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The failed coup in politically polarized Venezuela was the most dramatic sign of problems that were increasingly apparent across Latin America and the Caribbean: the fragility of electoral democracy and the weakness of the rule of law. Even though, with the glaring exception of Cuba, the formal trappings of democracy were in place throughout the region, voters seemed to be losing confidence in the ability of elected governments to cope effectively with the challenges of the day. With poverty and inequality on the rise, widespread popular disenchantment with the region's shallow democracies raised serious concern.
Argentina was another extreme case, with three presidents shuffling through the office during a single ten-day period in December 2001, a crisis provoked by the country's near-total economic collapse. Haiti, whose government's democratic credentials were already subject to question, saw increasing political turmoil. Street protests and rioting erupted in both countries, as well as in Venezuela, Paraguay, and Bolivia. The violence and brutality of the police response to such incidents brought deserved attention to the deeply ingrained failings of the region's criminal justice systems.
Unable to bring prosperity to the electorate, some political leaders seemed all too capable of securing financial benefits for themselves. In certain cases, as a commentator observed with regard to Argentina, government officials treated public money as "the spoils of war." For all the talk of anti-corruption efforts, little concrete progress was made in stemming the practice. and it was official corruption that--perhaps more than any other single factor--eroded public trust in government. The region's vigorous press helped to monitor corrupt practices, but its ability to do so was limited in some countries by oppressive criminal defamation laws. In Panama, most notably, government officials retaliated against investigative journalists by bringing many of them to court.
The lack of government transparency that facilitated corruption received increased attention, however, and some countries made progress toward remedying it. In Mexico and Peru, laws on freedom of information were passed that affirmed that information in the hands of the state was, in principle, public. Such laws also established procedures for citizens to seek the release of government documents and fixed penalties for improper denials of access.
In Colombia, the region's only armed conflict and most pressing human rights crisis worsened. Indicating an apparent preference for a more hard-line approach, voters elected President Álvaro Uribe Vélez in May by an unprecedented majority. Uribe immediately imposed emergency measures that weakened the ability of state institutions to monitor and investigate human rights violations. He also tried to permit warrantless searches and wiretaps and to restrict the movement of journalists, measures ruled unconstitutional by the country's highest court. and in a particularly worrying move, Uribe authorized the army to recruit and arm a force of fifteen thousand peasant allies, raising fears that the army's existing paramilitary allies might simply be "legalized." Although President Uribe and his defense minister announced a zero-tolerance policy toward any collaboration between government forces and illegal paramilitary groups, numerous credible reports of joint military-paramilitary operations and tolerance for paramilitary activities persisted.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP), the country's largest guerrilla group, intensified attacks after the breakdown of peace negotiations in February. In the deadliest incident, in May, guerrillas launched a gas cylinder bomb that hit a church where displaced persons were gathered in Bojayá, Chocó, killing 119, including at least forty-eight children. The FARC also escalated its offensive against the state's civilian infrastructure, killing mayors and other local officials.
Venezuela, though not in a state of armed conflict, was repeatedly on the brink of violence. The continuing political strife, which resulted in an April coup attempt, abated somewhat in the wake of Hugo Chávez's reinstatement as president, but worsened notably toward the end of the year.
President Chávez, a one-time coup plotter himself, was forced from office on April 11 by the military after shootings disrupted a massive protest march. The march, which was called in support of a general strike, involved the participation of labor groups, business organizations, the political opposition, and members of civil society. As some five hundred thousand people headed toward the presidential palace in downtown Caracas, where Chávez's supporters had gathered to oppose the march, marksmen in nearby buildings opened fire. Eighteen civilians died and more than 150 others were injured during the protest. Victims included both government supporters and members of the opposition, as well as a press photographer covering the event.
Late that evening, a group of senior military officers ousted President Chávez and allowed Pedro Carmona Estanga, the head of the country's leading business association, to declare himself president. This rupture of the constitutional order gave way to a broader attack on the rule of law as Carmona dissolved the legislature and the Supreme Court, and revoked the country's new constitution. Although Chávez was reinstated as president on April 14, some forty to sixty people were killed in a second eruption of violence that took place during the weekend he was deposed. Most of the victims were believed to be Chávez supporters who were killed by security forces during rioting in poor neighborhoods of Caracas.
In Haiti, although events were less dramatic, a similar level of political polarization was evident. The political opposition, already skeptical of continuing promises made by President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was further embittered by the violent events of December 17, 2001. Taking advantage of reports of a coup attempt (later shown to be unfounded), gangs of youths--members of the so-called popular organizations aligned with the party of President Aristide--embarked on large-scale reprisal attacks against the opposition. Burning the headquarters of political parties and destroying the homes of opposition leaders, the gangs roamed through cities and towns unhindered by the police.
Haiti's underlying political stalemate stemmed from legislative elections held in 2000 that were plagued by fraud. Although international negotiators continued their efforts to facilitate a solution to the impasse in 2002, the lack of progress discouraged donor states, leaving hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid frozen. President Aristide complained vociferously of the aid suspension, but showed little inclination to take the concrete steps needed to resolve the situation.
Massive political protests in Argentina, a symptom of the country's ruinous economic conditions, led President Fernando De la Rúa to resign in December 2001. Two more presidents followed in quick succession, until finally the Congress elected Peronist Eduardo Duhalde to the presidency. Nationwide, at least twenty-three people were killed during the violent clashes and rioting that accompanied the protests. The economic crisis brought with it a sharp increase in violent crime and kidnappings. Police brutality, an already chronic problem, worsened.
Police violence raised serious concern in other countries as well, particularly Venezuela, where high rates of violent crime led to public indifference to abuses against suspected criminals. "Social cleansing"-type killings by Venezuelan police were a grave problem, especially in the provinces. In the state of Portuguesa, a self-styled "extermination group" composed of off-duty members of the state police and National Guard was responsible for killing alleged street criminals and drug-users.
In the English-speaking Caribbean, where violent crime rates were also extremely high, several states persisted in efforts to strengthen the death penalty. These states--notably Barbados, Belize, and Jamaica--sought to evade certain rulings of the Privy Council, the London-based appellate tribunal, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that hindered their application of the penalty. In December, for example, Jamaican Prime Minister P.J. Patterson announced during a nationally televised speech that he would seek a constitutional amendment to reinstate hangings. Earlier, Patterson had asserted that the Privy Council was "making it impossible for the [death penalty] to be carried out." He was referring to the fact that in Jamaica, as in other Caribbean countries, the death penalty existed as a legal punishment, but its application had been narrowed by several appellate rulings.
One such ruling was handed down in March, when the Privy Council, upholding an earlier decision of the Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeal, struck down the mandatory death penalty that existed in seven Eastern Caribbean countries. In October, the Privy Council overturned the death sentences of two men convicted of a 1999 killing in Trinidad. As of November, legislatures in Belize and Barbados, reacting against such rulings, were considering proposed constitutional amendments to restrict appeals in capital cases.
Guatemala and Cuba remained the only Spanish-speaking countries in the region to apply the death penalty to normal crimes, although several other Latin American states reserved the right to execute persons convicted of treason during wartime or of other extraordinary offenses. In Guatemala, however, President Portillo announced a moratorium on the application of the death penalty, and, at this writing, neither Guatemala nor Cuba had carried out any death sentences in 2002.
Prison conditions in Latin America were generally abysmal, with many prisons overcrowded, understaffed, decaying, and dangerous. A riot in La Vega prison, in the Dominican Republic, left twenty-nine inmates dead on September 20. Most of the victims died of smoke inhalation, the result of a fire that prisoners lit to protest a weapons search. The overcrowded and badly managed facility, built for three hundred people, held nearly twice that number at the time of the riot. In January, twenty-seven prisoners in Brazil were killed during a riot in the prison of Porto Velho, in the state of Rondonia, and. In Peru, the inmate population of the remote Challapalca high security prison, located at fourteen thousand feet in the Andes, doubled from fifty to more than one hundred over the course of the year. Due to its oxygen-thin air, isolation, and freezing temperatures, Peru's human rights ombudsman and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had repeatedly called for the prison's closure, saying it posed unacceptable health hazards to both inmates and staff.
Throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, workers continued to suffer myriad violations of internationally recognized labor rights. Common abuses included the worst forms of child labor, employment discrimination, and violations of the right to freedom of association. In some cases, violations were perpetuated by the government's failure to enforce domestic labor legislation and, in other cases, national labor laws fell short of international labor standards. The result was the same, however: employers were able to violate workers' rights with impunity. In Colombia, where the defense of labor rights was an extremely dangerous activity, union leaders and members were frequently killed.
In an encouraging sign of progress, several countries took meaningful steps toward accountability for past abuses. In Mexico, for example, the government made the historic decision to publicly acknowledge acts of political violence committed by its security forces during the 1960s and 1970s, and to try to bring to justice those responsible for such crimes. President Vicente Fox, in November 2001, announced the creation of a special prosecutor's office that was charged with this task. In Argentina, a number of senior military officers implicated in abuses committed during that country's "dirty war" were in detention or under house arrest, including former military ruler Leopoldo Galtieri. As of November, however, the Argentine Supreme Court had yet to rule on appeals of two federal court decisions striking down the country's amnesty laws, a ruling that would be critical to the success of efforts to establish accountability.
In Chile, although courts made significant progress in prosecuting members of the military implicated in the "disappearances" committed during the Pinochet era, General Augusto Pinochet himself escaped justice. Disagreeing with many legal experts, Chile's Supreme Court held that the "moderate dementia" Pinochet was deemed to be suffering from was sufficient to satisfy the statutory requirements for terminating proceedings in the notorious "Caravan of Death" case.
Peru's truth commission held public hearings in cities and rural areas all across the country, beginning in April. The hearings, which were televised, were devoted to first-hand testimonies regarding massacres, extrajudicial executions, rapes, and other abuses committed in Peru from 1980 to 2000. Also in April, as the result of negotiations with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the attorney general named a special prosecutor to investigate and prosecute hundreds of forced disappearances, killings, and other crimes, mainly committed during the 1980s. The special prosecutor was also mandated to exhume and identify human remains in the more than five hundred clandestine burial sites believed to exist in Peru.
In Central America, too, the gross human rights violations of past decades continued to receive attention, with exhumations of mass graves taking place in a number of countries. In Panama, in April, a government-sponsored truth commission issued its final report on abuses committed during military rule. In Guatemala, the country with the most tragic past record of large-scale killings and massacres, the intimidation of witnesses, justice officials, and human rights defenders was a serious problem, hindering the quest for accountability.
Another important milestone in the push for accountability in Latin America was the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which entered into force on July 1. The ICC was designed to prosecute individuals accused of committing genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Several Latin American countries ratified the ICC treaty over the course of the year, namely, Ecuador, Panama, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Honduras, and Colombia. Although there was considerable regional support for the court, many countries--including Chile, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Mexico, and Nicaragua--had yet to join the ICC at this writing.
By implementing appropriate national legislation, several countries showed that they took seriously their obligation to ensure the effective functioning of the ICC. On September 25, for example, Brazil adopted the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court as national law. Argentina and Ecuador made progress with draft implementing legislation, while Peru, Bolivia, and Venezuela were starting the implementation process.
The human rights movement in Latin America and the Caribbean showed impressive grassroots strength, while benefiting from acknowledged legitimacy at the governmental level. Numerous local and regional nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were dedicated to the defense of human rights, including concerns such as women's rights, gay and lesbian rights, and free expression. Made up of talented and committed activists, lawyers, community leaders, and others, these groups worked to put human rights principles into practice locally. In some countries, the work of nongovernmental groups was supplemented by that of permanent national human right commissions, ad hoc parliamentary bodies, and other government organs. Attesting to their expertise and ability, a number of Latin American human rights defenders played high-profile international roles at the United Nations and other fora.
In several countries, however, including Colombia, Guatemala, Haiti, and Brazil, individual activists faced intimidation, assault, and sometimes death for their advocacy of human rights. Colombia remained the most dangerous country for human rights defenders. In the first eleven months of 2002, sixteen defenders were reported killed there. Government investigators handling prosecutions of paramilitary leaders were also at risk, as were witnesses in such cases.
In Cuba, unlike other countries in the region, human rights monitoring was not recognized as a legitimate activity, but stigmatized as a disloyal betrayal of Cuban sovereignty. Cuban human rights defenders continued to work under extremely difficult conditions, facing surveillance, harassment, and possible criminal prosecution.
The public in many Latin American countries, having lived through repressive military governments, generally recognized the importance of human rights principles. Nonetheless, human rights defenders were frequently stigmatized for protecting the rights of unpopular groups, particularly criminal suspects.
Given world attention to other regions, human rights conditions in Latin America and the Caribbean were not extremely prominent on the United Nations's agenda, although specific problems and situations received attention.
James LeMoyne, the special adviser on Colombia to the U.N. secretary-general, was a frequent visitor to Colombia over the course of the year. He played an extremely active role in trying to salvage peace talks between the Colombian government and the country's largest guerrilla group, although the talks ultimately failed.
In both Colombia and Guatemala, the United Nations maintained a long-term human rights field presence. In Mexico, the government agreed in July to the opening of an in-country U.N. human rights office. The U.N. verification mission in Guatemala, known as MINUGUA, played a central role in monitoring compliance with the country's 1996 peace accords. In Colombia, the U.N. maintained a field office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights that documented abuses committed by all parties to the country's armed conflict. There were moments of high tension between the office and the Colombian government, notably after the office raised questions regarding the role of the Colombian army at Boyajá, the site of a large-scale killing by guerrillas. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees also had field offices in Colombia, with an operational capacity in the Urabá and Middle Magdalena regions as well as the department of Putumayo.
For the tenth time in eleven years, the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on human rights in Cuba. The language of the resolution was weaker than in the past, but, notably, the resolution was sponsored by Latin American governments. Ignoring strongly worded Cuban denunciations, a large majority of Latin American states with seats on the commission voted in favor of the resolution.
As of this writing, six countries in Latin America--Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, and Peru--had issued standing invitations for visits of U.N. human rights monitoring mechanisms. Mexico, for example, hosted two such visits during the year: the February fact-finding mission of the special rapporteur on the human rights of migrants, and the August mission of the representative of the U.N. secretary-general on internally displaced persons. In September, Haiti hosted the visit of Louis Joinet, the U.N.'s newly-appointed independent expert on the situation of human rights in Haiti. Cuba, which in past years had allowed only a select few U.N. human rights representatives to visit, lobbied to weaken the U.N.'s monitoring mechanisms at the April session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.
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