Recent events in Mexico and Colombia have drawn attention to the
importance of democracy. Democratic political competition may become
a reality next week in Mexico, where opposition presidential
candidate Vicente Fox is poised to unseat the 70-year rule of the
Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
The US Senate has just approved unprecedented levels of military
aid to Colombia to shore up its democratic government and prevent
What's overlooked about these virtually simultaneous events is
that Colombia has had, for more than 25 years, just what Mexico
might be about to get - procedural democracy and alternation of
power at the national level.
In Colombia, this form of democracy didn't prevent guerrilla war,
widening inequality, or explosive growth of drug trafficking.
There's no reason to believe democracy in Mexico will be more
successful in accomplishing these basic social and economic tasks,
especially with the Zapatista rebellion continuing in Chiapas,
government human rights abuses escalating throughout the south, and
the drug trade claiming new levels of political influence. And
there is no reason to believe US aid will improve the situation in
Colombia. Unless the meaning and practice of democracy change in the
Democracy didn't bring relative equality and social peace in
Colombia because democracy reinforced, rather than challenged,
economic and cultural exclusion. Workers, peasants, blacks, and
Indians remained poor and were relegated to secondary status in
education and culture. In Medelln, to be a modern citizen meant to
be hard-working and to know your place.
Violence was used as a tool to enforce this social order. Today's
violence is rooted in the politics of the 1940s and 1950s, an era
known as La Violencia. When liberal and conservative elites
disagreed about who should run Colombia, they rallied ordinary
people behind them in violent campaigns. But when rural peasants
began to advance their own claims, elites came together, established
the beginnings of democracy at the national level, and sponsored
paramilitary squads to prevent change. Colombia's guerrilla
movements are rural movements fought by people who have never been
treated as citizens.
Also, democracy did not bring forms of equality and participation
to Colombians because of narcotics consumption by Americans. And
ironically, it was the drug wealth in Medelln that began to
challenge the social order, as democracy had never done. Drug money
and the popular culture that developed around it showed people who
had long been excluded from wealth and prosperity an alternative
economic path and cultural stance.
To speak for democracy as it exists in Colombia - and oppose
guerrillas and drug traffickers - in part is to speak for
maintaining exclusion. …