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In Latin America, The Pandemic Has Been Bad For Civil Rights

Civil society's scope and powers are taking a hit in places like Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil.

Military police in Rio de Janeiro
Military police in Rio de Janeiro
Andrés Serbin


BUENOS AIRES — Across Latin America, the current health crisis has been accompanied by efforts to limit people's basic rights and reduce civic spaces, meaning the places where citizens and civil society can organize themselves, debate and act — outside the state, corporation or the family — in defense of public goods and civil rights.

So concluded participants in a recent workshop, organized by the CRIES think tank association, on regional responses to the crisis. Evidence for this claim comes from a report by Civicus, a global alliance of NGOs, noting that civic spaces have been restricted in 22 of Latin America's 32 states, and strangled or blocked in eight.

The situation is of particular concern in Mexico, Brazil and Venezuela, according to study. The trend, nevertheless, can be seen in other countries as well. In fact, in many cases the pandemic and quarantine norms imposed to curb contagion have helped deepen tendencies that began before the pandemic, and given governments — both of the Left and the Right — opportunities and pretexts to increase oversight, authoritarian practices and often unconstitutional controls over citizens.

The measures taken in response to the pandemic have restricted civic spaces at local, national, regional and even international levels. The situation is alarming to the international community in general, and to the international rights community in particular.

States using a range of legal, pseudo-legal and illegal means have been severely repressive of things such as the right to influence public policies and to develop interactive dialogue with decision-takers at the government and intergovernmental levels. There's also been a crackdown on the freedoms of association and expressions, and in some cases citizens are subjected to violence.

There's an Orwellian twist.

In addition to legal, illegal and extra-legal mechanisms used to disempower civil society and curb its abilities to express itself and impact events, new technologies have, in an Orwellian twist, aided in this shrinking of the civic sphere by allowing greater controls, distortion, censorship and intervention online.

Indeed, new control and monitoring mechanisms have come to constitute some of the most important exports to this region by the main actors of the international system.

A recent report by the Igarapé Institute in Brazil establishes a specific typology of strategies used by governments to reduce the civic sphere: confiscation, direct or indirect coercion, fake news and disinformation, open censorship, intimidation and harassment, violation of privacy (watching individuals), violation of civil and political rights, restrictions (legal and illegal) on civil participation and involvement, restriction of financial freedoms, physical violence, use of unconstitutional procedures and abuse of power.

These strategies are implemented in the framework of a complex worldwide transition already threatening certain basic values of the established international system. This is not just in economics, but also — and specifically — with regards to values around the rule of law and democratic governance, civil liberties and human rights. Any sinister similarity to actual events, both immediate or remote, is definitely not a coincidence.

*Serbin, an international affairs analyst, is president of CRIES.

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Brazil's Evangelical Surge Threatens Survival Of Native Afro-Brazilian Faith

Followers of the Afro-Brazilian Umbanda religion in four traditional communities in the country’s northeast are resisting pressure to convert to evangelical Christianity.

image of Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Abel José, an Umbanda priest

Agencia Publica
Géssica Amorim

Among a host of images of saints and Afro-Brazilian divinities known as orixás, Abel José, 42, an Umbanda priest, lights some candles, picks up his protective beads and adjusts the straw hat that sits atop his head. He is preparing to treat four people from neighboring villages who have come to his house in search of spiritual help and treatment for health ailments.

The meeting takes place discreetly, in a small room that has been built in the back of the garage of his house. Abel lives in the quilombo of Sítio Bredos, home to 135 families. The community, located in the municipality of Betânia of Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, is one of the municipality’s four remaining communities that have been certified as quilombos, the word used to refer to communities formed in the colonial era by enslaved Africans and/or their descendents.

In these villages there are almost no residents who still follow traditional Afro-Brazilian religions. Abel, Seu Joaquim Firmo and Dona Maura Maria da Silva are the sole remaining followers of Umbanda in the communities in which they live. A wave of evangelical missionary activity has taken hold of Betânia’s quilombos ever since the first evangelical church belonging to the Assembleia de Deus group was built in the quilombo of Bredos around 20 years ago. Since then, other evangelical, pentecostal, and neo-pentecostal churches and congregations have established themselves in the area. Today there are now nine temples spread among the four communities, home to roughly 900 families.

The temples belong to the Assembleia de Deus, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, and the World Church of God's Power, the latter of which has over 6,000 temples spread across Brazil and was founded by the apostle and televangelist Valdemiro Santiago, who became infamous during the pandemic for trying to sell beans that he had blessed as a Covid-19 cure. Assembleia de Deus alone, who are the largest pentecostal denomination in the world, have built five churches in Betânia’s quilombos.

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