Recently, there has been an alarming spate of offensive and discriminatory comments made by politicians in several Andean countries. Yesterday, a former presidential candidate Nelson Zavala in Ecuador was banned from politics for one year after voicing extremely derogatory comments about gay people during his campaign. He repeatedly called gay people ‘sinners’ and ‘immoral’ while speaking publicly.
In Bolivia last month, individuals and organisations expressed their outrage and shock at comments made by the vice president of the country, Álvaro García Linera. In a speech where he condemned violence against women, he went from calling on Bolivians to denounce and stigmatise men who abuse women to saying “we should treat them as we would treat someone with AIDS”. He used a particularly offensive Spanish word, ‘sidosos’, to refer to people living with HIV (PLHIV).
Last year, the president of Ecuador Rafael Correa, used a derogatory term for a gay man (‘marica’) on an online forum.
Stigma and discrimination are the tip of the iceberg
In all cases, the politicians’ comments were quickly and roundly condemned by activists and members of the LGBT community and HIV organisations. While the comments by all three men show the depth of stigma and discrimination, related to sexuality and HIV that still exists in their countries, in Bolivia organisations took the opportunity to link stigma with the broader challenges for PLHIV in the country.
The Bolivian Network of People Living with HIV (REDBOL) denounced the vice president’s comparison of PLHIV with criminals. It said:
“PLHIV are not murderers of women, nor are we rapists; on top of our struggles to find work and feed ourselves, we also live with health problems because the state does not take responsibility for our [health] care, despite the indications of Law 3729”.
REDBOL’s letter refers to the Law for the Prevention of HIV/AIDS, Protection of the Human Rights and Multidisciplinary Assistance to People Living with HIV/AIDS which was enacted by the Bolivian government in 2007, but has never been fully implemented, mainly due to a lack of funding from national government.
REDBOL called upon the government to meet with the network to discuss issues of human rights, violence and especially the question of government funding for HIV prevention and care programmes. REDBOL argues that Bolivia cannot depend on international aid to sustain these programmes and that funding for HIV programmes must be included in municipal and provincial budgets.
Edgar Valdez, the executive director of Alliance Linking Organisation Institute for Human Development (IDH), a longtime partner of REDBOL, has also issued a statement suggesting that this is a moment for Bolivians to reflect on the lack of dialogue and the increasing levels of violence and confrontation in Bolivian society.
Apologies and commitments
Vice President Linera of Bolivia apologised for his comments as did President Correa of Ecuador. There was no apology from Nelson Zavala, who is appealing the decision. President Correa recognised his comments were offensive, and took the opportunity to emphasise that his government was extremely committed to fighting discrimination of all kinds and that no other government had guaranteed the rights of LGBT people as his government had. While his initial comments were utterly inappropriate, let’s hope more Latin American leaders affirm the rights of key populations as Correa has now done – publicly.