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