Latin America: Criminalizing Social Protest

Source: Al Jazeera

Sumak kausay is the Kichwa word for “living well”, or buen vivir in Spanish. It is an indigenous principle that entails the harmonious interaction between man and nature, the respect for life and ecosystems, and an equitable and sustainable sharing of resources. This millennia-old idea has gained visibility in plurinational states of Latin America.

Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, first elected in 2005, invoked this ancestral value against the capitalist principles of extraction and growth, and Ecuador made it a constitutional right in its 2008 Constitution that was internationally acclaimed for defending the rights of nature.

Paradoxically, principles of harmony between nature and men can also forge terrorists. In Ecuador, 10 young people who gathered to discuss their understanding of the political agenda implied by sumak kausay have been arrested on charges of terrorism. Over the last three years, various indigenous leaders protesting water rights have been accused of terrorism.

Ecuadorian social movements are crying for help, but their calls may be falling upon deaf ears, as such repressive responses to social movements are surprisingly widespread. From Chile to India, charges like terrorism, sabotage and sedition are becoming an “all-too-common tactic” of political control by dominant elites.

‘The Luluncoto Ten’

On March 3, 2012, three groups of Special Forces barged into the living-room in the Luluconto neighbourhood of Quito where 10 young men and women had gathered to discuss a political plan of sumak kausay. All seven men and three women were taken to jail preemptively the same day, in the absence of any crime, without trial or habeas corpus. It took four months for formal charges to be issued: they were accused of “terrorist acts” under article 160 of the Constitution, which entails sentences of four to eight years.

The youth were suspected of putting three pamphleteer “bombs” in 2011, which resulted in mini explosions designed to spread political pamphlets in public venues. If jailing people on terrorist charges for distributing political pamphlets seems like a disproportionate reaction, the rest of the evidence was even more flimsy, including Che Guevara material and the horror film The Exorcist. This has struck many observers as quite ironic for a leftist government that openly espouses socialist values and whose leader pledges “hasta la victoria siempre” (a most classic line of Latin America’s communism) on national TV.

The alleged terrorists, for their part, could not have a more boring profile. Most are parents, including Fadua, a 19-year-old law student who was pregnant at the time of the arrest (and carried her pregnancy to term while in jail until the government allowed her to be placed under house arrest once the baby was born).

The group also includes a dentist (who started caring for the teeth of his fellow prisoners), an engineer (who gave computer classes in jail), a lawyer (who taught prisoners about sumak kausay), and Cesar Zambrano, the youngest of all, only 18-year-old (who assumed responsibility for the prison library).

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