Latin America,

 

  • COVID-19: ‘We need public policies that reduce and redistribute unpaid care work’

    CIVICUS speaks about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on gender inequalities and civil society responses with Gala Díaz Langou, director of the Social Protection Programme of the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies for Equity and Growth (Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento, CIPPEC). CIPPEC is an Argentinian civil society organisation dedicated to producing knowledge and recommendations towards the advancement of public policies aimed at fostering development, equity, inclusion, equal opportunity and solid and effective institutions.

     

  • CUBA: ‘All tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes’

    CIVICUS speaks about changes to the Cuban Penal and Family Codes and the government’s reaction to mass protests in 2021 with Marta María Ramírez, a Cuban journalist and autonomous feminist.

    Marta Maria Ramirez

    Photo by María Lucía Expósito

    How do you assess recent changes to the Cuban Penal Code?

    The reform of the Penal Code cannot be understood without reference to last year’s protests. The argument provided to justify this reform referred to the previous constitutional reform: once the constitution was updated in 2019, a reform of the Penal Code was required. But the constitutional process itself was misleading: one would think that a constitutional update is something positive, but this is not necessarily the case in Cuba. The constitutional reform process was confusing: while the rituals of consultation were carried out, the reform was basically imposed. And in terms of substance, the new constitution contains many questionable elements, which are precisely the ones that should have been changed but were carried over intact from the old constitution.

    For instance, while the new constitution recognises the market, it continues to declare socialism as the economic system in place and highlights the ‘irrevocable’ character of socialism. The one-party system remains intact, with the Cuban Communist Party recognised as ‘the superior leading political force of society and the state’ on the basis of ‘its democratic character and permanent link with the people’.

    As a result, other freedoms that the constitution also recognises are rendered meaningless. For example, the constitution recognises ‘the rights of assembly, demonstration and association, for lawful and peaceful purposes, [...] provided that they are exercised with respect for public order and in compliance with the prescriptions established by law’ – but this is the very same law that establishes that the only legitimate political affiliation is to the Cuban Communist Party.

    The same applies to the freedoms of expression and artistic creation, which are recognised if they are exercised ‘in accordance with the humanist principles on which the cultural policy of the state and the values of socialist society are based’, that is, only if they are used to express acquiescence rather than critical thought.

    In any case, on the basis of this reform it was argued that the rest of the legal framework, including the Penal Code and the Family Code, should be updated. In the case of the Family Code, this was really necessary, because it had not been updated since 1975 and was totally out of step with the reality of today’s society. The reform of the Penal Code was also justified by the need to ‘modernise’ legislation and codify crimes that the previous code, which dated from 1987, did not recognise, such as environmental crimes, cybercrime and gender-based violence. But from my perspective, this reform can only be understood in reference to the July 2021 protests and their predecessors: those of 11 May 2019, 27 November 2020 and 27 January 2021.

    To shield the regime from dissent, all tactics used by activists have been turned into crimes of public disorder and crimes against state security, and foreign funding of civil society organisations and the media is criminalised. The aim is to stifle dissident media, because how is a media not aligned with the state to be financed in Cuba?

    Penalties for various crimes have also increased. Not only has the death penalty been retained, but the range of crimes it can be applied for has increased. The age at which a person is decreed criminally responsible is among the lowest in the world. What kind of modernisation is this? For some reason it was decided not to submit this reform to any kind of consultation.

    If we analyse the production of laws in recent years, it is clear that this has been systematically aimed at shielding the regime, which has gone beyond controlling actions to try to control thought as well. This protective shield is completed with the new Penal Code, which seeks to prevent a repetition of last year’s protests and silence all dissent.

    How can we understand the discrepancy between these highly regressive changes to the Penal Code and the apparently progressive reform of the Family Code currently underway?

    The Family Code is also being updated following the constitutional reform, although it should – and could – have been reformed much earlier. The first time I heard about equal marriage in Cuba was back in 2007. Even then there were calls for reform coming from academia, which is where activism linked to gender issues, women’s rights and sexual minorities was concentrated.

    But there was a lot of resistance and it was argued that recognition of equal marriage required a constitutional reform. This was obviously not true: marriage was regulated by the Family Code and not by the constitution, and when the constitution was reformed, this right was not included, but rather purposefully excluded and left pending for whenever the Family Code was reformed.

    The issue of equal marriage was again at the centre of the debate from the moment that, following the constitutional reform, the Family Code needed to be reformed as well, and pressures mounted for this right, not enshrined in the constitution, to be recognised by the Code – something that could have been done in 2007, 15 years ago. But this is clearly the way Cuba is ruled.

    In the draft Family Code that was submitted to consultation no special protection was included for trans children. Nothing, not a single mention, although it is known that this group experiences high rates of school dropout, expulsion from their homes and school bullying, both by students and teachers, experiencing a total impossibility to live their gender identity with guarantees. When trans people grow up, particularly trans women, they are the favoured victims of punitive provisions relating to ‘pre-delinquent behaviour’. This concept is so fascist that it is no longer called this in the current Penal Code, but it will remain in force through other regulations, in the practices of law enforcement officials and in the biases that will continue to exist.

    Why are we discussing these issues now? I have the impression that this is being used as a smokescreen, a manoeuvre to placate a demand without making profound changes to the political regime. These two seemingly contradictory strategies – a regressive reform of the Penal Code and a seemingly progressive reform of the Family Code – both point in the same direction, that of the stabilisation of the regime.

    I say ‘seemingly progressive’ because after a long process of consultations, parliament must now take the proposals received, reformulate the bill and set a date for a referendum to turn it into law. We still don’t know what will remain in the bill and what will be watered down or modified. Nor do we know how this document will translate into the daily lives of Cuban families.

    What positive elements are expected to be included in the new Family Code?

    One of the issues included in the draft Family Code is same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. Another issue that has been included is that of so-called solidarity gestation, or surrogacy, which until now has been illegal. This of great concern to feminist activists. Let’s remember we are in a context of brutal machismo and feminisation of poverty. How will solidarity gestation be regulated? Even if the law is clear on the prohibition of remuneration, how will it be possible in this context to avoid the development of an informal economy based on the exploitation of pregnant women?

    Another important issue is that of the rights of grandparents to have a relationship with their grandchildren, which has its counterpart in some provisions on parental responsibility, which would include respecting and facilitating the right of children to maintain communication with their grandparents and other close relatives.

    The issue of parental responsibility is key. It replaces the concept of parental authority, bringing a welcome shift from the idea of fathers’ and mothers’ power over children to the idea that parents are responsible for and have a responsibility towards their children. This is very interesting, and yet it has generated uproar, not only from social conservatives but also from political activists.

    This must be understood within Cuba’s political context. Activists – not necessarily conservative ones – feel that the emphasis on responsibility would allow the state to label them as irresponsible so they can take their children away from them, or threaten to do so to force them to desist from their activism. Many activists, and particularly women with maternal responsibilities, have already encountered this kind of threat, with comments such as ‘take care of your children’, ‘we know you have your daughter’ and ‘be careful, do it for your child’.

    But I think this threat is already out there, and under the new Code fathers could also be forced to exercise their responsibilities – something that does not currently happen in Cuba, with the feminisation of poverty being a consequence. As elsewhere in the region, there has been a massive increase in single-parent, female-headed households, something official statistics do not fully recognise.

    Another issue that has been at the centre of discussions is that of the children’s progressive autonomy. We know that punishment – including physical punishment – is normalised in Cuba, and parents make important decisions for their children without consulting them. The idea that parents are able to decide everything for their children until they come of age has changed over time, increasingly replaced by the concept that children progressively acquire the capacity to make their own decisions. I personally believe that as parents we should no longer talk about ‘parenting’ a child, but rather about accompanying them in their learning process.

    An important issue contained in the version of the document that went out to consultation is that of child marriage, added at the last minute as a result of strong pressure from feminist activism and independent media and allies. It is a vital issue, but legislators had not seen it.

    Many of these issues have created controversy, but I don’t think there has been real debate. In a context of high political polarisation, Cuba is not ready for debate. As activists who participated as independent observers have reported, the debates that have taken place in the consultative stages have been misguided and have not been led by people well trained to conduct them. There really is no debate in Cuba; you simply hear monologues for and against.

    What other problems do you see?

    Generally speaking, the problem is not with the contents of the Family Code. Women make up more than half of the population, and if you also count children, adolescents and LGBTQI+ people, the new code would meet the needs of a large majority.

    But we have great doubts about the reasons why it is being pushed through just now, especially because of the way in which some controversies were encouraged that served to obscure the fact that at the same time a terribly regressive reform of the Penal Code was being imposed on us, without any debate.

    In the new Penal Code, everything we do as activists and citizens is criminalised. It is a medieval code. The Family Code, on the other hand, is presented to us as ultra-modern and the result of consensus, which also creates uncertainty about its implementation. But while we have no doubts about the implementation of the Penal Code – we know that it will be implemented to the letter – if the Family Code ends up being as modern and progressive as advertised, I have huge doubts that it will actually be implemented. 

    To a large extent, those who would benefit from the new Family Code are the same people who will be repressed under the new Penal Code. Those who are protesting for the release of activists imprisoned after the 2021 protests are mostly single mothers demanding their children’s freedom. Many of those who took to the streets to protest were poor, Afro-descendants, transgender people and children raised by single mothers. This problem has existed for a long time and there have been no public policies aimed at solving it. There has not been the slightest attempt to make public policies with a gender perspective. In this context, it cannot be expected that the new Family Code will make such a big difference.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated ‘closed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Follow@Martamar77 on Twitter.

     

  • CUBA: ‘Dissidents are in the millions; there aren't enough jail cells for so many people’

    CIVICUS speaks with Juan Antonio Blanco, director of the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts (Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos), an autonomous civil society project supported by the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba (Fundación para los Derechos Humanos en Cuba). The Observatory is a proactive civil society platform to promote non-violent change, and combines rigorous analysis of conflict with capacity development and empowerment of citizens to claim their rights.

    havana protest

    Successful protest in the El Cerro neighbourhood, Havana, in demand for the restoration of electricity and water services, 13 September 2017.

    The CIVICUS Monitor rates the space for civil society – civic space – in Cuba as ‘closed’, indicating a regime of total control where it is difficult to even imagine the existence of protests. Is this what you see?

    Absolutely. Cuba is a closed society, anchored in Stalinism not only politically but also economically, as the state suffocates or blocks the initiatives and entrepreneurial talent of citizens, a phenomenon known as ‘internal blockade’. The state denies individual autonomy and crushes any independent association to maintain a balkanised society. This is, they believe, how they can ensure state control over citizen behaviour.

    In the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, it was clear that Cuba would have to make a transition to survive. The geopolitical ecosystem that had sustained it with infinite and massive subsidies collapsed alongside Eastern European communism. We all thought – and not because we believed in the so-called ‘end of history’ – that the only possible transition was towards some form of open society, political democracy and market economy. It could be more or less social democrat or liberal, but it should be based on those pillars in any case. Some of us pushed for that transition from reformist positions. We were wrong.

    In the end, the transition that did take place was neither the one advocated by Marxism, towards communism, nor Francis Fukuyama’s, towards a liberal state and a market society. We transitioned towards a transnational mafia state instead. This is not about giving it yet another pejorative label: this is the reality revealed by the analysis of the changes that have taken place in the structuring of power and social classes, the instruments of domination and the mechanisms for the creation and distribution of wealth. There has been a real change in the DNA of the governance regime.

    Real power is now more separate than ever from the Communist Party of Cuba. It is in the hands of a political elite that represents less than 0.5 per cent of the population, in a country that has abandoned even the ideology of the communist social pact that pushed the idea of submission based on a commitment to basic social rights, which were granted at the price of the suppression of all other rights.

    In early 2019 a constitutional reform process took place that did not create any significant change in terms of opening civic space. An image of change was projected externally that contrasted starkly with the internal reality of stagnation. Some phrases placed in a speech or in the new Constitution itself have served to feed eternal hopes that leaders – who are not held accountable by the public – will see the light on their own and create the necessary change. This also distracts the attention of international public opinion from the monstrosity born out of collusion with Venezuela.

    How would you describe the current conditions for the exercise of the right to protest in Cuba? Is there more space for people to make demands that are not regarded as political?

    There is no greater political, legal, or institutional space for the exercise of the right to protest, but citizens are creating it through their own practices. All rights proclaimed in the Constitution are subordinate to the regulations established by supplementary laws and regulations. In the end, the Constitution is not the highest legal text, but one subordinated to the legality created by other laws and regulations. An example of this is the Criminal Code, which includes the fascist concept of ‘pre-criminal danger’, by virtue of which an individual can spend up to four years in jail without having committed a crime. Nonetheless, conflict and protests have increased.

    The government has changed its repressive tactics towards political opponents to project a more benevolent outward image. Instead of long prison sentences it now resorts to thousands of short-term arbitrary detentions. Instead of holding acts of repudiation outside a meeting place, it now suppresses meetings before they happen, arresting activists in their homes. Instead of refusing to issue them passports or throwing activists in jail for attending a meeting abroad, it now prevents activists from boarding their flights. If a member of the opposition is put to trial, this is done not on the basis of accusations of political subversion but for allegedly having committed a common crime or for being ‘socially dangerous’.

    At the same time, Cuban citizens – more than half of whom now live in poverty according to respected economists based in Cuba – have increasingly serious and urgent needs, the fulfilment of which cannot wait for a change of government or regime. In a different context these would be ‘personal problems,’ but in the context of a statist governance regime, which makes all solutions depend on state institutions and blocks all autonomous solutions, whether by citizens or the private sector, these become social and economic conflicts of citizens against the state.

    At this point it is important to establish a difference between opposition and dissent. Opponents are those who openly adopt, either individually or collectively, a contesting political stance towards the government. A dissident, on the other hand, is someone who feels deep discomfort and disagreement with the governance regime because it blocks their basic needs and dreams of prosperity. Social dissidents tend not to express themselves in a public way if they do not believe this will help them achieve concessions on a specific demand. But if their situation becomes distressing, they move – often spontaneously – from complaining and lamenting privately to protesting publicly.

    Over the past two years there has been a notable increase in protests for social and economic reasons. These protests do not have legal protection, as the right to public demonstration is non-existent. However, the state has often preferred to appease these protests rather than react with force. Given the degree of deterioration of living conditions – and the even more deteriorated legitimacy of the authorities and the official communist ideology – Cuban society resembles a dry meadow that any spark can ignite.

    Domination by the political elite has been based more on control of the social psychology than on the resources of the repressive apparatus. As a result of the Great Terror of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, with firing squads that never stopped and the handing out of 30-year prison sentences for insignificant issues, three generations were formed on the false premise that ‘there is nobody who can knock down or fix this’. This has been the guiding idea of a pedagogy of submission that is now in crisis.

    Why the change?

    The factors that have most influenced the current change in citizens’ perspectives and attitudes have been, on the one hand, the breakdown of the monopoly of information that has resulted from new digital technologies, the leader’s death and the gradual transfer of power to people without historical legitimacy to justify their incompetence. On the other hand, the accelerated deterioration of living conditions and the country’s entire infrastructure turns everyday life into a collection of hardships. Health and education systems, food, medicine, the transportation system and cooking gas and gasoline supply are in a state of collapse. Hundreds of multi-family dwellings are also collapsing and people waste their lives demanding, waiting for years for a new home or for their old home to be repaired. Many also lose their lives among the rubble when buildings collapse.

    In this context the social dissident, who had remained latent and silent, goes public to express their discontent and demand basic social rights. They claim neither more nor less than the right to dignity, to dignified conditions of existence. And unlike political opponents, dissidents are not in the thousands but in the millions. There are not enough jail cells for so many people.

    How did the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts come into existence?

    The Cuban Observatory of Conflicts emerged in Cuba as an idea of a group of women who had previously created the Dignity Movement. In its origins, this movement had the mission of denouncing pre-criminal dangerousness laws (i.e. laws allowing the authorities to charge and detain people deemed likely to commit crimes, and sentence them to up to four years in prison) and abuses in the prison system, against any category of prisoners, whether political or not.

    From the outset this was an innovative project. It was not conceived as a political organisation or party, but as a movement, fluid and without hierarchies, fully decentralised in its actions, without an ideology that would exclude others.

    For two years these women collected information about prisons and the application of pre-criminal dangerousness laws. Their work within Cuba fed into reports to the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the Organization of American States’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. They placed the letter ‘D’ for dignity, which identifies their movement, in public sites as a reminder to the political police that they had not been able to crush them.

    However, the original mission of the Dignity Movement was too specific for a movement whose name was such a broad concept. Nowadays, Cuban citizens’ struggles are primarily for living conditions, for the full respect of their human dignity. This is thy the Dignity Movement expanded its mission to supporting citizen groups in their social and economic demands, without abandoning its initial objective. To fight back against the psychology of submission and replace it with another one based on the idea that it is possible to fight and win, the Dignity Movement now has a specific tool, the Cuban Observatory of Conflicts.

    Can you tell us more about how the Observatory works?

    The philosophy on which the Observatory is based is that life should not be wasted waiting for a miracle or a gift from the powerful; you have to fight battles against the status quo every single day. In just one year we have successfully accompanied about 30 social conflicts of various kinds that had remained unresolved for decades, but now obtained the concessions demanded from the state.

    What has been most significant is that when the authorities realised that these citizens were mentally ready to go to public protests, they decided to give them what they demanded, in order to prevent an outburst and to take credit for the result, although this would never have been achieved in the absence of citizen pressure. They showed their preference for occasional win-win solutions to avoid the danger of a viral contagion of protests among a population that is fed-up with broken promises. Each popular victory teaches citizens that protesting and demanding – rather than begging and waiting – is the way to go.

    The method is simple: to generate a collective demand that has a critical number of petitioners who identify with it and subscribe to it, and send negotiators to request a solution, clarifying that they will not accept negative, delayed responses or a response that does not identify the person responsible for its implementation. At the same time, information is filtered to social media and digital media covering Cuba. That is the way to go along the established roads in a constructive way. What is new here is that it is made clear that if an agreement is not reached and its implementation verified, people are willing to take nonviolent public actions of various kinds.

    Civic space in Cuba is rated as ‘closed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Observatorio Cubano de Conflictos through its webpage and Facebook profile, or follow @conflictoscuba on Twitter.

     

  • Cuba: Int’l action needed to hold Cuban government accountable for human rights violations

    The international community must demand accountability from the Cuban government for its actions and to immediately stop unlawful short-term arbitrary detentions, house arrests, forced exile, and smear campaigns against dissenting voices

    In response to the aggressive acts committed by police officers in recent weeks against Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) activists on hunger strike; the beatings and arrests of members of the San Isidro Movement; the forced exile imposed on Cuban citizens, making them stateless; permanent house arrests; and smear campaigns against journalists, artists, and dissidents, the undersigned 7 organizations issue the following statement:

     

  • Cuba: release detained protesters and stop harassment of rights activists and their organisations

    Cuban authorities must stop the repression of civil rights activists and release those who are currently detained or under house arrest, says global civil society alliance CIVICUS.

     

  • De la Resistencia a la Resiliencia; el desafío de no dejar atrás a las personas defensoras ambientales dentro del marco de la Agenda 2030

    English

    Por Carmen Capriles, miembro de CIVICUS y participante en el Foro Político de Alto Nivel (FPAN) 2018

    NGO Major GroupDurante el Foro Político de Alto Nivel (FPAN2018) que tuvo lugar en la Sede de las Naciones Unidas en Nueva York del 9 al 18 de julio, se hizo evidente la necesidad de tomar en cuenta un nuevo conjunto de partes interesadas a fin de lograr los objetivos de la Agenda 2030 sobre Desarrollo Sostenible; a los Defensores de los Derechos Humanos y del Medio Ambiente (DDHMA). Esta necesidad de inclusión se hizo evidente, no solo por el número de eventos paralelos que tuvieron lugar durante el FPAN2018 que, de una u otra forma abordaron el tema, sino también por el nuevo Acuerdo de Escazú. Dicho acuerdo está enfocado a proteger a los Defensores de los Derechos Humanos y del Medio Ambiente y el destino de este acuerdo depende de que se firme y ratifique en septiembre de este año.

    El número de personas defensoras del medio ambiente y de los derechos humanos está aumentando en todo el mundo, por lo general como parte de una serie de movimientos que surgen con el objetivo de hacer frente a diversos conflictos. Estos conflictos pueden ir desde problemas muy locales, hasta detener megaproyectos como grandes presas o carreteras, así como desafiar regímenes establecidos que podrían tener impactos ambientales y sociales negativos a largo plazo. Entre estos posibles impactos se encuentra la pérdida de biodiversidad, la alteración de ecosistemas, las contribuciones al cambio climático o los desplazamientos de comunidades locales que llevan a la migración forzada que puede provocar una crisis de personas refugiadas o incluso genocidios. Estas voces se enfrentan al peligro de ser silenciadas para siempre, por lo tanto, la necesidad de abrir espacios donde puedan compartir sus luchas es crucial para lograr una implementación real y significativa del desarrollo sostenible.

     

  • DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘The times ahead may bring positive change’

    CIVICUS speaks about the recent elections in the Dominican Republic, held in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, with Hamilk Chahin, coordinator of the Citizen Manifesto for Electoral Transparency, and Addys Then Marte, executive director of Alianza ONG. The Citizen Manifesto, a civil society-led multi-stakeholder initiative, was launched in December 2019 to monitor the 2020 municipal, legislative and presidential elections and foster the consolidation of democratic institutions. Alianza ONG is a network that encompasses 40 Dominican civil society organisations (CSOs). Founded in 1995, it is dedicated to promoting sustainable development through initiatives to strengthen civil society, intersectoral dialogue, training and dissemination of information, political advocacy and the promotion of solidarity and volunteering.

    Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the electoral landscape was quite complex. What was the situation as of March 2020?

    DominicanRepublic FlagIn recent years, the ruling party, the Dominican Liberation Party (PLD), accumulated a lot of power in all state institutions, affecting the quality of democracy. The PLD was re-elected for several terms and political elites settled into their positions and got used to exercising power for their own benefit and to the detriment of the interests of the community. Little by little and inadvertently, society also accepted this situation. In this sense, the exceptionally efficient handling of communication mechanisms by successive governments helped a lot. In addition to good international alliances and good luck in managing the economy, advertising and propaganda structures made the perpetuation of the government easy.

    Fortunately, in every society there is a seed that is practically impossible to uproot: that of civil society. At times it may lay dormant or in hibernation, but at some point something happens that causes it to get moving. In our case, it was the extreme confidence of our rulers in having their power assured, which led them to increasingly blatant practices, to the point that the citizenry, which for the most part had long tolerated them, at one point said ‘enough’ and went into a state of effervescence. The first important manifestation of this change was the Green March Movement, which began in January 2017.

    Born out of popular outrage over the Odebrecht scandal, which involved senior officials from three successive Dominican governments, the Green March Movement encompassed a broad spectrum of CSOs and focused on street mobilisation. It all started with a modest protest walk that we organised through a CSO called Foro Ciudadano (Citizen Forum), which kicked off a great mobilisation phenomenon whose main achievement was to end citizen indifference, to force the middle class out of its comfort zone, in which people expressed criticism without taking action. Opposition parties began to ride on these dynamics. Given that it thought it controlled all power resources, the government initially paid little attention. But the phenomenon far exceeded marching: signatures were collected, community meetings were held, various forms of mobilisation were promoted. It was a state of awakening driven by dignity. Citizens lost their fear of speaking up and this puzzled the government.

    How did the 2020 electoral process begin, and how did Citizen Manifesto form?

    The beginning of the electoral process was also the beginning of the end of the incumbent government. In October 2019, parties held their primary elections; they were the first primaries to be carried out under new electoral and political party legislation and were managed by the Central Electoral Board (JCE). While the PLD opted for open primaries, allowing the participation of all eligible voters, the main opposition party, the Modern Revolutionary Party (PRM), held closed primaries, allowing the participation of its members only. The candidacy of Luis Abinader, who would eventually be elected president, emerged clearly from the PRM primaries. In comparison, as a result of the PLD primaries, Gonzalo Castillo became the official candidate only by a small difference over three-time president Leonel Fernández.

    The primary elections of the ruling party were much more than a candidate selection process: what was at stake in them was the power of the president, Danilo Medina. In office since 2012, Medina had been re-elected in 2016, and had made some unsuccessful attempts to reform the constitution to be re-elected again. Leonel Fernández, as party president, had opposed these manoeuvres, so Medina did not endorse him when he decided to run in the primaries. It became apparent that the government resorted to state resources to support Medina’s designated heir; as a result, the PLD underwent division and Fernández joined the opposition. The primaries were highly contested and there was a lot of manipulation. They left a bitter taste among the citizenry: faced with the possibility that fraud had been used to thwart a primary election, many wondered what would become of the national election.

    It was then that many CSOs began to think about what to do: we connected with each other and with political actors, we shared information and our assessments of the situation. We decided to express our concern and demand fixes from the institutions and entities responsible for organising the elections, starting with the JCE and also the Superior Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's Office, which are responsible for prosecuting crimes and irregularities. This is how the Citizen Manifesto initiative began to form. It included actors from the business, religious, labour, union and peasant sectors. We campaigned to draw the attention of society to the need to defend and monitor the process of democratic institutionalisation ahead of the elections. And above all, we advocated with political figures. We met with party representatives, and as a result the Citizen Manifesto had the support of all sectors. This turned us into direct interlocutors of the JCE.

    When were the elections originally scheduled?

    The electoral cycle included a series of elections: municipal elections, scheduled for February, and national elections, both presidential and legislative, initially scheduled for May. In the municipal elections, a new dual voting system was used for the first time, which consisted of a fully electronic voting system for urban areas with a higher population density and a manual system for rural areas. As a consequence of the Citizen Manifesto’s requests to bring some guarantees and certainty to the process, the electronic voting system also had a manual component in the stage at which the ballots were counted; we also successfully demanded that the vote counting process be recorded and a fingerprint and QR code capture system be introduced.

    Although security measures were strengthened, there were serious problems with the implementation of the new software. On 16 February, several hours after the vote had started, the JCE discovered that there was a problem with around 60 per cent of the electronic voting machines and decided to suspend the municipal election across the country.

    This caused a crisis of confidence, and thousands of people took to the streets in almost daily protests. On 17 February, a demonstration outside the JCE headquarters demanded the resignation of all JCE members. Discontent also affected the government, as many protesters believed that it had tried to take advantage of machines not working properly. On 27 February, Independence Day, a massive demonstration was held to demand the investigation of what happened and urge greater transparency in the electoral process. The Dominican diaspora in several countries around the world organised solidarity demonstrations in support of democracy in their country.

    Municipal elections were rescheduled and held on 16 March, and the electronic voting was not used. By then the COVID-19 pandemic had already begun but suspending the election a second time was not an option. That is why the Dominican Republic declared its state of emergency quite late: the government waited for the elections to take place and three days later it passed a state of emergency and introduced a curfew.

    In April, as the situation continued, the electoral body decided to postpone the national elections until 5 July, after consulting with political parties and civil society. There was not much margin for manoeuvre because sufficient time was needed for the eventuality of a run-off election, which would have needed to take place before 16 August, when the new government should be inaugurated. Of course, there was talk of the possibility of a constitutional amendment to postpone inauguration day, and civil society had to step in to deactivate these plans and help put together an electoral process that included all necessary sanitary measures. Fortunately, the media provided the space that CSOs needed for this; we had a good communications platform.

    As elections took place during the pandemic, what measures were taken to limit contagion risks?

    As civil society we tried to force the introduction of adequate sanitary measures. We urged the JCE to follow the recommendations of the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States to convey the certainty that the necessary measures would be taken and the elections would take place. It was a titanic effort, because we have not yet had an effective prevention and rapid testing policy in the Dominican Republic; however, it turned out to be possible to impose sanitary protocols, including disinfection and sanitation, the distribution of protective materials and physical distancing measures.

    The truth is that the great outbreak of COVID-19 that we are experiencing today has not happened exclusively because of the elections; it seems to be above all the result of two-and-a-half months of disorganised and irresponsible campaigning carried out mainly by the incumbent party. The government tried to profit from the pandemic and the limitations imposed by the state of emergency. However, this may have played against it. The waste of resources in favour of the official candidate was such that people resented it. It was grotesque: for instance, just like in China, the measure of spraying streets with disinfectant was adopted, but while in China it was a robot or a vehicle that went out on the streets at night and passed through all the neighbourhoods, here we had an 8pm parade by a caravan of official vehicles, complete with sirens, flags, music – a whole campaign show. People resented it, because they saw it as wasting resources for propaganda purposes instead of using them to control the pandemic effectively.

    Was the opposition able to run a campaign in the context of the health emergency?

    The conditions for campaigning were very uneven, because public officials enjoyed a freedom of movement beyond the hours established by the curfew and opposition parties complained that the incumbent party could continue campaigning unrestricted while they were limited to permitted hours. Access to the media was also uneven: propaganda in favour of the official candidate was ubiquitous, because it was one and the same as government propaganda. In this context, a specific ad caused a lot of discomfort: it said something like ‘you stay home, and we will take care of social aids’, and included the images of the official candidates for president and vice-president.

    The pandemic was used politically in many ways. At one point the fear of contagion was used to promote abstention; a campaign was launched that included a drawing of a skull and said, ‘going out kills’. While we were campaigning under the messaging ‘protect yourself and get out to vote’, the government’s bet was to instil fear among the independent middle class, while planning to get their own people out to vote en masse. The negative reaction they provoked was so strong that they were forced take this ad down after a couple of days.

    Likewise, the state was absent from most policies implemented against the pandemic and left the provision of social aid and prevention in the hands of the ruling party candidate. Often it was not the government that carried out fumigations, but the candidate’s companies. It was jets from the candidate’s aviation company, not state or military planes, that brought back Dominican citizens who were stranded abroad. The first test kits were brought from China by the candidate, with of course large propaganda operations.

    With everything in its favour, how was it possible for the government to lose the elections?

    The PRM candidate, Luis Abinader, prevailed in the first round, with more than 52 per cent of the vote, while the official candidate came second with 37 per cent and former President Fernández reached only nine per cent. The division of the incumbent party as a result of the allegations of fraud in the primaries had an effect, because if the party had been united and not affected by this scandal, the results could have been different.

    Faced with the fact that a single party had ruled during 20 of the past 24 years, citizens showed fatigue and searched for alternatives. Citizens expressed themselves not only through mobilisation and protest, but also through a process of awareness raising that took several years. Very interesting expression platforms emerged, such as the digital medium Somos Pueblo (We are the People), whose YouTube broadcasts played a very important role. With the government campaigning on the streets and citizens isolated by the pandemic, creative strategies were also employed to overcome limitations and protest without the need to leave our homes, such as through cacerolazos (pot-banging actions).

    The interest in participating to bring about change was reflected in the election turnout, which exceeded 55 per cent. Although well below the 70 per cent average recorded in the elections held over the past decade, the figure was noteworthy in the context of the pandemic. Given the incumbent government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, people have high hopes in the new government. If we can overcome this challenge, the times ahead may bring positive change in terms of strengthening institutions and deepening democracy.

    Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Manifiesto Ciudadano through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@ManifiestoCiuRD on Twitter.

    Get in touch with Alianza ONG through itswebsite or itsFacebook page, and follow@AlianzaONG and@AddysThen on Twitter.

     

  • DOMINICAN REPUBLIC: ‘We are part of a global anti-racist movement’

    CIVICUS speaks with Elena Lorac, coordinator of Reconoci.do, an independent and plural civic network made up mainly of young Dominicans of Haitian descent. Reconoci.do defends human rights and promotes the real, full and effective integration of Dominican people of Haitian descent into Dominican society. With a presence throughout the Dominican Republic, Reconoci.do upholds the vision of a multicultural country where diverse people coexist with dignity, without stigma or discrimination, and their fundamental rights are respected by society and protected by the state.

    Elena Lorac

    When and why was Reconoci.do founded, and what are the organisation's goals?

    Reconoci.do is a movement of Dominicans of Haitian descent, mostly young, fighting for our right to nationality and for access to all the rights that derive from this belonging: civil, political and social rights, and rights as basic as the right to work, to housing, to education and health, which are systematically denied to us.

    Our movement was formed in late November 2011, in reaction to a resolution by the Central Electoral Board that suspended “temporarily” the validity of our birth certificates and identity papers, that is, in a context in which, instead of seeing progress in the recognition of our rights, setbacks were taking place and historical exclusion was being institutionalised 

    Until 2010, the Constitution of the Dominican Republic recognised as nationals all persons born in the country’s territory, with the exception of diplomats and persons considered to be ‘in transit’, an expression that in principle referred only to those who had been in the country for a few days. For eight decades, under these definitions, the state provided a Dominican birth certificate, identity card and passport to the children of Haitians born in the country. However, in the 1990s nationalist groups began to promote a restrictive interpretation that was eventually translated into a new Migration Law. Under this law, passed in 2004, temporary foreign workers and undocumented migrant workers were classed as foreigners ‘in transit’, meaning that their children would no longer have access to Dominican nationality because of having been born in the country. The Central Electoral Board, the body that manages the civil registry, began to apply this law retroactively, and in 2007 it institutionalised this practice through two administrative decisions that prevented the issuance or renewal of identity documents to children born in the Dominican Republic of Haitian immigrants who were in an irregular migratory situation. In 2010, the new constitution denied the automatic right to nationality to children born in the country to immigrant parents in an irregular situation. Finally, in September 2013, ruling 168-13 of the Constitutional Court established that people born in the country whose parents had been undocumented had never had the right to Dominican nationality. The ruling was applied retroactively to all people born between 1929 and 2007, effectively stripping four generations of their Dominican nationality, mostly people of Haitian descent, who for eight decades had been registered as Dominican.

    These legal changes institutionalised a historical exclusion that was perpetuated by policies of hatred, racism and xenophobia promoted by nationalist groups. From the dominant perspective, everything that comes from Haiti is foreign, alien and impossible to assimilate. Thus, people like me, born in the Dominican Republic to Haitian parents, are treated as foreigners. Because we were born in the Dominican Republic, the Haitian state does not consider us Haitians either. And in any case, we are talking about people who may have never been to Haiti, who have grown up here and speak Spanish; many younger people in fact don’t speak any Creole at all. Lack of recognition is excruciatingly painful.

    To resolve the situation created by the Constitutional Court, and in response to domestic and international advocacy efforts, in 2014 Law 169-14, the Special Naturalisation Law, was passed. This law established a special regime for people considered “descendants of foreigners in irregular migratory status,” based on the distinction between two groups. For members of ‘Group A’, which included those who in the past had been registered in the Dominican civil registry, the law recognised their Dominican nationality and ordered the Central Electoral Board to hand over or return their identity documents. On the other hand, those in ‘Group B’, who, although having been born in the country, having always lived there and maintaining no link with their parents’ country of origin, had never been registered, were given a period of 90 days to register as foreigners, with the possibility of obtaining Dominican nationality through naturalisation within a period of two years. This distinction is completely arbitrary, and it is common to find families with siblings belonging to either group, as well as families that, having registered their children, lost their papers as a result of some natural disaster and could not initiate the naturalisation process due to economic hardship, being located far away from administrative offices and unable to pay the fees that the process involved. Only a few thousand people in Group B have managed to achieve nationality in this way. There are currently some 133,000 young people who are stateless.

    I have obtained my identity card as a result of Law 169-14; it was given to me when I was 27 years old. My years of personal development and education and the early years of my productive life were cut short because I did not have an ID and therefore could not attend university. Several of my fellow activists are in the same situation. Some have been able to advance through college and even graduate, while others were not so lucky.

    Have you brought the issue of Dominicans of Haitian descent to the attention of regional or international human rights forums?

    For decades the international community and domestic civil society have been advocating at both the national and international levels, to denounce abuse, discrimination and structural racism in the Dominican Republic.

    Jointly with other civil society organisations (CSOs), we work assiduously within the inter-American system, for example participating in hearings of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). In 2014, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to members of our movement who had been threatened or attacked. Also in 2014, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling that forced the state to give us our nationality back. But the Constitutional Court did not recognse this ruling. The Dominican state does not abide by the decisions of the Court.

    The state does not recognise that there is a problem to be solved. Today our struggle is much more complex than it was at the beginning because now there is a feeling that the situation has been resolved, but it has not. The vast majority of young people in this situation come from bateyes, which are ghettos or communities that were established during the time of sugarcane production around the end of the 19th century, when the Dominican Republic and Haiti reached an agreement to bring Haitian braceros to work in the country. These people, sometimes by deception and even by force, were taken directly to the bateyes, small villages located in the vicinity of sugarcane plantations. Young people who come from these places, which are located far from the cities, are in a very vulnerable situation. The vast majority have nothing; we are talking about families who have not had legal documents for generations, and without papers they cannot study or work. Those of us who manage to finish high school and intend to go to university usually encounter what I experienced: it was when I decided that I would go to university that I found out that, although I did have my birth certificate, I did not qualify because I was the daughter of Haitian parents. This was a huge blow for me, and it is just the same for tens of thousands of young people. You are suddenly told that you do not exist, and this entails enormous psychological trauma. The state blames our parents or grandparents, when in fact it was the state that brought them to work in sugar production – but given that the industry no longer exists, they want us to disappear as well.

    These injustices block our prospects. They leave us without a future. That is why our movement arose from places like this.

    What were the implications of this situation in the context of the health crisis caused by COVID-19?

    The lack of recognition of something as basic as nationality creates enormous difficulties in accessing other basic rights such as health and social aid. The pandemic has magnified the difficulties faced by these vulnerable populations, confined in bateyes where there is no production or work. Many of these young people are chiriperos, that is, day workers, employed sporadically to do whatever is available, and the pandemic left them with nothing. They do not have access to any of the social aid programmes developed to alleviate the effects of the pandemic because they do not have IDs and do not appear in government records.

    To what extent is the situation faced by people of Haitian descent in the Dominican Republic the result of racism?

    This situation is the result of structural racism from beginning to end. The problem of access to nationality in the Dominican Republic has exclusively affected people whose parents or grandparents came from Haiti; this is not a general problem for foreigners. It is a reflection of structural racism because it is the Dominican people of Haitian descent, or those who are perceived as such due to the colour of their skin, who experience this violation of their human rights. This was recognised by the IACHR after a visit to the country, when it confirmed that it had not received any complaint from a descendant of non-Haitian foreigners who had experienced difficulties in being recognised as nationals, getting registered in the civil registry or receiving identity papers.

    In the Dominican Republic it is believed that all blacks are Haitians. If I am black and have curly hair I am constantly questioned even if I have identity papers, and if I am unable to produce an ID, I can be deported because I am assumed to be Haitian. There have been cases of black Dominicans who have been deported because of their skin colour. Dominican women of Haitian descent who do not have papers and go to a hospital to give birth are treated as foreigners, fuelling the myth that Haitian women are occupying all beds in our hospitals, when most of these women are not Haitians but Dominican black women of Haitian descent.

    Dominicans are a black population that does not see itself as such. There is obviously a problem of systemic, state-sanctioned, and unrecognised racism.

    Thus, with the passing of time, as a movement we realised that the problem of nationality that mobilised us in the first place was not just a problem of papers, IDs and registry records, but also and more deeply a problem of identity and racial discrimination that goes back to the historical context of our ancestors.

    We are therefore a movement that not only fights for the recognition of nationality and the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent, but also shares the struggles of all anti-racist movements and mobilises against all forms of discrimination. This is why we stand in solidarity and support all kinds of expressions seeking to guarantee the rights of women, of sexual minorities and of all minorities who are stigmatised and discriminated against.

     

    How did the US Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd resonate in the Dominican Republic?

    In reaction to events in the USA, we joined other CSOs to organise a commemoration. It was not strictly a protest demonstration, as restrictions on public gatherings had been imposed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we respected the mandated quarantine. And it was not only a demonstration of solidarity either, as George Floyd’s death had resonated in our context, where we have experienced similar situations of police abuse.

    Along with other CSOs we organised an activity in memory of George Floyd. The idea was to make a ritual gesture, a collective wreath. Our convening slogan was ‘A Flower for Floyd’, and it was a call for each person to bring, whenever possible, a flower and place it as part of the offering. Our account of Floyd’s death also made reference to police and institutional violence many black people, both migrants and Dominicans, experience in the Dominican Republic, so as to highlight that this is a situation we are also going through.

     

    Have you received threats or experience aggression from anti-rights movements?

    There are several ultra-nationalist groups that are mobilising in reaction to our demonstrations and events, basically to intimidate us and boycott our activities. Ever since the Constitutional Court ruling was issued, the climate has become more favourable for hate speech and numerous acts of hostility against us have taken place. Many members of our movement and other organisations that fight for the rights of Dominicans of Haitian descent have been subjected to attacks, both verbal and physical, which have been reflected in numerous human rights reports. As a result, in some cases we have had to request IACHR protective measures for some colleagues. Even Dominican people who are not of Haitian descent but express solidarity with us are treated as traitors to the homeland. These expressions have become more common because they have not been firmly condemned by the authorities.

    Every time we demonstrate on the issue of nationality and racism, there are always counter-demonstrations, and since the police never protect us, these groups generally prevail and we are forced to suspend or terminate our activities. This was the case with the event we planned to honour George Floyd.

    Since the moment we announced the Flower for Floyd event, several ultra-nationalist groups threatened us through our Facebook page. They accused us of wanting to generate violence and of boycotting the country by bringing up issues that are not of its concern. We received such levels of threats that many people thought that we would not be able to carry out the activity. Days before the event, the leader of one of these anti-rights groups, Antigua Orden Dominicana, threatened us through a video in which he warned that if we carried it out there would be bloodshed, since the event would take place in Independence Park, dedicated to the Fathers of the Nation, which they would not allow.

    On the day of commemoration, 9 June, these groups were present. It was not the first time that this happened. In 2017, during an activity that we carry out every year to mark the anniversary of ruling 168-13, they also showed up and a similar situation ensued.

    On 9 June, these groups came to attack the activists that were taking part in the event, and when the police finally intervened it was to detain our fellow activists Ana María Belique and Maribel Núñez, along with another person who was participating in the event. Every time we hold a protest related to the issue of nationality and racism, the state comes in and represses us.

    What kind of support would you need from international civil society and the global anti-racist movement?

    We consider ourselves part of a global movement. Many times we have been told that the Black Lives Matter movement was caused by something that happened in the USA and that it was not our concern; however, as vulnerable and stigmatised people we understand that this is an issue that directly affects us and that we must address.

    What we need is more support to disseminate information about the current situation in our country. The state has been consistently telling the world that there are no stateless people here, that there is no racism or xenophobia, that everything we say is a lie and that we are on the payroll of international CSOs who want to harm the country. What we seek is visibility and help to denounce the terrible realities experienced by Dominicans of Haitian descent. We do not have enough resources to publicise our cause, and international solidarity is what allows us to carry out our struggles and make them known worldwide.

    International support is one of the things that has helped us get ahead. We have had support from groups of the Dominican diaspora in New York. One of them, We Are All Dominican, has supported us since 2013. In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, they helped us ensure food and other basic needs for more than 250 families for three months. All support is welcome, whether it be expressions of solidarity, contributions to dissemination or protection for human rights defenders.

    Civic space in the Dominican Republic is rated as ‘narrowed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Reconoci.do through theirwebsite orFacebook page, and follow@reconoci_do and@juagemis on Twitter.

     

  • Dominican Republic: Big Opportunities, Bigger Challenges for Civil Society Domestic Resourcing

    This article is part of the #StoriesOfResilience series, coordinated by CIVICUS to feature groups and activists on their journey to promote better resourcing practices for civil society and to mobilise meaningful resources to sustain their work.

    AddysThe term sustainability is being used maybe more than ever by civil society organisations (CSOs) in Latin America and the Caribbean, as they are feeling increasingly challenged by constant changes in the funding architecture that supports the region. First, the global financial crisis that engulfed the world a decade ago significantly reduced international aid - the main source of funds for most of the sector. Then, the new realities of their developing economies have also taken a toll on the amount and type of funds CSOs can access. Last, but not least, the rise of populism in many countries is further threatening funding. Under these circumstances, more and more CSOs wonder if they will be able to secure a future.  

     

  • ECUADOR: ‘Civil society must highlight the added value of its participation’

    CIVICUS speaks with Estefanía Terán, advocacy director of Grupo FARO, about the role of organised civil society in Ecuador's presidential elections and the challenges civil society faces today. Grupo FARO is an independent research and action centre in Ecuador that produces evidence to influence public policy and promotes social transformation and innovation.

    Estefanía Terán

    What roles does Ecuadorian civil society play during electoral processes?

    Political parties do not reach out much to civil society organisations (CSOs) to take on board their proposals. While some turn to CSOs for information, others hire private consultants. This happens because very few political organisations have within their structures a team or the necessary tools to develop quality government plans, with clear content, and which respond to the needs of the population or their voters, and are rooted in a diagnosis based on rigorous and objective technical research.

    During elections, CSOs develop initiatives to promote informed voting. They build web platforms and other communication tools to give visibility from a citizen perspective, to the proposals of the various contenders. Through this work, in the latest elections, initiatives were organised according to ideological criteria and in terms of their response to the Sustainable Development Goals. Likewise, with the aim of highlighting the ‘how’ of the proposals, which in general only focus on the ‘what’, forums and debates are held among the candidates.

    Grupo FARO is part of a group of CSOs that promotes informed voting; within this framework we developed the Ecuador Decide initiative. This initiative, which has been activated at elections since 2017 – which means it has been implemented on four occasions – aims to encourage voting based on the programmatic proposals of the different candidates and the political organisations that support them. To this end, it compiles, disseminates and analyses the contents of all their government plans.

    In the 2021 elections, Grupo FARO analysed the government plans of all the presidential candidates. We found that, of the 1,500 proposals identified in 16 areas of national relevance, only 55.5 per cent contained information on how they would be implemented, and only 26.7 per cent made clear who their target audience was.

    In addition, based on our experience organising debates among candidates during local elections, we assisted the National Electoral Council in regulating presidential debates, which became mandatory after the Democracy Code was reformed in February 2020.

    What are the causes and consequences of the low quality of political plans?

    The low quality of plans for government, which makes them inadequate instruments to inform the population about the positions of the various candidates and political organisations, is due to the lack of enforcement and regulation by the governing body, which does not require that these documents meet minimum standards and be comparable with each other. In fact, we have analysed some plans that were three pages long and others of more than a hundred pages. Moreover, in many cases they differ from the candidate’s discourse or include proposals outside the candidate’s field of competence.

    It is not common for voters to access these documents to get informed, and therefore, they serve no other purpose than to fulfil a formal requirement to register a candidacy. This contradicts the fact that one of the grounds for requesting the revocation of the mandate of popularly elected authorities is their non-compliance with their plans.

    The high degree of generality of the proposals contained in government plans means that the candidates’ campaign discourse is aimed at the median voter, and that strategically the candidates do not differentiate themselves. This fragments voter preferences, creating complications, as seen in the very narrow margin between the candidates placing second and third in the latest elections, Guillermo Lasso, of Movimiento Creando Oportunidades, and Yaku Pérez, of Movimiento de Unidad Plurinacional Pachakutik. This meant that the winner in the second electoral round was someone who in the first round had not even reached 20 per cent of the total vote: he came to power as a result of a compulsory vote, with very low legitimacy, and a high risk of facing governance problems in the medium term.

    What challenges does Ecuadorian civil society face under the new government?

    Although no specific proposals were identified regarding the promotion of civil society participation, President Lasso has sought to send a friendly and collaborative message. However, due to its business background, the government tends to equate civil society with the private sector. This results in two challenges for civil society. The first is to differentiate itself from the private sector and the second is to work harmoniously with the private sector. To this end, it must promote an exercise of reflection on the current role of civil society and highlight the value that its involvement adds to public management. Furthermore, it must insist that this participation is not limited to a few organisations that are close to the government, but that it is open and inclusive, plural and diverse.

    This implies, on the one hand, pushing forward a process of organisational strengthening of civil society for collaborative work among itself and with others. And, on the other hand, it implies initiating a process of learning and trust building with the private sector. There is a great opportunity for organised civil society to contribute so that companies’ support for social causes is done with transparency and public oversight and based on international principles for the effective functioning of public-private partnerships, guaranteeing quality projects and actions going beyond corporate profit.

    The prelude to developing such alliances should be the passing of a minimum CSO law to give us legal security and protect us from the discretion of the incumbent government. At the moment we are regulated by an executive decree and under a logic of concession and control, rather than registration and co-responsibility. Ensuring the enactment of a law that contributes to building an enabling environment and promoting participation is therefore another challenge we face as a sector during this presidential term. In partnership with the Ecuadorian Confederation of Civil Society Organisations and other allied organisations, Grupo FARO is pushing a proposal for a minimum law, which in the previous National Assembly reached the stage of developing a report for second debate.

     

    Civic space in Ecuador rated ‘obstructed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

    Contact Grupo Faro through its website or its Facebook and Instagram pages, and follow@grupofaro and@eteranv on Twitter.

     

  • ECUADOR: ‘Women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic’

    CIVICUS speaks with Virginia Gómez de la Torre, president of Fundación Desafío, about the progress made and the challenges remaining in the area of sexual and reproductive rights in Ecuador. Virginia tells us about the significance of the breakthrough that took place in April 2021, when abortion was decriminalised in cases of rape. Active since 2000, Fundación Desafío is a feminist coalition dedicated to the defence and promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights and the right to a life free of violence in Ecuador.

    Virginia Gomez de la Torre

    What are the challenges for women’s rights in Ecuador?

    Women’s rights in Ecuador continue to be a challenge because in every area there are unresolved issues due to discrimination, exclusion and sexist violence. In terms of access to work and opportunities for economic and personal development, for example, women have suffered disproportionately from the pandemic and the slowdown in activity; the elimination of small businesses and the reduction of opportunities for informal sales hit them hardest, and it has been difficult for many to regain those spaces.

    Inequalities affect women from different social groups in different ways. Ecuador has a large Indigenous population and there is a large female peasant force, but women do not own land. There is a lot of discrimination, and Indigenous and Afro-descendant people have much more difficulty accessing opportunities. Indigenous and Black peasant and internal migrant women are more vulnerable because they suffer the violence of a system that devalues Indigenous and peasant lives.

    In Ecuador there is also a large presence of women in a situation of mobility, mostly young women of reproductive age. They arrive without papers and enter through unauthorised migratory passages, which exposes them to situations of trafficking, sexual exploitation and rape, as well as xenophobic violence. In this sense, women’s rights have experienced an emergency situation since well before the pandemic.

    All these exclusions are accompanied by violence, and Ecuador has yet to develop a strategy to confront this violence. Although psychological violence remains the most prevalent, all forms of violence have increased. For instance, obstetric violence – that is, the actions or omissions by health personnel that violate women’s rights during pregnancy or childbirth – is extremely high, affecting 42 per cent of women, and is much more prevalent in rural areas and among certain ethnic groups. The state makes little effort and does not give priority to the issue of femicide; last year we had 118 cases. This year we have already had 131, including violent deaths of women related to gang or criminal vendettas. Violence against women is a very serious problem in Ecuador, and as long as it does not deal with it, the government will be noncompliant with the rights enshrined in the constitution.

    The Ecuadorian state should issue protection and restraining orders and investigate femicides. It should also combat the violence that is present in all areas of daily life, and which manifests itself very strongly in the form of sexual violence, as well as other forms of violence such as political violence.

    This is the context for sexual and reproductive rights. Only on 28 April 2021 was abortion decriminalised in cases of rape. The fact that is something so basic and so long fought for shows the extent to which the Ecuadorian state is tied to the interests of economic power groups that are strongly linked to religious power groups. Every year, between 2,000 and 3,000 girls become pregnant in Ecuador. In 2019 there were 4,000 under the age of 14, and under the pandemic there were about 3,000; according to the Criminal Code, these pregnancies are the result of rape.

    What was the process that led to the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape?

    Until April 2021, abortion was only permitted when a woman’s life or health was in danger or if the pregnancy was the result of rape of an intellectually disabled woman. In response to several unconstitutionality lawsuits filed by women’s rights organisations, the Constitutional Court of Ecuador decriminalised abortion for all cases of rape.

    This has been a struggle of many years. Women’s rights organisations have been defending therapeutic abortion and abortion in cases of rape since 2008, when the new constitution was drafted and when anti-rights groups tried to repeal therapeutic abortion. They wanted to deprive Ecuadorian women of access to abortion under any circumstances.

    Within this framework, the proposal to legalise abortion in cases of rape was brought forward in 2012, when a new Criminal Code was drafted. In 2013, then-President Rafael Correa – the most powerful of anti-rights activists – excluded this possibility. He threatened to resign and used the typical cliché that the constitution guarantees and protects life from the moment of conception.

    In 2019, the issue of the decriminalisation of abortion in cases of rape was raised again as a result of a legislative initiative coming from the Public Defender’s Office. The National Women’s Coalition of Ecuador (CNME) and Fundación Desafío once again worked for decriminalisation in cases of rape. But at the last minute, during legislative negotiations, the issue was used as a bargaining chip, and we lost the vote. We had the 70 votes needed to pass a motion in the Assembly, but several Assembly members from parties that had pledged their support ultimately voted against it. We got 65 votes against 59 for the anti-rights side. We lost and the process took another course, that of the Constitutional Court.

    Two months before the vote, Fundación Desafío and CNME had already filed a complaint of unconstitutionality and a complaint of non-compliance with the Constitutional Court, because women of this country have no confidence that the powerful will look after our interests. In December 2019 these two lawsuits were admitted and in November 2020 other women’s organisations joined in, as well as the Ombudsman’s Office.

    Following the Constitutional Court’s ruling, the determination of time limits remains an immense challenge. We proposed that there should be no time limit, but some doctors and health professionals are already putting them into the bill, so this is something we are going to have to fight for in the Assembly.

    What roles has Fundación Desafío played in the process?

    In addition to filing the claims of unconstitutionality and non-compliance, we have played a leadership role in legislative lobbying. This work was in addition to the contribution of many other organisations that worked with the population, holding workshops, organising networks to accompany women undergoing abortions and opening up spaces that give women the possibility to decide, even if in a context of illegality.

    In the legislative processes of 2013 and 2019 we did all kinds of things. We ran communication campaigns, we produced short videos with people who have great public visibility, we worked in networks and we presented our research. We played a day-to-day role in the Assembly’s Justice Committee, which worked on the two reports that were later passed on to the plenary. We channelled the presence of Human Rights Watch, which from a comparative law perspective urged the Assembly to move forward on legalisation, and of several women who gave their testimonies, including a woman who had been raped and another woman who worked in the area of violence against children. We also campaigned for the passage of the Health Code, which included several articles on sexual and reproductive rights. Following eight years of debates, the Health Code was passed by the Assembly in August 2020, but it was fully vetoed the following month by then-President Lenín Moreno.

    Lastly, we supported the constitution of the Ecuadorian Faith Network, formed by progressive evangelical Christians. This group made public presentations and statements. The trade union movement and the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador were also in favour of the process. All this documentation was submitted first to the Assembly and then to the Constitutional Court.

    What impact do you think this legal change will have?

    For those of us who have devoted our lives to this and will continue to do so, this change has a great symbolic impact, even though it is a small step. Obviously, the legalisation of abortion in cases of rape is something huge for raped girls, of whom there are many in Ecuador, and more generally for the women who can now end a pregnancy that is the result of a crime, if they choose to do so. And although no progress has been made in recognising the right of all women to decide about their own bodies in any circumstance, symbolically it is a huge step forward because it demystifies abortion and the possibility of making decisions about the course of a pregnancy in cases of rape. It is now legal to make decisions about the body of a pregnant woman who has been raped; the state has given its approval and for the first time has put the victim at the centre of the debate. So why shouldn’t women who have not been raped be able to make similar decisions about their bodies? I think these are the shifts that are implicitly taking place.

    The next step in the very short term will be to also decriminalise abortion in cases of lethal foetal malformation. The scenario of total decriminalisation needs to be raised in the Assembly, as has happened in other countries. The Assembly may say no, but that is the way forward and someone needs to do it.

    Civic space in Ecuador is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Fundación Desafío through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@DesafioDerechos on Twitter.

     

  • EL SALVADOR: ‘Patriarchal justice persecutes, tortures and abuses women’

    SaraGarciaGrossCIVICUS speaks with Sara García Gross about the recent judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) against the Salvadoran state, and the struggle of Salvadoran women for the right to abortion.

    Sara García Gross is advocacy coordinator of the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador. Founded in 2009, the organisation promotes public awareness to change abortion laws, provides legal support to women who have been convicted or charged with abortion or related crimes and disseminates information on the importance of women receiving adequate sexual and reproductive healthcare to prevent them resorting to unsafe, life-threatening abortions.

    What is El Salvador’s feminist movement demanding when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights?

    As feminists we are fighting to change the law that criminalises abortion under all circumstances. In El Salvador women are unjustly persecuted. Women’s reproductive rights are violated, especially for younger women and those who live in poverty and in the country’s rural areas. In this sense, we in the feminist movement are fighting to change a restrictive, absolutist and absurd regulatory framework.

    We are also fighting for women’s freedom. There are currently 12 women in prison serving sentences that are extremely unjust. Our fight is for women’s freedom and women’s lives. We want abortion to be legal in El Salvador. We fight for women to have the right to build our own lives. We denounce forced pregnancies; this is a form of torture. There are girls as young as 10 years old who face forced motherhood. There are young women who have not received any sexual education and do not have access to contraceptive methods. We are fighting for the right to comprehensive sex education.

    We also fight for the recognition of the rights of LGBTQI+ people, because hate crimes are another cruel form of torture that the state imposes or condones.

    What tactics does the Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion use?

    In our struggle for women’s freedom, we have pursued multiple strategies, starting with strategic litigation to obtain everything from commutations of sentences to sentence reviews. Our focus is on achieving freedom, putting into practice the feminist slogan ‘I believe you sister’. We fight for the recognition of the innocence of women facing unjust and absurd sentences.

    But the legal route has not been our only key strategy; social mobilisation at national and regional levels has also played a major role. The feminist movement has organised and spoken out in relation to the cases of criminalised women. Sit-ins have been organised in front of embassies in El Salvador and other countries, letters have been sent to the courts and campaigns for reproductive justice have been carried out, including the ‘We are missing 17’ campaign.

    Another very important strategy has involved the Inter-American human rights system. We brought the case of a woman known as Manuela to the IACtHR, which recently condemned the Salvadoran state for cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Strategic litigation in the Inter-American system has allowed us to address the problems of persecution, torture and judicial and police abuse faced by women in El Salvador. Justice in El Salvador is patriarchal justice.

    Another strategy has focused on collecting evidence. We have carried out an investigation called ‘From hospital to prison’, which allowed us to make this problem visible. Through a review and analysis of case files, sentences and investigations, we have been able to understand who anti-abortion legislation targets and who it persecutes: young and poor women living in rural areas. This constitutes intersectional discrimination.

    The campaigns, dialogues and debates we promote in academia as well as grassroots communities have also been part of our strategy. Advocacy processes are key, so that when we are able to identify windows of opportunity in the Legislative Assembly or other state institutions, we can promote the submission of new initiatives.

    In the past, several bills were submitted to reform article 133 of the Criminal Code to decriminalise abortion on four grounds. These bills were far from getting passed; in some cases they were quickly shelved and in others they languished for years in legislative committees. Women’s organisations were met with great hostility. However, our advocacy strategies allowed us to place the issue of abortion on the public agenda.

    What does Salvadoran public opinion think about abortion and what work are you doing to present an alternative narrative to criminalisation?

    Among public opinion, there is broad acceptance of abortion when it’s needed to save a pregnant woman’s life: more than half of the population has said so in various surveys.

    We live in a conservative country, with some fundamentalist groups calling themselves ‘pro-life’. The reality is that they are in favour of clandestine abortion, criminalisation and women dying. These groups maintain a double standard that we, as organised feminist civil society, work to expose. While women living in poverty are criminalised, those with economic resources are able to travel and access safe abortions. This double standard is unacceptable.

    For us, it is important to visualise other narratives and make women’s realities known. Reducing stigma requires showing, humanising and talking about life stories. These are women who had hopes and plans for their lives that state violence prevented them from realising.

    Talking about the issue in different places, humanising this reality and questioning this system that imposes the mandate of motherhood – a gender stereotype – allows us to address the issue without stigma or prejudice and, above all, from a human rights perspective.

    What are the implications of the IACtHR ruling in Manuela’s case?

    This ruling came after years of work and struggle. We started working on the case in 2011, providing psychosocial, political and legal support to Manuela’s family.

    Advocacy in the Inter-American system was key. The ruling in Manuela’s case is historic: the IACtHR has recognised that Manuela was innocent, that she really faced an obstetric emergency and that gender stereotypes, starting with the mandate of motherhood, permeated the entire process. The IACtHR has understood that the absolute ban on abortion results in criminalisation and obstacles to access to reproductive rights.

    The judgment will have both national and regional effects. The main regional effect is the establishment of jurisprudence that obliges both El Salvador and the rest of the countries in the region to take a series of measures. First, to guarantee professional secrecy of health personnel so that no woman seeking reproductive health services is denounced for alleged abortion-related crimes. Second, to ensure that gender stereotypes are not applied in the judicial sphere, including those claiming that women must act according to a reproductive role and, therefore, with maternal instinct. Third, to implement adequate protocols to attend to obstetric emergencies with accessible and quality health services.

    The Salvadoran state will have to carry out some additional actions in compliance with the IACtHR ruling. First, while it is in the process of regulating the obligation to maintain medical professional secrecy and the confidentiality of medical records, it must eliminate the practice of medical professionals denouncing women who seek reproductive health services. Second, it must provide full reparations to Manuela’s family. Third, it must make legislative and policy changes to ensure non-repetition, so that no one else goes through a similar experience, for instance by guaranteeing comprehensive care in cases of obstetric emergencies and adapting pre-trial detention so that it is only used in exceptional cases.

    We continue to fight so that women are never again criminalised. There are still 12 women who remain in prison, but we believe that Manuela’s case shines a light on these injustices and gives us the strength to continue fighting. For us, Manuela means justice and hope.

    What kind of support do abortion rights groups in El Salvador need from their peers around the world? 

    We believe feminist solidarity is key. We want to make this issue visible in the region and the world. We want people to talk about what is happening here. We want people to talk about the consequences of the absolute prohibition of abortion. We want people to talk about how this punitive system does not solve anything.

    It is not acceptable for the exercise of a reproductive right – a right to health – to be treated as a crime entailing prison sentences. We need to shine the spotlight on El Salvador and make the Salvadoran state feel it is being watched. Every chance we get, we must demand freedom for women, freedom for the 12 who are still in prison and reparations for all the women who have faced this kind of criminalisation. We must demand that abortion be legally recognised as a right.

    Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Citizens’ Group for the Decriminalisation of Abortion in El Salvador through itswebsite orFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AbortoPORlaVIDA on Twitter. 

     

  • EL SALVADOR: ‘The president’s aim is to concentrate power’

    CIVICUS speaks with Eduardo Escobar, executive director of Acción Ciudadana, an organisation that promotes transparency, accountability and the fight against corruption in El Salvador, about the political situation since President Nayib Bukele’s party won the February 2021 legislative election.

    Eduardo Escobar

    Do you think that democracy and the rule of law are being eroded in El Salvador?

    We should first ask ourselves whether El Salvador ever had a full democracy with the rule of law. If we reduce democracy to its electoral dimension, we could say that the will of the people has been respected and elections have become the only road to power. Despite some irregularities, we have had democracy in that sense. Since 2009, some progress was also made in terms of the balance of powers: we got an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, an independent Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) and a prosecutor’s office that was striving to do its job.

    Thus, when Nayib Bukele became president in 2019, there was a functioning electoral democracy, with some important advances being made in the republican dimension and the rule of law. President Bukele interrupted this process, constantly attacking the freedom of expression, the freedom of the press and the freedom of association. In the context of the pandemic, the government illegitimately and unconstitutionally violated the freedom of movement. What little progress had been made was completely lost.

    After the legislative elections held on 28 February 2021, which Bukele won by a wide margin, legal certainty ceased to exist. As soon as the new legislative assembly formed in early May, it dismissed the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the head of the attorney general’s office. We had come to trust that the Constitutional Chamber would protect us from arbitrariness, but that certainty vanished in an instant. Shortly afterwards, the new Constitutional Chamber enabled the president’s immediate re-election for a second term, so far prohibited by the Salvadoran Constitution.

    Have the opposition or civil society been able to do anything about recent changes?

    The opposition was not smart. Until May 2021 it held an absolute majority in the legislative assembly but failed to take advantage of it. Opposition parties didn’t think they needed to hurry because they never thought they would lose. Now they have become irrelevant. Their presence is merely testimonial because the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas, and its allies have a supermajority. The opposition is limited to making statements and peddling proposals that everyone knows will not prosper.

    Most of civil society has been closed off from participating in the legislative process. It is not that in the past every civil society proposal was approved – in fact, they were often not even discussed – but there were certain thematic areas where civil society participation was vital to pass a law. That is over: now only pro-government organisations are invited and admitted to committee sessions. Independent civil society has little influence over public policy because the government does not understand its role and is unwilling to integrate its input into decision-making. Thus, it has been reduced to a voice of denunciation with no power to reverse illegal or unconstitutional decisions, as there are no independent institutions left to react to its demands.

    President Bukele campaigned on an anti-corruption programme. Has there been any progress in this regard?

    The instrumentalisation of the issue of corruption was one of the bases of Bukele’s victory; his campaign slogan was ‘give back what you stole’. The issue of corruption is broad and complex, but that slogan was clear and precise, and appealed to many people. But it was only a campaign strategy.

    Once in power, he deactivated all existing anti-corruption mechanisms, disregarding IAIP resolutions, preventing audits by the Court of Auditors of government ministries, denying the prosecutor’s office access to public bodies involved in corruption cases, and finally removing the prosecutor and imposing one of his unconditional supporters, who even has legal complaints filed against him. We have no way of knowing the government’s expenditure, particularly those related to the pandemic. The administration has been so opaque that we don’t even have reliable data on how many people were infected with COVID-19, how many were hospitalised and how many died. The government does not provide information, it hides it. And when there are revelations or allegations of corruption, it attacks and defames the whistle-blower.

    How has this situation affected Acción Ciudadana’s work?

    Acción Ciudadana promotes political reform, transparency, accountability, citizen participation and the fight against corruption and impunity. Hence, much of the work we do is monitoring: we monitor political financing, internal political party elections and electoral propaganda; the work of the attorney general’s office, transparency in public administration and obstacles to access information; and the functioning of institutional mechanisms for the prevention, detection and punishment of corruption.

    To do our investigations we need access to public information, but the avenues of access are being closed. For example, the law establishes that information on travel by public officials must be public; however, the government has decided that this information is to be kept confidential for seven years. In this particular case there has been some pressure in the media and on social media, and the government changed its criteria and now withholds this information for up to 30 days after each trip, supposedly to protect the security of the concerned official. This is still illegal.

    When we are denied information that should be public, we can no longer turn to the bodies that safeguard access to information because they are either co-opted or frightened. For example, some political parties – starting with the ruling party – do not hand over their financial information to us. We have repeatedly denounced this to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for almost three years, but the Tribunal does not accept our complaints. So when a party does not provide us with information, we no longer appeal to the Tribunal, and when faced with an unconstitutional law, we no longer appeal to the Constitutional Chamber.

    We have also lost much of our advocacy capacity. Normally our monitoring would lead to legal complaints and criminal investigations. But nowadays the most we can do is publish the results of our investigations in some media outlets and offer them to the public. We can no longer feed them into institutional processes. For example, we found that in the 2019 presidential campaign a company donated US$1 million to the Grand Alliance for National Unity, Bukele’s electoral coalition, and in 2020 the government awarded that company a public-private partnership contract to manage and expand the airport. We see this as a case of conflict of interest, but we cannot take the issue to the prosecutor’s office or the Court of Auditors and ask them to investigate.

    President Bukele seems difficult to classify ideologically. What is his programme?

    If I had to classify the president’s party, I would say that it is a catch-all party, without an ideologically defined political project. Until he was expelled in 2017, Bukele belonged to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, and he portrayed himself as a revolutionary leftist who embraced Hugo Chávez and spoke of social justice. Then, as president-elect, he gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation, one of the most conservative think tanks in the USA, and he couldn’t have sounded more neoliberal. He has always claimed that the issues that need solutions were not a matter of ideology, and Nuevas Ideas was set up with the logic that everyone could fit in it, regardless of whether they were on the left or on the right. And that’s how it has been; there’s a bit of everything in there.

    Bukele does not have an ideological programme; his aim is to concentrate power. He can take right-wing or left-wing measures, but not because he has one ideology or the other, but because it happens to be what benefits him the most. For example, most of the pension system in El Salvador is private and he will probably nationalise it, not because he believes that this essential public service should be managed by the state, but because the Pension Fund moves millions of dollars, and the government wants to get its hands on it because it is short of resources, in debt and without further sources of funding, since the possibility of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund has just collapsed. Of course, privatisation is being presented as an act of justice towards pensioners, who receive miserable pensions. Based on this measure, an outside observer might think that his is a leftist government, but this is not an ideological measure, but rather one made out of convenience. The government is driven by the pursuit of political and economic gain, which is why it often appears erratic or improvised. There is no vision to guide the government’s planning.

    What are the causes of the protests currently faced by the government?

    The protests that began in early September erupted in reaction to the adoption of bitcoin as an official currency alongside the US dollar. Many people who support and value Bukele have opposed this measure, because they thought it could adversely affect them. This is the first government measure that has been widely rejected, and I think it was not only because of opposition to the cryptocurrency, but also because of the way decisions are being made, in the absence of sufficient information, debate and participation. Bukele made the announcement of this measure at an event in Miami on a Saturday, and the following Monday the bill was submitted to Congress. By Tuesday it had been passed. Everything was resolved in three or four days, amid total secrecy.

    Unfortunately, the reaction on this issue has been an exception, possibly because it is a subject that many people don’t understand much about, which causes fear. Generally speaking, most people applaud the president, his handling of the pandemic and his Territorial Control Plan, which is a strategy for militarising citizen security. This is because the narrative constructed by the government has been successful. For example, when the judges of the Constitutional Chamber were dismissed – a manoeuvre that civil society denounced as a coup d’état – the government said that the corrupt had been thrown out and many people believed it. There were people who came out to protest, not only from organised civil society, but also citizens in general, but they were a minority. It is difficult to counter the official narrative.

    What support does Salvadoran civil society need to be able to play its full role?

    It is quite complicated. Journalists manage to get information leaked to them and get their stories out, but we are not journalists. To get the information we need to play our accountability role we look for it on institutional portals and make information requests. Any effort to get public institutions to disclose information a bit more would help us.

    We also need support in terms of personal and digital security, as well as in the area of communications, because evidently civil society has not been able to communicate our messages adequately and we have not been able to build an alternative narrative to the official one.

    Civic space in El Salvador is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Ciudadana through itsFacebook page and follow@CiudadanaAccio1 and@esec76 on Twitter. 

     

  • Global civil society condemns violent repression of anti-government protests in Venezuela

    • 40 people killed and more than 800 detained since public protests began on January 23
    • Journalists covering demonstrations have been attacked
    • The UN has called for an independent investigation into the state’s alleged used of force against protesters
    • The government of President Nicolás Maduro has often used violence against protesters since coming to power in 2013.
    • Global civil society groups have urged authorities to release all detainees and uphold citizens’ rights and the rule of law

       

    • Government shuts down civil society organisations as part of ongoing campaign of repression in Nicaragua

      •  Parliament has cancelled the legal registration of nine civil society organisations (CSOs)
      • The move comes after some of the CSOs participated in hearings into human rights violations at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
      • The shutdown of CSOs comes at a time of serious attacks on fundamental freedoms in Nicaragua
      • Global civil society groups express concern that more Nicaraguan CSOs may be targeted

      Global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, has condemned the cancellation of the legal registration status of nine civil society organisations in Nicaragua as an affront to the right to freedom of association. The move to shut down the groups is seen to be in retaliation for their participation in hearings on Nicaragua’s deteriorating human rights situation at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

      On December 12, Nicaragua’s parliament voted to cancel the legal registration of the human rights organisation, Centro Nicaraguense de Derechos Humanos (CENIDH). The following day they voted again to cancel the registration of five more organisations including Instituto de liderazgo las Segovias (ILLS), Instituto para el Desarrollo de la Democracia (IPADE), Fundación del Rio, Centro de Investigación de la Comunicación (CINCO) and Fundación Popol Na.

      Just a week prior, CENIDH has been part of a delegation of rights groups who provided a hearing before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights with information on the social impact of ongoing human rights violations. They called on the government to stop violently repressing peaceful protests and attacking critical voices.

      “After using violence to target peaceful protesters, the government of Nicaragua now extends its repression to civil society organisations because of its perception that they have publicly criticized human rights violations committed since the start of protests in April 2018.” said CIVICUS’ Natalia Gomez.

      Restrictions on fundamental freedoms in Nicaragua increased substantively in April when the government violently dispersed demonstrations against changes to the country’s social security system. Since then, more than 300 people have been killed and more than 600 remain detained. The government is now targeting CSOs that denounce these human rights violations. Ana Quiroz, the head of one of the organisations and a Costa Rican by birth who had lived and worked in Nicaragua for more than 40 years, was stripped of Nicaraguan nationality and deported.  

      Shortly before CENIDH’s registration was cancelled, police rejected their request to conduct a peaceful march in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CENIDH cancelled the march and only said, they would go to the judicial authorities to ask for the protection of their rights.

      “Freedom of association is guaranteed in the constitution of Nicaragua and must be respected at all times. Instead of targeting civil society groups, the government of Nicaragua should rather create an enabling environment for civil society and seek ways to address the needs of its citizens.” Gomez continued.

      CIVICUS has called on the Nicaraguan authorities to reverse the cancellation of the registration of all civil society organisations, to respect the right to freedom of association and assembly and release all those in detention for participating in peaceful protests.

      In September, the CIVICUS Monitor, an online platform that tracks threats to civil society in countries across the globe, downgraded its rating of civic space – the space for civil society – in Nicaragua from “narrowed” to “repressed”. Nicaragua is also on the platform’s watchlist of countries that have seen an sudden, alarming spike in restrictions on civil space.

      For more information please contact:

      Natalia Gomez:

      The CIVICUS media team:

      To request interviews, you can also contact the CIVICUS Press Centre here.

       

    • GUATEMALA: ‘Anti-rights groups seek to maintain the privileges of some at the expense of the rights of others’

      visiblesCIVICUS speaks with the team of Visibles about recent anti-rights developments in Guatemala.

      Founded in 2017, Visibles is a Guatemalan organisation that works to achieve the full inclusion of diverse people and build a society where all people can exercise their rights and enjoy respect, freedom and wellbeing.

      The draft Law for the Protection of Life and the Family had been shelved for several years. Why was it finally approved now?

      Bill 5272, passed by the Guatemalan Congress as Decree 18-2022, increased penalties for abortion to a minimum of five years in prison and banned same-sex marriage and the teaching of sexual diversity in schools.

      It had been submitted on 26 April 2017 by a representative of the conservative party Visión con Valores (‘Vision with Values’). After obtaining a favourable opinion from the Committee on Legislation and Constitutional Affairs, the full Congress discussed and approved it on its first two readings in 2018.

      But to pass a law in Guatemala, it is necessary to gather the support of a certain number of lawmakers before submitting it to a vote on the floor. This did not happen until 2022, when the ruling alliance and the political and economic groups that support them made it one of their priorities to promote this conservative agenda.

      The current president of Congress, Shirley Rivera, came to this position after a very limited career, focused solely on proposing laws that stigmatise the transgender population and seek to grant greater freedoms to churches, particularly in the way they report on their finances.

      In March, in a sort of counterbalance to the traditional celebration of International Women’s Day, a day of feminist mobilisation, Congress declared a National Day of Commemoration of Life and Family and approved this regressive initiative. From its various branches, the state promoted a number of communication actions and events involving national and international groups linked to the anti-gender movement, aimed at promoting the defence of life from the moment of conception and a traditional, narrow and exclusionary definition of the family – that is, a broad cause that seeks to restrict the autonomy and freedoms of women and LGBTQI+ people.

      On the same date, Congress passed Decree 18-2022, and by an overwhelming majority: only eight out of 160 legislators voted against it, while 52 abstained. 

      Do you see this move as part of a broader regional anti-rights trend?

      It definitely is. Anti-rights groups in Guatemala are part of a highly organised and well-funded transnational movement that aims to undermine the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people, as well as the broader participation of civil society in public debate and decision-making.

      The passing of Decree 18-2022 was not a reaction against the very limited progress made in recent years in the recognition of sexual and gender diversity and women’s rights. It served to reinforce social hierarchies that benefit the powerful and maintain or even increase their power.

      Women and LGBTQI+ people are easy targets. The attacks against us reflect a resistance to the social transformations we seek: to unleash the talents and potential of more than half the population.

      The feminist, women’s, and diversity movements represent some of the obstacles facing this project of power and control, but they are not the only ones. Another obstacle arises from the fact that thanks to increased access to technology, social discontent has grown and voices have risen demanding accountability. There are growing demands for urgent action to transform the economy to ensure that it serves to create better opportunities for all individuals and families, as well as growing attention on issues such as climate change and the preservation of the environment and of the lives of those resisting transnational extractivism.

      How did civil society organise in the face of this anti-rights attack?

      In Guatemala, there are numerous organisations – women’s, Indigenous peoples’, youth, sexual and gender diversity, student and religious organisations – that have organised to resist the advances of this regressive agenda. After spaces for the fight against corruption shut down, following the dissolution of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala in September 2019, one of the main developments that took place was the criminalisation of those who had promoted it, from human rights defenders to prosecutors and judges who had worked within state institutions.

      This closure of spaces prompted the search for new ideas and routes to advance the construction of justice. Now, resistance to the entry into force of Decree 18-2022 has shown us the way.

      The state of Guatemala has actively and systematically collaborated to create a narrative hostile to the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And it has done so in a very hypocritical way, as it has promoted public policies that invoke the protection of life and family while at the same time demonstrating a complete lack of commitment to improving the conditions in which Guatemalan individuals and families live. This incoherence becomes an insult when a law is passed that, by criminalising women and LGBTQI+ people, endangers more than half of the population.

      On the same day that Decree 18-2022 was passed, protests began. Street pressure was novel and important: it showed that organisations can work in a coalition and that people are willing to join in and look out for the welfare of all.

      Mobilisation raised the cost the government would pay if it validated the congressional decision. The administration led by President Alejandro Giammattei was already unpopular and facing a growing number of demands for accountability – from journalistic investigations revealing the misuse of power and allegations of corruption to international sanctions against key officials. In this context, President Giammattei threatened to veto the law on the grounds that it violated Guatemala’s constitution and international agreements Guatemala has made, and Congress reacted by reversing and shelving the law.

      How is Visibles working to improve the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala?

      Visibles works to change people’s ideas, attitudes and behaviours towards LGBTQI+ people and their rights through research, training, proactive communication, and advocacy efforts. We believe that our long-term vision – that of a society that is fully inclusive of diverse people, ensuring that we all enjoy respect, freedom, and wellbeing and can exercise all of our rights – is only achievable if we start by having one-to-one conversations with families, friends, and people within our spheres of action so that we can move together from a position of prejudice to one of acceptance.

      The experience of collective resistance in the face of anti-rights advances united inspired and engaged us further. Resistance against a tangible policy that seeks control over our bodies and our lives as women and LGBTQI+ people challenged us much more directly than a distant and abstract notion of access to justice. Today we are driven by the collective construction of a gender justice project that enshrines the right of all people to live with dignity. We hope that these new practices and transformative goals will revitalise the human rights movement.

      What international support does civil society defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala need?

      The approval of – and subsequent U-turn over – Decree 18-2022 gave us a taste of the real power the state has over women and LGBTQI+ people in Guatemala. The risk does not disappear because the law has been shelved, but this may hopefully have the effect of sending a wake-up call to the international community.

      It is important that they turn their attention, support and resources to Guatemala, whose anti-rights forces are part of a regional advance guard. We cannot lower our guard and allow anti-gender movements to advance their goal of sustaining and consolidating unjust structures of unequal power in which some maintain their privileges at the expense of the basic rights of others.

      Civic space in Guatemala is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Get in touch with Visibles through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@visiblesgt on Twitter. 

       

    • GUATEMALA: ‘The protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy’

      Sandra MoraenCIVICUS speaks about recent protests in Guatemala with Sandra Morán Reyes, an advocate of women’s and LGBTQI+ rights. With a long history of participation in social movements, Sandra was one of the co-founders of the first Guatemalan lesbian group and the organiser of the first pride march in Guatemala, held in 1998 in Guatemala City. In 2015, she was elected as a national congressional representative, becoming the first gay congresswoman and politician to be elected to popular office in the history of her country. From that position, she promoted various initiatives to advance the rights of women and sexual minorities.

      What was the background to the November 2020 protests and how did they begin?

      A new government was inaugurated in January 2020, and soon after that we found ourselves locked up because of the pandemic. But by May or June some of our colleagues started to take to the streets again, partly to criticise the government’s attitude towards the needs of the population as the effects of the crisis generated by the pandemic began to be clearly seen. Suddenly white flags started to appear on the streets, on house doors and in the hands of people and families walking the streets or sitting in doorways. With the white flag people indicated that they did not have enough to eat, and solidarity actions began to take place, for instance in the form of soup kitchens, which did not previously exist in Guatemala. There was a great movement of solidarity among people. While organisations were busy attending to their own members, citizens made great efforts to provide person-to-person support. It became common for people to go out into the streets to give a little of what they had to those who needed it most. This was then repeated regarding those who were affected when hurricanes hit and lost everything.

      At the state level, a lot of resources were approved to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, but these resources did not reach the people and the needs of the population remained unmet, so the question that people began to ask was, ‘where is the money?’

      From 2017 onwards, we started denouncing what we called the ‘corrupt pact’ that brought together public officials, businesspeople and even church representatives in defence of their own interests. In 2015, after six months of sustained mass demonstrations, the president and vice president ended up in prison, but the governments that succeeded them ended up reaffirming the same old system. The government of President Jimmy Morales unilaterally ended the agreement with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, and the current government led by President Alejandro Giammattei, following on from its predecessor, has made progress in controlling the judiciary, Congress and all state institutions in order to sustain corruption as a form of government.

      The effects of the lack of attention to the impacts of the pandemic and of hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in October and November 2020, were compounded by attacks on the officials of the Public Prosecutor’s Office who continue to fight against corruption. Discontent continued to accumulate until the early hours of November 2020 when Congress approved the national budget for 2021. It was a very high budget – the highest in the country's history – and it included obvious pockets of corruption, especially in the area of infrastructure contracts, which is where the bulk of corruption takes place, but paid no attention to health and education, in the context of a pandemic. Budget cuts even affected the national nutrition programme, in a country that has a huge problem of child malnutrition. That was the last straw. People who are not normally prone to protest – a professional chef, an artist, many well-known people in different fields – started writing on social media and expressing anger against this decision. That’s how the first demonstration was organised, and suddenly we were about 25,000 people out there, in the middle of a pandemic.

      By that time all restrictions on movement and gatherings had been lifted, but the pandemic was still ongoing and the risk of contagion was still there. No one foresaw such a massive protest, and yet it happened. The demonstrations were initially peaceful, but already during the second one there was violence and repression. A small group set fire to the Congress building, an event that is still under investigation. This was used to justify the repression: teargas, beatings, arrests and detentions, something that had not happened for a long time. In another demonstration, people set fire to a bus. From our perspective, these acts of violence were instigated to justify the need for more police control over demonstrations and ultimately the repression of protests.

      Was the call for mobilisation made exclusively through social media? Who mobilised?

      There were a series of calls through social media that appealed above all to the middle classes, but social movements and Indigenous authorities also made their calls. Indigenous authorities have played an increasingly important role in recent years, and in the context of this crisis they published a statement in which they proposed a governing council of the four main groups of peoples who make up Guatemala - Maya, Xinka, Garífuna and Mestizo - to pave the way for a Constituent Assembly. They have been visiting territories and working to form alliances, and this was the first time that they have made steps towards the national government, as for now they have only had authority within their territories. The role they have played is important because the oligarchy has always been afraid of an Indigenous uprising; that fear is what moves them, just as they were moved by the fact that in 2019 the candidate for president of the People's Liberation Movement, a party founded by the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA), came in fourth place. A Mayan woman, a peasant, with little schooling, came in fourth place, and they found that very upsetting.

      Four main actors mobilised: Indigenous peoples, women, young people and what are called ‘communities in resistance’ – local communities, generally led by women, who are resisting extractive mega-projects in their territories. The latest demonstrations also evidenced the results of the newly achieved unity of the university student movement: from 2015 onwards, students from the public university of San Carlos de Guatemala marched together with those from the two private universities, Universidad Rafael Landívar, of middle-class students, and Universidad del Valle, which caters to the upper class. The motto under which the public university used to march, ‘USAC is the people’, turned into ‘We are the People’ as a result of this convergence. This was a historical event that marked the return of organised university students to popular struggles.

      The role of young people can also be seen within the feminist movement, as there are many young feminist movements. In particular, the Women in Movement collective, a very important expression of university-based feminists, stands out. Sexual diversity organisations have also been present, and have been very active in denouncing femicides and murders of LGBTQI+ people.

      These groups were joined by a middle class made impoverished by the severe impact of the pandemic. There were many middle-class people, many white-collar workers and professionals, in the demonstrations. Many people who did not belong to any Indigenous, student or women’s organisation or collective went out on their own, moved by the feeling of being fed up. Thus, the November 2020 protests were a reflection of both social organisation and citizen autonomy.

      What did the mobilised citizenry demand?

      Despite the fact that several sectors mobilised and many demands accumulated, there was an order to the protests’ petition list. Although each sector had its own demands, they all rallied around a few major ones. The key demand was that the president should veto the budget, since what triggered the mobilisation was the impudence of a Congress that made a budget that was clearly not to the benefit of the citizens of Guatemala but to their own, to feed corruption. The demonstrations were an immediate success in that regard, since a few days after the Congress building was burned, Congress backed down and annulled the budget it had previously approved. Along with the withdrawal of the budget, the protesters’ demand was the drafting of a new budget that would respond to the needs of the population, but this demand is still pending.

      Following the repression of the protests, the resignation of the Minister of the Interior became a key demand, but this did not happen and this public official remains in office. The president’s resignation was also demanded but did not take place.

      Finally, the demand for a new constitution, which has been on the agenda of social movements for several years, was raised again. In 2015, during the big demonstrations that led to the resignation of the entire government, social movements assessed that corruption was not only the fault of some individuals, as we had a corrupt system and therefore a change of system was needed. Indigenous and peasant organisations have their proposal for constitutional change, based on their demand of recognition of Indigenous peoples and the establishment of a plurinational state that would give them autonomy and decision-making power.

      Other groups have more embryonic proposals. I was a member of Congress until January 2020, and when I was still in Congress I worked with women’s organisations, thinking that this situation could arise and we had to be ready. We started the Movement of Women with Constituent Power to develop a proposal for a new constitution from the perspective of women in all our diversity.

      What are the main changes you propose?

      We have a constitution that was drafted in 1985 and it has an important human rights component; it includes the office of the Ombudsman, which at the time was an innovation. But human rights are approached from an individual perspective; collective rights and peoples’ rights are absent, as are the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. And so are the most advanced innovations in constitutional matters, such as the rights of nature. Ours is a political proposal for the emancipation of peoples, women and sexual diversity. It is based on the idea of an economy for life, which puts the community at the centre, and on a feminist economy that reorganises work and care tasks.

      Do you think the protests will continue?

      Yes, the protests will continue. With the year-end celebrations came demobilisation, but in recent days it has become public that CODECA has decided to take to the streets again. CODECA is an organisation that normally goes out alone, it doesn’t coordinate with other social movements, but it has a great capacity for mobilisation. If they go back on the streets, they will open a new phase of demonstrations.

      Right now, the Minister of Finance is drawing up a new budget, which in a month’s time will have to be discussed again in Congress. It remains to be seen not only how much will be invested in health, education and economic revival, but also what they think ‘economic revival’ actually means. Until now the emphasis has always been on international private investment, which only generates opportunities for greater exploitation and mega-projects. A bill has been proposed to promote family farming; there is no way it can be passed. So the demands of rural populations, peasants and Indigenous peoples are going to continue to be expressed on the streets.

      For the time being, this is a sectoral call, not a broad call to citizens. But it will not take much to revive citizen protest, since after the November demonstrations the president made a series of promises that he has not kept. The first anniversary of his government was 14 January 2021 and the levels of support it receives are extremely low. Congress also has little legitimacy, given the number of representatives who are part of the ‘corrupt pact’, which is large enough to hold an ordinary majority to pass legislation.

      However, people may be afraid of mobilising because we are at a peak in COVID-19 infections. And another obstacle to the continuity of the protests is the absence of a unified leadership and the fact that coordination is quite limited.

      Civic space in Guatemala is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
      Follow@sandramorangt on Twitter.

       

       

    • Guatemala: Las autoridades detienen a Jerson Antonio Morales al tiempo que continúan los ataques contra defensores de los derechos indígenas

      English

      La alianza global de la sociedad civil CIVICUS condenó el arresto y la detención ilegal del periodista y activista de los derechos indígenas Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales por parte de las autoridades guatemaltecas, el 11 de noviembre de 2017.

       

    • Harassment and persecution of the voices that denounce the repression in Nicaragua

      By Natalia Gomez Peña is Advocacy & Engagement Officer at CIVICUS

      On Wednesday, December 12, the National Assembly of Nicaragua voted to cancel the legal personality of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH). After the announcement, Vilma Núñez, 80, the president of CENIDH and one of the most recognized human rights defenders in the region, said: "We have done our job with conviction and will continue to do so until Nicaragua is truly free."

      Read on: Open Democracy 

       

    • HONDURAS: ‘The ruling of the Inter-American Court marks a before and after for LGBTQI+ people’

      CIVICUS speaks with Indyra Mendoza, founder and general coordinator of Red Lésbica Cattrachas (Cattrachas Lesbian Network), a lesbian feminist organisation dedicated to defending the human rights of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras. In March 2021 the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR)made a ruling in the case of Vicky Hernández. Vicky, a trans woman, and human rights defender, was murdered between the night of 28 June and the early morning of 29 June 2009, in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, while a curfew was in force following a coup. Her killing came in a context of enormous discrimination and violence, including by the security forces, against LGBTQI+ people.

      Indyra Mendoza

      What was the process that resulted in the IACtHR ruling? What was the role of Cattrachas?

      Cattrachas Lesbian Network’s Violence Observatory recorded Vicky’s case and immediately identified it as a potential strategic litigation case, as it was one of the first murders of an LGBTQI+ person following the coup d’état.

      Even before the coup, Cattrachas had identified a pattern of non-lethal violence against transgender women by police officers. And while we had already recorded 20 violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people between 1998 and 2008, the killings of transgender women increased after the 2009 coup. The Observatory recorded a total of 15 violent deaths of transgender women, most of which occurred during curfews or states of exception decreed illegally by the government, when state security forces were in absolute control of the streets.

      In Vicky’s case, Cattrachas learned that no autopsy had been performed, so we contacted her family and found out that very few investigative steps had been taken. On 23 December 2012, Cattrachas filed the initial petition for Vicky’s murder with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, a USA-based human rights organisation, later joined in. The Commission issued its merits report, which established that human rights violations had taken place, on 7 December 2018 and sent the case to the IACtHR on 30 April 2019. The public hearing was held on 11 and 12 November 2020. 

      Finally, on 26 March 2021, the IACtHR issued a ruling declaring the State of Honduras responsible for the violation of Vicky’s rights to life, personal integrity, equality and non-discrimination, recognition of legal personality, personal liberty, privacy, freedom of expression and name. It also ruled that the State of Honduras failed to comply with the obligation established in article 7.a of the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women, also known as the Convention of Belém Do Pará. Additionally, the IACtHR established that Vicky’s death was not investigated with due diligence, and therefore condemned Honduras for the violation of due process, judicial protection and the obligation established in article 7.b of the Convention. Finally, the Court declared that the right to personal integrity of Vicky’s relatives had also been violated. The ruling was notified on 28 June 2021, 12 years after the coup d’état and the transfemicide of Vicky Hernández.

      The resolution of this case was exceptional. What was the reason for this exception?

      Its resolution was exceptional because of the multiple intersectionalities of violence present in Vicky’s life. Vicky was a young Honduran transgender woman and human rights defender, a sex worker living with HIV, with limited economic resources, and at some point in her life, precarious employment had forced her to emigrate. Vicky’s is the first case of lethal violence against an LGBTQI+ person that occurred at the intersection of two relevant contexts: the 2009 coup d’état and the context of structural violence that LGBTQI+ people, and particularly transgender women, face in Honduras.

      The case allowed the Court to reiterate standards on the right to gender identity, equality, and non-discrimination, and to insist that, in contexts of historical violence, subordination, and discrimination, in this case against transgender people, international commitments impose a reinforced responsibility on the state. Furthermore, through an evolutionary interpretation, the Court established that transgender women are women, and are therefore protected by the Convention of Belém Do Pará.

      What is the significance of this ruling for LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

      The ruling in Vicky’s case marks a before and after, as it establishes guarantees of non-repetition that must be turned into public policy in favour of LGBTQI+ people.

      The measures set by the ruling include the establishment of an educational scholarship for transgender persons, which will bear the name of Vicky Hernández, the implementation of education, awareness-raising and training plan for the Honduran security forces, the adoption of protocols for the diagnosis, data collection, monitoring and investigation of cases of violence against LGBTQI+ people, and the adoption of a procedure to recognise gender identity in identity papers and public records. This procedure should be guided by the standards of Advisory Opinion 24/17, which implies that it should not require any law, should be expeditious, should not require pathologising tests, should not require a historical record of changes, and should be, as far as possible, free of charge.

      More than a decade after the murder of Vicky Hernández, what is the situation of LGBTQI+ people in Honduras?

      LGBTQI+ people in Honduras face constitutional and legal limitations based on sexual orientation, gender expression and gender identity that prohibit us from accessing equal marriage as well as the recognition of marriage celebrated abroad, de facto union, adoption, intimate visits in prisons, change of name based on gender identity and blood donation. Specifically, in relation to changing names, the IACtHR ruling in Vicky’s case mandates the state to establish an adequate and effective procedure to recognise the identity of transgender people.

      Honduras is the country with the highest rate of violent deaths of LGBTQI+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since the transfemicide of Vicky, to date 388 LGBTQI+ people have been murdered in Honduras and one person is missing; 221 of those people are gay, 112 are transgender and 46 are lesbian. Only 83 cases have been prosecuted, resulting in 11 acquittals and 34 convictions, which reflects a 91 percent impunity rate.

      In sum, LGBTQI+ people face not only major legal obstacles but also a very high level of lethal violence and lack of access to justice.

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

      Get in touch with Cattrachas through itswebsite orFacebook page, and follow@CATTRACHAS on Twitter.