Two cheers for Latin democracy

The Heart of the War in Colombia - Pinochet - Cuba's Repressive Machinery

February 18, 2000

From a distance, human rights in Latin America no longer look like the disaster they did 20 years ago. Democratic elections are certainly now much more the norm than then, and a collection of unsavoury dictators has vanished into retirement, exile or oblivion. From "Baby Doc" Duvalier in Haiti to Generalissimo Alfredo Stroessner in Paraguay, the old battalions of torturers and despots have given way almost without exception to elected civilian presidents and parliaments. The armed forces, meanwhile, have retreated to the barracks, and coups, for the time being, are a thing of the past. Even the seemingly intractable civil conflicts of Central America have fizzled out into uneasy truces. Two decades ago, military dictatorships held sway in the majority of Latin American states. Today, Fidel Castro of Cuba holds the doubtful distinction of being the only unelected leader in the Americas.

With the gradual disappearance of the old-style military junta has come a drastic reduction in repression. Where once there were thousands of political prisoners in countries like Argentina and Chile, today there are few, if any. Torture, extra-judicial executions and "disappearances" are far less common in most of Latin America than in the early 1980s. The activities of paramilitary death squads and "social cleansing" gangs have been curtailed.

The recent arrest of General Augusto Pinochet even gave rise to hopes that the impunity enjoyed by many former dictators and human rights abusers may be removed by fresh developments in international law. The concept of extra-territorial prosecutions for human- rights offences has suddenly thrown new light on atrocities committed in the 1970s and 1980s and since then shrouded by amnesties granted to the perpetrators.

Yet, a closer look at the subcontinent reveals persistent and deep-seated human- rights problems, many of which go beyond the conventional definition of civil and political rights. Indigenous people in Peru or Guatemala, for instance, although comprising the majority of the population, face systematic second-class status in terms of employment, access to services and legal rights. The poor, the majority in every Latin American country, are generally denied the most fundamental rights to education, health care and housing. The recent disaster in Venezuela, a country that receives billions of dollars each year in petroleum sales, exposed how precarious the lives of the majority are. Free trade and globalisation have yet to bring tangible benefits to the inhabitants of shanty towns from Caracas to Buenos Aires.

The extent of such deprivation, together with the gradual advance of democratisation, has ushered in new thinking about what human rights really means in Latin America. As the horrors of military torture centres and disappearances have faded, what has come into sharper relief is the social and economic inequality underlying the region's history of political violence. In short, you may no longer be shot for being a trade unionist, but you are still vulnerable to unemployment, poverty and neglect.

A more inclusive notion of human rights is nothing new. Proponents of such a concept point out that the original United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) explicitly goes beyond political and civil issues to cover basic rights to work, shelter and education in what it describes as "social progress and better standards of life in larger freedoms". It was the ensuing cold war period, it is argued, when the western democracies put the emphasis on political freedoms above social rights as a means of attacking one-party states, that narrowed the commonly accepted understanding of human rights. In concentrating on political repression in the USSR and its satellites, the West opted for an exclusively political definition of human rights. That definition, it follows, is in need of reassessment in a post-cold war age.

The cold war, of course, is not entirely over in Cuba, where 40 years after Castro's revolution antagonism between the island and the United States shows little sign of mellowing. According to Human Rights Watch, Castro's regime systematically represses its opponents, its laws actually formalising the denial of civil and political rights. Cuba's Repressive Machinery details how dissidents and critics are treated as threats to national security, routinely harassed, imprisoned or exiled. The most fundamental rights of free speech and association are denied, while Cuba's judicial system automatically penalises anybody accused of offences such as "enemy propaganda" or "contempt for authority". Such is the regime's grip on power, the report concludes, that only concerted action by foreign governments and trading partners is likely to bring about effective reform.

But therein lies precisely the problem, as neither the European Union, Canada nor the rest of Latin America has any great sympathy with the US embargo on Cuba, which has lasted almost as long as Castro himself. This punitive blockade may have kept Havana as a 1950s film set and successful tourist attraction, but it has done immeasurable damage to the island's economy and people and, moreover, done a great deal to keep Castro in power as a nationalist, anti-US figurehead. Significantly, the Human Rights Watch report makes no mention of the considerable social rights enjoyed by ordinary Cubans, whose standards of education and health provision (embargo notwithstanding) bear comparison with those of developed nations. The fear of losing these benefits, even if free speech is won as compensation, is another powerful factor behind Castro's longevity, for what many Cubans, especially the older generation, fear most is the return of the Miami-based exiles and a rapid dismantling of the welfare state. The tale the report tells is hence an important one, but it is not the whole story.

If history seems to weigh heavily on Cuba, it stifles Colombia, the scene of Latin America's longest-lived civil war. Stretching back to a conflict in the 1950s known simply as La Violencia, the country's perennial strife has involved generations of Colombians whose lives have been dominated by guerrilla warfare and military counter-insurgency tactics. What started as a sudden and traumatic bloodletting between the warring conservative and liberal parties became a multi-faceted state of permanent "low-intensity" warfare, involving left-wing guerrilla groups, right-wing paramilitaries, the armed forces, militias funded by drug money and other criminal gangs. As the original partisan conflict abated, the armed groups did not disband, but rather fought on against new adversaries, pursuing vendettas, taking up brigandage, or offering their services to big landowners or drug barons.

Caught in the crossfire were peasant communities and small farmers, who still make up the majority of the several thousand fatalities recorded each year. Curiously, this human rights catastrophe takes place against a background of regular elections, orderly transfers of power and an exemplary liberal constitution.

The foreword to Constanza Ardila Galvis's powerful The Heart of the War in Colombia talks of how this culture of conflict is "overdiagnosed", dissected by political scientists and violentologos (violence experts), but stubbornly resistant to objective analysis. It is in the life stories of various Colombians which the book sets out, however, that some sense can be made of the spiral of violence and its impact on individuals and communities. For many, violence is a state of normality, experienced first in childhood and then lived daily in the form of kidnappings, murders and raids. Land seems to lie at the centre of the social conflict, as the old conservative-liberal struggle for agricultural dominance has evolved into a general breakdown in law and order where drug money fuels a sort of counter-agrarian reform and armed gangs force peasants away from their farms. Some one and a half million Colombians, mostly the rural poor, have been displaced in the course of this long-running and complex conflict, and it is a few of their voices, articulate and reflective, that emerge from this compelling collection of testimonies.

In comparison with Colombia, modern-day Chile appears to be a paragon of social stability, its return to democracy bolstered by a healthy economy. But, as the Pinochet affair has revealed, the legacy of the 1970s and 80s is still very much in evidence, with the country divided between equally vociferous supporters and opponents of the ex-dictator. There is no doubting which side Hugh O'Shaughnessy takes in his fast-moving and revealing account of Augusto Pinochet's career and subsequent downfall, as he chronicles the atrocities committed by the military regime. Yet aside from the well-documented toll of murders and disappearances that Pinochet authorised, there is new, damning evidence in Pinochet: The Politics of Torture linking the Chilean military with drug running and illicit arms trading.

If one personality trait stands out in this portrayal of Pinochet, it is his capacity for betrayal. A highly conventional and conformist career soldier, he gained the trust of Salvador Allende and indeed seemed committed to protecting constitutional government in Chile until the moment when it seemed certain that a US-supported coup would succeed with or without him. Seventeen years and thousands of deaths after the coup of September 1973, the general finally decided to step down, cushioned by immunity from prosecution and an inexplicably large bank balance. A fateful trip to London spoiled the gilded retirement and, more important, reminded the world that there is much unfinished human-rights business in Latin America.

James Ferguson is a writer and publisher and has specialised in Latin America and the Caribbean for 15 years.

The Heart of the War in Colombia

Author - Constanza Ardila Galvis
ISBN - 1 899365 42 7
Publisher - Latin America Bureau
Price - £11.99
Pages - 223

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.