Grassroots Democracy and its Challenges (Part III)
How are social groups historically excluded from the public arena in most of Latin America making their aspirations heard?
September 30, 2009
According to some, Latin Americans are temperamentally unsuited to fully fledged “Jeffersonian” democracy. As evidence, some point to polls on political attitudes in the region.
Yet, these polls are often skewed and/or misinterpreted.
If asked if he or she would prefer to live under an authoritarian regime that provided improved living standards or in a democracy unable to deliver these goods, few respondents anywhere would come over as having “democratic” values. Such loaded questions leave little room for intelligent analysis of the underlying motivations that drive individuals and of their underlying convictions.
On the contrary, the collapse or disarray of traditional politics in many countries is eloquent proof that democracy is very much alive and kicking. It points to the difficulty hide-bound institutions face in dealing with a new phenomenon — the rise of mass or grassroots democracy.
As the result of circumstances that will be touched on briefly, but that can be linked to both industrialization and globalization, social groups historically excluded from the public arena in most of Latin America have, as of late, begun to make their demands and aspirations heard.
They have become a force in domestic elections to be reckoned with, no longer reduced to numb frustration or the occasional outburst of social violence.
This includes a rich variety of movements and currents that cover the gamut of countries and their varying degrees of social maturity and political mobilization. It includes the emergence of a new lower middle class — most notably in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico — that has benefited directly from a sophisticated service sector, economic stability and abundant credit.
It also includes the outpouring of ethnic and linguistic consciousness on the part of indigenous communities in much of the Andean highlands and Central America. These communities have been secularly excluded from the affluence generated by extractivist economies that generate large profits, but few jobs.
Democracy is not about imposing equality, but ensuring that all have a fair chance to compete, i.e., that all enjoy not only political rights, but also access to basic health and education — fundamental requirements for personal advancement.
By this account, meaningful democracy is by its very nature revolutionary, in that it questions the status quo in class-ridden societies, capitalist or otherwise.
This raises a pivotal question: Are the traditional instruments of a liberal democracy up to the task — especially in developing countries, where political and economic circumstances are stacked against those at the bottom of the social heap?
Especially in societies segregated by high levels of social exclusion and political frustration, liberal democracy is often considered little more than an artificial importation imposed on a clueless and helpless populace by international capitalism in cahoots with traitorous local elites.
The lack of solid institutional mechanisms to mediate the demands of social groups who have suddenly sprung onto the political stage generates often irrepressible tensions.
In countries where the left wing has come to power for the very first time, the issue quickly becomes one of how to channel a volatile electoral victory into effective public policies. Given inevitably high expectations, the risk of frustration and political backlash is huge.
Where political institutions are seen to be vulnerable, the temptation is to entrench institutionally.
One feasible alternative is through constitutional reengineering. The enactment of re-election clauses for public office in much of Latin America is seen by critics as undermining the only effective redress against the region’s chronic predisposition to charismatic and messianic leadership.
Yet, in times of popular demand for fundamental change, is it not unrealistic to expect deep structural change to be enacted within the time frame of an average four-year term of office for most presidents?
One-term mandates, it could be argued, perpetuate and reinforce the political status quo by making it politically risky to embark on ambitious policies that are unlikely to produce tangible results within a given election cycle.
Time is hardly the only problem. What meaningful reforms can be expected from governments that collect 15% or less of national GDP? How can they undertake a credible effort to redress decades, if not centuries, of highly regressive social-economic policy without access to adequate revenues?
Honduras is a prime example. Notwithstanding his considerable political missteps, President Zelaya put in stark perspective the challenge of bringing about piecemeal reform in a highly unequal society.
Zelaya has said, “I thought I would bring about changes from within the neo-liberal scheme, but the rich didn’t give an inch” on issues such as raising the minimum wage and opening the elite-controlled cartels to competition in a country where two-thirds live below the poverty line.
To be sure, in the ideological struggle for electoral hegemony, grassroots enthusiasm must not be allowed to succumb to ignorance, cynicism or despondency on the part of an electorate with meager expectations.
Democracy by plebiscite, whereby the populace is frequently called out to vote on critical issues, is one answer. The Chávez government in Venezuela, for example, has submitted itself to an unprecedented degree of electoral scrutiny.
Participatory democracy can also take the form of procedures to ensure popular oversight of government. One instance is the recall mechanism for many public offices in the 1999 Venezuelan constitution.
To break away from a “corrupt and unstable” political system under the control of a “particracy,” the Ecuadorian Congress is empowered to impeach the president under the country’s new constitution.
Supreme Court judges in Ecuador will no longer be nominated by Congress, but selected through still-to-be-determined public selection procedures. In addition, a 16-member Council for Citizen Participation and Social Control will oversee nominations to high-profile government posts.
In Bolivia, constitutional reform has been taken a step further by establishing a separate sphere of indigenous rights and prerogatives. While this may sit uncomfortably with classic constitutional principles, it expresses the fundamental truth that there can be no equality before the law under conditions of extreme social inequality and economic disenfranchisement.
As the Bolivian government minister responsible for the change put it, Legal and administrative autonomy for indigenous communities means “breaking the chains of submission to the political, cultural and colonial powers,” enabling them to “recover control over their territorial rights, including the defense of their identity (language and community democracy) and natural resources.”
Largely peaceful as these revolutions may be, people remain impatient with the slow pace of institutional reform.
During the recent bicentennial celebrations in Quito, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa grasped the general mood by arguing that 200 years of independent life had not brought about freedom from unjust practices that keep the people under the heel of the powers that be.
It comes, therefore, as no surprise that notably in Bolivia and Venezuela, the perceived threat to the very survival of the democratic revolution from well-placed opponents has led to a string of government takeovers of private enterprises — as well as clamping down on highly critical news outlets.
Yet, Latin America is proud to be living through its longest period of continuous democratic government. A long and painful sequence of vicious dictatorial government in the early 1960s was followed in the 1980s by economic paralysis.
Latin America’s outlook on how best to achieve sustainable development was profoundly shaped by this experience. To differing degrees, all Latin American countries have learned the hard way that authoritarian modernization offers few answers to the challenge of bringing social peace and general prosperity to drastically unequal societies.
Under the pretext of combating corruption or streamlining government action, authoritarianism has almost always postponed the redress of social evils while concentrating economic resources to the benefit of those already well-off.
Yet, the 20 “interruptions” of democratic rule in the region in almost as many years — including, most recently, the military takeover in Honduras — underscore the enduring difficulty of entrenching democratic values and practices in politically demobilized and civically anemic communities.
Critics on both ends of the political spectrum agree that it is not enough to win elections, especially if the result is engineered through social hatred, economic bullying or legal gerrymandering. Cutting legal corners and going over the head of formal institutions and established procedures puts at risk the checks and balance of consensual rule.
Effective government — be it conservative or reformist — requires addressing legitimate grievances without existentially threatening minority interests.
Revolutionary fervor and political ruthlessness are no substitute for offering political adversaries a stake in a common future — that is, not turning them into class enemies.
In societies segregated by high levels of social exclusion, liberal democracy is often considered little more than an artificial importation imposed on a clueless and helpless populace.
In times of popular demand for fundamental change, is it not unrealistic to expect deep structural change to be enacted within the time frame of an average four-year term of office?
Social groups historically excluded from the public arena in most of Latin America have, as of late, begun to make their demands and aspirations heard.
The collapse or disarray of traditional politics in many countries is eloquent proof that democracy is very much alive and kicking.
One-term mandates, it could be argued, perpetuate and reinforce the political status quo by making it politically risky to embark on ambitious policies.
Marcel Fortuna Biato
Brazilian Diplomat Marcel Fortuna Biato is a career diplomat. He entered the Brazilian diplomatic service in 1981. Mr. Biato served as political officer at the London Embassy (1987-90) and the Consulate-General in Berlin (1990-1994). He also served as legal advisor to the country's Mission to the United Nations (1999-2002). In the Foreign Ministry, he has […]