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Carolina Jiménez Slams Bukele as a “Would-Be Authoritarian on Steroids” Among Latin American Leaders

Carolina Jiménez Sandoval was the first woman in her family to go to university. In her native Acarigua (plains of Venezuela) she took to heart the advice of her grandmother who motivated her to study and she not only went to Caracas but to the United States and Japan and did not stop. Today she is the first Latina president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a voice for women in the region on issues of human rights and democracy. Born 50 years ago, she knows well the reality of countries like Nicaragua, Colombia and Mexico, where she has worked. Jiménez says that at the center of her work is the fight against oblivion. “Milán Kundera says that ‘the fight of human beings against power is the fight of memory against oblivion’. That is what authoritarians play to make us forget what they have done,” she says in conversation with EL PAÍS.

Ask: There is a feeling that we are in a dark hour for democracy in Latin America. Do you see it this way compared to other moments, even dictatorships in the region?

Answer: It is a very dark hour, but there are still lights. On the one hand, there is a democratic regression that suffocates us: highly consolidated authoritarianism like that of Venezuela or Nicaragua; others that are moving at an impressive speed, such as the case of El Salvador with Nayib Bukele, who in a single presidential term managed to dismantle the rule of law and move to a security model that clearly violates human rights, but with great popularity. Then, you have elections like those of Javier Milei in Argentina or the democratic deterioration of Peru; attacks on journalism in Mexico.

P. Why does this decline occur?

R: The democratic deterioration in the region is very clear. With very few exceptions, we see a retreat from that promise we once had about a Democratic Latin America after military dictatorships and civil wars. This is also accompanied by some disenchantment with democracy on the part of the people.

P. What do you think the disenchantment lies in?

R. The main regional survey data such as the Barometer show this. In 2010 people in Latin America were asked: ‘Do you think democracy is the main model of government that you prefer over others?’, at that time 63% said yes. In 2023, when faced with that same question, only 48% responded affirmatively. The crisis of democracy is also epistemological, it is one of citizen disenchantment with a system that promised many things to the people and gave them little. So yes, it is a very dark time. It reminds us of moments of lack of democracy and enormous restriction of our rights.

P. Where are the lights?

R: Latin America is not a region where we have remained silent; which, while experiencing many types of violence, does not have an active interstate armed conflict. Furthermore, although it is a conservative region, it has achieved rights victories such as those of Argentina and Colombia with the feminist movement, for example. Latin American youth no longer believe in institutions, in their congresses and presidents, but they believe in their causes, such as the fight for the environment, gender equality, and social justice. Furthermore, this is still a region where civil society is very strong.

P. With all these asymmetries, what do you see most worrying?

R. There are differences due to contexts and political history, but there are some regional patterns. Democratic setbacks bring with them old ghosts such as threats to freedom of the press, freedom of association, forced disappearances, political pressures and all of this is alarming. Latin America continues to be the most unequal continent in the world, with an enormous debt in environmental matters, which is reflected in the attack against leaders. The violence brought by organized crime is also a fairly deep-rooted regional phenomenon; some Latin American countries continue to be the main producers of illicit drugs, previously cocaine and now fentanyl. And in this totally anachronistic and prohibitionist framework of drug policy, the region continues to add deaths, the states fail to contain this violence that is now transnational, nor do they manage to propose an alternative to violence.

P. Violence against women is another pattern

R. With a huge component of very serious impunity. Authoritarianisms are patriarchal. The United States, for example, which was one of the first countries to legalize access to abortion, now faces a 50-year setback under the presidency of a far-right authoritarian; what happens in Argentina where Javier Milei has this theme in his narrative; and then there are the leaders who are supposed to be progressive and are not feminists at all. Venezuela has 25 years of Bolivarian revolution and there is no civil union; In Bolivia this measure is only a few years old; and in Mexico where the president has never promoted laws in favor of sexual and reproductive and LGBTIQ+ rights, everything has been achieved through laws, as in Colombia. The leaders of the region, regardless of what they are called, are quite conservative. Authoritarianism is closely linked to the setbacks in women’s rights.

It’s not just something in the region.

Democratic decline is global. Not only in China or India, with that huge population; but also in Europe where there are clear advances by far-right groups, such as Hungary or Italy. Authoritarianisms are trans ideological. Let’s look at the case of Vladimir Putin, misogynist, militarist and with zero tolerance for political dissidence or like Bukele, who is right-wing, but has enormous alliances with the Honduran and Nicaraguan governments.

Q. Why has Bukele’s rise been so rapid?

R. He is a leader with great control over the use of narratives and a very effective communicator. I define him as an authoritarian candidate on steroids, precisely because of the speed of his rise, which is understood in the context – also quite regional – of the criminal violence that affects people’s lives daily. There is no denying it, the gangs in El Salvador have controlled both urban and rural territories and there is absolute fatigue in society. He came to power, like many, promising that he was going to change that situation. At the beginning, we now know, he tried unsuccessfully to negotiate with them to lower the levels of violence. Then, he, who had already been co-opting the judicial power, abruptly changed the attorney general and judges of the Court, decided to try another strategy than mass arrests, which was a state of exception and which became permanent.

Facilities of the Terrorism Confinement Center (CECOT) in the municipality of Tecoluca, El Salvador. The maximum security penitentiary center has the capacity to house 40,000 inmates and was built during the presidency of Nayib Bukele. Tecoluca, El Salvador, February 6, 2024Gladys Serrano

P. A model that you already want to export

R. It is worrying that these models are believed to be replicable and sustainable. They are not and the example is Ecuador. We are already hearing about the Bukele model, although it is not clear what that means. However, as successes are seen, Bukele gains enormous popularity and that has led to being able to continue co-opting institutions to the point where he says, the people ask for it, I should be re-elected. When judicial independence is lost – something that is seen throughout the region – counterweights are lost.

Q. There are, however, other countries with deeply rooted authoritarianism, such as Venezuela. Why is there a deepening of this authoritarianism?

R. The latest events, such as the forced disappearance and detention of Rocío Sanmiguel and the departure from the office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the disqualification of opposition candidates, are symptoms of a repressive surge and violate international human rights and the spirit of the Barbados Agreement. The Government has been repressive for years, in fact, it is the only country in the Americas with an investigation by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. The strategy of repression is not new, but this is an electoral year that puts the permanence of Nicolás Maduro’s government in check because it is tremendously unpopular and because the opposition managed to hold primary elections.

P. Daniel Ortega has exiled intellectuals, he has taken away their nationalities, could he deepen the repression even further?

R. People in Nicaragua tell us that something else can always happen. When you think, what else will they do if they already have absolute control of power, they basically displaced civil society, closed universities, we see that they enter a phase of persecution of the Catholic Church, imprisoning priests or exiling them. Not only does he expel the International Red Cross and decide to even outlaw the Boy Scouts, but he begins a battle against a beauty pageant, arrests the family of the Miss Nicaragua queen and banishes them. That is why it is important that this authoritarianism is not forgotten or normalized. It is not normal for there to be forced disappearances, arrests or alternation in power. When we normalize it we abandon people.

P. What can it mean for women that there are two women candidates for the presidency in Mexico?

R. Mexico is a country with very high levels of violence, very marked by organized crime and with deep militarization. But the most interesting thing is that this year it will have a female president, the first in its history. It is very important at the level of representation, but what we want with women’s leadership in power is for them to exercise feminist, not feminine, leadership. For those of us who defend feminism from a vision of equality, there cannot be militaristic feminism, that does not exist, and it is very patriarchal. We do not see that the two main candidates bring different proposals for security: neither for the more than 100,000 missing people or for the control exercised by drug trafficking. We haven’t heard them talk much about women’s rights either. It is not an important part of your agenda.

Migrants cross the Darien Gap from Colombia to Panama on their long and difficult journey to reach the United States, on May 9, 2023. Ivan Valencia (AP)

P. One of its transversal themes has been migration. She recently asked Gustavo Petro not to politicize her.

R. We are in a time of accelerated migration like we have not seen before. In Venezuela, a perfect storm occurred, a human rights crisis. It is no coincidence that the first wave of migrants was after the 2014 protests, when Maduro began to see himself becoming authoritarian. The price of oil began to decrease and the recession arrived, years of tremendous scarcity. In January 2017, the Venezuelan Federation of Pharmacies issued a statement that the drug shortage rate was 85%. At that time, there were no financial sanctions. My claim to President Petro is that he repeat, without further analysis, what Maduro says day and night: ‘the only problem Venezuela has is the blockade.’ I insist, the sanctions deepened the problem, but that cannot be attributed as the sole cause of a complex phenomenon that affects the lives of millions of people. And it is serious that the leader of a country that is the main recipient of the entire life of the Venezuelan diaspora says it.

P. And there is the humanitarian crisis in Darién

R. What the United States does is externalize its borders and promote a regional containment system and we see our countries cooperate efficiently: sending soldiers to the borders, instead of moving towards the creation of a regional protection system. It is quite disappointing to see governments working together to contain and having many difficulties to protect. It is a huge debt that the entire continent has.

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