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Amnesty Int’l: COVID-19 Exacerbates Inequality in Americas as U.S. Policy Drives Refugees to Border

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A new Amnesty International report lays out how the pandemic has significantly exacerbated inequality across the Americas over the past year. Over 1.3 million people have died in the region from COVID-19, making the Americas the hardest-hit area in the world. Women, refugees, migrants, underprotected health workers, Indigenous peoples, Black people and other groups historically excluded and neglected by governments have borne the brunt of the pandemic, according to the report, which also points out the rise in gender violence and lethal crackdown on human rights defenders. “It’s not a surprise that the Americas has been the region worst hit by the pandemic,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, a human rights lawyer and Americas director for Amnesty International. “Growing inequality, corruption, violence, environmental degradation and impunity created a fertile ground for the Americas to become the epicenter.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn to take a look at how the pandemic has exacerbated inequity across the Americas over the past year.

Over 1.3 million people have died in the Americas from COVID-19, making it the hardest-hit region in the world. In the United States, the death toll has topped 560,000. In Brazil, the number has reached 345,000, with over 4,200 deaths on Thursday alone. In Mexico, the official death toll is 206,000, but the government recently admitted the true number is actually 60% higher.

A new report by Amnesty International has found women, refugees, migrants, underprotected health workers, Indigenous communities, Black people and other groups historically ignored and attacked by governments have borne the brunt of the pandemic. Amnesty’s annual report on human rights paints a devastating picture of injustice across the hemisphere.

Mexico was the deadliest country for journalists last year. Amnesty also condemned the rise in gender violence in Mexico, where nearly 3,800 women were killed last year; nearly a thousand of the deaths were investigated as femicides.

Colombia remains the world’s most lethal country for human rights defenders.

Here in the U.S., Amnesty cites the police killing of George Floyd and the crackdown on Black Lives Matter protesters, which highlighted the country’s deep racial injustice over the past year.

Meanwhile, in Brazil, between January and June of last year, police killed more than 3,000 Brazilians, nearly 80% of the victims Black.

Amnesty also documented the killing of 287 trans and gender nonconforming people across the continent last year.

The Amnesty report also looks at the crisis in the Central American nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador where thousands have fled to escape state violence and poverty fueled by U.S. intervention, as well as the destruction left behind by two hurricanes that hit the region last year.

We go now to Mexico City, where we’re joined by Erika Guevara-Rosas. She is the Americas director for Amnesty International.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about your findings? As the United States is most aware of what’s happening in Latin America because of what’s happening on the border, the situation in these different countries? Describe what you found most egregious.

ERIKA GUEVARA-ROSAS: Thanks, Amy. Good morning. And good morning to the audience.

Yes, our report, our annual report, that was presented a couple of days ago, it’s a picture of the state of the human rights situation around the world. And in the case of the Americas, that picture is extremely devastating, as you have just mentioned. Our report shows that COVID-19 pandemic, and the measures taken to tackle it, had a devastating effect on human rights in the region. I mean, unfortunately, it’s not a surprise that the Americas has been the region worst hit by the pandemic. Preexisting human rights challenges, such as the growing inequality, corruption, violence, environmental degradation and impunity, created the fertile ground for the Americas to become the epicenter.

You just mentioned the numbers. With only 13% of the population, the Americas continent has 48% of the total COVID deaths. But the impact is not just around the numbers. It is also about the response of the states and how this response have affected marginalized communities, such as Indigenous people, Black communities, women, refugee and migrants and other vulnerable communities that are at risk. And what is very shocking is that not only the COVID has shown some of these preexisting conditions, these preexisting human rights challenges, but also the pandemic has exacerbated some of these conditions precisely because of the response of some of the governments.

I mean, we’ve witnessed how some of our leaders have responded to the pandemic with denial, opportunism and disregard for human rights. Some of our governments in the continent imposed certain restrictions using excessive use of force and arbitrary detentions as the only way to impose the restrictions, creating additional crisis to the crisis that we were already facing. And as you mentioned some of the countries with the numbers, not only COVID but also the increasing violence that some of these responses, some of the measures imposed by the governments, have created — I mean, we’ve seen the increase in the number of violence against women, increase in the number of cases femicides, but also increase in the number of police violence across the continent, sometimes connected or associated to some of the restrictions imposed by the governments.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk more about what’s happening in Mexico right now, when you talk about the femicides — there have been mass protests against them — and also the killing of journalists.

ERIKA GUEVARA-ROSAS: Well, Mexico is one of the countries that is facing a massive human rights crisis for many years, right? The militarization of the response has been a common characteristic of all the governments, including government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. I mean, Mexico continues to face a crisis of people who have disappeared. Only this year, the reports are that 82,000 people continue to remain missing in Mexico. And we’ve seen an increase of the militarization, including at the borders — right? — with the National Guard, being formalized in terms of their apparatus and how militarization will continue to grow in Mexico.

Mexico continues to be the most dangerous country for journalists. It’s the fourth most dangerous country for human rights defenders. But also, it’s facing an additional pandemic to the COVID-19 pandemic — that is, gender violence against women and girls, right? The increasing number of femicides over the last five yeas is extremely shocking, but also the increasing demand that we are seeing on the streets. Women are taking to the streets, particularly young women and feminist collectives, demanding accountability and demanding a stop in gender violence. And what they’ve been facing is additional violence by the police, excessive use of force, arbitrary detention. We have received reports of sexual violence against protesters that are taking to the streets.

And we’ve seen also President Andrés López Obrador’s disregard for the situation that women and girls are facing in the country, reducing the investment into public policy to prevent violence, but also attacking feminist groups and young women who are taking to the streets, during their press conferences that happen every morning.

AMY GOODMAN: On Wednesday — I want to switch to now Honduras, the trial of an alleged mastermind behind the 2016 murder of the award-winning environmentalist Berta Cáceres. That trial was once again delayed. Cáceres was assassinated in her home in La Esperanza a year after she won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work protecting Indigenous communities in her campaign against a massive hydroelectric dam project. The president of the hydroelectric dam company, David Castillo, was set to stand trial this week, but the trial was suspended after his defense team attempted to change the judge. This is the fourth time the trial has been delayed. Earlier this week, Cáceres’s daughter, Bertita Zúñiga Cáceres, spoke at a rally outside the Supreme Court, where the trial was supposed to be held. This is what she said.

BERTHA ZÚÑIGA CÁCERES: [translated] We know that this process can open the doors for the conclusion of the responsibility of those who paid and ordered the crime. It can also reconstruct the events for us. And because the evidence is convincing and irrefutable, we hope that Mr. David Castillo is proven guilty. …

We fear that this process may end the process of seeking the fundamental justice for my mother. That is why today is so important to us. This is the reason we seek justice and punishment for those who are most responsible. We hope for truth, for justice, and to contribute to the guarantee of nonrepetition of these crimes, above all, against the territorial leaders who continue to defend the common goods of the nature, the rights of Indigenous community. We also hope to break a little the structural impunity that exists in our country that protects those people who are economic and political leaders.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of what’s happening and the delays of this trial, what it means for environmental defenders? Human rights activists are so under attack in Honduras right now, and at the same time you have the President Juan Orlando Hernández’s brother sentenced to life in prison in the United States for drug trafficking, the president himself a co-conspirator.

ERIKA GUEVARA-ROSAS: Yeah. Well, Latin America and the Caribbean remains the world’s deadliest region for human rights defenders, right? Last year, in 2020, we recorded 264 killings, that represent almost 80% of the total killings of human rights defenders around the world. And Honduras, in particular, is the third country more lethal for human rights defenders, where human rights defenders are facing attacks, criminalization, enforced disappearance. We denounced the enforced disappearance of Garifuna human rights defenders last year in the hands of the police, right?

So, Berta Cáceres is not only emblematic of the violence that human rights defenders and environmentalists are facing in the continent, but also the levels of impunity that these cases normally have, the lack of justice, the lack of investigation, the intention of delaying any proceedings related to human rights defenders violence. Berta was killed five years ago. And since then, the demand for justice has faced numerous obstacles, since day one — right? — with the state authorities trying to delay investigation, trying to delay the family to gather information and to get information from the investigation. So, this is not new. I mean, all these delays, unfortunately, have been part of this denial for justice in the case of Berta Cáceres.

And the family and COPINH have struggled for many years and confronted many threats, from attacks, violence, arbitrary detention. Just Berta’s daughters, Bertha and Laura, were detained a couple of days before the trial started this week.

So these are the constants that we are seeing in Honduras, where impunity remains the norm, where the authorities are not providing protection for those who have been threatened precisely because of the human rights that they are doing. And those who are fighting for right to land and access to the territories and protecting the environment are the ones who are facing even more violence, precisely because the government has been prioritizing the interests of the economic powers instead of protecting the human rights defenders that are at the frontlines protecting the rights of everyone.

So, Berta Cáceres continues to be very emblematic. We are observing and monitoring how, you know, the development of this strike will continue. I mean, now, with this resource that — this recourse that was presented by the defendant team, we are expecting that in three days the court needs to resolve the matter, and the trial can continue.

AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about how this country, the United States, sees migration, and why people are making their way to the border, so desperate, refugees, to leave countries that they love?

ERIKA GUEVARA-ROSAS: Well, as people continue to flee violence, poverty and the effects of the climate crisis, we’ve seen that not only the United States, but several governments are denying the right of people to seek asylum and denying the right of people to seek protection, right? We’ve seen, particularly in the context of the pandemic, how migrants and refugees have been detained in many countries across the continent, how asylum seekers have been forcibly returned to the countries where they are facing risk.

And the United States, of course, is at the top of the list in terms of violating the rights of migrants and refugees, right? The former administration, the Trump administration, implemented some of the most inhumane and cruel policies around refugees and migrants, with the separation of families, the massive detention of people, the deportation of people, and forcing people to get stuck in the border on the Mexico side in some of the most violent communities across the continent, right?

And with the Biden administration, of course, the expectation is huge, given the commitments and the promises during the campaign and some of the efforts that the Biden administration has taken at the beginning of his mandate. But, unfortunately, we haven’t seen substantial changes. People continue to be stuck at the border. We’ve seen the detention of unaccompanied minor children, who continue to be in these temporary facilities under very precarious condition, and even exposed to COVID-19 in this period of a lot of alarm that is happening in the United States with the virus, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Erika, if you could comment on the years of U.S. foreign intervention in the countries where most of the refugees are coming from — Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador — the U.S. support for the militaries and the paramilitary death squads, that led to so many deaths in these countries, wreaking havoc in especially the Indigenous populations? Can you talk about that as a cause of people today, now, years later, coming to the United States?

ERIKA GUEVARA-ROSAS: Amy, this is a very important question, because we need to understand the root causes of why people are leaving and escaping their countries. Most of the people that are coming to the United States come from the Northern Triangle of Central America — Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala. These are countries where people are escaping generalized violence, the lack of state protection. And sometimes they are escaping from the persecution from the state and the violence that is being perpetrated by the government and the police and the army.

And this is all in combination with U.S. intervention. U.S. has been investing in military support to these countries. The U.S. has refused investment on aid to provide support for communities to really address the root causes of why people are leaving the countries. The U.S. has fed into, you know, the gaining of the influence of the organized crime because of the weakness of the institutions, of the official institutions. And, of course, now we are expecting that the Biden administration is going to have a shift in the way that it is relating with these countries, seeking collaboration, seeking cooperation, but, more important, seeking to collaborate to address the root causes, that involve U.S. intervention in all these countries.

AMY GOODMAN: Erika Guevara-Rosas, I want to thank you so much for being with us, human rights lawyer, Americas director for Amnesty International, which has just published its annual report on the state of the world’s human rights.

Coming up, President Biden has ordered a series of executive actions on gun control, calling gun violence in the U.S. an “epidemic” and an “international embarrassment.” We’ll get more.

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