It has become fashionable nowadays to associate the student and youth movement of 1968 with the worldwide attempt to build a political culture of a new kind; but very few bear in mind the qualitatively different impact this outburst of subjectivity had on the political developments in the North and in the South and East.
While in the North – the US as well as Western Europe – the 1968 movement shaped an overall criticism of the institutionalised societies as such and a radical critique of the upcoming “consumer-societies”, in the South and in Eastern Europe it gave way to a kind of revolutionary impulse against the existing order, whether ruled by party hierarchies or military dictatorships.
According to Eric Hobsbawm, this movement erupted precisely at a time when the economic and military race between the East and the West, the capitalist and the communist world, still existed, and just before the repressions and the oil crisis of the 1970s brought the world powers back to their old stagnant and petrified identities.
In Latin America, however, these events opened up “pre-revolutionary windows” exposing the hidden structures of a society which wanted radical change but did not very well know how to go about it. In most countries, various “revolutionary vanguard” approaches seemed to offer the only possibility of overthrowing the existing power structures deeply rooted in colonial histories and contemporary empires (above all of the United States of America). With the exception of Nicaragua, this strategy turned out to be a political-military failure which led to an enormous loss of human life without bringing about the necessary changes in the political and economic power structure.
However, in Latin America the 1970s and 1980s witnessed still another phenomenon. Underlying the power struggles of classical political parties and military confrontations, a great number of locally based social movements of peasants and slum dwellers, of workers and indigenous peoples, of refugees and landless, emerged and grew on the regional and national level – frequently with the active support of nongovernmental organisations from the North. In the shadow of governments, political parties, traditional landowners and modern transnational companies, a process of emancipation took place, hardly noticed by the traditional left. Articulated in relatively small units in which women and young people quite often had a bigger say than community leaders possessing formal authority, a real grass-roots democracy was developing within the communities as a mechanism of self-defence against the increasingly violent impositions of landlords, political parties and military/ paramilitary actors.
This “survival-democracy”, which has been described so many times by development-aid personnel, priests and some eloquent representatives of the grass-roots-societies themselves, like Rigoberta Menchu, Domitila Chungara and others, was spreading in the mountains of Guatemala among the million or more internal refugees, and in the camps in Mexico and Costa Rica, but also in the bananeras and mines of Panama and Colombia. To the south, they formed even bigger and stronger organisations, as in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, calling themselves “trade unions” or networks of peasants, landless and indigenous organisations. Disregarded by political analysts and left parties, which frequently saw them as “transmission belts” for their own power games within the traditional concept of nation-state (seeding divisions among communities and socially engaged activists), millions of people and hundreds of peoples found ways to live with each other. Only some radical social anthropologists like Guillermo Bonfil Battaglia, and publicists and filmmakers like Gordian Troeller and Orlando Xena, saw this phenomenon as the rise of a new democratic political structure – democracies with much higher standards, with regard to the political participation of individuals and the networking capacity of communities, than those of the orthodox left (and of course also of the right).
Despite the novelty and diversity of these forms of participatory democracy which developed during the 1970s and 1980s throughout Latin America (including the Caribbean), they were branded as “communist” – not because they supposedly reflected a Marxist conception, but because the political and military power brokers in and outside the military governments thought this would be the best way to get rid of them. However, with the documents of Santa Fé and the Washington Consensus, they were recognised as a greater threat to the established order than the traditional left and immediately subjected to the most violent military and paramilitary repression throughout the continent.
Among the main facilitators of this new kind of participatory democracy (whether or not this was their conscious goal) were priests and nuns, but also a great many Catholic lay people. Through their efforts — from the time of the CELAM (Latin American Conference of Bishops) in 1968 in Medellín, Colombia — to go back to the roots of Christianity they became a living example for that proliferation of communal practices without which neither the revolutionary processes in Central America nor the contemporary changes in the governments of Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil would have been possible.
A particular irony of history had it that due to their success and impact in creating relatively strong civil-society-networks and social movements by way of preaching the “Gospel of the Poor” they became victims of their own hierarchical structure within the Catholic Church, a church which could not accept the end of the colonial missionary era. Like the patriarchs of the orthodox communist regimes, the patriarchs of the Catholic Church denied the political realities which, without much difficulty, could have brought about a renewal of their petrified institutions.
In the tradition of the Latin American resistance movements, participatory democracy is a political practice arising from diverse cultural contexts much more than a “model” or a theory. It is a method rather than a goal in itself, which developed long before the breakdown of 20th-century “actually-existing socialism”.
If we consider the political structures which developed, often underground and subject to heavy persecution, in the cities and rural areas of Latin America and the Caribbean in the 1970s and 1980s, we see – despite very different articulations – some common features:
1) The mechanisms of Participatory Democracy (PD) emerged mainly in relatively small social environments like villages or neighbourhoods. This is, on the one hand, due to the enormous pressure exercised by the centralised post-colonial powers such as the military, the Catholic Church, political parties and sometimes even the leftist guerrilla organisations; on the other hand, it is also due to their promotion of some development-theories long putting forward the slogan “small is beautiful” (Leopold Kor and others) as its ultimate premise.
Although the size of a community does not automatically determine the level of democratic behaviour of its members, it is a very relevant factor. Anybody who has observed a Social Forum or any other assembly will have noticed that it is much easier for people to participate in smaller than in larger groups.
2) PD, as it unfolded in Latin America, is always based on a common identity which may be an historical or a geographical one or an identity moulded by common interests or collective struggles. Consequently, the territorial dimension of PD is important. The identity is nearly always related in some way to “space”, even if it is a totally open space or a virtual space. Even the biggest miners union — COMIBOL in Bolivia — derives its identity from the individual mine employing a relatively small group of miners. There might be a university protest of more than a hundred thousand students, but every participant goes on behalf of his or her school which symbolises his or her specific identity.
3) It goes without saying that PD must start with an open discussion process that does not discriminate by either gender or age. Much more difficult is the question of creating the subjective conditions in which everybody has not only the right to speak, but also the will and opportunity to do so.
This is precisely the moment where the art of a moderator (facilitator) comes into play, a moderator who is not suspected of wishing to manipulate or monopolise a discussion. While in traditional societies this role is often given to the elders, in the more modern societies there are often “experts” (whatever this may actually mean) chosen because they are thought to be more neutral and intelligent and thus more able to adapt to new situations.
4) Even if the participatory decision making process (PDMP) invests a particular person with the capacity to speak on behalf of a common decision, it does not delegate to that person the power to make decisions. This is also the reason why in the indigenous communities (but not only there) the principle of consensus generally prevails over the principle of majority, for a majority decision theoretically implies the existence of two spokespersons: one who reflects the majority and the other the minority in order to prevent deviant opinions from simply being neglected and ignored.
5) The only way to feel represented in a PD structure is by feeling that the “leader” or spokesperson will not make decisions on his or her own. This is the reason why in a PDMP the leaders always consult with their communities before they decide on a given proposal.
This implies a horizontal structure of the decision-making process. Since the superior level is not considered to be an entity of its own the structure has the character of a network and not of a pyramid where the superior level acts on behalf of a lower level.
6) The ultimate goal of such participatory processes is to guarantee a maximum degree of autonomy in decision-making, which means avoiding, as far as possible, dependency on outside factors. Self-reliance and social responsibility are the key concepts which should inform the assembly in any stage of its development, from proposals to conclusions.
It would be an illusion to think that all of these principles are being honoured at any given time in contemporary discussions within the different organisations of civil society. On the contrary, with the exception of people and organisations having a strong cultural heritage of solidarity, one or another of these precepts are continuously being violated. What is important, however, is that these principles are generally upheld even if often disregarded in practice. In this sense PD was more a code of conduct than an ideology. In Latin America everybody understands that PD is not a closed system, not a ritual, like the representative systems generally accepted everywhere, but a learning process which eventually leads to what was the idea of democracy at the dawn of history: the possibility of the people and peoples deciding for themselves.
In this process of emancipation there are still many obstacles to overcome and many bridges to be built. Some obstacles should be dismissed, like the idea of individual leadership which nearly always gains ground when the question of political power is involved. The central dichotomy's intrinsic dialectic is: on the one hand we need to face the question of power in order to put the necessary changes into practice; on the other hand we have to stick to the logic of resistance where the practice of PD was born and is still being upheld.
Within this dichotomy of the logic of power and the logic of resistance we also can situate the question of a so-called “Socialism of the 21st Century”. In this respect we have to bear in mind that this concept is not so much a question of form but of political content. If 20th-century socialism grew out of the European tradition based on the concept of the nation-state in the aftermath of the French Revolution, the idea of a Socialism of the 21st Century is developing within the framework of contemporary Latin America history.
This is so not only because Hugo Chávez was one of the first who dared to use this symbolic metaphor but because democracy is at stake and it must be of a different sort than the one used and misused by the neoliberal governments and its transnational actors. To imagine that it is today enough to bring about change simply by waiting for the next elections is as much an historical mistake as Mikhail Gorbachov’s idea that he could save socialism simply by installing mechanisms of Western European and US- American representative democracy. If we talk about Socialism of the 21st Century we must go back to the roots. And these roots are not just the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Illich Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and others; they are found far beyond the 19th century and far beyond European history. They grow wherever people and peoples gather to resist the existing unjust and undemocratic (dis)order dominated by a handful of central powers. We must learn this lesson of resistance from those who are deeply rooted in their culture and history.
The participatory mode of action and collective decision-making suddenly became very important for the development of a political strategy when in 1989 three events shook the world:
• the breakdown of the Soviet empire which had exercised a considerable influence on the traditional Latin American left and the national liberation movements in Central America.
• The defeat in the Nicaraguan elections of the Sandinista government whose democratic practice had seriously deteriorated by the end of the 1980s as a consequence of the war.
• The invasion of Panama by the United States, which became a training ground for new military technologies that could and eventually would be used in any country of the Third World which resisted.
For the popular movements which had resisted for decades and sometimes even centuries, this moment was felt as a serious defeat. The hopes for political and economic help from outside suddenly vanished, and those civil society organisations who considered themselves part of a worldwide (revolutionary or non-revolutionary) process became orphans with an unknown destiny.
It was a time of endless discussions within the parties of the Latin American left which suddenly understood that their strategies had to go beyond the narrow boundaries of the nation-state. In 1990 the Foro de São Paulo was founded on the initiative of the Brazilian Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores – PT) as a gathering of more than 50 left parties and social movements. Using as a model the open alliances which had led to the success of the PT in Brazil and the increasingly important social movements all over the continent, the Foro de São Paulo, together with the national liberation movements of Central America, started to propagate the concept of a “movement-party” (partido movimiento) calling (at least theoretically) for a radical democratisation of their own party structures.
On the other hand, the indigenous movement, which had survived for centuries within the national states, suddenly gave signs of unexpected vitality as 1992 approached, the year of the 500th anniversary of what some called the “Encounter of Cultures”, and others “500 years of Resistance”.
In fact, the importance of the Movimiento 500 años de Resistencia Indígena, Negra y Popular cannot be underestimated. Not only because the indigenous organisations of Mexico, Central America and the Andean countries became aware of their importance as a political factor, but also because they represented a new hope for all the many non-indigenous movements which had been orphaned after 1989.
Repeatedly, subjects like the principle of consensus and the abolition of all kinds of “vanguardism” were highlighted during the controversial discussions between indians (proud to be known as such) and mestizos. And although it would still be some time before the Zapatista rebellion emerged, there were already the seeds of a form of democracy which not only included the freedom of the individual, but also the right of self-determination for all the communities and peoples of the world: autonomy.
In relating the concept of autonomy to the development of PD in Latin America, we have always to remember that this concept is the result of an infinite number of social, political and cultural struggles for the rights of individuals as groups, communities and peoples. It was only relatively late, at the beginning of this century, that the concepts of regional autonomy and PD reached the government level with a series of strategic decisions taken after the defeat of several revolutionary attempts to seize political power: in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, to mention only those cases in which the social movements were able to effect a change of government.
Neither Luíz Inacio da Silva “Lula” nor Nestor Kirchner, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales or Rafael Correa could have won their respective presidencies without movements and parties which had evolved according to the unwritten guidelines of PD. They would never have won without the activists of the Landless Movement (MST), of the Piqueteros, of the Cocaleros and the rebellions of the indigenous people. Even if Hugo Chávez may in this context be seen as the exception confirming the rule, since he created his own mass-movement after being elected, there is no doubt that his coming to power was also a result of the social uprisings in the aftermath of the Caracazo in 1988.
But it would be a methodological mistake to look at contemporary Latin American history only considering those countries where political change has occurred at the government level. The case of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico is more than paradigmatic for a development which might soon be followed by Carlos Gaviria in Columbia and several other figures in Central (e.g. El Salvador and Nicaragua) and South America (e.g. Paraguay).
Since the 1994 Zapatista Rebellion, Mexico has been the site of small and large confrontations carried out by social movements which grew in local and regional struggles in Guerrero, Oaxaca, Morelos, Chihuahua, Veracruz and many other areas. Unlike what happened in other countries, the movements in Mexico were divided on the question of whether to support López Obrador, the candidate of the PRD (Partido de la Revolución Democrática), who lost the July 2006 elections due to a major fraud perpetrated by the ruling PAN (Partido de Acción Nacional) and the traditional PRI (Partido de la Revolución Institucional), with the help of the Bush Administration.
López Obrador lost the election although his candidacy was supported by a huge mass movement, not because the Zapatistas and others did not give him their support, but because his own movement was too hierarchical and lacking in PD. Since the elections, his party has been split between the more or less corrupt party bureaucracy and the “movementpeople” whose first goal is the democratisation of Mexican society.
A somewhat different case is Venezuela, considered by some the motherland of Socialism of the 21st Century. As already mentioned, here it was the government and not an autonomous movement which induced a sort of grass-roots-democracy to consolidate the new political structures of the regime. It is probably too early to know if these structures will come to power in the not distant future. But it is certain that the different concepts which found their way into the constitutional proposals which were narrowly defeated in the December 2007 elections were meant to introduce, for the fist time in history, several mechanisms of PD at the constitutional level:
1) The new constitution would have established the Councils (Consejos) as a decision-making territorial entity which would control – and if necessary counteract – the hierarchies of elected authorities.
2) This control would extend to all spheres of social life, particularly also to economics, where the Councils would be able to approve or reject municipal budgets. This idea, which was first implemented in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from 2001 the cradle of the World Social Forum, has in the meantime become common practice in many countries of the world (including in Europe).
3) One of the biggest attacks on neoliberal practices would have also been a new definition of property, which establishes a differentiated system of social responsibilities (not state control) of enterprises at the same time as it promotes the expansion of producer and consumer cooperatives.
4) And last but not least, the constitution would have ratified the practice of a “revocatory referendum” (Referendum Revocatorio) allowing a certain percentage of the electorate to demand a vote confirming or dismissing every elected authority in the middle of his or her term.
PD in Latin America has deep roots in the colonial and post-colonial cultures of resistance. After the breakdown of the traditional socialist alternatives, regional and inter-regional structures of indigenous, social and other civil-society movements, which developed quite rapidly in the 1970s and 1980s, became the basis for various electoral options grounded in a common practice of PD and regional autonomies.
In a broader perspective, the left governments which have taken power in some of the continent’s most economically and politically important countries could develop and implement a form of Socialism of the 21st Century grounded in the different articulations of society and not only in the nation-state, substituting the traditional mechanisms of socalled democratic representation through a diverse structure of PDs.
Leo Gabriel is Director of the Institute for Intercultural Research and Cooperation in Vienna