For work reasons I have spent 11 of the last 20 years traveling throughout Latin America. I have lived stably (for longer than one consecutive year) in four Latin American countries: The Dominican Republic, Brazil, Peru and Cuba. This experience does not give me nearly enough knowledge, much less understanding, of the various political systems to allow me to comprehend the crisis of democracy in the region. But it does give me certain insights that I want to share.
The political systems that I have experienced, be they representative democracies marked by capitalist populism or Caribbean socialism, have deteriorated due to the influence of multiple factors, but I will focus on three: the demonization or deification of the market, the exclusive exercise of power and the steady erosion of the common good. Faced with this situation, is it still possible to hope of living in real and full democracy?
The Demonization or Deification of the Market
As a result of the long running cold war, the world was divided into capitalist and socialist systems. Thus we can group the United States and Haiti among the former and China and Cuba among the latter. The usefulness of this classification is increasingly being called into question, as it groups together countries with very dissimilar systems. However, in the Latin American context, the attitude towards the market continues to be a differentiating factor. While some tend more and more to deify it, others demonize it.
Representative democracies exist in capitalist systems where the deification of the market positions it as a macro system that encompasses everything, including the state. The latter becomes an object of the market that falls within the laws of supply and demand. Access to government can be bought, which is the key to managing state power. The privatisation of the state has thus come to pass.
A few decades ago, the Dominican Republic fought over whether or not to privatise state assets, such as the companies of the late dictator Trujillo, which had been nationalised. Today what is at stake is the privatization of the state itself.
Political parties increasingly represent fewer ideological perspectives on society and are more similar to companies, which one enters into for economic interests (much like investing or working in a private company). They invest in achieving governmental power, in order to manage the state in such a way that the investments are recuperated and a profit is produced. From political leaders, who invest their own assets and receive others’ for their campaigns, in exchange for commitments on positions or perks; to the simple voter, who sells their vote to cover the bare necessities, or votes for the person who will hand out the most, rather than the person one who will best administer the state’s assets, in this way opening the door to populist propositions.
For this reason, programs matter less and less in electoral campaigns; what matters more are promises of individual economic advantages and how they will be distributed.
The so-called neoliberal tendencies deified the market to such an extent that they would propose that the state was becoming increasingly useless, to the point of it being a hindrance, due to the market’s capacity for self-regulation. The state had to shrink so that the market could function without obstacles.
But the regulatory capacity of the market fails to guarantee the equitable distribution of goods. On the contrary, the gap between rich and poor has increased. In Latin America, this is evident: it has the distinction of being the most unequal continent in terms of distribution of wealth.
Hence, the socialist proposal, which demonizes the market, is appealing to the popular masses. In practice, socialism creates an absolute monopoly of the market, eliminating competition, which supposedly causes inequality. But eliminating private interest in the market leads to a lackluster attitude towards production. Cuban productivity has been affected to such an extent that Cuba must import 80% of what it eats, and this is not primarily due to the effect of the North American embargo. The centralized economy and state capitalism have plunged Cuba into a permanent economic crisis in which it has only been able to survive thanks to foreign aid from Russia and Venezuela, money sent back by emigrants in capitalist countries, and tourism, which curiously is managed by large capitalist multinationals allied to the state. The other significant intake has been the sale of services of Cuban professionals by the socialist state, acting as a large brokerage firm for poorly paid ‘human capital’.
The crisis has deteriorated and endangered the two great achievements of the Cuban revolution, financed with the help of the Soviet Union: health and education. Low productivity causes a lack of resources to invest in social services.
Both the deification and the demonization of the market have produced a weakening of democracy, that is, of the capacity of the majority to influence state decisions and to benefit from the nation’s assets.
In this process of privatization of the state, the role played by the media has been very important. Money is spent on advertising, in the same manner as soft-drink or toothpaste manufacturers. And whoever invests more and better, sells more. Political campaigns are the number one clients of advertising companies in populist capitalist democracies, while the control of the media is an important weapon in socialist societies. For this reason, the new Cuban constitution continues to guarantee state ownership of the media.
The technological revolution is beginning to undermine capitalist or state media control and to force a restructuring of media management. Two examples give plenty of proof to this fact: President Trump’s handling of twitter and the growing importance of fake news in political campaigns.
Curiously, these two opposing stances in relation to the market have similar effects on consumption: it becomes the centre of life. In capitalist countries, consumerism is unleashed with terrible social and ecological impacts, and in socialism, fears around consumption are exacerbated in a context of scarcity. During the so-called Special Period (after the fall of the Soviet bloc) any conversation between Cubans within 10 minutes would already have moved on to food. It was a daily obsession. This phenomenon is beginning to reproduce itself in the current situation.
The Exclusionary Exercise of Power
One of the most obvious characteristics of the deterioration of representative democracies is the exercise of power as an exclusionary force. This is in keeping with an economic system based on competition. Access to power is seen as an opportunity to exclude others from participation. In capitalist democracies this is evident when a change of government personnel occurs after a new party wins an election. In Cuban socialism it is the manner in which the single party oversees all life in the nation.
The winner, either of the elections or the war, has the right to dominate by fair means or foul and the loser is excluded until their turn comes. This has been the case in the caudillo or strongman type leaderships in Latin American dictatorships or weak democracies. In the name of the good of the people, those who think differently are imprisoned or forced into exile. This is the absolute denial of diversity as part of the make-up of society.
Today, when modernity already has deep roots in Latin American societies, a homogenous general population is no longer possible. The diverse nature of civil society is expressed in the variety of movements that reflect multiple identities: regional, gender, labour, generational, religious or racial.
Political regimes have had to accept various forms of negotiation. Sometimes they have tried to incorporate this diversity into the state apparatus by creating a “state civil society”, if we are to give a name to this contradiction. Other times, regimes have accepted the presence of these movements while seeking to limit their scope of action, thus giving rise to civil society’s continuous struggle to expand the frontiers of what is permitted.
This exclusionary conception of power strengthens the self-perpetuating desires of power holders. Given that you can either have all the power, or you can have none, the urge is to keep it in your own hands. The idea of parliamentary democracies is precisely the opposite. Parliaments are the expression of shared power, in which negotiation is necessary. Latin American democracies are generally presidential, centred on the President. But the existence of parliaments, where there is a plurality of parties, means negotiation is unavoidable. As parties become more like companies, the people are seen as customers. The important thing is to convince them why they should buy, or why they should vote. Their participation is limited to their moment at the ballot box. Each time those elected feel less like representatives of the people. At most they consider themselves representatives of the party. In the case of the single party system, the party is the point of reference, the sole overseer of the life of the nation, which supposedly represents the will of the people, but when it does not, it suffers no consequences.
This exclusionary power gives rise to power struggles, competitive in nature and similar to situations where the market is seen as the organizer of life, in which politics adopts a warlike character aimed at defeating the enemy. Social life becomes a struggle for power, where in the long run anything goes, because war is war. Someone said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. This exclusionary power is a breeding ground for repressive regimes, corruption and impunity.
We could say that during the 20th century the motto of the French Revolution divided the world between those who sought freedom (the market) even at the cost of equality (democracy) and those who sought equality even at the cost of freedom. Fraternity was the great forgotten term. Perhaps if the latter had been the central principle, then equality could have been combined with freedom. Only by acknowledging others as brothers and sisters, with their rights fully recognized, can a freedom that seeks equality come into being.
The Renunciation of the Common Good
Part of the legacy of modernity is the comprehension of humans as individuals. In this conceptualisation, an awareness of the relationships one has with others and with nature is not necessarily part of affirmation of the self. In a context shaped by market competition and the struggle for power, the other is configured as a competitor, as the enemy. The pursuit of wellbeing is conceptualized as a battlefield. Wellbeing comes by way of accumulation, which is the result of success in competition, thereby excluding others. Social relations are defined by conquest and defence, which are carried out by a well-defined in-group.
All that is public, common, and belongs to everyone, is perceived as taking away from what is ours, what is private. We lay claim to the part of the public space that belongs to us as members of the collective. All that is common feels alien to us if we cannot appropriate it. We fight to conquer and preserve our private space, even when it has been expropriated from the public.
The market is not designed to facilitate the survival of all, but to create opportunities for the winners. Politics is not the search for the common good, rather the space to accumulate private assets. Citizens are replaced by masses demanding their own individual rights. In the extreme this means demanding the right to use public space without respect for others, ignoring the rules of coexistence. People demand the right not to wear a mask in their own part of the common space, even if it affects the right to health of others. Public space is no longer shared between everyone, rather each person sees it as their own.
In the socialist world, where theoretically the individual is subordinated to the collective and where the public good tries to make the private unnecessary, scarcity provokes the pursuit of the private as a survival mechanism. Examples of this are the current queues to buy food or toiletries. Shortages mean people must wait in massive queues to be assured of their own rations. Given the threat of infection from the pandemic in the queues, many people prefer to pay a premium to those who stand in the queue for the relevant products. This provokes a more severe clamp down on coleros, which in turn results in an increase in black market prices, due to the increased risks involved. Those who have resources tend to stockpile, for fear of shortages. Thus scarcity increases and the vicious circle of inequality increases.
Our societies, disillusioned by our political history, have come to the intuition that the solution lies elsewhere, that it is necessary to look for alternatives to the system. Thus the informal world comes into being, churning just below the surface, which we pretend not to see, but it shocks us by its efficiency and cruelty in causing many to suffer horrific conditions for survival.
And we do not ask the question: if our systems have failed, where do we turn?
The Glimmering Seed of Hope
In the Caribbean we are in cyclone season. The devastating passing of a hurricane is capable of uprooting century-old trees. Some, lying on the ground after the awesome phenomenon, retain small root hairs still buried in the ground. Fifteen days later, upon visiting the sad spectacle of razed earth, we discovered that small green leaves had appeared on these delicate roots. This is the indestructible energy of life sprouting. This is the hope that grows feebly in the desert. In those fragile green leaves lies the future.
Thus, democracy is being born in small communities that have confronted the storms of crisis with creative solidarity. These are groups, families, organizations, churches and movements that have not been led astray by the seductive but deceptive offers disseminated by the propaganda machine, nor by the fear of ruthless repression, nor by the lies repeated ad nauseam. As long as this truly inclusive fraternity infused with solidarity, which is passed down from parent to child, continues to exist and manages to find a way forward, even a tentative one; there is still hope. Because democracy is built from below. It creates spaces of a fraternity that understands how to integrate freedom and equality. And while it has not yet managed to grow as a system of social coexistence, it opens spaces of hope and uncovers pathways to follow.
A democratic culture must be created that develops the capacities for creative entrepreneurship, participation and solidarity, emanating not only from discourse, but from structures of coexistence and governance in the home, school, civil society, the market and government.
I think that the new communication technologies, which teach us to build knowledge not from repetition and accumulation, but from creativity and connectivity, will help in this endeavour to construct the future of democracy.
A necessary component is the existence of legislation to promote initiatives of creativity and solidarity in the market, to guarantee authentic participation in complex societies and to develop mechanisms of social inclusion for all. A market oriented towards a democratic society, and a power structure organized through participation guided by solidarity, will help promote the common good as a way to achieve the good life. The challenge is to build social systems that promote this.
Pope Francis, through his charismatic leadership, has promoted an economy of solidarity that starts with understanding the world as our common home. He has implemented new ways of organizing power in the Church through synodality – which opens participation to the geographic, economic and existential peripheries – and de-clericalisation, all of which functions to eliminate the abuse of power.
It is not a one-day task. But, as Pope Francis has said, it cannot be established by force – through taking control of spaces – only by setting processes in motion. This is everyone’s job.
Name given to those who queue to buy products to resell at higher prices.