Honoring Central American Civil Society and Human Rights Defenders

On October 20, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) presented the 2021 Democracy Award, recognizing the courageous work of four Central American civil society organizations dedicated to advancing democracy, the rule of law, accountability, and transparency across the region: Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca Más (Nicaragua), Contracorriente (Honduras), The Myrna Mack Foundation (Guatemala), and Transparency, Social Oversight, and Open Data Association (TRACODA, El Salvador). The event gathered members of Congress, including Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), and Rep. Norma Torres (DCA), Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricard Zúñiga, as well as NED Board members, foreign policy experts and the media. [Read more about the four awardees here.] 

Ricardo Zuniga gave opening remarks

“These four outstanding organizations represent a larger effort at the grassroots across the region to address critical issues of governance, accountability, and human rights that are so fundamental to the struggle for democracy, justice and human dignity in the region.” said Damon Wilson, NED president and chief executive officer. “But in a sea of bad news, they represent good news, they represent a pathway forward for the region. So, tonight we celebrate them. Tonight is an expression of solidarity and support, and tonight we recognize the extraordinary resilience of democrats who inspire our team each and every day in our own work.” 

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs and Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga opened the ceremony with remarks on the political situation in Central America. 

“Too often corruption, weak governance, disinformation, and impunity undercut human and civil rights and fuel the potential of authoritarianism to spread to other parts of the region, and that threat is very real,” said Zúñiga. “Your four organizations are a bright light exposing injustice, inequality, corruption, and impunity.” 

The event included two discussions on the challenges facing democracy in Central America: an expert panel on Democracy and Governance with Moisés Naím from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (moderator), Antonia Urrejola Noguera, president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Santiago Cantón of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Luis Botello from the International Center for Journalists, and a conversation with the Democracy Awardees, moderated by NED President and CEO Damon Wilson.  

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) congratulated recipients of the Democracy Award in his keynote speech

Members of Congress and NED Board members presented the Democracy Award, a small statuette modeled after the iconic Goddess of Democracy statue constructed by Chinese students in 1989 in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.  

Senator Tim Kaine congratulated the honorees and spoke about the need for consistent U.S. engagement in Central America.  

“If we are to be more engaged, and if we want to be more consistent, we have to have partners on the ground,” said Kaine. “And you have in these for NGOs that NED is recognizing tonight, great examples of small, grassroots, humble but powerful, motivated, and courageous leaders.” 

Representative Elise Stefanik presented the Democracy Award to Human Rights Collective Nicaragua Nunca Más for their fight against impunity for human rights abuses in Nicaragua.  

“We all are humbled by your courageous work to help your fellow citizens and hold the Ortega-Murillo regime accountable,” said Stefanik, a member of NED’s Board of Directors. “We must work with NGOs like the NED to recognize and support organizations such as Nicaragua Nunca Más as they expose the abuses of authoritarian regimes while supporting countless of their fellow citizens who remain under brutal repression.”  

“With this award the Human Rights Collective reaffirms its commitment to continue helping victims in their search for the truth, justice, freedom and democracy,” said Wendy Flores, coordinator of Nicaragua Nunca Más. “We believe that this is a hope that we must never lose, for that reason we say no more dictatorship, no more impunity, no more forgetting. 

Representative Norma Torres, who immigrated to the U.S. from Guatemala at the age of five, highlighted the work of TRACODA and the Myrna Mack Foundation defending the rule of law and promoting transparency.  

“Every day, it seems that there are new setbacks and provocations for those of us who care about the rule of law,” Torres told the awardees. “However, those of you here continue to fight despite the great personal risks to your lives and to your families. Your commitment and your bravery give me hope for the region. It is the reason why I continue to fight and push alongside you.”  

Helen Mack, president of the Myrna Mack Foundation, said the Democracy Award represented the Endowment’s continued commitment to strengthening civil society in Central America. “Despite adversity, we maintain a firm belief in the principles of democracy and that we must continue to fight against corruption and impunity and continue to defend human rights, freedom of expression and judicial independence.” Mack, who established the foundation to fight for justice and against impunity after the murder of her sister continued, “We hope that with international solidarity we will be able to continue the defense of human rights and push them forward.” 

Diego Jacobo, vice president of TRACODA, said that it was more important than ever to support organizations facing an increasingly hostile environment in El Salvador and throughout the region. “Only through a strong and robust civil society will we be able to promote better conditions for our region,” he said. “We cannot do this work without you.” 

NED Board member Ambassador Kelley Currie recognized the courage of Honduran journalists Jennifer Ávila and Catherine Calderon from Contracorriente 

“The risks that we’re seeing to journalists today are, in some ways, worse than they were at the height of the violence in the region,” said Currie. “And so, to see these two young women taking on this task, it just it’s such an inspiration for all of us.” 

Ávila reiterated Contracorriente’s commitment to reporting on the truth even when journalism is under threat. “We accept this award with responsibility, because our job, journalism, is about building democracy one fundamental part of the necessary check and balances of the democratic system,” she said. “Free and independent journalism is needed more than ever. Citizens need to know how corruption networks are stealing national resources because it affects their daily life.” 

Wilson said that the Endowment is proud to highlight the courageous work of Central American civil society and the work of activists and human rights defenders around the world. “Our work is to stand by those who struggle for democracy and human rights and to stand up to those who try to stop them,” said Wilson. “We honor and admire their courage their resilience and their sacrifice. And that’s why we’re gathered this evening to celebrate those who persevere in the face of obstruction, intimidation, and threats.”