Monday, March 17, 2014
Human Rights and an Aging 'New Latin American Left'
By César Rodríguez-Garavito
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
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?
commentary, "Human rights and the ‘new’ Latin American left," was first published on Mar. 12, 2014 by openDemocracy, a website for debate about international politics and culture, offering news and opinion articles from established
academics, journalists and policymakers covering current issues in world affairs (per Wikipedia), and reposted per a Creative
Rodríguez-Garavito is Associate Professor of Law at the University of the Andes (Colombia), and serves as International
Director of the Center for Law, Justice, and Society (Dejusticia), a human rights NGO based in Bogota.