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LSJ 322 A: Human Rights in Latin America

Meeting Time: 
TTh 10:00am - 11:20am
GWN 201
Joint Sections: 
JSIS A 324 A
Angelina Godoy

Syllabus Description:

Course Description
As recently as thirty years ago, much of Latin America’s Southern Cone was ruled by the iron grip of military dictatorships like Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile, and many Central American countries were immersed in ruthless civil wars. The global human rights movement was just beginning to take root, as resistance to state repression spread and an international network began to mobilize. Eventually, human rights would become a central way to organize longstanding struggles for justice and democracy in the region. Democracy took root across the region, and for some, human rights struggles shifted from the need to restrain a murderous state from infringing on civil and political rights, to social and economic rights battles around poverty alleviation or environmental justice.


In some countries, however, troubling signs of authoritarianism linger, and have grown stronger in recent years. Nicaragua is today a full-fledged dictatorship; Brazil has inaugurated a president who pledges to roll back rights protections and imprison his political opponents. Hunger and lack of access to basic needs have spread in Venezuela under the Nicolás Maduro regime. While still a democracy, Mexico has witnessed an alarming escalation in forced disappearances. And throughout the region (and world), expressions of xenophobia against migrants endanger some of the most vulnerable Latin Americans.


How do we understand this? Is history moving backward? Or are long-neglected, but never vanquished, ghosts of racism and inequality rising to the surface? What are the best ways forward, for those who seek a world where rights are realized?


The examination of these topics should allow us to pose broader questions about the meaning of human rights in a globalized world, the efficacy of international instruments for rights enforcement, and the complex challenges that linger in the aftermath of authoritarianism and state-sponsored terror. However, it will probably not lead us to any consensus on “the right answer” to the many challenges facing Latin America. In fact, this course may leave you with more questions than answers. You will read and hear things you agree, and disagree, with; this is intentional. The goal is not to convince students of any single interpretation, but rather to encourage you to develop your own ideas, interpretations, and approaches, and to continue these inquiries beyond the course.


Prior familiarity with Latin America is not required for this course, although it will definitely help. All students, whatever their level of previous familiarity, are encouraged to enhance their understanding of the region by reading newspapers with in-depth international coverage, subscribing to relevant listserves, and keeping abreast of current developments.


Course requirements and expectations


Regardless of your political orientation, class background, profession, religion, ethnic identity, or citizenship status, you are welcome in this class. Please let me know how I can best foster an environment in which you feel comfortable participating as much as possible. The human rights problems our world faces are complex and thorny, and I do not believe any one political, cultural, ethnic, or occupational group holds the answers for how to solve them; if we’re ever going to get anywhere, we need a diversity of voices to be valued in human rights discussions. We really care about making sure that happens in this class, but we need your help to accomplish this.



All students are expected to attend class meetings, complete all assigned readings, take the assigned midterm, and participate actively in discussions in class. Your course grade will be assessed as follows: 30% participation in class discussions (this includes both lecture and section); 30% midterm; and 40% final paper.

Response papers

Students are required to write response papers on the readings – roughly one per week – and to submit these via Canvas by Thursday at 9 am. These are relatively short and informal papers (not more than one single-spaced page) in which you are invited to reflect on the readings and course themes. You should NOT summarize the readings, unless the question asks you to; it’s safe to assume your reader will also have read them. What we want to know is what you make of them. Late response papers will not be accepted. Response papers are counted as part of your participation grade.



There will be a take-home midterm due on Thursday, February 7. There will be no make-up opportunity for this exam except under circumstances of severe illness, corroborated in writing.


Final paper

There will be a take-home final paper due Monday, March 18. Late exams will not be accepted except under circumstances of severe illness, corroborated in writing.


Required readings

All readings are available through the class Canvas site.


Additional note

Some of the material presented in this class may be disturbing. It is impossible to come to grips with the human rights history of the Americas without delving into accounts of torture, rape, and other violent acts. I understand that this can be particularly difficult for survivors of trauma. If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, you may want to consult an instructor for advance warning as to which readings, lectures, and films might include material you may find triggering. Please feel free to approach any member of our teaching team about these concerns.




Week One: Background on Latin American history and 20th century reform movements

What are the major human rights concerns in Latin America, then and now? How have human rights ideas shaped Latin America, and how have Latin American ideas shaped human rights?


Tuesday, January 8

  • Nicaragua political prisoners podcast, part 1
  • Frances Robles, “In Nicaragua, Ortega was on the ropes. Now, he has protesters on the run,” The New York Times, December 24, 2018
  • Amnesty International, Americas Regional Overview from The State of the World’s Human Rights 2018




Thursday, January 10

·       Paolo Carozza, “From Conquest to Constitutions: Retrieving a Latin American Tradition of the Idea of Human Rights,” Human Rights Quarterly 25 (2003) 281–313.




Week Two: The authoritarian period: Southern Cone case studies

What kinds of abuses took place, and why? What was the logic behind repression? Can you relate at all to these experiences?


Tuesday, January 15

  • Patricia Weiss Fagen, “Repression and State Security” pp. 39-71 in Corradi et al., Fear at the Edge
  • Carlos Sluzki, “Deception and Fear in Politically Oppressive Contexts: Its Trickle-Down Effect on Families,” Review of Policy Research, 22 (5), September 2005
  • Marjorie Agosín, “Here are our albums…” from An Absence of Shadows, White Pine Press, 2002
  • Film: Machuca



Thursday, January 17

  • Horacio Verbitsky, selections from The Flight: Confessions of an Argentine Dirty Warrior
  • Claribel Alegría, “Desde El Puente/ From the Bridge” pp. 26-33 in Poetry Like Bread: Poets of the Political Imagination, Martín Espada, ed. (Curbstone Press, 2000).



Response paper #1:

How does Scilingo make peace with his past? Are there signs of the tendencies identified by Sluzki?



Week Three: US influence in Latin America: Central American case studies.

What factors shape US policy toward Latin America? Who is accountable for past abuses?


Tuesday, January 22

·       Lars Schoultz, “Combatting Communism with Friendly Dictators,” and “Combatting Communism with Economic Development,” pp 332-366 in Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy Toward Latin America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998

·       Marjorie Agosín, “An Apology,” from An Absence of Shadows, White Pine Press, 2002

·       Film: “Innocent Voices/Voces Inocentes”



Thursday, January 24

·       Mark Danner, “The Truth of El Mozote,” The New Yorker December 6, 1993 (pdf on class website, text also available at this link: "The Truth of El Mozote," A Reporter at Large, The New Yorker, December 6, 1993.

·       Optional:  view at least 10 of the brief first-person extracts on the Unfinished Sentences testimony archive.

Response paper due: According to the films Machuca and Innocent Voices, what was childhood like in 1973 Chile and early 1980's El Salvador? What similarities and differences do you note, and what do you expect the legacies of such experiences might be when those children reached adulthood?



Week Four: Authoritarian rule and its legacies


Tuesday, January 29

·       selections from Scott Straus, Fundamentals of Genocide and Mass Atrocity Prevention, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum 2016


Thursday, January 31

  • watch the Milgram experiments:
  • Juan Gelman, selections from Unthinkable Tenderness Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997 (pages 33-35 and 181-183)
  • Marjorie Agosín, “The Most Unbelievable Part,” from An Absence of Shadows, White Pine Press, 2002



Response paper: Given what the Milgram experiment and Straus’ writings tell us about human behavior, what would an atrocity prevention system look like? How do we build it?


Week Five: Midterm



February 5

  • No class; work on midterm



February 7





Week Six: Transitional Justice

How do societies “recover” from periods of mass atrocity? What are the strengths and limitations of legal approaches to justice?



February 12

  • Kimberly Theidon, “Gender in Transition: Common Sense, Women, and War,” Journal of Human Rights 6:453-478 (2007)
  • Jamie O’Connell “Gambling with the Psyche: Does Prosecuting Human Rights Violators Console their Victims?” Harvard International Law Journal 46(2): 2005



February 14


  • Martín Abregú, “Human Rights After the Dictatorship: Lessons from Argentina,” NACLA Report on the Americas Vol. 34 Issue 1, July/August 2000, pp 12-18


Response paper due: Do escraches offer a form of justice that transcends the limitations of legal efforts? 



Week Seven: Rethinking Human Rights

It’s commonly assumed that as countries transition to democracy, this leads to the end of widespread human rights abuses. What assumptions about democracy and the law underlie this idea, and to what extent should these be rethought?


Tuesday, February 12

  • Paul Rowe, pp 19-37 and 43-65 in “Full Spectrum: Amnesty International and Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights,” MA Thesis, University of Saskatchewan, Canada, 2009



Thursday, February 14

·    Pedro Pitarch, “The Labyrinth of Translation: A Tzeltal Version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” in Pitarch, Speed, and Leyva-Solano (eds), Human Rights in the Maya Region: Politics, Cultural Contention, and Moral Engagements. Duke University Press, 2008.


·    Kim R. Holmes, “How Should Americans Think About Human Rights?”


Response paper due: What would a Tzeltal system for promoting human rights look like? What might be the positives and negatives of trying to implement such a system?



Week Eight: Globalization, Trade, and Human Rights

Aren’t these good things? Or… wait, how do we know?

Tuesday, February 19



  • Jonathan Glennie, “Colombia’s Unethical Development” The Guardian


Thursday, February 21


  • Michael Greenstone, “See Red Flags, Hear Red Flags” The New York Times December 6, 2013


  • César Rodriguez-Garavito, “Nike’s Law: The Anti-Sweatshop Movement, Transnational Corporations, and the Struggle for International Labor Rights in the Americas,” Chapter 3 (pp 64-91) in Rodríguez-Garavito and Santos, Law and Globalization from Below: Towards a Cosmopolitan Legality, Cambridge Univesrity Press, 2005


Response paper 6: According to Rodriguez-Garavito, when is it possible to hold Nike accountable?




Week Nine: Narcos


Tuesday, March 5

·       Fernando Esquivel-Suárez, “The Global War on Drugs”


ThursdayMarch 7

·       Oscar Martínez, Chapter 5 from The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Verso, 2013


Response paper 7: In his discussion of the War on Drugs, Esquivel-Suárez doesn't mention the kind of violence against migrants that Oscar Martínez documents in territory controlled by the powerful drug cartel known as Los Zetas. Does Martínez's account fit with Esquivel-Suárez's analysis of the War on Drugs? Or does it contradict it?



Week Ten: Migration and Human Rights


Tuesday, March 12


·       Oscar Martínez, Afterward to US Readers from The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail. Verso, 2013


·       Film: “Maria in No Man’s Land/María en Tierra de Nadie,” María en Tierra de Nadie




Thursday, March 14

  • Otto René Castillo, “Apolitical Intellectuals”


Response paper 8:

Why is it important to know this stuff, in Otto René Castillo's opinion? In Oscar Martínez’s opinion? In your own opinion?



Catalog Description: 
Overview of human rights issues and their recent evolution in Latin American history; military dictatorships; contemporary challenges in the region's democracies. Human rights concerns in relation to broader sociopolitical context. Offered: jointly with JSIS A 324.
GE Requirements: 
Diversity (DIV)
Individuals and Societies (I&S)
Last updated: 
August 2, 2019 - 9:16pm