Donald Trump’s newly named chief strategist and senior counselor Steve Bannon laid out his global nationalist vision in unusually in-depth remarks delivered by Skype to a conference held inside the Vatican in the summer of 2014.
Well before victories for Brexit and Trump seemed possible, Bannon declared there was a “global tea party movement” and praised European far-right parties like Great Britain’s UKIP and France’s National Front. Bannon also suggested that a racist element in far-right parties “all gets kind of washed out,” and that the West was facing a “crisis of capitalism” after losing its “Judeo-Christian foundation,” and he blasted “crony capitalists” in Washington for failing to prosecute bank executives over the financial crisis.
The remarks — beamed into a small conference room in a 15th-century marble palace in a secluded corner of the Vatican — were part of a 50-minute Q&A during a conference focused on poverty hosted by the Human Dignity Institute that BuzzFeed News attended as part of its coverage of the rise of Europe's religious right. The group was founded by Benjamin Harnwell, a longtime aide to Conservative member of the European Parliament Nirj Deva, to promote a “Christian voice” in European politics. The group has ties to some of the most conservative factions inside the Catholic Church; Cardinal Raymond Burke, one of the most vocal critics of Pope Francis, who was ousted from a senior Vatican position in 2014, is chair of the group’s advisory board.
BuzzFeed News originally posted a transcript beginning 90 seconds into the then–Breitbart News chairman’s remarks because microphone placement made the opening mostly unintelligible, but we have completed the transcript from a video of the talk on YouTube. You can hear the whole recording at the bottom of the post.
Here is what he said, unedited:
Steve Bannon: Thank you very much Benjamin, and I appreciate you guys including us in this. We're speaking from Los Angeles today, right across the street from our headquarters in Los Angeles. Um. I want to talk about wealth creation and what wealth creation really can achieve and maybe take it in a slightly different direction, because I believe the world, and particularly the Judeo-Christian West, is in a crisis. And it's really the organizing principle of how we built Breitbart News to really be a platform to bring news and information to people throughout the world. Principally in the West, but we're expanding internationally to let people understand the depths of this crisis, and it is a crisis both of capitalism but really of the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West in our beliefs.
It's ironic, I think, that we're talking today at exactly, tomorrow, 100 years ago, at the exact moment we're talking, the assassination took place in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that led to the end of the Victorian era and the beginning of the bloodiest century in mankind's history. Just to put it in perspective, with the assassination that took place 100 years ago tomorrow in Sarajevo, the world was at total peace. There was trade, there was globalization, there was technological transfer, the High Church of England and the Catholic Church and the Christian faith was predominant throughout Europe of practicing Christians. Seven weeks later, I think there were 5 million men in uniform and within 30 days there were over a million casualties.
That war triggered a century of barbaric — unparalleled in mankind’s history — virtually 180 to 200 million people were killed in the 20th century, and I believe that, you know, hundreds of years from now when they look back, we’re children of that: We’re children of that barbarity. This will be looked at almost as a new Dark Age.
But the thing that got us out of it, the organizing principle that met this, was not just the heroism of our people — whether it was French resistance fighters, whether it was the Polish resistance fighters, or it’s the young men from Kansas City or the Midwest who stormed the beaches of Normandy, commandos in England that fought with the Royal Air Force, that fought this great war, really the Judeo-Christian West versus atheists, right? The underlying principle is an enlightened form of capitalism, that capitalism really gave us the wherewithal. It kind of organized and built the materials needed to support, whether it’s the Soviet Union, England, the United States, and eventually to take back continental Europe and to beat back a barbaric empire in the Far East.
That capitalism really generated tremendous wealth. And that wealth was really distributed among a middle class, a rising middle class, people who come from really working-class environments and created what we really call a Pax Americana. It was many, many years and decades of peace. And I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism.
"I believe we’ve come partly offtrack in the years since the fall of the Soviet Union and we’re starting now in the 21st century, which I believe, strongly, is a crisis both of our church, a crisis of our faith, a crisis of the West, a crisis of capitalism."
And we’re at the very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict, of which if the people in this room, the people in the church, do not bind together and really form what I feel is an aspect of the church militant, to really be able to not just stand with our beliefs, but to fight for our beliefs against this new barbarity that’s starting, that will completely eradicate everything that we’ve been bequeathed over the last 2,000, 2,500 years.
Now, what I mean by that specifically: I think that you’re seeing three kinds of converging tendencies: One is a form of capitalism that is taken away from the underlying spiritual and moral foundations of Christianity and, really, Judeo-Christian belief.
I see that every day. I’m a very practical, pragmatic capitalist. I was trained at Goldman Sachs, I went to Harvard Business School, I was as hard-nosed a capitalist as you get. I specialized in media, in investing in media companies, and it’s a very, very tough environment. And you’ve had a fairly good track record. So I don’t want this to kinda sound namby-pamby, “Let’s all hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya' around capitalism.”
But there’s a strand of capitalism today — two strands of it, that are very disturbing.
One is state-sponsored capitalism. And that’s the capitalism you see in China and Russia. I believe it’s what Holy Father [Pope Francis] has seen for most of his life in places like Argentina, where you have this kind of crony capitalism of people that are involved with these military powers-that-be in the government, and it forms a brutal form of capitalism that is really about creating wealth and creating value for a very small subset of people. And it doesn’t spread the tremendous value creation throughout broader distribution patterns that were seen really in the 20th century.
The second form of capitalism that I feel is almost as disturbing, is what I call the Ayn Rand or the Objectivist School of libertarian capitalism. And, look, I’m a big believer in a lot of libertarianism. I have many many friends that’s a very big part of the conservative movement — whether it’s the UKIP movement in England, it’s many of the underpinnings of the populist movement in Europe, and particularly in the United States.
However, that form of capitalism is quite different when you really look at it to what I call the “enlightened capitalism” of the Judeo-Christian West. It is a capitalism that really looks to make people commodities, and to objectify people, and to use them almost — as many of the precepts of Marx — and that is a form of capitalism, particularly to a younger generation [that] they’re really finding quite attractive. And if they don’t see another alternative, it’s going to be an alternative that they gravitate to under this kind of rubric of “personal freedom."
"Look at what’s happening in ISIS ... look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism ... at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook."
The other tendency is an immense secularization of the West. And I know we’ve talked about secularization for a long time, but if you look at younger people, especially millennials under 30, the overwhelming drive of popular culture is to absolutely secularize this rising iteration.
Now that call converges with something we have to face, and it’s a very unpleasant topic, but we are in an outright war against jihadist Islamic fascism. And this war is, I think, metastasizing far quicker than governments can handle it.
If you look at what’s happening in ISIS, which is the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, that is now currently forming the caliphate that is having a military drive on Baghdad, if you look at the sophistication of which they’ve taken the tools of capitalism. If you look at what they’ve done with Twitter and Facebook and modern ways to fundraise, and to use crowdsourcing to fund, besides all the access to weapons, over the last couple days they have had a radical program of taking kids and trying to turn them into bombers. They have driven 50,000 Christians out of a town near the Kurdish border. We have video that we’re putting up later today on Breitbart where they've took 50 hostages and thrown them off a cliff in Iraq.
That war is expanding and it’s metastasizing to sub-Saharan Africa. We have Boko Haram and other groups that will eventually partner with ISIS in this global war, and it is, unfortunately, something that we’re going to have to face, and we’re going to have to face very quickly.
So I think the discussion of, should we put a cap on wealth creation and distribution? It’s something that should be at the heart of every Christian that is a capitalist — “What is the purpose of whatever I’m doing with this wealth? What is the purpose of what I’m doing with the ability that God has given us, that divine providence has given us to actually be a creator of jobs and a creator of wealth?”
I think it really behooves all of us to really take a hard look and make sure that we are reinvesting that back into positive things. But also to make sure that we understand that we’re at the very beginning stages of a global conflict, and if we do not bind together as partners with others in other countries that this conflict is only going to metastasize.
They have a Twitter account up today, ISIS does, about turning the United States into a “river of blood” if it comes in and tries to defend the city of Baghdad. And trust me, that is going to come to Europe. That is going to come to Central Europe, it's going to come to Western Europe, it's going to come to the United Kingdom. And so I think we are in a crisis of the underpinnings of capitalism, and on top of that we're now, I believe, at the beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism.
"With all the baggage that those [right-wing] groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially— but we think that will all be worked through with time."
Benjamin Harnwell, Human Dignity Institute: Thank you, Steve. That was a fascinating, fascinating overview. I am particularly struck by your argument, then, that in fact, capitalism would spread around the world based on the Judeo-Christian foundation is, in fact, something that can create peace through peoples rather than antagonism, which is often a point not sufficiently appreciated. Before I turn behind me to take a question —
Bannon: One thing I want to make sure of, if you look at the leaders of capitalism at that time, when capitalism was I believe at its highest flower and spreading its benefits to most of mankind, almost all of those capitalists were strong believers in the Judeo-Christian West. They were either active participants in the Jewish faith, they were active participants in the Christians' faith, and they took their beliefs, and the underpinnings of their beliefs was manifested in the work they did. And I think that’s incredibly important and something that would really become unmoored. I can see this on Wall Street today — I can see this with the securitization of everything is that, everything is looked at as a securitization opportunity. People are looked at as commodities. I don’t believe that our forefathers had that same belief.
Harnwell: Over the course of this conference we’ve heard from various points of view regarding alleviation of poverty. We’ve heard from the center-left perspective, we’ve heard from the socialist perspective, we’ve heard from the Christian democrat, if you will, perspective. What particularly interests me about your point of view Steve, to talk specifically about your work, Breitbart is very close to the tea party movement. So I’m just wondering whether you could tell me about if in the current flow of contemporary politics — first tell us a little bit about Breitbart, what the mission is, and then tell me about the reach that you have and then could you say a little bit about the current dynamic of what’s going on at the moment in the States.
Bannon: Outside of Fox News and the Drudge Report, we’re the third-largest conservative news site and, quite frankly, we have a bigger global reach than even Fox. And that’s why we’re expanding so much internationally.
Look, we believe — strongly — that there is a global tea party movement. We’ve seen that. We were the first group to get in and start reporting on things like UKIP and Front National and other center right. With all the baggage that those groups bring — and trust me, a lot of them bring a lot of baggage, both ethnically and racially — but we think that will all be worked through with time.
The central thing that binds that all together is a center-right populist movement of really the middle class, the working men and women in the world who are just tired of being dictated to by what we call the party of Davos. A group of kind of — we're not conspiracy-theory guys, but there's certainly — and I could see this when I worked at Goldman Sachs — there are people in New York that feel closer to people in London and in Berlin than they do to people in Kansas and in Colorado, and they have more of this elite mentality that they're going to dictate to everybody how the world's going to be run.
I will tell you that the working men and women of Europe and Asia and the United States and Latin America don't believe that. They believe they know what's best for how they will comport their lives. They think they know best about how to raise their families and how to educate their families. So I think you're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that.
"Putin’s ... very, very very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of."
Now, with that, we are strong capitalists. And we believe in the benefits of capitalism. And, particularly, the harder-nosed the capitalism, the better. However, like I said, there’s two strands of capitalism that we’re quite concerned about.
One is crony capitalism, or what we call state-controlled capitalism, and that’s the big thing the tea party is fighting in the United States, and really the tea party’s biggest fight is not with the left, because we’re not there yet. The biggest fight the tea party has today is just like UKIP. UKIP’s biggest fight is with the Conservative Party.
The tea party in the United States’ biggest fight is with the the Republican establishment, which is really a collection of crony capitalists that feel that they have a different set of rules of how they’re going to comport themselves and how they’re going to run things. And, quite frankly, it’s the reason that the United States’ financial situation is so dire, particularly our balance sheet. We have virtually a hundred trillion dollars of unfunded liabilities. That is all because you’ve had this kind of crony capitalism in Washington, DC. The rise of Breitbart is directly tied to being the voice of that center-right opposition. And, quite frankly, we’re winning many, many victories.
On the social conservative side, we're the voice of the anti-abortion movement, the voice of the traditional marriage movement, and I can tell you we're winning victory after victory after victory. Things are turning around as people have a voice and have a platform of which they can use.
Harnwell: The third-largest conservative news website is something to be extremely impressed by. Can you tell for the people here who aren’t within the Anglosphere and they might not follow American domestic politics at the moment — there seems to be a substantial sea change going on at the moment in Middle America. And the leader of the majority party, Eric Cantor, was deselected a couple of weeks ago by a tea party candidate. What does that mean for the state of domestic politics in America at the moment?
Bannon: For everybody in your audience, this is one of the most monumental — first off, it’s the biggest election upset in the history of the American republic. Eric Cantor was the House majority leader and raised $10 million. He spent, between himself and outside groups, $8 million to hold a congressional district. He ran against a professor who was an evangelical Christian and a libertarian economist. He ran against a professor who raised in total $175,000. In fact, the bills from Eric Cantor’s campaign at a elite steak house in Washington, DC, was over $200,000. So they spent more than $200,000 over the course of the campaign wining and dining fat cats at a steak house in Washington than the entire opposition had to run.
Now, Eric Cantor, it was a landslide. He lost 57–43, and not one — outside of Breitbart, we covered this for six months, day in and day out — not one news site — not Fox News, not Politico, no sites picked this up. And the reason that this guy won is quite simple: Middle-class people and working-class people are tired of people like Eric Cantor who say they’re conservative selling out their interests every day to crony capitalists.
"That center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India."
And you’re seeing that whether that was UKIP and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom, whether it’s these groups in the Low Countries in Europe, whether it’s in France, there’s a new tea party in Germany. The theme is all the same. And the theme is middle-class and working-class people — they’re saying, “Hey, I’m working harder than I’ve ever worked. I’m getting less benefits than I’m ever getting through this, I’m incurring less wealth myself, and I’m seeing a system of fat cats who say they’re conservative and say they back capitalist principles, but all they’re doing is binding with corporatists." Right? Corporatists, to garner all the benefits for themselves.
And that center-right revolt is really a global revolt. I think you’re going to see it in Latin America, I think you’re going to see it in Asia, I think you’ve already seen it in India. Modi's great victory was very much based on these Reaganesque principles, so I think this is a global revolt, and we are very fortunate and proud to be the news site that is reporting that throughout the world.
Harnwell: I think it’s important to understand the distinction that you’re drawing here between what can be understood as authentic, free-market capitalism as a means of promoting wealth that [unintelligible] involves everybody with a form of crony capitalism which simply benefits a certain class. And we’ve watched over the course of our conference, we’ve watched two video segments produced by the Acton Institute about how development aid is spent internationally and how that can be driven away from — it damages people on the ground but it also perpetuates a governing class. And the point that you’re mentioning here, that I think that you’re saying has driven almost a revolution movement in America, is the same phenomenon of what’s going on in the developing world, which is a concept of government which is no longer doing what it is morally bound to do but has become corrupt and self-serving. So it’s effectively the sa—
Bannon: It’s exactly the same. Currently, if you read The Economist, you read the Financial Times this week, you’ll see there’s a relatively obscure agency in the federal government that is engaged in a huge fight that may lead to a government shutdown. It’s called the Export-Import Bank. And for years, it was a bank that helped finance things that other banks wouldn’t do. And what’s happening over time is that it’s metastasized to be a cheap form of financing to General Electric and to Boeing and to other large corporations. You get this financing from other places if they wanted to, but they’re putting this onto the middle-class taxpayers to support this.
"I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that [right-wing parties] have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial ... My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right?"
And the tea party is using this as an example of the cronyism. General Electric and these major corporations that are in bed with the federal government are not what we’d consider free-enterprise capitalists. We’re backers of entrepreneurial capitalists. They’re not. They’re what we call corporatist. They want to have more and more monopolistic power and they’re doing that kind of convergence with big government. And so the fight here — and that’s why the media’s been very late to this party — but the fight you’re seeing is between entrepreneur capitalism, and the Acton Institute is a tremendous supporter of, and the people like the corporatists that are closer to the people like we think in Beijing and Moscow than they are to the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit of the United States.
Harnwell: Thanks, Steve. I’m going to turn around now, as I’m sure we have some great questions from the floor. Who has the first question then?
Bannon: First of all, Benjamin, I can tell you I could hardly recognize you, you’re so cleaned up you are for the conference.
Questioner: Hello, my name is Deborah Lubov. I’m a Vatican correspondent for Zenit news agency, for their English edition. I have some experience working in New York — I was working for PricewaterhouseCoopers auditing investment banks, one of which was Goldman Sachs. And considering this conference is on poverty, I’m curious — from your point of view especially, your experience in the investment banking world — what concrete measures do you think they should be doing to combat, prevent this phenomenon? We know that various sums of money are used in all sorts of ways and they do have different initiatives, but in order to concretely counter this epidemic now, what are your thoughts?
"For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a [financial] bailout."
Bannon: That’s a great question. The 2008 crisis, I think the financial crisis — which, by the way, I don’t think we’ve come through — is really driven I believe by the greed, much of it driven by the greed of the investment banks. My old firm, Goldman Sachs — traditionally the best banks are leveraged 8:1. When we had the financial crisis in 2008, the investment banks were leveraged 35:1. Those rules had specifically been changed by a guy named Hank Paulson. He was secretary of Treasury. As chairman of Goldman Sachs, he had gone to Washington years before and asked for those changes. That made the banks not really investment banks, but made them hedge funds — and highly susceptible to changes in liquidity. And so the crisis of 2008 was, quite frankly, really never recovered from in the United States. It’s one of the reasons last quarter you saw 2.9% negative growth in a quarter. So the United States economy is in very, very tough shape.
And one of the reasons is that we’ve never really gone and dug down and sorted through the problems of 2008. Particularly the fact — think about it — not one criminal charge has ever been brought to any bank executive associated with 2008 crisis. And in fact, it gets worse. No bonuses and none of their equity was taken. So part of the prime drivers of the wealth that they took in the 15 years leading up to the crisis was not hit at all, and I think that’s one of the fuels of this populist revolt that we’re seeing as the tea party. So I think there are many, many measures, particularly about getting the banks on better footing, making them address all the liquid assets they have. I think you need a real clean-up of the banks' balance sheets.
In addition, I think you really need to go back and make banks do what they do: Commercial banks lend money, and investment banks invest in entrepreneurs and to get away from this trading — you know, the hedge fund securitization, which they’ve all become basically trading operations and securitizations and not put capital back and really grow businesses and to grow the economy. So I think it’s a whole area that just — and I will tell you, the underpinning of this populist revolt is the financial crisis of 2008. That revolt, the way that it was dealt with, the way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did, has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States.
Questioner: Thank you.
Bannon: Great question.
Questioner: Hello, Mr. Bannon. I’m Mario Fantini, a Vermonter living in Vienna, Austria. You began describing some of the trends you’re seeing worldwide, very dangerous trends, worry trends. Another movement that I’ve been seeing grow and spread in Europe, unfortunately, is what can only be described as tribalist or neo-nativist movement — they call themselves Identitarians. These are mostly young, working-class, populist groups, and they’re teaching self-defense classes, but also they are arguing against — and quite effectively, I might add — against capitalism and global financial institutions, etc. How do we counteract this stuff? Because they’re appealing to a lot of young people at a very visceral level, especially with the ethnic and racial stuff.
Bannon: I didn’t hear the whole question, about the tribalist?
"One of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department, 35 [bank] executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on."
Questioner: Very simply put, there’s a growing movement among young people here in Europe, in France and in Austria and elsewhere, and they’re arguing very effectively against Wall Street institutions and they’re also appealing to people on an ethnic and racial level. And I was just wondering what you would recommend to counteract these movements, which are growing.
Bannon: One of the reasons that you can understand how they’re being fueled is that they’re not seeing the benefits of capitalism. I mean particularly — and I think it’s particularly more advanced in Europe than it is in the United States, but in the United States it’s getting pretty advanced — is that when you have this kind of crony capitalism, you have a different set of rules for the people that make the rules. It’s this partnership of big government and corporatists. I think it starts to fuel, particularly as you start to see negative job creation. If you go back, in fact, and look at the United States’ GDP, you look at a bunch of Europe. If you take out government spending, you know, we’ve had negative growth on a real basis for over a decade.
And that all trickles down to the man in the street. If you look at people’s lives, and particularly millennials, look at people under 30 — people under 30, there’s 50% really underemployment of people in the United States, which is probably the most advanced economy in the West, and it gets worse in Europe.
I think in Spain it’s something like 50 or 60% of the youth under 30 are underemployed. And that means the decade of their twenties, which is where you have to learn a skill, where you have to learn a craft, where you really start to get comfortable in your profession, you’re taking that away from the entire generation. That’s only going to fuel tribalism, that’s only going to fuel [unintelligible]… That’s why to me, it’s incumbent upon freedom-loving people to make sure that we sort out these governments and make sure that we sort out particularly this crony capitalism so that the benefits become more of this entrepreneurial spirit and that can flow back to working-class and middle-class people. Because if not, we’re going to pay a huge price for this. You can already start to see it.
Questioner: I have a question, because you worked on Wall Street. What is the opinion there on whether they think bank bailouts are justified? Is there a Christian-centered [unintelligible] that they think should be bailed out? The crisis starts earlier than 2008. What was the precedent then? What was the feeling on Wall Street when they bailed out the banks? How should Christians feel about advocating or being against that?
Bannon: I think one is about responsibility. For Christians, and particularly for those who believe in the underpinnings of the Judeo-Christian West, I don’t believe that we should have a bailout. I think the bailouts in 2008 were wrong. And I think, you look in hindsight, it was a lot of misinformation that was presented about the bailouts of the banks in the West.
And look at the [unintelligible] it. Middle-class taxpayers, people that are working-class people, right, people making incomes under $50,000 and $60,000, it was the burden of those taxpayers, right, that bailed out the elites. And let’s think about it for a second. Here’s how capitalism metastasized, is that all the burdens put on the working-class people who get none of the upside. All of the upside goes to the crony capitalists.
The bailouts were absolutely outrageous, and here’s why: It bailed out a group of shareholders and executives who were specifically accountable. The shareholders were accountable for one simple reason: They allowed this to go wrong without changing management. And the management team of this. And we know this now from congressional investigations, we know it from independent investigations, this is not some secret conspiracy. This is kind of in plain sight.
In fact, one of the committees in Congress said to the Justice Department 35 executives, I believe, that they should have criminal indictments against — not one of those has ever been followed up on. Because even with the Democrats, right, in power, there’s a sense between the law firms, and the accounting firms, and the investment banks, and their stooges on Capitol Hill, they looked the other way.
So you can understand why middle-class people having a tough go of it making $50 or $60 thousand a year and see their taxes go up, and they see that their taxes are going to pay for government sponsored bailouts, what you’ve created is really a free option. You say to this investment banking, create a free option for bad behavior. In otherwise all the upside goes to the hedge funds and the investment bank, and to the crony capitalist with stock increases and bonus increases. And their downside is limited, because middle-class people are going to come and bail them out with tax dollars.
And that’s what I think is fueling this populist revolt. Whether that revolt is in the Midlands of England, or whether it’s in Middle America. And I think people are fed up with it.
And I think that’s why you’re seeing — when you read the media says, “tea party is losing, losing elections,” that is all BS. The elections we don’t win, we’re forcing those crony capitalists to come and admit that they’re not going to do this again. The whole narrative in Washington has been changed by this populist revolt that we call the grassroots of the tea party movement.
And it’s specifically because those bailouts were completely and totally unfair. It didn’t make those financial institutions any stronger, and it bailed out a bunch of people — by the way, and these are people that have all gone to Yale, and Harvard, they went to the finest institutions in the West. They should have known better.
And by the way: It’s all the institutions of the accounting firms, the law firms, the investment banks, the consulting firms, the elite of the elite, the educated elite, they understood what they were getting into, forcibly took all the benefits from it and then look to the government, went hat in hand to the government to be bailed out. And they’ve never been held accountable today. Trust me — they are going to be held accountable. You’re seeing this populist movement called the tea party in the United States.
Harnwell: Okay, I think we’ve got time for just one or two more questions for Stephen K. Bannon, chairman of Breitbart Media, third-largest news organization in the States. I know you’re a very, very busy man, so we’re very grateful for the time that you’ve agreed to put aside for this, to close this conference.
"I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?"
Bannon: I’m never too busy to share with a group that can do as much good as you guys can.
Questioner: What do you think is the major threat today, to the Judeo-Christian Civilization? Secularism, or the Muslim world? In my humble opinion, they’re just trying to defend themselves from our cultural invasion. Thank you.
[Question restated by Harnwell]
Bannon: It’s a great question. I certainly think secularism has sapped the strength of the Judeo-Christian West to defend its ideals, right?
If you go back to your home countries and your proponent of the defense of the Judeo-Christian West and its tenets, oftentimes, particularly when you deal with the elites, you’re looked at as someone who is quite odd. So it has kind of sapped the strength.
But I strongly believe that whatever the causes of the current drive to the caliphate was — and we can debate them, and people can try to deconstruct them — we have to face a very unpleasant fact. And that unpleasant fact is that there is a major war brewing, a war that’s already global. It’s going global in scale, and today’s technology, today’s media, today’s access to weapons of mass destruction, it’s going to lead to a global conflict that I believe has to be confronted today. Every day that we refuse to look at this as what it is, and the scale of it, and really the viciousness of it, will be a day where you will rue that we didn’t act [unintelligible].
"The way that the people who ran the banks and ran the hedge funds have never really been held accountable for what they did has fueled much of the anger in the tea party movement in the United States."
Questioner: Thank you very much. I’m [unintelligible]. I come from Slovakia. This is actually the source of my two very quick questions. Thank you very much for the work that you do to promote the Judeo-Christian values in the world. I really appreciate it, and I also feel that the danger is very high. I have two minor questions, because you have mentioned, in terms of UKIP and Front National [unintelligible]. From the European perspective, listening to the language which has become more and more radical from these two parties, especially before the European Parliament elections, I’m just wondering what are your plans on how to help these partners from Europe to maybe focus on the value issues and not with populist? And also it goes in terms — you have mentioned the involvement of state in capitalism as one of the big dangers. But these two parties you’ve mentioned, they actually have close ties with Putin, who is the promoter of this big danger, so I’d like to know your thoughts about this and how you’re going to deal with it.
Bannon: Could you summarize that for me?
Harnwell: The first question was, you’d reference the Front National and UKIP as having elements that are tinged with the racial aspect amidst their voter profile, and the questioner was asking how you intend to deal with that aspect.
Bannon: I don’t believe I said UKIP in that. I was really talking about the parties on the continent, Front National and other European parties.
I’m not an expert in this, but it seems that they have had some aspects that may be anti-Semitic or racial. By the way, even in the tea party, we have a broad movement like this, and we’ve been criticized, and they try to make the tea party as being racist, etc., which it’s not. But there’s always elements who turn up at these things, whether it’s militia guys or whatever. Some that are fringe organizations. My point is that over time it all gets kind of washed out, right? People understand what pulls them together, and the people on the margins I think get marginalized more and more.
I believe that you’ll see this in the center-right populist movement in continental Europe. I’ve spent quite a bit of time with UKIP, and I can say to you that I’ve never seen anything at all with UKIP that even comes close to that. I think they’ve done a very good job of policing themselves to really make sure that people including the British National Front and others were not included in the party, and I think you’ve seen that also with tea party groups, where some people would show up and were kind of marginal members of the tea party, and the tea party did a great job of policing themselves early on. And I think that’s why when you hear charges of racism against the tea party, it doesn’t stick with the American people, because they really understand.
I think when you look at any kind of revolution — and this is a revolution — you always have some groups that are disparate. I think that will all burn away over time and you’ll see more of a mainstream center-right populist movement.
"Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand."
Question: Obviously, before the European elections the two parties had a clear link to Putin. If one of the representatives of the dangers of capitalism is the state involvement in capitalism, so, I see there, also Marine Le Pen campaigning in Moscow with Putin, and also UKIP strongly defending Russian positions in geopolitical terms.
[Harnwell restates, but unintelligible]
Harnwell: These two parties have both been cultivating President Putin [unintelligible].
Bannon: I think it’s a little bit more complicated. When Vladimir Putin, when you really look at some of the underpinnings of some of his beliefs today, a lot of those come from what I call Eurasianism; he's got an adviser who harkens back to Julius Evola and different writers of the early 20th century who are really the supporters of what's called the traditionalist movement, which really eventually metastasized into Italian fascism. A lot of people that are traditionalists are attracted to that.
One of the reasons is that they believe that at least Putin is standing up for traditional institutions, and he's trying to do it in a form of nationalism — and I think that people, particularly in certain countries, want to see the sovereignty for their country, they want to see nationalism for their country. They don't believe in this kind of pan-European Union or they don't believe in the centralized government in the United States. They'd rather see more of a states-based entity that the founders originally set up where freedoms were controlled at the local level.
"You're seeing a global reaction to centralized government, whether that government is in Beijing or that government is in Washington, DC, or that government is in Brussels. So we are the platform for the voice of that."
I'm not justifying Vladimir Putin and the kleptocracy that he represents, because he eventually is the state capitalist of kleptocracy. However, we the Judeo-Christian West really have to look at what he's talking about as far as traditionalism goes — particularly the sense of where it supports the underpinnings of nationalism — and I happen to think that the individual sovereignty of a country is a good thing and a strong thing. I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors, and that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it's what can see us forward.
You know, Putin’s been quite an interesting character. He’s also very, very, very intelligent. I can see this in the United States where he's playing very strongly to social conservatives about his message about more traditional values, so I think it's something that we have to be very much on guard of. Because at the end of the day, I think that Putin and his cronies are really a kleptocracy, that are really an imperialist power that want to expand. However, I really believe that in this current environment, where you're facing a potential new caliphate that is very aggressive that is really a situation — I'm not saying we can put it on a back burner — but I think we have to deal with first things first.
Questioner: One of my questions has to do with how the West should be responding to radical Islam. How, specifically, should we as the West respond to jihadism without losing our own soul? Because we can win the war and lose ourselves at the same time. How should the West respond to radical Islam and not lose itself in the process?
Bannon: From a perspective — this may be a little more militant than others. I think definitely you’re going to need an aspect that is [unintelligible]. I believe you should take a very, very, very aggressive stance against radical Islam. And I realize there are other aspects that are not as militant and not as aggressive and that’s fine.
If you look back at the long history of the Judeo-Christian West struggle against Islam, I believe that our forefathers kept their stance, and I think they did the right thing. I think they kept it out of the world, whether it was at Vienna, or Tours, or other places... It bequeathed to use the great institution that is the church of the West.
And I would ask everybody in the audience today, because you really are the movers and drivers and shakers and thought leaders in the Catholic Church today, is to think, when people 500 years from now are going to think about today, think about the actions you've taken — and I believe everyone associated with the church and associated with the Judeo-Christian West that believes in the underpinnings of that and believes in the precepts of that and want to see that bequeathed to other generations down the road as it was bequeathed to us, particularly as you’re in a city like Rome, and in a place like the Vatican, see what’s been bequeathed to us — ask yourself, 500 years from today, what are they going to say about me? What are they going to say about what I did at the beginning stages of this crisis?
Because it is a crisis, and it's not going away. You don’t have to take my word for it. All you have to do is read the news every day, see what’s coming up, see what they’re putting on Twitter, what they’re putting on Facebook, see what’s on CNN, what’s on BBC. See what’s happening, and you will see we’re in a war of immense proportions. It’s very easy to play to our baser instincts, and we can’t do that. But our forefathers didn’t do it either. And they were able to stave this off, and they were able to defeat it, and they were able to bequeath to us a church and a civilization that really is the flower of mankind, so I think it’s incumbent on all of us to do what I call a gut check, to really think about what our role is in this battle that’s before us.
Bannon during his speech referred to Russia as an "imperialist power." A transcription error in a previous version of this story had Bannon referring to Russia as a "perilous" power.
Bannon and Harnwell refer to the Acton Institute, a free-market think tank based in the United States. This was mistakenly transcribed as Aspen Institute, a different think tank, in a previous version of this story.
Bannon says in the recording that the West is in the "very beginning stages of a very brutal and bloody conflict." A previous version of this story read "end stages," due to a transcription error.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 2, 2016, at 6:11 p.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — On a bright fall day last weekend, tens of thousands of people dressed all in white took to the streets of Mexico City for the country’s first national march against marriage equality.
They had flocked from across the country, and marched with signs bearing the names of their states and a number, which was a count of how many people had participated in local protests held two weeks before in dozens of cities. Thousands carried flags with the logo of the new group that had organized the marches. It called itself the National Front for the Family and said it was made up of “millions” of people from all walks of life as an emergency response to a proposal rolled out by President Enrique Peña Nieto in May to establish marriage equality in all of Mexico’s 31 states through a constitutional amendment.
“Mr. President, count us well,” they chanted, as they marched down Paseo de la Reforma, a wide boulevard punctuated with monuments commemorating key moments in Mexican history. “We’re not just one, we’re not just 100.”
The national media were stunned, and marriage equality supporters were incredulous. There had never been a serious national anti-LGBT movement, and full marriage equality had spread from Mexico City to 10 states since 2009 with only ripples of opposition. The Supreme Court had repeatedly ruled that marriage discrimination was unconstitutional, and many thought the fundamental question was settled. Many LGBT rights supporters thought they’d already won the most important fights — they just needed to push the country’s remaining 21 states to come into compliance with these decisions and allow same-sex couples to marry.
And some things seemed strange about the march, which had been billed as a scrappy grassroots movement. Organizers had set up six Jumbotrons along the march route broadcasting a live feed of the procession, narrated by an advertising consultant who had worked for some of Mexico’s largest mining companies and luxury brands like Versace. The protest’s online image was managed from a war room in an upscale hotel managed by an ad agency that had worked for Mexico’s major right-leaning political party, the National Action Party (PAN), and universities affiliated with the conservative Catholic order Opus Dei.
Who was funding all this, the group’s opponents wanted to know, and how did they get so well-organized so fast?
This was not simply a spontaneous backlash to the president’s proposal. This was an event more than a year in the making, coordinated by a network of conservative groups who wanted to amend the constitution to reverse marriage equality gains, interviews by BuzzFeed News with more than a dozen activists, political advisers, and members of Congress both for and against marriage equality show.
These groups had already stitched together the body of a nationwide movement against marriage equality outside the national spotlight. Since August 2015, they’d worked together to gather signatures in support of a “citizens' initiative” to amend the constitution to block same-sex marriage, and had 200,000 by early 2016 — more than the number needed to technically require Congress to give it formal consideration. This proposal was one of the first to take advantage of relatively new rules to allow citizens to directly introduce legislation to Congress.
But this work was done so quietly that when they submitted their petition to the Senate in February, hardly anyone in the press or the halls of Congress even noticed. Now they needed a surge of energy to get the issue into the spotlight and to rally a broader movement that could demonstrate political muscle. The president’s marriage equality proposal came like a bolt out of the blue, and it was just the opportunity they’d been looking for.
“Many of us are grateful to the president,” said Rodrigo Iván Cortés, leader of the National Front for the Family and a former PAN member of Congress. The president did what they could not, he said, bringing “to life [a movement] that seemed was never going to be brought to life.”
Peña Nieto’s marriage equality proposal caught nearly all of Mexico by surprise.
Olivia Rubio, chief of staff of the Senate Human Rights Committee and a longtime LGBT activist, had been invited to the president’s residence on May 17 for what she was told was a “consultation” on LGBT rights measures, timed to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia. She was, she told BuzzFeed News, caught totally off guard when “we realized the whole world of [LGBT] activists were there, [and] there was press — it was a mega-meeting.”
She first realized the president would make a big announcement when she overheard one aide say to another, “Did you bring the initiative?”
Peña Nieto proceeded to announce a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar states from prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying.
Though the Supreme Court had already ruled such laws were unconstitutionally discriminatory, the technicalities of Mexico’s legal system meant that couples had to bring a new lawsuit every time they wanted to marry in most states. Peña Nieto hoped his proposal would immediately allow same-sex couples to marry throughout all of Mexico by simply going to a registrar, just like opposite-sex couples.
Many LGBT activists were overjoyed at the president’s backing, but some recognized that it also created a serious problem. There was no truly national LGBT organization like the US’s Human Rights Campaign that could lobby congress, run a media strategy, and organize to get the proposal passed. Most LGBT rights groups worked on the local level, and infighting had frustrated broader collaboration. Even the push for nationwide marriage equality never required them to develop political savvy — it largely rested on litigation spearheaded by a single lawyer.
To fill the vacuum, LGBT activists turned to WhatsApp, where Victor Espíndola, an activist and political consultant who had worked on the president’s social media team, had put together a group the afternoon of the announcement. There, the collaboration between activists was more collegial than ever before. It would ultimately produce a new national organization called the Movement for Equality in Mexico, which launched a Facebook page on May 24.
The president’s team “probably thought it would be easy,” but it was an “error in calculation and judgement,” Espíndola told BuzzFeed News during a recent interview. The LGBT activists were essentially starting from zero, and, Espíndola said, supporters of the president’s proposal quickly realized they were outmatched.
“Can we compete with the [National Front for the Family]?,” Espindola asked. “No — they’re well-organized, they have the pulpit in their favor.”
The leaders behind the National Front for the Family were already planning their first salvo while Espíndola was still building his contact list.
Front leaders say they were on the phone within hours of the president’s announcement, and met face-to-face within days. The organizing committee included Juan Dabdoub, of a small group known as ConFamilia and author of the citizens' initiative to block marriage equality, which had been submitted to the Senate two months earlier. It also included leaders of the two largest groups that helped gather signatures for the initiative: Consuela Mendoza of the National Parents Union — a group that has fought restrictions on church participation in politics and to provide alternatives to secular public education — and Mario Romo of the Family Network, an umbrella organization whose local affiliates range from addiction programs to emergency pregnancy centers to groups that promote abstinence.
They met in person on Friday, May 20, and held their first press conference announcing they would unite under the banner of the National Front for the Family on May 24, and they were looking abroad for ways to step up their game. One example was a recent movement in Colombia, said Dabdoub, where conservatives had mobilized against a new sex education curriculum to be rolled out under the country’s education minister, who is a lesbian.
The Front was also getting some coaching and support from CitizenGo, a kind of conservative MoveOn.org that began in Spain and expanded to Latin America three years ago, including a staffer in Mexico and a list of 500,000 members in the country. (CitizenGo also includes Brian Brown of the US-based National Organization for Marriage and World Congress of Families on its board; he was in Mexico City for the Sept. 24 march.)
The Front had a lot to learn and quickly, CitizenGo’s Latin America Director Luis Losada told BuzzFeed News.
“They didn’t have the capacity before,” Losada said. “They tried their best … but they were not so efficient.”
But the timing of the president’s announcement made it obvious to the leaders what they had to do next. There would be elections in 12 states and Mexico City on June 5 — less than three weeks after the president’s marriage equality announcement — and the president’s Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) was already in serious trouble thanks to corruption scandals, widespread violence, and the president’s low approval ratings.
So they set out to frame the vote as a referendum on marriage equality. Through small protests organized in partnership with CitizenGo and campaigns on social media, they targeted PRI candidates to demand they reject the president’s proposal or face a “punishment vote.”
“We needed an instrument so that they’d take [this issue] into account,” said the Front’s Rodrigo Iván Cortés. “On this basis, we’re going to ask people not to vote for the PRI in the states … [and] the people responded.”
The June 5 vote was a disaster for the PRI, which lost governorships in seven states, including four where it had never lost an election. National polls showed no evidence of an overwhelming tide against marriage equality — pollsters find the public evenly split or largely in favor of marriage equality. But the Front proclaimed victory, and got help from key voices to spin the vote as a rebuke of same-sex marriage.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Mexico City called the results a “deserved punishment vote” for a “destructive and immoral” proposal in its official publication, Desde La Fe. Former PRI presidential candidate Francisco Labastida called the marriage equality proposal a “decisive, fundamental” factor in the party’s loss and blasted the president for not consulting party leaders before rolling it out.
By the time Congress returned for the legislative session beginning in September, the leaders of the president’s own party declared his marriage equality proposal dead in the water.
The PRI leader in the Senate said he was putting it “in the freezer,” an expression that meant Congress would set it aside without ever giving it a vote. He said it was because party members were divided on the issue, but it was clear party members wanted to distance themselves from the president, whose approval ratings had fallen to 23 percent following his deeply unpopular invitation to meet with Donald Trump. Elections are looming in 2018, and the party looks doomed unless it can show that the next PRI president’s term will be very different than this one.
Since then, a few lawmakers with left-leaning parties have introduced their own versions of the marriage equality proposal in the hopes of getting the issue onto the legislative calendar, but their supporters privately admit Congress is unlikely to take action on any of these proposals this year.
With the president’s marriage equality initiative stalled, it was time for the National Front for the Family to press their advantage. Congress had never acted on the citizens' initiative to amend the constitution against marriage equality, either, and now they had a chance to mobilize to put it on lawmakers’ agendas.
“Society woke up, and the people felt they could achieve something,” said Dabdoub, whose citizens' initiative was still lying in wait in the Senate. Now, he said, “we’re ready to show our faces."
The Sept. 24 march in Mexico City was a sort of coming-out party for the National Front for the Family.
As marchers streamed toward Mexico City’s Angel of Independence, the group distributed a press release declaring the Front was a “permanent” movement. The group laid out its demands in a “manifesto” published in several national papers the next day, which included a call on lawmakers to “protect … the institution of marriage between a man and a woman” in the constitution by enacting Dabdoub’s citizens' initiative.
The statement was a declaration of war from an organization that believed it had proved itself a credible political threat. They also were increasingly professional and, apparently, well-funded.
Press materials from the march identified the Front’s lead press contact as Pablo Mier y Terán, president of a PR firm called Mier y Terán and Associates, whose past clients include Mexico’s state oil company Pemex and the National Action Party. Another press contact is Ruben Rebolledo, communications director for a Front member organization — whose LinkedIn profile, though, says he is also a director of media relations at Mier y Terán — who has previously worked for major mining corporations and luxury brands.
Neither Mier y Terán nor Rebolledo would discuss the Front’s budget, but there there are clues that they are well funded. One is the fact that their firm managed a media command center on march day out of three conference rooms in the Sheraton complete with buffet, one of Mexico City’s premier business-district hotels.
The speed with which their movement mobilized has prompted allegations that there are much bigger forces behind them. The press in both Spain and Mexico have buzzed with rumors that the front is manipulated by El Yunque, a shadowy secret Catholic network with fascist leanings said to have had senior Mexican politicians as members, but no concrete direct evidence of a link with Front leaders has been reported.
There are clearer ties, however, between the Front and other conservative religious factions. The Sept. 24 march was branded as a joint effort between the Front and an organization called the National Christian Union for the Family (“Christian” in Mexico is usually meant to refer to evangelical denominations), which has a Facebook page that lists its official website as a broken link with a URL hosted by the Apostolic Church of Faith in Jesus Christ. The Mier y Terán agency also lists past clients as multiple educational institutions affiliated with Opus Dei, a Catholic order known for promoting doctrinaire church teaching in public policy.
Several of the country’s Catholic bishops have been unusually outspoken in support of the marches, and LGBT activists have filed legal complaints against several archdioceses arguing that this violates Mexico’s strict laws against church involvement in politics. (Another LGBT group was widely condemned by other activists when it retaliated against the church by releasing the names of senior priests they claim have had same-sex relationships.)
“We’re going to regret it,” José Raúl Vera López, the liberal Catholic Bishop of Saltillo, told BuzzFeed News. “The backbone of these marches comes from a very closed faction … with fascist — even Nazi — tendencies. It is very sensitive what we’re doing.”
The anti–marriage equality forces are not entirely united, however; Front leaders told BuzzFeed News that some evangelical groups have wanted to fight marriage equality through their own initiatives. In early September, a separate citizens' initiative to ban same-sex marriage was submitted with 400,000 signatures to the House of Deputies with support of a small political party seen as drawing its core support from evangelical Christians, the Social Encounter Party. (Social Encounter Party members did not respond to interview requests from BuzzFeed News.)
But even as marriage equality opponents are more visible than ever before, LGBT rights supporters are confident their efforts will ultimately come for nothing.
For one thing, they’d need two-thirds of both houses of Congress to amend the constitution to outlaw marriage equality, and so far no major political party has shown an interest in taking up the cause. And although the rules of citizens’ initiatives technically require Congress to formally consider the anti–marriage equality amendments, lawmakers and congressional aides who support marriage equality say they are confident they can quietly be buried in committee.
There is no sign that Mexico’s marriage equality backlash will ever be as strong as the one that defined the politics of the United States for more than 20 years. Unlike the US, where there is a long history of conservative religious political activism, Mexican politics has historically frowned on religious political participation — priests were not even allowed to vote until the 1990s.
There’s also no political party that clearly benefits from the issue the way the Republicans did in the US. The most likely candidate to lead the charge to roll back marriage equality would be the National Action Party. The last PAN president, Felipe Calderón, unsuccessfully fought all the way to Mexico’s Supreme Court to block the country’s first marriage equality ordinance, enacted in Mexico City in 2009. But now full marriage equality is a reality in one-third of the country’s states, and the politics have changed a lot since then. One of the PAN’s leading contenders for the 2018 presidential nomination is Calderón’s wife, Margarita Zavala, who tweeted on the day President Peña Nieto endorsed the marriage equality amendment, “For a Mexico [that is] more inclusive, without prejudice, and #WithoutHomophobia.”
And the US movement surged before the Supreme Court had decided whether marriage was a right for same-sex couples; Mexico’s Supreme Court could not have been more clear that same-sex couples have a right to marry. The court almost seemed to taunt the Front in the week surrounding the march, releasing three more rulings on Wednesday that “reiterated the unconstitutionality of ... [state laws] that circumscribe the institutions of matrimony and cohabitation to a union of a woman and a man” concerning couples in three different states. And the day before the march brought a nine-to-one decision by the full court in an adoption case that held states cannot discriminate against gay couples, even indirectly.
But ConFamilia’s Dabdoub said they’ve only just begun to fight to overrule them by amending the constitution.
“Here it is obvious that we are the immense majority of the country,” said Dabdoub during the Mexico City march. “If [politicians] vote against the citizens' initiative … we’re going to vote against them.”
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on March 20, 2016, at 3:27 p.m. ET
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama heads to Cuba this weekend with the shadow of Guantanamo Bay hanging over him. He has made a last ditch effort to close the base, which holds dozens of detainees linked to the “war on terror.”
Entirely ignored in that debate is the fact that Guantanamo also holds another group of people the U.S. doesn’t want to let into the country: people fleeing persecution — mostly from Cuba and Haiti — who the Coast Guard picked up at sea before they made it to U.S. shores. The U.S. can’t send them home — to return those believed to have a well-founded fear of persecution would be a violation of international law — so the U.S. takes them into what the government calls “protective custody” at Guantanamo.
Today, just eight people are held in what the government calls the Migrant Operations Center in Guantanamo, a building reminiscent of a budget hotel on an isolated side of the base far from its commercial district and the military detention center.
If they had managed to set foot on dry land in Florida, they would have a right to request asylum in the United States and would be entitled to lawyers and other legal protections as their claims were processed. But since they were picked up at sea, they have no right to asylum in the United States and instead have their cases processed at Guantanamo Bay, where they have no access to lawyers or courts. If they prove their persecution claims to the satisfaction of a U.S. official, they are resettled abroad, not in the U.S.
In the run up to Obama’s visit to Cuba this weekend, the White House affirmed that it would leave what’s known as the “wet-foot, dry-foot” policy unchanged. That means it will continue using Guantanamo Bay to process those who have a credible fear of persecution.
The numbers now held in the Migrant Operations Center are small, though 121 people have been resettled from there since Obama took office. Lawyers who have fought the program say that, regardless of the numbers, it keeps Guantanamo as a place outside the Constitution for people fleeing persecution even as the Obama administration says it is trying to comply Supreme Court rulings that the Constitution must apply to people in military detention.
“It’s inconsistent as a matter of policy … [to] close that part of Guantanamo and bring alleged terrorists into the United States while keeping bonafide refugees detained,” said Ira Kurzban, a Florida immigration lawyer who first sued on behalf of thousands of Haitian refugees captured at sea while fleeing after a coup 1991. “There’s just no justification for that.”
The U.S. government used Guantanamo to warehouse thousands of people fleeing persecution for at least a decade before the military base became known to world as the home of the dozens held in the name of fighting terrorism.
The White House turned to the base at a time when there was widespread fear in the United States that large numbers of refugees would unleash a threat that many Americans hoped could be contained abroad.
The country at the time was Haiti, which had been viewed as a security threat to the United States since the late 1700s, when slaves overthrew their masters and set up the first black-led government in the Americas just off the coast of Florida. This continued through the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who struck a deal with the country’s then-dictator in 1981 to return any Haitians caught fleeing by sea because these migrants “threatened the welfare and safety and communities” in the U.S.
When a new wave of thousands fled Haiti after a 1991 coup, there was an additional fear: HIV. The Reagan administration declared HIV a “dangerous contagious disease” in 1987 and barred those carrying the virus from entering the United States. Haitians, like gay men, were widely perceived as especially dangerous carriers of the virus from the early days of the epidemic in the United States. Haitians living in the U.S. were evicted from their homes, had their businesses boycotted, and encountered graffiti like “Haitians = Niggers with AIDS.”
A court briefly blocked President George H. W. Bush from returning thousands of Haitians who had been stopped at sea by the Coast Guard because they might have valid asylum claims. Rather than bring them to the U.S., he ordered a camp of tents and razor wire built for them on the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, New York Law School Professor Brandt Goldstein recounted in his book about the legal battle that followed, Storming the Court.
It would ultimately hold more than 15,000 people before the administration found a way around the court’s order and resumed simply sending newly apprehended Haitians back. Those on Guantanamo were considered for political asylum, and more than 6,000 were ultimately brought to the United States while thousands of others were ultimately returned. As the Bush administration rushed to empty the camps, around 300 people were stuck in limbo in a compound that had been set up as a camp to “concentrate the HIV-migrants and their families,” Goldstein reported.
The administration was using a special procedure for those with HIV that seemed designed to make their cases fail, Goldstein reported. Most refugees were flown to the U.S. for their final asylum hearing, where they had a right to an attorney. But those with HIV were processed entirely at Guantanamo and were denied attorneys even when they asked for them.
A team from Yale Law School brought two lawsuits on behalf of the Haitians: One challenged the administration’s power to return people picked up on the high seas without evaluating the fear of prosecution. The other one was brought on behalf of those with HIV, arguing that the Constitution guaranteed them access to an attorney and other rights of due process, even on Guantanamo Bay.
The arguments in the second case raised the same set of issues that lawyers for those detained in George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” would raise after 9/11. And the government’s response in 1992 was almost verbatim what its lawyers would argue to justify those detentions.
“Guantánamo is a military base in a foreign country,” a Justice Department lawyer argued in an early hearing in the case of the Haitians. “They’re outside the United States and therefore they have no judicially cognizable rights in United States courts.”
The Yale team hoped that then-President Bill Clinton would free the Haitians before the court had to rule. He won the White House while the matter was in the courts, and had denounced the elder Bush administration’s policy during the campaign. Hillary Clinton had even privately assured the Yale professor leading the litigation, Harold Koh, that she would advocate their cause with her husband during an October 1992 meeting at Yale, Goldstein reported in Storming the Court.
(Koh, who later served as an assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton and as the department’s legal advisor under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, declined to speak with BuzzFeed News for this story. Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign did not respond to a request for comment.)
The trust in Clinton “reflected our naivete about the nature of these political processes,” Tory Clawson, one of the then-law students on the Yale team, told BuzzFeed News.
But in a dramatic about-face that stunned the Yale team, Clinton declared shortly before taking office that he would continue the Bush administration’s practice of returning fleeing Haitians. Once Clinton took office, Bush administration lawyers who lingered at the Justice Department continued to fight Koh and the Yale students all the way to the Supreme Court, where the government trounced the Yale team in the case concerning rights on the high seas.
But the Yale team won a sweeping ruling from a lower court in the other case, the one concerning whether the HIV-positive Haitians had constitutional protections on Guantanamo.
“The detainees have a right to due process,” the judge declared, noting, “If the Due Process Clause does not apply to the detainees at Guantanamo, [the government] would have discretion deliberately to starve or beat” people held there.
The Clinton administration didn’t challenge the Haitians’ release, but it threatened to keep fighting the legal issues on appeal until the Yale team agreed to have the ruling nullified. To allow the arguments to stand, Stuart Gerson, who was the acting head of the Justice Department’s Civil Litigation department at the time, told BuzzFeed News, “would be a surrender of executive branch constitutional authority that would hurt them in the future.”
They were specifically worried that the ruling could some day cost the president’s power to hold people on Guantanamo outside the reach of the courts, Gerson said. And the Clinton administration quickly found a new purpose for Guantanamo — to hold thousands of Cubans who fled by boat in 1994. That’s when “wet foot, dry foot” was born — those who made it to the U.S. mainland were fast-tracked for residence, while those with political persecution claims caught at sea went to Guantanamo while the U.S. found another country to take them in.
The question of the Constitution’s power over foreigners at Guantanamo was not addressed by the Supreme Court until 2008, when the Bush administration had sent military detainees to Guantanamo in an attempt to place them outside the reach of the courts. The Supreme Court ruled against the administration.
“Our basic charter cannot be contracted away like this,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court — in an opinion that referenced the Yale litigation at one point.
Shortly after taking office, Obama called for the Guantanamo detention center to be closed because it was created based on “the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law.”
But that notion was first raised in the courts concerning people fleeing persecution, and Obama has made no moves to change to that program — which the government has used for more than 400 people since 1996, according to the State Department.
To press that principle with respect to military detainees while not doing the same with people fleeing persecution is not just “hypocritical as a moral position but [also] lawless,” said Michael Wishnie, one of the students on of the Yale team in the Haitian cases who now teaches at Yale Law School.
It’s especially galling, Wishnie said, because the executive branch could unilaterally move to close the Migrant Operating Center. “That’s stroke-of-the-pen territory.”
In response to questions by BuzzFeed News, a State Department spokesperson said those sent to the Center are “neither detained nor imprisoned,” though she would not say how long they generally stay in the facility. Unlike the military detainees, they are free to leave at any time, though their only option to leave without being accepted by another country as a refugee, however, is “to return to their country of origin” — the very place the U.S. government decided it would violate international law to return them to.
The administration also argues it doesn’t ferry boats of asylum seekers to U.S. shores for a very good humanitarian reason: Crossing miles of ocean is dangerous, and it doesn’t want to create an incentive for more people want to make the trip.
The White House responded to several questions from BuzzFeed News about why the Migrant Operation Center remains in operation while the president is seeking to close the military detention facility with a statement from a senior administration official that said, “The United States is committed to supporting safe, orderly, and legal migration. The Administration has no plans to alter current migration policy regarding Cuba.”
But even though the numbers of who pass through the program are small, lawyers who’ve worked on the issue say the underlying principle at stake is the same as the one at stake with the military detainees.
The military detention program was built on the foundation laid by the treatment of the Haitian asylum seekers — the facility where the military detainees were first held on Guantanamo stood on the exact spot where a camp for the Haitians once stood.
And as long as the U.S. treats Guantanamo as outside domestic law in asylum cases, said Jonathan Hafetz who was a senior attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union National Security Project, it will call into question the U.S.’s commitment to its principles.
The government is still using the base “as a way to minimize [people’s] legal rights,” he said.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on December 27, 2015, at 10:18 a.m. ET
SAN SALVADOR — La Cuki Alarcón was late to work on the night that his roommate disappeared, which is why he is still around to tell what happened.
His hair was extravagantly curled, and he matched a long skirt with high boots, a look he hoped hid his legs, which he thought looked too manly to appeal to his clients.
Alarcón was hurrying to the strip they used to work across the street from El Salvador’s national symbol, the Divine Savior of the World monument, a statue of Jesus with his feet planted on a globe perched atop a column about 60 feet in the air. Work was so steady on that corner that Alarcón thought a client might have already picked up his roommate and the other locas they hung out with. Outsiders called them all “homosexuals,” but the sex workers — some who lived as women all the time, others who dressed as women primarily on the job — called each other “crazies” even though some used it as an insult that would roughly translate to “sissy.” (Alarcón asked BuzzFeed News to refer to him using male pronouns.)
As Alarcón reached the opposite corner, he could see his friends were still there. He hesitated for a minute before crossing because the stoplight was out, and that’s when he realized the locas were not alone. Four tall men in ski masks were throwing them into the back of a green truck, clubbing them with the butts of their guns.
Alarcón remembers the year as 1980, a time when death squads were using trucks like this one to make people disappear by the hundreds every week. This was the beginning of the civil war that consumed El Salvador until 1992. The United Nations, NGOs, journalists, and scholars have sought to uncover what happened to many of the more than 75,000 who were killed or disappeared during the conflict, but no one has ever investigated what happened to Alarcón’s friends. As far as anyone knows, no one has even recorded their names among the missing.
But Alarcón can still rattle off the names of many of the dozen he remembers being thrown into the truck that night. There was his roommate Cristi, whom he remembers as a gentle 26-year-old who would bring him gifts of coats or shoes from trips she’d frequently make to Guatemala and Mexico. Another was Verónica, from San Bartolo near the Honduran border, who was so pretty that her clients would sometimes insist on having their pictures taken with her. Carolina was so well put together that she’d sometimes get into trouble — she looked “all woman,” Alarcón said, and her clients could get violent when they discovered she was trans as she undressed.
Alarcón is one of the only witnesses to their disappearances who is still alive, but the story of that night is well-remembered. It has been passed down from generation to generation of trans sex workers in the country’s capital, San Salvador. It’s been retold so many times it can sometimes be hard to separate fact from legend, passed down in the same way many families retell the haunting mysteries that still linger from the war. The tale stakes a claim for trans women in a country that often seems to wish they would disappear.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right?” Alarcón said during an interview in San Salvador last December. “Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
I first learned about this story from a 38-year-old Salvadoran trans activist named Karla Avelar in the fall of 2014 while working on a story about LGBT kids fleeing the country to make the dangerous, illegal trip to the United States. El Salvador has some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the hemisphere, and Avelar recounted waves of unpunished murders over the past several decades. In 2014 alone, at least 12 women and two gay men were killed, according to media reports. There was the “Bloody June” of 2009 in which at least three trans women and two gay men were murdered. Avelar herself survived being shot in the 1990s by a serial killer who had been gunning down trans sex workers.
The ones taken from the Savior of the World were almost mythical to Avelar, who was a baby when the events occurred.
“We don’t even really know much ourselves, but a little while ago one of the survivors told us what happened and said to us, ‘Why don’t you document this, that I was a victim of that attack?’” she said. But the task seemed impossible. “There is no documentation whatsoever, no publication nor record — there is nothing.”
Avelar knew of just one witness who still survived, a woman named Paty who she said was 78 years old, a miracle in a country where violence and HIV are so widespread very few trans women survive to middle age.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war”
I flew to El Salvador as soon as I could. Paty’s health sounded fragile and if she died before her memories could be recorded, any hope of documenting the atrocity would die with her. I decided to work with Nicola Chávez Courtright, co-founder of a small organization documenting the history of El Salvador’s LGBT movement called AMATE, hoping she would have ideas on how to start substantiating Paty’s memories.
When we visited Paty — whose full name is Patricia Leiva — shortly before Christmas last year, we learned that much of what Avelar told me was wrong. Leiva was only 60, though it was understandable why Avelar had thought she was much older. Health problems had swollen her stomach like a basketball and made it nearly impossible for her to walk. She also had not been there on the night of the disappearances from the Savior of the World, and years of heavy drinking meant she could only recall bits and pieces of the story, despite having heard it countless times.
Leiva lives in the remains of what used to be a popular beer hall called the Bluegill in a once-thriving red-light district called the Praviana, now subdivided into tenements. The bar had belonged to La Cuki Alarcón, Leiva told us, and he had been there that night.
Alarcón is now retired and lives in the suburbs, surviving with help from his children who live in the United States. Alarcón doesn’t routinely go by “La Cuki” (a Spanish spelling of Cookie) anymore, preferring his male name. But he asked that we not publish his legal first name because he was worried about his safety for talking about the war. Besides, he said, “La Cuki” had been “my nomme de guerre — my homosexual one.”
Alarcón hid from the men rounding up his friends that night by throwing himself to the ground in a small garden. He tried to slink away after watching the men pile his friends into the truck, but more armed men were patrolling the surrounding streets. He remembered making it to the La Religiosa funeral home up the block, where he tried to take sanctuary, but he said the guard wouldn’t let him in because there was a lavish wake underway — “There are only famous people in there,” the guard told him. So he waited out the raid crouched between the cars parked outside.
When the coast was clear, he went back to work on the corner. Within minutes, a client had come and picked him up. Alarcón figured he’d see Cristi in a day or two, which is how long the cops usually held sex workers after a routine vice raid.
But Cristi never came home. None of them did.
Alarcón went to the police stations to try to find her. He even hired a lawyer. But the cops made fun of him and hinted that his friends were already dead.
“They said that they had dressed them up as soldiers and made them play war,” he remembered.
“Maybe there still could be some justice for us, right? Maybe remembering everything that happened to these friends can bring some peace for all homosexuals?”
El Salvador’s 12-year civil war had its roots in political battles that had been going on for half a century. In 1980 it blew up into one of the last and bloodiest conflicts of the Cold War. That year, military leaders ousted moderates in the ruling junta while paramilitary squads aligned with the regime hunted down government critics. The war vaulted into international headlines in March, when the head of the country’s Catholic Church, Archbishop Óscar Romero, was shot through a church doorway while he was celebrating mass.
The U.S. government threw tremendous weight behind the military leaders even as the body count grew, and a rebel force called the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front fought back with a little support from Nicaragua and Cuba. Echoing the early days of Vietnam, Washington sent in military advisers, contributed tens of millions of dollars in military aid, and trained Salvadoran troops at an installation in Panama known as the School of the Americas. The U.S. continued this support even after reporters for the Washington Post and New York Times uncovered that a U.S.-trained battalion was responsible for one of the war’s most infamous atrocities, the extermination of an entire farming village called El Mozote in 1981.
The two sides were locked in a stalemate as the Cold War came to an end with the Soviet Union’s collapse. Peace accords signed on Jan. 16, 1992, made uncovering the crimes committed during the war a cornerstone of rebuilding the nation, creating a Truth Commission run by the United Nations to gather witness statements and write a definitive account of the war’s greatest atrocities.
Because many of the war’s abuses were so extensively documented in that process, we thought we might find some record of the disappearances from the Savior of the World. But we came up empty. Our best hope was the archives of the two human rights offices run by San Salvador’s Catholic Archdiocese — the most active human rights monitors during the war — but they could locate no records matching the case. They might have been able to search more if we could provide the victims’ legal names, but Alarcón and the others we spoke with only knew them by their female names.
We had hoped that El Salvador’s oldest gay rights organization, Entre Amigos, would be able to help us substantiate these memories. When it organized the country’s first pride march in 1997, the group declared it as a commemoration of another event said to have happened during the war years: the abduction of a number of trans women from the heart of the Praviana red-light district by a U.S.-trained battalion in June 1984. This is the one case of crimes against LGBT people claimed to have been recorded by human rights monitors during the war.
Entre Amigos’ co-founder William Hernández told us in an interview that he had uncovered a statement from a witness to that incident while working in the archive of an organization called the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission just after the war's end. But, Hernández said, the account was so confusing and incomplete that, when examined “from a legal point of view, it wouldn’t give me anything that argues that this was real.”
He initially said that he would be glad to dig it out of the group’s files for us anyway, but he grew increasingly combative when we attempted to follow up. Finally, he sent us a note saying his lawyers did not “trust how the information will be managed” and requested that we remove reference to Entre Amigos from this story.
So we went directly to the Nongovernmental Human Rights Commission, and they told us they could not locate any such testimony in its archives. None of the people we interviewed said they’d witnessed an abduction as described by Entre Amigos or knew of anyone who had. If the testimony existed and it was as mixed up as Hernández described, there’s the possibility that the person was describing the disappearances from the Savior of the World and some of the details got scrambled in the retelling, including the year.
And we could never pin down the date of the disappearances for sure. It’s not uncommon for people to have difficulty remembering dates from the war years — even when loved ones died, the violence was so unrelenting that the number on a calendar seemed like a fairly meaningless abstraction in daily life, other reporters who covered the conflict told us. Calendar dates might even be especially hard for the trans women we interviewed, most of whom didn’t finish elementary school because they were thrown out by their families once their femininity became apparent.
The witnesses we interviewed mostly gave dates ranging from 1978 to 1980, but the fall of 1980 seems likeliest. One person who lived in the Praviana at the time told us she remembered they were still searching for the missing when one of the most notorious killings of the war took place: the rape and murder of three American nuns and a laywoman by the National Guard on Dec. 2, 1980.
This timing may be confirmed by something we found while paging through three years of newspapers from the period, held in dusty binders in the collection of San Salvador’s Museum of Anthropology. The only announcement for an event at the La Religiosa funeral home we found was published by both major dailies, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica, on Oct. 1, 1980. It was for a man who had died in Los Angeles, California, whose remains had been shipped home for burial, suggesting he may have been from a wealthy or important family. Alarcón remembers the wake where he tried to hide from the raid as being especially fancy, so there’s a possibility this was it.
That’s not a lot to go on, but two days later, El Diario de Hoy reported that police were leading sweeps to “purge those elements that are undesirable to society” in response to recent thefts. The operation was reportedly focusing on a park about two miles away from the Savior of the World — though close to the Praviana — but the next day La Prensa Gráfica quoted police saying the effort was expanding to target “other sites known as refuges for criminals.”
It may be hard to imagine a dozen people could disappear without attracting some attention. But at that point in the war, unexplained deaths had become so routine that it was remarkable when anyone raised a fuss. (And these were sex workers — trans ones at that — the kind of people whom many would probably have been happy to see cleared off the streets if they noticed them at all.)
Bodies were being dumped at a rate of more than 150 a week, which the U.S. Embassy would tally in regular “Violence Week in Review” cables, even as the U.S grew closer with the El Salvadoran regime. Remains were found scattered around the capital every morning, sometimes with their faces destroyed so they could not be identified or left in a spot where vultures could be counted on to scatter their bones. Trucks like the ones Alarcón saw at the Savior of the World were icons of the inescapable violence.
The death squads’ victims were “killed in the usual fashion,” reported a cable from the U.S. Embassy to Washington of the 179 people who died in the week ending Nov. 28, 1980: “Kidnapped by a group of armed men who appeared as civilians, taken away in the ubiquitous pick-up trucks, shot or strangled or both, and then dumped along roadsides.” Six of that week’s murders included top opposition leaders that attracted some outcry, the cable noted, but their deaths were “unusual in that they have gone noticed.”
If news of the death of a group of sex workers had reached officials at the U.S. embassy or human rights organizations, it could have easily been ignored as an extreme vice raid rather than as a political crime.
But those who lost their friends believe they died because of politics. The most intriguing part of the legend of the disappearances from the Savior of the World — and the part that is probably the most impossible to pin down — is that they were killed to cover up a government secret.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
Some of the locas thought the American was a diplomat, while others believed he was a reporter. No one really knew why he was in the country, but they all knew what he looked like. The ones we spoke to who had seen him recalled that he appeared to be in his fifties with close-cropped white hair and a mustache or a goatee. He was a big spender who always hired two at a time — “one for him to make love to while the other made love to him,” one person told us.
They were taken that night, the story goes, in a hunt for two sex workers who had evidence of a crime. Evidence they had stolen from an American.
The two he picked up shortly before the raid stole his briefcase. Inside were some cameras that the locas believed had been used to photograph some kind of a government crime.
All this might be easily shrugged off as the kind of conspiracy theory that proliferates in wartime, except several sources said they’d heard it from people directly involved. La Cuki Alarcón said the American came to his bar offering a reward to get his cameras back. Another sex worker, who asked not to be named, said she’d been warned that a hunt for the thieves was underway by a sergeant in the National Guard who was her regular client. Several told us that one of the thieves had a wife, a cisgender woman named Sonia who lived in San Salvador for at least another 30 years and would sometimes talk about how the authorities eventually dug the briefcase out of her patio with the cameras still inside.
Everyone believes both thieves escaped, but there are a lot of different stories about what happened to the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World: They were tortured by having their fingernails pulled out and their breasts shorn off. They were dragged to death by horses at the infantry barracks. They were dumped in a hole on the road to the notorious Mariona prison.
Their families tried to find them. A woman named Yazmín Zulema Enríquez, whose mother did laundry in a Praviana brothel, told us how relatives of the missing would come for help with their search. She remembered being left in charge of the brothel when the owner would personally make the rounds of the offices of the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police. The men said to have taken the locas away wore no uniforms, so there was no way to be sure which force had taken them.
“We didn’t even hear of any of [the locas] being held prisoner,” Zulema told us. “Of all the ones they carried off, not even cadavers were found.”
El Salvador is filled with stories like these, people turned into ghosts because unanswered questions are all that remains of them. A monument to the dead and disappeared that was unveiled in San Salvador in 2003 now bears the names of around 30,000 dead or disappeared who have been documented. Another 45,000 are estimated to be missing from that wall, a number that includes the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World.
Unexplained death became even more common for the trans women of San Salvador after the war. They were victims of the gangs that took over San Salvador’s streets, or targeted in drive-by shootings, or killed by HIV. By the turn of the century, the Praviana — which the sex workers say was home to dozens of trans women around the time of the war’s end — had essentially ceased to exist.
All that’s left is what remains of the Bluegill, with Patricia Leiva living in its carcass. Her home is a small room with a beat-up pallet on a concrete floor for which she pays $3 per day. She survives primarily by selling a few Coca-Colas and packs of gum from her door. She also still turns the occasional trick, though she can only walk a block or so on a good day.
She lives about a mile from the Monument to Memory and Truth, and her rusty shack is the closest thing to a memorial for the friends who passed through it. If it is too late to find out who killed the ones who disappeared beneath the Savior of the World, they at least want their memories to be believed.
Leiva showed us her ID card when we asked if it was safe to publish her name for this story.
“Use my name!” she demanded. “This is serious what we’ve talked about. And we’ve told the truth.”
January 4, 2016, at 11:39 a.m.
This story has been updated to clarify the nature of the document that Entre Amigos claims to possess.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on October 30, 2015, at 4:58 p.m. ET
SALT LAKE CITY — When the father of Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz said Wednesday that the “next thing [LGBT activists] are going to push [is] to try to legalize pedophiles,” the idea wasn’t new to the organization that was hosting him.
Rafael Cruz, an evangelical pastor, made the remark following a panel at a conference that drew more than 3,000 people from around the world to Salt Lake City called the World Congress of Families. Since the event first grew out of a wonky conversation between American and Russian academics in 1995, it has grown into an event bringing together social conservative activists from every continent and a top target of groups like the Human Rights Campaign (HRC).
Many associated with the organization have raised the specter of pedophilia as part of making the case against greater social and legal acceptance for homosexuality over its 20-year history. That same morning, for example, WCF gave an award to Andrea Minichiello Williams of the British group Christian Concern, who said in a 2013 speech to Jamaican activists fighting repeal of the country’s sodomy law that LGBT advocates “hate the line of homosexuality being linked to pedophilia. They try to cut that off, so you can’t speak about it. So I say to you in Jamaica: Speak about it.”
So even some of the WCF’s participants were surprised when the conference’s lead organizer, Janice Shaw Crouse, issued a statement saying that Cruz’s views “are not those of the World Congress of Families,” which “advocates for life and the natural family in a civil, constructive and transparent way.”
The episode is a sign of growing pains for an organization that still partly sees itself as a rag-tag academic conference at a time when major geopolitical disputes are being fought over LGBT rights. It invited deeper scrutiny from its fiercest critics by bringing the event to the United States, where the media and political context has changed so fast that arguments against homosexuality that were once largely uncontroversial among its participants now threaten the “civil, constructive” image its organizers have tried to project. Navigating this terrain is even more complicated because so many of its participants work in countries that have grown more hostile to LGBT rights at the same time so much of the Americas and Europe have embraced marriage equality.
This has some of the group’s key players wondering if the new reality demands a new approach.
“We’re no longer under the radar — we’re actually smack dab in the middle of a whole bunch of radars,” said the organization’s co-founder and long-time director Allan Carlson, who recently retired. “At some point when you’re being watched closely you have to reign it in.”
“Ten years ago people could say ‘the homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t.”
The World Congress of Families “emerged on a frigid night in early 1995 in a modest apartment in Moscow,” according to Carlson, a walrusy academic with a bushy mustache and whose speaking style brings to mind a professor whose lectures college students sleep through.
When he teamed up with a handful of Russian sociologists to plan the first World Congress of Families, held in Prague in 1997, it wasn’t conceived of as a permanent organization. And in reality, it still isn’t much of one today. It maintains only a handful of part-time staff in between its biannual conferences. They’re operate under the auspices of something called the Howard Center for Family, Religion, and Society in Rockford, Illinois, which primarily publishes papers to promote “the natural family.”
But it casts a big shadow because its conferences, have become an important vector for connecting social conservatives from every continent who work on issues ranging from banning abortion to combatting sex-trafficking to morality education for children.
Smaller progressive groups like People for the American Way, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Political Research Associates have been trying to publicize the anti-LGBT work of WCF affiliates for several years, but it’s only in the past two years that it’s become a major target of the U.S. LGBT movement. That’s thanks in part to a change in the landscape on the left: In 2013, the Human Rights Campaign began turning its formidable media and fundraising machine to international work for the first time. Many of the WFC’s American partner organizations were long-time opponents of HRC at home, making it an ideal early target as the group figured out what its international operation would actually do.
This was made easier by the fact that a WCF conference was planned to be held in 2014 inside the Kremlin in Moscow and its organizers repeatedly defended the country’s “homosexual propaganda ban” in events promoting the conference in the U.S. This was around the time of the Sochi Olympics and the showdown over the Russian law thrust questions about LGBT rights into the heart of geopolitics. (After an American WCF sponsor withdrew from the event after Russia invaded Ukraine WCF reluctantly removed its official imprimatur from the event, which was still held in September under a different name.)
As a whole, he said, the group isn’t “anti” anybody; it is “pro”: “We are for the family as the natural fundamental unit of society.”
WCF is perhaps kind of global brand more than an organization, an entity that allows a wide variety of activists to fly under its flag but has nothing approaching a clear governing body. It partners with some of the world’s most established social conservative organizations — like the Family Research Council and the National Organization for Marriage — and confers honors on activists in places with less mature “pro-family” movements in order to raise their stature at home and abroad. This also gives the World Congress of Families the appearance of direct influence on conservative victories abroad — like passage of Russia’s “homosexual propaganda” ban in 2012 or the 2014 anti-LGBT law in Nigeria — where foreigners have played only a peripheral role.
“This is a loose confederation … but the WCF never endorses all the views of any particular individual or organization,” said the group’s interim director E. Douglas Clark in an interview with BuzzFeed News. He said Cruz’s remarks linking homosexuality and pedophilia “offends my sensibilities.” As a whole, he said, the group isn’t “anti” anybody; it is “pro”: “We are for the family as the natural fundamental unit of society.”
And there were several harsh comments made about transgender people, frequently at the expense of Caitlyn Jenner, whose name brought boos from the audience.
Sex reassignment is a "mass delusion that is destructive and dangerous," said Miriam Grossman, whose website bills her as “100 percent MD, 0 percent PC. “We are fighting a war. Hard science is a weapon of mass destruction. Let's use it."
A sign of the pressure the group feels it is under is that the “Questions and Answers” section of the conference’s website is actually a lengthy rebuttal to an HRC document that calls the WCF “one of the most influential American organizations involved in the export of hate.” WCF’s response states that “these activist organizations are taking statements out of context and extrapolating conclusions, as well as attempting to hold WCF accountable for pronouncements made by individuals who have no official relationship with the organization.”
Brian Brown of the National Organization for Marriage, one of the sponsors of this year’s event, said it was unfair for LGBT groups to demand that groups like his repudiate positions of its international allies. These questions will continue to confront NOM, which on Monday held the latest in a series of meetings over the past three years to explore the creation of an International Organization for Marriage, according to multiple people invited to attend.
Though Brown and other organizers of the conference say they oppose laws that criminalize homosexuality, the WCF named as 2015’s “Woman of the Year,” Theresa Okafor, a Nigerian activist who supported a 2014 “Anti-Same Sex Marriage Law” that went far beyond defining marriage as a man as a woman. With sentences up to 14 years, it also criminalizes promoting LGBT rights or even public displays of affection.
When asked whether that was a conflict for NOM, Brown said, “I don’t understand why there’s any problem … One can oppose [extended prison sentences for homosexual acts] and still work with folks around the world who agree on the issue of marriage.”
But to the WCF’s critics, this posture simply allows the group to distance itself when some of their affiliates’ work or comments play badly in U.S. or European media.
“That’s the issue with the World Congress: They will never take responsibility for the havoc and damage their participants do all over the world,” said Troy Williams of the LGBT rights group Equality Utah, an organizer of events that countered the WCF program in Salt Lake City. “You can’t invite a rabid homophobe like Rafael Cruz to the stage and claim that you’re not responsible for the things that they’ve said.”
The case of Andrea Minichiello Williams — the WCF awardee who urged Jamaicans to “speak about” a link between homosexuality and pedophilia in 2013 — does give the appearance that the group sanctions saying different things to different audiences. When asked for comment for this story, Williams said in a phone call that BuzzFeed News had misquoted and distorted her remarks in Jamaica when it first reported them.
After BuzzFeed News provided her with a recording of her comments, she sent a comment by email, “I am at the World Congress of Families to push back against the elitist sexual agenda and celebrate the beauty and hope that is found in the natural family as defined in the bible and by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We have heard repeated, undeniable evidence of how children do best when raised by their mother and father.”
“It comes as no surprise that the veneer broke and the true anti-LGBT animus that's lurking right below the surface was exposed for all to see,” said Kerry Brody of the Human Rights Campaign on Wednesday afternoon. “The World Congress of Families has tried very hard this week to hide its and its affiliates' positions, actions, and advocacy behind a wall of sunshine-and-rainbows sounding rhetoric … These aren’t examples of one of two people going ‘off message.’ They're saying what they think is true, and are spewing vitriol and venom to a cheering crowd who likely agrees with them.”
At the same time WCF has been hammered by groups like the Human Rights Campaign in the months surrounding the event, it also is getting criticized on the right by activists who claim that it is “sacrificing principle” in its efforts to be seen as “pro-natural family” rather than anti-LGBT.
This charge was laid bare in an 11-hour conference held in Salt Lake City just before WCF kicked off, titled, “Understanding Homosexuality – The Politically Incorrect Truth,” organized by the anti-LGBT group MassResistance. Its organizers billed it as “possibly the most powerful conference to date dealing with the radical LGBT agenda,” and included Mat Staver of Liberty Counsel, the lawyer for the Kentucky clerk jailed for refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, Kim Davis.
“I think there is a place for being insulting and degrading, and I think I can back that up by scripture,” said MassResistance’s director, Brian Camenker, in a video posted online by People for the American Way. “I think we have to look at this as a war, not as, you know, a church service.”
Camenker, who is Jewish, said later in the program that scripture lays out a separate set of rules for people “who want to tear down the moral structure of society,” asserting that “God says those people who want to do that must be destroyed.” (Camenker declined a BuzzFeed News request for an interview.)
It appeared what Camenker’s group described as “shameful cowardice” had invaded even his own conference — he made his remarks after other speakers, including some activists who were also appearing at the WCF, had argued that their work against homosexuality was motivated by love rather than hate. (This includes Peter Sprigg of the Family Research Council, author of a 2010 pamphlet that asserts gay men are disproportionately likely to be child molesters. He also declined an interview request.)
This tension is a sign of a real strategic disagreement among advocates who oppose LGBT rights about how to continue their work in an era where comments that can be construed as homophobic provoke a media storm, said Austin Ruse of C-Fam, also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights, who was on the organizing committee for the Salt Lake City conference.
“One of the leitmotifs in the planning for this [was] not wanting to be overt” about criticizing homosexuality per se, said Ruse, who sent an email about the conference to his group's supporters on Thursday in which he said, “One of the more monstrous lies of our time is that same-sex desire is normal and natural.”
This is an especially delicate question given that the conference is being held in Salt Lake City, the seat of the Mormon Church, which worked with LGBT activists to get a bill — known as the “Utah Compromise” and aimed at barring discrimination in housing and employment — through Utah’s Republican legislature. The bill had substantial exceptions that Mormon leaders said were necessary to protect religious liberty, and it was criticized by both religious conservatives and LGBT activists. But the détente between LGBT activists and Mormon leaders was still remarkable, especially since so much ill will had formed among LGBT people for the church because of its support in 2008 for California’s Proposition 8, which blocked same-sex marriage there until courts struck it down.
One of the most controversial speeches inside the conference was arguably its opening keynote, delivered by Mormon Elder M. Russell Ballard, who used his remarks to highlight the Utah compromise.
“We can love one another without compromising personal divine ideas,” he said. “We can speak about those ideals without marginalizing others.”
Ballard concluded his remarks by calling “upon responsible citizens and officers of government everywhere to promote these measures designed to maintain and strengthen the family as the fundamental unit of society,” and he got enthusiastic applause, but the principle of the Utah compromise was rejected out of hand by many of the WCF’s key players.
C-Fam’s Ruse voiced the sentiments of many in an interview with BuzzFeed News.
“The Mormons think that they can sign a treaty of nonaggression with the LGBTs, and I just think it’s lunacy,” Ruse said.
This conference is more careful than most previous years’ events have been, Ruse said, because the context has shifted so much.
“Ten years ago people could say, ‘The homosexual movement is coming for America,’ and now you can’t,” Ruse said. Some in the movement now count it as “a great victory” when “one of our opponents don’t see us as evil,” paraphrasing comments by an anti-same-sex marriage activist.
But, Ruse said, “A lot of us think that’s not a victory at all.”
Austin Ruse works for C-Fam, which is also known as the Center for Family & Human Rights. A previous version of this story misstated the organization's name.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 29, 2015, at 8:58 a.m. ET
SEOUL — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that same-sex marriage is a question of basic equality before the law is not only the end of the long political battle in the U.S., but is also a tipping point in the global conversation over whether LGBT rights are human rights.
This is not because the United States has raised the bar of what LGBT equality means — it is well behind more than 20 countries in Europe and Latin America in crossing the marriage equality finish line. Nor is it because now that the U.S. has accepted marriage equality, the rest of the world will follow — the wave of anti-LGBT legislation adopted in countries like Uganda and Nigeria in 2014 were in part a reaction to marriage wins in the West, and some countries may intensify their anti-LGBT rhetoric in response to this decision.
But once its full implications are understood, the decision will push the global debate over what it means for countries to fully protect the human rights of gays and lesbians into a new phase. Before the Obergefell decision, even many campaigners trying to get international human rights institutions to treat LGBT rights kept marriage at an arm's length out of fear that asserting it as a fundamental right would intensify opposition to any LGBT rights protections in many parts of the world. After Obergefell’s statement that this is a clear question of equality for gays and lesbians, it seems impossible to exclude partnership rights from the list of fundamental rights that same-sex couples are entitled to regardless of what country they live in.
You won’t hear many LGBT rights organizations saying this, at least not yet — the reality of the decision is still sinking in, and those organizations based in the U.S. and Europe that work globally have treaded carefully or steered clear on this issue for years. But the U.S.’s own trajectory on marriage equality — and the personal trajectories on the issue of President Barack Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton — make it clear why it seems impossible for it to stay on the margins.
Obama and Clinton were the essential figures for making LGBT rights a serious part of the global human rights discussion. Before Obama took office in 2009, the U.S. was one of the most important opponents in blocking an LGBT rights push at the United Nations. In 2011, the U.N. Human Rights Council passed its first resolution addressing LGBT rights with U.S. support, and Clinton gave what was considered a groundbreaking speech in which she declared, “Gay rights are human rights, and human rights are gay rights.”
But at the time, Clinton herself was on record as opposing marriage equality. So was President Obama, who announced his support for marriage equality only six months before the 2012 election. It would be hard for the U.S. to endorse anything that suggested marriage was a universal right in 2011 — far more U.S. states banned recognizing same-sex couples’ marriages than established marriage equality.
So when the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first global survey of LGBT rights — a report ordered by the 2011 resolution — it barely considered partnership rights, focusing instead on the criminalization of same-sex relationships, free speech rights for LGBT activists, and hate crimes.
This sometimes put U.S. diplomats in awkward situations as the global battles over marriage equality intensified at a breakneck speed. Ahead of a 2013 vote on a marriage equality ban in Croatia, for example, the State Department’s then-top officer for human rights, Uzra Zeya, said in a press conference at Europe’s largest annual gathering of LGBT activists that “the U.S. government does not advocate for or against same-sex marriage in other countries.” Instead, she said, it limits its promotion of “rights for LGBT persons” to countering criminalization of “LGBT status,” combating hate crimes, and “other core issues.”
When asked by BuzzFeed News why she said marriage was not a “core issue” for LGBT rights, she said, “I’m not saying it’s not a core issue. I’m just telling you what our focus is.”
In less than two years, the State Department went from the confused position Zeya presented to a strong statement from Secretary of State John Kerry, thanks to the clarifying effect of Obergefell.
“The Court’s decision also sends a clear message to every corner of the globe: no law that rests on a foundation of discrimination can withstand the tide of justice,” Kerry said in a statement released following the judgement’s announcement. He also noted that he’d recently appointed “the first-ever Special Envoy for the Human Rights of LGBTI Persons, Randy Berry” — himself a married gay man with two children — “who is fighting every single day so that people all over the world have the rights they deserve.”
The U.S.’s symbolic status and soft-power clout has given its steps toward marriage equality huge weight even though it has never been at the vanguard. The first European nation to establish marriage equality, the Netherlands, passed its law in 2000, and today the only two major EU members in Western Europe without marriage equality are Germany and Italy. In the Americas, marriage equality has been the law in Canada since 2005, in Argentina since 2010, and in Brazil since 2013. Mexico’s Supreme Court has been ruling state bans on same-sex marriage unconstitutional since 2012, taking an additional important step toward establishing universal marriage equality earlier this month.
And the global impact of Obergefell is so significant in part because the conversation has already progressed so far in other corners of the globe. In some ways, the symbolism of Ireland becoming the first nation in the world to enact marriage equality by popular vote in May was more powerful than Obergfell in countries like Australia or Italy — the lopsided vote refuted the argument from conservatives that marriage was being imposed by ruling elites over the will of the people. And the shift at U.N. was detectable weeks before Obergefell — in his 2015 version of the LGBT human rights report, the high commissioner for human rights said partnership protections were necessary to protect gays and lesbians’ human rights.
More countries could very well enact marriage equality before 2015 is over. Opposition parties in Australia began making a serious push for a vote on a marriage equality law following the Irish vote, and Prime Minister Tony Abbott has shown signs that he might allow members of his ruling coalition to vote for it despite his personal opposition. The proposal’s sponsors are expecting a vote to happen this fall.
The U.S. Supreme Court decision may have its most direct impact in Colombia, which has a marriage equality case currently pending before its constitutional court. Colombia and the U.S. are joined under the human rights system of the Organization of American States, and the Colombian court takes into consideration foreign rulings (even though the United States explicitly does not follow foreign precedent).
Mauricio Albarracín, head of the Colombian LGBT rights group Colombia Diversa and an attorney who has worked on the litigation, told BuzzFeed News that, just as the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1955 ruling on racial discrimination in Brown v. Kansas Board of Education has influenced law throughout Latin America, Obergefell “is a beacon for our national debates [on marriage equality]."
Of course, the number of countries that have marriage equality are still a small minority — just over 20, as compared to the around 80 countries that criminalize homosexuality. They are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Americas and Western Europe, lending ammunition to LGBT rights opponents in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe who say they’re standing up for national customs against “cultural imperialism” from the West. The celebrations in Ireland and the United States feel very far away in countries like Morocco, where two men were sentenced to jail on charges of embracing in public, or Turkey, where police shut down a pride march on Sunday with tear gas and water cannons.
“Maybe Korea will follow the U.S. ruling, but never in our time,” a 22 year-old student named Jang Hyun-joon told BuzzFeed News on Sunday at a pride march in the South Korean capital Seoul, which was almost banned in the face of opposition from Christian groups.
But the ground for the debate has shifted, and it could change faster than even people like Jang expect. A BuzzFeed News/Ipsos poll conducted this spring found 53% of South Koreans support legal protections for same-sex couples. And the country’s best known politician, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — who polls show would easily be elected if he decided to run for president of South Korea in 2017 — sounded an awful lot like John Kerry when he spoke about the Obergefell decision on Friday.
The ruling “marks a great step forward for human rights in the United States,” Ban said during a ceremony in which he was presented a medal for his work promoting LGBT rights. “When the time comes to look back on my tenure, I will feel enormous pride in the fact that I have been the first U.N. secretary-general to push hard for equal rights and respect for LGBT people around the world.”
Obergefell is a turning point for the LGBT movement, not only because the United States has crossed what many now view as the clearest litmus test over whether LGBT people are equal citizens. It will change how LGBT rights campaigners talk about their own agenda on the global stage.
It’s hard to imagine any politician — or government — maintain that marriage equality is not a “core issue” while maintaining that “gay rights are human rights” ever again.
Courts in more than two-thirds of Mexico’s 31 states have granted same-sex couples the right to marry over the past two years in a series of rulings that will likely make marriage equality a reality nationwide in the near future.
The wave of rulings throughout Mexico hasn’t caused the uproar that has followed rulings in the United States over the past year striking down state laws barring same-sex couples from marrying. Couples have not rushed to marry nor have conservatives organized major protests.
This is in part because the technicalities of Mexican law have meant these decisions have been much more narrow in their immediate impact. Each decision applies only to the individuals who have brought the cases, and other same-sex couples will still have to sue in order to marry. It takes multiple cases meeting certain technical requirements for the courts to nullify a state law in Mexico — a hurdle that has not yet been met.
But with new rulings being announced almost every week — judges in seven new states ruled in favor of marriage equality in the first three months of 2015 alone — it seems almost inevitable that this day is coming, say legal experts who have closely followed the litigation.
“It’s just a matter of time,” said Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, a lawyer who worked on the first of these suits filed in 2011 and is now a clerk to a Supreme Court minister. “This has spread all over the country.”
The first place in Mexico to allow same-sex couples to marry was Mexico City — a federal district that functions like a state, sort of like Washington D.C in the U.S. A marriage equality law was adopted by the city’s legislature at the very end of 2009. When opponents took the law to Mexico’s Supreme Court, the judges ruled that it was constitutional for Mexico City to recognize same-sex couples and went one step further: They also held that the city’s marriages were valid in every state of the country.
But the Supreme Court left state marriage codes restricting marriage to heterosexual couples in place. The first case to argue that state marriage laws restricting marriage to a man and a woman were also unconstitutional seemed like a long shot. Unlike in the United States, where legal activists spent years spelling out the grounds for marriage equality and some state challenges attracted A-list attorneys, the idea to challenge a state marriage code came from a law student in the largely rural state of Oaxaca.
Alex Alí Méndez Díaz has now been involved in lawsuits in 19 states even though he is still finishing advanced studies in Mexico City and has an unrelated full-time job. Méndez first thought about challenging state marriage laws when he met a couple named Alejandro and Guillermo while helping to plan a pride parade in his native state of Oaxaca in 2011. The two wanted to marry, but they couldn’t afford to make the trip to register their union in Mexico City.
“These guys said to me, ‘We want to get married but we don’t want to leave. ... Can we get married here in Oaxaca?'” Méndez recounted during a 2012 interview with this reporter in Oaxaca City. He downloaded the ruling in the Mexico City case and concluded that it laid the foundation for challenging Oaxaca’s marriage code.
Others in Oaxaca’s local LGBT rights organizations thought going to court was a bad idea, Méndez said, in part because they were worried that the state wasn’t ready for a public discussion about same-sex marriage. But he was sure of his legal arguments, so he decided to bring the case by himself.
“I said, ‘Fine, if the collective won’t do this as a group, well, I’m the only lawyer [in the organization]. I’ll do it,'” he said.
In August 2011, Mendez filed cases on behalf of Alejandro and Guillermo and another couple he recruited through Facebook. In early 2012, he filed one more. These were amparos, a kind of suit in the Mexican system concerning human rights violations. He lost two of them — including Alejandro and Guillermo’s — but the third, on behalf of a couple identified as Lizeth and Montserrat, eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. In December 2012 the Supreme Court sided with the couple.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals”
The written decision in the case, published in early 2013, made an impassioned argument for marriage equality. A unanimous opinion authored by Supreme Court Minister Arturo Zaldívar Lelo de Larrea said that the court needed to step in partly because of a provision added to the Mexican constitution in 2011 prohibiting discrimination on the basis of “sexual preferences.” Unlike in the U.S., Mexican courts recognize rulings from other countries, so Zaldívar also based the decision in part on landmark U.S. Supreme Court judgements striking down racial segregation.
“Like racial segregation, founded on the unacceptable idea of white supremacy, the exclusion of homosexual couples from marriage also is based on prejudice that historically has existed against homosexuals,” Zaldívar wrote, referring both to the 1954 school desegregation case Brown v. Board of Education and the 1967 case striking down laws banning interracial marriage, Loving v. Virginia.
The judgement allowed just the petitioners to marry — Mexican law requires essentially five identical rulings on a subject from a high-level court in order to establish precedent binding all government officials. But it provided a very clear blueprint for bringing more challenges. Méndez announced on Twitter less than a week after the decision was handed down in December in 2012 that he was preparing to file amparos on behalf of more couples in Oaxaca, and lawyers in several other states immediately began talking about copying the strategy.
“In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Méndez also began working on an amparo colectivo, a petition of 39 individuals from Oaxaca challenging the marriage restriction. These actions didn’t revolve around specific couples alleging their rights had been violated because they’d been denied the right to marry. Instead, it was a group of gays and lesbians who said it was inherently discriminatory for the state to bar them from matrimony. This would streamline the process, allowing large numbers of couples to win marriage rights through a single suit, and also allow single people to win the right to marry even if they didn’t yet have a partner.
The Supreme Court ruled in favor of this amparo colectivo in April last year. Since then, groups numbering in the hundreds have successfully brought these suits in multiple states.
As of late February, there have been rulings in favor of marriage equality in 22 states, according to local news reports, and cases have been filed in at least four others. This legal wave nudged the legislature of one state on the U.S. border, Coahuila, to pass a marriage equality law in September. And the Caribbean state of Quintana Roo — where same-sex marriages actually began taking advantage in 2011 of the little-noticed fact that the wording of its marriage statute was actually gender-neutral — held two mass weddings of same-sex couples this year.
Méndez himself seems astonished at the pace of change.
“Imagine, in 2012, we won the first judgement in Oaxaca,” Méndez marveled during a phone interview last week. “In the two years [since], we have succeeded in covering almost the entire country.”
Even some LGBT rights supporters are a little mystified that marriage equality rulings haven’t sparked a national backlash. The fight over Mexico City’s 2009 marriage equality law brought strong opposition from the country’s Catholic hierarchy. Yet while some state bishops have condemned marriages between same-sex couples in the past few years, there has been no substantial opposition.
“The church was really concerned with the amendment here in Mexico City,” Geraldina Gonzalez de la Vega, the Supreme Court clerk who helped Méndez bring the Oaxaca case, said. But now, with scores of amparos pending, “they are not saying anything.”
Gonzalez attributes this in part to the fact that there isn’t much history of using the courts to force widespread change in Mexico, and so neither activists nor the media fully understand the scale of the change that’s underway. Méndez thinks this will change as the litigation moves from cases involving individual couples and produces the kind of rulings that will allow same-sex couples to marry in their states without having to file suit.
“The moment that there is an order from the Supreme Court forcing reform we’ll begin to see all kinds of resistance,” Méndez said. “We’re going to have serious problems with protests in opposition.”
Méndez expects the Supreme Court to start issuing the kinds of decisions that would make marriage widely available to same-sex couples throughout the country sometime in the next “two or three years,” based on the timeline for the cases already in the works. That may come sooner in some states — on Wednesday, the Supreme Court issued a ruling ordering the state of México (which borders Mexico City) to change its marriage codes, but it will take an additional case to make that binding precedent in the state. Three more states — Oaxaca, Jalisco, and Colima — are also on the verge of crossing that threshold.
As the wins become more substantial, advocates may no longer be able to carry on their work under the radar, and there are already signs that a backlash is coming. January brought the first high-profile resistance by local officials to a Supreme Court ruling allowing a couple to marry, a marriage equality standoff that made some national news. This came when the state of Baja California tried to duck a Supreme Court court order allowing a couple to wed in the city of Mexicali. The couple was turned away from city hall three times, the last of which after a volunteer who performs a mandatory pre-marital counseling session at city hall submitted a complaint saying the men “suffer from madness.” LGBT rights activists organized a protest in front of city hall under the hashtag #MisDerechosNoSonLocura (#MyRightsAreNotMadness), and city officials finally capitulated and allowed Víctor Fernando Urías Amparo and Víctor Manuel Aguirre Espinoza to marry on Jan. 17.
There are also signs that it could emerge as a theme in the campaign for national congressional elections that will be held in June, at least in some states. The clearest hints of this have come from Chihuahua, where Méndez said there have been 25 successful amparos. On Feb. 10, the leader of the opposition PAN party in the state legislature declared, “We are going to oppose approval of gay unions, we are going to vote against them, and that is what we were discussing with the bishop.”
But even if a backlash erupts now, Méndez said, the cases they’ve already won make marriage equality all but inevitable.
“Outside of Mexico, and even inside of Mexico, these advances are not widely known,” Méndez said. “It is very slow, it is very invisible — but it is irreversible.
Rex Wockner provided research assistance for this story.
This post has been updated to reflect a March 4 ruling against a law in the state of Chiapas banning same-sex couples from marrying
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on February 8, 2015, at 10:52 a.m. ET
SENSUNTEPEQUE, El Salvador — Karla Avelar had a backache when she reached the Sensuntepeque Penal Center, a cluster of cinderblock buildings perched on the side of a lush green valley near El Salvador's border with Honduras. So, after lunch, she took off her shirt and lay facedown on the cement floor of a room that doubles as activity space and cafeteria. Five women in bright makeup gave her a head-to-toe massage. They used hand cream as massage oil and placed a small candle over the knot in her back to draw out the pain.
Avelar was so at ease inside the prison that it is hard to imagine that she was regularly raped and tortured while she was incarcerated there between 1996 and 2000. Avelar, now 37 years old, was one of the many trans sex workers from San Salvador, El Salvador's capital, who has done time there over the past several decades. The ones who passed through there around the same time as Avelar report being abused by guards and pressed into a kind of slavery by the gangs who controlled the prison.
Those days are over, thanks in part to a legal complaint Avelar herself filed after her release. The women who rubbed her back on her recent visit, just before Christmas, are among the roughly 50 inmates who live in Sector 2, a special unit that houses trans women along with a handful of gay men. They still interact with the other prisoners in some common areas — several of them have boyfriends in the men's unit, and the prison supplies them with condoms — but they live and sleep in a part of the prison that is walled off from the men's unit for their safety.
"Today there is no rape," said one 25-year-old inmate who gave her name as Kendra. Kendra said she was subject to some verbal abuse when she first arrived in 2010 — a guard forced her to kneel for two hours while hurling homophobic insults at her — but Avelar came to see her and helped put a stop to it. The sealing of Sector 2 in that same year coincided with a decision by the prison administration to move the gang members out of the prison, which also went a long way to improving the trans and gay inmates' situation.
Many of them have stories much like Avelar's: Thrown out of home at an early age, they got by as sex workers, and survived rape or run-ins with gangs before landing in Sensuntepeque. They look to Avelar as a cross between a godmother and an advocate, able to win concessions from the prison administration that they could never get on their own. During the December visit, Avelar delivered a petition from the residents of Sector 2 to the warden asking that they be allowed to join the women's unit for a Christmas pageant. He agreed to it in writing on the spot.
"They're a little afraid of me because I've gotten them to remove certain guards," she told BuzzFeed News during the three-hour drive to the prison from San Salvador. "So with me, [the guards] are all like, 'Hello, Niña Karlita,'" greeting her with an affectionate nickname.
In a country where HIV and violence claims so many trans women's lives that there are few trans women in San Salvador over the age of 35, it's remarkable that Avelar is even still alive. She was raped and threatened with murder for the first time when she was 10, has survived at least three murder attempts as an adult, and has lived with HIV that went untreated for more than 13 years. Since 2008, she has run the trans rights organization she founded in San Salvador, known by the acronym COMCAVIS Trans. She regularly travels around the world to make the case for trans rights before international human rights bodies.
Avelar is part of a generation of trans activists in El Salvador, most of whom never finished primary school. They have won some substantial victories — including a directive issued by the government in 2010 prohibiting discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in government jobs — even though human rights advocates consider El Salvador one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas for LGBT people. Based on media reports, COMCAVIS has documented at least twelve women and two gay men were killed in 2014, a figure they believe understates the actual number of murders.
"In terms of Karla's transformation, I can say, 'Wow, when I'm all grown up I want to be just like her' — only that she's younger than me," said William Hernández, who founded El Salvador's first LGBT rights organization in 1994, Entre Amigos (which translates to "Among Friends").
"We met her on the streets," Hernandez said. "We knew the comings and goings of all of the things she lived through." Now, he marvels at seeing her in meetings seated next to ambassadors and cabinet ministers. "And she's not just sitting there — she's actually expressing herself, making decisions and laying the cards on the table."
Avelar was born in Chalatenango, a rural district just to the northwest of the one that houses the Sensuntepeque prison. She left home when she was 10 years old, after the second time her cousin raped her in their family house. Another cousin used to shoot at her from time to time — and finally told her to get out.
"My cousin warned me that if I didn't leave home he'd kill me, because in his family there were only machos," Avelar said. She was dressing as a boy at the time, she said, but "I wasn't fooling anybody. ... In my town, in my neighborhood, everybody stopped calling me 'Carlos'; they called me 'Karla' instead. Or 'the faggot.'"
She left without enough money for bus fare, so she started walking toward San Salvador. She walked for a day and a half before reaching Apopa, a town just outside the capital, arriving at around 11 p.m. A man took pity on her and paid for her to take a bus the rest of the way. She spent the next six months sleeping in the San Salvador bus station or on the street, feeding herself from the trash.
She eventually saved up a little money from begging and bought a case of Coca-Cola, and began a business selling soda in one of the city's largest markets. There she met a woman named María who took her in but made her work a grueling schedule of domestic chores.
The woman's son also raped her, Avelar said, "but I stayed there because I didn't know what else to do."
One of her most dangerous chores was buying tortillas. María's house was in a neighborhood controlled by the 18th Street gang, but the tortillería was in territory of the rival Mara Salvatrucha (MS). On one of these tortilla runs, a group of MS members grabbed her and took her to a place where she said about 15 men raped her. There were more waiting their turn, but she found the courage to make a break for it.
She returned to homelessness shortly after. That's where she first met another trans woman, named Diana, who invited Avelar to come along with her when she worked the streets. Avelar discovered that sex work finally gave her a way to earn money on her own and a little bit of control over her life.
"I was young [and] I made money," she said.
Avelar stayed friends with Diana until about eight years ago, when Diana was killed by her partner, a police officer. They had no real name for what they were at the time they first met. Most of the trans women in San Salvador were lumped into the category of "homosexuals" or they called themselves "locas," which literally means "crazy women" but often is used to mean something similar to "fag."
"At that time, we didn't even know that we were 'trans' or that we were the subjects of rights or anything," Avelar said.
Many of the trans sex workers who were already working in San Salvador when Avelar entered the business in 1990 remember those years as the tail end of a golden age. A civil war raged in El Salvador from the early 1980s until 1992, but the capital itself was comparatively peaceful and home to a thriving red-light district where gay men were relatively open and trans sex workers enjoyed steady business from the soldiers and police. There were a few strips where they worked, but the center of activity was a four-block area known as the Praviana. The women who spent time there in the '80s and early '90s estimate that in an area of about four blocks, anywhere from 70 to 90 trans women lived, most of them sex workers in the neighborhood's hotels.
Avelar was too intimidated by the other trans women to work in the heart of the Praviana. The veterans didn't exactly welcome her with open arms — they bullied her ruthlessly, calling her "la machorra" ("the dyke") because she wore short hair.
The "trans women who had been there a long time … would walk up and steal my money — sometimes they would even leave me naked," Avelar said. Once, a woman waved a machete in her face and told her she "had a pretty face for slicing up into little pieces."
Avelar eventually learned to fight back, and she began dishing out the same kind of abuse to the women who had treated her so badly. But this was as the Praviana began to decline in the 1990s. Many of the women left for the United States, following a well-worn path that many Salvadorans took in the dangerous and unstable period as organized gangs tightened control of the country following the civil war.
And then there was the "Matalocas" — the "Trannykiller." A serial killer started attacking trans women on the street in a series of drive-by shootings. He was said to have a wooden leg.
A man matching his description nearly killed Avelar in 1992. One night, Avelar said, she got into the car of a john who drove her to a secluded part of town after agreeing on a price. Her heart stopped when she went to go down on him and discovered he had an artificial leg.
"I touched his peg leg and I got scared," Avelar remembered. "I said to myself, 'He's already killed me.'"
She tried to act calm and finished the blow job, but he had noticed her panic. He pulled her off his penis, smacked her across the head with the butt of a pistol, and then made her get out of the car. That's when "penetration occurred" she said, and then he forced her back into the car and promised to kill her if she tried to escape.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on November 11, 2014, at 11:44 a.m. ET
MEXICO CITY — Jefferson's face was covered in fake blood as he talked about leaving El Salvador for the United States after gangs beat him up for wearing women's clothes.
The 17-year-old was wearing a cadaver costume to go trick-or-treating with a group of teenagers on the south side of Mexico City, where U.S.-style Halloween mixes with Mexico's Día de los Muertos. He had also helped build an altar of offerings of food and flowers for the dead spirits believed to visit the living in the first days of November. More than 100 kids also staying in the shelter where he has lived for the past year and a half did the same. Jefferson wore a bright smile under his makeup, running between groups of friends in the auditorium as the offerings were judged.
The shelter was the most stable home the teen — who chose the pseudonym Jefferson to keep his real name private — had known. His mother kicked him out of their home in rural El Salvador when he was 11 because he had started wearing women's clothes. "She realized this is how I was and she beat me, saying, 'I'd rather have a crazy person in my house than a gay one,'" Jefferson said. Jefferson survived as a prostitute on the streets of the capital San Salvador for three months, until his mother got sick with an illness that paralyzed her face and forced him to return home to support her. As her situation deteriorated, his cross-dressing caught the attention of some of the gang members in his neighborhood. Gangs have grown into large organized crime syndicates in Central America over the past 20 years, thanks in large part to the U.S. policy of deporting immigrants who had been part of gangs like MS13 in Los Angeles. The gang members told him they didn't like seeing people like him "contaminating the neighborhood," beat him up, and pressured him into working for them, though he didn't say what work he did.
On Feb. 19, 2012, gang members beat him up yet again. The same night, his mother took herself to the hospital. That's when he decided to head to the United States.
"I decided it was better to get out," he said.
Jefferson decided to make the trip north around the same time more and more kids from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras were doing the same, sometimes at their parents' urging. These three countries alone make up 93% of the more than 60,000 children who attempted to enter the United States on their own in 2014. The explosion in the number of unaccompanied child migrants — rapidly rising from fewer than 20,000 in 2011 — has largely been driven by gang violence, political instability, and extreme poverty within their borders.
Human rights activists say these countries also have some of the highest rates of anti-LGBT violence in the Americas — especially targeting trans women — although comprehensive hate crime statistics are not readily available. The Salvadoran trans advocacy organization COMCAVIS has documented 14 murders of LGBT people this year; 12 were trans women and two were gay men. One survey of trans women in El Salvador found that 87% knew at least one trans woman who had been murdered, and not a single case in which the killers had been arrested.
LGBT kids head north in search of the same stability and security as other migrant children. But they also seek a kind of love and acceptance that seems unimaginable at home.
Jefferson remembered telling his mother as he left, "I am sick of my family. I want a better family."
Jefferson began walking toward Guatemala that night in February 2012 with almost no money in his pockets, "maybe 10 cents." He was vague about what happened before he reached Guatemala, but it took almost a year before he made it out of El Salvador. He said he walked and hitchhiked. Sometimes the truck drivers who gave him rides would also feed him, but he mostly slept on the street.
He had some luck when he entered Guatemala and found someone to take him all the way to the Mexican border in just one day. He slipped into Chiapas and stayed in a shelter for migrants while begging on the street to raise enough money to pay for a seat on the minibuses that transport migrants north to the U.S. He eventually made it on one — but the bus was promptly stopped by immigration police. They told Jefferson they were going to send him back to El Salvador.
Jefferson said he told the officers, "I can't go back to my country because I … faced death threats. ... After what I've done, they're not going to forgive me."
Jefferson had a strong claim against deportation: Both the U.S. and Mexico clearly recognize LGBT people as part of a social group that have grounds for political asylum, unlike people who are fleeing poverty or gang violence. Instead of being sent home, Jefferson's case was referred to the Mexican agency that grants humanitarian visas, known as COMAR, and he was taken to a detention facility in the city of Palenque to wait for their decision.
Advocates say most LGBT migrants don't petition for asylum in Mexico, largely because it doesn't promise the same work opportunities as the U.S., and Mexico also has high rates of anti-LGBT violence. (Advocates who work with LGBT people seeking asylum in the U.S. say that Mexico is among the most common countries their clients are fleeing.) But others simply don't know they have the right to petition or fail to navigate complicated legal processes that even many adults don't understand. Even in the U.S., where there are many programs to connect unaccompanied minors with immigration lawyers, only a relatively small number of asylum cases are filed — less than 3 percent of the children estimated to have entered the U.S. in the past year have petitioned for asylum, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
And law enforcement can pose special dangers for LGBT migrants. One 16-year-old trans girl from El Salvador who was deported earlier this year after being caught by Mexico City police reported to the El Salvadoran trans rights group COMCAVIS that she was gang raped by officers while in detention. Jefferson also said he was raped during his nearly three months in detention.
Though he was only 15, Jefferson was placed in a facility with adult men and says he was told there were no separate facilities for children. He says there were no guards inside the facility who could protect him; only the perimeter of the facility was guarded. So when he started being harassed, there was no one he could turn to.
"There were two," he said. "One closed the door, and the other…"
He said he tried to tell those in charge what was happening, but "they didn't do anything" except arrange for him to see a doctor and a psychologist and tried to broker a dialogue between him and his attacker. "They told me that he wanted to talk to me, but I didn't want to do it," he said.
Jefferson's story has a mostly happy ending — at least temporarily.
He was ultimately granted the right to stay in Mexico. After nearly three months, COMAR granted him a visa and he was taken to the airport. Those in charge wouldn't tell him where he was going — a technique to ensure that the men who had assaulted him inside the detention center would not be able to find him, he was later told. The flight to Mexico City was the first time he'd been on an airplane. The flight, he said, was "bone-chilling."
They took him to the shelter where he now lives, which houses both Mexican and migrant children who have no homes. It is affiliated with the global organization Covenant House International, but its management has asked that BuzzFeed News not publish its name for Jefferson's security.
Five boys he had met in the detention center were already living at the shelter, and being reunited with them was like coming home — but to a family that actually loved him. "I felt, like, even better than I did with my family, because my family never gave me even a hug or a toy," Jefferson said. Since the group of boys were reunited at the shelter, "we love each other as if we are brothers."
Life isn't perfect there — he has to wear boy's clothes and keep his hair short. A spokeswoman for the shelter said this was for his own safety because "unfortunately Mexican society faces some scenarios which are not LGBT-friendly."
But Jefferson said this "isn't a problem," especially since he's only a year away from being 18, when he will be able to live as he choses. He's been out to the other kids since the day he arrived and never had any problems, he said, and there is at least one other LGBT teen who lives there. Jefferson is finishing high school and studying how to cook, make clothes, and do makeup.
"Overall, I'm doing very well," he said.
When Jefferson becomes an adult in the eyes of the law, he plans to pick up where he left off and finish his journey to the U.S., even though he has a permit to stay in Mexico. If he makes it, he risks being put into a U.S. detention center, where harassment and violence targeting LGBT people has been such a serious problem that a civil rights group filed a mass civil rights complaint against the Department of Homeland Security in 2011. In addition to proving why he can't return to El Salvador, he'll also have to make a case for why he cannot stay in Mexico, because once a refugee is given safe harbor by another country, they're ineligible for asylum in the United States. And while there are many programs to get legal services to child immigrants, adults are not so lucky — they have to find a lawyer on their own, and there's no guarantee of legal representation for people facing deportation the way there is for defendants facing criminal charges.
Jefferson said too much of Mexico is just as dangerous as El Salvador. He also worries that he won't be able to earn enough money there. Despite his harsh words to his mother when he left, he says part of his reason for leaving is that he didn't want her to worry about his problems with the gangs as she struggled with her health. He's hoping that in the U.S., his diploma from the sewing school will let him find "better work [to pay for a] cure for my mother's disease."
But this time, he said, he would be determined to make the trip different than the one that brought him to Mexico City.
"I don't want to go back to what I came from, traveling in a trailer, hitchhiking," he said. "I endured hunger, cold, punches, humiliation from people. I've had enough of traveling by land."
He plans to fly.
Posted originally on Buzzfeed News on June 3, 2014, at 3:52 p.m. ET
The Obama administration has delayed action in adjusting aid to Uganda in response to passage of the Anti-Homosexuality Act, even though an interagency review process put forward recommendations some weeks ago.
Sources familiar with the review process, which the administration announced just after Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni signed the anti-gay bill into law in February, told BuzzFeed they have expected an announcement from the United States government for some time because the recommendations were pending, but the White House has been silent.
This inaction follows a seemingly contradictory series of announcements in March. The White House announced an adjustment of around $10 million — including a cut to a religious organization that vocally supported the law — out of the more than $700 million that the U.S. gives to Uganda annually on March 23 because of the new law. But days later, the U.S. embassy in Kampala issued a press release saying "No Changes in U.S. Assistance to Uganda." And the initial cuts were announced on the same night as the administration said it would send military helicopters much coveted by President Museveni to assist in the hunt for rebel leader Joseph Kony.
As the review has dragged on, American LGBT and public health advocates have grown increasingly frustrated by the White House, which they say has frozen them out of consultations over responding to the law. The administration has increasingly held back details on what options are under consideration and when they might come.
"They haven't been telling us anything concrete," one told BuzzFeed.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin publicly called out President Obama for his inaction in a letter that said the "delay is putting lives at risk."
"More than three months since the enactment of this law, I respectfully ask
that you direct the Administration's interagency review to begin issuing immediate, concrete results that will illustrate the United States's commitment to protecting human rights in Uganda," Griffin wrote. "President Museveni must understand that there will be continuing and long term political and economic consequences to state-driven homophobia."
Griffin also called for expanding the review to include other countries that have recently enacted "heinous anti-LGBT laws" — Nigeria, Russia, and Brunei — in order to "signal to the world that these consequences are not directed solely towards Africa."
National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell would not comment on why the administration had not made a final decision on the recommendations from the interagency review process. However, he avoided referencing the review in a statement responding to the Human Rights Campaign's letter.
"In response to President Museveni's decision to assent to the Anti-Homosexuality Act, the United States took immediate steps to demonstrate our support for the LGBT community in Uganda, deter other countries from enacting similar laws, and reinforce our commitment to the promotion and defense of human rights for all people – including LGBT individuals," Ventrell wrote. "As we move forward, we will take additional steps to demonstrate our opposition to the Act and our support for LGBT persons in Uganda and around the world—recognizing that the struggle to end discrimination against LGBT persons is a global challenge, and one that is central to the United States commitment to promoting human rights."