Activism did not disappear during quarantine
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the year 2020 was marked by the role of feminist and social movements that helped bring about immense political change despite the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic which dominated the headlines and became a global concern.
In a year when the decriminalisation of marijuana and controversies over the raffle of the presidential plane were topics of conversation, feminism and the perceived “anti-feminism” of the Mexican government also warranted attention. In March, a protest took place against the daily average of 10.5 femicide cases in Mexico. Further demonstrations followed seeking justice for individual cases, including for Ingrid Escamilla, Fatima Aldrighett and Jessica González Villaseñor.
Despite political repression during protests in Cancun, the campaign bore fruit with the introduction of the Olympia Law that sanctions digital harassment against women, the Ingrid Law against the dissemination of images of crime victims, the public registry of sex offenders in the Mexican capital, and the Amnesty Law for abortion.
The blueprint for a law that legalised abortion, promised by the government in March 2020, was put on hold.
Faced with the initial setback, social media groups played a key role in strengthening women’s support networks throughout lockdown. Protests were organised against the alarming increase in femicides during the pandemic. Tweets from the grassroots organisation Ni Una Menos (Literally: “Not one [woman] less”) mobilized activists and thousands took part in a virtual handkerchief rally (waving of green scarves) to demand that the government of Argentina urgently address the voluntary abortion law.
In Venezuela, feminists used WhatsApp to continue to support women and provide virtual talks about feminism; and in Nicaragua, feminist groups denounced the neglect and lack of justice for the victims of gender-based violence and the victims’ families.
In January, before COVID-19 arrived in Trinidad and Tobago, a public ceremony was held to commemorate victims of femicide. Citizens demanded effective measures from the State to protect women and girls. In March, following another case of femicide, online users highlighted the link between gender-based violence and child abuse, particularly in instances when COVID-19 restrictions were accompanied by an increase in domestic violence.
In December, when news headlines reported on the femicides of a young mother and an adolescent, social media users expressed fatigue with the narrative that women “should take care of themselves”. Instead, users argued that the focus and responsibility should be removed from women and redirected towards the aggressor.
Political movements in Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, and Chile
The greatest change in Uruguay occurred in the political arena with the departure of the Broad Front (Left-wing political coalition) and the 2019 election of Luis Lacalle Pou who is from the National Party which returned to power after thirty years as head of the government’s “multicolour coalition”.
The current opposition from the Broad Front, as well as other political groups, are critical of the government for the promulgation of the Law of Urgent Consideration (‘Ley de Urgente Consideración’), which they perceive to be a setback in freedom of expression. However, the Lacalle government’s successful control of the first wave of COVID-19, resulting in only a few dozen fatalities, positioned the country as a leader in crisis response.
In Bolivia, in October, after a year of polarisation exacerbated by racism and attacks on journalists, citizens peacefully headed to the polls. 55% of voters elected Luis Arce and David Choquehuana from the Movement Towards Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo). The election of Arce was celebrated in major cities around the world.
Polarisation may continue during the run-up to the sub-national elections for mayors and governors scheduled for March 7, 2021.
Bicentennial generation chasing corruption.
International press understated the importance of the protests of the “bicentennial generation” in Peru primarily comprised of young people marking the 200th anniversary of Peru’s independence. Demonstrations took place within the context of a country troubled by the Congressional removal of President Martín Vizcarra, the resignation of an illegitimate government of Manuel Merino and the appointment of Francisco Sagasti as interim president. Both Merino and Sagasti used excessive police force against young protestors resulting in at least two fatalities. The chaotic political context this year was compounded by the COVID-19 health crisis as well as the implementation of extractivist policies in favour of large companies in indigenous areas.
Meanwhile, the pandemic did not prevent Chile from holding a historic referendum on October 25 when an overwhelming majority approved the changing of the Constitution promulgated by former dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1980. For a large section of the population, the Constitution was considered as “the mother of Chile’s inequalities”. The referendum was the primary demand that fueled the social uprising of October 2019, to which the government responded with repression, arrests, and numerous human rights violations.
From North to South: Violence, authoritarianism, disinformation, and protests
In Colombia, in addition to the high death toll from COVID-19, citizens highlighted their dissatisfaction with the absence of effective solutions to combat high levels of violence across the country. According to the Institute for Studies of Development and Peace, ninety massacres took place in 2020. However, President Ivan Duque insists on denying the seriousness of the homicide rate in the country.
Particularly disturbing was the increase in murders of social leaders and human rights defenders. It was revealed that the police were involved in the murder of Attorney Javier Ordóñez. This finding led to protests followed by police repression and the resulting deaths and injuries of at least ten individuals.
Death threats, assassinations, harassment, abuse and censorship against journalists and activists were constant throughout 2020, yet within this context alternative forms of digital media also emerged that helped activists evade censorship.
In Venezuela, after a year of relative economic normalisation, despite hyperinflation and the amplification of the humanitarian crisis, the pandemic resulted in a resurgence of the government’s authoritarian measures. Greater militarisation, control of state institutions and political persecution of journalists and humanitarian activists all characterised public policies. In addition, Nicolás Maduro’s government displaced dissident political representation through a questionable parliamentary election.
The pandemic exacerbated Venezuela’s migration crisis, already the most severe in the region with 5.4 million citizens already outside the country. Reports have highlighted that many members of this community are unable to meet their basic needs in host countries, suffering from homelessness and food shortages.
In Jamaica, chaos and fear overwhelmed citizens. While the COVID-19 pandemic topped the list of concerns, an informal poll on Twitter revealed that it was closely followed by fears of a possible increase in crime, despite the fact that the Jamaica Police reported a slight decrease in reports of crime compared to the previous year.
Moreover, night curfews during the pandemic do not appear to have prevented hundreds of illegal parties and social activities from taking place, some of which (organised by people with criminal ties) resulted in acts of violence.
In Nicaragua, citizens have suffered a mixture of negative emotions caused by the public health crisis, concerns over the accuracy of data relating to COVID-19, the impact of the IOTA and ETA hurricanes, and the prospects for the 2021 elections in a country where police repression, the lack of freedom of the press and expression and violations of human rights persist on a daily basis.
Following the wave of protests in 2018, some 100,000 people fled the country, but many Nicaraguans in exile remain involved in political activism. Meanwhile, the government of Daniel Ortega is promoting a triad of laws to strengthen its apparatus of control over the population and prevent any attempt at grassroots opposition.
Further north in El Salvador, 2020 was a year rife with political conflict. President Nayib Bukele constantly confronts the other organs of the State: the Legislative Assembly and the Constitutional Chamber, and referred to the deputies and magistrates as “corrupt, criminals and thieves”. For many, his aggressive style reveals a political plan to control the country. Still, he maintains an approval rating of more than 75% despite accusations against him of corruption, negotiating with gangs and attacks on members of the press.
When Bukele wrote on Twitter about the impact of the pandemic in Ecuador, the Ecuadorian government denied it. Soon, the content circulating on social media made headlines around the world: bodies that no one collected, families searching for the body of a loved one, and alleged cremations of corpses in the streets.
The disinformation narrative was not enough for the government of Ecuador to explain what the city of Guayaquil experienced. Faced with an overwhelmed reality, a Joint Task Force was created to bury the corpses. The Guayaquil mayor’s office had to deliver cardboard coffins to the families. Responding to the crisis, the Indigenous peoples of the region organised to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
In short, the pandemic caught a region off guard that was already facing numerous problems, and it also tested the resilience of social movements which vigorously campaigned for human rights.
Despite this, some good news on gender issues in the region were highlighted: Ecuador had its first trans march, the government of Argentina approved the trans-transvestite labour quota in the public sector, Bolivia as well as the state of Puebla, Mexico recognized the free union between people of the same sex.
The special edition of “Voces de Latinoamérica” (‘Voices from Latin America’) from the digital medium La Lupa, which features some of our authors from Bolivia, Uruguay and Mexico, analyses the key events in the region: