Originally published by Amnesty International
March 13, 2020
PROTESTS, REPRESSION AND MILITARIZATION
2019 was marked by mass protests across the region. In many countries – such as Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela – the main protagonists of these mobilizations were young people, people from low income homes and women. With a few exceptions, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. However, the year was also marked by states’ inability to channel people’s discontent and demands for their rights. Instead, they resorted to repression; excessive use of force, including intentionally lethal force; and other human rights violations.
Main drivers of mass demonstrations
During the year, predominantly young and diverse mass demonstrations across the region demanded action on women’s rights, the climate crisis and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Mass anti-government protests were also widespread, with demands that ranged from an end to corruption, to more equal access to education, an adequate standard of living and health, to the right to vote.
In many countries, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti and Honduras, protests were triggered by political and economic measures that would undermine the enjoyment of economic and social rights and increase inequality. In Bolivia the main driver of protests were claims of electoral fraud surrounding the presidential election. In Venezuela, in the context of the current humanitarian emergency, protesters continued to demand respect for their political rights, access to justice and access to economic and social rights. In Nicaragua, demonstrators demanded an end to the continuing repression, justice for victims of human rights violations and freedom for people detained for their legitimate political dissent.
Political polarization intensified in the region, reflecting a widespread feeling of disillusionment with governments and political elites from across the political spectrum. People protested because they felt representatives were increasingly divorced from their needs and demands, because of corruption and because they felt shut out of decision-making processes, which often resulted in policies that disproportionally disadvantaged people living in poverty or in low income homes, women and girls, Indigenous Peoples and young people.
Discontent was fuelled by the fact that Latin America and the Caribbean continued to be the most unequal, as well as the most violent, region in the world, according to UN estimates. Poverty increased again in 2019 (estimated at 31% according to ECLAC), inequality continued to decrease but not at a significant rate and economic growth was almost non-existent (0.1% according to ECLAC). In this context, access to economic and social rights such as education, health or housing was very unequal. The amount of social spending by governments increased slightly in most countries, but alarmingly not in accordance with what would be needed to achieve the targets set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
States’ reactions to protest: repression rather than dialogue
The widespread nature of the protests, their diversity, geographic range and the extensive participation in demonstrations by the population in different countries took many governments in the Americas by surprise and challenged their capacity to establish political dialogue with their citizens. Most governments responded with unnecessary, excessive and, on some occasions, intentionally lethal use of force and by imposing “states of emergency” or “states of exception” which threatened people’s right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. These violent responses intensified people´s frustration and increased the number of people taking to the streets.
In Venezuela, faced with a deepening humanitarian emergency, thousands took to the streets from 21 to 25 January to demand a change of government. At least 47 people died in the context of the protests, all of them as a result of gunshot wounds. Reports indicated that at least 39 were killed by members of state forces or third parties acting with their acquiescence. At least 11 were allegedly extrajudicially executed. More than 900 people were detained, including children and teenagers. The pattern of repression seen in 2019 was consistent with repressive practices inflicted on the civilian population since 2014 constituting reasons to argue that the systematic and widespread attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.
In Haiti, in February alone, 41 people died and 100 were injured in the context of protests. According to the UN, between mid-September and the end of October, a further 42 people were killed, at least 19 of them allegedly by the security forces. Police used excessive force in multiple instances during the anti-government protests in October. In Honduras, at least six people died, and dozens were injured in the context of repression of protests between April and June, most were shot the security forces, including the army. In Ecuador, the government authorized the use of the armed forces to respond to widespread protests after declaring a state of emergency in October. At least eight people were killed and 1,340 injured in the context of protests.
In Bolivia, the government also declared a state of emergency when protests erupted both in support of and against the then president, Evo Morales, following presidential elections in October. There were reports of excessive and unnecessary use of force by the National Police in response to the protests. In November, publication of an audit by the Organization of American States citing serious irregularities in the elections increased protests and was followed by calls for President Morales to resign, even from some of his supporters. The armed forces “suggested” Morales should resign for the “pacification of the country”. Later the same day, President Morales resigned. Two days after the resignation, Jeanine Añez assumed office as interim President and issued Decree 4078, which provided for the participation of the armed forces in public order operations, guaranteeing impunity for human rights violations. Under this Decree, the National Police and the armed forces carried out joint operations to police demonstrations and there were reports of excessive and unnecessary use of force against protesters, as well as reports of armed protesters. At least 35 people had been killed in the context of demonstrations by the end of the year. Decree 4078 was repealed on 27 November, but allegations of human rights violations continued.
In Chile, protests started in mid-October and the Sate forces, mainly the armed forces and carabineros (national police), carried out widespread attacks against demonstrators resulting in the death of four protesters and the torture and serious injury of others. More than 350 of those injured sustained serious eye injuries. In Colombia, where protests erupted in November, an 18-year-old died from head injuries caused by a less lethal ammunition.
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