Latin America,

 

  • PERU: ‘The ultra-conservative tide is affecting democratic life and fundamental rights’

    Eliana CanoAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toEliana Cano, founder of Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir – Peru (Catholics for the Right to Decide – CDD-Peru), a Catholic and feminist movement committed to the pursuit of social justice and the change of cultural patterns that limit women's autonomy and their sexual and reproductive rights. CCD-Peru has recently been sued by the Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which wants to strip it of its legal status on the basis that, within the framework of an agreement between the Vatican State and Peru, it should not be using the term ‘Catholics’.

    CDD-Peru is being sued to have its legal personality withdrawn and prevented from calling itself 'Catholic'. Who is suing you, what do they have against you, and what are they trying to achieve?

    About a month and a half ago we were notified that the Santo Tomás Moro Legal Centre, which is a self-appointed representative of the Catholic Church, had brought a lawsuit against us. According to the lawyers who are advising us, this group began to look into the work done by our organisation about a year ago. They decided to sue us in the civil courts because they want to make this a long, tedious, tiring process, one of permanent appeal. The whole thing can take up to three or four years. Basically, their strategy is to drain us of energy in the process.

    They want us to cease to exist as a registered organisation, recognised by the National Superintendency of Public Registries. In other words, they want us to lose our legal status and not be able to continue operating in Peru. They argue that, by calling ourselves what we do, we are disrespecting the Catholic Church and its parishioners. They say that, in light of the existing agreement between the Vatican State and Peru – which recognises the role of the Catholic Church – we are using the term 'Catholic', which represents an institution and a historical identity, in bad faith. They do not accept the interpretation we make of biblical texts on the basis of feminist theology in order to question dogma, imposed conscience and control of people in the name of God. It is important to note that our organisation is not registered with the Catholic Church as a faith group, and therefore is not subject to the internal mandate of the Church.

    You have been around for a few years. Is this the first time you have faced such reaction?

    Indeed, the project of Catholics for the Right to Decide is quite old in Latin America. It began in Uruguay and then spread to the USA, and from there it passed on to Mexico and other countries of Latin America. In Peru the organisation has had a legal existence since 2009. We organised ourselves because we identify as feminists with a Catholic identity. We see ourselves as Catholic women of faith, but we have a critical view of dogma, of static and closed thought, especially where issues related to sexual and reproductive rights are concerned, as body and sexuality are a terrain where political battles are fought. In Peru there has always been a very homogenous public voice around the Gospels and the right to command over the bodies and lives of women, and we, by questioning this from the position of our Catholic identity, have received a rather aggressive response by the hierarchy of the local Catholic Church and groups linked to it.

    The first public attack happened on the occasion of the debate around the definition of a protocol for therapeutic abortion: abortion that is justified for medical reasons, when there are serious risks to the woman’s health or life. It was an attack tinged with the same resources these groups always use, based on defamation, vilification and lies. But in this case attacks basically took the form of verbal and written attacks on social media.

    Conservative groups know how to manage social media and constantly attack us publicly for everything we do that deviates from dogma or homogeneous discourse. However, this is the first time we have faced a lawsuit, and we were not expecting an attack so direct and of such magnitude. Maybe we should have foreseen it, since in Latin America, and in Peru specifically, ultra-conservative groups have penetrated deeply into the political structure of the country and are affecting democratic life.

    It would seem that these ultra-conservative groups are now larger and more emboldened than they used to be. Why is that?

    When looking back you realise that for several decades a global and regional response has developed to discourage and weaken the liberation theology discourse, which put the emphasis mostly on poverty. With a questioning discourse within the Church that extended to other areas of life, liberation theology made the most hardcore conservative elements of the Church very uncomfortable. The reaction against it has been sustained. It has made a lot of progress, to the point that today a highly organic network has become visible, which has bases in various Latin American countries and its own publications, conferences and considerable economic resources. Its presence began to make itself felt strongly in 2005, when the Center for Family Promotion and Regulation of Birth (Ceprofarena) organised the Second International Pro-Life Congress in the capital, Lima. This congress produced a document known as the Lima Declaration, an expression of the agreement reached by conservative groups.

    Ceprofarena has existed since the early eighties. It maintains close links to Human Life International, a powerful international conservative organisation, and among its members are renowned physicians and senior state officials, including former health ministers. The organisation acts within numerous medical and health organisations, both public and private. These actors put conservative ‘scientific’ discourse at the service of abuses such as the denial of emergency oral contraception, an issue on which they successfully took on the Ministry of Health. They sued the Ministry, bringing to court the right to information and choice of thousands of women, and succeeded in achieving the prohibition of the distribution of emergency contraception by all health services nationwide. Now they are campaigning to dismantle the therapeutic abortion protocol established during the 2011 to2016 period.

    The network of conservative organisations in Peru also includes the Office for Latin America of the Population Research Institute, based in Lima; the Peruvian headquarters of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, which promotes classic family formats and produces and disseminates school books; of course older organisations such as Opus Dei, which does local development and support work and is deeply embedded in educational spaces, as well as within the bureaucracy of the Church; and the Sodalicio de la Vida Cristiana, an organisation of lay people.

    These groups have a lot of money that comes from the conservative business sector and have appropriated effective strategies and discourses. This lawsuit is a practical strategy that denotes a change in their way of organising. They no longer speak the language of the divine and the clerical because they know that it attracts fewer and fewer people; instead they have appropriated the discourse of democracy and human rights.

    Are you thinking of new strategies to face this growing challenge?

    In the present scenario we view ourselves as in need of strengthening our communication strategies. We also need to strengthen our resourcing, since we do not have funds to face a lawsuit of this magnitude. International funders do not necessarily provide support that can be used to develop institutional defence plans. But at present, this is a profound need of human rights organisations. In our case, fortunately the Legal Defence Institute, which had already taken on similar cases affecting journalists, became interested and decided to sponsor the case as part of its institutional priorities. They consider that this is an "ideological fight" and that questioning our name is a "pretext" to make us disappear as influential actors. Theirs has been a gesture that we are infinitely thankful for.

    As far as discourse is concerned, however, we should not move from our positions, but rather show that the appropriation of the discourse of human rights and democracy by ultra-conservative groups is as superficial as disrespectful of democratic principles. As happened recently with the ‘Do not mess with my children’ campaign – against education about gender equality and respect for sexual identities – their discourse tends to become very aggressive every time they feel cornered. They seem to be desperate, because deep down they do nothing but react in the face of newly acquired rights.

    And the situation has indeed progressed, because this is not just us – new generations are mobilised and lots of people who are respectful of freedom and diversity and who uphold guarantees for rights are gaining ground. It is not just three or four old-time feminist organisations that are active in Lima; there are also the voices and faces of young people organised in universities, people in communities in various regions of Peru who think critically, do not accept dogmas, even react in a sarcastic tone to that type of discourse and perspective.

    Of course there is always a Catholic youth following that responds to the Pope and has decided to stay within the ultra-conservative field, but there is also youth social mobilisation around many issues, and with their help many aspects of the sexual and reproductive rights agenda are permeating the public debate. I think this is causing ultra-conservative groups to despair, and that is why they are reacting with such anger, frustration and, I would even dare say, hate. That is, they react with attitudes that are nowhere close to mercy, kindness, humility, understanding and non-judgement.

    Why does the fact that you define yourselves as both Catholics and feminists cause this type of reaction?

    We are women of faith and religion is part of our identity. We have been raised Catholic, and in that context the message that was instilled in us was one of obedience, prohibition and oppression. As we grew up, we rebelled against this and other aspects related to the control of our lives and their sexual dimension. We identify ourselves as Catholic on the basis of a renewed interpretation, but we do not renounce our faith. We are aware that Catholicism is not only a matter of faith, but it also operates within or materialises in an institution, and as such it includes both positive and negative practices that have an impact on the lives of many people, and specifically on its members.

    At the same time, we all come from organisations with a feminist identity. We are feminists and we question patriarchy as a system of asymmetric power relations, but we do not renounce our faith. We always ask ourselves these questions: why should our religion have to have one single voice, uniform and unquestionable? Why obey in silence and validate sacrifice and suffering in our own lives and bodies? We find a foothold in feminist theology, which offers a deconstruction and reconstruction of the Gospel. These conceptual and political tools strengthen our conviction and our public struggle for sexual and reproductive rights.

    High Church officials tell us: ‘you are not Catholic, who are you to speak in the name of Catholicism?’ We respond: ‘what makes you a Catholic, what allows you to trample rights in the name of God?’ We have claimed ownership of the language of the Gospel that focuses on the right of people to deliberate in conscience, to discern and to decide, and this bothers them. I am a Catholic, I was baptised and I am guided by feminist theology. You cannot question my faith, just as I cannot question yours. This is a very hard fight, because it is easy to fall in the face of a mass telling you that you are not one of them. From the beginning we knew that we would face disqualification, defamation and lies; we did not, however, think that the attacks would become as violent as those we are currently experiencing on social media, as well as in the form of a lawsuit.

    Given that the experience of faith cannot be taken away from us, what they are trying to do is take away our legal status, make us disappear. We represent a danger because we are not just a few. In fact, more and more people are increasingly getting to know us and identify with us. We represent the position of many people who do not necessarily have the opportunity to articulate this strand of thought publicly, but who feel it and live by it. There is a wide and diverse congregation that does not think the same way as the Church hierarchy and considers that the ultra-conservative response to public policy is more suitable to Inquisition times than today. According to polls, most Catholics disagree with the Church hierarchy on many important issues, such as homosexuality, which they do not consider to be an illness or a divine punishment, or same-sex marriage. Choosing an abortion in specific life circumstances is a highly ethical and responsible decision, and it does not make you a bad woman, a lesser Catholic, or a bad mother. Using contraceptives to regulate motherhood and fatherhood or enjoying a sexual relationship without procreating is not prohibited by the Gospels. The state of virginity is losing its divine quality and this is freeing women from feelings of guilt, even in societies such as Latin America’s, where governments and the Catholic Church have always worked in concert to regulate people’s lives. Still today they support one another every time one of them loses credibility.

    How else are you trying to encourage a distinction between private faith and public policy?

    Ours is also a struggle for a secular state, a state that is separated from all churches. This is very difficult to achieve in practice, since the Catholic Church and the Peruvian state maintain strong institutional ties. However, short of achieving constitutional and legal separation between Church and state, there is another fight to be had in the sphere of collective attitudes. Many people – politicians, public officials, civil servants – reach the public sphere without giving a thought to the importance of separating religious beliefs from public function. As a result, many lawmakers and public officials make decisions based on their religious beliefs. It is very common to find crucifixes, chapels and religious images in ministry buildings. In our everyday lives religion surrounds us and limits us; there are no clear boundaries between religious practice and public functions.

    Ultra-conservative groups set themselves on this ground and seek to further expand the dictates of a religion that presents itself as homogeneous, with the intention of forcing all citizens to live according to their own beliefs and mandates. The problem is not religion in itself; the difficulty lies with the political use of religion within the political-public sphere, where there is a duty to guarantee human rights.

     

    Civic space in Peru is rated as ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.

    Get in touch with Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir-Perú through their webpage and Facebook

     

  • Pese al acoso, el movimiento estudiantil hondureño se niega a retroceder

    English

    CIVICUS conversa con Héctor Ulloa, estudiante de doble licenciatura en Derecho y Economía, vicepresidente de la Asociación de Estudiantes de Derecho de la Universidad Nacional de Honduras y fundador del Movimiento Progresista Universitario (PRO).

     

  • Rural Colombia, Iván Duque and the peace agreements

    By Natalia Gómez is an Official of the Vuka Coalition! for civic action, part of the Global Alliance for Civil Society-CIVICUS.

    The author expresses fears that the new president will alter what was negotiated between the FARC and the government and endanger the most vulnerable communities in the country.

    Read on: El País 

     

  • Time to sign: Environmental rights and democracy in Latin America

    Espanol

    The #Sign4TheEnvironment campaign aims to promote the signature of the regional treaty for environmental democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean - known as the Escazu Agreement. The Escazú Agreement represents a major step forward for the rights of people to access information and participate in policies, projects and decisions that affect the environment. The right  to participate in decision-making processes is key for an open civic space. 

    The agreement is also the first international instrument that includes obligations for the protection environmental defenders and the right of assembly in relation to the environment as the treaty obliges countries to recognize the role and protect activists and their organizations. Attacks and killings of environmental defenders in Latin America is a major concern, as the region is usually the most dangerous place on earth for environmental defenders according to the annual report of Global Witness:

    The treaty will open for signature on September 27 during the General assembly of the United Nations. The Agreement will need the signature and ratification of 11 countries to entering into force.

    Add your name to the government petition & learn more about the importance of the Escazú Agreement. For the latest updates on the state of citizen rights in each country in Latin America and the Caribbean see the CIVICUS Monitor.

     

  • Tratado podría proteger el medio ambiente y los derechos humanos en América Latina

    Los gobiernos de América Latina y el Caribe pueden hacer historia y establecer nuevos estándares para la protección del medio ambiente y los derechos humanos al firmar el Acuerdo de Escazú durante la próxima Asamblea General de las Naciones Unidas en Nueva York el 27 de septiembre.

    CIVICUS, la alianza mundial de la sociedad civil, es una de las 200 organizaciones que firmaron una carta abierta conjunta, pidiendo a los jefes de estado de los 33 países de la región que ratifiquen Este nuevo tratado.  

    "Para CIVICUS, el Acuerdo de Escazú es una herramienta fundamental para hacer frente a la grave situación que enfrentan los defensores del medio ambiente en América Latina y el Caribe, que en los últimos años se ha convertido en la región más peligrosa del mundo para las personas que participan en campañas de protección del medio ambiente", dijo Natalia Gómez, Responsable de Incidencia y Participación en la Red de la Coalición Vuka!

    La carta abierta hace un llamamiento a los gobiernos para que firmen el acuerdo y adopten medidas rápidas y eficaces para aplicarlo en sus respectivos países. Fue firmado por más de 200 organizaciones mundiales, regionales y nacionales que trabajan en América Latina y el Caribe en campos como los derechos humanos, el medio ambiente, el desarrollo y la democracia, incluyendo Amnistía Internacional, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Artículo 19, Front Line Defenders y Global Witness.

    Adoptado en San José, Costa Rica, por representantes de 24 países el 4 de marzo de 2018, el Acuerdo de Escazú sería el primer tratado vinculante en la región que establecería una protección para los derechos de acceso a la información, participación pública y acceso a la justicia en materia ambiental, así como la protección de los defensores de los derechos humanos en materia ambiental.

    CIVICUS hace un llamamiento a los gobiernos de los 33 países de América Latina y el Caribe para que firmen y ratifiquen el Acuerdo de Escazú y, de esta manera, asuman un compromiso real con la protección del espacio cívico y los defensores del medio ambiente.

    Los 33 estados de América Latina y el Caribe tendrán la oportunidad de firmar el Acuerdo en la sede de la ONU en Nueva York a partir del 27 de septiembre de 2018. Para que entre en vigor, al menos 11 países deben firmarlo y ratificarlo antes del 27 de septiembre de 2020.

    Para más información o para concertar una entrevista, póngase en contacto con nosotros:

    Natalia Gómez



    PhotoCred: ECLAC - United Nations

     

  • Tratado Vinculante sobre Trasnacionales y Derechos Humanos: ‘Tenemos perspectivas de éxito porque por primera vez se han abierto las ventanas de las Naciones Unidas y ha entrado la gente’

    English

    El Informe 2017 sobre el Estado de la Sociedad Civil describió el rol central que desempeña la sociedad civil en la campaña para establecer un tratado global vinculante para que las empresas transnacionales cumplan con los estándares de derechos humanos.

     

  • Treaty could protect environment and human rights in Latin America

     

    Governments across Latin America and the Caribbean can make history and set new standards for protection of the environment and human rights by signing the Escazú Agreement during the upcoming United Nations General Assembly in New York on 27 September.

    CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance, is one of 200 organisations who signed to a joint open letter, calling on the heads of state of all 33 countries in the region to ratify the ground-breaking treaty.  

    “For CIVICUS, the Escazú Agreement is a fundamental tool to address the serious situation faced by environmental defenders in Latin America and the Caribbean, which in recent years has become the most dangerous region in the world for people engaged in campaigns to protect their environment,” said Natalia Gomez, Advocacy and Network Engagement Officer of the Vuka! Coalition.

    The open letter calls on governments to sign the agreement and then adopt rapid and effective measures to implement it in their respective countries. It was signed by over 200 global, regional and national organisations that work across Latin America and the Caribbean in fields such as human rights, the environment, development and democracy, including Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Human Rights Watch, Article 19, Front Line Defenders and Global Witness.

    Adopted in San José, Costa Rica, by representatives of 24 countries on 4 March 2018, the Escazú Agreement would be the first binding treaty in the region to establish protections for the rights of access to information, public participation and access to justice in environmental matters, as well as enshrining the protection of environmental human rights defenders.

    CIVICUS calls on the governments of the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to sign and ratify the Escazú Agreement and in this way, assume a real commitment to the protection of the civic space and environmental defenders.

    All 33 states in Latin America and the Caribbean will have the opportunity to sign the agreement at the UN headquarters in New York from 27 September 2018. At least 11 countries must sign and ratify it by 27 September 2020 for it to come into force.

    For more information or to arrange an interview, contact:

    Natalia Gomez



    P
    hotoCred: ECLAC - United Nations

     

  • UN Declaration defends peasant farmers, but will it help stop attacks and human rights abuses?

    By Natalia Gomez Peña, CIVICUS Advocacy & Engagement Officer

    This article is has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.

    The old cliché “action speaks louder than words” has a deadly ring for campesino (peasant farmers) activists contemplating a historic international pledge to do better to protect them from state-sponsored attacks. One of the toughest, deadliest years for campesino (peasant farmers) activists in Latin America ended in December with a historic United Nations declaration to ensure their wellbeing and prosperity.

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘El venezolano no emigra en busca de mejores oportunidades, sino para salvar su vida’

    Venezuela 3CIVICUS conversa con Alicia Pantoja, cofundadora de Manos Veneguayas. Basada en Montevideo, Uruguay, Manos Veneguayas es una organización de la sociedad civil (OSC) liderada por venezolanos para dar contención a sus compatriotas que llegan a Uruguay. Trabaja en alianza con otras organizaciones y con los aportes de ciudadanos uruguayos y venezolanos residentes en Uruguay. Desde 2014, 2,3 millones de venezolanos han abandonado su país escapando de la represión política, la escasez de alimentos y medicamentos, la violencia en las calles y la falta de oportunidades. Mientras que algunos gobiernos latinoamericanos los han rechazado en las fronteras, otros - como el de Uruguay, y otros países miembros del Mercosur - han apostado a una política de brazos abiertos. En Uruguay son actualmente más de 8000 los venezolanos que han tramitado la residencia legal.

    ¿Cómo ves la situación de Venezuela, y cómo piensas que está alimentando la emigración?

    Pienso que la situación en mi país es crítica: literalmente, la gente se está muriendo de hambre. Ha aumentado la desnutrición; se ven cada vez más casos de niños que no son más que piel y huesos. Mueren adultos mayores; mueren niños en los hospitales, por simples infecciones completamente evitables, porque están contaminados. Veo un futuro muy duro, ya que es difícil que esa generación que se está criando ahora en Venezuela tenga fuerzas para sacar el país adelante.

    No es un secreto para nadie que el venezolano no está emigrando en busca de mejores oportunidades; está emigrando para salvar su vida. Desde 2014 para acá, la calidad de vida en Venezuela ha desmejorado hasta niveles inimaginables. Para quienes tenemos a nuestra familia allá, esto es muy duro. Cuando estás en la noche en tu casa y suena el teléfono se te para el corazón. Siempre temes recibir una llamada en la que te digan que fulano se murió o que a fulano lo mataron.

    Más que lograr que otros países se abran para que siga llegando una migración venezolana masiva, habría que hacer algo para cambiar la situación que hace que semejante cantidad de gente abandone Venezuela. Pero entretanto, desde Manos Veneguayas buscamos ayudar a los venezolanos que llegan a Uruguay.

    ¿Qué hace tu organización para ayudar?

    Manos Veneguayas funciona como organización de apoyo para los migrantes venezolanos en Uruguay desde noviembre de 2016. Somos un equipo de nueve fundadores y unos 40 voluntarios. Tenemos autonomía en nuestras decisiones, pero contamos con el apoyo de otras organizaciones. El Instituto de Estudios Cívicos (IEC) e Idas y Vueltas, dos OSC constituidas desde hace mucho tiempo, son algo así como nuestros padrinos. El IEC nos presta la sede y nos apoya en cada evento. Con Idas y Vueltas hemos aprendido a trabajar en conjunto. Ellos siguen trabajando en la contención de los migrantes en general y nosotros nos volcamos específicamente hacia los venezolanos. Claro que si bien somos una organización de venezolanos y para venezolanos, atendemos a todos los migrantes que llegan a nuestra puerta pidiendo una mano; no le negamos ayuda a nadie.

    Inicialmente nuestra idea era dar contención emocional: estaba llegando gente que no sabía cosas tales como que este país es frío en invierno y caluroso en verano, no tenía idea de lo que es vivir en un país de cuatro estaciones. Los recién llegados no sabían siquiera cómo vestirse para las bajas temperaturas o cómo protegerse del sol, y muchas veces tampoco tenían las vestimentas adecuadas. Muchos llegaban sin nada, así que hemos hecho colectas, por ejemplo de ropa de abrigo.

    Entonces, la idea inicial era acompañar a los recién llegados en la adaptación al país, para que sintieran que no estaban solos en el proceso migratorio. Como la principal urgencia para los que llegan es conseguir un empleo, primero creamos un banco de trabajo, Clasificados Veneguayos.

    Al principio nos desgastábamos las pestañas cazando ofertas en internet, pero tuvimos la enorme suerte de que en una de nuestras primeras jornadas un diario nos hizo una tremenda entrevista que tuvo mucha difusión, e hizo que Manos Veneguayas quedase en el radar de muchos empresarios. Desde entonces las ofertas comenzaron a llegarnos directamente, y tenemos una base de centenares de currículums que facilitamos a posibles empleadores. Y si bien mucha gente solicita empleadas de servicio doméstico, nosotros tratamos de que las personas se inserten dentro de sus profesiones. Aunque lo más importante es que al menos uno de los integrantes de la familia tenga ingresos. Todos los trabajos dignifican. Nosotros damos charlas para que los recién llegados conozcan sus derechos respecto a la salud y el trabajo, y los ayudamos a preparar un currículum o una entrevista de trabajo. Los apoyamos para que puedan obtener su documentación.

    Hemos hecho una especie de censo, básicamente a través de Facebook, para relevar las necesidades de los venezolanos que están llegando a Uruguay. Para los que están llegando ahora, a la búsqueda de trabajo se suma el problema de la vivienda. La desesperación en aumento está haciendo que migren grupos familiares completos, lo que vuelve más difícil el proceso. Antes venía primero el jefe de familia, generalmente un hombre solo que llegaba a una residencia, trabajaba y al cabo de tres o cuatro meses podía conseguir una garantía para alquilar un monoambiente, traer a la esposa y después trabajar los dos y conseguir algo más grande. Pero ahora están llegando familias de cuatro o cinco personas, y lo que les cobran las residencias y pensiones las dejan fuera de su alcance. Legalmente, la garantía para alquilar solo se consigue luego de estar empleado un mínimo de tres meses. Caso contrario, se necesita traer mucho dinero, y en el caso de los venezolanos que están emigrando, si digo que el 1% trae algún respaldo económico, ya estoy exagerando. Los refugios están a reventar porque además, no solo están llegando venezolanos, sino también dominicanos y cubanos.

    El éxodo venezolano ha suscitado algunos casos de discriminación y xenofobia en la región. ¿Han experimentado esto en Uruguay?

    Un sociólogo con quien hablaba recientemente me comentó sobre algunos casos. Pero pienso que son casos puntuales. En los cuatro años que tengo viviendo en el Uruguay yo personalmente no he visto ningún tipo de discriminación ni por el color de la piel ni por la nacionalidad.

    Por supuesto que hay gente que piensa que el venezolano le viene a quitar oportunidades al uruguayo. Y obviamente no es cierto: simplemente hay un abanico de ofertas y hay quien encaja y quien no. Si bien hay muchos profesionales venezolanos trabajando como conductores de Uber, meseros, vendedores y cadetes, también hay profesionales empleados dentro de su área: enfermeros, fisioterapeutas, ingenieros, incluso algunos arquitectos que han podido revalidar sus títulos. De hecho, la migración de profesionales venezolanos ha sido muy importante para Uruguay, ya que el país está accediendo a un personal muy bien preparado en cuya formación no ha tenido que invertir nada.

    Sabemos que con los inmigrantes es común que la reputación de todos quede en entredicho por las acciones de unos pocos. Cuando un venezolano mete la pata, luego resulta que todos los venezolanos son incumplidos o no tienen palabra. Así que para ayudar a la gente a ubicarse en un empleo somos muy cuidadosos. Cuando llegan y nos dicen ‘estoy desesperado, quiero trabajar en lo que sea’, les pedimos que piensen cuál es su límite, porque se necesita un compromiso, no pueden estar en un empleo dos semanas y luego irse. Lo mismo ocurre con los tiempos: en Venezuela si te quedas parado te pasan por encima, pero aquí todo sucede más lentamente, y el venezolano no está acostumbrado a eso. Nuestra tarea es calmar a esa juventud que llega con ansias de comerse el mundo porque en Venezuela estaban comiendo aire. Hay que calmarlos y enseñarles que este país es maravilloso y nos está abriendo sus puertas, pero que tenemos que ir a su ritmo.

    ¿Cuál es la perspectiva para los venezolanos que emigran: hacer su vida afuera o retornar a Venezuela?

    Esa es una de las cosas que siempre hablamos acá. Hay algunos que consideran que su vida ahora está aquí y han venido para quedarse, pero un alto porcentaje tiene la visión de que está aquí para aprender porque el plan es volver para reconstruir nuestro país. Yo misma tengo ganas de volver, y creo que la mayoría de la gente piensa que esto es algo temporario, que nuestro país va a salir adelante y nos va a necesitar. Entretanto, lo mejor que podemos hacer es tratar de dejar una honda huella en este país que nos está recibiendo para que el día mañana puedan decir que Venezuela hizo su aporte.

    El espacio cívico en Venezuela es clasificado como ‘represivo’ por elCIVICUS Monitor.

    Contáctese con Manos Veneguayas a través de su página deFacebook.

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘Venezuelans are not emigrating in search for better opportunities, but to save their lives’

    CIVICUS speaks to Alicia Pantoja, co-founderVenezuela 3of Manos Veneguayas. Based in Montevideo, Uruguay, Manos Veneguayas is a civil society organisation (CSO) run by Venezuelans that offers support to Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. It works in alliance with other organisations and with the contributions of Uruguayan citizens and Venezuelans living in Uruguay. Since 2014, 2.3 million Venezuelans have fled their country, escaping from political repression, scarcity of food and medicines, street violence and a lack of opportunities. While some countries in Latin America have rejected Venezuelans at their borders, others – notably Uruguay and other Mercosur member states – have maintained an open-doors policy. More than 8,000 Venezuelans have now become legal residents in Uruguay. 

    How do you see the situation in Venezuela, and how is it driving migration?

    I think the situation in my country is critical: literally, people are starving to death. Malnutrition has increased; there are more and more cases of children who are nothing but skin and bones. Older people are dying, and children in hospitals are dying as a result of completely preventable infections, just because hospitals are contaminated. I see a very tough future. It will be difficult for this generation that is growing up in Venezuela today to have the strength to push the country forward.

    It is no secret to anyone that Venezuelans are not migrating in search of better opportunities; they are migrating to save their lives. From 2014 to the present, the quality of life in Venezuela has deteriorated to unimaginable levels. For those of us who still have families there, this is very hard. When you are at home at night and the telephone rings, your heart stops. You always fear that call in which you will be told that so-and-so died, or so-and-so has been killed.

    Instead of trying to get other countries to open their arms to receive a massive influx of migrants from Venezuela, something needs to be done to change the situation that is causing people to flee their country. But in the meantime, we at Manos Veneguayas are trying to help Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay.

    How does your organisation help?

    Since November 2016, Manos Veneguayas has been active as a support organisation for Venezuelan migrants in Uruguay. We are a team of nine founders and nearly 40 volunteers. We have autonomy in our decision-making, but we receive support from other organisations. Two long-established CSOs, the Instituto de Estudios Cívicos (IEC) and Idas y Vueltas, help us. IEC lends us their headquarters and supports us at each event we organise. With Idas y Vueltas we have learned to work together. They continue to work on supporting all migrants more generally, while we focus on Venezuelans. Of course, although we are an organisation of Venezuelans working for Venezuelans, we serve all migrants who arrive at our doors looking for a helping hand. We do not deny anyone our help.

    Initially our idea was to provide emotional support. People were arriving who ignored lots of important things about this country, such as that summers are hot and winters are cold. They had no idea what it is like to live in a country with four seasons. Newcomers did not even know how to dress for the low temperatures or how to protect themselves from the sun, and they often did not have the right clothes either. Many had arrived with nothing, so we collected and distributed necessities such as warm clothing.

    The initial idea was to help newcomers adapt to Uruguay, so that they felt that they were not alone throughout the migration process. As the main urgency for new arrivals is to get a job, the first thing we did was create a jobs bank, which we named Clasificados Veneguayos.

    At first, we tired ourselves out hunting for job offers online, but we soon got lucky when at one of our first job fairs a newspaper did a great interview with us, which was widely disseminated, putting Manos Veneguayas on the radar of many businesspeople. After that, offers began arriving directly to us, and we now have a database with hundreds of resumes that we provide to potential employers. And while many people come to us with requests for domestic help, we try to get people jobs within their professional areas of expertise. But our priority is to make sure that at least one member of each household receives an income, and we think that all jobs dignify. We give talks so that newcomers learn about their rights regarding healthcare and work, and we help them prepare a resume or get ready for a job interview. We also provide them with support so that they can obtain their legal papers.

    We have done a survey, mostly through Facebook, to better understand the needs of Venezuelans arriving in Uruguay. For those who are arriving right now, housing is an additional problem on top of finding work. Increasing despair is causing whole family groups to leave Venezuela, making the process all the more difficult. In the past, the head of the family, usually a man, often came first, stayed in a residence and focused on working, so three or four months later they would be able to provide the required deposit to rent a small apartment so that he could bring his wife along to work, and eventually rent a bigger place together. But now it’s families of four or five people arriving, and residences and even rental rooms are out of their reach. Legally, rental collaterals can only be obtained after being employed for a minimum of three months. Otherwise, you need to pay a lot of money up front, and in the case of recent Venezuelan migrants, if I told you that one per cent are bringing a sizeable amount of money, it would be an exaggeration. Shelters are overflowing because not only are Venezuelans currently arriving, but also Cubans and Dominicans.

    The Venezuelan exodus has sparked some cases of discrimination and xenophobia in the region. Have you experienced this in Uruguay?

    A sociologist who I spoke to recently told me about some cases. But I think they have been isolated cases. I have been in Uruguay for four years and I have not personally seen any kind of discrimination based on skin colour or nationality.

    Of course, there are people who think that Venezuelans are coming to take job opportunities from Uruguayans. But that is obviously not true: there is simply a range of offers that fit some people and not others. While there are many Venezuelan professionals working as Uber drivers, waiters, vendors and delivery people, there are also professionals employed within their area of expertise: nurses, physiotherapists, engineers, even some architects who have been able to validate their college degrees. In fact, the migration of Venezuelan professionals has been very important for Uruguay, since it has allowed the country to tap into a high-quality pool of professionals while not investing a cent in their training.

    We know that as far as migrants are concerned, it is common for the reputation of the whole national group to be put into question as a result of the actions of just a few individuals. If one Venezuelan makes a mistake, it will be said that all Venezuelans are dishonest or unreliable. Therefore, we are very careful in helping people prepare to find a job. When people arrive and tell us that they are desperate and want a job no matter what, we ask them to identify their own limits, because they need to commit to whatever job they get; they cannot stay in a job for two weeks and then leave. Something similar happens with the rhythm of things. In Venezuela, if you stand still you risk being ran over. In Uruguay, everything happens more slowly, and Venezuelans are not used to it. So we try to calm down all those young people who come here with this attitude of wanting to swallow the whole world, because in Venezuela they were eating air. We need to calm them down and show them that this is a wonderful country that has opened its doors to us, but that we also need to move at its pace.

    Do you think Venezuelan migrants are here for good, or do they plan to return to Venezuela some day?

    This is one of the things we always discuss among ourselves. There are some who consider that their life is here now, and they are here to stay, but a high proportion of us are of the view that we are here to learn, because our plan is to go back and help rebuild our country. I want to go back, and I believe most people think that this is just temporary, that our country is going to move forward and will eventually need us. In the meantime, the best we can do is try to leave a deep mark in this country that has hosted us, so that tomorrow they can say that Venezuelans have indeed played their part.

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

    Get in touch with Manos Veneguayas through itsFacebook page.

     

  • VENEZUELA: ‘We need a multilateral, flexible and creative approach from the international community’

    CIVICUS speaks with Feliciano Reyna, founder and president of Acción Solidaria, a Venezuelan civil society organisation (CSO) established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to reducing the social impact of the HIV epidemic. As a result of the multiple crises facing Venezuela, Acción Solidaria has expanded its scope of action and provides medicines and medical supplies to wider vulnerable populations.

    Feliciano Reyna

    How has the current crisis come about in Venezuela?

    A process of dismantling the rule of law has taken place over several years and is still ongoing. The judiciary has long ceased to be independent and now operates according to the interests of the government. Added to this is a high level of corruption. Many documents and reports, such as a recent one by the United Nations (UN) Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela, describe how a non-independent justice structure was put in place, taking advantage of the opacity of public data and discretionary state management.

    As a result, many people, acting in their own interest, destroyed the economic and productive apparatus. Nowadays the Venezuelan economy is 20 per cent of the size it was in 2013. This has impacted on poverty levels, the quality of public services and the resulting lack of protection.

    An initial period of enormous income, lasting many years, allowed for a great waste of wealth, with resources reaching the major groups that supported Hugo Chávez’s government, from 2005 to 2013. But money was just spent on individual benefits, not invested in public services. Thus, little by little, the public sector was left in a state of total abandonment: hospitals, roads, lighting, electrical system, water distribution. Everything is pretty much destroyed. There are about four million people who cook with firewood or charcoal because they don’t receive gas. Where I live, we get water once a week for 24 hours, and sometimes we don’t get water for two or three weeks.

    There was a major shift in the global economy, with a sharp drop in oil prices coinciding with Chávez’s last days in office. When Nicolás Maduro took power in 2013, the fragility of a regime largely based on Chávez’s personality was exposed. Maduro’s victory triggered political protests because his mandate was questioned, and very harsh repressive practices were adopted in response. The situation has deteriorated ever since, leading to the current human rights crisis. CSOs have documented arbitrary detentions, torture and cruel treatment under detention. There has been a sustained attack on dissent and political opponents. Anyone in a position of power who is viewed as a political threat is taken out of play.

    The years between 2014 and 2016 were terrible. In addition to human rights violations, there was widespread harm caused to the population in terms of health, nutrition, access to water, education and other rights. As the economy deteriorated, there began to be many social protests, not for political reasons but regarding income, lack of resources, power cuts, lack of transportation and public services, and so on. With two major exceptions – the 2017 and 2019 protest waves, in which people expressed political grievances – the vast majority of protests have been social protests, not ideological ones, through which many people who ultimately supported and voted for the government expressed their discontent.

    While the attack on opposition and dissent has driven many into exile, economic shortages have led to a massive emigration wave. More than four million Venezuelans have emigrated, including many professionals, teachers and doctors, further weakening service delivery systems.

    What is the context in which civil society works?

    There state has been greatly weakened and is unable to control all the territory under its jurisdiction, so it has handed over control to other groups. Power is increasingly in the hands of local parastate actors who enjoy small bubbles of well-being within the context of immense poverty in which the vast majority of the population lives.

    Because of the weakening of the state and the deterioration of the oil industry, which has always been the main source of national income, the government has opened some spaces for a freer economy. That means that in order to serve the populations we work with, we have been able to import medicines and supplies thanks to international cooperation. Our international donors send us supplies or pay for transportation so that we can receive them, using a door-to-door delivery system.

    Since 2017 Acción Solidaria has brought in almost 240 tons of aid. We have grown from nine staff in 2016 to 40 in 2021. Every week about 120 people come to the offices of Acción Solidaria to seek medicine. Most of them are women and people with very little resources, over 55 years old. The things they need may be available in the parallel economy, but at prices they can’t afford.

    But the environment for civil society remains a high-risk one. Last year we experienced a raid by the Special Action Forces, the most fearsome command of the Bolivarian National Police. What they did to us was not an official operation but a criminal action. CSOs doing human rights advocacy are criminalised, and CSOs conducting humanitarian action face serious problems of access and are subject to extortion by these autonomised groups and paramilitary actors. We have become targets not because we are opponents or dissidents, but because we have coveted resources.

    One colleague of ours was imprisoned 160 days ago and five comrades from an organisation that works alongside the UN Refugee Agency were imprisoned for a month in a military facility.

    As the electoral process was underway, the government’s information networks among the population seemed to have become aware that government programmes – which transfer the equivalent of about US$4 a month to their beneficiaries – could not compete with the nearly US$60 that humanitarian organisations were transferring to people in their target populations, without demanding anything in return, simply as part of the humanitarian response. So they immediately stepped in and suspended the 38 humanitarian aid programmes that were making cash transfers.

    Following the elections, the transfer ecosystem has started to begin again, but so far only transfers from the Food and Agriculture Organization and UNICEF have been reactivated.

    How much popular support does the Maduro government have left? Did it have enough to win the November regional elections, or did it resort to fraud?

    In November 2021, regional elections were held to renew all executive and legislative seats in the country’s 23 federal entities and 335 municipalities. The official turnout was just over 40 per cent, and the government won 19 governorships, compared to four won by the opposition. The government also won 213 mayorships, but various opposition groups won 121, a not insignificant number.

    The conditions of electoral competition were set up well before the selection of candidates, the campaigns and the voting took place, as new members to the National Electoral Council (CNE) were appointed. The CSO Foro Cívico had proposed names of independent candidates for the CNE: people with a strong electoral background who could build a bridge of dialogue with the people in government who wanted a less authoritarian rule. This resulted in a more balanced CNE, with one independent rector and one from the opposition among the five full members, and three out of five alternates proposed by civil society. This allowed us to expect an election with greater legitimacy than previous ones.

    The electoral process was very tense. While there was no fraud in the sense that voting figures were changed, there was a lot of pressure and obstacles to prevent opposition supporters from voting. Leading opposition politicians were disqualified and unable to stand as candidates. The conditions in voting centres, including schedules, were altered for the government’s benefit, and many people were brought out to vote, despite the fact that the government no longer has the same mobilisation capacity as in previous elections. Turnout was low for several reasons: because millions of people have emigrated, and because many popular opposition figures were not taking part in the election.

    The opposition also bore a great deal of responsibility for this, because it viewed the elections with a lot of suspicion. Many of its key spokespeople were opposed to participating, and it did not reach the kind of broad agreements that would have allowed it to win as many as 10 or 12 governorships. In part, its growth was limited not just by the obstacles imposed by the government, but also by its own inability to reach an agreement.

    Still, it is important to emphasise that the playing field was not level. The opposition could have won more governorships than it did, but there was a clear limit to this. This was seen in Hugo Chávez’s home state of Barinas, which the government could not afford to lose to the opposition. An opposition candidate clearly won there, so after the fact the Supreme Court ruled that the winning candidate did not actually meet the conditions to be eligible to compete, and ordered a rerun.

    Faced with these limitations, which were foreseeable, there was a part of the opposition that from the beginning opposed participating in the elections and left the way open for many pro-government victories that might not otherwise have taken place.

    How consolidated is the Maduro regime, and what are the chances that a democratic transition can take place?

    A democratic transition does not seem to be an option in the short term. The opposition is very diverse and is dispersed both programmatically and in terms of its institutional approach, so it is questionable whether it would be able to govern if it had the opportunity right now.

    What lies ahead of us is a long trek through the desert. The government suffers from many weaknesses, but it has the support of China, Iran, Russia, Turkey, and a lot of political support from Cuba and other countries in the region, as is apparent in the UN Human Rights Council. Maduro’s government has adopted a deft approach in the image of these supportive states: despite corruption and lack of transparency, it has allowed an opening in the economy while keeping its repressive behaviour intact.

    The international support that the government receives is important and has been systematically underestimated, while the support received by the interim government led by Juan Guaidó has been overestimated. It has been said that he has the USA and 60 other countries on his side, but those who support him with real actions are in fact much fewer.

    For many in the opposition, the interim government has itself been a big problem, partly because it became associated with the Donald Trump administration, and partly because since the interim government was established what it did became the only thing that mattered, and the space of the National Assembly, which had enjoyed broad popular support, was abandoned.

    The interim government was prompted on the basis of Article 233 of the Venezuelan Constitution. Since by virtue of his fraudulent re-election in 2018 Maduro was not recognised by the opposition as a legitimate president, the opposition-dominated National Assembly proclaimed its president, who at the time was Juan Guaidó, as interim president of Venezuela. I think that the opposition should have continued to work through the National Assembly, an elected and legitimate body whose presidency alternated between the parties with the most votes. Evidence of corruption could have been collected and mechanisms sought to protect the country’s assets with the help of the international community.

    Instead, the opposition named itself as a legitimate government without having any control over internal processes. And when it took over, it set out expedited conditions and deadlines, demanding that Maduro should first leave office so that the interim government could constitute itself as a transitional government and organise free elections.

    The choice of the opposition to proclaim an interim government was the result of it underestimating the government’s forces and overestimating its own. When expectations were not met, as was bound to happen, disaffection with the interim government began to grow. There is still an enormous desire for change, because things remain bad for the vast majority of the population, but the hope that this change would be achieved through the interim government has faded.

    What kind of support should the international community provide to facilitate a democratic transition?

    What we would like to see from the international community is a multilateral, flexible and creative approach. The change of administration in the USA has been extremely important because the approach of the Trump administration was unilateral and overbearing. Fortunately, the Biden administration appears to adhere to a multilateral approach and to include Europe, Canada and other countries in our region.

    Regarding Europe, it was very important that the European Union sent an election observation mission for the 21 November elections, as it was for the UN and the Carter Center to send their election experts. The UN also has essential contributions to make in humanitarian and human rights matters, both in terms of mobilising resources to address the humanitarian emergency in the country and to support migrants and refugees across the region, as well as with regard to the human rights violations that continue to occur.

    The international community must listen to civil society and pay attention to the grievances of the people who are directly affected by the measures that external actors take in relation to Venezuela. Many of the sanctions that have been imposed on the government, such as the US secondary sanction that penalises the exchange of oil for diesel, end up not affecting the government, which has alternative courses of action, and instead harm users and consumers, ordinary people whose already complicated lives are complicated even further.

    If this part of Venezuelan society were listened to, it would be possible to think of alternative policies to generate spaces for negotiation and agreements that would allow us to return to the path of democracy and human rights in a non-violent manner.

    Civic space in Venezuela is rated as ‘repressed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
    Get in touch with Acción Solidaria through itswebsite or itsFacebook andInstagram pages, and follow@AccionSolidaria and@fjreyna onTwitter.

     

     

  • Venezuela: Restrictions to civic space continue unabated as government defies commitments

    Statement at the 50th Session of the Human Rights Council 


    Adoption of the UPR report of Venezuela

    Delivered by Carlos Correa, Espacio Público

    Thank you, Mr President. 

    Over the past five years, Venezuela promoted unjustified restrictions on civic space, including the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. Of the 40 recommendations received in 2016, it partially implemented 7.  

    Space for civil society has been repressed. Despite accepting recommendations to guarantee freedom of expression online, restrictions continue. Venezuela committed to ensure the work of journalists, human rights defenders and humanitarian workers, but judicial persecution remains common. Authorities adopt a disqualifying discourse that seeks to justify attacks on the exercise of freedom of association and expression. 

    Today at least 45 news portals are blocked in Venezuela. Between January and April of this year 2022, 43 journalists were victims of illegitimate restrictions to do their work. While this UPR process was ongoing, a bill was announced to control international cooperation funds. In the last year, at least 8 human rights defenders have been detained and criminal proceedings are ongoing against them. 

    We regret that Venezuela accepted 27 of the 53 recommendations it received on civic space during this third cycle.  

    Mr President, Espacio Público and CIVICUS call on the Government of Venezuela to take concrete steps to address these concerns, including by repealing undue legal restrictions on civil society and the press, reinstating media outlets unwarrantedly closed, ceasing censorship practices, and by releasing all those detained for defending human rights and expressing themselves. 

    Thank you very much.  


     Civic space in Venezuela is rated as "Repressed" by the CIVICUS Monitor 

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights’

    Teresa Fernandez ParedesAs part of our 2019 thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists and leaders about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks toTeresa Fernández Paredes, a lawyer specialising in International Public Law and one of Women's Link’s Managing Attorneys. With offices in Colombia, Kenya and Spain, Women's Link defends and promotes women's rights and seeks to create structural change through strategic litigation.

    What does Women's Link do, and what are its main areas of work?

    Women's Link is an international organisation that uses the law - most of us are lawyers - to promote structural social changes that advance the rights of women and girls, and especially of those in the most vulnerable positions, such as migrant women or women who find the exercise of their rights restricted due to their ethnicity, age or socioeconomic status, among other factors.

    We work from our headquarters in Madrid, Spain and have offices in Bogotá, Colombia and Nairobi, Kenya. We apply a gender and an intersectional analysis to the law in order to expand and improve the rights of women and girls. We work in some areas, such as sexual and reproductive rights, where we collide head-on with anti-rights groups. We also focus on human trafficking, and especially on the trafficking of women for sexual exploitation or domestic servitude and the violations of their rights suffered by women in migration or transitional justice contexts. We also focus on discrimination, as a cross-cutting issue. We use several strategies: in addition to strategic litigation, we conduct judicial training and produce publications, among other things.

    What are currently your main areas of work in Latin America?

    One of our main lines of work in Latin America is access to sexual and reproductive rights, broadly understood. In the context of the ongoing Venezuelan migration crisis, we are working on the link between migration and lack of access to these rights. We examine issues such as the effects of irregular migration status on the enjoyment of these rights, and the situation of border areas as spaces that are not ruled by law.

    Working in Venezuela has been a great challenge, given the country’s current situation. What we do, here and in all cases, is apply international legal standards to the local context. But it is important to bear in mind that generally speaking, law - and not just domestic legislation, but also international human rights law - is very centred on men. Over the years, norms and regulations have been developed around the image of the white man as a universal subject.

    Our approach to the law is to stretch it to accommodate the experiences of women, because within the human rights framework, women's issues are often left aside. In the context of Venezuela, we work a lot with the inter-American human rights system. For example, we recently requested a precautionary measure for a maternity clinic where many mothers and children had died. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued the precautionary measure, but in the current context it would seem difficult to implement it. However, it serves the purpose of drawing attention to the specific situation of women and girls. And all this work also helps encourage understanding why women leave Venezuela: what drives them, as women, to migrate; and what needs they have when they are in transit and when they arrive at their destination.

    In addition to working in Venezuela, several of our projects focus on ensuring that women’s lived experiences and voices are heard in the context of the peace process in Colombia. We do this mainly from our office in Bogotá, and always jointly with community organisations, so as to try to make heard the voices of people at the margins who are not reached by decision-makers.

    Over the past years anti-rights groups have been on the rise, in Latin America and beyond. Have you faced backlash from these groups in the course of your work?

    The context in which we work is strongly marked by the rise of anti-rights groups that say they are mobilising against what they call ‘gender ideology’. But this is not a new phenomenon: anti-rights groups have been busy building connections and expanding since the 1990s. They have a lot of money and there is one thing they do better than groups on the left: they are very effective in creating connections and coalitions among themselves; even when they work on different issues they are able to find common ground. For instance, all of them have coordinated to place the gender ideology theme on the table and raise it everywhere, as a result of which something that was not even a concept ended up as a global issue. They have managed to position this on the agenda, which is more difficult to do for groups located on the left, where there is more discussion around the issues and it is more difficult to coordinate and speak with one voice. That is why we still do not have a unique and conclusive response to the attacks we face in the name of gender ideology.

    Anti-rights groups are trying to take away our acquired rights. And they are doing it by using the same discourse that has been successfully used by human rights groups. They talk about human rights and they position themselves as victims. They even depict feminists as diabolical agents, giving feminism more power than you would think it has. Due to the fact that Women's Link is based in three regions, we can clearly see that the same strategies are being used in different places. These groups are using coordinated strategies, they have lots of money and they enjoy global support. As they use the language of human rights, they have increasing legal representation, and they have begun to occupy spaces in strategic forums, where decisions are made, including the United Nations and the Organization of American States.

    How can progressive civil society act to curb these advances?

    Faced with these attacks it is important to act quickly through the law. We must continue working to strengthen the human rights framework and shield rights against these attacks. We must design not just defensive strategies, but also proactive strategies to expand the human rights framework, or at least to take away some of the spaces in which anti-rights groups move.

    There are still unresolved discussions we need to work on, such as the tension between the freedom of expression and hate speech. Paradoxically, in order to spread their message anti-rights groups are leaning on one of the left’s favourite themes, the freedom of expression.

    However, if we want to create lasting social change we cannot remain in the realm of the law and the courts. What we need are cases that cause people to mobilise, generate public debate and produce real social change. In that sense I see positive developments, like the #MeToo movement and the so-called Green Tide in Argentina. That is, we are seeing two opposing processes: on the one hand, anti-rights groups are growing; on the other, strong mobilisation around these issues is happening from the ground up and with a strong youth component. Such was the case with the Green Tide, which created unprecedented mobilisation while a proposal to legalise abortion was being discussed in the Argentine Congress. No doubt the two processes are very likely connected, and one is a consequence of the other.

    These social movements are good reason for hope. In the face of attempts to cut back on acquired rights, there is a very active movement that says, look, this is an acquired right, you cannot take it away anymore. There is no going back: looking forward, you can only expand the rights framework, but you cannot diminish it.

    In addition to attacks from anti-rights groups, what other challenges do civil society promoting women’s rights face?

    For grassroots organisations, lack of resources can be a great limitation. And in contexts of great urgency, such as those of massive movements of people, we are presented with the challenge of how to coordinate our work with that of grassroots organisations.

    Women's Link is dedicated to identifying structural situations where women's rights are violated and to designing legal strategies to generate structural, transformative change. Meanwhile, grassroots organisations - for example, those in border areas between Colombia and Venezuela - are increasingly taking on, in conditions of urgency, functions that should be performed by the state. In these contexts, most of the response is coming from civil society organisations.

    These grassroots organisations are responding to a very serious situation, and the needs of the women they work with are very urgent, and yet all we can do at Women's Link is support them through strategic litigation, which usually takes a long time.

    Difficulties of working with scarce resources aside, it is vital to build relationships, connect and coordinate, because the potential contribution that Women's Link has to offer would be useless if it weren’t for the work that is being done by grassroots organisations and for the voices and support of women themselves.

     

    Get in touch with Women’s Link through itswebsite andFacebook page, or follow@womenslink on Twitter.

     

  • WOMEN’S RIGHTS: ‘Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life’

    Maria Angelica Penas DefagoAs part of our 2019thematic report, we are interviewing civil society activists, leaders and experts about their experiences of backlash from anti-rights groups and their strategies to strengthen progressive narratives and civil society responses. CIVICUS speaks to María Angélica Peñas Defago, gender specialist, professor and researcher of Argentina’s National Research Council (CONICET) based at the National University of Córdoba, and co-author of the recentGlobal Philanthropy Project report, ‘Religious Conservatism on the Global Stage: Threats and Challenges for LGBTI Rights'.

    Do you think anti-rights groups have increased their activity in recent times?

    We should start by defining what we mean by ‘recent times’, how far back we need to go, and what specific context we are talking about, because for instance in Latin America the situation varies from country to country. In the case of Argentina, we have seen over time – and not only over the past year, when a bill allowing for the voluntary termination of pregnancies was being discussed in Congress – reactions against the progress achieved in claiming rights by women and LGBTQI people. While it is true that, in recent years, anti-rights groups have become more visible and coordinated, largely in response to advances achieved in the area of sexual and reproductive rights, they have been present for decades, always coercing our agendas. In Argentina, they have been actively litigating against any attempt to enact public policy on sexual and reproductive health or even remotely linked to these rights for at least 20 years. In the province of Córdoba, where I live, these efforts have been very successful in the lower courts, although rulings favourable to these groups were eventually overturned in the higher courts.

    With regard to street actions, strong reactions by these groups were already recorded in the past, including demonstrations throughout the country, for instance against equal marriage, which was approved in Argentina in 2010. The same groups marched once again against the legalisation of abortion in 2018. There has also been a renewed backlash against sex education in schools, a longstanding battle. Sex education was implemented through a 2006 law that is still being resisted. During the abortion debate, anti-rights groups pretended to promote sex education as an alternative to abortion, but after the bill on the voluntary termination of pregnancy was voted down by the Senate, they restarted their attacks against sex education.

    A reorganisation of the conservative camp is currently underway, and I think it is as a result of this that these groups have recently gained more visibility. Although new actors have indeed emerged within civil society, the central phenomenon in the current socio-political context is the reassertion that is taking place in the political and the economic spheres. This can be seen, for example, in the alliances reached in Colombia around the 2016 referendum on the peace process, as well as in Brazil, embodied in the 2018 election of President Jair Bolsonaro.

    During the campaign leading to the referendum in Colombia, the forces that rejected the agreement claimed that if ‘yes’ won, so-called 'gender ideology' would be imposed. In Brazil, fake news claiming that the Workers’ Party promoted paedophilia and would try to ‘convert’ children into homosexuals or transsexuals mushroomed during the election campaign.

    In other ways, the phenomenon is also seen in Argentina, where all the main actors opposed to the progressive agenda, and specifically to the sexual and reproductive rights agenda, have tended to converge.

    Do you think that these are purely reactive groups, whose raison d'être is to curb the progress of the progressive agenda?

    As far as I can tell, that is indeed the case. I have monitored congresses of so-called ‘pro-life’ groups and analysed the actions they have undertaken in regional and global spaces, and particularly in the Organization of American States and the United Nations, and it is readily apparent that they are losing ground regarding family formats and the assignment of sexual roles, and they are aware of it. These groups are reacting to what they perceive as a setback. Their reaction is being coordinated not only around the thematic agenda of sexual and reproductive rights, but also around a wider nationalist, neoliberal – and, in some cases, fascist – political and economic agenda.

    The Bolsonaro phenomenon is a good example of a reaction to a pluralistic agenda around sexual morality and sexual and reproductive rights. The advances of this pluralist agenda acted as a binding agent for a broader conservative political agenda. Within the framework of the reaction against progress achieved in sexual and reproductive rights, other actors are taking advantage to impose their own conservative agendas, for example around migration issues. There are some new actors at play, especially those joining from other fields – political, economic, religious – but many of the actors that are gaining greater visibility are the same as always, the difference being that they are now unifying agendas that used to run in parallel and in less coordinated ways.

    What tactics have these groups used to advance their agenda?

    Litigation against sexual and reproductive rights has been an important tool for more than three decades. In Argentina, these groups have litigated, among other things, against the administration of emergency contraception and to stop the implementation of protocols for non-punishable abortions. In Argentina, abortion has been legal since 1921 for cases of rape, unviability of the foetus, or danger to the woman’s life or health; however, these groups have tried to prevent timely and secure access to this right.

    For the part of civil society that works in the area of women's rights, these groups have always been there. But litigation is sometimes a quite silent affair and has possibly remained unnoticed by the wider civil society. Often, it all remained within the realm of the administration of justice and health services. This however did not prevent this strategy from having very strong effects, because judicial decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health tend to produce fears, doubts and paralysis among health providers, which are key agents for guaranteeing actual access to these rights.

    The presence of anti-rights groups is not news for feminist and LGBTQI groups, but it may very well be so for other sectors of civil society, including human rights organisations, which in recent times have seen them acting more intensely through the occupation of street space and the creation of partisan political alliances, the two key arenas for political struggle in contemporary democracies. These groups are trying to appropriate public space, showcasing themselves as the majority, and in this way they are gaining public visibility. In this area, one of their most successful strategies has involved the use of coordinated messages and symbols. The ‘Don’t mess with my children’ campaign, for example, has used the same phrases and slogans, and even the same symbols and colours, not only throughout Latin America, but also well beyond. We have seen it in Eastern Europe, in Italy, in Spain. These groups are intensively using social media so that their strategies and symbols travel, are shared and ultimately reach us repeatedly from various latitudes.

    If anti-rights positions have gained more visibility, it is because the actors that promote them, mostly faith-based, have gained a prominence in the public space that they did not have 20 years ago. Evangelical churches, like the Catholic Church, are plural and heterogeneous. But in much of Latin America, the political processes of resistance to sexual and reproductive rights have been led by very conservative evangelical churches, sometimes in alliance with the higher ranks of the Catholic Church, and in other cases dissenting or even opposing them.

    Unlike litigation, the strategy of occupying public space requires support in large numbers. Do you think these groups are gaining in popularity?

    The socio-political phenomenon fuelled by these groups is significant. It is not simply about campaigns and slogans; they are deeply embedded at the grassroots level. To understand what is happening in the religious arena and in terms of resistance against progress in sexual and reproductive rights, it is necessary to take into account the socio-economic context and the way that these churches are operating at the grassroots, in strong connection with the populations that they mobilise.

    In Argentina, a very politically mobilised society, street mobilisation has been widely used by these groups, so it is nothing new. What is new is the massive character of their mobilisations. These groups were already mobilising 30 years ago, or maybe even earlier, but there was no social media back then. The modes of communication and mobilisation have changed at the same time as the religious field has in the face of advances in sexual and reproductive rights. Evangelical churches have grown throughout the region, and within them, conservative sectors have grown the most.

    I think that to understand the phenomenon it is also key to understand the neoliberal context and its general effects that undermine living conditions. In the socio-political context of neoliberalism, as the state has withdrawn from its basic functions, many religious groups have gone on to perform tasks and provide services that should be provided by the state. In some places, such as in the USA, the Catholic Church has been long in charge of providing services to some groups, such as migrants, that are not tended to by the state. In Latin America, the role of evangelical churches, for instance in the area of aid and treatment for addictions, is really impressive. Evangelical sectors are growing exponentially because they are assisting communities that are being forgotten by the state. Evangelical pastors play central roles in communities, are active in providing social assistance, dealing with addictions and providing health and education services, and are also key in mobilising people – partly because many of them are also members of these communities. They live in the same neighbourhoods and maintain close ties with the members of their congregations.

    In sum, we are not facing a mere battle of narratives. The discourses that we need to stand up to are rooted in the practices of grassroots communities, and often mobilisations are summoned from the pulpit. Calls from the pulpit are important because to many excluded people the church has become indispensable. In countries that have very high poverty rates, for many people the church is the only place of belonging and protection that remains when both the state and the market have excluded them, and therefore do not have access to work, education, or health services. Beyond the fact that religion remains a central element of many people’s identities, these feelings of belonging and community are not minor issues in contexts of extreme precariousness and individualisation brought about by the economic, political, social and cultural neoliberal model.

    What does progressive civil society have to offer in the face of this?

    Progressive civil society has a lot to offer, because it focuses on the struggle for and the creation of liveable, rich, plural ways of life, based on solidarity and mutual support. I don't think there is a single recipe, because this work involves very different movements. There are feminist and LGBTQI movements that work from the standpoint of religious pluralism, disputing the idea of the monopoly of faith, and these are very rich spaces of struggle and belonging. Religions, all of them, comprise plural, democratic and horizontal spaces, which many organisations take advantage of in their struggle for meaning. Other organisations have expertise in crafting messages, and that is where they make their contribution. But this battle is not taking place only, or even mainly, on social media, since not everyone has even access to the internet. The dispute over meaning is fundamental both on social media and offline, as can be seen around the ‘pro-life’ label that many anti-rights groups have appropriated. Women’s and LGBTQI groups working at the grassroots level continually reference this label, by asking the question: how much is my life worth if I do not have access to a job, to the recognition of my identity, to the protection of my health – if the kind of life that is being offered to me is not a decent one? Progressive civil society must claim for itself the defence of life, understood as a dignified, fully human life.

    To offer this response, progressive civil society needs to ally with others who share its values of pluralism, freedom and equality. The pluralist, inclusive, non-essentialist and decolonial feminist agenda is a good basis on which to form alliances with multiple actors that were not attracted by feminism in the past, in order to take part in the struggle for meaning not only in the rhetorical field, but also in concrete reality. Popular feminism represents a return to the realm of the real, as it focuses on the implications of principles on people’s daily lives. If we talk about abortion, for instance, we must focus on the consequences of the legality or illegality of this practice for the daily reality of pregnant women, families and communities. Religion and faith are an important part of people's lives, and the feminist movement, or at least a good part of it, is now working within this reality.

    Get in touch with María Angélica through herFacebook page and check her work onResearchGate.

     

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