Latin America,

 

  • CHILE: ‘The drafting of the new constitution is a historic opportunity for women’

    CIVICUS speaks with Mariela Infante Erazo, director of Corporación Humanas, about the impacts of the pandemic on women and girls in Chile, and about her hopes for advances coming from the inauguration of a new government and the process to develop a new constitution.

    Founded in 2004, Humanas is a civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to advocating for the deepening of democracy and the inclusion of women.

    Mariela Infante

    What has been the impact of the pandemic on women and girls in Chile?

    The pandemic has had a very serious impact on the human rights of girls and women. Women regressed more than a decade in terms of their labour market participation. When schools closed, they had to take on most of the domestic and care work, both for their children and for sick or older relatives, so many had to stop working. Those who continued to work – including by working from home – were overburdened, which had an impact on both their physical and mental health.

    Gender-based violence also increased shockingly, as confinement and restrictions of movement were quite strict in Chile. According to official statistics, domestic violence calls from adult women tripled. But the situation also affected girls facing family abuse.

    The most feminised fields of work, such as education and health, were the most in demand during the pandemic. Women are in the majority in the professions that fought the pandemic – nurses, health workers, service workers, educators – but were not given much recognition. Female educators had to undertake virtual teaching and this undermined learning, at least among economically and culturally disadvantaged people. In Chile, there is no universal access to a basic internet service, and this has been detrimental for access to education.

    A full recovery is a long way off: unemployment remains high and women’s employment rates are not recovering at the same speed as men’s. A gendered approach is needed to ensure that women can return to the labour market and regain economic autonomy, which is key to exercising our rights.

    How has civil society in general, and Humanas in particular, responded?

    In the first months of the pandemic, and especially during lockdown, there were high levels of activity among feminist organisations: many seminars, meetings and discussions took place. There was a lot of reflection and an eagerness to share. But virtual interactions are very challenging and these spaces eventually ran out of steam: the first year’s participation was reasonably high, but then it began to decline. The format is now a bit worn out; I think we need to think of new forms of participation.

    During these two years, we at Humanas have all been working from home, with the difficulties this sometimes entails for communication among co-workers. Opportunities for informal communication were lost and work slowed down. Regarding our outward work, we had to rethink workshops, seminars and training events, because it is very difficult to do interactive and motivating training sessions via computer. Of course we had to cancel all trips, which was limiting for our regional networking strategy.

    But we learned a lot about how virtual interactions can replace face-to-face ones, and we adapted.

    What are the main women’s rights issues in Chile?

    As in the rest of Latin America, there are multiple challenges. In the field of employment, a major problem is precarious work: women have more precarious, informal and lower-paid jobs, as well as higher unemployment rates.

    Women also bear the bulk of the burden of family care. This limits our free time, harms our health, limits our job prospects and hinders our political participation. That is why the feminist movement, of which we are part, prioritises the establishment of a national care system in Chile.

    In terms of sexual and reproductive rights, abortion – which used to be prohibited in all circumstances – has been legal since 2017 under three grounds: when the life of the pregnant person is in danger, when the foetus suffers from malformations incompatible with life and when the pregnancy is the result of rape.

    But during the pandemic, limitations on the exercise of sexual and reproductive rights increased: contraceptive distribution decreased, defective contraceptives were distributed through the public system and the number of preventative gynaecological examinations decreased. Many people stopped making medical consultations because health centres were overwhelmed by the number of COVID-19 cases, which left many pathologies undiagnosed and untreated.

    Chile does not have a comprehensive law to prevent violence against women in various spheres and manifestations. There is a draft law on the subject that has not made any progress for many years. The number of femicides – and attempted femicides – is very high. Violence levels are very worrying, and they increased even further under lockdown during the pandemic.

    In addition, Chile has become one of the main host countries for Venezuelan migrants and has adopted a restrictive policy towards migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, particularly women. As applying for a visa has become virtually impossible, people are entering Chile irregularly. This has led to an increase in human trafficking and smuggling, the main victims of which are women and girls.

    Irregular migration has also had an impact on labour exploitation. Without documentation, many migrant women do not even dare to go to health centres for fear of being expelled from the country. According to the principles of the Cartagena Declaration, which establishes a broad definition of asylum, Venezuelan women should be considered subjects of international protection, as they are fleeing a law-and-order crisis. But they are not recognised as such and are denied labour and health rights, among many other rights.

    Moreover, racism has increased along with xenophobia. Migrants of African descent, mainly from Colombia and Haiti, have experienced racism and xenophobia. The same is true for the Indigenous population. In the context of the territorial conflict with the Mapuche people in southern Chile, institutional and police violence have differentially affected Indigenous women, for instance during violent raids in their communities.

    How is civil society working to bring these issues into the public agenda?

    At the moment, the Constitutional Convention is the space through which we are channelling the feminist agenda. We have high expectations and are working so that the Convention will produce a general normative framework for the recognition of women’s rights, which will then have to be implemented through laws and public policies.

    I believe the current Constitutional Convention is the first of its kind in the world, with gender parity and reserved seats. The Convention does not reflect the composition of the Chilean elite – white heterosexual men – but the real Chile: it includes Indigenous people, women and people of all educational levels and professions, rather than purely lawyers as is the case with parliament. This diversity of perspectives makes it incredibly rich.

    The process of drafting a new constitution for Chile is a historic opportunity that we are trying to take advantage of to channel women’s rights issues. This process was the product of a massive social mobilisation demanding rights, justice and dignity. It embodies an institutional solution to the discontent and fragmentation of Chile’s social fabric.

    After 40 years, today we have the possibility of reshaping a constitution made during the dictatorship, which does not guarantee social rights. We are only a few months away from having a draft that will be put up to a plebiscite, which is why this current process is for us a great political moment that entails the prospect of progress on women’s rights. 

    How could gender gaps and inequalities be reduced in Chile?

    The pandemic exposed a care crisis that is structural. The private and domestic realm continues to be women’s responsibility, on top of which comes paid work. We want a paradigm shift establishing that this is a shared social responsibility, which should not fall exclusively on women. The creation of a national care system in which the state, the private sector and families – but whole families, not just women – take on family care could bring about a real transformation of the sexual division of labour.

    Attention to the issue of care is a first step in advancing a structural issue such as the sexual division of labour: taking women out of a single role, valuing their roles and even generating new sources of work for women. We need a cross-cutting care paradigm that fosters bonds of respect and solidarity. This is of enormous importance: none of us would be here now if someone had not taken care of us.

    The issue of care is also very relevant in relation to nature, water and the commons, if they are to serve to improve the quality of life for all people, rather than generate wealth for a few. What is important is that the focus be on the common good and not on extraction and accumulation. The current extractivist development model reproduces inequalities and is at the root of violence against women defenders of land and territory.

    Feminism is currently taking a much more holistic perspective and is making alliances with other social movements. We are feminists, but we are connected with other worlds – those of environmentalism, Indigenous women, women defenders of land and territory – which makes us understand that inequalities and exclusions come from the intersection of various systems of domination: those of capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy. In order to generate a profound transformation, we must take a holistic view.

    What are the expectations of Chilean feminists as a new government is inaugurated?

    Our expectations are high but realistic, not excessive. We know that four years is a short time for so many challenges and we will not be able to transform everything in such a short time, but we believe that there is political will to move forward with laws on care, equality and non-discrimination, social rights, sexual and reproductive rights, and gender violence.

    President Gabriel Boric, who took office on 11 March, self-identifies as a feminist. He has already given a positive signal by placing the Ministry of Women’s Affairs within his political cabinet, indicating that he does not understand gender as a sectoral issue; we hope that this will translate into real mainstreaming of the gender approach to permeate all policies.

    The new government’s cabinet is more than gender-balanced: it includes more female than male ministers. Several of the ministers – those of women, justice and national assets – are feminists. This is more important than the fact that there are more women, because it will allow us to make important progress on our agenda. 

    We know that, as in the rest of Latin America, there are very difficult times ahead, with a looming economic crisis and very high inflation. We will have to face a process of life becoming more precarious, in a pandemic context that continues to be somewhat uncertain. We do not know how much of a ‘normal life’ we will be able to recover, nor what it will be like.

    The new government will have to protect the work of the Convention, which is being heavily attacked and criticised by mainstream media, which rejects any redistribution of power. The new government will have to give the Convention budgetary and institutional support to continue its work. It will then receive the draft of the new constitution – which will apparently be quite transformative and will hopefully be ratified through a plebiscite – and will have to undertake the enormous task of gradually implementing parity norms in various spheres.

    Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Corporación Humanas through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow @corphumanas on Twitter. 

     

  • CHILE: ‘There has been a citizen awakening of historical proportions’

    soledad munozProtests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Soledad Fátima Muñoz, a Chilean activist and the founder of a mentoring programme and feminist festival,Current Symposium. (Photo by Kati Jenson)

    How did something that started with a small increase in the price of the metro ticket become a mobilisation of unprecedented dimensions?

    The first thing to clarify is that this was not caused just by an increase in the price of the metro ticket, nor is it an isolated protest. Mobilisations against the abuses derived from the neoliberal system have been a constant occurrence in Chile over the years. Among these were mass protests against the privatised pension system, against the Trans-Pacific Economic Cooperation Agreement and against the Fisheries Law, feminist protests and protests by the movement promoted under the slogan ‘Ni Una Menos’ (not one less), mobilisations about the historic debt owed to teachers, the student protests held in 2006 and 2011, and the more recent mobilisations by students against the so-called Safe Classroom Law. On top of this, there’s the outrage caused by systematic state repression of the Indigenous peoples in Wallmapu, the deaths of Camilo Catrillanca and Macarena Valdés, and the imprisonment of Machi Francisca Linconao and Lonko Alberto Curamil, among other political prisoners. Combined with a generation-long dissatisfaction with the impunity granted to those responsible for the tortures, disappearances and killings of thousands of people under the dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet, this produced an environment conducive to a citizen awakening of historical proportions. After years of abuse, the Chilean people woke up and want a new constitution, since the current one was drafted under the dictatorship and was designed to promote social inequality.

    The big difference between the current protests and all the previous ones is the response they triggered from the government of President Sebastián Piñera, who declared a state of emergency and a curfew, unleashing a police and military repression against the Chilean people that is only paralleled by the crimes perpetrated during the dictatorship.

    The protests are not being centrally organised and are not guided by a single political motto; there are many independent initiatives calling for people to gather and demonstrate, through social media or through various independent information channels. Some of the most widespread demands call for a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. Frequently demanded are the nationalisation of basic services and natural resources, including copper, lithium and water. There are also demands for direct democracy and binding referendums, the prosecution of political and economic corruption, respect for Indigenous peoples and plurinational sovereignty, and for health, education and decent pensions. On top of these there are also more specific demands, such as raising the minimum monthly wage to 500,000 Chilean pesos (approx. US$650), reducing legislators’ salaries and raising taxes on the richest.

    These were the reasons why the movement began, but in the face of excessive state repression, citizens are now also demanding the resignation and prosecution of President Piñera and all the people involved in the systematic violations of human rights that have taken place over the past month.

    Twenty deaths have been reported during the repression of the protests, in addition to large numbers of people injured and under arrest. Could you describe the human rights violations committed against protesters?

    It is difficult to estimate right now the human rights violations that are being committed by the Piñera administration, since – as was also the case under the dictatorship – thousands of detainees are being kept incommunicado. That is why, when people are taken away in the streets, they shout out their name, surname and identity card number. The latest official figures from the National Institute of Human Rights (INDH) account for 335 legal actions initiated, 489 victims represented, 6,199 people under arrest – 726 of them minors – and 2,365 injured people registered in hospitals. But it is difficult to confirm the veracity of these figures since the institutions that disseminate them may have been pressured by the government.

    The INDH in particular partly lost its credibility when its director denied the existence of systematic human rights violations in our country on an open-air TV programme. That was simply a lie, since the institution itself had submitted complaints in the face of arbitrary actions by the police and the military. More than 200 cases of eye mutilations have happened as a result of the excessive use of pellets by the police, and there have been numerous cases of mistreatment, sexual violence and torture in detention centres. Additionally, there was an instance of repression at a school, Liceo 7 in Santiago, where a carabinero, a member of the military police, fired against students who were inside the building. There have also been raids on private homes and arrests made out of cars without police identification.

    On top of repression by the security forces, there is a group of citizens who call themselves ‘yellow vests’ and say their mission is to maintain civic order and protect the work of the police, but in reality they are a violent far-right group. Among its members is John Cobin, who fired a firearm at a protester in broad daylight on the busy streets of the Reñaca resort. He belongs to the League of the South, a white supremacist organisation from California.

    What immediate actions should the Chilean government take to safeguard civil rights and democratic freedoms?

    A month into the protests, the government has not yet listened to its citizens, and instead has responded with increasing violence. In the early hours of 15 November, lawmakers reached a political agreement behind closed doors, named the ‘Peace Agreement’ which would lead to a new constitution. The agreement guarantees a ‘blank slate’ for free discussion to take place and establishes that the call for a constitutional convention is going to be done through a public referendum. But part of the mobilised citizenry is not satisfied with either the deadlines or the required quorum of two thirds established for decision-making by the constituent body, since they think it will redirect the current democratic process towards a system designed to protect the political class and prevent minority voices from gaining power.

    I think what’s most important at this moment is the security of the citizenry and, above all, of the communities at greatest social risk, which are not only the most affected by the neoliberal system, but are also at the epicentre of the undiscerning violence applied by carabineros and the armed forces. An example of this happened in the community of Lo Hermida, in Peñalolén. After the authorities announced that they would not build the decent homes they had promised, inhabitants occupied the Cousiño-Macul vineyard. `Police repression was not long in coming, and in just one night 200 people were injured, two of them with severe eye trauma. In addition, carabineros broke in and threw pepper gas into homes with older people and minors inside.

    It is time for the Piñera government to stop the repression, release the more than 6,000 protesters who are currently being held in detention centres, take responsibility for the consequences of its actions, and – for the first time in Chilean history since Pinochet – end impunity for the systematic human rights violations that have been committed. The Piñera government must respond before the law for the more than 20 people who have been killed and the 200 that experienced eye mutilations, plus the torture of minors and sexual abuses against women, men and non-binary people, since all of these were consequences of the lousy decisions made by the government, and would have been at least partly avoided if they had maintained a direct dialogue with the public since the beginning. In this regard, the slogan chanted on the streets is: "There is no peace without justice."

    Do you think that the mobilisations in Chile are part of broader regional trends?

    What is happening in Chile is structurally international, since it derives from the austerity measures perpetrated by neoliberalism. Chile’s current socio-economic system is rooted in European colonialism and was enshrined by Pinochet’s coup d'état in 1973. Specifically, it came from a group of students belonging to Chilean elites who studied in the USA in the mid-1950s, where they absorbed the ideology of extreme monetarism and neoliberalism, under the tutelage of Milton Friedman and Arnold Harberger. These students – nicknamed the ‘Chicago Boys’ – served as finance and economics ministers under the dictatorship and introduced extreme privatisation measures. These measures were accepted and naturalised by a citizenry that was in a state of shock and repression.

    The consequences of this privatisation translate into abuses perpetrated by multinational corporations that are enabled by governments around the world. In Chile, a good example of this is the case uncovered by journalist Meera Karunananthan in an article published by The Guardian in 2017. The author explains that the Ontario Teachers' Pension Plan is the largest investor in Aguas del Valle, Essbio and Esval, which control 41 per cent of the water and sanitation system in Chile. This is possible because the constitution allows for the private ownership of water, which has left entire communities in a drought situation and unprotected by the law. However, in 2010 the United Nations’ General Assembly passed a resolution recognising access to water and sanitation as a human right. This means that in Chile human rights are violated not only through police repression but also through the maintenance of an unfair and abusive economic system.

    The example cited above is just one within the great chain of international abuses perpetrated by corporations, including by the Canadian company Barrick Gold and the Norwegian state company Statkraft, which continue to abuse the policies of the Chilean subsidiary state and threaten our planet. That is why we must raise awareness at an international level so that the decisions of the Chilean people are respected and protection is provided to Indigenous peoples, without blockages or political interventions protecting foreign capital and perpetuating the destruction of our environment.

    What support does Chilean civil society need from international civil society in this process?

    At this time, it is important to recognise and create international awareness about the abuses committed against the working class, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendant communities and sexual minorities. I personally have learned a lot in the course of these mobilisations. One of the most subversive things that citizens are doing is rejecting the right/left binarism that has so severely affected Latin American societies and that has been used by neoliberal governments as an excuse to repress working people. The prevalence of citizen politics that do not identify with any dogmatic position on the right/left spectrum meant that the government could not identify an ideological enemy and ended up declaring war on its own people.

    Mainstream national and international media are misrepresenting the facts and building a narrative against the mobilised population. But unlike what happened in the past, we are now equipped with phone cameras and can report directly. I invite people around the world to get informed through independent media and civil society channels to really know what is happening.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Soledad Muñoz through herwebsite or followmúsica_del_telar on Instagram.

     

  • CHILE: ‘There is social consensus that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable’

    Marco BecerraCIVICUS speaks with Marco Becerra, director of ACCIONGAY, about the process leading to the recent passage of Chile’s Equal Marriage Law. ACCIONGAY is a civil society organisation founded in 1987 in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which was then ignored or minimised as a problem that only affected ‘risk groups’. Over time it expanded its scope of action to advocate for the rights of LGBTQI+ people, based on the principle that all people have the right to self-determination in relation to their lives, bodies, health, relationships and sexuality.

    What was the process leading to the legalisation of equal marriage in Chile, and what role did ACCIONGAY play in it?

    It was a long process, lasting about 30 years. The movement for sexual and gender diversity in Chile began to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This process had different stages. At first, work focused on the consolidation and visibility of the movement in a context of post-dictatorship political transition that was very unfavourable to the demands for equality of LGBTQI+ people. In the second stage, work focused on political advocacy to achieve effective commitment by political groups to tackle the challenges related to the inclusion of LGBTQI+ people.

    By the late 1990s, some important changes began to take place, such as the repeal of a law that criminalised sexual relations between adult men. However, other demands – such as that for equal marriage – only came into the public conversation around 2005, when equal marriage was legalised in Spain. Around that time ACCIONGAY received a visit from Spanish activist Pedro Zerolo, who helped us understand the importance of broadening the debate on civil unions and the recognition of LGBTQI+ people’s rights.

    In a broader sense, I would venture to say that demands for equality before the law were the result of a social and cultural change that Latin America had been experiencing for several years. The legalisation of equal marriage in Argentina and Uruguay, as well as its progress throughout Europe, prompted Chilean LGBTQI+ movements and sexual diversity organisations to mobilise around equality issues.

    It is important to highlight the contributions of numerous organisations and activists who worked consistently over the years to build alliances with progressive political groups, which became committed to these struggles. The idea of civil unions became a reality during the first government of President Michelle Bachelet, in 2015, and later on, as favourable public opinion grew and the perception of these inequalities as an injustice increased, the demand for equal rights for same-sex families gained momentum.

    The Equal Marriage Bill was sent to Congress by Bachelet’s second government in 2017 and finally passed in December 2021. It will come into force in March and will represent a very significant change for the lives of hundreds of families with same-sex parents who did not have any legal recognition and therefore experienced complete defencelessness before the state.

    The keys to achieving this breakthrough were movement coordination, advocacy with political decision-makers and campaigning to raise awareness and sensitise public opinion.

    How did this process interact with the 2019 wave of protests and the process to develop a new constitution that followed?

    Chile is going through a complex, epoch-changing process that came about as a result of the 2019 social outburst. But the demands for equality and recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people largely predate this. This movement was already very strong before the social outburst, including a network of organisations that was very active and mobilised since the 1990s. However, the context of social mobilisation helped create an environment conducive to the consolidation of LGBTQI+ movement as a presence recognisable on the streets in citizen protests demanding more equality.

    The profound social change that began to take place in Chile picked up on the historical struggles of LGBTQI+ organisations and movements that rose up in the context of the 2019 social outburst. To a large extent this was reflected in the number of LGBTQI+ people who recently got elected, especially for the Convention in charge of drafting the new constitution, as well as in the ministerial appointments of LGBTQI+ people made by the next president, Gabriel Boric.

    Why did approval take so long, when polls showed very high levels of public support?

    Although Chile has a very active civil society, its political system, even following recent changes, still includes extremely conservative enclaves. This was reflected in the difficulty that Congress had in moving this law forward, not least because there was no strong commitment from successive presidents. Nevertheless, Bachelet’s second government did act on the idea of legalising equal marriage. It was during her government that the Civil Union Law was passed and the Gender Identity Bill was sent to Congress, which was then passed during President Rafael Piñera’s term.

    From the point of view of people’s perceptions, changes occurred because a social consensus was reached that the arbitrary exclusion of diverse families is unacceptable. Support for equal marriage is striking: almost 70 per cent of Chileans agree, and a similar number support adoption by same-sex couples.

    Campaigns for equal marriage were mainly developed by LGBTQI+ organisations with the support of other social movements, human rights organisations and feminists, to name a few. At the same time, alliances, solidarity and trust were built not only with other social organisations but also with progressive sectors within political parties. Support for the Equal Marriage Law was quite cross-cutting, including a segment of the liberal centre-right that contributed their votes to make it possible. Only ultra-conservative sectors excluded themselves.

    Some leaders of Evangelical Pentecostal churches, which have achieved some social influence in Chile, mobilised against the Equal Marriage Law, but were defeated in the parliamentary debate. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, remained silent, probably because in recent years it has lost social and political relevance as a consequence of the scandals of paedophilia and sexual abuse committed by members of the clergy against children and adolescents.

    What will be the immediate effects of the new law, and what remains to be done?

    This law will have immediate consequences as it will guarantee the enjoyment of all rights and the positive effects of marriage regardless of people’s sex or sexual orientation. As the law includes issues of adoption and parentage, it will solve a number of problems experienced by families of same-sex partners with children. For instance, non-biological parents had no legal rights to the children they were raising as theirs; now they will get legal recognition.

    Chile has experienced a series of legal advances: the Anti-Discrimination Law in 2012, the Civil Union Law in 2015, the Gender Identity Law in 2018 and the Equal Marriage Law starting in 2022. However, high levels of discrimination persist in work and education. Violence against LGBTQI+ communities is rampant.

    From March onwards, we will face the enormous challenge of reviewing our work agenda, especially since after 11 March we will have a progressive government that has incorporated equality and recognition of LGBTQI+ communities in its policy programme. 

    We are sure that this will be a very different government from its predecessors, and we are very hopeful that it will be possible to start closing the gap of real inclusion of LGBTQI+ people in all areas of social life, from public administration institutions to the educational sphere.

    Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with ACCIONGAY through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@acciongay on Twitter.

     

  • CHILE: ‘There's radical discontent with how the country's been ruled for decades’

    Nicole Romo

    Protests broke out in Chile in October 2019, initially led by students rejecting an increase in the price of transport and quickly escalating into mass demonstrations urging structural change. Protests were repressed with savagery by security forces. CIVICUS speaks about the protests with Nicole Romo, director of the public policy area of ​​the Community of Solidarity Organisations (Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias), a network of more than 200 Chilean civil society organisations that work to combat poverty and exclusion. Together, its member organisations work with more than 900,000 people, mobilising around 11,000 staff members and over 17,000 volunteers.

     

    Why did protests break out in Chile, and what made them escalate as they did?

    The social outbreak in Chile came after decades of the promotion of a development model that focused on creating wealth, which for years was distributed with no fairness or justice. Individualistic, short-term and assistance-based social policies that deeply damaged social cohesion and the community and collective sense of wellbeing were implemented. Alongside this there were housing policies that segregated Chileans into ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ territories where access to goods and services was distributed in the same way, a pension system that impoverishes senior citizens, lack of access to healthcare in a timely manner and with adequate quality standards, and an education system that also segregates and grants diametrically opposed opportunities to the rich and the poor.

    In this context, the motto ‘it is not about 30 pesos, it is about 30 years’, which was heard a lot during the protests, expresses quite well the feeling that prevailed among the citizenry. Although this social movement began with students massively evading payment of public transportation fares, after a rise of 30 Chilean pesos in the cost of a metro ticket, deep-seated malaise has been accumulating for over 30 years. There have been several protests to advance various social demands over the years, but this profound discontent had never been heard or even made visible. The social eruption of 18 October 2019 was the result of the accumulation of radical discontent with the government and the way the country has been ruled for several decades.

    How have people and civil society organisations reacted to the protests?

    The national state of mobilisation that we are experiencing has clearly shown that two Chiles coexist within the same territory – two Chiles that do not know each other and do not intersect. This division is the brutal expression of the difference in the quality of life between those who have privileges and those who don’t. Our country spent the past few decades convincing itself that achievements are based on individual merit, that each person’s efforts are the only guarantee of social mobility, which in fact, as shown by a variety of studies, is absolutely untrue.

    In the face of this, data from various surveys show a high rate of approval of social demands among citizens. On the other hand, people are more divided when it comes to violence, and especially the forms of violence that have resulted in damage to public and private infrastructure, such as looting, the destruction of stores and the burning of commercial premises and other types of services, as well as regarding violence by state agents, who have been responsible for numerous human rights violations.

    How has the government reacted to the protests?

    The government has handled this conflict in a quite regrettable way, by mainly emphasising its security agenda, criminalising protests and furthering a legislative agenda focused on punishing protesters, which reveals their lack of understanding of the nature of the protests, their demands and their urgency.

    The social agenda proposed by the government is quite weak. It does not seek to make radical changes to existing structures that deepen inequality and does not guarantee the rights of all people. The changes and the contents of the social agenda led by the government are not up to the protesters’ demands and their urgency. Its numerous initiatives and measures involve limited improvements, which are necessary but will not affect the structures that reproduce unfairness in our country; therefore, they only duplicate the same old short-term public policies that are not based on a rights approach and focus on the individual rather than on the needs of the thousands of families in vulnerable conditions.

    The latest reports speak of dozens of people dead and hundreds injured. Could you describe the extent of the repression and human rights violations committed during the protests?

    Since the protests broke out in Chile, numerous human rights violations have been committed by state security agents. These violations have been denounced by national and international organisations, but the state has tended to downplay them.

    It is essential for us to reiterate that at all times unrestricted respect for human rights must prevail, and that each case of violation must be investigated, resulting in punishment for the perpetrators and reparation for the victims. Civil society is key in monitoring and watching over these processes, to ensure that they remain transparent and foster accountability of the state.

    Data from the National Institute of Human Rights indicate that in 48 per cent of the observed cases of detention, detainees were protesting peacefully, regardless of whether or not they were occupying roads. Likewise, gases were used indiscriminately in 56 per cent of recorded cases, and in 60 per cent of the cases observed, force was not used in a graduated way, and was instead applied without prior notice and in the absence of any kind of dialogue. There were 2,727 documented cases of injured adults who were treated in hospitals, as well as 211 children and adolescents, and 241 people with eye injuries. There was also a series of human rights violations against people detained and held in police stations. The most frequent of these was the excessive use of force during detention, with 751 cases. Overall, 190 cases of sexual harassment or sexual violence were recorded, 171 of them being cases in which detainees were stripped naked.

    How have people and civil society organisations responded to the state repression and rights violations that occurred during the protests?

    We have responded without fear. Entire cities have shouted fearlessly in protest at the human rights violations that occurred during the past months. Many people have compiled testimonial material to make visible the level of exposure and violence they experienced during the protests.

    From civil society organisations the responses have been diverse, but generally speaking all organisations have called for non-violence and the establishment of new spaces for dialogue leading to the strengthening of a society based on social justice and fairness. Without a doubt, civil society organisations have played a prominent role, promoting the establishment of meeting spaces and helping present the demands of the citizenry. This was done through the creation of a large network of networks called the New Social Pact, which brings together more than 600 civil society organisations that have worked tirelessly to search for real solutions to substantial demands.

    The Community of Solidarity Organisations supports the principle of nonviolence and since day one of the protests we voiced the need for unrestricted respect for human rights. Even if it is not our field of work, we believe that this outbreak revealed how urgent it is to restructure the police forces. We faithfully believe in the data published by the National Institute of Human Rights, and we know that their work is conscious and rigorous, as is the report delivered by Amnesty International, so as civil society we will support from our field of work all actions aimed at bringing reparation for the rights violated during the protests.

    What immediate measures should the Chilean government take to overcome this crisis? What are the chances of this happening and a lasting solution being reached?

    A lasting solution would require a long process of construction and change including short-term, medium-term and long-term measures.

    The short-term and medium-term measures are related to the social agenda, which has three dimensions. The first consists in improving the quality of life through measures on issues such as health, education and pensions. The second dimension includes measures to end abuses by economic and political elites and close the gaps in justice administration between cases involving members of the economic elite and ordinary citizens, who face completely different sanctions for committing crimes: ‘ethics classes’ for the former and effective jail terms for the latter. The third dimension involves raising the resources that the state needs to implement a deep and powerful social agenda. Chile requires a tax reform to increase revenue and needs a much more efficient tax management system.

    The long-term axis refers to a constituent process whose main milestones have already been established: an initial referendum, the election of representatives and a ratification referendum. However, conditions guaranteeing participation by a cross section of people, equitable representation, gender parity, minority quotas and independent candidacies have not yet been achieved. Without these conditions in place, the legitimacy of the constitutional process will severely weaken.

    Civic space in Chile is classified as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Comunidad de Organizaciones Solidarias through theirwebsite orFacebook page, or follow@ComunidadOrgSol and@nromo_flores on Twitter.

     

  • CHILE: ‘This historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens’

    CIVICUS speaks with Marcela Guillibrand De la Jara, Executive Director of the Chilean Volunteer Network (Red de Voluntarios de Chile) and General Coordinator of Now It’s Our Time to Participate (Ahora Nos Toca Participar). The Volunteer Network is a national platform that brings together Chilean civil society organisations (CSOs) that promote voluntary action. Now It's Our Time to Participate is an initiative of social organisations gathered in the New Social Pact (NPS-Chile) that seeks to contribute to strengthening democracy and social cohesion by promoting citizen participation in the plebiscite on a new constitution scheduled for October 2020 and in the constituent process that the plebiscite is expected to trigger. The campaign focuses on citizen training, the creation of spaces for dialogue and the generation of proposals to feed into the constituent process.

    Marcela Guillibrand

    In late 2019, a referendum was called in order to trigger a constituent process. To what extent was this the victory of a mobilised society?

    In October 2019, Chile reactivated its political and social life, collectively and throughout its territory. Citizens took to the streets to meet, to speak and take part in politics, as they had not done for a long time. This is how specific and unconventional participatory experiences emerged, locally rooted and with a local identity, mixed with expressions of discontent and frustration towards the structural inequality that had developed and manifested in our country for a long time.

    All this was initially motivated by young people’s dissatisfaction with an increase of 30 pesos (approx. US$0.33) on the price of the ticket used in the Chilean capital’s transportation system, the Metro. In reaction to the increase, demonstrations took place, initially in the form of fare evasion but eventually embracing slogans such as ‘It's not 30 pesos, it's 30 years’, a reference to the time that we have been living in a democracy – since our democratic transition took place in 1990 – and the feeling, shared by a large part of the population, that we have not been included in the decision-making process. This was fuelled by high levels of mistrust in institutions, great political disaffection and the reaction against a model that pushed our country towards more individualistic views and forms of participation in all areas.

    Faced with a level of mobilisation that did not relent, on 15 November 2019 political parties across the spectrum signed the ‘Agreement for Social Peace and a New Constitution’. As a result, citizens were given the opportunity to decide if they want a new constitution through a plebiscite that will be held on 25 October 2020. In the plebiscite, citizens must also select the mechanism that would be used to draft a new constitution: a constitutional convention, a body fully elected for the purpose of drafting the constitution; or a mixed constitutional convention, which would include both current Congress members, who would make up 50 per cent of the body, and representatives elected exclusively for this task, who would make up the other 50 per cent. A large part of society views this process as opening up a unique opportunity for us to choose freely the Chile we want. Although technically what gave rise to this opportunity was an agreement between various political groupings, this historic constituent moment was achieved by citizens.

    Within this process, civil society has also made historic progress on gender issues. Various social organisations that have long worked very hard to promote and defend women’s rights pushed the demand for gender parity in the constituent process, and managed to impose it thanks to the echo they found among various political groups represented in Congress. If the option in favour of drafting a new constitution wins in the plebiscite, the gender parity rule will apply in the election of constitutional delegates. The rule, however, will only be fully operational if the constitutional convention alternative prevails, since in that case all members of the constituent body would be elected in a single election. If the mixed constitutional convention alternative is chosen, the parity rule would apply to the half of the body that will be elected, but not to the half that will be made up of legislators who already occupy congressional seats.

    What stance has Chilean civil society taken regarding the prospect of a constitutional reform process?

    As the plebiscite date approaches, interest on the subject has increased. We have had localised quarantines for more than five months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the organisations with which we interact have had their attention focused mainly on the survival of their programmes and supporting their target populations, since economically the pandemic has hit them very hard. Even so, little by little they have shown growing interest in constitutional issues. For our part, we have stayed connected with them and we have worked together to offer them a platform that contains citizenship training materials that they can use and to coordinate various spaces to conduct training through digital platforms and other mechanisms suited to reach a variety of territories, such as radio and text messaging.

    It is in this context that we launched Now It’s Our Time to Participate, an initiative of the New Social Pact (Nuevo Pacto Social) network, which brings together just over 700 CSOs. The initiative seeks to guarantee the training of citizens and citizen participation in the context of the constituent process that will likely take place. Our focus is on activating citizens, providing them with training tools and jointly generating spaces for participation and dialogue to regain prominence in decision-making in our country. For this, in the run-up to the plebiscite, we have organised a range of key content in several sections – citizen participation, constitution and constituent process – that we have made available to citizens and CSOs through our web platform, www.ahoranostocaparticipar.cl, as well as on social media and through other means. On the basis of this content we have developed a range of training options that include accessible materials in various languages, such as Aymara, Mapudungun and Rapa Nui, as well as in Creole. The idea is that all the people who wish to can find answers in these materials about the constitution and the likely constituent process, in order to be able to take part in the plebiscite in a free and informed manner and thus contribute to achieving the most massive vote in Chilean history.

    The plebiscite had originally been planned for April before being postponed to October due to the pandemic. Have there been any conflicts or disagreements regarding the postponement and the new date?

    The health scenario created by the pandemic forced the relevant institutions to move the date of the plebiscite to October. The section of civil society with which we interact understood that this change was necessary based on a higher common good, people’s health. At the moment we take for granted that the plebiscite will take place in October, since the institutions that could make the decision to change the date have not yet done so, so we continue to work based on that date. Currently, issues related to the implementation of the plebiscite are being discussed. They focus firstly on health safeguards, but also on how to promote citizen participation in this process, which will undoubtedly have very different characteristics from what we are used to. Intersectoral working groups have been set up to work on the issue. First, the Senate set up a forum to receive recommendations and analyse the comparative experiences of other countries that have been in the same situation. Then the Electoral Service kept the forum to continue working along the lines of guaranteeing a safe and participatory plebiscite. Various CSOs have been invited to participate, including Now It's Our Time to Participate. Jointly with these organisations, we have produced a document with recommendations that range from health issues to campaign regulations, and also includes issues such as access to information and citizen capacity development, which is what we work on. This space continues in operation.

    Are measures being taken so that people’s participation in the campaign and vote is not undermined by the effects of the pandemic?

    The current pandemic scenario is naturally forcing us to adopt safeguards. The electoral advertising phase kicked off on 26 August, so now it is possible to disseminate campaign materials in public places that are expressly authorised by the Electoral Service, as well as on the media. Debate is taking place with great force on social media, which given the need to take precautions, avoid crowds and physical contact and respect sanitary restrictions decreed by the authorities, is currently the main space to gain visibility.

    What to do to guarantee everyone’s right to participate on the day of the plebiscite is something that has been under discussion. As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, some places in our country remain under confinement, multiple sectors are quarantined due to the presence of active cases, and there are municipalities that had initiated a deconfinement plan but then had to back off due to new outbreaks of the virus.

    How do we guarantee the right to participation of those people who are infected with COVID-19? What alternatives do we have? These are the kind of questions that are being debated by both the public and the relevant authorities who are in a position to respond to these demands.

    Along these lines, alongside various CSOs we are promoting a series of recommendations that address not only the sanitary aspect – so that COVID-19 patients can vote – but also issues such as ensuring access to timely information and citizen capacity development to all those people who have historically been excluded from participation for multiple reasons, including due to not having adequate information channels to receive content, or content not being available in a variety of languages. In this sense, it is important that every effort be made to guarantee the right to participation, not only to those who at this particular time might not be in a position to exercise it for health reasons, but also to those who have historically found themselves in a more vulnerable situation, such as older adults, Indigenous peoples, rural populations, women, LGBTQI+ people and migrants.

    Civic space in Chile is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Now It’s Our Time to Participate through itswebsite,Instagram or itsFacebook page, and follow@ahrnostoca and@marbrandd on Twitter.

     

     

  • CIVICUS and Colombian Confederation of NGOs concerned about aggressions and impending restrictions on civil society

    Click here to read a Spanish language version of this release

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, and the Colombian Confederation of NGOs (CCONG) are deeply worried about the growing challenges faced by civil society in Colombia. Several activists have been attacked while potentially restrictive legislation is underway and would curtail civil society organisations’ ability to contribute to the implementation of the peace agreements.

     

  • CIVICUS calls on Nicaraguan authorities to withdraw new bill threatening freedom of association

    A new bill introduced in Congress by lawmakers from Nicaragua’s governing party would severely restrict freedoms of association and expression if passed into law, global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today. Introduced on 22 September, The Foreign Agents Law (“Ley de Regulación de Agentes Extranjeros”) would require individuals and organisations that receive overseas funding  to register as “foreign agents”. Those registered as such would be banned from participating in activities relating to domestic politics.

    This legislation would give government ample discretionary powers to control and muzzle civil society, including the power to freeze assets of organisations and people classified as “foreign agents” who fail to register within 60 days. It would also ban anonymous donations, require individuals and organisations to submit detailed monthly reports on funding and use of resources, and allow the government to cancel the registration of organisations not meeting requirements.

    Similar legislation implemented in other countries, including Russia, has had a chilling effect on civic space, leading to the closure of many organisations and the discrediting of civil society activists. CIVICUS calls on the Nicaraguan Congress to reject the proposed bill and guarantee an enabling environment for civil society organisations and human rights defenders.

    “This law would significantly obstruct the operation of civil society organisations in Nicaragua and contribute to the stigmatisation of activists and human rights defenders. Nicaraguan authorities have repressed peaceful protests, sought to silence critical voices and are now attempting to take away people’s right to freely associate,” said Natalia Gomez, CIVICUS Advocacy and Campaigns Officer.


    Background

    In April 2018, widespread protests for social rights set off a crisis in Nicaragua which persists to date. Violations during this crisis have left over 300 protesters dead and more than 100,000 people forcibly displaced. While mass mobilisations have abated, the persecution and criminalisation of political dissidence has continued. Opposition politicians, independent journalists and human rights defenders have faced systematic harassment from security agents and from civilian pro-regime groups. 

    For more information on civic space violations, visit the Nicaragua country page on theCIVICUS Monitor 


    ABOUT CIVICUS

    CIVICUS is a global alliance of civil society organisations dedicated to strengthening citizen action and civil society around the world. CIVICUS has more than 10,000 members worldwide.

    The CIVICUS Monitor is an online participatory platform that monitors civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and assembly, in 196 countries across the world.

     

  • Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean under threat

    Restrictions on civic space rising despite prevalence of democracy

    Click hereto read a Spanish language version of this release

    Civil society in Latin America and the Caribbean is coming under increasing pressure despite the prevalence of electoral democracy in the region, says a new reportreleased today by CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance.

    While the core civil society freedoms of association, assembly and expression are constitutionally recognised in most countries, legal, administrative and de facto barriers to the exercise of these freedoms have risen throughout the continent. These restrictions are appearing after an upsurge of citizens’ protests over entrenched issues of inequality, corruption and abuses of political power.

     

  • CLIMATE CHANGE: ‘There is no respect for the role of civil society’

    Portuguese

    Adriana RamosCIVICUS speaks with Adriana Ramos, advisor at Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a Brazilian civil society organisation that has worked since 1994 to propose solutions to social and environmental issues. ISA's main focus is the defence of social, collective and public goods and rights regarding the environment, cultural heritage, human rights and peoples’ rights. 

     

     

    Do you think there is an increasing restriction of civic space in Brazil following the election of President Jair Bolsonaro?

    Yes, we already have plenty of evidence that there is less scope for democratic action by civil society, at least in regard to the government. Various councils, committees and commissions that used to function as formal spaces for civil society participation in policy-making have been shut down. Regarding climate policy in particular, the National Commission for Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (CONAREDD+), the Climate Fund’s Steering Committee and the Amazon Fund’s Steering Committee were affected, which used to be important forums for the implementation of national climate change policies.

    The government is also behaving antagonistically toward civil society. Its belligerent and aggressive tone hinders the possibility of dialogue. There is no respect for the role of civil society. All of this reflects on the performance of organisations working on the frontline. The suspension of the Amazon Fund, for instance, has precluded many planned projects and jeopardised ongoing ones.

    The government also attempted to eliminate the Ministry of Environment because they thought there was no need for environmental policy. As the proposal to eliminate it had a negative reaction among the public, the Ministry has remained in place, but it is now dedicated to dismantling existing environmental policies and legislation.

    When the Amazon fires came under the spotlight, the president of Brazil said that civil society organisations (CSOs) could be the ones responsible for deforestation. How have these statements affected the work of environmental organisations and defenders?

    Their first effect has been to drain all our energies by forcing us to focus on responding to such atrocious accusations. When the president makes such statements, the press is obliged to disseminate them, and we end up having to defend ourselves. We are put in a position where we need to respond to completely baseless statements made by the president. This is clearly a demobilisation strategy, as it paralyses our main activities and hinders the work of CSOs.

    In addition, there is little understanding of civil society in our country. As a result, such a statement sends a prejudiced message to the public and promotes misinformation and a misreading of the role of civil society. This is happening within the framework of a larger system that is actively promoting ‘fake news’. It ends up creating a cascade effect.

    Is there a link between this narrative and the threats facing environmental defenders, particularly those closest to the frontline of conflict?

    During his election campaign the president promised to “end all activism in Brazil.” We see the government acting consistently with this promise, promoting lawlessness and delegitimating the work of environmental defenders. This reflects directly in the increased lack of safety in the field and the sense of impunity that strengthens those who act illegally. Illegal activities are promoted in the Amazon region, such as illegal logging, illegal mining and land grabbing, all of which are sources of conflict. Those who have historically been the perpetrators of violence against indigenous peoples and environmental leaders come out stronger. In addition, the president’s authoritarian approach ends up mobilising public security forces. Public security forces, which should be working to defend vulnerable groups, are guided by a policy that criminalises and marginalises these groups. Thus, Brazil will probably continue to be listed as one of the most dangerous countries in the world for environmental defenders.

    How has civil society organised to respond in this context?

    We have sought to ensure the constitutional conditions for an active civil society, coordinating various efforts to guarantee the safety of defenders in the field and strengthen protection strategies for the social leaders who are in the most vulnerable positions. We need to innovate in our methods in order to be able to get through these times. It is an unfortunate situation, but I think Brazilian civil society is quite experienced in facing adverse situations and is trying to become stronger in this context.

    At the same time, I believe that checks and balances between the three powers of our government have never been as essential as they are today. If dialogue with the executive is unfeasible, then we must increase our work on the legislative and judicial fronts. Even with their institutional limitations, these end up being key spaces for intervention and contestation of the Brazilian government’s authoritarian actions. We still have a constitution in place. It is a robust constitution in terms of guarantees for individual rights and the freedom of association. On its basis, we carry on the battle.

    What kind of support do Brazilian environmental organisations and defenders need?

    We need more institutional support to ensure that organisations can develop their advocacy work as robustly as the context requires. We need protections that render them less vulnerable to any kind of persecution.

    But support is also needed to strengthen locally developed initiatives, by means of supporting local communities so they can generate income and manage their territories. It is no use fighting on the political front to prevent legislative changes if the living conditions of local communities deteriorate and they become increasingly vulnerable to the unsustainable proposals brought to them by the government. It is important to ensure that there are projects that generate income from sustainable forest use so that communities do not become vulnerable and prone to being used as pawns at the service of those who advocate for the opening of their territories for exploitation by third parties. If this happens, these territories will become unsustainable, and this is bad both for the communities and the environment. It is not only about supporting political resistance against the government’s discourse, but also about supporting best practices in autonomous environmental management by communities, so that communities are strengthened in the process, rather than becoming vulnerable to co-option.

    Is there a growing public movement for environmental causes in Brazil?

    I believe so. Every day more people are interested in mobilising and are reacting to what is happening. They begin to understand that this is a cross-cutting theme, as there is no economy or health without a healthy environment. Because of the current denial of environmental policy, the theme draws even more attention. Without a doubt, this can contribute to strengthening civil society and prompt more people to mobilise, participate and stay attuned to what is happening. That is the positive aspect of the current situation.

    Civic space in Brazil is rated as ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Instituto Socioambiental through its website or its Facebook and Instagram profiles.

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Citizens are outraged and tired of the policies that have plunged them into poverty’

    CIVICUS speaks with Alexandra González Zapata, coordinator for democracy and social protest at the Solidarity Committee with Political Prisoners Foundation, and a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a Colombian civil society organisation that works to defend the rights to life, freedom, physical and moral integrity, decent, fair and impartial treatment and other rights of people deprived of liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and criminalised for participating in social protest. The Solidarity Committee Foundation is a member of the Campaign to Defend Freedom, which focuses on denouncing arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia. A network made up of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations, Defend Freedom works in a coordinated manner to challenge the illegal use of force as a mechanism of persecution against those who, individually or collectively, demand and promote human rights through social mobilisation in Colombia.

    alexandra gonzalez zapata

    What triggered the 2019 protests in Colombia, and why did they escalate?

    Outrage has been building up little by little in Colombia. Even as it was inaugurated in August 2018, President Iván Duque's government did not enjoy wide margins of legitimacy and support. The electoral results showed that a broad segment of the citizenry rejected traditional power and all that it represented: policies in favour of war, privatisation and indebtedness. This discontent increased as the government announced a series of policy measures, including among those who had voted for Duque.

    The government's proposals were aimed at eliminating the state pension fund Colpensiones, raising the retirement age and lowering the salary for young people to 75 per cent of the minimum wage, among other measures. A widespread atmosphere of indignation emerged as a result, yielding a unified call for mobilisation on 21 November 2019.

    What few expected by then was that the mobilisation would continue over the days that followed 21 November. On that day some acts of vandalism were committed, which the national government tried to use as an excuse to criminalise social protest and adopt measures to restrict freedoms, including a curfew. In response to this, citizens went out to demonstrate freely. We really do not know which was the first neighbourhood or the first block to start banging pots and pans on 22 November, but what we do know is that this dynamic expanded throughout the capital city, Bogotá, as well as other cities around Colombia, shifting the narrative that had prevailed on the media, which was all about vandalism, towards a public discourse that highlighted citizen outrage and social demands.

    How have these mobilisations managed to be sustained over time? How are they different from others in Colombia in the past?

    From 2013 onwards, social mobilisation in Colombia has been on the rise. In 2013 there was an agricultural strike that lasted for more than 20 days and managed to keep several major national roads closed. Then came the agricultural strikes of 2015 and 2016, and the so-called ‘mingas for life’, marches and protests of tens of thousands of Indigenous peoples, and the student strikes of 2018 and 2019.

    In other words, we’ve seen numerous massive and sustained mobilisations over the past few years. What is different about the ongoing national protests in comparison to past mobilisations is that they have been characterised by a majority participation of urban citizens and mainly middle-class people. This caused them to be viewed not as the actions of a particular group of people – Indigenous peoples, peasants, or students – but instead as the work of outraged citizens who are tired of the policies that have increasingly plunged them into poverty, even though the country keeps flaunting positive economic growth indicators. Hence its massive and sustained character.

    What do the protesters demand, and what response do they expect from the government?

    The National Strike Committee has submitted a list of petitions around 13 major issues: guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest; social rights; economic rights; anti-corruption; peace; human rights; the rights of Mother Earth; political rights and guarantees; agricultural and fishery issues; compliance with agreements between government and social organisations; withdrawal of legislation; the repeal of specific laws; and reform of the law-making process.

    On the first item, guarantees for the right to social protest, protesters urge the government to dismantle the Mobile Anti-Riot Squadron (ESMAD) and refrain from establishing any other similar force. They demand that those responsible for the death of Dylan Cruz, an 18-year-old who was shot dead in the head while running unarmed to escape ESMAD in the early days of the protest in Bogotá, be brought to justice and held accountable.

    On the second item, social rights, protesters demand an end to labour subcontracting, the establishment of an interest rate for mortgage loans that is fair and correlated to people’s real incomes and the repeal of the tax that is currently used to finance the electricity company Electricaribe.

    So far the government has shown no willingness to enter into any real dialogue and negotiation; instead, it insists on beginning ‘exploratory dialogues.’ Protesters expect the government to convene a negotiating table as soon as possible to address the substantial issues that have been raised.

    How did the government react to the protests? What human rights violations were committed by the security forces?

    On 15 November 2019, six days before the first protest was scheduled to take place, the national government made the decision to involve the army in control and security operations in Bogotá. Nine Brigade XIII contingents were deployed and more than 350 soldiers took part in monitoring, patrolling and security controls in Bogotá. This militarisation still persists in the city. The presence of a ‘riot squad’ of the national army, according to information released by the authorities, is particularly concerning. It should be noted that, except in exceptional circumstances, military forces should not intervene in operations to control, contain or even guarantee the celebration of social mobilisations.

    In addition, as confirmed by the authorities, starting at 6am on 19 November, 37 raids were carried out in the residences and workplaces of media professionals throughout Colombia. To date, 21 of those raids have been declared illegal after undergoing judicial scrutiny, because they did not comply with legally established requirements, including being based on reasonable suspicion. According to information provided by the authorities, the raids involved people who were thought to be prone to committing acts of vandalism during the protest. However, it was mainly people linked to artistic groups, alternative media and social movements. Among the items seized were posters, brushes and paintings.

    Also on 19 November, the Ministry of the Interior issued Decree 2087/2019, establishing new measures for the maintenance of public order. Article 3 made “a very special call to district and municipal mayors, so that in their duty to preserve public order in their respective territories, they comply [with the provisions of the Law] in matters of public order.” This call prompted the authorities of at least eight cities – Bogotá, Buenaventura, Cali, Candelaria, Chía, Facatativá, Jamundí and Popayán – to declare curfews. These affected the exercise of the rights to free movement and social protest for all citizens, even though acts affecting public order had been extremely localised.

    Throughout the protests, the authorities made an improper and disproportionate use of force. Although Resolution 1190/2018 states that “the use of force must be considered the last resort of intervention by the National Police,” in most cases ESMAD has intervened without any apparent reason to do so. On 22 November it intervened in Plaza de Bolívar, where more than 5,000 people had assembled, although the demonstration was completely peaceful. On 23 November, Dylan Cruz was killed as a result of an unjustified intervention by ESMAD during a peaceful mobilisation. Although the weapon uses was among those authorised, the ammunition fired by ESMAD caused the death of this young man because of improper use, since according to international standards this type of weapon can only be fired at a distance greater than 60 metres, and only against lower extremities; otherwise, it is deemed to entail lethal risk. Strikingly, on a video recorded live by the Defend Freedom Campaign, an ESMAD agent can be heard encouraging another one to shoot, saying: “Shoot anyone, just anyone, come on daddy.”

    During the protests more than 300 people were injured, including 12 who had eye injuries. Some young people were injured by firearms shot by the police, including Duvan Villegas, who might remain paralysed as a result of a bullet hitting him in the back. Another young man lost his right eye in Bogotá after being hit by a rubber bullet fired by the ESMAD, and two other people could face the loss of their legs due to the impact of teargas canisters thrown by the police from close range.

    Overall, there were 1,514 arrests during the protests, 1,109 of them in Bogotá. Out of 914 people who were arrested, 103 (6.8 per cent) were prosecuted for allegedly being caught in the act of committing violence against a public official; however, arrest procedures were declared illegal in a high number of cases, both because there were not enough grounds for conducting them and because they were accompanied by physical violence against detainees.

    The rest of the people who were detained (93.2 per cent) were transferred for protection or by police procedure. According to the law, detention in these cases is justified when the life or integrity of the person or a third party is at risk or danger. However, in practice an abusive use of this power was made, since these were mostly administrative detentions, used as a mechanism of intimidation and punishment against citizens who were exercising their right to protest. Therefore, these were mostly arbitrary detentions.

    In some of these cases, cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment was documented during detention, particularly in Immediate Attention Commands or police stations. Cases came to our attention of people who were forced to undress, others who received electric shocks through electrical control devices and some who had broken bones in their hands as a result of baton charges or being kicked.

    Additionally, in Bogotá, more than 620 people who were transferred to the Protection Transfer Centre were punished with police appearance orders, in many cases for the crime of disruption, for having obstructed transport. This mechanism, which results in fines amounting to around 200,000 Colombian pesos (approx. US$60), was used indiscriminately and has affected the exercise of social protest.

    How has civil society organised in the face of these abuses?

    In 2012, the Defend Freedom Campaign was established. Through its Verification and Intervention Commissions, recognised in Resolution 1190 of 2018, the campaign does on-site monitoring of social mobilisation, documents cases of arbitrary and excessive use of force by police authorities, arbitrary detention and transfer for protection and various forms of repression and abusive use of police power against protesters and human rights defenders, and it systematises the information collected. The campaign also promotes the creation of a National Network of Civil Society Commissions for Verification and Intervention in situations of social mobilisation.

    Likewise, through a joint demand, the National Process of Guarantees, the Agrarian, Peasant, Ethnic and Popular Summit and the Defend Freedom Campaign have obtained verifiable commitments from the national government and the government of Bogotá to establish public policies aimed at enforcing respect for the freedoms of individuals, communities and social organisations that promote and defend rights. The most important of these were Decree 563/2015 (Protocol of Action for Social Mobilisations in Bogotá: For the Right to Mobilisation and Peaceful Protest) issued by the Office of Bogotá’s Mayor and Resolution 1190/2018 (Protocol for the coordination of actions to respect and guarantee peaceful protest) issued by the Ministry of the Interior.

    What immediate measures should the Colombian government adopt in response to the protests?

    First, the government should convene the monitoring mechanism (‘Mesa de Seguimiento’) to respect and guarantee peaceful protest, as a space for negotiation and dialogue that should define mechanisms to guarantee the right to protest, as envisaged in Resolution 1190. Likewise, the government should immediately suspend the use of 12-calibre shotguns by ESMAD members, due to their high impact on people’s physical integrity and life. Second, it should refrain from pursuing stigmatisation and criminalisation campaigns against those who engage in social protest. Third, the government should initiate a negotiation process with the National Strike Committee to address its demands. And in response to the substantive demands made by the National Strike Committee, the government should start by withdrawing its proposals for labour and pension reform that are due for congressional debate, and initiate a broad and participatory process towards the formulation of new laws concerning those issues.

    Do you think the response of the international community has been adequate? How could international groups and organisations support Colombian civil society and contribute to safeguarding civic space in the country?

    I believe that the international community and the United Nations system were able to issue a timely warning regarding the risks of repression of social protest. The call made by human rights organisations in the USA to urge their government to start a moratorium on the sale of US riot weapons to Colombia was also timely.

    However, it would also be important for Colombian civil society to receive longer-term support to undertake medium-term strategies that allow for a deeper and more detailed follow-up of the human rights situation, and particularly to help make progress in judicial investigations for the human rights violations allegedly committed during the protests.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with the Solidarity Committee Foundation through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@CSPP_ on Twitter.
    Get in touch with the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite andFacebook page, or

     

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘The protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process’

    Following a year marked by massive mobilisation on the climate emergency, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the main environmental challenges they face in their contexts and the actions they are taking. CIVICUS speaks with a young Colombian student, active in the climate movement, who for security reasons asked to remain anonymous. In addition to mobilising in the context of the #FridaysForFuture movement, the interviewee is part of Post-Conflict Children (Hijos del Posconflicto), a recently created group that seeks to render the experiences of people on the ground visible and defend the peace process in Colombia. On the crossroads of various struggles, the interviewee emphasises the defence of the peace process as a key to preserving Colombia’s environment and biodiversity.

    colombia protests

    From your perspective, what is the most urgent environmental problem in Colombia?

    The most urgent environmental problem is deforestation. Deforestation rates in Colombia are very high, and the situation has not improved following the signing of the peace agreements. That is because, in times of armed conflict, the Colombian guerrillas, mainly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), controlled much of the jungle territory of Colombia. Of course, no one dared get into that territory: multinationals and oil companies did not have a presence there; nor did the industry of cattle-raising. After the peace agreements were signed and the guerrillas withdrew, the problem that has plagued Colombia since the 1950s – land distribution – increased.

    Colombia has extremely regressive land distribution, with land property concentrated in very few hands. With the withdrawal of the guerrillas and the arrival of multinational corporations, land grabbing has increased. Lands are privately appropriated, deforested and used for raising livestock, while the local population continues to be displaced.

    At the same time, there are still active armed groups operating outside the law, particularly far-right paramilitary groups, alongside the smaller guerrilla force of the National Liberation Army (ELN) and some FARC dissidents who refused to engage with the peace process. These armed groups are fighting over the territory with the aim of taking control of coca crops and expanding them, causing greater deforestation.

    Therefore, both the continuation of the conflict in some territories and its termination in others are having a direct influence on deforestation. The peace process contains a series of mechanisms to counteract deforestation, but its effects will depend on whether it is effectively implemented. In that sense, the protection of the environment is inseparable from the success of the peace process.

    What mechanisms in the peace agreements would help stop deforestation?

    The peace agreements include two specific mechanisms to stop deforestation. The first one is comprehensive rural reform, aimed at distributing land in the Colombian countryside and enforcing respect for the uses assigned to the land – for example, by ensuring that if land is for agricultural use, it is not used for raising livestock. The second mechanism is the Programme of Substitution of Crops for Illicit Use, aimed at tackling the drug problem. It is important to understand that many poor peasant families have had to grow coca in order to survive; through this programme, the state is offering them economic incentives to transition towards other sustainable crops.

    How does youth activism contribute to the effective implementation of the peace agreements?

    The struggle for peace is taking place on all fronts. We do three things: we mobilise on the streets in defence of the peace process; we do educational work so that people understand why the peace process is so important; and we do advocacy in various spaces.

    The context in which we do this work is quite difficult. As soon as he took office, President Iván Duque objected to the peace process and tried to modify all aspects that he did not agree with or that he claimed were not fair. If he succeeds, this would ultimately mean a deactivation of the process that resulted from the agreements and the need to start over from scratch. This was no surprise: his entire campaign revolved around the peace process and was based on the dissemination of lies about it. He won the elections by manipulating people’s fears; he told people that the agreements would enshrine impunity. He tried to scare us by telling us that if the left won, we would become a second Venezuela. He also lied regarding his plans for extractive industries: he stated that oil exploration and exploitation through fracking would not be authorised, but in late December 2019 he drafted a decree that would allow fracking.

    As an activist for peace and the environment in Colombia, have you had any participation in the global movement for climate justice?

    Yes, along with a small group, I joined the Fridays for Future initiative. But our participation was limited to a series of actions and strikes aimed at launching the climate movement in our country.

    It has been quite difficult for us to elicit mobilisation around the global climate crisis. First of all, there is much ignorance. In Colombia, most people have no idea what it is being done to them; the current president took advantage of this to spread lies, run a disinformation campaign and win the elections. In a country where public education is of very low quality and only rich people are able to further their studies, it is very easy to lie to people and make them believe you. So, the first problem is ignorance. Add to that fear: in Colombia people are afraid to speak, organise and protest. Colombians live in a state of incredible anxiety due to the systematic murders of social and environmental leaders. Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders in general and for environmental leaders in particular.

    All of this has limited climate mobilisation. Some isolated actions have been held, but there has not been a big national, high-impact demonstration. That is why we were surprised to find out that a massive school mobilisation took place in the south of the country, in the department of Huila, where we least expected it to happen due to the complex security dynamics in those territories. We managed to get in touch with the young people who mobilised in Huila and together we took part in a national meeting held in the department of Caquetá, also known as the golden door to the Colombian Amazon. At that meeting we managed to coordinate our work with the communities that live in Amazonian territory and so far we are in the process of raising the cause of the Amazon and initiating a resistance to defend our forest.

    We are currently starting to bring all the environmental groups together into a single climate front. We hope this will inspire those who are afraid to join as well.

    Have you had any participation in international climate forums?

    We have been to a Latin American meeting of Fridays for Future that was held in Chile with the support of 350.org. It was a meeting of climate advocates to build a Latin American network and take the movement to the regional level. It helped us a lot to meet other young people from other parts of the region who were also mobilising, to discover that we could get together and feel that we had international support to do our job. It gave us some hope.

    Right after that meeting, we began to try to form a national environmental network, travelling to as many territories as possible and enlisting young people from other Colombian regions. There is still a lot to be done, but we are growing exponentially because when a new group joins in, they reach out to three or four other groups. Throughout 2019 we focused on this process, touring territories, communicating our message to people and creating links. We believe that the next time we may be able to mobilise at the national level. We will do so on 24 April 2020, on the occasion of the next global strike.

    What kind of support would you need to be able to hold in 2020 the mobilisation that was not possible in 2019?

    Right now our window of opportunity is the national strike, the series of protests that have taken place in several Colombian cities since November 2019. In a country where people are afraid to speak, on 21 November last year millions of people took to the streets. It was one of the largest mobilisations Colombia has witnessed over the past 40 years. This is a unique opportunity. Within the framework of these protests, the environmental movement has also put forward its proposals and demands. We may not be able to mobilise people specifically around climate, but we can take advantage of these mass mobilisations and put our issues out there. If there are people willing to mobilise, we can approach them, tell them what is happening to the environment and communicate our demands so that they understand that our issues also concern them and they start mobilising for them as well. By doing this, we succeeded in getting the national strike committee to include the declaration of a climate emergency in Colombia among its demands. This has been a very big breakthrough.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Fridays for Future through itswebsite, and with the Colombian campaign byemail or through itsFacebook page, and follow @FutureColombia on Twitter.

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk’

    CIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Colombia with a group of members of the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners Foundation (FCSPP) and the Defend Freedom: Everyone’s Business Campaign, who responded collectively to our questions. FCSPP is an organisation that promotes respect and enforcement of the human rights of all people in Colombia, with a focus on the rights to life, liberty, physical and moral integrity, dignified treatment, fair and impartial trial and other rights of persons deprived of their liberty, prosecuted for political crimes and tried for participating in protests. The Defend Freedom Campaign is a network of social, student, cultural, community and human rights organisations working to denounce arbitrary detentions, judicial persecution and the criminalisation of social protest in Colombia.

    What are the main causes of recent protests in Colombia?

    From our perspective, the reasons behind the protests in Colombia are diverse. In addition to tax injustice, reflected in the proposal submitted by the national government to collect more taxes, the government's poor handling of the health crisis and the economic, ecological and socio-environmental crises exacerbated by the pandemic is also a cause. In the context of the pandemic, a key demand was related to the inefficient management of the Colombian health system and the need for a reform focused on protecting those working in the health sector and providing comprehensive and preventive care to the general population. The inefficient management of the public pension system and the lack of public policies to promote equitable access by Colombia’s young people to free, quality education and quality employment also came to the fore.

    In addition to the socio-ecological injustices caused by a mining and energy policy promoting predatory extractive megaprojects, the lack of commitment by the national government to sign the Escazú Agreement on environmental rights has been accompanied by an unabated wave of murders and other attacks against social, community, environmental, territorial, community and human rights leaders. This violence is perpetuated by the impunity guaranteed by the judicial system to those within the security forces and more generally the state apparatus responsible for human rights violations.

    The protests have also highlighted the absence of guarantees for the exercise of the right to social protest, which instead of being protected is being stigmatised and attacked by the state.

    How do these protests connect to those that took place in previous years?

    The current protests are in direct continuity with the protests of 2020, given that the pandemic resulted in an extended hiatus during which social protest was prevented from taking place physically. During this period, however, the structural issues that motivate social protests were not forgotten, let alone did they disappear, but on the contrary they often deepened and worsened.

    How have the authorities responded to the protests?

    The National Police have responded with a violent, disproportionate and often unlawful reaction against protesters. According to data collected by the Defend Freedom Campaign, between 28 April and 21 July 2021 this violence resulted in 87 deaths of civilians in the context of protests, 28 of them attributable to the security forces, seven to unidentified civilians and 46 to unidentified perpetrators. During this time, 1,905 people were injured as a result of the disproportionate actions of the National Police, the Mobile Anti-Riot Squads (ESMAD) and unidentified civilians. In addition, 326 human rights defenders were attacked in the context of their work accompanying social protests, 106 were victims of gender-based violence and 3,365 people were detained, many of them arbitrarily, resulting in 1,603 complaints of abuse of power and police violence. These figures are evidence of the unwillingness of the authorities to engage in dialogue and of the way in which the right to social protest is being violated in Colombia. Those who demonstrate put their integrity and their lives at risk.

    Rights violations not only occur during protest itself, but are also compounded when it comes to the institutions that are supposed to pay attention, gather data and follow up on violations. We have documented cases of injured people who have not been attended to in hospitals and medical centres. Likewise, the records of missing persons kept by the Ombudsman’s Office and the Prosecutor's Office diverge widely; as of 5 June, the Ombudsman’s Office recorded 89 people missing in the context of the protests, while the Prosecutor’s Office recorded 129. This shows a lack of clarity and coordination between the state institutions that should play a key role in documenting, attending to and providing efficient and timely follow-up to human rights violations.

    What were the effects of repression on protesters?

    After the media publicised some cases, especially of killings and sexual violence allegedly committed by the security forces, citizens continued to demonstrate in acts of solidarity and collective memory. Further, with the aim of coordinating actions, informing citizens, debating and establishing clear common demands, three National Popular Assemblies were held, two in person – one in Bogotá, from 6 to 8 June, and another in Cali, from 17 to 20 July – and a third virtually, on 15 August. All of them were widely attended by popular organisations and social movements. Discussions were also held in localities, municipalities and cities to build an understanding of interests, needs and proposals. This demonstrated the willingness of citizens who had been protesting to engage in permanent dialogue with government bodies to put forward their demands.

    How was it possible to sustain mobilisation for several months, and are protests expected to continue?

    In some territories, protesters found a series of conditions that allowed them to meet peacefully and originate new organisational processes through the exercise of their right to the freedom of association. These processes were based on previously established relationships of solidarity, not only among organisations but also within less formal civil society, which mobilised in peaceful marches and by donating non-perishable goods, basic medical supplies, items for protection and other forms of support to the young people who mobilised on what is now known as ‘the frontlines’.

    The mobilisation was sustained thanks to new and creative forms of organisation that helped distribute roles in the midst of intense days of police repression, with some people in charge of holding up defensive barriers with improvised or relatively elaborate shields, others in charge of returning teargas canisters and mitigating deterrence tools used by the police, others in charge of providing medical, psychosocial, emotional and legal first aid to those who needed it, and others playing care roles, providing food and hydration to protesters. The result was the emergence of spaces such as ‘Puerto Resistencia’ (Resistance Port) in Cali and ‘Espacio Humanitario al Calor de la Olla’ (Humanitarian Space at the Heat of the Pot) in Bogotá, which were replicated at other resistance hotspots around the country. These spaces bring together inter-organisational and inter-generational networks which, through dialogue and assembly meetings, build consensus and prioritise actions adaptable to each territory’s context.

    It is to be expected that the protests will continue, given that they have not only arisen from historic centres of protests, such as workers’ confederations and teachers’ unions, but there are also now multiple protest hubs in cities and highways around the country where people mobilise a diverse range of organised, organising and unorganised citizens with different motivations and people take to the streets due to a variety of situations. Commemorative dates are coming that will surely generate mobilisation, perhaps not on a daily basis as happened between April and July, but with actions that will keep alive the demands made visible both by the National Roundtables of the National Strike Committee and by other spaces promoted by civil society at the local and municipal levels.

    How have attacks by armed civilian groups affected demonstrations?

    The Campaign has documented multiple situations in which armed civilians attacked protesters, mainly in the departments of Cundinamarca, Risaralda, Norte de Santander, Tolima and Valle del Cauca, and the city of Bogotá. Several of the aggressions recorded were committed by civilians accompanied by members of the security forces, who did not take any action to stop them but rather supported them. Many of these civilians call themselves ‘defenders of private property’.

    A clear example of this, taken from the records of the Campaign’s Information System of Aggressions against Social Protest (SIAP), occurred in Cali on the afternoon of 9 May, when agents of the National Police, together with several civilians mobilised in pick-up trucks, attacked the Indigenous Guard, a civil resistance group mobilised in defence of the territory and the life plan of the Indigenous communities. The attack left 10 people injured, one of them in serious condition with a double bullet wound to the stomach. Another case recorded by SIAP occurred in Cali on 6 May; on this occasion, armed persons in civilian clothes got out of a truck and shot at protesters. As a result of citizens’ demands that the army stop them, the interior of the truck was searched and a police jacket was found, and when its number plates were checked, the vehicle was identified as police property.

    In other cases, armed civilians act without police being present. It is important to mention the presence of paramilitary groups: in places where mobilisation increased, graffiti and pamphlets from paramilitary groups such as the Black Eagles and the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia were found, aimed at intimidating the population to dissuade people from participating in protests.

    How has the government responded to the recommendations issued by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR)?

    In public statements referring to the IACHR recommendations, President Iván Duque once again stigmatised the exercise of the right to social protest and highlighted the effects of protest roadblocks on the rights to free movement and work. The government invoked the constitution to reject the proposal to separate the National Police from the Ministry of Defence and was defensive about the possibility of creating a mechanism to monitor human rights.

    Despite the recommendations, human rights violations continued unabated. As of 7 July 2021, the day the IACHR recommendations were made public, the Campaign registered 152 detentions, most of them arbitrary, 92 people injured by the actions of ESMAD, the National Police and armed civilians, four cases of gender-based violence, 29 attacks on human rights defenders, 72 complaints of police abuse and violence, and 29 raids. This occurred despite the fact that mobilisations had decreased in intensity and frequency; a large part of these violations happened on a single day, 20 July. But a change in repressive strategy was observed, as the number of raids increased dramatically.

    How can international civil society support Colombian civil society?

    International civil society can support us through campaigns such as SOS Colombia, but on a more permanent basis, and not limited to peak moments of repression. They could also help us by assisting the countries that act as guarantors of Colombia’s 2016 Peace Accord in doing an exhaustive review of the execution of peacebuilding resources, and by supporting those organisations that have denounced police and state abuses through investigative, communicative and political advocacy strategies in international human rights forums and advocacy spaces, thus giving more visibility to the social, humanitarian and ecological crisis facing Colombia.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with the Committee for Solidarity with Political Prisoners through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CSPP_ on Twitter. Contact the Defend Freedom Campaign through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@DefenderLiberta on Twitter.

     

  • COLOMBIA: ‘Young people experience a feeling of wanting to change everything’

    CIVICUS speaks about the protests that began in Colombia in April 2021, triggered by proposed tax increases, with a young social and human rights activist who chose to remain anonymous for security reasons. The interviewee belongs to a network of youth organisations and young activists that promotes solidarity, organisation and the struggle of excluded groups and that works in the capital, Bogotá, and in the city of Medellín.

    What were the causes of the protests, and what are protesters’ demands?

    The tax reform was just the straw that broke the camel’s back, as it added to a host of problems. In the assemblies in which we participated, hundreds of demands, and demands of all kinds, were collected, from filling holes in neighbourhood streets to overthrowing the government led by President Iván Duque and seeking justice for the so-called ‘false positives’, that is, cases of civilians killed by the military and presented as casualties of the armed conflict. What young people are experiencing is a feeling of wanting to change everything, of not wanting to continue living as before.

    But despite the diversity of demands, there are some that unite young people from the lower classes the most. I think that, in economic matters, young people from the lower classes are demanding employment and opportunities to get ahead, and in political matters these young people, particularly those who were on the protest frontlines, are demanding dignity, to not be humiliated anymore. Nothing unites these young people more than their deep hatred of the police, as the main representative of the outrages and humiliations they experience on a daily basis. They feel like outcasts with no economic future, with no hope of getting a job beyond the daily grind to survive, rejected by society and persecuted like criminals by the police just because they are young and poor.

    Students – also young people but more intellectual, some from the middle class – were also a significant force in the protests, but tended to emphasise demands against political repression and human rights violations, the issue of the ‘false positives’, the assassinations of social leaders and the criminalisation of protest.

    How do these protests differ from those of previous years, and are there any lines of continuity with them?

    Basically, motives are the same as those of the 2019 and 2020 protests. In the 2019 protests, the crisis of unemployment and hunger weighed more heavily, while in the 2020 protests, the issue of repression, not wanting to continue to be humiliated and killed, became more important. Those that broke out in April 2021 combined the motives of the two previous waves, because not only had neither of the two problems been tackled at the root, but not even palliatives had been offered; on the contrary, the economic crisis worsened and political repression continued.

    Perhaps one difference is that the latest protests have received greater international attention, which reflects the strength with which the Colombian people took to the streets. The protest had broad legitimacy among social groups that do not usually mobilise. The economic and political crisis and suffocation was such that groups such as medium-size and even large business owners supported the protests. The massive character of the protests also forced everyone, from artists to congresspeople, to take sides.

    There were Colombians abroad who protested in their respective countries, speaking up about what their relatives back home were telling them. Some may think that this increased international attention was due to the repression, but I tend to believe that what magnified the message was the size of the middle-class groups that mobilised. Repression has been very present in previous cycles as well as in the face of protests by groups of peasants. I think what was decisive in this case was the diversity of social strata that supported the protest.

    How has the government reacted to the protests?

    Generally speaking, it reacted first by violently repressing them, then by delegitimising them by using the media to attack some groups, and in particular young people, and finally by trying to divide them in order to demobilise some social groups and isolate young people from the lower classes. For the latter, the government engaged in several negotiations with a self-proclaimed National Strike Committee, and also carried out negotiations at the local level to try to contain or calm down some social groups.

    Particularly at the local level, even in localities with so-called centrist and independent governments, the government set up dialogue roundtables that do not solve anything, where demands are listened to but nothing specific is offered in response to those demands. Many local governments washed their hands of the repression, blaming it on the central government alone, but they did everything in their power to demobilise the protests, sending representatives to calm down protesters and promising people that if they stopped protesting they would listen to their demands, something they had not done during the whole previous year.

    Violence by some groups seems to have become a problem. How did activists and civil society organisations deal with this?

    Violence has often been a spontaneous reaction to repression. Confronting the young person who is throwing a rock with judgement and scolding serves no purpose except to radicalise them further and earn their distrust. In order to change this violence, we must begin by understanding it and distinguishing it from the violence that comes from the state, rather than putting them on the same level. This is not to say that violence is desirable; indeed, it diverts the initiative of many young people. But getting between them and the Immediate Response Command (Comando de Atención Inmediata) – the police unit that operates in urban perimeters – to try and stop them ends up having more of a reverse psychological effect than a deterrence or educational one.

    In my experience, civil society organisations that do not reach out to these young people and offer them alternative spaces for politicisation and awareness-raising end up isolating them and losing the ability to influence them. Our organisation has dealt with this through the strategy of avoiding negative judgement and, instead, approaching them with understanding and trying to create alternative spaces for political participation and the organisation of young people.

    What roles has your organisation played in the protests?

    Our organisation played an active role: we organised the participation in the protests of young people and families in the neighbourhoods where we carry out community work and promoted a solidarity campaign with protesters to collect economic support and other resources, such as first aid, support through community kitchens and human rights advocacy, to help various protest points in the cities of Bogotá and Medellín.

    In Bogotá, we provided support to find information on missing persons and participated in solidarity campaigns with people who had been injured. In Medellín we established community kitchens and repaired roofs and other damage caused by protests in neighbourhoods close to the major protest hotspots in the city. Finally, throughout the protests we developed awareness-raising activities and promoted the involvement of young protesters in more lasting processes of social and community building.

    What impacts do you think this cycle of protests and repression will have on the upcoming elections?

    In my opinion, the protests increased the political capital of the former mayor of Bogotá and former presidential candidate for the left, Gustavo Petro. The government did not give any real response to protesters’ demands and people are still looking for alternatives, and – although our organisation has no interest in campaigning for him or intention to do so – I think Petro is the only available option. In the next elections I would expect a higher rate of youth participation, and I would not be surprised at all if Petro wins.

    Civic space in Colombia is rated ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Colombia: Rise for Climate marchers unlawfully obstructed

    Peaceful activists and campesinos of the “Movimiento Rios Vivos” were unlawfully obstructed by police in Ituango, Colombia on 8 September 2018 as they participated in the global “Rise for Climate” mobilisation. The action in Ituango was part of a global mobilisation organised by the environmental rights group 350.org, which  brought together tens of thousands of people who took part in 900 actions in 95 countries around the world.  The blocking of the protesters is an example of the ongoing pattern of violations against environmental defenders.

     

  • Continúa la persecución de los líderes de los movimientos de protesta rurales a medida que se profundiza la crisis en Nicaragua

    • Tres activistas ecologistas campesinos se encuentran detenidos y sufriendo malos tratos a la espera de juicio 
    • Un informe de las Naciones Unidas confirma que el gobierno sigue atacando a los líderes campesinos
    • Personal de Naciones Unidas ha sido expulsado de Nicaragua tras el informe realizado sobre las violaciones de los derechos de los manifestantes 
    • Más de 320 personas han muerto desde el inicio de la represión violenta de las protestas en abril
    • Grupos de derechos humanos instan a las autoridades a retirar todos los cargos y liberar a los líderes campesinos

     

  • COP26: ‘Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it’

    The 26th United Nations Conference of the Parties on Climate Change (COP26) has just ended in Glasgow, UK, and CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts on the outcomes of the summit, its potential to solve the environmental challenges they face and the actions they are taking to address them.

    CIVICUS speaks with Ruth Alipaz Cuqui, an Indigenous leader from the Bolivian Amazon and general coordinator of the National Coordination for the Defence of Indigenous Peasant Territories and Protected Areas (CONTIOCAP). The organisation was founded in late 2018 out of the convergence of several movements of resistance against the destruction of Indigenous territories and protected areas by extractive projects and the co-optation of traditional organisations representing Indigenous peoples. Initially composed of 12 movements, it now includes 35 from all over Bolivia.

    RuthAlipaz

    What environmental issues do you work on?

    As a defender of Indigenous territories, Indigenous rights and the rights of nature, I work on three different levels. First, on a personal level, I work in my community of the Uchupiamona Indigenous People, the whole of which is within one of the most diverse protected areas in the world, the Madidi National Park.

    In 2009 my people were on the verge of giving out a logging concession that would devastate 31,000 hectares of forest, in an area that is sensitive for water preservation and particularly rich in bird diversity. To stop that concession, I made an alternative proposal, focused on birdwatching tourism. Although currently, because of the pandemic, tourism has proven not to be the safest bet, the fact is that we still have the forests thanks to this activity – although they always remain under threat due to pressure from people in the community who need the money right away.

    My community currently faces serious water supply issues, but we have organised with young women to restore our water sources by reforesting the area with native fruit plants and passing on knowledge about these fruit and medicinal plants from our elders to women and children.

    Secondly, I am a member of the Commonwealth of Indigenous Communities of the Beni, Tuichi and Quiquibey rivers, a grassroots organisation of the Amazon region of Bolivia that since 2016 has led the defence of the territories of six Indigenous Nations – Ese Ejja, Leco, Moseten, Tacana, Tsiman and Uchupiamona – from the threat of the construction of two hydroelectric plants, Chepete and El Bala, that would flood our territories, displace more than five thousand Indigenous people, obstruct three rivers forever and devastate two protected areas, the Madidi National Park and the Pilón Lajas Biosphere Reserve. On 16 August 2021, Indigenous organisations supporting the government authorised the launch of these hydroelectric power projects.

    The Tuichi River, which is within the Madidi protected area and is essential to the community ecotourism activity of my Uchupiamona People, has also been granted in its entirety to third parties outside the community for the development of alluvial gold mining. The Mining and Metallurgy Law discriminates against Indigenous peoples by allowing any external actor to acquire rights over our territories.

    Finally, I am the general coordinator of CONTIOCAP, an organisation that has denounced the systematic violations of our rights in the Indigenous territories of the four macro regions of Bolivia: the Chaco, the valleys, the Altiplano and the Amazon. These violations come hand in hand with oil exploration and exploitation, the burning of forests and deforestation to free up land for agribusiness, the construction of roads and hydroelectric plants and the alluvial gold mining activity that is poisoning vulnerable populations.

    Have you faced negative reactions to the work you do?

    We have faced negative reactions, mainly from the state, through decentralised bodies such as the National Tax and Migration agencies. I recently discovered that my bank accounts have been ordered to be withheld by the two agencies.

    During a march led by the Qhara Qhara Nation in 2019, I was constantly followed and physically harassed by two people, while I was in the city to submit our proposals alongside march leaders.

    And recently, when Indigenous organisations sympathetic to the government gave authorisation to the hydroelectric plants, our denunciations were met with actions to disqualify and discredit us, something the Bolivian government has been doing for years. They say, for instance, that those of us who oppose the hydroelectric megaprojects are not legitimate representatives of Indigenous peoples but activists financed by international non-governmental organisations.

    How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

    Our actions converge with those of the global movement, because by defending our territories and protected areas we contribute not only to avoiding further deforestation and pollution of rivers and water sources, and to preserving soils to maintain our food sovereignty, but also to conserving ancestral knowledge that contributes to our resilience in the face of the climate crisis.

    Indigenous peoples have proven to be the most efficient protectors of ecosystems and biodiversity, as well as of resources fundamental for life such as water, rivers and territories, against the position of the state whose laws rather serve to violate our living spaces.

    Have you made use of international organisations’ forums and spaces for participation?

    Yes, we do it regularly, for example by requesting the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to follow up on the criminalisation of and violence against defenders of Indigenous peoples’ rights in Bolivia and by participating in the collective production of a civil society shadow report for the United Nations Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review of Bolivia, which we presented during the Council’s pre-sessions in October 2019.

    Recently, in a hearing in the city of La Paz, we presented a report on violations of our rights to the UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Peoples.

    What do you think of the spaces for civil society participation in the COPs, and how do you assess the results of the recently concluded COP26?

    Once again, at COP26 states have exhibited their complete inefficiency in acting in compliance with their own decisions. I have stated on more than one occasion that 2030 was just around the corner and today we are only eight years away and we are still discussing what are the most efficient measures to achieve the goals set for that date.

    Much more money is being invested in destroying the planet than in saving it. This is the result of states’ actions and decisions in favour of a wild capitalism that is destroying the planet with its extractivism that is predatory of life.

    Let’s see how much progress has been made since the Kyoto Protocol, which was agreed in 2005 to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In recent years, companies have used the supposed concept of the ‘right to development’ to continue operating to the detriment of the planet and, above all, to the detriment of the most vulnerable populations such as Indigenous peoples. We are the ones who pay the costs, not the ones who cause the disasters.

    The results of COP26 do not satisfy me because we want to see tangible actions. The Bolivian state has not even signed the declaration, even though it has used the space of COP26 to give a misleading speech that the capitalist model must be changed for one that is kinder to nature. But in Bolivia we have already deforested around 10 million hectares, in the most brutal way imaginable, through fires that for more than a decade and a half have been legalised by the government.

    I think that as long as these forums do not discuss sanctions on states that do not comply with agreements, or that do not even sign declarations, there will be no concrete results.

    Civic space in Bolivia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with CONTIOCAP through itsFacebook page and follow@contiocap and@CuquiRuth on Twitter. 

     

  • COP26: ‘We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed’

     Portuguese

    Daniel Gutierrez GovinoAs the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) gets underway in Glasgow, UK, CIVICUS continues to interview civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are taking to address them and the reprisals they face because of their work.

    CIVICUS speaks with Daniel Gutierrez Govino, founder of the Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade, a group that works to prevent, combat and promote socio-political coordination against fires in the Amazon forest in the state of Pará, Brazil. He is also a co-founder of the Alter do Chão Aquifer Institute, an institution that promotes social projects in the town of Alter do Chão, municipality of Santarém in Pará.

    What made you become an environmental defender?

    I felt the urgency to work to keep the planet viable for humans and other species. I was moved, and still am today, by the possibility of human beings reversing their actions and ways of thinking about our role in nature. We need to regenerate ourselves and what we have destroyed.

    What does the Alter do Chão Brigade do?

    We have worked since 2017 to prevent and combat forest fires in Alter do Chão, in the municipality of Santarém in the north of Brazil. We brought together a group of community volunteers who, with great courage, have worked to protect biodiversity, the people of Alter do Chão and the region from forest fires. To do this, we received training from the Military Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence and the Municipal Secretariat for the Environment and Tourism of Belterra. We have trained new brigade members and promoted socio-political coordination and communication with local communities.

    What restrictions have you faced in response to your environmental activism?

    In the case of the Alter do Chão Brigade, I and three other brigade members were arrested in 2019 on unfounded charges of causing fires in an environmental protection area. Our work was criminalised because it proposes solutions and a transformation of the local political context.

    In addition, the current national context for organised civil society is hostile. We were scapegoats in a narrative that sought to criminalise civil society organisations, at a time when the country’s president and his supporters were trying to blame civil society for the dramatic increase in forest fires.

    I have also faced resistance when trying to promote changes in current public policies in the microcosmos of Santarém. Political and social conservatism undermine any movement that seeks to advance progressive agendas. The government, the civil police and the local elite reject environmental activism by attacking our work. We were lucky and our privilege kept us alive, but activists in the Amazon are always threatened with violence and death. It is not a safe region for those who fight for freedom and justice.

    What kind of support did you receive when you were criminalised?

    We received all kinds of support when we were arrested, both nationally and internationally. The key support came from pro bono criminal lawyers from the Freedom Project, who still accompany us to this day. But we also received support from national institutions such as Projeto Saúde e Alegria and Conectas, as well as from international ones, such as WWF Brazil, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and many others.

    We were released from prison after a few days thanks to the actions of these defence and protection networks. However, the criminal process against us has been ongoing for two years, without any proof backing the accusations against us. At the federal level, the police investigation was closed; however, the authorities of the state of Pará have insisted on charging us. Recently, the jurisdiction of the court case was challenged by the federal prosecution, but for months the process has drifted in the Brazilian justice system. Part of our equipment remains confiscated to this day. I have no more hopes for justice.

    Despite all of this, I believe that Brazilian civil society is emerging stronger. Our partner Caetano Scannavino, from Projeto Saúde e Alegria, who also works in Alter do Chão, says it is like a boomerang effect. I think this assessment is brilliant. They attack us, and their attacks make us stronger.

    What avenues are available for activists in your region to seek protection and support? What kind of support do you need from civil society and the international community?

    The main thing is to be aware of the available support networks and coordinate with them before anything bad happens, that is, to coordinate preventively. This includes national and international institutions, such as those that supported us. But above all, it is crucial to know local support networks.

    The types of support needed are specific and depend a lot on each region. Brazil is of a continental size and the needs of the south are not the same as those of the Amazon, for example. One cannot even say that the Amazon is a region, because it is, in fact, a continent with particularities in each region. But it is these networks that will connect those in need of support with those who can help.

    Civic space in Brazil is rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Alter do Chão Forest Fire Brigade through itswebsite or itsFacebook page.

     

     

  • COP26: ‘Young people are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign’

    In the run-up to the 26th United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26), which will take place in Glasgow, UK between 31 October and 12 November 2021, CIVICUS is interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about the environmental challenges they face in their contexts, the actions they are undertaking to tackle them and their expectations for the upcoming summit.

    CIVICUS speaks with Antonella Regular and Joaquín Salinas, Communications Coordinator and Training Coordinator of Juventudes COP Chile (COP Chile Youth), an independent youth platform focused on climate action. The group seeks to create advocacy spaces for young people and be an intergenerational and intersectional space for mutual learning.

    Antonella Regular y Joaquin Salinas

    What are the key environmental problems you encounter in Chile?

    One key problem is that of environmental sacrifice zones or areas with a high level of environmental impact, that is, areas that concentrate a large number of polluting industries that have a direct impact on communities. Another problem is mining and the way in which extractive rights are positioned above the rights of communities and the environment, with operations such as the controversial Dominga project in the Coquimbo region on Chile’s north-central coast. And in the south, the issue of deforestation.

    These environmental issues are our entry point into the communities: they allow us to know what their challenges and goals are so that we can exert influence and act, and not just make demands. Our platform seeks to create solutions to address the problems.

    The fact that young people do not find spaces where they can be heard and actively participate in decision-making is also a problem. Chile is currently going through a constituent process: there is a very diverse and plural Constituent Assembly, which was directly elected by citizens, and which is drafting a new Constitution. For the first time there is the possibility that some historical demands that have been ignored for the longest time will be met. At this decisive moment it is important for young people to be included in decision-making and to be able to influence the design of progressive public policies.

    How do your actions connect with the global climate movement?

    The Juventudes COP Chile platform tries to function as a bridge between civil society and international advocacy spaces such as climate conferences. Our goal is for civil society as a whole to be empowered with opinions and demands to exert influence within these spaces. We have opened spaces for participation and established alliances, and all the proposals that have emerged from these spaces will be delivered to COP26. 

    Juventudes COP Chile promotes the participation of young people and encourages them to take an active position. We are making proposals rather than just demanding change by holding up a sign.

    What progress do you expect from COP26, and more generally, how useful do you find such international processes?

    There are many issues left pending from COP25. For instance, there is a need to finalise the rulebook in relation to article 6 of the Paris Agreement, regarding carbon markets, for states and companies to trade greenhouse gas emissions units. We hope that at COP26, states will finally reach an agreement and there will be a breakthrough in this regard. They should also stop postponing Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) until 2050. And NDCs should no longer be voluntary. The fact that they are almost feels like mockery given the state of the climate crisis.

    Progress is urgently needed because we are seeing that climate change is real and it is happening. Some changes are already irreversible: we are experiencing them on a daily basis in our relationship with the environment and we may hardly be able merely to adopt adaptation rules anymore.

    Parties at COP26 should realise this and put their own interests aside to think about the survival of the human species. They must listen to science and to young people. The participation of young people in these processes cannot be a mere protocol: it must be real, active and meaningful.

    What changes would you like to see in the world or in your community that could help solve the climate crisis?

    In our communities we hope for more participation and access to information. In Chile there is a great deal of centralisation: everything happens in the capital, Santiago de Chile, and that creates a deficit of citizen participation in decision-making and information delivery at the community level. We hope that progress will be made on issues of decentralisation and redistribution of effective decision-making power.

    One of the principles upheld by Juventudes COP Chile is precisely that of decentralisation, and that is why we work with people from different parts of the country. We would like to see a much bigger adoption of some of the practices that we have adopted at Juventudes COP Chile, such as artivism, regenerative culture, horizontal relations and community work.

    At the national level, we hope that politicians will start to take this problem seriously. They must work to reduce pollution and alleviate the climate crisis. They must start by recognising that the climate crisis is a human rights crisis, drastically affecting the quality of life of the most vulnerable people and communities. It is important that there is a recognition that this is happening and that it is a serious problem.

    An important step to start moving forward would be for Chile to finally sign the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean, better known as the Escazú Agreement. This is the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean and the first in the world with specific provisions on human rights and environmental defenders. For years the state of Chile pushed forward the negotiations that resulted in this agreement, but then decided not to sign it. It should do so without delay.

    Civic space in Chile is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Contact Juventudes COP Chile through theirwebsite or theirFacebook orInstagram pages. 

     

     

  • COSTA RICA: ‘Once legal change achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion’

    On 26 May 2020, Costa Rica became the first country in Central America to recognise same-sex marriage. CIVICUS speaks with Herman Duarte, a lawyer practising in Costa Rica and El Salvador and the director ofSimple Legal Consulting as well as the Latin America Liaison Officer of the International Bar Association’s Human Rights Committee and the founder and president of Foundation Igualitxs. Fundación Igualitxs is a leading think tank working on LGBTQI+ rights in Central America, focused on promoting equal civil marriage across the region. It works towards this goal by conducting strategic litigation at the national and inter-American levels, promoting its ideas in academic circles and partnering with high-level international allies.

    Herman Duarte

    What roles have civil society and the government played in the process leading to the legalisation of same-sex marriage in Costa Rica?

    Costa Rica is a constitutional democracy structured as a unitary state with three branches of government – legislative, executive and judicial – that are in principle independent. At least in theory, the principles of the rule of law and equal legal treatment of all citizens are respected. But Costa Rica is also a confessional state: its constitution expressly recognises Catholicism as its official religion. In recent decades, evangelical congregations have expanded in number, reaching nearly 3,800. By 2017, more than 80 per cent of the population identified themselves as Catholic or evangelic; clearly, Costa Rica is culturally a conservative country.

    In the context of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ rights movement, the kickstart came from the Government of Costa Rica, which in May 2016 asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights for an advisory opinion regarding the patrimonial rights of same-sex couples. This consultation opened a window for all interested parties to present their arguments, which more than 90 very diverse actors did, including states, international organisations, civil society organisations (CSOs), universities and individuals. Hearings took place on 16 and 17 May 2017 and we took part in them.

    The momentum generated by this event was reflected in the organisation of the First Equal Marriage Congress, held in San José, Costa Rica, in November 2017, which brought together more than 54 speakers from all over the region. In January 2018, the Inter-American Court published its decision, which stated that state parties should regulate the status of non-heterosexual families, opening the doors of civil (non-religious) marriage to same-sex couples. A group of 60 LGBTQI+ organisations in the region celebrated the decision as the most important in the history of LGBTQI+ rights to date.

    At that time great discussion was elicited around whether the opinion of the Inter-American Court was binding for Costa Rica. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice of Costa Rica settled this debate in August 2018, when it argued that the sections of the Family Code that limited civil marriage to heterosexual couples were unconstitutional. The ruling gave the Legislative Assembly 18 months to amend legislation; otherwise, all restrictions would be lifted automatically, and as of 26 May 2020, any couple could marry with no obstacles in Costa Rica. And so it happened, since there was no legislative consensus to create new legislation.

    On the path to the entry into force of the Court's ruling, important civil society campaigns were developed to increase social acceptance to accompany legal change.

    Did you face backlash from anti-rights groups?

    Conservative reaction has been brutal. It is important to understand that the LGBTQI+ community has framed its struggles around the demand for recognition of their human dignity and their equal value as human beings and that religious groups have mobilised as identity groups – groups whose identity is defined in a narrow, not universalistic way, in opposition to an enemy. These groups channelled resentments brought about by legal changes that advanced equality and gave hope to those who had felt displaced by them, leading to the rise of religious political parties.

    In such context, the 2018 presidential elections became some sort of referendum on the rights of LGBTQI+ people, and specifically on equal marriage. An evangelical pastor, Fabricio Alvarado, then the lone congressman from an evangelical party, ran for the presidency, exploiting conservative people’s feelings of outrage and fear at the Supreme Court ruling. The candidate was noted for his incendiary statements; he declared, for example, that homosexuality was “caused by the devil.” This is how he climbed to the top of pre-electoral polls: in just one month, he went from three per cent to 17 per cent of voting preferences, and came first in the first round of the presidential elections, winning 14 of the 54 legislative seats as well. This represented a 1,300 per cent increase in the legislative presence of his political party.

    The runoff presidential election revolved around the rights of the LGBTQI+ population. The runner-up, Carlos Alvarado, was the candidate of the incumbent party and was favourable to LGBTQI+ rights. His position eventually prevailed, but the elections forced us to confront the enormous power achieved by evangelical churches. Carlos Alvarado’s victory can be explained by several factors, one of which was the formidable mobilisation of civil society. Among the civil society campaigns that had an impact was that of the Coalition for Costa Rica, which sought to generate an informed and inclusive debate, disseminating the candidates’ proposals so that citizens could deliberate before voting, and ‘For all families’, a campaign that Igualitxs launched a week before the elections to spread an inclusive message and demand equal treatment for the LGBTQI+ population.

    The deep division created around the elections has had consequences. Politicians who use religion to polarise society continue to abound. They protest because they think that the government is biased towards addressing the problems of the LGBTQI+ population. This tension has increased with the entry into force of equal marriage and the proposal of bills to censor hatred and discriminatory speech.

    Do you think that the legal change has been accompanied by a change in attitudes? What is civil society doing to promote acceptance of LGBTQI+ people?

    Legal change is one thing and cultural change is another. Legal change has offered human rights progress and has been a way to achieve the universal application of the law. It has been the result of a decades-long struggle by the LGBTQI+ community. But there is still homophobia, discrimination and violence against LGBTQI+ people. Once legal change has been achieved, public policy should continue to focus on structural exclusion. Because legal change by itself does not necessarily improve the feeling of belonging to a community. As the political theorist Bikku Parekh explains, while citizenship is a matter of status and rights, membership is achieved when one is accepted and feels welcome. And there is still much to do for this to happen. People’s attitudes do not change automatically just because a law is implemented. The law sets an objective parameter of what is allowed, but much more work needs to be done to modify the parameters of what is considered normal or morally acceptable.

    Therefore, to prepare the ground for legal change, in the 18 months between the publication of the Supreme Court ruling and the entry into force of the decision, more than 35 local CSOs developed the ‘Yes, I accept’ campaign, calling for recognition of the equal dignity of all human beings. This campaign was accompanied by the media, by companies that are part of the advertising union, unions such as the Business Development Association, the United Nations and embassies such as those of Canada and the Netherlands.

    The campaign featured testimonies from LGBTQI+ individuals, couples and families, as well as their relatives, neighbours and friends, with the aim of promoting acceptance and changing perceptions of what it means to be an LBGTQI+ person in Costa Rican society. It was activated nationwide, with videos that were broadcast for months not only on social media but also on national television. It is the best campaign that has ever been developed on the subject, and we owe it to Mrs Nisa Sanz, president of the CSO Familias Homoparentales, and Gia Miranda, the campaign’s official spokesperson.

    The videos appeal to emotion and generate empathy. They led thousands of people who were not politically involved to give up their sacred right to privacy and stand up to exist as a reality rather than an abstraction. It put a human face on the abstract idea of ‘gays’, as presented by newspapers. By telling people that they would not be rejected, it created the conditions for them to lose their fear, since most LGBTQI+ people suffer some type of rejection in their daily lives, regardless of their social status. As a result, an active citizenry took part in the campaign, making it known that with or without a pandemic it would not take a step back from ground that had been won. This was decisive in making legislators who were trying to sabotage equal civil marriage understand that it would not be possible for them to stop it.

    This was one of the most important civil rights campaigns in history, and will remain in memory as a light that shone amid the darkness of the pandemic. Just one day before access to civil marriage took effect for all adults in Costa Rica, the Catholic Bishop of Alajuela delivered a message that said: “We are glad that there are different types of human relationships, different ways of being a family, and I think that where there is a demonstration of affection and family love, in a way God manifests himself, and we have to favour this.” Although not necessarily reflecting the position of the entire institution, the words of this religious representative were the result of the excellent work done by activists to achieve the cultural change that was necessary to gain acceptance of LGBTQI+ people.

    It is remarkable how Costa Rica went from criminalising homosexuality in the 1970s and closing gay bars deemed to be ‘perverse’ and persecuting gays with raids under the pretence of public health in the 1980s, to requesting an advisory opinion from the Inter-American Court in 2016 and, after a presidential election focused on the issue, appointing a presidential commissioner for LGBTQI+ affairs in 2018 and recognising equal marriage two years later.

    We have just left behind another unjust law. And many people have understood that the fact that the union and life plans of two same-sex adults receive legal protection does not affect them in any way – if anything, it validates the institution of marriage in which they are also part – and that there is nothing wrong with being gay, and in any case no one ‘becomes gay’ as a result of this normalisation.

     

    What is the regional significance of the progress achieved in Costa Rica?

    Central America is one of the most hostile regions in Latin America for LGBTQI+ people. Murders of homosexual and trans people are frequent in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Costa Rica, as the first Central American country to approve equal marriage, should be a model for the entire region. The advisory opinion of the Inter-American Court is valid for the 20 countries of the Americas that recognise its jurisdiction. Panama could soon follow the path of Costa Rica: an unconstitutionality demand based on the ruling of the Inter-American Court has been filed, and the Iguales Panamá Foundation is coordinating the participation of international and domestic civil society in the process that is taking in Panama’s Supreme Court.

    The Igualitxs Foundation has also long been working along the same lines in El Salvador, my country of origin. Salvadoran civil society has made immense progress. Based on the regressive leanings of the Legislative Assembly regarding equal civil marriage, for a decade and a half our efforts have focused on filing demands for the restrictive articles of the Family Code to be declared unconstitutional. I filed one of those lawsuits, titled Equality Lawsuit, on 11 November 2016. Shortly afterwards, several CSOs, such as Asociación Entre Amigos, Comcavis and Hombres Trans El Salvador, as well as numerous independent activists, filed a similar lawsuit.

    As in Costa Rica, conservative sectors reacted strongly. In the Legislative Assembly they rushed to start the ratification process of an exclusionary constitutional reform that had been stagnant for years, and that would give constitutional status to the restrictive definition of marriage that we were questioning in the Family Code, which would effectively ban same-sex marriage. In the face of this, we requested a precautionary measure against the constitutional reform process and got the Supreme Court to stop it. It was as a result of this demand that the Igualitos movement was created, which would later become the Igualitxs Foundation.

    The two unconstitutionality demands filed in 2016 were eventually admitted in August 2019, and in January 2020 a justice of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court announced that the court would shortly rule on this issue, and admitted that this is one of the court’s major outstanding overdue decisions. So we may be close to achieving our goal.

    What support does civil society advocating for LGBTQI+ rights need from international civil society?

    In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation is becoming increasingly difficult. States have their resources committed to fighting the pandemic, CSOs face budgetary constraints and the crisis is affecting everyone. In addition, many people are turning to faith to cope with the crisis and some religious groups are taking advantage and launching campaigns against LGBTQI+ people. However, it is still possible to take substantial measures and actions such as, in El Salvador, the approval of a bill that dozens of organisations are pushing for that would provide recognition to human rights defenders.

    With regard specifically to our organisation, which has no funding and is entirely based on volunteering, we are taking it one day at a time, to regain the control that we have lost due to the pandemic. I think it is time to ask ourselves not only what we want and can get from life, but also what we can give back. This way we enter a zone of power, in which we retain agency despite limitations. Thus we leave our comfort zone to enter a growth zone. Starting from the acceptance of our reality, we need to do deep introspection to reinvent ourselves. This is the time to go back to believing that all of us have the potential to do great things and leave a mark if we act not to obtain flattery and gain popularity, but out of the satisfaction that comes from doing what is right and just, achieving positive impact in the world.

    Civic space in Costa Rica is rated as ‘open’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Let in touch with Fundación Igualitxs through itswebsite andFacebook page.

     

     

  • COSTA RICA: ‘The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests in Costa Rica with Carlos Berríos Solórzano, co-founder ofAsociación Agentes de Cambio-Nicaragua (Association Agents of Change – Nicaragua) and member ofRed Previos (Central American Youth Network). Along with others from Central America, he has recently founded the Centre for a Culture of Peace in Central America. Originally from Nicaragua, Carlos is a youth activist and a human rights defender. He has participated in research projects on migration, youth political participation, regional integration and human rights, and is currently studying towards a master’s degree in Political Science at the University of Costa Rica.

    Carlos Berrios

    What triggered the wave of protests of late September 2020?

    The main causes of the protests that began on 30 September 2020 were linked to the announcement by the government of President Carlos Alvarado, made public on 17 September, that it would request financing from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for US$1.75 billion to address the post-COVID-19 economic recovery and invest in the public sector. Costa Rica had not requested IMF financing for almost 20 years. The proposal would eventually entail a tax increase in a country where the cost of living is already high. In fact, recent public finance legislation had introduced a tax increase that made already high taxes even heavier.

    In addition to an increase in income and property taxes, the proposed agreement with the IMF included new taxes on banking transactions and global income. It also proposed merging some public institutions and selling others, such as the Costa Rican International Bank and the National Spirits Factory.

    The government announced its proposal unilaterally, without any consultation whatsoever, when a negotiation of such dimensions and with such implications by far exceeds the sphere of the economy and should be subjected to political negotiations with the participation of all major social forces. The consequences of reaching an agreement with the IMF must be subjected to public debate, which in this case initially did not take place.

    Who came out to protest and what did they demand?

    Mainly trade unions, working class people and public servants, as well as social and student movements, came out to protest. Their main demand was that the government suspend its proposal to request IMF financing and abandon the idea of privatising public companies and increasing the tax burden.

    While the protests had a citizen component, it was its sectoral component that came to the fore both in terms of street presence and influence on the public agenda. Trade union organisations were faster than others to identify the impact of a financing agreement with the IMF on their agendas and their struggles.

    Civil society denounced the executive’s intentions, warned of the consequences, worked to educate the public and to open debate, and supported mobilisation.

    How did the government respond to the protests?

    The government responded somewhat within the framework of international standards for the dispersal of mass demonstrations; in fact, many police officers were injured as a result of aggressions by protesters who closed roads in key places, including the main border crossings with Panama. As days passed, tensions escalated, vehicles were set on fire and sticks and teargas were used in clashes between protesters and police. The security forces responded in a fairly proportionate manner to violent demonstrations, so this was not a case of disproportionate use of force by the authorities.

    To neutralise the situation in the face of unrelenting protests, the government first announced on 4 October that it would back down on its proposal, but demanded that protesters cease their blockades in order to engage in dialogue with them. The protesters, for their part, set conditions for lifting the blockades. Specifically, they demanded that the government commit in writing to not resorting to the IMF for the rest of its term in office and that it rule out selling state assets and raising taxes. Demonstrations continued, and in response to them the government made public its negotiating strategy with the IMF and opened its proposal to comments from all sectors. On 11 October, the government announced a national and local ‘social dialogue’, in which 25 representatives from various sections of society – business, labour, women, churches, university students, farmers and others – would submit their own proposals for resolving the economic crisis deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The question posed was very specific: “How can we achieve a permanent improvement of at least 2.5 percentage points of the GDP in the central government’s primary deficit and a short-term decrease in the amount of public debt (of about 8 percentage points of GDP), through a mix of revenue, expenditure and public debt management actions, in order to prevent the state from defaulting?”

    Were any of the protesters’ demands met?

    Despite the intense process of dialogue with various sectors and the valuable contributions brought into this process, substantive demands have not been met, although according to the government they are being considered within the institutional framework in order to give them the attention they deserve.

    The protests resumed precisely because the dialogue process showed no results and the authorities demonstrated little political will in terms of compliance. This was reflected in the announcement that the government would move forward with its funding request.

    Indeed, following the dialogue process, the executive remained firm in its proposal to request IMF financing. In retrospect, in view of these results, civil society assessed that the call for social dialogue had been nothing more than a demobilisation strategy.

    Costa Rica is often presented as a model case of stability, order, social equality and democratic culture. How true is this?

    While it is true that Costa Rica enjoys a robust institutional framework compared to its Central American neighbours, which has resulted in economic and social stability, it also continues to fail to address deep social inequalities in the country’s most vulnerable areas. Social problems are neglected because of a lack of political will and the existence of levels of corruption that, while not scandalous by international standards, permeate the country’s political and economic structures and allow the political class and the economic elite to collude and share the spoils of the state.

    The protests highlighted unresolved structural problems in Costa Rica. They brought together unsatisfied immediate demands and structural problems related to the distribution of wealth, tax evasion by big business and the control of the economic elites over the state apparatus, which materialises in the social inequality of migrants, Indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants and rural people.

    Civic space in Costa Rica is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@CBerrios26 on Twitter.