Friday, November 06, 2009

Around Latin America - Human Rights

A few items of note this week:

-In Guyana, police are facing (rightfully) severe criticism and outrage over a brutal case of torture. While interrogating a 14-year-old boy about a murder, they apparently set his genitals on fire in an effort to torture answers out of him. Outrage among Guyanans of all sectors was immediate, in part exacerbated by pictures of the boy (caution: the previous link is very graphic and disturbing) on the front page of one of the daily newspapers. The chief of police is saying that the entire police force is being castigated for the actions of a few bad apples; however, citizens in Guyana are saying torture has long been a problem in the police force for a long time, and their skepticism; every government and regime that has used torture tends to deny the widespread practices and blames a few "rogue elements" (see: Rumsfeld, Donald).

-I'm late in getting to this, but in Argentina this week, General Reynaldo Benito Bignone, the final president of Argentina's dictatorship during the "Dirty War" (1976-1983), went on trial for his role in human rights abuses. Bignone was president of Argentina from the Argentine defeat in the Malvinas/Falklands War in June 1982 until the inauguration of Raul Alfonsin in December 1983. The specific charges against Bignone include the torture of 56 people, as well as the use of illegal searches. Bignone is one of the last "presidents" of the "Dirty War" to face charges, and is currently under house arrest. While I don't know what the outcome will be, or if he will see any prison-time, the fact that Argentina is going after him is just another good step in addressing the terrors of one of its darkest periods in history, when the military government killed upwards of 30,000 of its own citizens in just 7 years.

-I recently mentioned that Brazil's government appears on the verge of launching its own truth commission, 24 years after its military dictatorship (1964-1985) finally ended. While this would be the first governmentally-sponsored Truth commission, we already know much about the mechanisms and practices of torture in Brazil, as I mentioned, and a large part of that knowledge comes from the "Never Again" project that the Catholic Church and Protestant leaders cooperated on. In short, they managed to find a loophole in law under Brazil's dictatorship, in which lawyers could, for a 24-hour period, take out secret military files detailing arrests, tortures, and "trials" before tribunals. The original intention of the law was to allow some facade of "defense" in these trials. However, Archbishop Cardinal Arns and Reverend Jamie Wright realized what the loophole offered, and so they had a team of lawyers taking out these files for 24 hours, and (without the government's awareness) the Church would photocopy all of the files, returning them on time. As the dictatorship came to a close, the Church compiled the files into a 6-volume set, and published a condensed one-volume report in 1985 titled Brasil: Nunca Mais ("Brazil: Never Again"). Well, for those interested, you can download the entire report from University of Texas Press. You have to pay, but if you go to this link, you can also read the introduction to the project for free. And for those interested in the narrative of how the Church was able to photocopy the files and create a huge archive documenting the Brazilian dictatorship's regime of torture and abuses, check out this book.

-Speaking of the military, in Paraguay this week, Fernando Lugo fired his military chiefs just one day after denying that he was worried about the possibility of a coup. As has often been the case in Latin American history (Brazil 1964; Chile 1973; Guatemala 1954), Lugo's rhetoric and efforts to help the poor were at the base of the rumors:

Since winning the presidency last year and ending 61 years of domination by the conservative Colorado Party, Lugo has been trying to push reforms that would benefit Paraguay's numerous poor.

He has criticized an elite class that "sits comfortably in air-conditioned offices," while the poor "survive on just one meal a day if they are lucky ... without safe drinking water, surrounded by misery."

Lugo's rivals have been searching for ways to force him about of office before his term ends in August 2013.

Last week, a majority of lawmakers threatened to mount an impeachment trial over comments he allegedly made in a poor neighborhood that some interpreted as a call for class warfare. Lugo denied saying that.

Lugo also assured everybody that there was no broad threat from the military, even while saying that "There could be small military groups that are connected to or could be used by the political class, but institutionally, the military does not show any intent of reversing the process of democratic consolidation." While I suspect he's right about the overall military establishment in Paraguay, the fact that he fired some of those chiefs makes it clear he didn't find the rumors to be completely unsubstantiated, either.

-Finally, the Obama administration announced this week that it was in favor of offering political asylum to a Guatemalan woman fleeing her abusive husband:

With White House backing, Rody Alvarado Peña likely will be allowed to stay in the United States after fighting immigration court since 1995, The New York Times reported.

Alvarado currently lives in California where she is a housekeeper at a home for elderly nuns. She told the newspaper she was pleased but wondered why it took so long.

Immigration lawyers said the administration had taken a major step toward defining the legal grounds in a murky area of asylum law under which battered and sexually abused women in foreign countries could seek U.S. protection.

This is just great news. While some may (and certainly will) complain about the use of "political" asylum for victims of domestic abuse, or mount some weak, racist anti-immigration stance over this, it's a great humanitarian step on the part of the Obama administration. Many countries in Latin America still don't offer a good way out for women in abusive marriages. By offering political asylum for these victims, Obama has taken a good, significant step in doing what he can to help women who face domestic violence in other countries, and that's a good thing.