Rethinking democracy

By Published On: March 1, 2007Categories: Politics2 Comments on Rethinking democracy

Village meeting

I have just had the following article published in the March edition of Red Pepper magazine. One of the many reasons, Bolivia is an intriguing place to be in is the way that people engage with politics and the different visions that emerge from its diverse cultures. It has a lot to teach us in Britain where I feel democracy has become an empty word – parties that sell the same product, a politics dominated by big business, and little real engagement or debate. So this article hopes to provide some food for thought…..

As the middle class men surged across the bridge in the centre of
Cochabamba and started laying into campesinos (farmers) with baseball
bats, sticks, golf clubs, they spewed forth racist rhetoric. ‘Get out
of our city, dirty peasants. Death to the Indians.’ The clashes in
Cochabamba in January 2007, that led to two deaths and hundreds
injured, traumatised much of Bolivia and unveiled a deep-rooted racism
that often lurks silently here. Yet also noticeable was the name the
group of young fascists had given themselves: Youth for Democracy.

Thanks to Bush’s imperial adventures, we have become rather too accustomed in recent years to the misuse of the word democracy. It was noticeable again when John Negroponte, Bush’s Deputy Secretary of State, said ‘Democracy is most at risk in Bolivia and Venezuela’ on the same day as the conflicts in Cochabamba. Negroponte is a resuscitated Reaganite and unsurprisingly failed to see the irony in his comments given his responsibility for providing huge military aid to the Honduras military government in the 1980s, which was used as a base to undermine the democratically-elected Sandinista government in Nicaragua.

However the conflicts in Bolivia unveiled not just a cynical use of democracy but a larger social fight to re-define democracy. In Cochabamba, two visions of democracy clashed. Campesinos as well as people from the city’s economically poorer neighbourhoods had occupied the central square calling for the Governor’s resignation. He had lost legitimacy by siding with the Right in Bolivia’s eastern provinces and calling for a referendum on autonomy, despite the decisive rejection of this proposition in a referendum the year before.  For the social movements, democracy was about popular participation, legitimacy and accountability rather than electoral legalities.

Many middle class city-dwellers however took to the streets indignant that people were trying to remove an elected Governor by popular protest. ‘The people are made up of everyone, not just social movements,’ argued Carlos Arlocón, a former Government Minister.

At a national level, the picture is almost reversed. Evo Morales, Bolivia’s first indigenous President, faces tireless opposition to any attempts at radical change. His opponents, drawn mainly from elites in the country’s oil and gas producing provinces, accuse him of ‘threatening democracy’ and  ‘growing authoritarianism’. Their fierce opposition has constrained Morales’ ability to advance on his agenda, despite coming to power in 2006 with the largest ever majority. Having electoral power is clearly not the same as political and political power.

Interestingly, the field that both the Government and the opposition are fighting within is a representative liberal democracy model. For those who have benefited and ruled, it is a system based on institutions and laws that in the words of sociologist Maria Teresa Zegada have ‘guaranteed freedom of expression, regular elections, intermediaries between State and society, and laws that regulate the action of society and politics.’ Some even on the Right point to the election of Morales as evidence that the system works.

But for many Bolivians it represents a system that put political and economic power into the hands of a few IMF and World Bank-backed elites.  One stark example in Bolivia of the corrupt self-serving dynamic was the privatisation of gas resources in the 1990s, which was promoted by the IMF on the promise that foreign investment would increase income for the State. Instead income fell from an average of $300 million to $200 million a year. Popular uprisings in favour of nationalisation led to severe government repression in October 2003 in which more than 60 people were killed.

Abraham Grandydier, President of Southern Association of Community Water Systems in Cochabamba sums up a common sentiment: ‘Over the past twenty years, in the name of democracy, they have killed the people, robbed them, abused our country and sold off the natural resources. We aren’t going to defend this type of democracy.’

    Yet out of the fraying fabric of representative democracy, alternative ideas and practices of democracy are giving voice. Some of these have a long history that predates the introduction of universal elections by Bolivia’s elites in 1952s. Mallku Anselmo Martínez, indigenous leader in a federation called CONAMAQ says that indigenous communities have a very distinct vision: ‘Our democracy is based on debate and reaching consensus in our ayllu (community) and based on fundamental principles of reciprocity and complementarity. Every chosen representative is made up of a man and a woman. It means no-one is marginalised and excluded, which has been the effect of the representative system for centuries.’

    At times this community-based model has merged with the representative model. Shortly after the elections, community leader Martín Quispe told me on Sun Island in the middle of Lake Titicaca on the border with the Peru that all the island voted for Morales and the MAS Government. ‘What everyone? How do you know?’ I asked puzzled. ‘Because we had a meeting of the whole island to discuss what party would best serve the community interest and that is what we decided,’ he affirmed. It pointed to a very different form of democracy where personal choice was subordinate to acting as a community. It is a practice that is as alien to many upper and middle class Bolivians as it is to Westerners.   

    Developing from this has been a form of democracy of the streets that has defined Bolivia in the last five years since the Cochabamba water war in which people throw out the privatised water company. In response to the recent protests in Cochabamba, the Coordinadora (the Water Coalition), which led the Water War in 2000 said: ‘Social conquests have never been the product of legality. Neither laws nor judges have changed the country. It has always been the people in the streets.’

    Abraham Grandydier says the ‘type of democracy that comes from the streets has to be respected’ because it is based on ‘the deliberations of communities, in assemblies and popular lobbies, where leaders have to observe the debate and make decisions accordingly…. [where] the people have to be listened to.  If not then what type of democracy are we talking about?’         

    This community and street-based democracy has been typically used by those excluded from power. The new context is that the current Government is made up of a structure that is half-party, half-social movement, which built itself through street mobilisation and protest. The MAS party/movement came to power with diverse ideological currents (principally indigenous and leftist) and within a state structure that was not designed to give voice to social movements and facing structures of economic power that made radical change difficult. 

This has led to contradictory impulses within the government, with some elements focusing on building up party power as a means to create change and other seeking to merge new participative elements within central government and to see government as a vehicle for social movements’ demands. These tensions could partly be seen in the conflicts in Cochabamba with some government officials actively supporting the protests and others asserting the legality of the Governor’s position and trying to achieve a compromise. It is also evident in the high turnover of key ministers and officials with euphemous comments in the press of “different visions.”

At the same time, the Government is now finding, as events in Cochabamba made clear, that the streets are no longer exclusively their domain either. This doesn’t just include mobilisation by the Right but also the beginnings of actions by more radical groups from the left who are independent of MAS. In February 2007 protestors occupied gas plants in the south of Bolivia protesting that Morales’ popular “nationalisation” plans had not gone far enough.

    This conflict of visions and contradictions between left and right, and within MAS is most starkly coming together in the Constituent Assembly. This body, whose aim is to rewrite the constitution, has been a key long-term demand of social movements in Bolivia.  If it is to happen anywhere then this will probably the institution that can merge different visions of a democracy – one of representation, of the streets and from communities.

Yet like many radical reforms, the process has been stalled over different interpretations of democracy and by an essentially party-political fight. The Morales Government has argued that the constitutional changes should be passed by simple majority (which they control), whilst the opposition has insisted on two-thirds which gives them an effective veto. The arguments have flay back and forth. Five months in and the Assembly has yet to start debating the real issues.

    The arguments about votes highlights a bigger and probably the most important struggle which could be called the fight for economic and social democracy. It is clear that many on the Right only want constitutional changes that will tinker with existing political rules and institutions, whilst the indigenous and social movements are determined that the new constitution changes the structural relations of the country. For these movements, democracy is meaningless if it is not also a democracy that redistributes and gives power to those who have been excluded for centuries. Yet this is highly threatening to an elite who have controlled and benefited from both post-colonial and neo-liberal regimes. This battle is one that neither side is prepared to lose. It has created what the Vice President once referred to as a ‘catastrophic stalemate’.

    Yet despite this, Cortez remains optimistic: ‘This is a messy process with lots of contradictions, but I believe that even if the Constituent Assembly fails, it is only a question of time before a consensus emerges around new forms of democracy.’ Mallku Martinez agrees and believes that the experience in Bolivia has much to teach movements globally: ‘Representative democracy is dying because it only served a few and looted our resources for the benefit of others, but a new system is rising based on community values where all have representation. It can be an alternative for all those worldwide fighting against injustice, inequality and insecurity.’



  1. Earl M. March 1, 2007 at 8:07 pm - Reply

    I really appreciate your efforts and work at understanding the complex issues of our times and circumstances. I once read a very good book called “The Irony of Democracy” authored by Gross, and another called “Friendly Fascism”, By?, and Taylor Caldwells book that chronicaled the life and times in the age of Pericles contained some really wise observations on the nature of democracy, and its limitations. I hope you may get the opportunity to read these books, in the by and by. Good Luck, and I will promise to peer into your world now and then!

  2. Peter Bearder March 7, 2007 at 2:25 pm - Reply

    Nick, your blog is spot on. I am doing a similar blog in Colombia and have linked to you. Please check me out. Future entries will be about social movements I visit. If you like what you see please link to me
    Keep up the good work

Leave A Comment