DEMOCRATISATION AND THE STATE IN LATIN AMERICA.


If I had some serious difficulties before beginning this week’s session, the first part of the session did little to help my situation. If anything, it actually made it worse.  This is because I had expected the lecture… I really don’t know what I expected… but I know it was something really big. Afterall it was a huge topic DEMOCRATISATION AND THE STATE IN LATIN AMERICA. But here was Tom‘s brief outline:

  • Geography & history matter
  • The development of democracy
  • Does democracy matter?

It got me really thinking because the concept of “democracy” that is so popular today, with the general public, the elite and especially the international community, is political. But given that we had established the primacy of politics and the difficulty seperating politics from economics I naturally expected the talk on democratisation to have a lot of politics and economics running through it. This is because “…democracy assumes a high minimum level of affluence and well-being, successful democratisation must be predicated on continuing economic performance… continuing economic performance is the foundation for sustainable democracy and national stability.”

But then… Why history? Why Geography? I finally got the point half way through the lectures: THEY REALLY DID MATTER!!! The spatiotemporal aspects of any form of governance could be said to be the most important determinant of its success. This took my mind back to the fundamental questions of knowledge raised by Socrates.

According to this Great Grand Father of mine, definition of a moral quality is not a matter of what people think. His argument is that we cannot determine what goodness, or justice, or piety, is by conducting a poll. As a result, whether something or someone has a given moral quality is also not a matter of mere opinion. Whether an act or a person is good, or just, or pious,  is not something that can simply be settled through the ballot. In the dialogue Euthyphro we see a good example of Socrates’ belief that moral qualities are real, not conventional. According to Euthyphro piety can be defined as what the gods all love but Socrates contends that even if all the gods agree about which things are pious, that doesn’t tell us what piety is. If the gods love something because it is pious, then its being pious must be something independent of their loving it – something independent of opinion – something objective.

The etymology of the  word “democracy” is  from the words demos “people” and kratos “rule” conjoined together to mean, literally, “rule by the people”. This can be said to be the only objective truth about democracy. When we begin to spread it to different places and give it different interpretations, it takes the form of the social milieu in which it is interpreted. Rule by the people will therefore be a very age and location-specific thing. The concept of ‘democracy’ should not therefore be considered ‘good’ without contention simply because it has been tested and it did work in one part of the globe at a particular point in time.

The one major challenge that Plato’s critique of democracy still poses is the question of  whether the citizens of today’s democracies are interested and informed enough to take part meaningfully in the democratic process. Can today’s self-proclaimed democracies boast of being societies where people are “their own governors”– where they are well enough informed to be effectively in control of their commonwealth and their lives? Do the citizens of these societies really understand why wars are declared, resources committed, debts incurred, relations denied, and so forth? Could it be that a majority of citizens live in a cognitive haze that reduces them to voting on the basis of uninformed convictions, catchy slogans, and altogether vague hunches and feelings? These questions all raced through my mind as I listened to Tom deliver the “tale of woes” that was the political history of Latin America spanning about 200 years. What was churning was not just the

  • 450 political assassinations  •20 coups •140 guerrilla wars or revolutions •113 crises
  • Argentina in four years (’73-6):–45 assassinations–3 revolutions–15 riots…

I could not say what was authentically Latin American and what was American or US. When statements came up like…

  1. Munroe Doctrine, the US began a  long history of intervention and influence in its backyard establishing its own sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. More than 30 interventions in Central America and Caribeans in early 1900s to 1934.
  2. Central America: long US backed personal dictatorships: Samoza, Trujillo, Duvalier

… I could not help but arrive at a conclusion… To effectively understand the concept of democratisation in the world today, one must go beyond trite observations and homogenous definition like “a form of political regime in which citizens choose, in competitive elections, the occupants of the top political offices of the state” (Bratton and Van de Walle 1997) This definition did not mention the role of external actors… hence it is not a complete definition of democratisation.

Carothers, T. (2010) Takes a step in the right direction by saying that “… it is a mistake to assume that democratization—especially open national elections—is always a good idea. When tried in countries poorly prepared for it, democratization can and often does result in bad outcomes—illiberal leaders or extremists in power, virulent nationalism, ethnic and other types of civil conflict, and interstate wars.” The question is: if ‘they’ are poorly prepared for it, who then advocates for it in the first place? Carothers however plays an interesting tune and increases the rhythm when he goes on to add

“To prevent such results, certain preconditions, above all, the rule of law and a well-functioning state should be in place before a society democratises. United States, and the West generally, should rethink their approach and commitment to democracy promotion. In some countries, staying with an existing autocratic regime is a better alternative.”

May be… just may be, if many nations could be allowed a free hand at self-determination, we would have different stories to tell. Yes we may have had stories of another form of ‘democracy’ that has been forged out of the unique experience and geographical peculiarities of the Latin American region – but can this ever be possible when there is this “invisible hand” always coming from outside to determine when there should be peace and when there should be chaos? The preconditions of democratisation proposed by Carothers are themselves only possible within a democratic state. This is therefore an ideal too simple to conceive but unfortunately too difficult to achieve.

Sensing this of course, it would seem, Carothers proposes further that “…taking into account the many complications and risks of democratization and democracy promotion is gradualism, which aims at building democracy slowly in certain contexts, but not avoiding it or putting it off indefinitely.” This is the argument that makes me agree more with a Chinese who insisted the China was a democracy… yes! Who says it is not? Unless we want to openly acknowledge that their having elections every five years is not enough self-determination or that we have a problem with the fact that the government has recognised that it is in hostile international territory and does not give the “invisible hand” an opportunity to create disorder; or do we want to acknowledge that it is not only about the rule of law and a strong state (for China has these) which are prerequisites to democratisation; may be we should bring it down to the fact that there is no freedom of expression.

I hope the conclusion is not being drawn that I will prefer to be in an undemocratic state where there is no freedom of expression. That is far from being the case. What I am driving at is that no matter what the names we call them –  oligarchy to bureaucracy; Populism and corporatism; Bureaucratic-authoritarian state to democracy… anyone who knows the difference between theory and reality will prefer to be in a “communist China” than in “democratic Latin America.” It is better to know that you are not free and be alive than to live under the illusion that you are free and end up with a bullet. Many of those assassinated in Latin America where in the second category.

I find it difficult to stop but stop I must. Not however, without indicating that there is need to revisit the whole notion of democracy in this era of “globalisation” . This is because  we have two levels – the Macro and the Micro. By Macrodemocracy I mean when governments create international rules and institutions to deal with issues such as governance, trade, human rights, and the environment. Thus far, the international political arena has been governed by undemocratic rules – countries have little or no freedom of self-determination. This brings in the problem of Microdemocracy which we have been discussing. Its failure could be attributed to the failure of the macro to create the necessary conditions for it to thrive. Could this be the reason why states have been failing? Could it be because there is no macrodemocracy while there is a huge demand for microdemocracy? I am sure to find out next week

3 thoughts on “DEMOCRATISATION AND THE STATE IN LATIN AMERICA.

  1. Hello Kingsley Sheteh.
    You are writing brilliant articles. Would you like to become a regular contributor to nsnbc ? ( http://www.nsnbc.wordpress.com )
    If yes, please contact me by e-mail at ( nsnbc(DOT)wordpress(DOT)Gmail(DOT)Com )
    It would be a pleasure working with you.
    Please also feel welcome to republish any of my own articles, signed Dr. Christof Lehmann from nsnbc.

    Warmest regards.
    Christof

  2. Thanks for throwing some more light on the issue of ‘democracy’ especially your ability to draw some inspiration from the ancients. I think that the case of Latin America calls for renewed analysis especially now that some of us are becoming fed-up with the ‘so-called’ democracy that only makes our lot in life worse. Your site has affected me in a very good way . thanks 🙂

  3. There are some interesting time limits in this article but I don’t know if I see all of them heart to heart. Recently there have been people in Latin America calling for a system with a ‘strong hand’ rather than the shambles of what is termed ‘democracy’. There is some validity but I’ll maintain my opinion until I look into it further. Good article , thanks and we wish for more! Added to FeedBurner as effectively

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