From issue: Natural Resource Extraction in Latin America (Winter 2013)

Innovators

Some of our hemisphere's emerging leaders in politics, business, civil society, and the arts.

In this issue:
Filmmaker Andrea Baranenko documents the struggle for transgender rights in Venezuela. Photographs by Romina Hendlin.

Arts Innovator: Andrea Baranenko, Venezuela

Latin America is moving forward, but Venezuela is moving in the opposite direction,” says Andrea Baranenko, a 28-year-old Venezuelan filmmaker whose recent documentary, Yo Indocumentada (I, Undocumented), exposes the struggles of transgender people in her native country. The film, Baranenko’s first feature-length production, tells the story of three Venezuelan women fighting for their right to have an identity.

Tamara Adrián, 58, is a lawyer; Desirée Pérez, 46, is a hairdresser; and Victoria González, 27, has been a visual arts student since 2009. These women share more than their nationality: they all carry IDs with masculine names that don’t correspond to their actual identities. They’re transgender women, who long ago assumed their gender and now defend it in a homophobic and transphobic society.

For as long as she can remember, Baranenko has had LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) friends and acquaintances. She used to work in her mother’s trendy boutiques, which were frequented by a sexually diverse staff and clientele. Her academic background, however, also exposed her to Venezuela’s conservative attitudes toward gender roles and identity. She studied communications and audiovisual arts at the Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (UCAB), a private Jesuit university that is also the employer and alma mater of Adrián, a renowned LGBT rights activist and UCAB law professor who is the main character in the film.

It was in the halls of the university that Daniel Ruiz Huek, the producer of Yo, Indocumentada, met Adrián for the first time. Struck by the irony of a transgender woman teaching in an environment dominated by men and machismo, Ruiz Huek invited Baranenko to collaborate on a project about Adrián’s life. They soon embarked on a two-year journey to document her case, one of the most emblematic accounts of transphobia in Venezuela.

Although the Bolivarian Constitution prohibits any form of discrimination, transgender Venezuelans have no legal mechanism to change their names. Adrián petitioned the Tribunal Supremo de Justicia (Supreme Justice Tribunal) in May 2004 to legally change her given name from Tomás to Tamara, but despite Adrián’s reputation as a lawyer and the fact that she succeeded in presenting her case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Adrián’s cédula de identidad (national ID) and all forms of identification still recognize her as Tomás. Eight years later, she is still fighting to change her name.

After researching LGBT rights in Venezuela for a year, Baranenko filmed Yo, Indocumentada in Caracas in 2010 with funding from the Centro Nacional Autónomo de Cinematografía (National Autonomous Center for Cinematography), the state entity that promotes and regulates Venezuelan filmmaking. Since it premiered in May 2012, the film has received positive reviews from LGBT and human rights organizations in Venezuela, as well as recognition in film festivals throughout the region.

Baranenko credits the success of the film to her decision to tell the story as one about civil rights, which “helped viewers identify with the characters.” She adds, “Transgender individuals must be seen as normal people whose rights deserve to be recognized.”

Baranenko hopes the film will break stereotypes—such as those that associate transexuality with prostitution. Her next project is a feature film based on Adrián’s life, which she is co-writing with renowned Venezuelan director Elia Schneider.


Civic Innovator: Álvaro Herrero, Argentina

Mari Hayman

Álvaro Herrero could have pursued any career of his choice. His impressive academic credentials include a law degree from the Universidad Nacional de la Plata in his native Argentina, an MA in Latin American studies from Georgetown and a PhD in political science from Oxford. But in 2005, he opted instead for a job as a researcher with the Asociación por los Derechos Civiles (ADC).

He hasn’t regretted it. “I’ve always been preoccupied by the breaks in democracy in the region and how they’ve affected human rights and the judiciary,” says Herrero, 41. He has risen to become executive director of the organization, where he has helped the ADC become a driving force for judicial reform in Argentina.

Founded in 1995, ADC emerged at a critical time: most rights groups in Argentina were focused on crimes against humanity committed during the 1976–1983 military dictatorship, and there were no organizations working nationally on themes related to civil rights, such as freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression.

Herrero believes that Argentina’s dictatorship-era abuses and its current civil rights challenges are intertwined. “In Latin America, as a result of the breakdown of democracy and the human rights violations, today—at least in Argentina—there is still a lot of work to do in defense of human rights, freedom of expression, anti-discrimination, access to public information, and judicial independence,” he says.

After becoming executive director in 2009, Herrero oversaw ADC’s growing focus on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights, sexual and reproductive health, and the rights of prisoners. ADC has also been instrumental in promoting greater government transparency and public access to information. Argentina’s military regime reinforced a culture of government secrecy that has remained long after the country’s return to democracy, says Herrero. “Both government officials and the average citizen believe that the information that the government has is secret […] for us, it was a big challenge to make a clear case with citizens that they have a right,” he adds.

This past December, the ADC won what Herrero calls “the most important legal case in our history” when Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that the Instituto Nacional de Servicios Sociales para Jubilados y Pensionados (National Institute of Social Services for Retirees and Pensioners), a public corporation that provides services to the elderly, was required to divulge how it spent its public advertising budget. In doing so, the court demonstrated that all Argentine public entities—as well as private corporations that exercise public powers—are required to disclose how their funding is allocated. The court had never before given such a broad recognition of Argentines’ constitutional right to request and receive access to public information.

Meanwhile, the ADC is still trying to educate Argentines about its work. “We have no political affiliation but a lot of people confuse us with an opposition group,” Herrero says. “We are an independent NGO that defends civil rights.”

Though it has already built a nationwide presence, the ADC is working with international organizations like Grupo de Información de Reproducción Elegida (Information Group on Reproductive Choice) and the Organización Ombudsgay in Mexico, and regional networks like the Alianza Regional por la Libre Expresión e Información (Regional Alliance for Free Expression and Information), to make a bigger impact. This is a natural role for Herrero, who has worked as a consultant for international NGOs in 15 countries.

“The strategy to defend rights has changed a lot, and the discussions are no longer local,” Herrero says. The ADC, which is largely supported by international foundations like the Ford Foundation and the Open Society Foundations, has had to stretch its resources to operate in cities like Washington DC and Geneva, and to testify before regional human rights bodies like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“In the next few years, we’ll be pursuing themes like privacy, intelligence and surveillance in Latin America, and we’ll be increasing our international work,” Herrero says. “Today, the defense of rights is global.”


Business Innovator: Bedy Yang, United States/Brazil

Silicon Valley may be the technology capital of the world, but Brazilian cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro are giving the Bay Area a run for its money. A booming economy and an increasingly connected middle class that grew by 50 percent from 2003 to 2009 have made Brazil a logical new hub for the next information technology boom, if only Brazilian companies could better connect with new markets and investors, especially in the United States.

Enter Bedy Yang, 35, a Chinese-Brazilian tech whiz and native of São Paulo, who has trailblazed a professional network designed to do exactly that. Yang founded a start-up called “Brazil Innovators” in 2009 to connect entrepreneurs, investors and thought leaders in the Brazilian tech field with Silicon Valley. In cities across Brazil, Yang and her two colleagues network with potential investors, technology-focused universities, the media, and large companies through events like BR New Tech, a monthly conference organized in São Paulo that brings together 300 industry leaders and aspiring entrepreneurs.

Yang knows firsthand the value of connecting young entrepreneurs across Brazil; she was one herself. After getting her MA from the University of Pennsylvania, she moved to the Bay Area and opened a retail store called Bazaar Brazil in 2006 that sold fair-trade handicrafts produced by women in the Brazilian Amazon. Bay Area investors and microfinance institutions quickly caught wind of Yang’s successful socially inclusive business, and began inviting her to networking events.

Her whirlwind tour of these networking events led her to an important realization. Not only were Brazilian entrepreneurs not making the same connections in Silicon Valley that she was, but Brazil’s entrepreneurial culture was not keeping pace with the growth of the economy. Yang founded Brazil Innovators to do both.

Two years later, Yang got her next big break when San Francisco Bay Area–based investor Dave McClure offered her a job with his business incubator, 500 Startups. The initiative, 500 Startups, provides the seed capital—up to $250,000—to get small businesses off the ground, a few steps ahead of what Yang had originally envisioned with Brazil Innovators.

In her position at 500 Startups as venture partner and “samba queen,” Yang manages a budget of $2 million and has free rein to invest the money however she wants. She looks for early-stage small- or medium-size enterprises (SMEs) with a clear business model that would genuinely benefit from the standard $50,000 upfront investment. Today, 500 Startups has investments in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, and Chile. But unsurprisingly, Yang’s focus is on her home country. “It was important to bring someone on who knows the local market well,” she says of her hiring at 500 Startups. “If you know the market, you know what to look for to make the right business decisions and investments.”

Rota de Concursos—a test preparation company for applicants of government jobs in Brazil—is a perfect example. The company became part of the Brazil Innovators network in 2011 and later received seed capital from 500 Startups. “The company works because it addresses niche demand in the native market,” says Yang. It provides test-prep courses similar to those given to SAT students in the U.S., a relatively new concept in testing and test preparation in Brazil.

The hardest part of being an entrepreneur can be having enough confidence in your innovation to take the plunge. Yang has one word for those with good ideas who are timidly looking over the edge at an uncertain future: “jump.”

 


Politics Innovator: Edwin Escobar, Guatemala

Edwin Escobar dreams of turning Villa Nueva—Guatemala’s second most populous city—into the “next Bogotá.” The vision of the new mayor of this colonial-era city, just 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of the capital, might seem like conventional political rhetoric. But Escobar, who took office just last year, is not a conventional politician. A self-described “serial entrepreneur,” he was on the fast track to a profitable business and academic career when he became fascinated by the possibilities of political action.

The son of a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer and a father jailed for 15 months during Guatemala’s civil war, Escobar, 43, was the youngest-ever graduate of the MBA program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. There he received the Dean’s Service Award, and was in the inaugural fellowship class of the elite Central America Leadership Initiative—part of The Aspen Institute’s Global Leadership Network. But it was as dean of the engineering program at Universidad Rafael Landívar, his undergraduate alma mater, that Escobar experienced a “profound change of heart” that drew him to politics.

After advising Alejandro Giammettei, the third-place candidate in Guatemala’s 2007 presidential election, Escobar embarked on a 40-day tour across the country to map out his professional options. A villanovano by birth and a descendant of the city’s founders, he began traveling through Villa Nueva’s 526 communities to meet with as many of the city’s 1 million-plus residents as possible. In 2010, he helped found the Asociación por Una Mejor Guatemala (Association for a Better Guatemala), a nonprofit organization that promotes volunteerism and implements community development projects. Through the association, Escobar funded the production of a geotracking crime detection tool known as Seguridad para Nuestra Comunidad (Security for Our Community—SPNC) with the aim of reducing Villa Nueva’s high homicide rate (36 per 100,000 persons in 2011).

Escobar ran for mayor of Villa Nueva in 2011 because he preferred “an active, technical and executive role” over a legislative one. He won handily in a crowded field, with twice the number of votes of the second-place finisher. Since taking office in January 2012, Escobar’s main goal has been increasing citizen empowerment and confidence through increased anti-crime measures—and eventually boosting investment in the city.

His policies seem to be working. SPNC helped reduce crime by 32 percent in the first nine months of 2012. Escobar is also staffing an anti-crime center with 450 security forces and financing the lighting and beautification of Villa Nueva’s public spaces, which he believes will drive the crime rate down further. But he has to be creative: due to Guatemala’s poor tax collection rate—slightly above 10 percent of GDP in 2011—Escobar has a slim $30 million budget to work with. With assistance from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank, Escobar organized a handful of symposia last year to attract financiers to invest in Villa Nueva’s potential.

Escobar is realistic about the limitations of politics. He faces a gridlocked city council that often challenges his initiatives. “I’m fighting the status quo and have to reinvent myself every day,” he admits. But his tenure as mayor has clearly whetted his appetite for politics. Although there are no term limits preventing him from running again when his mayoral term expires in 2016, Escobar is still weighing his political future. Will he return to business or the academic world? He won’t say. But few observers believe that a larger national platform is out of the question.   




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