The looming threat of authoritarianism in Latin America: reflections from #LeadingTogether2019


Marco A. Blanco


To inaugurate the Leading Together Conference, Council on Foundations hosted the Global Philanthropy Dinner on Sunday 29 May, which featured a timely discussion on the looming threat of authoritarianism in Latin America.

A few days after the Global Philanthropy Dinner, I sat down with Celina de Sola, co-founder of Glasswing International, who moderated the discussion between three panelists, Vonda Brown (Open Society Foundation), Juanita Leon (La Silla Vacía), and Claudia Paz y Paz (Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL). Each speaker has dedicated—and risked—their own lives to improve the democratic institutions underpinning Latin America. The panel itself was a testimony to the courage of women activists and social shifters in Latin America—a region that is deeply characterized by patriarchal, machista, and androcentric values.

I started the conversation with a simple question: What do you feel like was not adequately covered in the discussion? As I spoke with de Sola, three over-arching ideas arose which are worth noting:

1. Issues, not instances
The rise of authoritarianism in Latin America is not a cohesive narrative that may be easily explained in an article, a two-hour discussion, and certainly not in a three-point listicle. Whether in Venezuela, Nicaragua, the Northern Triangle, or Brazil, there are simply too many instances in Latin America where democratic institutions are being undermined—each has its own political, economic, and social nuances. It’s not realistic to expect a status update on the cornucopia of emerging authoritarian instances in Latin America; rather, a discussion on a few of the critical issues and corresponding responses to address authoritarianism in the region.

2. Relevancy to US domestic politics
The panelists shared their own experiences combating authoritarianism in Latin America, which unearthed three critical issues related to authoritarianism: human rights violations, impunity, and the proliferation of false narratives. If given the opportunity to moderate the discussion again, de Sola expressed an interest in further elaborating on how these issues in Latin America directly affects migration to the US.

As part of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Claudia Paz y Paz shared her experience investigating the violence that erupted in April of 2018 in Nicaragua. She explained their decision to continue the investigation despite President Ortega’s administration’s reluctance to fully cooperate with their requests for transparency. These international criminal justice processes have significant consequences for migrants, refugee, and asylum-seekers fleeing Nicaragua. To de Sola’s point, it’s not just a matter of highlighting the gravity of the violence in Nicaragua, which has caused an uptick in Nicaraguans migrating to Guatemala, Mexico, and the US. Nor is it solely about pinpointing the barriers in conducting international justice processes. Rather, it is to note how the verdict of this investigation directly affects US domestic affairs. If the investigation concludes there was a violation of human rights, then there might be more funding and political pressure to reduce crimes against humanity in Nicaragua and deter emigration to the US.

3. Funding priorities for democratic building
So how can we help? ‘At the end of the day,’ de Sola remarked, ‘we want people to leave with an understanding on how they can contribute to these efforts.’ Paz y Paz’s response was not entirely clear, but supporting organizations that are responding to victim’s safety, along with those that are providing legal services and documenting transgressions seem critical, and finally organizations that seek to raise issue awareness at the international level.

In the panel, Juanita León expressed a need to invest in high-quality, investigative journalism to further strengthen this key democratic institution in an age of post-truth politics. As a journalist and OSF fellow, León explained how the spread of misinformation or ‘fake news’ utilizing social media networks, such as Facebook and Whatsapp, skewed public opinion before the FARC referendum. For León, I would also add that is important to invest in educational campaigns that teach community members digital skills to help fact check information, along with building critical thinking skills that aid in truth-finding in the backdrop of a flurry of information.

Marco A. Blanco is Development Officer Global Fund for Children

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