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The “Right Turn” and Human Rights in Latin America

Conservative leaders seem poised to regain the helm of Latin America’s governments. What will be the consequence for the protection of human rights?

Recent electoral defeats in Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia suggest the fatigue of Left-wing leadership in those countries, after long administrations marked by political polarization and, in the case of Venezuela and Argentina, economic distress. But not only radicals are in trouble. The pragmatic Center-Left of Chile and Brazil is not faring much better, under the effect of corruption scandals and a mediocre economic performance.

A possible turn to the right should raise some anxiety because, across Latin America, conservatives have a deeply troubling record as allies or enablers of past authoritarian rule. Nowhere is this more evident than in Peru, where Keiko Fujimori, the daughter of imprisoned dictator Alberto Fujimori leads all opinion surveys leading to presidential elections this April. Victims of human rights violations during the armed conflict in that nation, are certain that a Fujimori victory would paralyze any accountability process.

Would Right-wing governments result, then, in impunity for crimes of the past, and the dismantling of programs focused on social rights? The answer seems to depend on two factors: (a) whether human rights policy has effectively become state policy, beyond the vagaries of electoral politics, and (b) whether a powerful civil society is prepared to exert pressure on governments.

In Argentina, it seems dubious that the Macri administration would go out of its way to weaken judicial action against former military torturers. The country’s judiciary is quite independent, and Argentine diplomacy has integrated human rights advocacy quite effectively into the country’s international presence: it would seem useless to lose such an asset.

In fact, an accusation of weakening the fight against impunity could be extremely costly, as Macri himself found out in his first international appearance as President, in December 2015. Macri wanted to use the summit of MERCOSUR, a commerce alliance, to signal a change towards the Venezuelan regime, and request the freedom of opponents like Leopoldo Lopez. Instead, he got a furious counter-attack from Venezuelan officials who accused him of releasing military torturers. The accusation lacked merit, but it was enough to throw Macri off-balance.

Argentine civil society is strong and sophisticated, and is actively vigilant of the new administration. When Barack Obama visited the country this March, his visit was preceded by letters signed by intellectuals, warning the US about Macri’s equivocations on human rights. It seems that, whatever Macri’s convictions regarding the past, the political cost of objecting to the well-established fight against impunity would be too high.

The case of Venezuela is more troubling as, differently from Argentina, government institutions are more politicized, and civil society far more divided. One of the most controversial decisions by President Hugo Chavez was his confrontation with international human rights institutions, whose vigilance on freedom of expression he found irritating, and whose motivations he attributed to U.S. intervention.

Venezuela’s diplomacy has spent significant time and effort, even against the advice of fellow Leftist governments, to undermine the Inter American system of Human Rights. Chavez criticized international NGOs, human rights monitors and, finally, withdrew from the Inter American Court of Human Rights, after losing a case concerning the rights of a prisoner. The direct consequence of the decision is that Venezuelans have lost a recourse in case they are unable to find justice in their country.

If a Right-wing government were to succeed President Maduro, as it seems highly probable, it would expel Chavez loyalists from the Venezuelan judiciary and diplomacy–indeed out of the entire government structure. Also, it would probably apply policies of economic adjustment resulting in popular discontent and protest. In such a scenario, and quite differently from Macri’s situation, a conservative leader would find little administrative or technocratic resistance. In effect, the Right would be free to simply maintain the status-quo, staying out of the human rights radar.

After a long period of polarization and incidents of violence, Venezuelan human rights defenders are in a weak position. Human rights NGOs have been demonized by the current administration, and their conditions to operate freely in the country are reduced. Popular organizations are divided, as some became encadred in chavista alliances, and others remain independent. These are conditions for further policy regression on human rights and, possibly, repression.

The panorama, then, appears to be mixed. Latin American conservatives do not have the record or the ideological convictions to reassure human rights defenders about their intentions. All things being equal, their return to power raises risks to social programs, which they would probably consider wasteful, and the fight against impunity, which they tend to consider divisive. Countries with stronger, more professional, institutions, as well as an active civil society, may be resilient to the effects of political change, but absent those traits, the risk of regression is deeply troubling.


Photo: Macri and Kirchner. Nov, 24, 2015