Criminalising social protests

It is disheartening to see democratic governments criminalise social protests and revive the authoritarian practices.

Riot policemen stationed at corner of Murillo square where Bolivia''s presidential palace is located
In Bolivia, both the government and protesters claim indigenous principle of "sumak kausay" [Reuters]

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. 

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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).

The “bin Ladens”, as they were nicknamed in jail, have been demanding due process for almost one year, and the Bar Association of Guayas has taken their case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Washington, DC. They proclaimed their innocence in recent court hearings.

Social mobilisation in their support has gained momentum as the case is reaching a denouement with the final verdict expected next week. Jaime Guevara, an icon of the Ecuadorian rock scene who has composed songs of political protest for decades, played Sunday morning in front of the women’s prison. For him, the Luluncoto case is about more than these 10 youth; it is about a government that has betrayed its ideals, has undermined hard-won union rights, and is becoming what he calls a “re-involution”.

Water terrorists

The “Luluncoto Ten” is not an isolated case. Over the last several years, around 200 protesters have been accused of terrorism in Ecuador.

In 2011, Pepe Acacho, a Shuar leader and then candidate for the presidency of the Confederation of Indigenous Peoples of Ecuador, was accused, along with two fellow protesters, of sabotage and terrorism during the Amazonian strike that protested the Law on Water back in 2009.

They were released from the infamous penitentiary Garcia Moreno, but criminal charges against Acacho are still pending for allegedly killing one of his own family members during the confrontation with the police.

Another such “water terrorist” is Carlos Perez Guartambel, a lawyer, indigenous leader for collective water rights, and the author of Water or Gold: Kimsacocha, the resistance for water. He was arrested while leading an indigenous march against mining. In a process marked by faulty judicial procedures, he was initially charged with terrorism, but because the accusations were unsupported, he was subsequently convicted for public disturbance (Article 129 of the penal code).

For Perez Guartambel, such cases are serious because of the judicial precedent they create. It has now become possible to criminalise the constitutional right to social protest, which can be labelled a terrorist act at the government’s whim.

The Luluncoto defence team claims the terrorist laws used against them date back to 1965, and are a direct inheritance of the United States advocating the Doctrine of National Security in the context of the rise of military regimes across Latin America. As puzzling as it may be, some of the New-Left governments in the region are resuscitating laws first promulgated in response to the US pressure during the Cold War to undermine social opposition. 

“In Bolivia, the reform of the penal code is geared at criminalising social protests like those of the TIPNIS indigenous reserve.”

Terrorist laws against social protest

Glancing at the region, one can find all too many governments reviving old laws from authoritarian regimes to punish dissident voices.

In Chile, even progressive governments like those of Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet used terrorist laws created under the military regime of Augusto Pinochet to jail Mapuche activists resisting extractive activities on their ancestral territories.

Argentina’s anti-terrorist laws in 2011 were starkly criticised by human rights activists because they were so broadly defined that anyone the government deemed a threat could be prosecuted.

In Bolivia, the reform of the penal code is geared at criminalising social protests like those of the TIPNIS indigenous reserve.

Elsewhere in the world, one can find similar patterns. In India, for example, sedition laws dating back to British colonial times are now being used to clampdown on dissident movements. Following the recent protest against a nuclear plant at Koodankulam in Tamil Nadu, sedition cases were filed against 8,455 people. At least 19 of the cases are accused of “waging war against the state”.

It is disquieting to see democratic governments, many of which came to power through elections with the support of today’s “terrorists”, criminalise social protest and revive the authoritarian practices they had pledged to eradicate. It is also paradoxical to see clashes between social protesters and governments ostensibly committed to the defence of social justice.

In countries like Ecuador and Bolivia, both the government and protesters claim indigenous principles of sumak kausay. Erstwhile allies have frequently become bitter opponents, vigorously resisting each other.

But there is always a bright side. As Perez Guartambel is about to go to jail, the courts in Ecuador reduced his one-year sentence to eight days, arguing that his struggles were “altruistic”. Does that mean he is a “good” terrorist? Perhaps, Latin America is about to redefine the meaning of terrorism altogether.

Manuela Picq has just completed her time as a visiting professor and research fellow at Amherst College.