WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Silvia Izquierdo

9 Dec 2022 | Commentary

2022, A Year of Human Rights: ‘Despite the long list of challenges, there are opportunities’

2022 has been a tumultuous year in Latin America, with many highs and lows. Historic elections presented new opportunities. Authoritarianism spread like a virus. Social movements celebrated victories and mobilized in the face of losses. 

To understand these changes and the challenges ahead, we spoke with Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, WOLA’s president, who recently finished her first year at the helm of the organization. Jiménez Sandoval shared reflections on the human rights agenda in the Americas and the challenges to come in 2023.

1. What word would you use to describe the state of human rights in the Americas in 2022? 

Challenging. And I’m not just referring to “challenge” as a set of difficulties, of which there are plenty, but also as an opportunity to find solutions. We are facing a set of problems, but if we manage to find the right approaches, it is possible to find solutions even within this challenging context.

2. Can you give us some examples of what have been the main human rights challenges? 

Latin America has faced many challenges in 2022. Let’s start with the United States. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is, sadly, one of the worst events of the year in relation to women’s rights. Also in the United States, the limitation of the rights of migrants, both by very conservative governors and by federal authorities, has represented some very low points in terms of human rights. 

Another issue of concern is the deepening militarization in Mexico, especially now that the president has moved forward with his plan to move the National Guard, which was supposed to be a civilian force, to the Secretary of Defense. So, right now, Mexico doesn’t have a federal police; it has a militarized security force belonging to the defense secretariat. 

El Salvador is in the midst of a major human rights crisis. What started in March as a supposedly temporary state of exception has become a permanent rule. Unfortunately, it allows the government to detain people without due process. And, as we speak, 57,000 people have been imprisoned. In addition, at least 80 people have died in state custody between the end of March and the end of October, according to figures from the NGO Cristosal. There have also been many allegations of torture, inhuman and degrading treatment, and arbitrary detentions. 

This year, Nicaragua held elections again. They were municipal elections, and the ruling party won 100 percent of all the municipalities. This is a very telling story of fraudulent elections taking place under a government where there is, basically, no place for democracy.

In Cuba, there are still people in prison for political reasons, and there are still fraudulent trials being held against people who were imprisoned for protesting. The United States, for its part, is not doing enough to mitigate and ease sanctions that could support those in Cuba who are affected by the humanitarian crisis. So U.S.-Cuba relations are not really improving as we had hoped as we see the Cuban government continuing to restrict free speech and other civil liberties in the country.

Speaking of political prisoners: it is something we are also seeing in Guatemala, Venezuela and Nicaragua. It’s not an easy environment for activism. And even though there is a new government in Colombia, murders of social leaders continue. Threats and intimidation against entire Afro-Colombian and Indigenous communities in Colombia continue to occur because these problems are structural and very difficult to change from one day to the next.

3. There have been some important elections for the region, in complex contexts.

Yes. The elections in Brazil and Colombia ended up being examples of cases in which we foresaw extremely complex situations that, in the end, did not happen. 

In Brazil, we feared that Bolsonaro would not accept the results. And in a way, some people would say, well, he really hasn’t, but he has finally let the transition start to happen. While there have been pro-Bolsonaro protests in Brazil in recent weeks, we haven’t seen anything similar to what we saw in the United States on January 6, when there was a clear insurrection that attempted to stop the change of government.

The same can be said of Colombia. We were also very concerned that a very undemocratic candidate would be elected, and he was not. And again, there was a peaceful transition of power. 

We still have to wait and see how these two new governments [of Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in Brazil and Gustavo Petro in Colombia] position themselves. These are two very challenging contexts, but the circumstances surrounding these elections were so alarming and so difficult, and there was so much fear of a lot of political violence that when we look at the results, it is clear that things are improving. 

Even in the case of Venezuela, where people can sometimes feel powerless and hopeless, we have seen the return of negotiations. We hope that these negotiations will finally lead to better electoral conditions for 2024, hopefully including the return of democracy. The parties have already signed an important humanitarian agreement that will hopefully serve to alleviate the humanitarian crisis. Also this year, the United Nations Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Fact-Finding Mission in Venezuela. This mechanism has been instrumental in documenting serious human rights violations in the country, especially given the absence of justice for victims domestically. 

I believe it is important to look at the positive developments to understand that, despite the long list of challenges, there are opportunities.

4. Earlier this year, you mentioned how the virus of authoritarianism is affecting much of Latin America. How would you evaluate the state of democracy and its relationship with human rights in the region?

The correlation between democracy and the exercise of human rights has been long documented. The lower the level of democracy, the greater the possibility or actual occurrence of rights violations. We want a democratic Latin America because that, in turn, contributes to the promotion and guarantee of human rights.

What we have, however, is a Latin America with consolidated authoritarian regimes and others that are consolidating. And, yes, it almost seems like a virus that reproduces itself. Because it starts in one place and then spreads to others, when authoritarian leaders decide to copy each other’s practices. 

However, the electoral results in Brazil and Colombia, for example, and the results of the midterm elections in the United States, seem to show that vaccines can also be developed against this virus. And that civil society and citizens, young people, women, LGTBIQ+ people are the ones who are preventing authoritarianism from advancing in certain countries. 

This shows the importance of empowering young people, women; encouraging diversity and democratic agents in society. The U.S. congressional elections saw a “Generation Z” individual elected as a member of Congress for the first time – and not just anyone, a young activist against gun violence. We know that in some very key states, where very unfavorable outcomes for democratic institutions were feared, the effective participation of young voters was key, as well as of women as their way of protesting the Supreme Court’s ruling on Roe v. Wade, which, in effect, takes away their sexual and reproductive rights, turning back the clock 50 years. 

The same happened in Brazil, where although candidates who were not pro-democracy were elected to Congress, two trans women and two Indigenous women were also elected for the first time.

5. 2023 and 2024 will also be election years in the region. What are the expectations and concerns? 

There is no doubt that in the next two years we are going to have one of the most complex electoral scenarios seen in the Americas in the last decades. These years are key, because when you see the number of countries and the type of countries that will have elections, you can see that these are years that will define the future of democracy in the region. 

We are very concerned about El Salvador, where President Bukele, in a clearly unconstitutional move, has announced that he is going to be reelected, and at this moment, it is very likely that his reelection will be guaranteed. We are concerned about the elections in the United States, with the announcement by former President Trump that he will run again. We are very concerned about the elections in Venezuela, where at this moment there are no guarantees for free and fair elections. We are concerned about Mexico, where President López Obrador has called for a reform of the National Electoral Institute, which could weaken the autonomy of a body that must always be independent from the executive branch. The truth is that we are also concerned about Guatemala, where we know that the government uses political disqualification to arbitrarily decide who can or cannot participate in electoral processes, thus guaranteeing that the usual elites remain in power.  

On the part of civil society, it is up to us to defend both political participation, who can or cannot participate as candidates, and the exercise of the vote as a human right.

6. What will WOLA be doing in this complex context? 

Something very important for WOLA to do is to support and help strengthen the voices of civil society in different countries in the region that promote democracy and the right to participate in elections as human rights, and that promote that in their countries there are the minimum conditions necessary for an election to be considered free and independent. So we will continue to work to ensure that those voices are amplified both in the region and in the halls of power in Washington. 

Beyond elections – because elections are a fundamental pillar of democracy, but the region has unfortunately already experienced enough examples where you can come to power through elections and then stay in power, or totally destroy the democratic institutions that allowed you to come to power – we have to do follow-up work on the agendas that elected leaders implement in their countries. It is not enough to be democratically elected. Once a person assumes the highest authority in a country, they have to respect the basic principles of the rule of law in order to continue to be a democratic leader. So we will continue to follow up on that. 

Finally, we must talk about Latin America both in terms of the issues affecting individual countries but also the region as a whole. In other words, see the forest and see the trees, and define what kind of forest we want and how we are building a forest that is prosperous and democratic, or, on the contrary, a forest that is neither green, nor prosperous, nor respectful of its trees and their diversity. I believe that the region has to be seen in all its facets, not only country by country, but also to observe the state of the region, to understand how the hemisphere is moving and changing politically over the years. I think it is an important exercise. In that sense, I think WOLA has the great privilege of being a regional organization and being able to do that: see the forest and see the trees.

7. This year, you had the opportunity to visit several countries in the region, including Colombia and Brazil. How do you think the change of political course in both countries will impact human rights? 

I think one thing you learn in this kind of work is that in order to really have democracy, you need at least two things: democratic institutions that defend, promote, and maintain democracy; and democrats – that is, people who exercise democratic leadership. 

Thinking of Colombia and Brazil, of course, those who have come to power face very difficult contexts. But if they attempt to threaten the rule of law, other institutions have the duty to stop them, and prevent the executive branch from exceeding its functions. This is why strong institutions are so essential to democracy. 

In Brazil, the new government has not yet taken office, and in Colombia, it has only done so relatively recently, but what is important to see is that in both cases, despite the difficult context, those in power are people who want to exercise it democratically through negotiation, consensus-building, respect for minorities and the welfare of citizens, and strengthening democratic institutions.

8. In the case of Colombia in particular, the change of government represents an important shift when it comes to bilateral relations with Venezuela. What are your thoughts on this, and how can the Petro administration change this dynamic?

Venezuela and Colombia are two countries that are, geographically and historically, intrinsically linked. They share a large and important border, but there is also a common history that very much defines them as nations. That said, that history has been a difficult one, and has had many ups and downs in recent years. And those ups and downs have depended a great deal on those who hold the reins of power, and those who have ultimately been affected by this complex context are the citizens of both countries. 

The relationship is mutually necessary: for Colombia, which is betting on a total peace policy that includes reaching peace agreements with guerrillas such as the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN), Venezuela’s support is necessary. And for Venezuela, improving the economic relationship with Colombia, having the neighboring country recognize the government of Nicolás Maduro, is also tremendously important. So, it is not just that only one government needs the other. 

What is quite different in this context is that President Petro has demonstrated that not only was he democratically elected, but that so far he is also governing with respect for democratic institutions. Although I do not always agree with some of his positions or comments, one can say, at this moment, that Gustavo Petro is a democrat. That cannot be said of Nicolás Maduro, who is the prime representative of an authoritarian government. And Venezuela, as we already know, is being investigated before the International Criminal Court (ICC) for human rights violations that could constitute crimes against humanity. Sadly, Venezuela is the only country in the Americas with an open investigation before the ICC.   

So these are two very different types of leadership. What we do believe is that Petro has a positive role to play in the sense of encouraging Maduro to start making concessions to achieve electoral guarantees that will allow the Venezuelan political opposition to participate in elections that will be a real option for change in 2024. There are many things that probably have to happen for Maduro to give those concessions to the opposition and to the country as such. And we believe that in that sense Petro has a channel of dialogue with Maduro that many other leaders do not have and that he can contribute to those solutions. What we do hope is that President Petro also listens to Venezuelan civil society. That when there are bilateral discussions, or even in some multilateral forum on the human rights situation in Venezuela, the voices of the victims and of Venezuelan civil society, together with international NGOs that have been working and accompanying Venezuelan groups for years, will be the ones to inform the Petro government’s position on this context.

9. You talk about the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela. This crisis is behind many changes in the migration dynamics in the region, led by many people who were forced to leave Venezuela. Although it is a situation that is constantly changing, what can you tell us about the big change in the face of migration? 

I believe that 2022 was the year when the world learned about the tragedy of the Darién

The migration routes in Latin America are well known. There was, for historical reasons, a lot of information about the Central America-Mexico-United States route, including information about the nightmare that route is, the journey that thousands of migrants made on a train known as “the Beast”, the massacres of migrants, the kidnappings that continue to occur in Mexico with impunity. This is a known reality, and many of the human rights violations suffered by migrants along this route still continue.  

Until relatively recently, the Darién was considered an impenetrable jungle. In 2021, it began to be used more as a migratory route by Haitian migrants coming from Chile and Brazil to try to reach the United States and to a lesser extent by people from Venezuela and Cuba, among others. By the end of 2021 and in the course of 2022, this situation was changing until it became a transit zone, mainly, but not exclusively, for Venezuelans. 

With the increase in the number of people crossing the jungle, we began to hear more and more stories of abuse, death, and trafficking of migrants, including terrible testimonies of sexual violence against women and girls. The fact that the Darién continues to be a place of transit even with the dangers it represents shows the degree of desperation of those who are forced to travel this route. 

And who are the people who are making this journey? When one looks at the data of the people crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, one realizes that 2022 is the year in which both Venezuelans and Cubans are among the top five nationalities of those arriving at this border. And that is a pretty significant change in the demographics of migration. The data show that there is an increase, for example, of people coming from Mexico after several years in which there had been a decrease in Mexican migration to the US. Hondurans, Guatemalans, and Salvadorans also continue to leave their countries and many of them need international protection, of course, but the numbers of people from Cuba and Venezuela have had a historic increase. This shows that what was considered a “South American crisis” is now a crisis of forced human mobility at the hemispheric level.

10. How do you evaluate the response of the Biden administration and the U.S. government in general to the migratory situation and asylum requests?

I think it has been quite improvised and certainly disappointing. You have to remember that on October 12, the Biden administration decided to extend Title 42 to Venezuelans (which effectively blocked them from entering the United States), and further added that the decision began “immediately”. This generated a domino effect throughout the region that greatly impacted people who were already moving through different countries and were “stranded” or detained in transit countries, most of them in very precarious situations. The measure showed very little planning and very little reflection on the impact it was going to have on families, individuals, etc., even though it tried, through a humanitarian program, to give visas to 24,000 people as a way to alleviate or mitigate the extension of Title 42 to people from Venezuela. 

In any case, I think we can say that Biden’s immigration policy has been more focused on containment than protection. It continues to be difficult to apply for asylum in the United States, especially at the border, among other reasons because Title 42 became the rule in order to contain migratory flows. Even though, obviously, there is no longer a public health situation that makes it necessary – to the point that a judge finally said it was an absurd and arbitrary decision. 

And, well, we are waiting to see how the Biden administration prepares to receive all the people who will be seeking asylum once Title 42 is no longer in place. So far, we do not believe that enough has been invested to build capacity or better infrastructure to allow for increased asylum claims.

11. The Biden administration says that the immigration issue requires a regional solution.

It is true that from civil society we promote a regional cooperation framework to face the accelerated increase in migratory flows, and this regional framework has to include, in the first place, that each country complies with its existing obligations. All these countries have signed international treaties that oblige them, for example, not to return people in need of international protection and to allow them to apply for asylum. There are also national laws in most of these countries that guarantee the human rights of migrants and refugees.

It is certainly important to explain what we mean by “shared responsibility”. To do this, we must begin by understanding that the countries receiving the largest number of Venezuelans at this time are Colombia and Peru, which are countries with political crises, with social crises, with problems of poverty and food insecurity, not the United States. 

This implies that the United States should also share this responsibility and promote access to seek asylum or even generate alternative policies based on protection and not containment.   

Obviously we are not only talking about Venezuelans. It is true that Mexicans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, Cubans, Nicaraguans, Colombians and people of many other nationalities arrive in the United States, and in that sense, it is important to continue working on strategies to address the root causes of migration. There’s no doubt about that, but I think we are also at a point where countries have to start providing different types of protection. People are migrating because of the climate crisis, for example, and yet there are no greater protection measures for a person who has to leave his or her country because of environmental factors. I believe that we need to redefine some protection frameworks and invest more in receiving countries that have great needs. 

There is no easy solution to such a large and complex human phenomenon, but it is true that the United States, the country that receives the most migrants in the world, is also a country that benefits greatly from migrant labor, from its labor force, even from its strength as entrepreneurs. 

So I think that putting that in the balance could lead to having better immigration policies and not just ones that respond to the toxic narratives that have been generated around the immigration issue, and that only seek to stem the flow. At the end of the day, all it does is make people risk taking clandestine routes that are usually more dangerous, but it does not stop migratory movements.

12. What role does an organization like WOLA have in this context? 

For many years, WOLA has been a key voice and a very important center of analysis when it comes to understanding the situation and the situation at the U.S.-Mexico border. And that is a work that we will continue to do: to show what is happening on the border, to show how there is no accountability on the part of many, many officials who unfortunately abused migrants. 

But in addition to that, already this year we have been writing a lot and analyzing the situation of these new flows, showing the changes that the region is experiencing: in the Darién, in Central America, in the same way that we continue to work on the southern border of Mexico because it continues to be an obligatory stop for Central Americans, but now also for Venezuelans, Cubans, among others. Starting next year, WOLA will work more systematically throughout the region, including South America, reflecting on the changes in the migratory context of the Americas.

13. What is your main reflection after one year as President of WOLA? 

Our work, and certainly mine, during this year has been made possible and strengthened by the energy of our allies in the region. 

Although we do our work from Washington, I feel that we have learned that WOLA is an organization that over the years has cultivated such important and close relationships with Latin American and Caribbean civil society that we are always reinforcing each other, even in the most difficult moments. 

I have learned a lot this year about the importance of an organization that can welcome colleagues who have had to leave and are forced to be in exile. I think it is still a very important role because having to leave your home, your community, your country, your family, because you defend human rights or work against corruption is really a very hard blow, and having an organization that can help you, that can open doors for you in Washington, and that can support you is worth much more than what one perceives at first glance. Obviously, this is one of many roles that WOLA has, but it’s been one that I’ve become more familiar with since moving to Washington D.C. in 2022. 

I think as WOLA approaches its 50th year as an organization, it is impressive to see its growth. To see how the organization has evolved is really very inspiring. But what I find very interesting is that WOLA was born as a reaction to the coming to power of an authoritarian government that perpetrated terrible crimes, which was the coup of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and well, almost five decades later, we are seeing another way in which the “virus of authoritarianism” is reproducing itself again in the region. 

I believe that as an organization we are in a good position to take our 50 years of history and continue to put our principles into practice, bringing together ideas and efforts to seek solutions to so many problems that affect us as a region. 

Seeing Latin America as a whole and having allies, friends, with whom to walk together in a region as diverse and as intense as ours is what continues to motivate us every day.