Fighting for Human Rights and Transparency in Central America: A Conversation with 2021 Democracy Award Recipients

Across Central America, the future of democracy looks bleak. Authoritarians are consolidating power, eroding democratic freedoms, and increasingly threatening civil society and political opposition. Because of this growing crisis, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) paid tribute to Central American civil society with NED’s 2021 Democracy Awards and hosted a panel discussion with the four honorees: Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca Más (Nicaragua), Contracorriente (Honduras)The Myrna Mack Foundation (Guatemala)Transparency, Social Oversight, and Open Data Association (TRACODA, El Salvador). The conversation, moderated by NED President and Chief Executive Officer Damon Wilson, discussed their tireless work to protect democratic rights and processes, expose corruption, and fight against impunity for human rights abuses. [Read more about NED’s 2021 Democracy Awards here.] 

“The ethos of the Endowment is premised on listening to you,” Wilson said to the 2021 Democracy Award recipients. “The way we operate is to be demand-driven and to understand that this is your fight, this is your struggle, and to figure out what we can do to provide both material but also moral support for what you’re doing.” [Watch a panel of experts on Central America discuss how to defend civic space and independent media in Central America.] 

Gonzalo Carrión, president of Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca Más, shared challenges working as a human rights defender for over 30 years. He and his colleagues fled Nicaragua in 2018 due to persecution from the state and founded Nicaragua Nunca Más to continue their work. “It is really hard to continue making sure that our voices remain a part of this defense of human rights from exile,” he remarked. “It’s been a very hard battle for the community in Nicaragua, to fight for its liberty and its freedom.” 

Diego Jacobo, vice president of TRACODA, spoke about his motivation for founding an organization to promote youth participation and transparency in El Salvador. “About five years ago, we were a bunch of guys and girls in our early 20s, and we had this belief that we as citizens truly are empowered to participate in the political process and that you can access the public information,” said Jacobo. “Sadly, today the situation has gotten somewhat worse and now it is a whole lot more difficult than it used to be. But again, we have that notion that the ability to participate truly empowers you as a citizen.” 

Helen Mack, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, commented that she is not ready to retire from the fight to defend human rights yet, because the older activists still have much to teach younger generations. “For me there was a moment of hope in 2015 when I saw these new generations on the streets,” she said. “But the lesson that we have seen is that the impunity of the past is the impunity of the present. I would say that sometimes they try to erase the memory- they want to separate it and say that the human rights of the past don’t have anything to do with the present. And that’s not true.” 

Jennifer Ávila, founding editor of media outlet Contracorrientespoke about meeting her co-founder Catherine Calderon during the Indignados protests in Honduras in 2015. “We were arguing about the need for journalism at the special point when our generation was asking for the truth, asking what is happening within national resources,” she said.  

Ávila also agreed with Mack about the importance of learning from the past. “We need to know our history, and we realized that our generation didn’t know what happened in Honduras in the 1990s, during the 80s, or why democracy failed in Honduras, with a coup d’état in 2009.” 

The panelists discussed how corruption and weak institutions contribute to democratic backsliding. “The grand corruption, the kleptocracy systems are eroding the democracy,” said Mack. “When you have judiciary that is independent, when you have judges, prosecutors, that really gives you the idea that the law is equal for everybody. But that’s why they don’t want democracy, and that’s why I think that we have been going backwards.” 

Ávila shared her experiences reporting on corruption, including contributing to the recent Pandora Papers investigation, and noted the danger for journalists and all citizens in Honduras. “It will not be easy, as it has not been easy to investigate all these corrupt actors now going on to reelection,” said Ávila about upcoming general elections in Honduras on November 28. “I think we also are encouraging people to tell their stories to tell how the corruption affects their daily life, and that is helping us also to break silence in Honduras.”

Highlighting the need for cross-border collaboration, the honorees agreed that governance issues in one country can affect the other countries in the region, as well as the United States. “I believe that we must talk about El Salvador and about Central America in the wider global context of the recession in democracy, and we have seen in the last years governments turning towards a more authoritarian sort of governance,” said Jacobo.  

Carrión noted that crackdowns on civil society by the Ortega regime in Nicaragua set a bad example that other states in Central America may follow. “There’s no doubt that this system of governance with an absolute concentration of power is negative, not only Nicaragua but for the entire region,” said Carrión on the importance of strengthening civil society. “We are all able to sense the bad signals coming from this authoritarian tendency in government. We should not wait for this cancer to continue negatively affecting our societies.” 

Read more about the 2021 Democracy Awards that honor civil society organizations across Central America.