On March 23, UN Special Rapporteur for extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Philip Alston reprimanded Chile for its “piecemeal and half-hearted” response to pervasive poverty and inequality. He criticized Chile’s mistreatment of its Indigenous community in particular: the “Achilles’ heel” he said of the country’s wider human rights record.
For years, Chile’s Mapuche Indigenous community, which accounts for one-tenth of the country’s population, has seen its relations with the Chilean government spiral downward.
Mapuche activists have long demanded the return of their ancestral lands, most of which are in the hands of large-scale farms and timber companies. But recently, these tensions have escalated in the context of growing structural inequality. Feeling that the government was unresponsive, Mapuche activists occupied land, set fire to property, and clashed repeatedly with police.
The government responded by prosecuting Indigenous activists as terrorists under a law adopted during the Pinochet dictatorship, alienating Indigenous groups and further inflaming the situation. The Chilean police have faced criticism for their “systematic use of excessive force”—especially against Indigenous activists. But the police remain among the country’s most popular institutions, suggesting that the force used against Indigenous protests isn’t particularly unpopular.
The reality faced by the Mapuche—long-ignored ancestral demands and a state’s harsh reaction—has made Chile a flashpoint for Indigenous rights activism in the hemisphere. These challenges extend far beyond Chile’s borders. Across the region, the past decade of economic growth and poverty reduction have, by and large, not dramatically improved the lot of Indigenous groups. As a point of illustration, on average, Indigenous workers still make just half as much as their non-Indigenous counterparts all across the region.
Each country has approached it differently. Bolivia’s plurinational model is a standout in its effort to create a multiethnic and multinational society—and, by most reports, it’s working. So, there are success stories. But there is no guarantee that what might work in Bolivia will work elsewhere.
To a certain degree, the challenges Indigenous groups face are unique, based on a complex history of colonialism and cultural repression. But these challenges reflect a trend shared by all groups that face discrimination in the region: structural violence and its impact on regional rule of law.
Structural violence is the social, political, and economic disempowerment of particular social groups—racial, sexual, religious, ethnic, etc… How Latin American governments treat groups subject to structural violence says much about the progress made—and how much work is left to be done. And this concept, ultimately, carries implications for rule of law in the region.
As Latin America undergoes rapid institutional transformation, minorities are often left out. More often than not, these groups demand little more than inclusion in the region’s new and changing institutions. And it’s their continued exclusion that implies a significant gap in rule of law throughout Latin America.
Sexual minorities, in particular, exemplify this struggle.
The Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community in Latin America faces a unique set of challenges. While marriage equality has made surprising strides in recent years in countries such as Mexico and Argentina, it often steals the media limelight, concealing chronically high levels of homophobic and transphobic violence that pose the most pressing threat to the wellbeing of LGBT-identified or perceived persons in Latin America.
According to Transgender Europe, of the 1,612 murders of trans-identified individuals in the world from 2008 to 2013, 1,250 occurred in Central and South America. Brazil alone accounts for nearly 44 percent of the world’s anti-LGBT violence, helping it to earn its reputation as “the world’s deadliest place to be transgender.” Recent years have shown no improvement. Between 2011 and 2012, anti-LGBT violence increased in Brazil by 21 percent, according to Grupo Gay da Bahia. In Chile, the murder of Daniel Zamudio in 2012 brought much attention to anti-LGBT violence and, perversely, helped push Congress to pass an (admittedly soft) hate-crimes law.
All of this speaks to a systemic failure of the region’s governments to safeguard the interests and wellbeing of part of the community.
Rule of law is often seen through a narrow lens: one that focuses on Latin America’s persistent problems with contract enforcement, drug trafficking, law enforcement, and corruption. But it’s more than that. The concept also speaks to a state’s (in)ability to protect and ensure the basic rights of its most marginalized communities. The failure to pass and enforce laws that protect all of the region’s citizens equitably is a rule-of-law failure. If we take the region’s record with Indigenous and LBGT communities as evidence, its report card isn’t looking good.
There’s much work left to do—and many reasons to do it. The welfare of historically marginalized communities has long been recognized as a human-rights issue. But if we can see these issues in terms of state capacity, Latin American countries must signal their determination to ensure the rule of law writ large. As long as the region fails to protect all its citizens equally, Latin America will continue to be plagued by crippling social stratification.
Carl Meacham, director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and Robert Funk, professor of political science at the University of Chile and executive director of .plural.