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Why Amnesty International Got It All Wrong On Latin America

"Free them now!!"
"Free them now!!"


SANTIAGO - If we based our knowledge of Latin America on Amnesty International’s latest global human rights report, we would believe that there is no real justice in the region, violence is on the rise, police regular torture citizens, that there are multiple attempts to exterminate indigenous groups, and organized crime is gaining ground.

There is no reason to doubt the veracity of the document. Amnesty International’s reports may have lost some political clout in recent years, but the transparency in their methodology and accuracy of their indicators are impeccable.

Nevertheless, the report leaves readers with an image of Latin America that does not reflect reality. The picture that emerges shows a Latin America where the human rights situation is getting worse and worse.

There is no doubt that there are severe problems with human rights in the region. As the document notes, prison conditions in Brazil are inhumane, Honduras, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are violating the rights of indigenous communities, either because they live near new mining projects or because they are protesting over their living conditions. There is police abuse in Brazil, as well as in Chile and Panama, generalized violence in Venezuela and focalized violence in Mexico.

But, is it fair to say that the general situation has gotten worse and is still getting worse? All Latin Americans older than 40 remember the times in the past when things were much worse, with the South American military regimes in the 1970s and the tens of thousands of “disappeared.” Or the Central American civil wars in the 1980s, with their huge death toll.

Even though severe violence, poverty, inequality and marginalization does persist in most of the region, it is also true that today, all its governments are elected democratically and there is freedom of press – with the exception of Cuba.

“Second generation” problems

This, of course, is not enough. Once basic governability problems have been resolved, such as popular vote, transparency, freedom of expression and the division of the powers of state, other problems rise to the surface, that were always present, but weren’t perceived as strongly compared to the other ones. These “second generation” issues such as violence, inequality and marginalization are the ones Amnesty International is concerned about today, and Latin Americans as well.

The problem is that these problems are much more difficult to resolve than the return to democracy. How can we bring about an educational reform that can improve the quality of education, offer education for all students in the country, reduce inequality, and give equal opportunities for all young people of all socio-economic levels? What is the right way for a country to deal with its indigenous communities and treat them as equals? How do we solve the problem of drugs and illicit traffics, and the violence it causes?

All of these problems are very difficult to solve. They all require intricate planning and decisive action from governments, and continuity of public policies across all levels of government. They require enormous resources in countries where there aren’t enough.

But the economies of Latin America have been steadily growing in the last decade and resources are increasing. When a government’s decision to undertake a reform is scarce, indigenous demonstrations or student strikes are there to remind them where their priorities should be.

The problems Amnesty International denounces are very real. But the mere fact that they have come to the fore is proof that things have improved in the region and continue to improve.

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