Democracy experiments in the Latin American political lab

In recent years, Latin America has experimented with different political models, seeking to consolidate democratic progress in the region. It is time to start measuring the results. Español Português

Manoela Miklos Caio Tendolini
2 February 2016

A demonstrator wearing a mask depicting Sao Paulo's Governor Geraldo Alckmin. Andre Penner / AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

This was written on a classroom blackboard in Fernão Dias public school in Sao Paulo, Brazil:

 December, 2, 2015 - Wednesday

Activity schedule:

13:00 Yoga class

13:30 Revolutionizing through art

14:30 LGBT

15:30 Feminism

16:30 Access to culture in France

17:30 Demilitarization of Military Police

The authors of this schedule were young students – between the ages of 13 and 18 – who had, while fighting for the right to continue studying in their territory, decided what classes they wanted. They had been occupying their school for nearly three weeks, resisting a decision taken by the state government of Sao Paulo.

Through actions like this, high school students conducted a political experiment that is part of a broader context. We have come to know it through various examples of mobilization, participation and policy initiatives which are currently multiplying in the Latin American laboratory. In this creative, trial-and-error phase, we can see a significant potential for action and advocacy in the region. It deserves to be taken into account in we are thinking about new ways of consolidating and improving the quality of our democracies.

The experiment

In October 2015, the government of Sao Paulo announced a set of measures for reorganizing the public school system in the state. Ninety public schools were to be closed down, and 311,000 students were to be transferred to other schools. The government, whom had taken the decision without any previous consultation, argued that some studies indicated that these would be positive changes.

About a month later, 400 high school students in Diadema (a municipality near the state’s capital) occupied their school to protest against the government's decision. They understood that the authorities were closing down schools to cut costs and carry out a reorganization that would lead to the piling up of thousands of students in other schools away from home, disconnecting education from the territory and the local community, without actually solving the basic problems of public schools, such as school supplies and infrastructure.

In the following three weeks, in November, 196 schools across the state of Sao Paulo were occupied by students demanding the government to call this off. Students organized independently, school by school, defining the dynamics of the occupation, the activities to be undertaken, and electing their spokespersons, on the basis of similar experiences like the Chilean students’ Penguin Revolution in 2006. At the same time, for the sake of cohesion, they put together a central occupation committee which was responsible for coordinating, horizontally, the guidelines for the occupations.

They used Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp to communicate among themselves. They produced videos, pictures and texts which were widely circulated through social networks. The hashtags  #OcupaEscola (OccupySchool) and #NãoFecheMinhaEscola (DoNotShutMySchool) were quick to seize the timelines.

But their action took on real strength from its territorial outreach. They managed to mobilize local communities, parents and teachers, neighbours and local organizations, into supporting the movement in the face of increasing pressure from the government and the police. Civil society responded, in short, to the embattled students.

Artists and cultural producers visited the schools to learn more about the occupation, and in December they organized the #ViradaOcupação festival with the participation of more than four thousand volunteers. The Minha Sampa NGO created a guarding operation for the occupied schools. Volunteers could register on a web page, and every time a school was surrounded by police, text messages were sent so that they could come and help protect the school. The Hub Livre group, through an online form where volunteers could offer classes on any subject, managed to offer up to three thousand voluntary classes statewide.

Across the board, movements, groups, civic organizations and citizens showed their support for the high school students of Sao Paulo, strengthening the movement and its demands, without stealing the limelight from the youngsters fighting for their rights.

By combining virtual and on-the-ground action, the students managed to create a powerful narrative which seized newspapers and mainstream television channels, timelines, cafe conversations and family dinners. While the police was surrounding the occupied schools and threatened to evict the students,  61% of Brazilian public opinion was declaring its opposition to the school reorganization, and polls showed only a 28% support for the Sao Paulo government, the worst approval rating of the current administration in its two-term tenure.

Feeling the pressure, in December 2015, state governor Geraldo Alckmin finally announced the dismissal of his government’s education secretary, and the shelving of the school reorganization. His proposal, which was received with caution by students, consists in undertaking an extensive dialogue with students, parents, teachers and principals to understand the specific situation in each school and decide its future accordingly. The students’ victory meant the reversal of the government measure, and the creation of a necessary space for citizen participation in decision making.

This is not new in Latin America, but so far the 21st century has been adding new elements to a story that keeps on repeating itself with remarkable frequency. We have witnessed numerous demonstrations where citizens have organized themselves to challenge government decisions, have used technology to liaise and social networks and independent media to convey their story. And they have occupied public spaces as a means to convey the message to politicians that politics is about people’s concerns, and that democracy must prevail not only in the formal access to power, but also in the way it is exercised.

The political and democratic crises are not exclusively Latin American, but today there is an opportunity for Latin America to rethink its own democracy model, originally developed in the region. The political action in the making, shown by the student mobilization in Sao Paulo, is one of the ways to seize this opportunity.

Horizontally organized, networked, without any hegemonic influence from any particular political party or group, high school students managed to expose before Brazilian society the government’s authoritarianism, to block its unilateral measure, and forced a participatory process for decision making. There are several similar experiments across the regions which bear clear similarities to the student movement in Brazil. From the feminist spring in Brazil itself, through the creation of the Net Party in Argentina  and Wikipolítica in México, to Data Uruguay and the Smart Citizen Foundation in Chile, two key issues can be identified: first, that there is an emerging field for politics in Latin America; and second, that this field is still in the laboratory stage.

The laboratory

We know that democracy in Latin America is far from being consolidated. Not because there is a threat of military coups or openly autocratic regimes, but because of the weakening of institutions, the threats to fundamental rights, the curtailment of freedoms, and the hijacking of power by the economic and political elites and organized crime.

At the same time, symbolically, the frailty of democracy results in citizen’s distrust in democratic institutions and widespread dissatisfaction with the democratic system, considered to be the worst possible form of government, except all others.

There is no doubt that the social dynamics are changing in the 21st century. New ways of producing, consuming, communicating and relating to each other are being added to the known, traditional ones. New ways of thinking about distribution and access are emerging. And we see also new ways of intermediating. Society in the 21st century is demanding something that democracy, as we know it, cannot deliver.

There are certainly positive and negative aspects to this social transformation, but what is important here is to recognize its inevitability, and the fact that current political systems have not yet discovered how to react to what is happening. The existing gap between government and society is evidenced in every political process, every protest, every decision made by the powers that be which are incapable of understanding the voices and complexities of public opinion. This inability also shows itself when it comes to balancing these new voices with the dynamics of governance, and the play of forces it represents.

The classical dynamics of representative democracy, where citizens choose their representatives democratically but the exercise of power is carried on behind closed doors, seems not to take into account the 21st century’s citizen. This lack of references puts civil society in an experimental mode, where the actors must carry out laboratory experiments mixing what they already know with new tools, methodologies and possibilities, and undergo trial-and-error dynamics which produce as yet not validated results.

The transformation society is going through because of the structural crises it is undergoing is what originates the emerging political practices we are witnessing today. And this context generates a paradox: citizens tend to reject formal politics and, at the same time, they depend on it for carrying out the structural changes they seek. Simultaneously, formal politics recognizes an increasingly active citizenship, but is unable to connect with it and respond to it.

Measuring the results

We witness a surge. It is the surge of civic and political practices which emerge in different contexts, in different ways and for different purposes, but which begin to show new possibilities and new political dynamics for the 21st century. They speak of transparency, public participation, accountability, political education, advocacy, artivism, and 2.0 government practices. Together, they make up a field – a field in the making, experimental, that is connecting and developing to find new ways of doing politics while society changes.

This field is being called the field of political innovation or civic innovation. Yet we must be wary when talking about innovation, for the term may generate misperceptions.

It is certainly rare today, in any context, in the private sector, the public sector or in civil society, not to hear about innovation as a generic strategy to overcome current problems. We should, however, distinguish innovation from experimentation.

The easiest way to make this distinction is to understand experimentation as a process, and innovation as a result. Experimenting is carrying out trials, testing hypotheses, changing ingredients, controlling conditions – and it can generate different results (the same, better, or worse). Innovation comes when we get a different, disruptive result, capable of generating a "new" outcome. That is: experimenting is a condition for innovation.

This is an important distinction, because it can condition our perception of the field. If we are dealing with a civic innovation field, we must check the results, the immediate and tangible changes that have been generated. What we are seeing in Latin America, however, is an extensive series of experiments that still falls short of overcoming the political crises and updating democracy for the 21st century.

What we see is a field of political/civic experimentation, and a number of actors who carry out the experiments   – we call them "political hackers". Hacker is, of course, a term used in technology to describe an individual who understands a system deeply enough to be able to alter it.

Our political systems today are like a computer operating system – a closed system, which is being owned by some corporation. And we, the citizens, are merely its users. What you can do with Windows, for example, is limited. You can use the available applications, or create applications allowed by the system’s owner. You can report a bug, and eventually someone working within the system can tidy out. Occasionally, there is a system update, one which you did not participate in its making, for you to accept and install.

What the political hacker does, as did the students of Sao Paulo in 2015, is to prevent a system update which they did not participate in, but which affects them directly. Through an experiment, they managed to change not just the government's decision, but the way in which things are to be decided – that is, including the citizens directly concerned by the decision-making.

In 2016, we will be measuring the results of their experiment. How to measure them? When we look at the experiments that are seeking to strengthen and update democracy in Latin America, different results are all positive, because they allow learning. Success, in these cases, means obtaining new results through the development of new strategies, or adapting classic strategies to a new context.

We must, however, avoid the trap of assessing experiments simply by their results, without trying to understand their potential and challenges, so that increasingly robust experiments can keep on rolling and so, too, the trial-and-error learning process.

Something is happening in Latin American politics. While the political system shows structural problems, we witness the emergence of a new field, a laboratory of political experimentation that allows us to imagine a next step forward for democracy in the region.

Achieving success in this context means obtaining new results. But also, fundamentally, it means renewing our expectations, and encouraging a constant readiness to take risks in defense of democracy. The experience of the students in Sao Paulo should be accounted on the credit side of this experimentation.

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