Opinion: Latin America, Not a Free Territory for Civil Society

Freedom of association is not only a fundamental right, but also facilitates citizen’s ability to have a say in how government works. One of the first things authoritarians do when they take power is to exercise undue control over unions, media, and civil society.

Respecting freedom of association is not something governments do out of good will or charity. Rather, freedom of association is a right—and, as every right implies a duty, governments are obligated not to violate the right to association.

Further, states are obligated not to unduly interfere with the freedom of civil society organizations to operate and also to do their best to protect civil society organizations, activists, and human rights defenders from harm that might befall them when effectively exercising their right to association. This means freedom from intimidation, coercion, and physical harm as the freedom to associate without being guaranteed this security is not freedom at all.

Few publicly question the necessity of a vibrant, organized civil society in terms of ensuring responsive and effective democratic governance. However, both the public and the private sector frequently see non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as serious threats to their interests. Governments often restrict civil society to prevent public oversight while private sector groups often fear NGO’s criticism of their business practices.

Civil society in Latin America is under serious attack—part of the wider backlash against democracy and liberal institutions that has caused many countries to return to authoritarian pasts rather than look ahead to the future. Keen to develop institutions that suit their own power-hungry purposes, the backlash against democracy, and especially against civil society, is all about power.

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In recent years, authoritarian leaders have decided to create their own rules for government, often hiding behind the mantle of democracy or, in many cases, incorporating populism and common demagoguery to further a majoritarian conception of democracy that could just as easily be termed electoral authoritarianism.

And, what do these leaders do when they enter power? They crackdown on individuals and groups who challenge their “popular” conceptions—their understandings of what the people—at least in their minds—want. And, further, how do they do this? They do this by cracking down on democracy promotion efforts inside their countries.

Though this crackdown is sometimes obvious and brutally obvious, it can also be subtle, disguised in ostensibly “democratic language” but ultimately just—if not even more—dangerous than the obvious and brutal approach.

These less direct, less loud authoritarian actions by governments in recent years give us a cause to worry, eating slowly at democratic governance by gradually and ever-so-quietly restricting the space in which civil society organizations, activists, and interest groups operate.

Article VI of the Inter-American Democratic Charter provides that citizen participation is an essential right and responsibility for achieving the full exercise of democracy. However, in Latin America, some governments repeatedly violate the right of association—not only the more obviously authoritarian countries of ALBA (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua), but also supposedly more democratic countries like Honduras and Costa Rica.

Now as a Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, I have just finished a study that includes an assessment of the right of association of civil society organizations in all Latin American countries. According to quantitative data I generated, Brazil and Chile lead in terms of respecting the right for freedom of association. Argentina, Mexico, and El Salvador also scored relatively well.

These countries have fair systems for registration and operation, online access to information, and can register in less than 6 months. Their operations are free from intrusive government control and the government itself has an effective system in place for providing NGOs with tax exemptions.

In my study, Cuba fares by far the worst in terms of freedom of associate, no doubt a function of its overall failure to provide for human rights and fundamental freedoms. Even when Cuban law allows for the registration of a civil society organization, its freedom to operate is severely limited. Another serious case is Venezuela.

In December 2010, Venezuela adopted the Law on Political Sovereignty, grossly impeding the activities of human rights and democracy organizations to associate, assemble, and speak on issues of public importance. The government also extra-legally restricts the registration of civil society organizations, as well as persecutes and attacks civil society leaders.

Significantly, the law restricts the ability civil society organizations to collaborate with foreign partners and receive funds from international donors. Honduras, Ecuador and Nicaragua did not rate well either. This April, Honduras passed an association law that places extraordinary controls on civil society groups, including limiting the number of members an organization need to register to a minimum of 25.

Which is a prohibition on family members’ participation in the board or administrative functions in the same organization restrictions on how organizations manage funds, and an allowance for the government to close an organization with which it disagrees. Ecuador has also increased controls, regulations, and limitations on civil society. In the case of Nicaragua, civil society organizations face direct and indirect persecution from the government.

Costa Rica, a country that would seem amenable to civil society, also has problems. Legislation requires hindering civil society organizations ability to register by mandating that a government official be involved in the board of directors. Meanwhile, in Peru, a strong regulatory system tightly controls civil society, and government officials are intent to pass even more restrictions.

After various analyses of legislation and regulatory structures, as well as the ways in which laws are implemented in reality, I found the situation of civil society in most countries quite disappointing. Countries with greater economic and political stability seem to have the highest respect for the civil society organizations.

Aggregating data I collected in my research, the above graph reveals that democracy and transparency correspond with freedom of association for civil society organizations. From 0 to 50 the numbers indicate the fulfillment of several indicators to measure the level of freedom. The most advance countries in the region in terms of democracy, social development and economic improvements are the ones with better environment for civil society to operate.

The Alba countries fared worst in terms of having fair mechanisms for registration, as well as in respecting freedoms of operation, of assembly, and of expression. So, we can say that there is a direct relationship between socio-economic development and freedom of association. It is the case of the two Latin Americas again, one with open a fair rules of the game for COS to operate in Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay and the other with restrictive environment and persecution in the Alba countries.

It is not only the case in Latin America, if we evaluate some of the most progressive countries we can see that civil society organizations are able to operate without major restrictions. Even in China, the most awarded mayor due to her innovation and efficiency, Ms. Ma Hong, pointed out that the key of her success as government official in the city of Shenzhen (across the border of Hong Kong) has been dismantling most of the controls, regulations and restrictions for NGOs to operate and create partnerships with civil society leaders.

Freedom of Association and Assembly is a fundamental right in every country of the Americas at the regional level. To help to raise consciousness of the importance of civil society in the Americas and also commence regional cooperation aimed to support freedom of association and assembly for civil society organizations, the United States, with the sponsorship of Canada, Mexico, Panama, and others, has presented the Organization of American States (OAS) with a draft resolution on “Promotion of the Rights to Freedom of Assembly and of Association in the Americas.”

The resolution will be discussed at the OAS’s Forty-First General Assembly Meeting next week in El Salvador, and is open to amendment. Even though the resolution is far from perfect, it is an opportunity for the region to acknowledge the challenges with which civil society is confronted and begin looking for solutions.

Regrettably, in recent years the OAS has failed to live up to its potential to lead on expanding space for civil society. This is due to a lack of leadership (in my view Mr. Jose Miguel Insulza is the worst OAS secretary-general in its history) and lack of commitment from democratic countries like Brazil, Mexico, Chile or Uruguay to do the right thing and be effective in a South-South diplomacy to export democracy at the regional level.

However, the organization has great potential, and though it is what it is, it's the only regional mechanism that includes a wide swath of countries in the western hemisphere. Of course, some authoritarian leaders want to dilute the OAS or turn it into another handy inter-governmental organization to lend false legitimacy to internationally unacceptable actions, (think Unasur, the Union of South America Nations or the proposal of a OAS-like organization without Canada and the US) and thereby weaken the efficacy of the Inter-American Human Rights System.

While they continue this effort, our challenge as Democrats is to find a way for the OAS to become relevant again. In this regard, the General Assembly meeting next week provides not only an opportunity for civil society to gain some protection at the regional level but also a chance for the governments and the OAS to show that they care.

Dr. Carlos Ponce is a Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy and the elected general coordinator of the Latin American and Caribbean Network for Democracy. He is also a member of the steering committees of the World Movement for Democracy and the Community of Democracies. The views expressed in this article represent the opinions and analysis of the writer and do not reflect those of the National Endowment for Democracy or its staff. Twitter: @ceponces

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