WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Ariana Cubillos

30 Jan 2023 | Commentary

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval: ‘There is a democratic deficit that has been deepening in the Americas’

The president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) spoke with the press team of the Venezuelan Human Rights Action Education Program (PROVEA). They talked about the many challenges facing Latin America, the rise of authoritarianism and threats to democracy in the region, as well as the human rights situation in Venezuela.

PROVEA: Are democracies in the Americas at risk?

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval (CJS): Unfortunately, the region has experienced a democratic backlash.

Although in some countries the rule of law was maintained and there have been peaceful transitions of power within the framework of democracy -as in the cases of Chile, Uruguay and Colombia last year-, we are also seeing instances where authoritarianism is deepening due to the rise of these type of leaderships.

In countries such as Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, which have been under authoritarian rule for a long time, these democratic deficiencies have been consolidated. But in other cases, such as El Salvador, Guatemala and, more recently, Brazil, we can see that anti-democratic leaderships emerge and gradually consolidate from fragile and weakened institutional contexts.

In the case of the United States itself, a country that for many decades had a foreign policy very focused on promoting democracy, we now see a government fighting against the emergence of anti-democratic actors who have come – through the electoral system itself – to occupy important positions in government bodies, such as seats in Congress and even the presidency of the country itself, as we saw during the entire Trump administration.

Unfortunately, the region is experiencing a rather difficult moment.

There is a democratic deficit that has been deepening in the Americas and, if there is one thing we know, it is that the less democracy, the more human rights violations take place.

So, we are not surprised that we live in a region where human rights are systematically violated.

PROVEA: Has the response of the inter-American system to these situations been effective?

CJS: The work of the human rights protection bodies of the Inter-American system has been very important. Both the Inter-American Commission and the Inter-American Court have reacted to very important situations and crises across the continent.

The Inter-American Commission has created groups of independent experts in different countries when there have been serious situations that impact human rights, as in the cases of Nicaragua and Bolivia. It has acted quickly, with on-site visits such as the one it is currently taking place in Peru, or the one it carried out in Colombia during the protests.

But there is no doubt that the magnitude of the human rights challenges in the region means that many of these important measures are probably insufficient.

In the world we want and in the region we aspire to, it should be the governments themselves the ones who respect, promote and guarantee the human rights of their citizens and of the people from other countries living in their territories.

PROVEA: Gustavo Petro and Gabriel Boric recently agreed to promote a “pact for democracy” in the continent. Is it possible to advance in a genuine agenda for the protection of democracies in the region while the polarization between left and right is once again at its peak?

CJS: The first thing to rescue is precisely the name of the pact: “A pact for democracy”. That is to say, an agreement for a political system that, today, is recognized as the system in which human rights are respected. I am referring to liberal democracy.

A system in which groups in vulnerable situations or minorities are guaranteed their rights, even when the majority is not necessarily willing to guarantee those rights. This is the democracy where we can demand rights without negative consequences, and it is in this democracy that governments make a pact with their citizens to guarantee those rights.

But the fact is that the region is still quite divided into ideological alliances.

The remnants of the Cold War are still visible when it comes to the relationships between countries in the region. We continue to have leaderships that strongly favor ideological alliances and subordinate human rights to visions based on left-wing or right-wing ideologies, above democratic values.

It is a pity that the alliances and ideologies that each political leader professes often come before the defense of democratic values, institutions, and even human rights.

Polarization is a weapon that ideologies have to generate alliances, which do not necessarily respond to the defense of democratic institutions, but rather to political preferences.

The lenses of ideologies often blind political leaders to the human rights violations that occur, both in their own countries and in others.

Our work as civil society is to be above that polarization and show that human rights are above any ideology, and that we aspire that any political leadership, any leader of a government in the region, understands that the best way to make a society prosper is to advance in the establishment and strengthening of democracy and in ensuring rights are guaranteed.

WOLA'S President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

WOLA’S President, Carolina Jiménez Sandoval

On Venezuela: “The dialogue will not have a real social acceptance if concrete results are not shown”

On January 23, 1958 an insurrectional movement -led by workers and students- overthrew dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez, who had risen to absolute power six years earlier.

After 65 years, Venezuela celebrates the fall of the last dictatorship of the 20th century, immersed in the first dictatorship of the 21st century, and in a scenario of extinction of the rule of law, widespread and systematic violations of human rights, alleged crimes against humanity and a prolonged and complex humanitarian emergency.

In this part of the interview, WOLA’s president talks about the dialogue process between the opposition and the government in Venezuela, the sanctions imposed by the U.S. government, and the response of the United States to the wave of Venezuelan migrants.

PROVEA: The government and the opposition have started a new round of negotiations in Mexico that so far have not generated much progress. Can this process be credible?

CJS: Venezuela has started a 2023 full of demonstrations and protests of different organizations that demand -with all legitimacy- their rights are respected.

I believe that these protests, which have started early in the year, are a sign of the economic crisis in the country and the government’s failure to respond to the needs of the population.

In this scenario, there are political negotiations that have been taking place for more than a year, seeking to bring the opposition and the government closer so that different agreements can be negotiated for the benefit of the population.

The process that began in Mexico and the round of negotiations between Plataforma Unitaria and the Venezuelan government bore a first fruit when an agreement was signed for the creation of a social round table and for the use of resources under a trust fund managed by the United Nations for social matters: education, health, electricity and water, among others.

However, this dialogue will not be accepted by the population unless concrete results that benefit the majorities can be shown.

People are exhausted, they are tired of suffering the ravages caused by the humanitarian emergency, the lack of services, food insecurity, among many other calamities suffered by the Venezuelan people.

If we do not see that what is decided in Mexico can have a. positive impact for the population, it is likely that the people will not feel that what is happening in these negotiation processes is for their benefit.

I trust that this process that has been initiated will bear fruit.

It is not a simple negotiation, there are different positions on the Venezuelan political reality, but it is very important to see concrete results very soon.

PROVEA: What guarantees should be provided for the elections in Venezuela to be reliable and transparent?

CJS: The negotiations in Mexico will touch on the electoral issue. The parties signed a memorandum of understanding and it is important that they address this issue because 2024 will be an election year.

The European Union formulated a set of very important recommendations to ensure elections are free and transparent and that people can excercise their right to vote.

The government of Nicolás Maduro must accept those recommendations and implement them, so citizens feel safe when exercising their right to vote, knowing that their choice will be respected.

If he does not do so, we will continue to fail to provide any incentive for people to exercise their right to vote.

PROVEA: The Biden administration has reiterated its policy of sanctions against Venezuela. Have these meassures had the effect the U.S. government expected or have they aggravated the pre-existing crisis in the south american country?

CJS: It is well documented that the policy -mainly promoted by the Trump administration- of very strong sanctions on oil and on the possibility of obtaining credits in Venezuela, deepened the crisis caused by the pre-existing humanitarian emergency.

We always hope that when some countries impose sanctions on others, provisions are made so that these sanctions do not have a negative impact on the majority of the population, and this has not been the case. There has been an impact on the quality of life of Venezuelans and although there was a crisis that already existed before these sanctions were imposed, they have deepened it.

Sanctions should always be used, not as an end in itself, but as a means to reach an objective and, in this case, the objective is a transition in Venezuela that leads to a democratic government that respects fundamental rights.

These sanctions, meant as a weapon or as an instrument to achieve change, did not have the desired effect and, although the policy has largely remained unchanged, the Biden administration has implemented some changes.

Trump believed that with the sanctions he was going to achieve an abrupt exit of the group in power, but Biden is using them as a negotiation tool to force the parties -government and opposition- to sit down at the table to dialogue.

This change in the use of sanctions, from the strategy of maximum pressure to turning them into an instrument to attract the parties to dialogue and pressure the government of Nicolás Maduro to give in on electoral matters, on human rights, on humanitarian matters, is a very different way of using sanctions. They are then used as an instrument of political incentives so that there are changes after a negotiation table.

PROVEA: The U.S. government continues to close its borders. What is your assessment of Biden’s toughening of immigration policy, and what can we expect after the results of the mid-term elections?

CJS: It is quite unfortunate that the Biden administration has been much more focused on building a barrier of containment than a policy of protection when it comes to migrants and refugees arriving at the U.S. southern border.

While it is true that – compared to the Trump administration – the Biden administration has a very different narrative, a rights-respecting, non-xenophobic narrative, it is also true that, at the end of the day, some of the policies that were once implemented by President Trump have remained.

One of them is Title 42, which is a public health measure that allows for immediate removal of those arriving at the border, and so people don’t really have access to their human right to asylum.

The Biden administration fought to repeal that measure, but several Republican governors in bordering states lobbied and it was finally upheld by Supreme Court orders, albeit temporarily, so the meassure will remain in place at least until June.

So the Biden administration excuses itself under this measure, which does not respect something so fundamental and guaranteed by U.S. domestic law and international standards, which is the right of every person to seek asylum when crossing an international border.

This measure, which had been applied to people from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, was extended to people from four other nationalities: Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Haiti.

No court required the Biden administration to extend this measure to these other four nationalities. Therefore, it is of great concern that the easy way out is the application of a measure that clearly violates international law and human rights.

It is also worrying that after the results of the mid-term elections and the arrival, mainly in the House of Representatives, of some very conservative congressmen, there could be again a very xenophobic rhetoric and the promotion of anti-migrant measures from Congress itself. But the truth is that the Senate is controlled at the moment by the Democratic Party, so we have to see what kind of laws are passed.

We hope that the Executive Branch adopts measures that are more in line with the law and above all more in line with political rhetoric; it is not acceptable that the Biden administration repeats that Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba are authoritarian countries, but at the same time prevents the entry of citizens from those countries who seek asylum in that country.

Unfortunately, immigration policy continues to focus on securitization and containment, and very little on protecting the human rights of thousands of people who are trying to reach the United States to find the protection they do not have in their own countries.

This interview was conducted and originally published by PROVEA.