Latin America: Alarming Reversal of Basic Freedoms

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A man is arrested during a demonstration in Havana against the government of Cuba, on July 11, 2021.
© 2021 Adalberto Roque/AFP via Getty Images

(New York) – Latin America is facing some of its gravest human rights challenges in decades, Human Rights Watch said today in releasing its World Report 2022.

“Latin America is experiencing such an alarming reversal of basic freedoms that we now have to defend democratic spaces that we once took for granted,” said Tamara Taraciuk Broner, Americas acting director at Human Rights Watch. “Even democratically elected leaders attacked independent civil society, the free press, and judicial independence. Millions of people were forced to leave their homes and countries, and the economic and social impact of the pandemic has been devastating.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent.

The Cuban government systematically engaged in abuses against critics and artists, including arbitrary detention, ill-treatment of detainees, and abuse-ridden criminal prosecutions in response to overwhelmingly peaceful anti-government protests.

The November elections in Nicaragua were carried out without any democratic guarantees. In the run-up to the elections, Daniel Ortega’s government arbitrarily arrested and prosecuted critics and opponents, including seven presidential candidates, holding many incommunicado in abusive conditions for weeks or months. Additionally, more than 100 people perceived as critics remain arbitrarily imprisoned in the context of the human rights crisis that began in 2018.

In November the International Criminal Court prosecutor opened an investigation into allegations of possible crimes against humanity committed in Venezuela under Nicolás Maduro’s watch. A UN Fact-Finding Mission found that judicial authorities had been complicit in egregious abuses. An independent EU electoral mission that monitored the November regional elections reported that some political opponents remained arbitrarily disqualified from running for office, there had been unequal access to the media, and the lack of judicial independence and of respect for the rule of law undermined the election’s impartiality and transparency. Human Rights Watch has denounced the crackdown on dissent and uneven playing field, which made it difficult to ensure all voters could exercise their rights freely.

Elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies have also repeatedly tried to undermine the rule of law.

In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro, an apologist for his country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), tried to intimidate the Supreme Court with insults and threats and made baseless claims of electoral fraud.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continued his media attacks on journalists and human rights defenders, his efforts to eliminate independent government agencies that served as checks on his power, and his attempts to co-opt Mexico’s justice system to pursue his political enemies. In November, he issued a decree that his government’s priority projects automatically receive permits with no review, and that they be exempt from transparency laws.

In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele and his allies in the legislature summarily replaced Supreme Court justices they disagreed with and passed laws to dismiss hundreds of lower-level judges and prosecutors. Supreme Court justices they named ruled that he could run for consecutive re-election, despite a constitutional prohibition. The government also proposed a “foreign agents” bill that, if approved, would severely restrict the work of independent journalists and civil society organizations.

Meanwhile, in Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, and Guatemala, various efforts to undermine judicial independence or to use the justice system for political purposes have threatened democratic checks and balances.

In Colombia, members of the National Police responded to mostly peaceful demonstrations by arbitrarily dispersing protesters and using excessive force, including the use of live ammunition. Violence and abuses by armed groups, including killings, massacres, and forced displacement, increased in remote areas where the presence of civilian state institutions and economic opportunities are lacking. Over 450 human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia since 2016, the UN reported. The government has taken insufficient and inadequate steps to protect them.

Colombia – as well as Chile, Ecuador, and Peru, where security forces committed serious abuses against protesters in recent years – has yet to take meaningful steps to reform its police force or a legal framework to ensure accountability for these human rights violations. In Brazil, police killed 6,400 people in 2020, the highest number on record. About 80 percent of the victims were Black. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been used as an excuse by governments to violate rights. The Guatemalan government targeted the media and imposed restrictions on information about the pandemic. In Brazil, President Bolsonaro disregarded scientific recommendations, spread false information, and promoted unproven drugs against the virus.

Children in many countries experienced obstacles to education under pandemic-related restrictions.

Venezuela’s humanitarian emergency, which predates the pandemic, left the country ill-prepared to address it. Millions of Venezuelans need aid, and the international response remains underfunded. The World Food Program estimates that one in three Venezuelans is food insecure.

The pandemic and associated economic crisis, the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, and a 7.2 magnitude earthquake exacerbated Haiti’s existing political instability and violence by gangs often tied to state actors. Haiti has continuously struggled to meet people’s basic needs.

Despite border closures, millions of people have been forced to flee their homes. More than 6 million Venezuelans have fled their country; many face difficulty obtaining legal status in their host countries, as well as arbitrary deportations, xenophobia, and abuses by migration agents. Over 110,000 Nicaraguans have fled their country since 2018. Hundreds of thousands of people flee from Central America’s Northern Triangle every year. Many of those who flee in search of protection go through Mexico, where they suffer violence, discrimination, and abuses by criminal groups and Mexican authorities.

There have been some limited, promising developments. In December 2020, Argentina passed a bill to legalize abortion in the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and, in 2021, four states in Mexico decriminalized abortion up to 12 weeks. Ecuador’s Constitutional Court and Mexico’s Supreme Court took a step toward easing restrictions on abortion, which may spur further progress.

The Mexican Senate passed a groundbreaking reform to the General Law for Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence to ensure shelters and Justice Centers for Women are accessible for women with disabilities. Chile’s Congress approved same-sex marriage. Argentina recognized non-binary gender identities in official identity documents, the first country in Latin America to do so.

Brazil’s Supreme Court has blocked some of President Bolsonaro’s most damaging policies and upheld human rights. The Guatemalan Ombudsperson’s Office has continued to voice concern about attempts to undermine fundamental rights in the country, even while the ombudsperson faced several attempts by Congress to remove him from office, and a possible criminal investigation for promoting the rights of LGBT people and sexual and reproductive rights.

“Many brave journalists, human rights defenders, and judges in the region have played an extraordinary role by exposing abuses and acting as a check on executive power,” Taraciuk Broner said. “It is essential to continue supporting their critical efforts to protect the rule of law, fundamental freedoms, and democratic institutions at a time of major risks in the region.”

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