Authoritarian and populist presidents in Latin America have been emboldened by a weakening of democratic values in the United States, a human rights leader says, citing Republican voters’ refusal to accept Donald Trump’s electoral defeat .
José Miguel Vivanco, who is stepping down as head of Human Rights Watch’s Americas division after 28 years, said the Trump phenomenon “has provided ammunition and inspiration to the wrong side in Latin America.”
The example he sets for leaders like far-right Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro or populist Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is “super dangerous”, he said in an interview with the Financial Times from his office. in Washington.
“Eighty percent of the Republican Party don’t believe in the electoral system and they think massive fraud explains Biden’s election,” Vivanco said. “The fact that democracy is wounded to the core in the United States makes the voice of the United States very weak. . . and American democracy itself seen as vulnerable, because the political establishment is not united around democratic values.
A tireless defender of democracy and human rights, Vivanco first witnessed the abuse of power as he grew up under the military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet in his native Chile in the 1970s. led to study law and spend his career using it as a tool against rights abusers in a continent where abuses are all too common.
“His impact on the region has been profound,” said Eric Farnsworth, a former US State Department official who is now vice president of the Council of the Americas. “His word has been extremely credible as he is unwilling to qualify his opinions according to the politics of the country in question… When he says something, it should be taken seriously.”
During Vivanco’s long career, he negotiated face to face with Fidel Castro for the release of political prisoners in Cuba and was expelled from Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela by a gang of gunmen in 2008 for “insulting the Bolivarian Revolution”.
There is little time for romantic views of revolutionary leader Fidel. “The negotiation with Fidel was very tense, very appalling, very difficult,” he recalls. “He was very aggressive. Vivanco managed to secure the release of six prisoners but was never allowed to return to Cuba.
Unusually for a human rights official, Vivanco has won the respect of presidents across Latin America for his impartiality and fierce commitment to principle.
“I have witnessed his work and often the recipient of his criticisms, which have always been formulated with professionalism, objectivity and fairness, without consideration of ideology or political affiliation,” said the former Colombian president and prize. Nobel Peace Prize winner Juan Manuel Santos. FT.
Today, Vivanco is particularly concerned about the example Chávez set during his presidency from 1999 to 2013, winning office first as an anti-establishment populist and then consolidating power until his death. passing power to his chosen heir Nicolás Maduro.
Chávez, he believed, exemplified “the concept that if you are democratically elected in free and fair elections, once in power you can do whatever you want”. Now, he noted, the region’s two largest economies, Brazil and Mexico, are both ruled by populists with authoritarian tendencies.
“There are many more risks in Mexico than in Brazil,” Vivanco said, pointing to the strength of democratic institutions and independent media in the latter country as reasons for hope. But in Mexico, López Obrador “is trying to rehabilitate a foreign policy, at least towards Latin America, which somehow takes up the heritage of Chavism”.
The Mexican president “manipulates public opinion in a masterly way”, believes Vivanco. “He systematically lies, the same way Trump lied. It’s part of his normal speech. Facts don’t matter.
The comparison with Chávez should not be overstated – Vivanco sees no signs that López Obrador intends to stay in power beyond his six-year term – but he is alarmed by the spectacle of the Mexican leader welcoming presidents repressive forces in Cuba and Venezuela.
Although his organization has just published a grim report on the state of human rights in Latin America, warning of an “alarming reversal of fundamental freedoms”, Vivanco said that overall there was been a dramatic improvement in the region over the past three decades.
He cited the increased power of the judiciary in many countries, the corruption exposed by Brazil’s sprawling “Car Wash” investigation centered on state oil company Petrobras, gains in the region on women’s reproductive rights and increased tolerance for sexual minorities.
His main concern is the risk that democracy will be undermined by the growing frustration of Latin Americans with the inability of elected governments to deliver on their promises. “What is at stake and at risk is nothing less than the credibility of the democratic system,” he said.
“If Latin America is not able to show that in a democracy, it is possible to improve the standard of living of the population. . . and to provide quality public services. . . the conditions are met for the emergence of anti-democratic options.
Its objective is now to pursue projects that will prevent abuses from being committed, rather than having to report them afterwards. This will include partnering with the private sector to sponsor projects that improve the rule of law and transparency. “The crisis of the democratic system is such that you need allies,” he said.
“The answer is not the ICC [International Criminal Court] and sanctions, because when you’re dealing with the ICC, it’s already too late.