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The ‘New Left' and Human Rights, Political Participation and Civil Society-State Relations

December 05, 2007 // 8:00am4:00pm

The parties and coalitions of the Left and Center-Left that now govern much of Latin America and their relationship to civil society was the focus an international conference in Buenos Aires on December 5–6, 2007. Co-sponsored by the Latin America Program and two Argentine institutions, the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella and the Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales (CELS), the conference brought together scholars and ublic officials from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, and Venezuela to explore to what extent so-called "New Left" governments were adopting different approaches than their predecessors to questions of human rights and political participation, and whether, if at all, the emergence of new social actors was changing the nature of the relationship between the state and civil society.

The conference on "The ‘New Left' and Human Rights, Political Participation and Civil Society-State Relations" opened by exploring the processes through which the public in Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay was coming to terms with the human rights crimes committed during the time of the military dictatorship, by advancing programs of reconciliation and/or holding those responsible accountable to justice. CELS resident Horacio Verbitsky asserted that civil society organizations have played a decisive role over the last twenty years in generating awareness of human rights violations within society and overcoming the obstacles put in place by governments bent on withholding the
truth. While President Néstor Kirchner had played a critical role in creating the political climate for pursuing accountability through the judicial system, his actions have been sustained by a broad social movement active for decades on behalf of human rights.

Elizabeth Lira of the Center for Ethics, Universidad Alberto Hurtado, Chile, sketched the broader political context for the human rights policies of Chile's post-dictatorship administrations. Initially, Presidents Patricio Aylwin and Eduardo Frei saw human rights as an issue to be settled through a truth commission and reparations to victims, but not trials of military or civilian officials responsible for the repression. The pursuit of legal remedies inside Chile changed with the arrest of General Augusto Pinochet in London in 1998. Lira stressed that with the passage of time, a new generation has come to power in the armed forces and other institutions, and Chile's last two presidents—Ricardo Lagos and Michele Bachelet—were themselves victims of the repression. As in Argentina, the participation of a complex array of actors in the public sphere— particularly organizations established by the victims' families—as well as new initiatives in the legal sphere have expanded the boundaries of action. In the case of Uruguay, Juan Faroppa, former undersecretary of the interior, discussed majority public support for the 1986 amnesty law, known as the Ley de Caducidad. Faroppa credited the government of President Tabaré Vázquez with substantive changes in the government's position regarding accountability; although the Ley de Caducidad has not been repealed, Vázquez and the ruling Frente Amplio coalition have adopted an official policy of allowing investigations to go forward. Groups in civil society have also exerted constant pressure on the question of impunity.

In terms of the current human rights agenda, the main challenge, according to Felipi Michelini, Uruguay's subsecretary for education and culture,is the endemic violation of human rights represented by poverty, exclusion, child labor, and the vulnerable position of women and ethnic minorities. Oscar Vilhena Viera of Brazil's Fundaçâo Getúlio Vargas and Conectas discussed what he called "the paradox of Brazilian democracy": a generous bill of rights under the 1988 Constitution coexisted with an unreformed judiciary and police. Structural inequalities and subversion of the rule of law have resulted in a society that is much more violent today than it was during the dictatorship. Vilhena credited the Lula administration with important advances in the areas of education, health, and race relations, but said that fragmented political power n Brazil and the autonomy of state governments leave local oligarchies in place that have thwarted more progressive rights policies. Thus, the policymakers of the "New Left" must cooperate with the "Old Right."

Marcela Ríos Tobar of the United Nations Development Program in Chile argued that the human rights movement in Chile has limited the human rights agenda, as the traditional Left has focused on the repression and political persecution that took place during the dictatorship. Some issues such as gender equality–an important issue for President Bachelet—now figure in the human rights agenda, but there is still a tendency to limit the recognition and expansion of rights to those that can be "justified" as reducing inequality and improving the quality of life for the poorest sectors. Such is the case for indigenous communities: although they have benefited from social and economic programs, their demands for recognition as ethnic groups distinct from the hegemonic culture are largely resisted.

Panelists discussing Bolivia contrasted in their interpretations of the government of President Evo Morales and its implications for democracy. Luis Tapia of Bolivia's Universidad Mayor de San Andrés said that Morales' election represented the displacement of olivia's business sector from control of the executive branch, which for the first time contained representatives of civil society, union leaders, and professionals linked to the indigenous movement. Tapia characterized Morales' party, the Movimiento al Socialismo, as an electoral party that not only had saved the party system in Bolivia at a time that it was greatly discredited, but also acted as the "great mediator" of the representative system. The MAS maintained corporatist links to various social movements, negotiating bilaterally with each of its fragments and diverse forms of articulation. René Antonio Mayorga of the Centro Boliviano de Estudios Multidisciplinarios said that Bolivian politics were characterized by deep polarization between political, social, and regional forces, engaged in permanent confrontation and contributing to a "catastrophic stalemate" in the political system. He described the Morales government as anti-democratic and hermetic, driven by the anti-government logic of the social movements in whose name it governed. The dynamic of confrontation was accelerating the collapse of political parties and the assertion of regional autonomies, a war of attrition with no end in sight.

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