Protests in Latin America: The Tension Between Rights and Order

February 23, 2023

“The right to protest is not an absolute right. You're not allowed to do whatever you want, whenever you want, wherever you want, but the state should allow you to exercise that right peacefully and provide the conditions for that to happen”, says Tamara Taraciuk Broner in this week’s #Forum2000online Chat with Hernán Alberro. Ms. Taraciuk is the Acting Director of the Americas Division at Human Rights Watch, USA. Mr. Alberro is an Associate Fellow at the Forum 2000, Czechia. What do the protests in Latin America show us about the tensions between the right to demonstrate and the democratic order? How are the authorities responding? What are the most important concerns in the region?

According to Tamara Taraciuk, you will learn that:

  • In the recent waves of protests in Latin America, certain patterns can be identified. The first one is that the protests tend to be related to very basic needs that have not been met and that are not being provided by governments. These protests bring together people with different types of requests that range from social democratic governance to social needs. Second, in some countries, security forces are unable to respond properly to the protests. The violence on the streets on the side of demonstrators requires a response by authorities, but it ends up being disproportionate.
  • There are human rights that do not admit any type of "degree" or balance. For example, no one can torture a person. There are other rights that do require a delicate balance, such as the right to freedom of expression and association, which are enabled and guaranteed by the State, but are generally protected to the extent that they are expressed in peaceful demonstrations. There is where the tension begins, when demonstrators, for example, close roads and do not allow ambulances to go through and provide health care to the population or when they cut off an entire area in a city and prevent food to enter that area.
  • The state should allow the people to exercise their right to protest peacefully and provide the conditions for that to happen, but at the same time has the obligation to respond with proportionate force when there are incidents of violence amid protests.
  • Another problem is that when there is a disproportionate response to protests but no accountability for abuses.
  • There are accusations against authoritarian governments such as that of Cuba and Venezuela according to which they would be the instigators or even funders of protests in other Latin American countries. However, this should be investigated by independent judicial systems that observe both the crimes committed by some protesters and infiltrators and the abuses committed by security forces. Both things are wrong and should be investigated.
  • Social networks and the internet play a very important role, for example, in countries where there are very limited – if any – independent media. In those cases, social media is a way to obtain information that is not otherwise available due to authoritarian controls. They can also help the population to mobilize. However, there is also a considerable risk of getting false or incomplete news.
  • It is the responsibility of the people not to spread false news. And a certain level of control is important, but without undermining freedom of expression or falling into the authoritarian temptation of censorship. All strictly necessary control or regulation must be within the framework of the law. Arbitrary controls are not acceptable.
  • The democratic backsliding in the region is worrying, not only the dictatorships in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, but also democratically elected leaders that come to power and once in power they turn their back on the most basic democratic guarantees like the judicial Independence and the free press.
  • One of the main challenges moving forward is how we can protect democratic institutions and democratic guarantees in a context in which these authoritarian leaders are selling easy fixes to the problems that people genuinely have.

This interview was recorded on February 16, 2023.