Courageous Journeys: Defending Human Rights in Latin America – Panel Opening with Pedro Pizano

Pedro Pizano, Assistant Director for Democracy Programs at the McCain Institute, delivers his remarks at moderator for the Courageous Journeys: Defending Human Rights in Latin America panel at the 2024 Geneva Summit – see below for his prepared remarks.

Prepared Remarks:

Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Pedro Pizano and I currently serve as the Assistant Director for Democracy Programs at the McCain Institute. We seek to further the legacy of our namesake, U.S. Senator John McCain, for a safe, free, and just world.

The four unyieldingly courageous people you’re about to hear from next, Carolina, Victor, Toribia and Lesther, are doing exactly that, creating the mostly free, safe, just world most of us enjoy here in Western Europe and North America, and which we take for granted at our own peril. As Hillel said this morning, they are fighting for the values we claim to protect.

The Geneva Summit really does an amazing job year after year (for sixteen years now) in bringing some of the world’s most courageous individuals here and to the world. I encourage you to go back through the archive and watch some speeches like that of Evgenia Kara-Murza last year, whose husband Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Pulitzer-prize winner, and one of Senator McCain’s pallbearers, is now serving the longest sentence anyone alive can remember in Russia: 25 years for speaking the truth about Russia in Russia. Vladimir himself also spoke here in 2018 and in 2021.

As for Liu Xiaobo, when he received the Nobel Prize, we have an empty chair from him here.

The McCain Institute is proud to be one of the many partners of the Geneva Summit. We’re honored to stand on this stage trying to contribute to the fight to live in truth.

“Yes,” as one of the great statesmen, Vaçlav Havel, once said: “YES, I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”

These four people you’re about to hear from next (and everyone else you’ve heard and will hear from)– their words, I tell you, are mightier than ten military divisions. (The entire U.S. Army, according to one source, has exactly ten (10) ACTIVE military divisions—composed of around 200,000 soldiers).

I know I’m standing between you and the power of ten military divisions and so let me give you a very brief overview of democracy in Latin America and introduce our first speaker:
Latin America and the Caribbean is the world’s third most democratic region after Western Europe and North America … however, it “has the worst score globally for political culture.”
Of the 24 countries surveyed in Latin America and the Caribbean—the four countries that we are talking about today, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia, are in the bottom five–THE FIVE WORST, in terms of democracy.

The only other country that joins them is sadly Haiti which is a country in a state of collapse (it has zero elected officials today), and Haiti is still better off than Nicaragua 24, Venezuela, 23, and Cuba, 22. 456
We could call them an authoritarian quartet to not use the troika of tyranny language.
And these are the places where these four amazing individuals are fighting for freedom and justice.

First, we’ll hear from Carolina Barrero, Cuban art historian, writer, and human  rights activist.  

“On January 27, 2021 Carolina took part in a protest with other artists in front  of the Ministry of Culture. Carolina led a reading of the poem “Dos Patrias”  (Two Countries) by José Martí as Cuban security forces violently broke up the  demonstration, with several being detained. A few lines of that poem say:  

“Light gets in the way,
So does human language. The universe
speaks better than humans do. Like a flag that calls
to battle on the field, the candle’s flame
flutters ablaze…”

Carolina was later detained and expelled from Cuba, just as José Martí was (twice), and is now in Spain. She is a winner of the Sakharov Fellowship 2024, and is the founder of Ciudadanía y Libertad (Citizens and Freedom), an  organization dedicated to promote freedom of association, peaceful reunion  and political participation in Cuba.  

 

Now we’ll hear from Victor Navarro, Venezuelan human rights activist, survivor of  “El Helicoide” torture chamber  

As a result of Victor’s criticism of the Maduro government, he was arbitrarily  detained in 2018 at the age of 22. He underwent physical and psychological  abuse and torture while being held in El Helicoide, Venezuela’s clandestine  torture facility. 

Upon securing his release, Victor fled to Argentina where he now lives in  exile. He is the founder and executive director of Voces de la Memoria (The  Voices of Memory), an NGO focused on the intersection of technology and  human rights, and the creator of the VR experience Helicoide, which recreates  the torturous experience of political prisoners in El Helicoide.  

I tried the VR experience today, and you can too just outside here. It’s as  haunting as it is powerful. What courage and fortitude, Victor. Thank you for  being with us today. Thank you for being here and sharing your fight and your  light with us.

 

Up next is Toribia Lero Quispe, Bolivian indigenous leader and opposition  politician 

Toribia is an indigenous leader and activist from the Sura Nation in Bolivia.  She currently serves as a member of the Bolivian Legislative Assembly. 

In 2019, independent election observers from the Organization of American  States and the European Union uncovered electoral fraud committed by the  administration of Evo Morales, and Toribia was one of the politicians whose  election had been tampered with. For her work opposing the authoritarianism  

of Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism party, Toribia and her fellow Bolivian  Democrats routinely face violence, intimidation, and widespread judicial  persecution. 

I had the good fortune of talking with Toribia last night, and asking her about  the 2025 elections in Bolivia and the entire Latin American region. Her  knowledge and wisdom inspired me. Thank you for being here. The  universe does speak through her.

 

Last but not least, Lesther Aleman, Student leader imprisoned for 584 days, founder of Nicaraguan University Alliance  

In 2018, “dieciséisdemayodedosmildieciocho”, the 16th of May of  2018, Lesther famously stood up to Ortega and demanded he step down. In  September 2018, Alemán fled the country while police were searching for him,  but returned a year later. 

Lesther was one of dozens of opposition figures arrested in 2021 during the  run-up to the November elections when Nicaragua’s two main opposition  groups announced the formation of a coalition aimed at winning the 2021  elections and ending President Ortega’s rule. He was charged with  “conspiracy to undermine national integrity” and was sentenced to 13 years in  prison in February 2022. In 2023, Lesther was one of more than 200 political  dissidents expelled from Nicaragua to the United States.” 

I went and rewatched the entire speech that Lesther gave when he stood up  to Ortega, who has been in power for at least 28 years. What courage and  what eloquence, Lesther. Call us to battle for freedom, Lesther, with the  power of your words.

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