Where you at, Democracy?

bitmoji-20170411092159.png*This post is to sketch ideas that surged while I was preparing a presentation of Latin American regional integration and its collective defence of democracy.

Conceptualisation of Democracy in historical terms

Democracy is such a vague term that we even don’t know when to use it properly. So this time, we are trying to understand historically what is democracy, otherwise this term evaporates into the air then will be utilised with political intention to manipulate unorganised humanitarianists all over the world. To understand democracy properly, academia has done anatomy over its body; and so far we broadly categorise it into liberal-representative democracy (developed by Hobbes and Locke) and republican-participatory democracy (by Rousseau). Perhaps this division sounds much like the political party system of the United States in this modern era, and this is no coincidence that the political foundation of the very nation was built upon the democratic revolution claiming ‘no taxation without representation’, even though the two-party system in the United States has another history to indicate which will be out of the scope for this paper. Of course this wasn’t the only event that had put stepping stones to modern democracy; English civil wars (1642-51), Formation of Italian Republics, Democratic revolution of the United States and French Revolution among many other historial events, gave impulse to the democratic perspective that we conceive nowadays.

We find the origin of democracy from the ancient Greek, whose political system was considered to involucrate some sorts of ‘government of people’ but according to contemporary standards, the ancient Greek system wasn’t thoroughly democratic. It’s because that the modern democracy paradigm is intertwined with the mode of capitalistic production and its relations of political domination. European capitalistic accumulation boosted from the colonisation starting from the Encounter of America in 1492, which gave the start of a new production system -the capitalism-, expanding to Asia and Africa. ‘No taxation without representation’ was a synonymous claim that a monarchic authority shouldn’t have possession over citizens without any kind of representation of citizens’, entrepreneurs’ o bourgeoisies’. The Liberty of citizens as a philosophical idea became constitutional clause to give legitimacy to a government, as the democratic revolution accompanied with the formation of constitutions, which means the regime is based on the law, not on a specific leadership. As so, the democratic tradition in modern history reveals the direct relation between State and Society, and also between political domination and economic accumulation. ‘No taxation without representation’ demonstrates that modern democracy relates to the question: Who decide what to do with the economic surplus (in other words, how to distribute surplus) derived from capitalistic development.

Habermas (2005) outlines the difference between liberal-representative democracy and republican-participatory democracy is the democratic process, or to say, how citizen participates on the decisions about surplus. In liberal tradition, such process is based on representativeness, so a State has a function of binding private social interests under its administration to achieve collective ends. In republican tradition, such process is based on participation and solidarity, so a State’s role isn’t limited to represent social interests but to reflect ethical plexus of social life, which leads to social integration, rather than to count floating individuals.

Towards modern characteristics of Democracy

These philosophical traditions have turn into specific political debates about democracy in 20th century; procedural democracy and substantive democracy. Should democracy be responsible or not of the just social order? Or to say to achieve this social justice, on which we should weigh more between the exercise of representatives and the direct political participation?

Procedural democracy focuses on institutionalised procedures that guarantee the liberty of citizen. What is important is the effective function of democratic process, not its result. Schumpeter (1983) and Huntington (1994) share this perspective. Schumpeter sees the democracy as the electoral competition between political elites to seize votes of citizens. Democracy in this sense only gives opportunity to accept or refuse whom governs. Dahl (1989, 2004) separates polyarchy from democracy. He defines that polyarchy isn’t dictatorship or democracy, and it is a form of government in which power is invested in multiple people. Importantly, polyarchy permits us to observe democratisation levels of political regimes. In polyarchy the democratic procedure is in principal condition, giving all citizens equality of opportunity to 1) formulate their preferences, 2) manifest publically their preferences and 3) receive a same treat from government regardless of difference in preferences.

Substantive democracy has its focus not on procedural aspects but on its capacity to promote betterment for the whole population of a society, or to say rather in its result than its procedure. Rights, less inequality, more opportunities are general conditions for mentioned betterment. Castoriadis (1994) argued that the democracy cannot be reduced to mere electoral process but should assure fundamental human rights with constitutional consideration as its condition. Bachrach planted in his writing The Theory of Democratic Elitism (1967) how to slip away from the rigid scheme of representation which we know as ‘one man one vote’, to promote direct participation channels to democracy: Referendum, Recall (differentiated from impeachment which is a legal process not electoral), and citizens’ assemblies as examples. Those mechanisms give us an alternative perspective that promotes the idea that citizens can participate in discussion and distribution of surplus and of just social order, not just through vote. This approach tries to narrow the gab between purely representative democracy and participatory democracy.

Forms of Democracy found in Latin America

The very aim of this post is to locate democracy in the Latin American where regional integration is prevailing. Many regional integration bodies, such as MERCOSUR, UNASUR, Comunidad Andina and others clarify to promote and defend democracy of the region. Democracy in Latin America is still on its construction lagged by late independence and State-building, premature capitalism, and dependent economies based on export of materia prima such as agricultural and natural resources. In this historical context, the distribution of economic surplus was managed by a certain productive and commercial oligarchical elite class. Surely as Dahl clarifies, no modern nation meets the ideal of democracy, for it is a theoretically utopian concept. But democracy building confronted many difficulties during the twentieth century in Latin America, sometimes facing autocratic dictatorships and neoliberalism of which accumulation scheme resulted in financial valorisation of transnational capital and in complex processes of social exclusion.

The two traditions of democracy we identified anteriorly have formed into liberal-democratic model and popular-democratic model (better known, populism) in Latin American historical and societal context. As the result of crisis of exploitation capitalism in the region, Latin American societies revealed a rising contradiction between bourgeoisies and working classes who identified themselves with populism. Popular democracy in term expresses a new form of decision-making dealing with surplus and the State directs this decision to be carried out by the general will of people. State possibilities the incorporation of once marginalised social classes and sectores to the political agenda throughout economic and social policies. Even populism activated citizens’ involvement into political exercises, with competitive and free elections, for the very goal to bring in politically excluded sectores to promote popular organisation and participation. Peruzzotti (2008) in this sense affirms that populism isn’t contradictory to democracy rather it is perceived as a particular form of such, specially in the region where populism has been a fundamental aspect of its democratic tradition.

We observed that during the 70s many military dictatorship regimes installed minimal state and neoliberal development model, exemplifying Chilean case where Pinochet government was able to “completely reverse the economic policies and economic institutions chosen by the Allende government (including land reform and mass nationalization of industry). Not only did the military reverse the economic institutions preferred by Allende and the groups who elected him, they then implemented their own preferred set of economic institutions, in particularly deregulating the trade regime and the economy (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2003)”. Neoliberalism and market-driven development model politically reflected that democracy puts more emphasis on technical process and procedures than on power relations that implied democratisation of surplus. Economic surplus was managed by a specific elite group claiming the ‘trickle-down effect’ will benefit the whole population. When these military authoritarian regimes lost their legitimacy, the demand for democracy rose as those states turned into democratic states consolidating descending neoliberalism in the region. Still neoliberalism had transformed public administration to be efficient and to consider citizens as clientes with specific demands who receive the service from the State, not as subjects of law. Then we can observe a tendency of leftist turnout, namely in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia and some others, whose government seized legitimacy by bringing in marginalised sectors during neoliberal period and by promoting social welfare policies.

Surely, the mixture of two traditions also could be found in the recent history. Neopopulist governments were set to converge the elements of populism and neoliberalism. Vilas (2004) defines those governments as “political regimes with strongly personalised leaderships electorally supported by mayor poverty sector in 90s which exercise macroeconomic and social reforms of neoliberal patterns.” Vilas set examples such as Menem government in Argentina, Fujimori government in Peru or Salinas de Gortari government in Mexico. Such consolidation with neoliberalism or rejection to it, represented that the ‘trickle-down’ theory failed to prove in the region, rather it has augmented poverty and social disintegration, giving a way to form some progressive governments such as of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay among others.

Democracy in Chavez’ Venezuela and after

One of the question we can plant here is if democracy is possible in a descending economy. If democracy is about how decide what to do with surplus, if there is no surplus, the democracy could stand still? Maybe we are witnessing the answer in current Venezuelan economic crisis under Maduro regime. Critics are made that the hole in the wheel was already made during Chavez regime but only started to notice the economic flat-tire when Maduro became exercising his political power. It’s because the populist social welfare programmes came from oil-exporting revenue and from Chavez’ regime Venezuela became highly dependent on oil, reaching 96% of total export. International oil price kept rising when Chavez was the head of the State, but when Maduro took over the oil price started to decline, leading all implementing welfare programmes unfeasible to continue.

Yet blaming the international oil price as the principal cause of Venezuelan crisis distracts us from analysing further internal and institutional elements that Venezuela was embracing. Steve Ellner (2011) argues that the use of the term crass-populism to describe Venezuelan experience is misleading, even though there is an element of truth that Chavez implemented those social programmes without anticipating that the oil price could drop. His argument continues pointing out four factors to take into consideration that “firstly, free and heavily subsidized prices mainly for the marginalized sectors are justifiable on various grounds including the concept of the social debt. Second, this programs have enhanced the sense of empowerment and participation of the non-privileged and particularly those belonging to the marginalized sectors of the population. Third, The programs have been effective to an important degree, even while they are not as efficiently run as some of their counterparts that rely on greater resources. Last, the chavista emphasis from the outset on social programs over economic productivity obeyed a political imperative.” Social debt, community participation and free educational missions are the elements that evince Chavez’ promotion of democracy, taking the participatory democracy tradition, then once praised by international audiences as a successful example of grassroots democracy. Even Chavez promised to invest the economic surplus for the future, diversifying the revenue sources and escaping from the trap of oil dependency.

Under Maduro’s administration, this viewpoint has been flipped completely. The foreign minister of Mexico described the recent development of Venezuela has dismantled democracy, and twelve other Latin American countries including Brazil and Argentina share this belief. First of all, institutional capacity is to be blamed that public management could have handled the economic fallout with any sort of contingency reserves that were to preserve during the past economic boom period. Rather, corruption is deeply embedded seeking lucrative opportunities that some Maduro’s allies are profiting from the gap between inaccessible official exchange rate and black market rate of US dollars. Second, Maduro held a vote in July 2017 to elect a new governing body called the National Constituent Assembly that would rewrite the Venezuelan Constitution and replace the formerly existing National Assembly in which a coalition of opposition parties called Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD: Mesa de la Unidad Democrática) had won a two-thirds majority. The fact that the newly elected National Constituent Assembly erased the opposition power against Maduro’s administration and some selected groups getting economic benefits extracted from the major population, led the Venezuela from democracy to almost autocratic regime. Both social justice and democratic procedure were broke, proving that the Mexican foreign minister’s quote of dismantled democracy was no exaggeration.

Building a collective defence of democracy in the region

Numerous regional bodies have been born, after the devastating wars, with the aim of promoting regional peace, security and prosperity. OAS (founded in 1948), PARLATINO (1964), CARICOM (1973), SELA (1975), ACTO (1978), ALADI (1980), MERCOSUR (1991), SICA (1991), ACS (1994), PetroCaribe (2005), ALBA (2006), UNASUR (2008), the Pacific Alliance (2011), CELAC (2011) and recently the debate of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is catching the global attention. Most of those regional integration bodies were born to secure and promote economic growth with trading goods, resources or energy between membered countries. It’s based on the liberal idea of open-economies and cooperation in that economically intertwined nations tend to confront difficulties of initiating military strikes since their own economies would be harmed altogether.

Those regional organisations have proliferated ensuring the economic surplus of the region under the wave of regionalisms in Latin America. But revising their foundational and normative agreements or treaties, not many organisations clearly cite their intention of building a collective defence of democracy in the region. The Organisation of American States (OAS) first mentioned in its foundational charter in 1948 that “representative democracy is an indispensable condition for the stability, peace and development of the region”, implementing the liberal tradition of democracy in the region. The Organisation aims to promote and consolidate representative democracy (Article 2) by eliminating of extreme poverty (Article 3), and stresses the importance of “the incorporation and increasing participation of the marginal sectors of the population (…) in order to achieve the full integration of the national community, acceleration of the process of social mobility, and the consolidation of the democratic system” (Article 45).

The next clear citation of democracy only appears in 1991-92 with the declarations of MERCOSUR (Southern Common Market) and SICA (Central American Integration System), and this absence of clauses mentioning democracy for 40 years after the OAS charter could be explained with the historial fact that those signatories nations had only escaped recently from military dictatorships before 1991 signing. Argentinian dictatorship ended in 1983, giving Alfonsin administration a democratic legitimacy after the first free indirect elections. Brazil and Uruguay followed ending their dictatorship in 1985, and in Paraguay, General Rodriguez overthrew the dictator Stroessner in 1989, then formulated a new constitution where defined the presidency to a single 5 years term. The first or second presidents who were democratically elected, signed the foundation of MERCOSUR in 1991 and gave the Presidential Declaration in 1992 affirming that “the full validity of democratic institutions is an indispensable condition for the existence and development of MERCOSUR”. SICA shared a similar pattern. Somoza’s dictatorship ended in 1979 in Nicaragua. Successively the dictatorship of Honduras and El Salvador ended in 1982, Guatemala in 1986 and Panama in 1989. The Tegucigalpa Protocol that formed SICA in 1991 expresses its vision for Central America to be a region of peace, liberty, democracy and development.

The fruit of these attempts to build a collective defence of democracy would be the Ushuaia Protocol (1998) in which participated to sign the 4 founding members of MERCOSUR, Bolivia and Chile. The protocol adapted what the Presidential Declaration of 1992 affirmed, articulating that “the full validity of democratic institutions is an essential condition for the development of integration processes between States”. In summary, to enjoy the preferential trade that the regional organisation guarantees, a State maintains to be a democratic institution. Otherwise, the Protocol justifies either other members to give pertinent consults or the non-democratic member to be suspended from the integration. The very example is the suspension of Venezuela from the MERCOSUR in 2017, which proceeded in accordance with the provisions of the second paragraph of Article 5 of the Ushuaia Protocol.

Venezuela’s involvement in further integration and its implication to democracy

Anteriorly, I argued that Venezuela’s democracy had been consolidated under Chavez’ administration (1998-2012) in both representativeness and citizen participation terms. When democracy was prospering in Venezuela, could we observe the a spill-over effect of democracy in Venezuela’s active involvement for further regional integration? Chavez’ Venezuela involved in many regional integration negotiations, especially in energy integration of the region. The confidence came from the fact that Venezuela is one of the biggest petroleum reserved countries. In 2005 Chavez gave PetroCaribe initiative, giving 17 Caribbean countries Venezuelan crude oil at discounted price. In the same year, UNASUR negotiation of energy integration also was held, and the Declaration of Caracas was announced  after the very negotiation indicating actions to initiate PetroSur and PetroAmerica projects with the aim of a countable and infrastructural integration of the region. In 2007 the Declaration of Margarita was made to promote and impulse energy integration infrastructure in the region, which would guarantee regional integration. Also the very declaration mentioned the coordination of PetroSur, PetroAndina, PetroAmerica and other energy initiatives. All those negotiations were held in Venezuelan territories, either Margarita Island or Caracas, the capital.

In 2008 the Energy council ministers of UNASUR gathered in Caracas approved pre-project to align energy strategies and action plan for regional energy integration. At the same year, UNASUR was founded, citizen participation clause (Article 18) was put in the foundational text of UNASUR, only reappearing after the OAS foundational charter in 1948. Until then, the democratic tradition in Latin America was focused on democratic institutions and representative democracy. UNASUR embraces not only liberal tradition of democracy but also republican tradition, trying to consolidate democracy from both dimensions. Maybe it would be an exaggeration to conclude that Chavez’ promotion of participatory democracy that had brought once marginalised sectors to the political dialogs transmitted to the UNASUR foundation on the Article 18. Venezuela played an important role in UNASUR in terms of possible regional energy integration negotiations boosted by Venezuelan oil reserve, which would maintain initiatives such as PetroCaribe.

Yet whether this built democracy in regional level has a restorative gravity even to purported breaches of democracy in national level is debatable. Witnessed the rupture of democracy in Venezuela in 2017, Venezuela has suspended by MERCOSUR in accordance with the Article 5 of the Ushuaia Protocol. Even though there is no limitation on trade and migration policies yet, the indefinite suspension from MERCOSUR body gives carries a symbolic shift. Until now, UNASUR hasn’t made such kind of symbolic shift that would impact Venezuela. At the same time, the suspension from MERCOSUR doesn’t assure the restoration of democracy in Venezuela, rather it carries possibilities of deepening rupture of democracy in the nation due to the isolation. UNASUR as well had its acceleration until 2011 then started its deceleration with another major political shifts from member nations: Kirchner passed away in 2010, Lula stepped down from his position in the same year, and Chavez’ health got deteriorated then passed away in 2013. The absence of these figures discontinued the leadership that UNASUR carried (Comini and Frenkel, 2014), demonstrating another Latin American example that both regional integration and democracy had been built up carefully as a sandcastle that eventually could washed away vulnerably by dramatic political shifts within the region.

The origin of this fragile sandcastle building comes from the fact the both democratic Protocols of MERCOSUR (1998) and of UNASUR (2010) don’t have legal binding but only political implication. Both protocols don’t specify about the term of democracy or the rupture of democracy. Ushuaia protocol indicates that its application takes place “in case of rupture of democratic order in any of member States” (Article 2). UNASUR protocol presents similarly that its application takes places “in case of rupture or threats to democratic order, of constitutional order violation, or of any situation that risks the legitimate exercise of power and validity of principal democratic values” (Article 1). In both Protocol how to measure the rupture of democratic order remains undefined. Rather, Ushuaia protocol continues that “other member states will provide consults” (Article 4) and “in case that these mentioned consults lead unfruitful results (…) the suspension measure will be taken” (Article 5). UNASUR protocol as well continues that in situation considered of democratic rupture “a reunion will be held by application of affected State or by petition of other member State” (Article 2), and “measures to apply will be discussed” (Article 3), and suspension is already included as one of these measures (Article 4). Both protocols’ application come from the political decision made in the reunion of member states.


The basic hypothesis is that integration and democracy are cross fertilisation to each other, in that social inclusion consolidates democracy and democracy nourishes social integration. But some questions rise when to expand this hypothesis to inter-state level. Have regional integration organisations promoted democracy, or increasing demand for democracy accelerated regional integration? Chances are that the grade of impact is unrealistic to quantify. Many regional organisations were born initiating economic benefits by preferential trade, but not necessarily have promised to consolidate democracy of the region. The rising demand for democracy after dictatorship period didn’t seem to boost many Latin American nations to join regional integration bodies. The tendency has been steady as we point out the foundation years of major regional organisations mentioned anteriorly. Rather, after the successive end of dictatorships, attempts to build a collective defence of democracy were made. This observation between building collective defence of democracy and regional integration of Latin America reveals the nature of relations between the States and development.


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Bachrach, P. (1967): The Theory of Democratic Elitism, Little Brown Press.

Castoriadis, C. (1994): La democracia como procedimiento y como régime, 50-60.

Comini, N. and A. Frenkel (2014): Una UNASUR de baja intensidad: Modelos en pugna y desaceleración de integración en América del Sur, Revista Nueva Sociedad (250), Marzo-Abril 2014.

Dahl, R. (1989): La Poliarquía, Madrid, Tecnos

________ (2004): La Democracia, PostaData (10), Diciembre 2004.

Ellner, S. (2011): Venezuela’s Social-Based Democratic Model: Innovations and Limitations, J. Lat. Amer. Stud. 43, 421-449, Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, J. (2005): Three Models of Democracy: On the concept of a deliberative policy, Polis (10), pag3.

Hobbes, T. (2014): El Leviatán, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica.

Huntinton, S. (1994): La Tercera Ola: La democratización a finales de Siglo XX, Buenos Aires, Paidós.

Locke, J. (1990): Segundo tratado sobre el gobierno civil: un ensayo acerca del verdadero origen, alcance y fin de gobierno civil, Buenos Aires, Alianza.

Rousseau, J. J. (1994): Del contrato social: discurso sobre las artes: Discurso sobre el origen y los fundamentos de la desigualdad entre los hombres, Madrid, Alianza.

Shumpeter, J. (1983): Capitalismo, Socialismo y Democracia, Barcelona, Orbis, 343-362.

Vilas, C. (2004): Populismos reciclados o Neoliberalismo a secas?: El mito del neopopulismo latinoamericano, Estudios Sociales (26).

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