw the cost of basics increase while access to quality health and education services decreased.

This widespread social, economic, and political exclusion, which makes the region the most inequitable in the world, is one of the greatest unresolved challenges confronting the Americas. Dr. Enrique Iglesias, the former president of the Inter-American Development Bank, has said that, “as the region with the greatest level of inequality in the world, Latin America has the most to gain (from social inclusion).” The IDB’s own studies found that those “countries with large indigenous or Afro-descendent populations would obtain immense social and economic gains by ending exclusion that permeates their health and education systems, as well as their labor markets.”

While each country in the Americas has confronted the challenges of democracy and inequality in its own way, there are some emerging regional trends. In most countries, traditional parties have been swept aside and replaced by strong charismatic leaders. Only a handful of the region’s current leaders were elected with the help of historic traditional parties. Brazil’s Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva and Mexico’s Vicente Fox may be the biggest exceptions, but both presidents are enormously charismatic figures, with Lula coming to personify Brazil’s working class and Fox working hard to distance himself from his own party during his historic election in 2000.

A closely related trend is toward authoritarianism. Once again, polls conducted by Latinobarómetro suggest that the “military” is tied with the “presidency” as the most trusted institution of government, receiving a 41 percent approval rating in 2005. It’s not surprising, then, that charismatic leaders in Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, and Mexico have sought alliances with the military to address pressing social and political problems.

Authoritarianism is also evident in efforts to further centralize power in the presidency by weakening other branches of government. In Venezuela, the Chavez government replaced dozens of justices with temporary appointees that could potentially be removed quickly if they ruled against the interests of the government. In Ecuador, then-President Gutierrez fired the Supreme Court and replaced it with political allies. The subsequent public outcry forced him to reinstate the original court, but by then it was too late, and his government fell shortly thereafter.

There are also exceptions. The governments of Argentina, Chile, and Peru are trying mightily to bring past dictators to justice. The Chilean Supreme Court recently stripped Gen. Augusto Pinochet of immunity for human rights violations, and the 90-year-old former dictator is expected to stand trial if his health doesn’t fail first. Likewise, the Peruvian government is seeking the extradition from Chile of its authoritarian former leader Alberto Fujimori to stand trial for 12 counts of human rights abuses and other crimes.

A third trend in the region is a movement toward “progressive populism,” particularly in the Southern Cone of South America (Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile) and parts of the Andes (Venezuela and Bolivia, and possibly Ecuador and Peru in the near future). It’s difficult to generalize about this trend because each country has a unique experience and philosophy of government. But from the free-market oriented socialist president of Chile, Ricardo Lagos (and his successor, Michelle Bachelet, who will take office in March), to the Bolivarian socialism of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, to the grassroots populism of Bolivia’s Evo Morales, much of the region is moving away from a U.S. brand of democracy where economic and political elites dominate the policy-making spaces of government.

President Bush witnessed this firsthand in November 2005 when he attended the Fourth Summit of the Americas in Argentina. He was greeted by tens of thousands of protesters decrying the U.S. war in Iraq, the U.S. practice and defense of torture, and above all else, U.S. prescriptions for trade policy through the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). While the Bush administration maintains that the majority of regional governments still support the U.S.-promoted FTAA, the largest and most powerful nations of South America are increasingly joining forces to support an intra-regional model of trade known as Mercosur. Rather than expanding the NAFTA trade model to the entire hemisphere, as the FTAA would most likely do, Mercosur has prioritized trade amongst South American nations, building an ever-stronger block of countries which can negotiate more forcefully with the United States.

Along with the perennial challenges of economic and social exclusion, human rights violations by security forces, widespread corruption, and weak and ineffective institutions of government, the region faces a myriad of other human rights challenges, some of which are merely new manifestations of unresolved old conflicts. Organized crime is having a profoundly corrosive and debilitating effect on many Latin America countries. No longer limited to drug cartels, organized crime now extends into areas such as arms trafficking, trafficking in stolen autos, and even human trafficking—including phony adoptions. These rackets are increasingly powerful where they are infiltrated by retired military officers who continue to wield considerable strength within government. Organized crime’s impact on government and society is reaching or has reached crisis proportions in Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and elsewhere.

The rights of women and minority populations are receiving renewed attention in the region. Violence against women—including formerly tolerated practices including intrafamily violence, sexual violence, and murders of young women—is for the first time receiving widespread public scrutiny. The many young women murdered in northern Mexico and Guatemala have brought to light the ugly fact that women, especially poor women, are broadly viewed as expendable, with police and justice officials barely lifting a finger to stop, much less investigate or bring to justice, those responsible for such heinous crimes. Only through the efforts of family members, victims associations, and human rights groups have these profound injustices come to light.

Likewise, people of indigenous and African descent are slowly gaining new acceptance and political power throughout the region. This is less due to benevolent governments than to new social movements demanding that their rights be taken seriously—and in some cases taking control of the institutions of government. From the Zapatista movement in Mexico, to Afro-Colombians, to the federations of indigenous peoples in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, historically marginalized and oppressed peoples are demanding respect for their basic rights as human beings: traditional land rights and cultural identity, equality before the law, and a say in decision-making about the nation’s future, including use of natural resources.

Enormous challenges lie ahead for the new social movements and civil society, but they may be the best hope for tackling the region’s persistent and age-old problems, which threaten once again to plunge the region into open social conflict punctuated by authoritarianism and repression. If meaningful change is to come to the region, it will need to come through a grassroots democracy that has been largely absent.

The United States has a poor track record of dealing constructively with these social movements, suggesting that at best we can demand that the United States not obstruct these developments by vilifying the new leaders and insisting on its own narrow self-interests. What Latin America needs now more than ever is a neighbor to the North that respects the new voices in the region and supports economic and social policies that benefit the poor, reduce inequality, and strengthen civilian institutions. That kind of change could truly help to usher in a new era for a long-beleaguered hemisphere.

Eric L. Olson is advocacy director for the Americas at Amnesty International USA and has lived in Venezuela, Honduras, and Mexico. This article does not necessarily reflect the views of AI.

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