The story of human rights in Latin America is one of both remarkable change and ongoing inequities. Having overcome widespread terror, the region continues to confront discrimination, poverty, marginalization, and systemic abuse.
Human rights abuses do not occur at random. Instead, they reflect choices made by specific individuals. As in other parts of the world, in Latin America, these choices can be quite puzzling, leaving us wondering how the perpetrators feel justified in their actions, and what leads certain individuals to inflict unimaginable pain and suffering on other people.
Virtually every country in Latin America has been forced to confront the legacy of widespread human rights abuses. As societies undergo post-conflict reconstruction and democratization, they have to grapple with past human rights abuses at some point, deciding who should be held accountable, and whether the truth should be pursued at all costs, even if justice threatens a country’s newfound peace and fragile security.
Reversal of basic freedoms
In its 2022 World Report, Human Rights Watch said that Latin America faced some of the greatest human rights challenges it had seen in decades. Tamara Taraciuk Broner, the organization’s Americas acting director, explained that the region was experiencing an alarming reversal of basic freedoms to defend democratic spaces that were once taken for granted. As Ms. Broner pointed out, even democratically elected leaders had attacked independent judicial independence, civil society, and the free press.
The pandemic compounded existing problems and inequities across Latin America, the social and economic fallout from Covid-19 forcing millions of people to leave their homes and countries. In Human Rights Watch’s 752-page 2022 World Report, Executive Director Kenneth Roth also countered the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent.
No democratic guarantees
In Nicaragua, the 2021 elections were carried out with no democratic guarantees. In the run-up to the elections, Daniel Ortega’s government arrested and prosecuted numerous opponents and critics, including several presidential candidates, holding many in inhumane conditions for weeks, or even months. Since the human rights crisis started in Nicaragua in 2018, more than 100 government critics have been arbitrarily imprisoned.
In Cuba, Human Rights Watch reported that the government continued to punish and repress all forms of public criticism and dissent. The 2022 World Report mentioned mass arrests following historic protests staged over the summer of 2021, singling out the case of a 17-year-old female who reported being subjected to threats and abuse while she was detained.
Allegations of possible crimes against humanity
Meanwhile in Venezuela, Human Rights Watch’s report revealed that the International Criminal Court was investigating allegations of possible crimes against humanity perpetrated in the country by Nicolás Maduro’s administration. A UN fact-finding mission also found that judicial authorities had been complicit in abuses, according to the report.
Even in Latin American countries with a democratically elected government, some of those leaders continue to demonstrate authoritarian tendences, according to Human Rights Watch. For example, the 2022 World Report suggested that Jair Bolsonaro, the former Brazilian president, had used insults and threats to try to intimidate the Supreme Court.
Serious consequences for human rights and equality
The pandemic had serious consequences for human rights, equality, and democracy in Latin America, with actions taken in response to the emergence of Covid-19 having significant long-term ramifications. WOLA is a leading advocacy and research organization launched with the mission of advancing human rights in the Americas. Over the years, the organization has worked with civil society partners in the aftermath of both manmade and natural disasters. During the pandemic, the organization warned that public health interventions were infringing on basic human rights such as freedom of movement and assembly. WOLA also called for transparency, equity, and accountability in interventions and investment in healthcare, community support and action, and social safety nets, urging governments across the Americas to act promptly and decisively to protect key values like human rights and democracy.
In its latest report published in January 2023, Human Rights Watch appealed to Latin American governments to address what it described as “chronic human rights concerns” such as inequality, insecurity, corruption, poverty, and environmental degradation. Human Rights Watch provided an overview of some of the most concerning human rights issues arising across Latin America today, including LGBTQ+ rights, women’s bodily autonomy, protection of trans people, migration, and reparations. Human Rights Watch also found that in Ecuador, Chile, Colombia, and Peru, serious abuses had been perpetrated against protestors in recent years, highlighting a lack of meaningful steps to reform the police forces.
Exposing human rights violations and impingements on civil liberties is the first step in battling against them. One of the most common violations in Latin American nations is impunity, with those responsible for committing dire human rights abuses never found accountable.
While human rights and basic freedoms can vary wildly from one country to another, some regional patterns and shared experiences exist. Unlike other parts of the world, the sheer scope and scale of human rights transformations that have taken place in Latin America provide valuable insights for those interested in the dynamics of human rights change.