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For democracy to flourish, it has to be a culture as well as a process

About the author
Isabel Hilton is the editor of, and was editor of openDemocracy from March 2005-July 2007. She is a journalist, broadcaster, writer and commentator.

Behind the high walls of a hotel in Antigua, the tranquil colonial capital of Guatemala, as the more than 100 women participants moved into the third day of “redefining democracy” some 40 miles away in the modern capital Guatemala City, democracy did a little redefining of its own. It was precipitated by an event unusual even for Guatemala: the distribution at the funeral of a murder victim of a video in which the deceased, a respected lawyer, accused the president, his wife and his secretary of organising not only his own murder – he was shot on the streets of Guatemala City while riding his bicycle on Sunday - but the murders earlier in the year of two of his clients.

There cannot be many political rule books that offer much guidance for such an eventuality. In the absence of a road map, Guatemala’s febrile political system began to implode. Rival demonstrators took to the streets, some calling for the president to resign, others demanding with apparently equal passion that he stay. The president himself was determined to stick to his post – where, if nothing else, he enjoys immunity from prosecution. His best explanation so far of the extraordinary video – which rapidly became Guatemala’s favourite on YouTube -- has been a rather vague assertion that the affair was cooked up by persons unknown to destabilise his government. That, it has certainly done, but it seems extreme to suggest that it could have been the dead lawyer’s prime motivation.

Guatemala’s Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, who hosted the conference, was among those who argued that the president should stay in post, for fear of something worse. The most important thing, apart from a guarantee of a full investigation, was to preserve the constitutional order. There are many who would agree: though military coups are out of fashion in Latin America, they are not quite beyond imagining.

It seemed a long way from the continuing deliberations of the conference, but Guatemala’s crisis illustrated the concern of many of the participants. In a robust political system, the president could have been set aside until the affair was investigated. But Guatemala’s political system is not robust: the vice president, the next in line of succession, is a politically inexperienced cardiologist, widely respected but not considered the man for such a moment as this. The third option, the leader of the congress, is related to one of the men accused in the video.

As the conference’s closing statement stressed, democracy is not limited to -- or guaranteed by – the exercise of the vote. In Guatemala, since the peace accords, the vote has been exercised regularly, though some of the details might not bear too close a scrutiny. But the texture of a strong democracy, that wide distribution of power and resources between institutions, ethnic groups and regions, is almost wholly lacking. The constitution promises protections that don’t exist, rights that cannot be exercised, and justice that it rarely delivers.

Just how profound a change can come about when the constitutional state does incorporate the thinking of diverse groups of citizens. Guatemala’s Maya majority is, on the whole, desperately poor and uneducated, many unfamiliar with the single language in which the state conducts its business. For many of Guatemala’s urban elite, the Maya’s widespread poverty and illiteracy justifies their own continuing monopoly of power. Others, of course, argue that these conditions are a product of exactly that monopoly.

Pace Guatemala’s elite, it does not have to be like this. Ecuador’s population, for instance, also has an indigenous majority but has recently moved beyond a political framework that reflected its colonial past in the primacy it gave to the values and interests of the Ladino elite. Today, instead of offering a justification for a racist exclusion of indigenous values from power, Ecuador has rewritten its constitution not only to guarantee the rights of all its citizens but, in a ground-breaking move, to give legal rights to nature. It is, its proponents ague, a unique example of the embedding of traditional indigenous beliefs and values into a western legal instrument to meet a very contemporary concern – environmental degradation and climate change. It is so radical that lawyers are still working out how it will be implemented.

The indigenous values now embedded in the constitution are the primacy of nature as a legal subject, rather than an object, and the idea that consumption is a poor measure of well being. The shift in approach between this and the previous constitution, rooted in colonial values, extraction and exploitation, is profound: instead of electing a government that can exploit both people and resources for the benefit of a few, any Ecuadorean citizen is now entitled to represent nature in a court of law in defence of bio-integrity and a redefinition of wealth away from capital accumulation and towards bio-capital protection.

What changed? Fifteen years ago, Ecuador’s indigenous peoples were regarded as so irrelevant to the business of government that they were not even counted in the census and still only five of Ecuador’s 130 congressional deputies are indigenous. But, they exercise both power and influence through a variety of organisations and federations and today have the power to help shape government decisions. Ecuador’s political and economic institutions have taken an important step away from their colonial legacy.

So is it the legacy of colonialism that limits and damages the exercise of inclusive democracy? The question was vigorously debated in many guises in Antigua: the colonisation of bodies and minds, the colonisation of territories, the primacy - in the view of one of the participants - of an anti-colonial struggle over gender rights. For democracy to flourish, it has to be a culture as well as a process.

Pictures C. Demotix/Surizar, Judy Rand

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