Browsing articles in "Human Rights"
Nov 11, 2014
Erika Hernandez

Ayotzinapa, Mexico. The Era of State Decay

Citizens of Mexico protest outside national palace, after being informed that the 43 students were massacred by a criminal gang, after following up the order of Iguala's Major. The sign says "It was the State." Source: Genaro Lozono/CNN
Citizens protest outside Mexico’s national palace, after being informed that the 43 students were massacred by a criminal gang, who followed up the order of Iguala’s Mayor. The sign says “It was the State.” Source: Genaro Lozono/CNN

 “Esta lloviendo tupido,” my grandmother would say in Spanish. It does not literally mean that there is heavy rain. It is actually an allegory for those times that are extremely challenging. This is what I think about the state of affairs in my home country, Mexico. In 2001, free and fair elections paved the way towards political change. What we citizens never envisioned is that the power held by the authoritarian regime sustained agreements with criminal networks, maintaining both corruption and criminal activities operating peacefully. When the National Action Party (PAN) was elected for the presidency, the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) was still elected for state governments, causing that the hold of power, by the capital, to decompose. A good risk analyst, conscious of the deals with drug-cartels, could have been able to foretell that the arrival of democracy would not necessarily strengthen the state capacity but that it would wither down. Today, Mexico’s state capacity appears to be in a state of decay. This can be best evinced by the disappearance of the 43 students in the city of Iguala. Unlike the years where the PRI captured civil society organizations to the point that it made them subservient – like present Russia, local states are captured by non-state actors (drug gangs and cartels). The all-encompassing, authoritarian regime that lasted for 72 years has finally dismembered at the cost of having state units being seized by criminal groups.

Although the quest for the 43 disappeared students in the state of Guerrero has come to an end, there is a general feeling among Mexicans that the state must do something. Just this Friday (November 7), the government admitted that the students have been massacred by the drug gang “Guerreros Unidos.” Iguala’s mayor, Jose Luis Barca, ordered the local police to take care of the potential troublemakers. In turn, the police handed the youngsters to this drug gang. Federal authorities found out that the students had been incinerated and that their ashes were thrown away in a nearby town, Cocula. The General Attorney’s office indicated that the mayor was associated with the organization, and pointed out that the mayor’s wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, was its head. Accordingly, the organization received between 2 and 3 million pesos weekly, bimonthly or monthly from the mayor. Along with Guerrero, other states like Tamaulipas and Michoacan have also been identified failed local states, with Oaxaca pointing towards that direction. An example of a successful strategy –albeit belated– was the federal intervention in the state of Michoacan. Mexico’s President, Enrique Pena Nieto, appointed a federal commissioner with broad powers that, in practice, replaced the state Governor’s mandate. If the strategy was so successful, then why not employ it in other states? Many say that it would cause dependence on the federal state. This is true. Without local capacity building, a long-term recovery is inconceivable.

Despite the success that intervention may grant, there exist several aspects that might complicate a victorious ending. First, local capacity building implies recruiting new police forces, administration and even judicial authorities. What complicates this strategy is that identifying individuals that are clean (with no links to drug-trafficking) puts investigators at risk. Second, negotiating with criminal organizations à la Colombia would probably cause uproar among the Mexicans. Colombia’s President, Juan Manuel de Santos, is currently conducting negotiations with members of the FARC guerrilla (also a criminal organization) under the auspice of Cuba and Norway. Despite the high stakes and high probabilities for peace, many in Colombia, like former president Alvaro Uribe, are using moralistic arguments to counter the practical solution. If broad sectors in Colombia have vouched for coming to an arrangement with the FARC, this is because the country has already undergone 50 years of war.  In contrast, Mexico has undergone a shorter yet heightened period of violent drug war where the population’s predominant sense is that of being betrayed by government authorities and reprisal to some extent, tainted with a craving for justice. Anger is mounting in Mexico today. The anger is geared towards the weak institutional response. The government will hardly echo a matching response. With the state being captured by criminal organizations in the identified – and unidentified – territories, the only rejoinder that the government likely to provide is sending more federal policies agents. Also perhaps issuing a communiqué by the president, so as to placate protests. A joint communiqué is probably already in the works. A few days ago the journalist, Carmen Aristegui, published findings from her recent inquiries: that president Enrique Pena Nieto received a luxurious house of white marble in the State of Mexico –worth 7 million dollars– from a real estate company in exchange of government contracts. As a result of recent media leaks, one of the contracts was recently cancelled. The Mexican Presidency is now compelled to give a forcible explanation of these facts, which is the most that it can do. Unlike the U.S., Mexico’s Constitution does not allow a President to be impeached. In case the citizenry requires the government to take further action, it may do so at the cost of going beyond institutional mandates –may this be a democratic or undemocratic exercise. Indeed, Mexican democracy is in peril as its future appears to lay at the whims of organized crime. Whether the government chooses to creatively respond to such demands, the policies may help strengthen democratic institutions or may undermine them, further reversing democratic progress. For many of us who worked towards democratic change in 2000 and even met former President Fox during our activities, our efforts now feel a distant memory.

Mar 23, 2014



Joaquín Lavado’s, Quino, character Mafalda complaining: “Soup is to childhood what communism is to democracy” (from @MafaldaQuotes).

On March 15, 2012, some people in the Spanish-speaking world were ready to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Mafalda, the main character of the homonymous comic strip created by Argentinian cartoonist Joaquín Lavado, Quino. However, at that time the author said that such celebration would be inadequate. Mafalda’s fans were taking as a basis for the commemoration the birthday date the girl allegedly mentioned in one of her appearances. On the contrary, Quino said that if any event should take place, it should be moved to late September 2014, fifty years after Mafalda’s stripe was first published. In the middle of such discussion, the fifty-second birthday of the girl, according to her alleged birthday, in preparation for the fiftieth anniversary of her first appearance in public, seems a good pretext to talk about one of the most beloved characters in Latin America and Spain.

In 1963, cartoonist Quino was hired by an Argentinian home appliances company to create a character to use in one of its publicity campaigns. He came up with Mafalda, a six-year old girl from the emerging middle class in Buenos Aires. For some reason, the series of advertisements featuring her never materialized. Yet, in 1964, the editor of the Argentinian magazine Primera Plana approached Quino to publish a comic strip in its pages. The author rescued Mafalda. Initially, he added two more characters: her mother, a dedicated housewife, and her father, an employee at a private company. They all lived in a flat in Buenos Aires. As time passed, the weekly strip moved to other publications and became more populated, mostly by Mafalda’s friends. She was joined by the nervous Felipe; Susanita, pretending to be rich and aspiring to be the wife of a wealthy man; Manolito, the son of a Galician émigré who helps his father in attending the family’s grocery store; the egocentric Miguelito; the short-sized Libertad, daughter of a leftist couple; and her brother, Guille.

When it began its appearances in the press, Mafalda was supposed to depict the life of a middle-class Buenos Aires family. Yet, in time the publication became a regional reference for the criticism against any kind of authoritarianism, be it from the left or from the right. In the light of Argentina’s military dictatorships of the 60’s and 70’s, Quino faced several restrictions about what not to publish. Because the series was so popular, it could not be just shut down; instead, he was forbidden to talk about any political theme. While the author makes few, if any, explicit mentions to Argentina, his characters reflect upon the nation’s and the world’s events. The spirit of the military regime was keen to accept anti-communist statements in the strip. But Quino had to be wiser when criticizing this own government. In spite of the severe risk of repression, he nonetheless included numerous subtle references to coups, abuses against human rights, violations of democratic procedures, and illegitimate foreign interventions in Latin America made by the characters of the series.

Quino decided to stop publishing the series in 1973 because he felt the characters had worn out and he was on the verge of becoming repetitive. However, neither Mafalda nor her friends disappeared. For instance, very probably because Mafalda always said she wanted to work as a translator for the U.N., intentionally mistranslating aggressive statements made by delegates, the kids have been featured in worldwide UNICEF campaigns to promote children’s rights and in posters encouraging people to support the Red Cross. Similarly, they have appeared in advertisements to teach children in poor areas hygiene or nutritional habits and in voter education programs.

Although in the strip Mafalda was always six years old and it was never known if she made it to being a U.N. translator, with these ulterior projects she has become one of the most cherished Latin American democracy promoters. And with this work, his author, Quino, became one of the most heard voices against authoritarianism in one of the darkest times in Latin America.

Mar 2, 2014

Huber Matos

Huber Matos, commander of the Cuban Revolutionary Army, later imprisoned for his opposition to Communism (from the New York Times).

Huber Matos, commander of the Cuban Revolutionary Army, later imprisoned for his opposition to Communism (from the New York Times).

Last Thursday, Huber Matos, former leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Army, passed away at 95 in Miami. He entered in Havana next to Fidel Castro on January 1st 1959, full of hopes for the new world about to be built. He was publicly judged in a show trial when he decided to separate from the revolutionary group over disagreements on its turn towards Communism. And he suffered all kinds of humiliations during the twenty years he was in jail for his defection from Castro. He will be buried in Costa Rica, where was refuged before joining the rebels. But he stated that he wants to be moved to Cuba, next to his mother and people, once freedom has been restored in the country.

Unlike the Castros, whose father was wealthy, Matos was born to a modest family, with a peasant father and a rural teacher mother. However, he managed to obtain a PhD in pedagogy, working later as a rural teacher in various communities throughout the country. It was in this context that he realized about the great deprivations lived by the poor in Cuba. He coincided with Fidel Castro in being a member of the Orthodox Cuban People’s Party. In 1952 Fulgencio Batista staged a coup. Fidel, who was a candidate in the election that would have taken place months later, took arms against the dictator. Matos, equally opposed to Batista, sought refuge in Costa Rica. Later on, when Fidel’s fight took momentum, Matos rallied supporters and weapons and went to Cuba. During the remainder of the fight and the first months of the new government, Matos was close to Fidel, up to the point where sometimes he is identified as being part of his “inner circle”. What is more, some sources suggest he was third in the succession line of the Revolutionary Army, even above Ernesto Guevara, El Ché. In any case, he was appointed Chief of the Revolutionary Army in the province of Camagüey.

The rebels entered Havana in January 1959. The show trial of Matos took place in October that year. He sent a letter to Fidel commenting that he had come to realized that the relevant political and military figures who opposed Communism should leave their positions of responsibility before being removed. In this sense, he presented his resignation as military commander. Being called by Fidel ungrateful because he “did not know to pay with loyalty the spontaneous sympathies and gratuitous claps given by the people of Camagüey”, self-deified because of his keenness on giving speeches and appearing in photographs, and a traitor to the nation because he was accusing the revolution of being Communist, the same tactic used by dictators such as Trujillo to try to foster a military reaction against it, Matos was sentenced to twenty years of jail.

In an interview given just after his release, Matos spoke of the innumerable abuses he suffered imprisoned. He was severely beaten in the days prior to his liberation. At some point, guards attacked him so harshly that permanently caused the paralysis of one of his arms. He undertook six hunger strikes. And for three years was confined to an underground windowless cell, swarming with bugs and unbearably hot.

Freed in 1979, he stayed for some time in Costa Rica, making Miami his primary place of residence. From there he coordinated two initiatives, Independent and Democratic Cuba, self-identified as a party, whose goal is to explore with activists and other interested people the prospects of a new Constitution for Cuba, and the Huber Matos Foundation for Democracy, whose goal is to promote democracy and human rights protection in Latin America.

Hubert Matos’ life summarizes all the tones to be found in the experience of the Cuban Revolution: cheerfulness, doubt, repression, and exile. However, even more important than this, was Matos’ hope, shared with many Cubans, that change, opening and democracy are always possible, almost imminently, on the country.

Feb 27, 2014
Erika Hernandez

A Message From God?

Pope Francis at Saint Peter's Plaza / Source: EFE

This Wednesday Pope Francis called politicians and civil society members in Venezuela to forgive each other and engage in a sincere dialogue. He further asked to respect the “truth” and “justice.” To the eyes of the opposing groups, truth and justice are likely to mean different things. It is possible that what the civil society understands as ‘justice’ and ‘truth’ coincide with those of the Pope Francis but clearly not those of neo chavismo. The humanitarian and often outspoken character of Pope Francis has already caused controversy within the Vatican City walls and around the world. Yet, previous situations have not been as complex as this one suggests. Hence, the current state of affairs in Venezuela is a flameproof for the Catholic Church to prove itself: to make its interests align with its principles or remain silent, like it has been for the last few years around the world.

The government and the now restless civil society seem to be at a point where, in order to promote dialogue, a third party is necessary. Several Catholic groups have already raised their voices in support to dialogue besides the Pope. First, the social democrat party COPEI has already asked the Vatican and the UN for their help in verifying human rights abuses. The Venezuelan Episcopal Conference has also issued a communique calling for a dialogue between the parties, advocating for the right to protest and condemning the use of force. Despite the penetration of other religions –mainly Protestantism, Venezuela remains a strongly Catholic country. This can also be observed by Leopoldo Lopez’s letter to the Pope. Lopez, an opposition leader who handed himself to the authorities after being accused by the government of instigating violence, in his February 17 letter he asked the Pope to send his blessings to Venezuela. He also described Venezuela’s situation – economic crisis, unjustified detentions, organized crime and diminished liberties. The Pope’s message for dialogue appears to be a reaction to this letter.

Venezuela’s government has already shown some signs of weakness but without necessarily answering to the civil society’s needs clearly. First, on Monday President Nicolas Maduro said that he would send a new Ambassador, Maximilien Sanchez-Arvelaiz, to the U.S. This comes as a surprise given that since 2010 the US and Venezuela withdrew their respective ambassadors as a sign of rough relations. Sanchez-Arvelaiz was ambassador to Brazil and is thought to be one of the best political cadres under the Bolivarian Revolution. But naming such an ambassador could mean several things. However, in times of social and economic troubles, the timing seems adequate if Venezuela wants to continue having the U.S. buy its oil. It could also mean that Venezuela has a new strategy for figuring out whether “the Empire” is really plotting against it. In any case, the regime is already under ‘ridicule’ since popular international actors and sport figures have already complained about the situation. Among them, Rihana, Cher, Alejandro Sanz, and Steven Tyler.

Maduro’s government has already sought to reach out to civil society but only under its conditions. In saying that it wants a peace dialogue, it set an agenda that is not appealing to the citizenry. Mainly: that the guide to peace is the Constitution, which Chavez had unilaterally changed; to respect the Constitutions (respect for authoritarian institutions); to cut violence and defend the country from interventionism. Furthermore, Maduro said that more than including political parties he wanted to include society. If one of the greatest attributes of political parties is its mobilization skills, then it seems that Maduro is afraid that parties will be able to mobilize against his government. Moreover, he seems to want to convince former chavistas to move back to the government’s coalition. But how will this happen if it seems that the government has been running out of money due to a poor administration?

Not only is to Maduro’s best interest to convince former chavistas to gain their support. His government may also seek the Pope’s ‘blessing’ in this hard situation. Unlike Chavez, Maduro seems to be a firm Catholic believer. In June, the Pope received Maduro as well as several gifts from the “Bolivarian Revolution.”  Therefore, Pope Francis moment of truth could be whether he takes a strong stand or a mild one. True, like other state actors, the Vatican does have and acts in its own power interests. But, if the Church is to reform and decides to stamp a more active and compassionate chapter like during the Vatican Council II, then it could even gain more adherents. Making the principles of justice match state interests such as expanding Catholicism, would look more like a spiritual path. One where more people are likely to believe that the Church is, indeed, delivering a message from God.

Feb 22, 2014

The Sun Still Shines

From left to right, Hans Scholl, Sophia Scholl, and Christoph Probst, members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement the White Rose (from Jewish Virtual Library).

From left to right, Hans Scholl, Sophia Scholl, and Christoph Probst, members of the anti-Nazi resistance movement the White Rose (from Jewish Virtual Library).

On February 18, 1943, Sophia Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst were detained in the main campus of Munich University, where they were all students, while distributing the sixth leaflet of their intellectual resistance group, the White Rose, against Hitler and the Nazi regime. On February 22, they were trialed by Roland Freisler, head of the infamous extra-constitutional People’s Court, for treason and other relatively minor crimes (such as the hoarding of paper, ink, and post stamps, scarce materials during war time). In a matter of hours they were found guilty, sentenced to death, and executed. Over the course of the following months, other members of the group followed the same fate. In this way, Nazi authorities expected to wipe out any trail of this organization. For the remainder of the war, they were successful. But for the records of history, they completely failed.

The White Rose is one of the very few known organized resistances against Hitler and the Nazis that had a civilian origin and that opposed the regime because of its inherent political abhorrence, as opposed to the somewhat less uncommon actions of the military against the Führer for his bad war decisions. Hans Scholl and Alexander Schmorell began writing their pamphlets in the summer of 1942 complaining about the passivity of the Germans against the “irresponsible clique of sovereigns” who governed over the country. Citing Schiller, Goethe, the Bible, other German classics, and imbued with a Christian (from Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant perspectives) notion about the responsibility of humans to live up to the expected dignity of thinking beings, they continued composing pamphlets. In them they point out the falseness and evilness of Hitler and called Germans to sabotage the regime to end with the pointless war and to bring freedom back to the nation. While the inception of the resistance and its initial activities were the responsibility of Scholl and Schmorell, the pair quickly expanded to a group in the need of inputs to write the leaflets (paper, ink, and ideas), copy them, and distribute them (mailing them to selected people throughout Germany and leaving them in public places).

In their leaflets, the White Rose members expected (in a number of times, they urge) Germans to rise up against Hitler. Yet that did not happen. After its first three members were arrested and executed, the rest of the group thought that such news could instigate a revolt of students. Yet it did not. It took the invasion of the Red Army and the physical destruction of Germany to end with the National Socialist rule.

In an interview in her old years, Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge commented that it was not until long after the war that she realized that she was born the same year as Sophia Scholl, one of the members of the White Rose. Not only that; she shamefully noticed that at 22, in 1943, the same year in which Junge began working with Hitler, Scholl had been executed for her ideas of freedom and dignity. Polls of public opinion in Germany during and after the war have shown that Junge’s obliviousness of the situation in her country was not unique to her, and that the task the White Rose set to itself, of waking up the consciousness of its fellow citizens, was very hard to accomplish.

Seventy years after the events, the White Rose speaks of the enormous load its members took when they decided to shake the consciousness of Germans and retrieve their dignity and freedom. The weight of the load comes not only from the size of the task, the mobilization of a whole country, or from the fact that it was them, and not anyone else, who took that responsibility without anyone but their conscience asking for it, but because of the price that was implicit in this work and which they paid, their lives. That they fought to keep all their operations undercover suggests that they were quite aware of the cost of their liberalizing attempt. Anyhow, they did not care and carried on. Before and after the White Rose, even in this very moment when protests around the world have a rising death toll, citizens have decided to sacrifice everything they have for what they think is a better life for their countries. Many times they are not able to see the changes such sacrifices bring about, and in other occasions they may be futile. Yet, the mere fact that someone is willing to make them indicates that, as Sophia Scholl reportedly said while walking to the guillotine, the sun still shines.

Founded in 2004, Democracy and Society is a biannual print journal published by the Center for Democracy and Civil Society at Georgetown University. The D&S Blog provides web-only content, including special reports and investigative series, on issues relating to democracy and development.

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