While the issue of abortion continues to be a hot-button topic in the US, in Central American countries, there are plenty of tragic examples of what happens when women are denied reproductive freedoms. El Salvador, which also has a total abortion ban, even in the case of saving a mother’s life, provides another painful reminder of the fallout from denying women the right to determine their own body’s fate:
Doctors recommend that Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman with Lupus, terminate her 19-week pregnancy due to the associated risks of morbidity or mortality. Her doctors are worried that because Lupus has damaged her kidneys and caused other health issues, she is at high risk of preeclampsia, pregnancy related hypertension, and other life-threatening complications. Also, her fetus has a lethal anomaly that, aside from any of Beatriz’s health issues, will result in its eventual demise, either in utero or immediately after its delivery. [...]
In 1998, El Salvador completed a series of reforms, which included changing the constitution, resulting in an absolute ban against abortion. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the ban is so restrictive that doctors cannot remove ectopic pregnancies (when a fertilized egg stays is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), which have no chance of survival and put the mother’s health at risk.
Of course, Salvadoran politicians have not covered themselves with glory in the matter, as both the Ministry of Health and the Supreme Court have refused to address Beatriz’s case. And of course, the “total ban” is anything but. As is the case elsewhere, abolishing abortion does not eliminate the practice, but instead merely makes it safer for some women over others.
To be clear – this is an issue that affects poor women. Salvadorans who need to terminate a pregnancy and have money can go to private doctors and have an abortion without the risk of being arrested. They also have access to information and contraception that is not readily available in public schools or health clinics.
Poor women who can’t pay for a private doctor and have to rely on state facilities do not have any options available to them, other than trying to terminate their pregnancy at home.
This is not just the case in El Salvador. In countries throughout Latin America where access to abortion is legally restricted, the wealthier still manage to get safe, healthy, under-the-table access to abortion through personal connections, while the poor are denied safe treatment. El Salvador’s laws are some of the most restrictive in the hemisphere, but even banning reproductive freedoms for women on a more limited basis doesn’t get rid of the practice; it simply further denies some sense of equality to those who are already socioeconomically disadvantaged.
In a not-insignificant symbolic move, Pope Francis has opened the path for the beatification of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, whom a government-sponsored right-wing death squad assassinated while Romero conducted mass in March of 1980. Beatification is the third of four steps to canonization, bearing with it the title of “Blessed,” and, in Church doctrine, those who have been beatified can intercede on behalf of those who pray in the beatified’s name. Though Romero was well on the path to beatification under John Paul II, Benedict XVI tried to slow down the “mass-production” of saints during his administration, putting a hold on Romero’s process (politics may have played a role as well, given that Romero was an outspoken critic of poverty and repression in El Salvador, a politicization of message that ran counter to Ratzinger’s own suppression of such messages as Cardinal in the late-1970s and early-1980s). Though one’s mileage may vary on the actual value of beatification or/and sainthood, the fact that Francis has once again opened the path for Romero is not without symbolic importance and resonance in Latin America.
As scholarship and human rights reports have repeatedly demonstrate, the effects of torture on the human mind and body have long-term ramifications, and many of those victims continue suffer from both the psychological and the physical effects of torture decades after the regimes that committed such torture have left power. Two reports from Central America add to the demonstrated effects of torture and of the brutality of past regimes.
In El Salvador, a report on torture composed 27 years ago finally saw publication, making the stories of those who suffered torture at the hands of the state during the civil war of 1980-1992 public.
More than 40 torture techniques are described in detail and depicted in drawings in the report.
One of the most commonly used techniques was the “avioncito” (airplane), in which the victim’s hands were tied behind his or her back and the victim was suspended in the air from the wrists, often causing dislocation of the shoulders.
In the “capucha” (hood), a plastic bag was placed over the prisoner’s head, to partially suffocate them, while the “submarino” (submarine) involved simulated drowning.
Other methods were electric shock, cutting off the tongue, or destroying the eyes with chemicals. [...]
The book also provides profiles of torture victims who were forcibly disappeared.
And of course, this was not a human rights crisis that involved only Salvadorans. As a journalistic investigation uncovered, the US sent officer James Steele, a Vietnam veteran, to work with forces responsible for torture in El Salvador. Later, none other than Donald Rumsfeld sent Steele to work in Iraq.
Colonel James Steele was a 58-year-old retired special forces veteran when he was nominated by Donald Rumsfeld to help organise the paramilitaries in an attempt to quell a Sunni insurgency [...]
A second special adviser, retired Colonel James H Coffman, worked alongside Steele in detention centres that were set up with millions of dollars of US funding.
Coffman reported directly to General David Petraeus, sent to Iraq in June 2004 to organise and train the new Iraqi security forces. Steele, who was in Iraq from 2003 to 2005, and returned to the country in 2006, reported directly to Rumsfeld.
The US’s ties to repressive regimes and torturers in Central America in the 1980s is generally well-known among those who study the region or US foreign policy; that the US then redeployed to Iraq people tied to torture in Central America is a new, if semi-unsurprising, twist. And of course, a culture of impunity prevents those in El Salvador (and those in the US who aided them) from facing trial for their actions.
While a culture of impunity continues to reign in El Salvador, the same cannot be said for Guatemala, as the trial of former general Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide continues (a trial in which current president Otto Perez Molina’s name has been tied to past atrocities, charges he unsurprisingly has rejected outright). Last week, indigenous women who suffered systematic rape in the early-1980s while Ríos Montt was in power took the stand to testify about the terror and brutality they suffered at the hands of the state under Ríos Montt’s government. As powerful as the story is, the accompanying picture is perhaps even more so – 30 years after Ríos Montt was in power, she covered her face before testifying, revealing the ways in which the crimes of the past continue to haunt her present. Nor was she the only one:
[A] second woman to take the stand wept as she told the court that she had been raped by a series of men over three days in a military post in the Quiche department in the country’s heavily indigenous highlands region in 1982.
“They tied my hands and feet,” and raped me, she said, “Not just me but my mother, too.”
Her testimony is as sadly powerful as it is sadly familiar, as military regimes from Argentina to Guatemala and numerous countries in between used rape and torture to intimidate and terrorize their populations. That , after 30 years of impunity, Ríos Montt finally has to confront these crimes in a courtroom is no small step towards justice. At the same time, it’s another remarkably sad, if all-too-familiar, reminder of the long-term legacies of the regimes that operated throughout South and Central America (often with US support) from the 1960s through the 1980s.
-While many in the Americas celebrated the announcement of the first American pope last year, not all citizens (including Catholic clergy) in Francis I’s home country are pleased with Bergoglio or the Catholic hierarchy in Argentina.
-It appears the long national mourning of Hugo Chávez may have hindered plans to embalm the late Venezuelan president.
- José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz, the first economics minister of Argentina’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship, has died at 87. In a pattern that was not uncommon throughout the region, Martínez de Hoz garnered praise in the international community at the time for his imposition of neoliberal policies (policies that ultimately led to deindustrialization and privatization in Argentina), but whose imposition of such policies was accompanied by crackdowns on labor, repression, and human rights violations.
-In Brazil, former soccer player and current politician Romário is calling on Brazil’s Truth Commission to investigate Brazilian Football Confederation official Jose Maria Marin for his possible role in the murder of journalist Vladimir Herzog in 1977 during Brazil’s military dictatorship. Meanwhile, in another reminder of how broken Brazil’s legislative branch is, evangelical minister and congressman Marco Feliciano, who has openly made racist and homophobic comments in the past, was chosen to head Congress’s Human Rights Commission.
-Several Nobel Peace Prize winners recently wrote in support of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an organization that had been under criticism from member countries recently.
-It’s been more than 40 years since the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, the brutal dictator of the Dominican Republic for more than 30 years, and activists, scholars, and others are calling on the Dominican government to form a truth commission to fully investigate and officially address the regime’s brutality (including the murder of 25,000 Haitians in 1937 alone).
-The US military has acknowledged that prisoners at Guantanmo are on a hunger strike, though it denied that the strike was “widespread.”
-The trial of Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier for human rights abuses continues, and the defense seems to be struggling a bit. Duvalier’s attorneys asked one witness if she may have been arrested by mistake, her reply? “If I was arrested by mistake, I was imprisoned by mistake and forced into exile by mistake.”
-Activists in Argentina are pushing for judicial reform to make the system more transparent and “democratic.”-Guyana’s Parliament rejected a law that would have made it illegal to carry disassembled gun parts into the country, a law designed to reduce gun smuggling and gun violence in the country.
-Great Britain’s plan to require Brazilian tourists to acquire travel visas on hold for now.
-Finally, IPS had a fascinating story on how indigenous women in Chile are helping bring solar energy and clean energy into communities in the Atacama desert, one of the driest places on the planet.
The US certainly excels at trying to guess presidential elections way too early (guessing-games that prompt entirely-reasonable responses). While 2016 is still too far off, 2014 is not, where several Latin American presidential elections will occur. In Central America, Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Panama are all holding elections in February, March, and May, respectively. Mike Allison has an excellent summary of the three races right now. Read his whole post for the breakdown, but the shorter version is that runoffs seem likely in El Salvador, where the right-wing ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, has a slight lead over the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and in Costa Rica, where Partido Liberación Nacional [National Liberation Party] candidate Johnny Anaya polls ahead of candidates like Epsy Campbell and Otto Guevara (who has previously run in the 2002, 2006, and 2010 elections). Meanwhile, Panama’s situation is more tenuous, as the public speculates (and fears) constitutional reforms that would allow re-election.
In South America, Uruguayans will go to the polls in October to pick José Mujica’s successor. Bolivia is set to also hold presidential elections in December 2014. And of course, Brazil will have its presidential elections next October as well, for a total of at least 6 presidential elections next year, with campaigning having unofficially but visibly begun. Incumbent president Dilma Rousseff of the PT remains very popular as she faces reelection. After years of flirting with candidacy, Aécio Neves, the former governor and current senator from Minas Gerais, is finally running for the presidency for the center-right Partido Social Democracia Brasileira [Brazilian Social Democracy Party; PSDB]. While the PT and the PSDB are currently the two strongest parties for presidential politics, their hegemony is far from absolute; they continue to rely on the coalition-building that defines Brazil’s parliamentary-presidential system, and that means that there could be legitimate threats from other parties. Former environment minister Marina Silva, who had a strong third-place showing for the Partido Verde [Green Party] in 2010, has formed the new Rede Sustentabilidade [Sustainability Network]; while it is not yet clear whether her new party will focus on presidential politics, legislative elections, grassroots mobilization, or some combination of the three, certainly the path for her to be presidential candidate in her own party is open. In recent years, the PT and the PSDB have become the two strongest parties in Brazil’s parliamentary system, and Rousseff and Neves are understandably the front-runners. Indeed, while campaigning has not officially begun, Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the founders of the PT and the PSDB, respectively, and former-allies-turned-political-foes, have already begun trading barbs back and forth, trying to discredit the other party [and, consequently, the candidates]. Though Brazil’s presidential campaign cycle only officially lasts 3 months, it’s clear that it’s moving to informally expand campaign season through surrogates. It’s too early to say whether a runoff will take place, but expect more candidates to enter into the race; even if Rousseff and Neves remain front-runners in the latter half of 2013 and into 2014, dark horse candidates like Marina Silva, who could build on her 2010 success, or others may challenge the PT and PSDB.
And all of that comes after Venezuela and Paraguay both hold elections to fill controversial mandates [Venezuela with the death of Hugo Chávez, Paraguay 10 months after the forced removal of democratically-elected president Fernando Lugo], while Chile goes to the polls in November to elect a successor to embattled president Sebastián Piñera [when a 38% approval rating marks an "improvement," it seems safe to say things have not gone well for a president]. And of course, in November, Honduras will have elections for the first full term since the 2009 coup that overthrew Manuel Zelaya. All of that sets up for no fewer than ten presidential elections in the coming 21 months, marking a period of political transition that will have a deep impact on politics, economics, and social relations not only for the citizens of the respective countries, but for the region as a whole.
Argentina and Spain aren’t the only countries where children were stolen from their parents during military rule. As the Associated Press reminds us, El Salvador has its own history of children stolen from their parents during the civil war of 1980-1992. During that era, there were
hundreds of children who disappeared under a variety of circumstances during El Salvador’s brutal, 13-year civil war, which left some 75,000 people dead and thousands more missing. In most cases, the parents have yet to find out what happened to their children, while a few hundred of the missing have been identified after giving investigators DNA samples and other evidence.
Now, a human rights group, Probusqueda, is uncovering another macabre, and mostly unknown twist to the tragedy. In Contreras’ and at least nine other cases, low-to-mid-ranking soldiers abducted children in what an international court says was a “systematic pattern of forced disappearances.” Some of the soldiers raised the children as their own, while others gave them away or sold them to lucrative illegal adoption networks. In Contreras’ case, an army private spirited her away, raped her and gave her his own surname.
As the article goes on to point out, the work of Probusqueda has demonstrated that El Salvador is the second Latin American country where kidnappings of children of political opponents to military regimes took place, following Argentina. In Argentina, groups like the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo have successfully researched and revealed hundreds of such cases, leading to the prosecution and conviction of military-era leaders for their role in these kidnappings. Certainly, El Salvador has a longer way to go – only now is the depth of these crimes becoming clear, and prosecuting those responsible has a long way to go; while there have been some minor instances of the government making efforts to go after those responsible for human rights violations and even apologizing last year for the El Mozote massacre, such efforts have usually been timid at best, and a culture of impunity that allows human rights violators to walk freely continues to persist. Nonetheless, there is some hope – after all, in the region, the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt for genocide in Guatemala marks the first time in Latin America that a former head of state has faced trial for genocide in a national court. Such trials show that, while it may take decades, justice for human rights violators is not a lost cause; perhaps the attention drawn to El Salvador’s own kidnapped children will bring not just justice, but a powerful reminder and greater awareness of the depth to which the military’s actions during the civil war tore families and lives apart.
-Early reports are saying
245 232 people died in a nightclub fire last night in Santa Maria, a city in Brazil’s southernmost state of Rio Grande do Sul. Somewhere between 300 and 400 people were reportedly at the event, a party for university students. Apparently, the fire’s source was a live band’s pyrotechnics. [UPDATE: The Guardian has photos from the scene last night, some of which are fairly graphic.]
-In Venezuela, prison violence between prisoners and the Venezuelan National Guard at a prison in Barquisimeto left sixty-one dead and around 120 wounded.
-El Salvador will be holding presidential elections next year, and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the candidate for the incumbent-party FSLN, has said he will seek a repeal of the 1993 amnesty law that has protected war criminals and human rights violators, mostly in the military and governments between 1980 and 1992, from prosecution for their crimes.
-Cícero Guedes, an important figure in Brazil’s Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (Landless Workers’ Movement; MST), was shot dead as he returned home from an area near a sugar plantation MST members had recently occupied.
-Guatemala’s recent efforts to militarize public institutions, including those not directly connected to security forces, have created concerns over the potential stability of democratic institutions.
-In Bolivia, activists and feminists are demanding prosecution of provincial representative Domingo Alcibia, who was caught on security video apparently raping a drunk woman while she was unconscious.
-Brazil is set to launch a massive four-year study of the Amazonian rainforest that will detail the tree-count, biodiversity, and animal life in the region. The study is the first of its kind conducted since the late-1970s, when the military dictatorship conducted a similar study.
-In both Peru and Argentina, recent struggles over mining continue to shape social and political struggles, as people in Peru continue to protest the environmental consequences of mining, while in Argentina, powerful mining companies are using their economic influence and political ties to try to silence local journalists who seek to report on the environmental consequences of the mining activity in the northwestern parts of the country.
-While forty companies, including the massive Grupo Clarín (which has recently butted heads with President Cristina Kirchner) tend to dominate the market, a recent study found that alternative press in Argentina is also thriving.
-In a boon to historians of the Southern Cone (or Great Britain), last week Uruguay declassified archives on the Malvinas War, providing access to new diplomatic and previously-unknown materials on the war and its regional impact.
-Finally, in a unique mixture of 21st technology and urban history, Rio de Janeiro has begun incorporating QR codes into the city’s sidewalks to aid tourists, melding the codes into the city’s traditional mosaic sidewalks.
-With Hugo Chávez in Cuba convalescing from further cancer treatment even while his inauguration looms, there is growing tension over whether Chávez will assume power constitutionally or not. Proponents say he does not have to be in the country to assume, while opponents say if he cannot be inaugurated on Thursday, then a new leader must be appointed. A new plan that could be implemented would delay the inauguration until Chávez is able to take office. Now, the Catholic Church in Venezuela has weighed in, proclaiming it to be “morally unacceptable” should Chávez remain in power without officially being present for his inauguration. While the Church’s stance is unlikely to turn the tide one way or another, it adds a powerful voice to a situation that’s already uncertain, and could add to the political tensions in the country.
-Students in Guatemala continue to take to the streets to protest the government’s planned educational reforms. The reforms include a plan to make teachers’ certification take five years instead of three (as it currently requires), a move that students say will cost them more, an issue that was at the heart of similar protests last year.
-Chilean authorities arrested eight military officials for the murder of folk singer Victor Jara in 1973. Jara, one of the best and most popular of the Nueva Canción movement that highlighted social inequalities and was often associated with leftist politics, was arrested, tortured, had his hands cut off, and was ultimately shot shortly after the military coup that overthrew democratically-elected president Salvador Allende and led to Augusto Pinochet’s regime. And while Chile has finally arrested eight officials tied to the murder, his widow, Joan, has asked the US to extradite Pedro Barrientos Nuñez, another official tied to the murder who currently lives in Florida.
-Haiti renewed ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier’s passport after a judge ordered Duvalier not face charges for human rights violations during his regime.
-In another example of the deep social impacts that migration and xenophobia filter into everyday life, rights activists in northern Mexico are increasingly facing threats from unnamed groups over their role in helping migrants.
-Argentina sentenced another sixteen former military officials and seven police officers and civilians for their roles in human rights violations during the military regime of 1976-1983, capping off a relatively successful year that saw a number of successes as human rights violators faced justice (and victims and their families saw some sense of closure) for their actions during the dictatorship.
-Speaking of human rights in Argentina, the use of torture, while widespread under the military rule, has never gone away. Fortunately, officials and rights activists are set to start using surprise visits to prisons, juvenile detention centers, and psychiatric hospitals in an attempt to discourage and prevent the torture of inmates.
-Honduras has fired its ambassador to Colombia after two computers were stolen during a party in which at least two suspected prostitutes were in attendance. Of course, this is not the first time that Colombian prostitutes have been connected to high-level security controversies for foreign powers.
-In an attempt to reduce the number of real crimes committed with fake weapons, Mexico City destroyed thousands of toy guns this week. While the effort to reduce crimes like robberies through the measure, one can only hope the move leads to a reduction in crime and not criminals using real guns that actually kill people in order to commit robberies.
-Last week, Salvadoran bus drivers and microbus operators launched a work stoppage to protest an end to government fuel subsidies. As Tim points out, although the work stoppage came to an end over the weekend, there’s the chance it could resume, as the issue of the subsidy has not yet been resolved.
-Finally, though it’s a few weeks old, Chilean Justice Minister and former rector of the Autonomous University of Chile, Teodoro Ribera, resigned his position as minister after he was tied to allegations of bribery and corruption, as well as to questionable accreditation practices, allegations that further hurt the already-unpopular president, Sebastián Piñera, who has faced mounting criticism and protests over the issue of the cost of higher education and demands for reforms.
Tim has an excellent post up that considers some of the “lessons” of the struggle between the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Court in El Salvador. Some of his observations:
A victory for constitutional order. The resolution of the crisis represented a vindication for the Constitutional Chamber. The National Assembly and President Funes were forced to re-elect magistrates to the Supreme Court in compliance with the rulings of the Constitutional Chamber. The politicians were forced to back down from their attempt to transfer Belarmino Jaime out of the Constitutional Chamber, a move the Chamber had ruled violated the constitution. Thus El Salvador moved a step forward toward having a societal consensus that the Supreme Court, and in particular the Constitutional Chamber, has the last word when it comes to deciding what actions are in compliance with El Salvador’s constitution.
Irrelevance of the Central American Court of Justice. The petition of El Salvador’s National Assembly to the Central American Court of Justice in its dispute with the Supreme Court changed nothing. Although the CACJ first issued a preliminary ruling against the decrees of the Constitutional Chamber and later issued its final decision, these rulings had little impact in El Salavador except, perhaps, to prolong the crisis. The Constitutional Chamber ruled that the CCSJ did not have jurisdiction over matters of El Salvadoran constitutional law, and the final resolution of the crisis reflects this.
Role of the US. El Salvadoran commentators, particularly those on the left, pointed to pressure from the US government as forcing this resolution. Statements out of Washington concerning the possible suspension of US aid to the country if the crisis were not resolved were widely reported in El Salvador and may have prompted President Funes to convene the negotiation sessions which ultimately resolved the crisis.
The US can and should promote good governance and the rule of law in countries where it has a relationship. But in this case, I wish it had been done with more quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy. The very public statements from US government officials only enhance the appearance of a US willing to interfere freely in internal El Salvadoran affairs. It also provides material for that old ARENA propaganda tactic of alleging that an election of a left-wing candidate will result in the cessation of US aid, the elimination of TPS and other dire consequences.
The President’s Role. Credit should be given to President Funes for his role in convening the roundtable discussions of political party leaders which produced the resolution. While the process was not pretty, the 17 negotiating sessions eventually did produce an end to the crisis. While Funes had missteps in the crisis, such as his early support for the petition to the Central American Court of Justice, he corrected course when pushing the parties to negotiate on the basis of the rulings of the Constitutional Chamber.
I think this last point is particularly interesting. When Funes won the election in 2009, becoming the first politician from the leftist FMLN, there were a number of questions facing his presidency, including how effectively a president from the party that had its roots in the guerrilla movement that fought in El Salvador’s Civil War of 1980-1992 could govern in a historically conservative country. That he helped a deal get worked out in spite of those “missteps” shows just how effective he has been as a leader and politician, and speaks well to his government.
Last December, I commented on the 30th anniversary of the El Mozote massacre in El Salvador. While that massacre has received broad international and historical attention, it is tragically far from the only incident of state terrorism and widespread human-rights violations in the Salvadoran Civil War. Today marks the 30th anniversary of another of those massacres: the El Calabozo massacre. Although not as large as the El Mozote massacre, it was still a gross injustice; as the US Institute for Peace’s truth commission, found:
There is sufficient evidence that on 22 August 1982, troops of the Atlacatl Battalion deliberately killed over 200 civilians – men, women and children – who had been taken prisoner without offering any resistance. The incident occurred at the place known as El Calabozo, near the canton of Amatitán Abajo, Department of San Vicente. Although the massacre was reported publicly, the Salvadorian authorities denied it. Despite their claim to have made an investigation, there is absolutely no evidence that such an investigation took place.
As tragic as the massacre is, its circumstances are moreso. The 200-plus victims that the military murdered had previously tried to flee an area where the military had launched a massive campaign against guerrillas, presumably in order to escape the violence. Yet they were met with the very fate they had hoped to avoid in escaping:
The victims had converged on El Calabozo from various directions, fleeing a vast antiguerrilla military operation which had begun three days earlier in the area of Los Cerros de San Pedro and which involved, in addition to the Atlacatl BIRI, other infantry, artillery and aerial support units.
According to witnesses, the fugitives were surprised by the Atlacatl Battalion unit. Some of them managed to escape; the rest were rounded up and machine-gunned.
The military operation continued for several more days. The Government informed the public that it had been a success: many guerrillas had been killed, camps had been destroyed and weapons and other supplies had been seized.
On 8 September, two weeks after the incident, the massacre was reported in The Washington Post. The Minister of Defence, General José Guillermo García, said that an investigation had been made and that no massacre had occurred. He repeated this assertion in an interview with the Commission.
The El Calabozo massacre is an important reminder that El Mozote was far from the sole case of state-sponsored terrorism and murder during El Salvador’s 12-year civil war, during which 75,000 Salvadorans died or were murdered, and helps us remember why the ongoing fight for justice for the perpetrators and at least some modicum of peace for the victims and their families is still relevant today.