Voices of Latin America: stories of everyday bravery

Tom Gatehouse, one of Tti’s fabulous teachers is also a writer. His latest project was Voices of Latin America, a book he edited and that has just been published.  Let’s hand it over to Tom who will tell us a little bit about the book and stories in it.

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In 2018, the then Secretary General of Amnesty International, Salil Shetty, warned that political polarization, economic crisis and an increasing disillusionment with democracy had led to a crisis of human rights in Latin America. “Latin America was always seen as more advanced in the area of human rights compared to Asia or Africa, but everything has gone backwards very quickly now,” he said. In this context, the brave work of all the activists, leaders of social movements and human rights defenders across the region have become more vital than ever – but also more dangerous. The new title Voices of Latin America, from the independent publishing house Latin America Bureau (LAB), brings together stories from around 70 of these individuals across 14 different countries, from Mexico to the Southern Cone.

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These include Ana Paula Oliveira, a human rights activist from the Manguinhos favela in Rio de Janeiro. Ana Paula has fought for human rights and against state violence since 2014, when an officer from the local Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) shot her son dead. Along with other mothers from the favela who have also lost children to state violence, Ana Paula founded the group Mães de Manguinhos (Mothers of Manguinhos), which provides support for families and fights for justice for the victims. Thanks to Ana Paula’s persistence, the Rio de Janeiro courts decided last year that the officer responsible will face a jury trial – something extremely rare in these cases. In the current context, in which the recently-elected Brazilian president has said that “Police who don’t kill aren’t proper police”, the commitment and the courage of Ana Paula and the other women of Mães de Manguinhos is all the more critical.

Another remarkable story from Voices is that of Camila Méndez, a young Colombian environmental activist from Cajamarca, in the department of Tolima. Camila participated in a campaign to hold a consulta popular – a kind of local referendum – on the installation of the La Colosa gold mine near her town by the South African company AngloGold Ashanti, the third-largest gold mining company in the world. Thanks to the hard work of Camila and her group, the Cajamarca Socioenvironmental Youth Collective (COSAJUCA), and other local organizations, the people of Cajamarca successfully resisted pressure from the company and both the local and national governments, as well as threats from paramilitary groups active in the region. The consulta popular was held in March 2017 and the result was decisive: 98% of voters rejected the mine. AngloGold Ashanti – which invested $900 million in Colombia between 2006 and 2017 and had been doing exploration work for La Colosa for 14 years – was forced to recognise the result and withdrew from Cajamarca a month later.

Other positive stories include that of Edgardo Fernández, a veteran Argentine LGBT rights activist and tango teacher who has helped bring about radical change to Argentina. He dances queer tango, an alternative way of teaching, learning, dancing and behaving in the realm of tango, in which, unlike in traditional tango, women may ask men to dance, and of course, same-sex pairs are possible. Edgardo began his career as an activist back in the 1980s when the Argentine LGBT community was routinely harassed by police; today, Argentina has some of the most advanced LGBT rights legislation in the world. Another is that of Fany Kuiru, an indigenous Colombian lawyer who has set up an organisation in Bogotá called Tejedoras de Memoria (Weavers of Memory), a refuge for indigenous women displaced by Colombia’s long-running civil conflict. The women who attend the organisation work weaving and cooking and sell their products, which brings in enough to sustain the organisation and pay them a wage.

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The testimonies throughout Voices of Latin America all show that however worrying the current social and political scenario may appear, the resistance is very much alive and well. While the book does contain stories of violence, exploitation and abuse by the powerful, it also includes numerous testimonies which show that well organised, creative and dynamic grassroots social and political organisation can and does work. Voices was published in January 2019 and should become a key reference for anyone interested in social movements and the new activism in Latin America.

You can buy copies of the book at https://developmentbookshop.com/voices-of-latin-america

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