The pre-campaign for the Argentine presidential elections has started with promises of ‘order’ and to repress protests, as well as curtailing the rights of migrants and women, and a certain denial of the crimes of Jorge Rafael Videla’s military dictatorship.
The most radical candidate is the far-right Javier Milei, from the La Libertad Avanza party, with an aggressive agenda regarding many basic rights, but low real chances of winning the Presidency, according to Mariela Belski (Buenos Aires, 1971), executive director of Amnesty International (AI) in Argentina.
More chances you have Patricia Bullrich, one of the candidates of the conservative coalition Together for Change, which has announced that it will immediately end the blockades of streets and highways. Her rival in the primaries, the more centrist Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, accommodates prominent xenophobic and anti-women’s rights candidates on her legislative lists.
Facing a possible victory for the right, Belski warns of a smear offensive against human rights organizations in order to discredit future complaints, if one of the candidates from the conservative coalition wins the presidential elections on October 22, or goes to the second round on November 19. The mandatory primaries on August 13 will already give important signs of how the scenario will turn out.
Precisely, AI and other international and national NGOs, as well as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), have been accused of partiality from the leadership of Together for Change and related media, after they denounced abuses in recent protests in the Argentine province of Jujuy, bordering Bolivia, which ended with dozens of arrests.
The director of AI affirms that they will continue to denounce the institutional violence and the repression that takes place before or after the appointment with the polls, and that their strategy involves precisely the “internationalization” of the claim.
Does the aggressive rhetoric of some candidates represent a real threat to human rights in Argentina?
Patricia Bullrich, who is pointed out as a leader with great possibilities of winning the elections, forcefully expresses proposals to end the blockades of those who protest social plans, the limitation of the right to strike and the setback in the immigration agenda. Rodríguez Larreta does it in a more lukewarm way, every other day, something also present on his lists for Congress with liberal candidates and other very aggressive ones, who speak of “taking certain adversaries out of the world.”
Bullrich promises to “order” a big problem that includes unionists, picketers, migrants and drug traffickers. He seems to be more interested in order than finishing four years of government. The problem is that this agenda generates social conflict and the right to protest is guaranteed in the Constitution. If people don’t have a channel for dialogue, then they will protest.
Bullrich does not seem to have any dialogue proposal but repressive. I wonder if Argentina is a country that accepts this, if it accepts a repressive response that can have undesirable consequences, such as deaths. What happens if there are deaths? In his statements, they don’t seem to care much about the consequences.
What actions does Amnesty International foresee if one of the right-wing candidates wins?
We are not an organization that intends to confront governments. We have a style of survey, complaint, proposals and dialogue with the authorities. I don’t know if they will receive us or not. There are countries with very right-wing governments with which we have dialogue. Of course, our strategy includes the internationalization of the complaint.
In Argentina it is unfeasible for things to happen like in Hong Kong or India, where some organizations were expelled. There are two things that we are going to do: many of those who protest on pickets are from migrant families and we are going to be aware of their defense in the regulatory framework that we have in our country.
Argentina has the most progressive immigration law in the world, which many imitate and are watching. And we will do the same with regard to the contexts of repression and the denunciation of institutional violence.
In what sense is immigration law one of the most progressive?
Argentina is a country that receives migrants to whom it recognizes many rights and services. When they arrive, after a basic formality, they can take out their residence, go to school and to the hospital. We have always been a country of migrants, but there is a growing political usage that targets brown migration.
Despite the fact that migrants generally integrate very well into society, a problem of institutional racism looms. There is an intention to punish the brown migrant from neighboring countries, who is identified as a potential murderer, criminal, linked to drugs.
The theory of the “two demons” or denialism of the State terrorism of the dictatorship (1976-1983) has gained strength in the electoral proposals. Do you see reversal risks in that regard?
Bullrich has a very strong speech, but it does not seem like a direct threat to the process of memory, truth and justice. Milei comes with an agenda that questions a huge range of rights and has on her lists candidates for Congress who hold denialist positions, but the possibilities that La Libertad Avanza [partido de Milei] win the presidency are apparently very low.
Could the right reverse educational policies, memory policies or budgetary support for programs to recover the identity of stolen children?
We do not envision a proactive memory policy, with money and public events, by these eventual governments, but I do not dare to say that they are going to cut the agenda. If we refer to what happened with the Government of [Mauricio] Macri, some denialist voices will appear, but the agenda [de memoria] it’s not going to stop.
It is true that with Alberto Fernández the policies of [la actual vicepresidenta] Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and, due to the need to differentiate herself from those governments, which have done a lot in the matter, as well as in migration, abortion, diversity, equal marriage, perhaps there is less visibility. Something similar can happen with the rights of women and LGTBIQ+.
It is seen in the polls that the agenda [de derechos] It will not advance, but a setback on acquired rights will generate a lot of resistance.
After the protests in the province of Jujuy, how do you respond to the questioning of the leadership of Together for Change that human rights organizations are politicized or are influenced by the left or Peronism?
It already happened when Mauricio Macri was president and Bullrich Minister of Security (2015-2019). In countries with a degree of polarization, such as Argentina, Spain or the United States, the denunciation of politicization exists beyond the evidence. We are truly non-partisan, although in Argentina some have taken it upon themselves to nickname us ‘Kirchneristas’.
In no way would I have the possibility of making a partisan use [de mi puesto] because AI would not tolerate it and I would lose my job. All international organizations do our work rigorously and with the same standards for everyone. At AI we are critical of what is happening in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Israel, Palestine, or the Government of Donald Trump. The IACHR statement on Jujuy is one of the many that it has released on many countries, for example, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
There is a strategy behind this: the discredit of organisms such as the IACHR and organizations such as Human Rights Watch and AI so that our word has no value when we denounce the repression. The repression that occurred in Jujuy seemed like a campaign strategy in the week that Rodríguez Larreta made official that Morales, the governor of that province, would be his vice-presidential candidate.
To what extent does the hardening of the position of Together for Change and the emergence of Milei respond to a real social demand for protests that hinder commuting to work to be repressed?
You have to see it in depth. The polls do not say that there are 90% of people who are in favor of the repression of the protests. There is a part of society that probably does not vote for these rights and is tired of the pickets, because it makes it difficult for them to travel, their work.
Now, surveys don’t measure the depth of the complaint, and ways to manage that nuisance can vary. In how to end the pickets there are important differences.
Regardless of who governs, are police abuses a general problem in Argentina?
It occurs in all provinces, because the management of [cuerpos] Police is local, not federal, and there are no differences between political parties. It is clear that there is no incentive for governors to change the behavior of the security forces. There is a lack of interest and social demand because the victims are generally low-class, vulnerable boys from very humble neighborhoods.
Unfortunately, a racist gaze prevails and society pays little attention to this issue. Since 2019, we have recorded 34 cases that could be of police killing brown youth in different provinces of the country, governed by Kirchnerists, Peronists, and Together for Change.
The rights of migrants, women, and the LGTBIQ+ community have many people who want to defend them and that will limit any setback
Do you validate the criticism that feminist or human rights organizations became accusatory towards the rest of society and ignored the complexity of the demands?
Yes, but it’s not just an Argentine phenomenon, but one of human rights movements in general. There is a change in the way we work as organizations. There was an accusation and accountability mechanism focused exclusively on governments. Social networks began to play an important role in the defense of rights in general. There are new actors, geopolitics have changed and that leads us to wonder about our place.
In any case, the rights of migrants, of women, of the LGTBIQ+ community have many people who defend them and that will limit any setback. There is a constitution, dialogue mechanisms in the Legislative Branch. Majorities must be built. There are tools (…) and there is also a lot of confusion.
It is difficult for citizens to understand what a human right is. There is the discourse that they are a “job” (theft), that the institutions are associated with Kirchnerism, and that has permeated. It is difficult for people to understand that access to water, health, work, and decent retirement are also human rights.
Recently, AI sent a letter demanding President Alberto Fernández a “forceful” condemnation of the Government of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela. Why do they demand public pronouncements on Venezuela and not on other countries?
The AI Regional Office has Venezuela as the priority in the region and it manages its agenda. Argentina is considered by AI the most important country in terms of impact on Venezuela: what an Argentine president says or does not say has weight. For each country, we have a strategy.