On Jan. 9, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that Costa Rica, and 19 other Latin American and Caribbean countries, must recognize same-sex marriages. Its decision upended Costa Rica’s presidential race. Following the ruling, evangelical extremist Fabricio Alvarado Muñoz launched an anti-LGBTQ, anti-IACHR campaign that catapulted him from obscurity into the lead. Pitted against him: Carlos Alvarado Quesada, who backed the IACHR and declared his support for marriage equality.
Polls leading up to the general election showed Alvarado Muñoz ahead or, at best, in a tie. But Alvarado Quesada and his running mate, Epsy Campbell Barr—an avowed feminist—won 61 to 39 percent. Their victory marks a major win for LGBTQ rights in Latin America and a critical affirmation for the IACHR. It also made history for women of color: Campbell Barr is the first woman of African descent to hold the office of vice president in the Americas.
Costa Rica’s election has both political and cultural import. The anti-LGBTQ candidate, portrayed by his young, charismatic opponent as backward-thinking, was defeated spectacularly; the quasi-theocratic evangelical views he stands for were rejected unambiguously. By a margin of nearly 40 percent in a high-turnout election, Costa Ricans chose a candidate who promises enthusiastic compliance with the IACHR’s marriage ruling. Alvarado Quesada’s election bodes well for social progress on LGBTQ rights in Latin America, which has lagged well behind legal protections.
Latin America has some of the strongest laws promoting LGBTQ equality in the world. In parts of the region, laws allowing same-sex marriage and adoption, prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination, and permitting transgender people to change gender markers on government documents have been in force for more than a decade. Fourteen countries have done what the United States has not—explicitly banned workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Marriage equality has spread somewhat more slowly than other protections, due in part to religious intolerance. That said, Argentina became the second country in the Western Hemisphere to legalize same-sex marriage in 2010. Brazil, Colombia, and Uruguay, as well as some Mexican states, have also adopted marriage equality. Every country that recognizes same-sex marriage also allows gay couples to adopt. Chile and Ecuador permit same-sex unions.
Key political figures in the region support gay rights. Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet vowed to promote marriage in addition to civil unions. Although it was defeated by a congressional commission, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a measure to legalize marriage equality. A week after the IACHR ruling, Panama’s vice president, Isabel de Saint Malo, announced that the country would comply and noted that she looked forward to advancing principles of equality and nondiscrimination.
Despite formal progress, though, anti-LGBTQ violence appears to be increasing. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights—the counterpart to the IACHR under the Organization of American States—recorded nearly 800 acts of violence against LGBTQ people, including nearly 600 murders from Jan. 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014. (The commission also found that these crimes are dramatically underreported.) Gay men and trans women were most likely to be targeted. Their 2015 report also revealed acts of “corrective rape” against lesbians and gender nonconforming women.
The IACHR ruling had outsize implications for both the Costa Rican election and the court itself. The IACHR was established in 1979, along with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. A pathbreaker, IACHR played a key role in helping Latin American countries establish democracies following dictatorships and served as a model for other international judicial bodies. But it has also struggled to achieve full recognition and compliance.
In 2017, the court held seven hearings dedicated to monitoring compliance in 22 cases and issued 29 orders compelling compliance in 42 cases. As of its annual 2017 report, 189 cases were being monitored for potential lack of compliance.
As Damian González-Salzberg has pointed out, however, the number of cases being monitored is not a reliable measure of overall compliance. In 2017, states updated the court on 125 of 189 cases in monitoring compliance—meaning states were actively cooperating with the IACHR in two-thirds of cases. Of course, noncompliance is the least of states’ options for undermining the court. They can also, as Brazil has, withhold contributions or, as Venezuela did, withdraw altogether.
The court has, at times, exacerbated its own fragility. In the mid-2000s, it adopted the doctrine of “conventionality control,” finding that the court can compel countries to change their laws to comport with international human rights agreements they’ve ratified. The doctrine expanded the court’s authority in theory and jeopardized support in fact.
The same-sex marriage ruling opened the court to additional criticism from opponents who believe it is too progressive, including Republican Sen. Mike Lee. Governments from Argentina to Brazil have clashed with the court in recent years over requests and rulings that they believe to be overreach. Given the court’s home base in San José, Costa Rica, it would have been a staggering blow to the court’s legitimacy if Costa Rica had rejected the IACHR ruling and left the inter-American human rights system, as Alvarado Muñoz promised.
Alvarado Quesada’s election could signal a new chapter for the institution—and LGBTQ people throughout Latin America. He has aligned compliance with the IACHR with progress, promising to bring Costa Rica into the 21st century. The significance of his election will extend far beyond the country’s borders.