Reimagining Latin American Democracy ; in Mexico and Colombia, Fair Elections Don't Guarantee Full Participation

Article excerpt

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 regional crisis.

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 process.

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. …

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