In the late 20th century, 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. As democracy took root, 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 are resurgent in recent years. Nicaragua is today a full-fledged dictatorship, nominally headed by a leftist but for the most part devoid of any ideological orientation; Brazil’s far-right president Bolsonaro expresses admiration for Augusto Pinochet and derides indigenous groups’ defense of environmental rights. In Venezuela, hunger, lack of access to basic needs, and violent repression of dissent have spread in under the Nicolás Maduro regime. While still a democracy, Mexico has witnessed an alarming escalation in forced disappearances in recent decades. Throughout the region (and world), expressions of xenophobia against migrants endanger some of the most vulnerable Latin Americans – including many in the United States.
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, conversing deeply with friends and family members with experience in the region, following relevant thought leaders on Twitter, and keeping abreast of current news.
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. 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.
All students are expected to attend class meetings, complete all assigned readings, turn in the assignments on time, and participate actively in discussions in class.
We have the privilege of learning together and we have a responsibility to engage in dialogue in a way that supports learning for all of us. Here are some practices we as learning community members can strive to use in our learning process:
- My own viewpoint is important—share it. It will enrich others.
- My students’ and colleagues’ viewpoints are important—listen to them. Do not judge them.
- Extend the same listening respect to others I would wish them to extend to me. We all have room to grow to become better listeners in non-judgmental ways.
- Recognize that I might miss things others see and see things others might miss.
- Raise my views in such a way that I encourage others to raise theirs.
- Inquire into others’ views while inviting them to inquire into mine.
- Ask questions when I don’t understand something.
- Surface my feelings in such a way that we make it easier for others to surface theirs.
- Test my assumptions about how and why people say or do things.
- Challenge what was said or done, rather than make assumptions about the individual.
- Beware of either-or thinking.
- Be willing to take risks in moving outside my comfort zones.
- Affirm others.
Course learning objectives
- All students should develop a basic understanding of modern Latin American human rights history and its echoes/implications in the present, enabling us all to be more informed and engaged global citizens
- All students should develop the ability to carry out a human rights project, either a significant written assignment engaging in original human rights analysis or a real-world exercise in human rights practice. Written assignments will engage key elements including human rights fact-gathering, analysis, original argumentation, critical thinking and persuasive writing. Work in human rights practice will engage key elements including human rights fact-gathering, community-based learning, strategic planning and action, persuasive oral and written argumentation.
We are trying to move away from the traditional model of grading in this course, because:
- Research shows (see, for example, here) that grading often detracts from, rather than enhances, student learning. Grading puts instructors in the position of policing student compliance rather than focusing on learning; it can encourage students to take fewer intellectual risks, to game the system, and/or focus on extrinsic rather than intrinsic reasons to engage with course material.
- Traditional grading rewards students who have been well-served by previous schools and classes, while penalizing those who are first-generation college students, or attended an underserved high school. In this way, higher education can reproduce, even magnify, pre-existing inequalities rather than helping all learners advance.
For this reason, we are attempting to base grades on a system in which students themselves participate in their evaluation, and to create a learning environment where students receive sufficient feedback throughout the course to be graded on improvement – actual learning -- at its conclusion.
Your course grade will be assessed as follows:
- Community learning: 50% of overall grade (25% based on TA assessment, 25% based on student self-assessment)
This portion of your grade will be assessed according to the degree to which you contribute to a climate in which we can all learn together. This means you must complete weekly response papers and come to section prepared to engage with the readings and discussions. You must also provide a self-assessment at quarter’s end.
- Human rights project (written paper or participation in action project – you choose which): 50% of overall grade (25% based on professor assessment, 25% based on student self-assessment)
This portion of your grade will be assessed using specific rubrics provided for the written assignment and action project. You must also provide a self-assessment at quarter’s end.
The teaching team reserves the right to overrule student self-assessment grades that are unsupported by evidence, but we expect that students will participate honestly and responsibly in their own assessment so this should not be necessary.
Regular 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 community learning grade.
The first written assignment is due on Monday, February 3. A revision of this assignment will form the first part of the final paper. We are devoting an entire midterm week (week 6) to meetings with students to provide personalized feedback on this paper so that you can improve moving forward.
The final paper is due Monday, March 16.
Students are required to submit a written self-evaluation on Monday, March 16 along with their final paper to provide their own assessment of their learning, for our use in computing final grades. More information will be provided about the format for the self-evaluation.
All readings are available through the class Canvas site.
Mental health 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 difficult for all of us, and especially so for survivors of trauma. If you anticipate that exposure to accounts or images of violence may be particularly unhealthy for you, please consult an instructor for advance warning as to which readings, lectures, and films might include material you may find triggering. You should also feel free to come to us at any time to discuss feelings and concerns the material generates for you, or any related concerns.
Your experience in this class is important to me. If you have already established accommodations with Disability Resources for Students (DRS), please communicate your approved accommodations to me at your earliest convenience so we can discuss your needs in this course. If you have not yet established services through DRS, but have a temporary health condition or permanent disability that requires accommodations (conditions include but not limited to; mental health, attention-related, learning, vision, hearing, physical or health impacts), you are welcome to contact DRS at 206-543-8924 or firstname.lastname@example.org or disability.uw.edu. DRS offers resources and coordinates reasonable accommodations for students with disabilities and/or temporary health conditions. Reasonable accommodations are established through an interactive process between you, your instructor(s) and DRS. It is the policy and practice of the University of Washington to create inclusive and accessible learning environments consistent with federal and state law.
Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy (https://registrar.washington.edu/staffandfaculty/religious-accommodations-policy/). Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (https://registrar.washington.edu/students/religious-accommodations-request/).