In Latin America, Power Grabs Come From Both Left And Right

Their economic philosophies may differ, but Ecuador's President Rafael Correa and Colombia's arch-conservative former president Alvaro Uribe, share a taste for the perpetuation of power.

Ecuador's President Rafael Correa in Quito on Feb. 23
Ecuador's President Rafael Correa in Quito on Feb. 23
César Rodríguez Garavito

BOGOTA — The more I read about Rafael Correa's presidency in Ecuador, the more he reminds me of our own former president, Álvaro Uribe. Just like Uribe, Correa is concentrating authority and harassing his critics. And as with Colombia in 2010, Ecuador anxiously awaits the fate of a major reform of the constitution to allow the strongman to hold on to power.

Once considered Uribe's regional nemesis, Correa is starting to look like his leftist emulator.

There are however some important differences. In contrast with Uribe, the government of the "citizens' revolution" pursues a progressive economic program in Ecuador, diminishing poverty and inequality while improving healthcare and education.

For better or worse, it is also considerably more efficient than the Uribe government — both at building roads, but also at destroying democratic institutions that might otherwise prevent the leader from gaining too much power.

What Correa is promoting this time around is not his reelection to one more term, but a constitutional amendment to allow him to remain in power indefinitely. He may have learned a lesson from Uribe's failure, twice, to legalize his reelection beyond constitutional stipulations, which is why he has taken control of Ecuador's Constitutional Tribunal. That court will certainly approve within days his proposal to process the Constitutional reforms through parliament (which he controls) and not by way of a referendum as the Constitution demands.

Again, Correa has done harm even Uribe failed to do — and not for want of trying — by disciplining the judiciary and aligning it firmly with his political project. Uribe faced a much more solid and independent judicial system in Colombia, whereas Correa managed to exploit the Ecuadorian courts' loss of prestige to push through reforms that have created a politicized Judiciary Council to govern that branch.

Correa and Uribe — Photo: EFE/ZUMA

As a recent report by Luis Pásara on judicial independence has shown, that Council has moved to dismiss judges that rule against the government's interests, with the dubious argument that they made "inexcusable errors" of interpretation. Under this pressure, the justice system has ceased to be a counterweight to the government, and become its instrument instead.

Among numerous cases of abuse, it convicted three indigenous activists of "organized terrorism" and sentenced them to 12 years' imprisonment for marching against a recent water law; it also convicted a group of high school students on charges of "rebellion," as they protested against their school's name being changed.

Correa is successfully replacing the rule of law with the "rule of opinion" — something Uribe's supporters would have loved to do. We are heading toward a regime where the president uses his electoral majorities, boosted with a good dose of media populism, to erode obstructive "weights" and counterweights.

In the tradition of the presidential addresses and public meetings seen elsewhere in Latin America, in Ecuador there are communal "Saturday meetings." The idea is the same: a weekly show wherein the leader is connected to the masses by television. But in Ecuador, the leader makes it clear that "they" are all against the interests of the fatherland — be they judges, journalists, academics, social movements or NGOs!

It's not surprising that the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which promotes civic education, left the country weeks ago; and that Hoy, one of the newspapers, shut down. Like Uribe, Correa responds to critics by criticizing them back — as he did on television and Twitter after protests about his influence over the judiciary.

But with the same firmness they adopted in standing up to Uribe's authoritarianism, democratic sectors should also distance themselves from its Leftist version, personified by Correa. As we have learned in Colombia, what is at stake is nothing less than the rule of law.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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