ReportageThose who fight

Those who fight

By: Juan Abelardo Carles, Carlos Augusto Rodríguez

The issue of human rights in Latin America comes with a lot of chiaroscuro and two steps forward, one step back. As soon as progress is made for the protection of sexual minorities in one or two countries, other places experience a regression of rights for indigenous groups, women, or people displaced by violence.

According to Marlene Alejos, regional representative for Central America of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, there are challenges in the region, but there are also opportunities. “There are specific cases where we have seen setbacks to freedom of expression or association, for example, countries where going to a march can mean gambling with your life. But I want to think that these situations will be overcome and that is why the demands of the people and human rights defenders are very important, because the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and international regulations frame these liberties very well.”

These exceptional individuals face pressures and threats because of their efforts to demand rights that have been historically denied. They lead civic initiatives that serve as watchtower and beacon to detect and combat reactions against the expansion of the rule of law. “We can all defend our own rights, but these activists have decided to publicly defend their rights and those of others. We have enormous respect for them because what they do takes a lot of courage. Without them, the United Nations could not do its work. They take human rights violations to the United Nations Human Rights Council and demand that governments respect and act to protect the rights of the people,” Alejos explains.

When most of us would have hung up our gloves, they continue to fight.

Marilyn Rice-Bowen (Barbados)

A defender of women’s rights for 25 years, Rice-Bowen chaired the National Organization of Women (YWCA) of Barbados and headed the gender committees of the Caribbean Women’s Association. “What triggered my activism was the fact that women were losing their lives because of violent acts and society, in general, remained silent. I recognized that I had to lend my voice to this cause and be the voice of the voiceless,” she said.

The activist believes that her greatest achievement has been transforming the lives of women facing violence, as well as getting governments to establish the legal framework to combat this violence. “Throughout the Caribbean, I have witnessed governments recognizing the need to revise and update laws about domestic and gender violence to incorporate, for example, electronic harassment via cell phones. It also gives me great satisfaction to see how women’s attitudes are changing; they have gone from feeling like victims to feeling like survivors. And all of this in a very short period of time.”

Venus Tejada (Panamá)

Venus Tejada has been leading the fight for recognition of the transsexual community in Panama for almost twenty years. “One afternoon, my mother called and told me to turn on the news because police officers were attacking several trans women. She told me that I had to do something for them,” the activist recalls, when asked why she decided to undertake this struggle. Now she directs the Panamanian Association for Trans People (Asociación Panameña de Personas Trans) and she is part of the Latin American and Caribbean Network of Transgender People.

The situation for the trans collective in the region is not encouraging. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, 80% of trans women in Latin America die before their 35th birthday, a statistic due largely to social exclusion, discrimination, and violence, conditions to which Venus is not immune. “Having been raised in a family that is 100% Catholic and seeing how some religious groups discriminate against us and carry out campaigns of hate and violence against the LGBTI population was extremely challenging for me. To confront it I had to understand that these groups do not represent all churches or all people; however, those who do discriminate are the ones who make the most noise.”

Juan Pablo Olmedo (Chile)

The 2017 UNESCO Report on Access to Information highlighted the progress Latin America has made in legislation on information freedom; all but four countries now guarantee access to official information. Chilean Juan Pablo Olmedo is one of the activists who has worked the hardest for this progress. His activism began after the restoration of democracy in his country and it had to do with the screening of the movie The Last Temptation of Christ. “The movie was well received and considered by critics as a work of cinematographic art; however, it was banned due to pressure from a group of hardline religious lawyers,” he recalls. This censorship was denounced before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

The effort was productive and the demand for access to information, transparency, and accountability has spread in public opinion and civic movements in Chile and other countries in the region. “The change has been remarkable. When I see the news and listen to public debate today, I realize that it surpasses what we had twenty years ago, especially in terms of the tone and the level of responsibility of the actors in the debate. It seems to me that there are more voices for freedom of expression and freedom for technology and social networks.”

Lucila Bettina Cruz Velásquez (México)

The Binni’zaa (Zapotec) communities of the Mexican state of Oaxaca are fighting against a wind energy project, arguing that it violated indigenous peoples’ right to be informed and consulted before the project was carried out. Bettina has been involved in these kinds of struggles for almost forty years. In fact, she is part of the civil resistance movement protesting the high price of electricity and she also supports the fight against wind megaprojects, which has led to several threats against her.

“The indigenous people have been historically marginalized and excluded in México. From colonial times to the present, we have been systematically stripped of our right to the land and our cultural and natural assets. Our resources have been used for the benefit of the political and economic class, without any benefit for our people,” explains the activist. Although there is much work ahead, she recognizes progress, especially in communities organizing to defend their ancestral territories and their right to live a dignified life from the perspective of their own worldviews.

Luis López (El Salvador)

Luis López’s struggle for migrant rights began in February 2001, when his older brother disappeared on the dangerous migratory route to the United States. “My family and I started looking for help from authorities and organizations. We went from office to office and they never gave us answers. The subject of missing migrants was not talked about in the U.S. During this search, I began meeting relatives of other disappeared migrants. We began organizing and, with the support of an organization called CARECEN, we formed the Committee for the Relatives of Dead and Disappeared Migrants (COFAMIDE).”

Since then, López has faced several obstacles, including the fact that society shows little interest in disappeared migrants and the lack of assistance programs for their relatives. Nevertheless, his work has led to greater governmental and social awareness about the migrant drama. In 2010, El Salvador created the Forensic Data Bank, which made it possible to standardize the identification of dead bodies. México formed a Forensic Commission after the massacres in Tamaulipas (2010, 2011, and 2012). México also included foreign disappeared migrants under the umbrella of its General Victim’s Law.