Human Rights and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, November 1999 (Press Backgrounder,November 1999)
Human Rights Watch Backgrounder
The Americas: Human Rights Developments - HRW World Report 1999 FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 
Human Rights and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean
Prepared for the Ibero-American Summit: Havana, 15-16 November 1999.

Human rights overview
Multi-party democracies remain stable throughout most of Latin America and the Caribbean, with the notable exception of Cuba, where the government of Fidel Castro celebrated its fortieth anniversary in power with no sign of a significant political opening on the horizon. But while elected government may be a precondition for human rights to be respected, the region's dismal record shows that it is by no means sufficient. Indeed, serious human rights violations plague the region, effecting countries as diverse as Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. In far too many places, massacres, extrajudicial executions, disappearances, torture, police brutality, and inhumane prison conditions endure.

Related Material

Human Rights and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean, June 1999

Attorney General Reno In Colombia, March 3-4, 1999

What are Cuba's most pressing human rights concerns?
Forty years after the revolution, Cuban president Fidel Castro maintains control through intimidation, repressive laws, and by imprisoning dissidents. Cuban laws deny basic rights, including the freedoms of expression, association, and movement. Cubans carrying out legitimate activities routinely face trial for crimes such as "enemy propaganda" and "contempt for authority," while authorities apply ill-defined provisions of the criminal code to detain Cubans deemed "dangerous." Cuba's government-controlled courts, in which defendants suffer severe restrictions on the rights to a fair trial and defense, offer no safeguard against such abuses. Prison conditions in Cuba remain harsh.

Is Human Rights Watch opposed to the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba?
Yes. After forty years, the embargo has failed to bring about improvements in human rights in Cuba. Rather than a calibrated tool that can be used to respond to changes in Cuban human rights practices, it constitutes an all-or-nothing sledgehammer. Under current law, the embargo cannot be lifted, in whole or in part, until a transition government that includes neither of the Castro brothers is in place. By dividing the international community and enabling Castro to justify repression on anti-imperialist grounds, the embargo has become counterproductive to the promotion of human rights. At the same time, its travel restrictions themselves violate international human rights standards. Washington should replace its decades-old confrontational approach toward Cuba with a principled human rights policy premised on international consensus. Current U.S. go-it-alone policy leaves human rights victims in the lurch, not only because it is ineffective but because it divides the international community.

Has respect for human rights increased since the Pope's 1998 visit to Cuba?
No. Pope John Paul II's January 1998 pilgrimage to Cuba sparked hope that the government would ease its repressive tactics. Following the papal visit, Cuba released some one hundred political prisoners, but most of them had served the majority of their sentences, and police required them to refrain from engaging in opposition activities. For example, Cuba freed seventeen political prisoners on the condition that they accept exile in Canada, in violation of their right to remain in their homeland.

Throughout 1999, human rights advocates, journalists, and activists have increasingly faced government repression. The sentencing to prison of four prominent dissidents earlier this year demonstrated once again the Cuban government's willingness to apply heavy-handed tactics to silence peaceful protest. While Cuba permits greater opportunities for religious expression than it did in past years, and has allowed several religious-run humanitarian groups to operate, the government still maintains tight control on religious institutions, affiliated groups, and individual believers.

What is the status of human rights in Colombia at the end of President Pastrana's first year in office?
Armed conflict has intensified in Colombia as negotiations between the government and guerrillas stalled. The administration of Andrés Pastrana was slow to develop a plan to improve human rights protections. Guerrillas used territory ceded to them to further war rather than talk peace. Paramilitary groups working in some areas with the tolerance and open support of the armed forces continued to massacre civilians, commit selective killings, and spread terror. Guerrillas also flouted international humanitarian law, executing and kidnapping civilians and carrying out indiscriminate attacks. Throughout the country, Colombians fled political violence, with waning chances of finding refuge, food, and medical care. Repeatedly, the conflict crossed borders into Panama, Brazil, and Venezuela, heightening regional tensions and prompting talk of a future multilateral intervention.

Is Chile better off one year after Pinochet's arrest in London?
The October 1998 arrest of former dictator Augusto Pinochet has dramatically changed the social and judicial landscape in Chile. Dire forecasts of political turmoil and instability if the prosecution moved forward in Europe have not been borne out. Rather, as Chile prepares for presidential elections in December 1999, the Pinochet arrest has prompted important and long-overdue public debate about the human rights legacy of the military. For the first time since the 1973 coup that brought Pinochet to power, representatives of the armed forces are participating with human rights lawyers in talks aimed at releasing long-concealed information about the fate of more than 1,000 people who "disappeared" during the era of military rule. General Pinochet's arrest has also spurred movement in Chile's courts. Before his detention, the courts for the most part stifled the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations during the Pinochet era. To do so, they applied an amnesty law that the military conferred upon itself in 1978. However, the Chilean Supreme Court recently shifted gears, allowing prosecutions in "disappearance" cases to proceed—despite the amnesty—on the grounds that such abuses constitute on-going crimes until the fate of the victims is clarified. Courts have charged several high-ranking military officers in "disappearance" cases over the past year, and judicial investigations into Pinochet himself are moving forward.

How have democracy and the courts fared in Peru under President Alberto Fujimori?
Peru's judiciary suffered from corruption, inefficiency, and intimidation before Fujimori closed down the Congress and courts and abrogated Peru's constitution in 1992. Despite repeated promises to restore the independence of the judiciary, Fujimori's remedy has been worse than the disease. Presidential cronies oversee the reorganization of the country's judiciary. Meanwhile, the powers of the Attorney General's office, which is charged with protecting due process and the rule of law, were curtailed Some 70 percent of Peruvian judges are temporary appointees and therefore more vulnerable to political pressure. Under Fujimori's rule judges have been frequently replaced without notice to ensure decisions favorable to the political interests of the government. The rule of law and due process have also been severely affected by the expansion of the powers of military courts which continue to judge serious terrorist crimes as well as ordinary crimes of violence committed by armed gangs.

Through his majority in Congress, Fujimori has also altered the composition of electoral monitoring bodies, such as the National Electoral Board, to the government's advantage.

With improvements in Mexico's election system, have there been equal improvements in human rights?
Human rights violations in Mexico stem from many contexts, including the fight against drug trafficking, counterinsurgency efforts, and initiatives against common crime. Mexico has failed to address a key source of human rights abuse: the justice system. Arbitrary and prolonged detention, torture, and fabrication of evidence often take place when police apprehend suspects. But abuses do not end there. Prosecutors routinely turn a blind eye toward such abuses or participate in the fabrication of evidence. Judges avail themselves of lax legal standards and permissive legal precedent to sentence the accused despite the commission of serious human rights violations in the legal processes to which the accused were subjected.

What is the human rights situation in Chiapas?
Armed civilian groups have been active for several years evidenced by the multiple murders, kidnappings, threats, and expulsions committed against opponents of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Following the December 1997 massacre of 45 people in the hamlet of Acteal, Chiapas, which was carried out by one such group, the federal government promised to investigate the existence of these armed groups. The federal Office of the Attorney General is investigating, but concrete results have been few.

Violence in Chiapas is not one-sided. Supporters of the PRI are also victims of murders, kidnappings, threats, and expulsions. While violence is not one-sided, the justice system often is. Authorities are quick to act against real or alleged opponents of the PRI, whether or not the evidence supports such actions, while partisans of the ruling party benefit from impunity.

Are Chavez's constitutional reforms in violation of international human rights standards?
The dramatic political upheavals in Venezuela following the election on December 6, 1998, of former army Lt. Col. Hugo Chávez Frías created uncertain prospects for human rights. Chavez held elections for an assembly to draft a new consitution and on August 12, the assembly declared the political system to be "in emergency" and gave itself powers to restructure and, if necessary, dissolve the other branches of government. This action raised fears both in Venezuela and abroad that Chávez might use his strong popular support and the discredit of Venezuela's institutions to establish an authoritarian government. Until now, Chavez's reforms, however, have not violated human rights. While the Chávez government and constituent assembly focused attention on the legal and institutional framework of government, Venezuela's serious human rights problems continued to demand immediate attention. An appalling record of inmate violence, inadequate food and medical attention, overcrowding, administrative chaos, and long delays in the administration of justice continued to make prison reform a human rights priority.

For more information:
in Washington DC, contact José Miguel Vivanco (202) 612-4330