Carolina Jiménez, human rights specialist: ‘In Latin America, there are still more opportunities for democratic promotion than in other parts of the world’

The president of the Washington Office on Latin America notes that the strength of civil society and committed youth are encouraging signs in the region. This is despite the drop in the democratic model’s popularity, a trend that has been observed in numerous surveys

Macarena Vidal Liy
Carolina Jiménez Sandoval
Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, the president of WOLA.

This coming Sunday will see the second round of Argentina’s presidential elections. And, next year, a whole series of elections are scheduled across the Americas, from the United States to Mexico, from El Salvador to Venezuela. This will raise key questions about democratic progress or regression in the region.

All of these electoral processes will be taking place amidst a turbulent global context, with the continued war in Ukraine, the conflict between the Israelis and Hamas threatening to spread throughout the Middle East, the Global South trying to make its voice heard and rivalry between Washington and Beijing in all areas.

However, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval — president of the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs (WOLA), an NGO specializing in the promotion of human rights — is optimistic about the future of the region. In Latin America, she affirms, “there continue to be more opportunities for democratic promotion than in other parts of the world.”

The panorama is hectic. “There are important setbacks that are undeniable,” she admits, when it comes to the stability of democracy in the region. Jiménez — of Venezuelan-Mexican nationality, with more than 20 years in the defense of human rights in Latin America under her belt — emphasizes how the prestige of this political system has declined among the population. According to the Latinobarómetro public opinion survey, only 48% of Latin America’s citizens’ express support for democracy. “This is very serious information. It represents an acceptance of other forms of government that don’t respect the democratic principles which the region fought so hard for,” she warns.

In addition to consolidated authoritarian models — such as what is present in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela — you can see “a crack here and there,” with other regimes that “are moving rapidly toward those same models.” One example is the administration of President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador, which “in a very, very short period of time, has managed to co-opt the most basic institutions necessary for the survival of democracy, undermining the principle of the separation of powers.”

Question. And then there are the countries where the future is uncertain.

Answer. We don’t know what’s going to happen in Argentina [on Sunday], but it’s also one of those big surprises. I don’t think that 10 years ago we would have imagined that the second round in an election in Argentina would have a contender like Javier Milei — an anti-rights and anti-system candidate who represents a great threat [to democracy]. That doesn’t mean that the other candidate (left-wing Minister of Finance Sergio Massa) is wonderful… but the Milei factor generates a lot of concern. While he didn’t manage to win in the first round, it would be extremely worrying if he did so through the support of democratic forces. Instead of being the guardians of democracy, [several traditional right-wing parties] have been supporting Milei [in the runoff]. This is like when we saw parties of the traditional Venezuelan left supporting Maduro’s regime, which is an extreme version of the left. When these parties allow themselves to be co-opted by the extremes, I think that’s when democracy really enters a very dangerous situation.

And then, there’s Guatemala, where everything seems to indicate that [the inauguration] of Bernardo Arévalo — despite him having been elected as an expression of the Guatemalans’ desire for change — is going to be full of obstacles. In the end, the de-facto powers still have the possibility of making his time in office tremendously difficult. We can also talk about Mexico and its militarization. The region has many challenges, but it’s also the region where democracy is trying again, or even saving itself through its [institutional] mechanisms. Colombia went from an administration that really boycotted the peace agreement to one that has decided to embrace the process, which has been — and still is — full of difficulties. I believe that the region continues to demonstrate [democratic resilience], even when the mechanisms of democracy are used to undermine it. [Our countries] are managing to stop democratic regression and rebuild democracy.

Q. Can you give an example of this?

A. I believe that despite the figure of 48% [of Latin Americans approving of democracy] — which is still very worrying — there are still very important movements in Latin America at a social level, which give hope for the region to move more towards the defense of fundamental rights. The Latin American feminist movement has achieved, for example, advances in terms of sexual and reproductive rights that were unthinkable 15 years ago.

While the United States regresses in sexual and reproductive rights, progress is seen in Argentina, in Mexico, in Colombia… in the most Catholic and conservative countries. Achievements have also been seen in terms of promoting policies to mitigate climate change, in favor of the protection of the Amazon, etc. [These achievements] are deeply marked by a Latin American youth that has put the climate issue at the center of their concerns.

Surveys on Latin American youth tell us that many don’t believe in political parties, they don’t believe in political institutions. But they believe in political participation, which is something entirely different. They, as agents of change, can influence the future of their own stories and the issues that matter to them: the environment, gender equality, etc. Young people want to work and have a decent job and be able to live, develop a life path. So, although there are anti-political forces — very anti-rights movements — that also have a lot of weight in the region, I think there’s a much more active citizenry than we sometimes want to acknowledge.

Jiménez cites the case of Venezuela, where, after 24 years of authoritarian rule, primary elections have just been held to decide the opposition candidate in the 2024 elections. They were won by María Corina Machado, a former congresswoman.

“What no one expected — including the government of [Nicolás] Maduro — is that this purely citizen-led exercise, which had no support from the state, was going to achieve a participatory process that involved 2.3 million people. I think it surprised the international community… and it certainly surprised the authoritarian power,” the expert says.

Q. But the results of that process have now been cancelled.

A. Yes, but that’s the interesting part. The Supreme Court of Justice of Venezuela pulled a ruling out of its sleeve, saying that it has suspended the results of the primary elections. But it’s a fait accompli. The election took place, political participation was much higher than expected and it energized a population that the international community viewed as highly depoliticized. Now, the government is going to spend the next few months saying that these elections were fraudulent, that they weren’t legal… but they cannot erase the political action that already occurred.

People went to vote. And not only did they go to vote — the people organized it by themselves. There was no participation from the state in holding those elections: people lent out their houses, people voted in town squares. This citizen exercise will remain in the historical memory of Venezuelans, regardless of whether there’s a ruling that believes it can erase [what] has already been completed. Indeed, we’re very concerned about how to get out of consolidated authoritarianism and how to stop democratic setbacks. But I feel that Latin America continues to provide opportunities so that the region doesn’t add to that great void of citizen despair. In Brazil, the institutions managed to stop Jair Bolsonaro’s attempts to reverse the elections. His political [power] is much reduced.

Q. Precisely, this push by youth and civil society has brought younger or more innovative leaders to power in Chile or Colombia. But, in a way, these leaders haven’t met expectations, either.

A. Yes. The president-elect in Ecuador is 35-years-old. Then we have Gabriel Boric in Chile and Nayib Bukele in El Salvador — three millennial presidents. But if Nayib Bukele — who, at the time he came to power, was the youngest leader in the region — tells us something, it’s that youth alone doesn’t guarantee democratic attitudes, nor does a political career of many years guarantee it (Bukele was formerly the mayor of San Salvador). Leaders — once they come to power — can show undemocratic sides that weren’t necessarily known.

When Bukele came to power, he was the first president in the history of the U.N. to take a selfie while giving a speech and post it to Twitter. Then, this Bukele boom began, closely-related to his way of communicating, his age and what the new leadership of a millennial president was supposed to represent. Well, his term is about to end, and the disappointment couldn’t be greater for those of us who believe in human rights. Through a punitive security policy — one that is quite illegal under international human rights standards — he has put 2% of the adult population in prison and he has dismantled democratic institutions. And now we know that he’s going to try to re-elect himself, although this is expressly prohibited by the Constitution of El Salvador.

Q. And in Chile?

A. In the case of Boric, we’ve seen a little more of the leadership that we would like to see in the region, at least in terms of his foreign policy. He has put human rights very much at the center [of his administration] and is able to overcome ideological differences and condemn, for example, human rights violations, regardless of who the perpetrator is. But there’s no doubt that he has enormous challenges domestically. At the moment, he’s a leader with high disapproval ratings.

Something similar is happening in Colombia. The expectations regarding Gustavo Petro were directly proportional to the rejection of the previous [right-wing] administration. The structural problems of violence, of inequality, weren’t going to end in a day… but he promised that they would. And then, obviously, the population demands that you comply.

That said, there are also many complaints that he uses divisive rhetoric. He’s not always conciliatory, although [Colombia] is a country that needs reconciliation more than divisions.

Q. Continuing with this review of Latin America and its democracies — and with respect to human rights — there are another couple of countries that also have weak leaders in common. In states like Ecuador and Peru, the power is held by the legislative branch.

A. In Ecuador we have to do a lot of monitoring. There’s concern about the increase in violence, which is obviously closely linked to the country’s transformation into an important center for cartel operations and the seizure of very key territories by organized crime. The challenges facing President-Elect Daniel Noboa are tremendous, especially for a population that also has tremendously high expectations [of the incoming leader].

Peru is at a very serious crossroads, because no one [in the region] has an approval rating as low as Peruvian President Dina Boluarte or the Peruvian Congress, [which stands at] around 6%. And, despite that, [both the executive and legislative branches] continue to dismantle democratic institutions that cost so much to build, such as the Ombudsman’s Office.

In Peru, there was a transitional justice process — a return to democracy — but authoritarian factors continue to have a lot of power. The inequality between the cities and the countryside that is so marked in Peru — the discrimination against Indigenous peoples — has [caused difficulties] for the consolidation of democracy.

Q. We still have to cover Mexico, one of the big countries where there will be elections next year.

A. In a country where there’s democracy and, at the same time, 110,000 missing people — that’s an enormous contradiction. A good part of these disappearances occurred precisely during the six-year term of Andrés Manuel López Obrador. Instead of removing the soldiers from the streets, as he promised [during the 2018 campaign], he deepened militarization. The military now controls customs. The incursion of the Armed Forces into areas that were always [under civilian or police control] in Mexican politics is one of the most disappointing legacies of the six-year term. This is going to have a profound effect on Mexico for the coming decades. Once you begin to give greater power to the Armed Forces, it’s always very difficult to reverse such a process. I think we’re going to see it [continue] with whoever is elected. Added to this is a great contempt for civil society and independent journalism. There’s very little tolerance for criticism. There have also been attempts to dismantle the judiciary.

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