Latin America on Democratic Alert

At a moment when Latin America finds itself at an economic and political crossroads, there is an urgent need to map out scenarios for ensuring a fully democratic future. The Alerta Democrática initiative is undertaking this relevant exercise. Español. Português.

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
26 October 2015
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Alerta Democrática. Twitter.


The fact that, for the first time in history, the Annual Meeting of the IMF and the World Bank was held in a Latin American country (Peru, 5 -12 October 2015), is an unequivocal demonstration of the degree to which both the region itself and its international standing have changed in recent years.

The huge potential that Latin America, with its vast resources, energy and young urban population, offers for the collective future of the planet is beyond doubt. And the region's commitment to democracy, at a time when it is weakening or simply non-existent in other parts of the world, has to be defended and consolidated.

 Cycle of Growth and Progressive Politics

For far too long as far as Latin America was concerned, the Bretton Woods institutions gathered in Lima were little more than an arm of neoliberal imperialism, and many of their policies, sadly embodied by the Washington Consensus, had an exceptionally negative impact on the bulk of the population.

Those policies focused on macroeconomic stability as the supreme value, on the liberalisation of both internal and external markets, and on the privatisation of strategic sectors - the latter with disastrous short-term consequences in some countries even though they eventually achieved stability and have achieved significant growth over the last 10 or 15 years.

From the year 2000 onwards, partly in response to the harsh consequences of the "Consensus" treatment during the 1980s and 1990s, progressive governments of varying hues came to power - from Chile's pale pink to Venezuela's deep red.

Owing to a period of rapid growth in emerging markets,  robust external demand led by China, and a steady rise in raw materials prices, Latin American countries experienced a substantial increase in GDP. Their governments put in place strong social welfare policies whose effect was to reduce poverty - in some cases very significantly. At the same time, they succeeded in solidifying their still young democracies while maintaining financial and macroeconomic stability.

Nevertheless, the region continues to suffer from low educational attainment, poor productivity and a strong dependency on overseas markets. Roughly 170 million Latin Americans still live in poverty.  Faced with a weak global  economic recovery, doubts about the Chinese economic model, lower raw material prices and tension in financial markets about a possible interest rate hike in the United States, we cannot be sure that the advances in Latin America are permanent.

Nor should we forget that the region has only recently emerged from a period of military dictatorships and authoritarian governments, some of them quite despotic. Moreover, powerful local oligarchies, some with links to organised crime, have not only survived the arrival of the left but have even benefited from the years of economic growth. These powerful groups have continued to exercise influence over governments, the economy and society often through the lamentably common and, for public officials, exceptionally corrosive and even potentially lethal practice of corruption.

As some contributors to DemocraciaAbierta have noted, many analysts, having assessed the results of progressive politics in Latin America, are predicting a loss of popularity for populist movements. Are we reaching the end of the progressive narrative, witnessing a growing paralysis of the left or even a return to neoliberalism which, according to some, never truly disappeared but was simply disguised by the fruits of economic growth that were partially invested in social redistribution policies?

Some leftist intellectuals are more optimistic, describing the critics as "end of cycle prophets", claiming that the tide of  pink Latin American governments has not come to end, and asserting that the radical experiment in social progress and democracy is far from over.  What is certain, in any case, is that the economic and political climate is changing and the future is unclear.

But what worries Latin American citizens as much if not more than poverty and inequality are insecurity and violence - an endemic problem not only in the small Central American countries and in Colombia, which has long been held in the grip of war with the FARC and the ELN (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, and Army of National Liberation), but also in the two great regional powers, Mexico and Brazil.

In these cases, the State has not merely abdicated its responsibilities, it also participates in the violence through direct or covert repression, as the appalling Ayotzinapa case demonstrates.  Moreover, there is no guaranteed separation of powers, while the mechanisms of institutional strengthening, accountability, and safeguards against corruption are, to say the least, deficient. The challenges of democracy are still critical.

Democratic Alert - scenarios for 2015 - 2030

Precisely for this reason, the Alerta Democrática project, undertaken by 37 diverse representatives of civil society in Latin America (academics, parliamentarians, journalists, young people, activists, entrepreneurs, native peoples or foundations) and which aims to map out various future scenarios for democracy in the region, is especially pertinent.

Lending substance to Karl Popper's observation that the future is not written but rather depends on what we do (individually and collectively) and that we are not bound by historical inevitability, the Alerta Democrática group undertook in the first half of 2015 an extensive scenario planning exercise financed by the three major foundations dedicated to the promotion of democracy in the region: Open Society Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and Avina.

Alerta Democrática's objective was to establish a conceptual framework and a shared vocabulary that "would foster a better understanding of the forces that determine and shape the future of Latin America's democracies". The initial diagnosis was that the consolidation of democracy in the continent is far from complete. Beyond the holding of periodical elections, issues such as the rule of law, civil liberties, human rights, freedom of association, and participation in civil society are a long way from being adequately addressed.

This, allied to the growing threat of a weakening economic environment that will negatively impact on the new middle classes, with serious knock-on effects of a kind we have seen in the past, is the context in which Alerta Democrática asserts the need to outline possible future developments in the region in the short, medium and longer terms (the exercise encompasses three five-year periods, from 2015 to 2030).

If Latin America stands at a crossroads, the directions that individuals and their institutions take will shape the future. Having some possible routes  mapped out beforehand will prove valuable when the time comes to make decisions.

Even though the nations south of the Río Grande are very diverse, with some requiring deeper democratisation while others still struggle to guarantee the survival of the system, all would seem to share a common destiny. And it is this awareness of a collective future that makes the exercise in forecasting both relevant and important when, as in this case, it proposes " an integral, holistic approach in which the emphasis is placed on common challenges and on the potential of the region to share both the dream and the responsibility."

Certain societal characteristics common to the majority of the countries could be very relevant in the construction of this imagined democratic future, social unrest inevitably being one, while another is the mass mobilization of a mostly urban population (the growth of which over recent years has meant that 80% of the population are now city-dwellers).

The various movements have been extremely active in recent years, as demonstrated by huge street protests and by the networks used by young activists who are natives of the digital age and fully aware of the digital inequality that prevails especially in Latin America.  The effectiveness of proposed new agendas will depend in large measure  on how this activism achieves genuine political impact. Some interesting political and instrumental innovations are underway in the region which, in the hands of new administrations, could prove critical to securing democracy in the twenty-first century.

Transformation, Tension, Mobilisation, Agony

The four scenarios outlined by the Alerta Democrática team (Democracy in Transformation, Democracy in Tension, Democracy in Mobilisation, and Democracy in Agony) can be understood through variables such as the power structure, democratic institutions, citizen participation, economic and social development, and regional integration.

The first scenario - Democracy in Transformation - envisages a redistribution of power, and an improvement in the capacity to govern more transparently  and efficiently on the basis of structural reforms aimed at achieving increased public participation in democracy, and enhanced social inclusion and pluralism. In this scenario, a greater emphasis on citizen education may result in a more demanding electorate, whilst improvements in environmental and redistributive policies would help to resolve structural challenges like poverty, inequality, and low productivity. With respect to regional integration, political and trade blocs would be in the process of formation, and the region would enhance its presence on the world map.

Democracy in Tension - the second scenario - would involve a concentration of power with a concomitant erosion of structural controls and counterbalances leading to a state of continuous dissension that would weaken the democratic process.  A captive vote, low participation in elections, and a growing distrust of the public realm would form the background to economic short-termism in which economic efficiency would take priority over social justice, environmental stability and redistribution. In this scenario, regional integration  would grind to a halt, eroding competitiveness with other regions of the world.

The third scenario - Democracy in Mobilisation - is perhaps the one that offers the most advantages, since it involves both a devolution of power and a challenge to traditional power. Strategic networking, public pressure on the State, and the extensive use of new technologies by citizens and social movements would advance citizen empowerment and the appropriation of public goods, thereby breaking the mould of traditional forms of political representation. More inclusive, sustainable, localised models of economic development would lead to innovative, more equitable forms of commercial exchange as well as enhanced networking. The influence of networks would also have an impact on territorial regional integration, and would introduce new agendas into multinational organisations at a global level.

Finally, Democracy in Agony maps out a dystopia that is not entirely distant from current reality.  In this scenario, the power of violence and organised crime would undermine institutions, weaken the democratic ideal through its penetration of the State, and operate in the service of corruption, violence, impunity and authoritarianism. All this would imply a deterioration of civic values, and widespread fear, self-censorship and double standards on the part of the public, while an inequitable economic system would result in increased inequality, poverty, and environmental degradation. A weak State would be incapable of pursuing redistribution policies. In such a scenario, regional integration would slow down.

In any case, and after a prolonged period of economic growth, social policies and good prospects, Latin America should be better prepared than ever to guarantee the strengthening of democracy. The way in which the economic cycle influences the political cycle will determine to a large extent the rate of progress, with countries like Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Peru offering clearly better economic perspectives than the likes of Brazil, Venezuela, and to a certain extent, Argentina, which will certainly need an adjustment.

The manner in which the scenarios developed by Alerta Democrática play out will depend a great deal on the democratic decision-making of the citizens and their governments, and not just through elections. As the working document states "there will be one reality if the choice is for renovation and reform, and quite another if what takes precedence are the struggle for power and the tension between political and economic forces in a superficial facsimile of democracy."

Remaining alert will be essential.












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