Reimagining Latin American democracy

In Mexico and Colombia, fair elections don't guarantee full participation

Recent events in Mexico and Colombia have drawn attention to the importance of democracy. Democratic political competition may become a reality next week in Mexico, where opposition presidential candidate Vicente Fox is poised to unseat the 70-year rule of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

The US Senate has just approved unprecedented levels of military aid to Colombia to shore up its democratic government and prevent regional crisis.

What's overlooked about these virtually simultaneous events is that Colombia has had, for more than 25 years, just what Mexico might be about to get - procedural democracy and alternation of power at the national level.

In Colombia, this form of democracy didn't prevent guerrilla war, widening inequality, or explosive growth of drug trafficking. There's no reason to believe democracy in Mexico will be more successful in accomplishing these basic social and economic tasks, especially with the Zapatista rebellion continuing in Chiapas, government human rights abuses escalating throughout the south, and the drug trade claiming new levels of political influence. And there is no reason to believe US aid will improve the situation in Colombia. Unless the meaning and practice of democracy change in the process.

Democracy didn't bring relative equality and social peace in Colombia because democracy reinforced, rather than challenged, economic and cultural exclusion. Workers, peasants, blacks, and Indians remained poor and were relegated to secondary status in education and culture. In Medelln, to be a modern citizen meant to be hard-working and to know your place.

Violence was used as a tool to enforce this social order. Today's violence is rooted in the politics of the 1940s and 1950s, an era known as La Violencia. When liberal and conservative elites disagreed about who should run Colombia, they rallied ordinary people behind them in violent campaigns. But when rural peasants began to advance their own claims, elites came together, established the beginnings of democracy at the national level, and sponsored paramilitary squads to prevent change. Colombia's guerrilla movements are rural movements fought by people who have never been treated as citizens.

Also, democracy did not bring forms of equality and participation to Colombians because of narcotics consumption by Americans. And ironically, it was the drug wealth in Medelln that began to challenge the social order, as democracy had never done. Drug money and the popular culture that developed around it showed people who had long been excluded from wealth and prosperity an alternative economic path and cultural stance.

To speak for democracy as it exists in Colombia - and oppose guerrillas and drug traffickers - in part is to speak for maintaining exclusion. That's why US aid won't bring peace, and democracy won't bring well-being.

In Mexico, both the ruling PRI and the opposition National Action Party (PAN) have perpetuated just this sort of restricted democracy, characterized by markets without unions, wealth without well-being, sweatshop assembly plants with no environmental regulation, and Indians in museums, not running schools or legislatures. As in Colombia, the PRI and the PAN assume that if rules of democratic competition are followed, and a modicum of civil liberties respected for the middle class, then well-being and social peace will follow. But if Mexican democracy mirrors Colombian democracy, it will do little to solve fundamental social problems - unless democracy is reimagined. Democratic innovations have flourished all over Latin America, often in isolation.

In Brazil's southern city of Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting has created new democratic procedures and brought basic services to the poor. And the state of Cear transformed rural healthcare, strengthened small businesses, and carried out effective drought relief by investing in these areas and giving control of programs to talented and respected municipal employees.

Innovation in these places was made possible by democratic competition and fiscal decentralization. But innovation worked, and improved lives, by creating new ways to run bureaucracies, organize economies, and carry out political debate.

These new procedures were democratic because they gave power and respect to ordinary people in places where fair elections were also occurring. Democratic innovation, then, is about creating new forms of participation and well-being where electoral competition already exists.

Black communities on Colombia's Pacific coast have made use of constitutional reforms to foster a vibrant cultural identity and develop new environmental practices. The Pan-Mayan movement responded to Guatemala's genocidal violence, and the peace talks that followed, by placing Indian languages and political autonomy on the political agenda. Likewise, the Zapatistas in Chiapas argue that a democratic Mexico needs new ways of choosing representatives and organizing governing bodies, as well as new conceptions of what it means to be a citizen of a Mexican nation.

In all of these examples, once-marginalized people combine a focus on elections with explicit attention to the kinds of new ideas, policies, and procedures that give rich and deep meaning to the notion of democracy.

*Jeffrey W. Rubin is professor of history at Boston University and research associate at Boston University's Institute for the Study of Economic Culture.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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