By Helena Schwertheim, 2014/2015 MIR Alumnus 

Between the 24th and 26th of August 2015, I was lucky enough to attend a forum on the future of democracy in Latin America in the capital of Colombia, Bogota. As it was organised by the Club of Madrid as part of the Club’s Next Generation Democracy (NGD) project, other attendees included ex-Presidents from the region such as Vicente Fox (Mexico), Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica), Cesar Gaviria (Colombia) and Luis Alberto Lacalle (Uruguay), just to name a few. From the academic world experts from the Wilson Centre, The Economist columnists, members of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and practitioners from the Inter-American Development Bank, Organisation of American States and other institutions. Discussion provided analysis of the current crisis of democracy on the continent, using the experience and knowledge of those present. The aim was to move past simple diagnostics to provide practical recommendations and proposals of how to improve democracy. After all, the motto of the Club of Madrid is “democracy that delivers”.

The forum was divided into three days; on the first the aim was to provide an analysis of the current crisis facing Latin American democracy, while the second day we split into working groups to conceive concrete proposals and avenues of action. The final day was more of a presentation of the findings; in the historical centre of Bogota the event took place in the Colon Theatre, with students and media attending as well as the current President of Colombia, Manuel Santos. However by the third day I had met enough ex-Presidents and experts to be only mildly impressed by this spectacle.

The first day saw many interesting points on the dysfunctional aspects of democracy within the region. For me most attention grabbing was the general acknowledgement of democratic leaders of the public’s disillusionment with the current state of affairs. Not only are societies now voicing their discontent with corruption more than ever, but as Pedro Farias of the Inter-American Development Bank highlighted, at recent protests in Brazil demonstrators toted signs in English as well as Portuguese, acknowledging the impact of external influences in this globalised and inter-connected era. Ex-president of Bolivia Carlos Mesa pointed out that while many protestors know what they do not want, however are unable to truly formulate what they want instead. This leads to the question of whether the disillusion with government is one of representation, or a structural one going deeper, such as into some of the norms of representative democracy.

The second day attempted to provide solutions to the problems we pinpointed previously. My group focused on new democratic values and institutional reforms. A worrying trend is the lack of distinction or independence between the branches of government; the executive and the jurisdiction. While due to a range of factors, experts agreed that a way to combat this would be to limit the impunity currently allowing this situation to be created without accountability or sanctions. The Colombian example proved an inspiration, as within its system the ‘political death’ is possible – the 1991 Constitution allows the investigation and loss of a congressman’s title. This also addresses the fundamental complaint currently voiced about representative democracy. The formal public education on the topic of ethics and norms should be considered, not only for citizens, but also politicians and judges, such as in the example of Mayor Antanas Mockus in the city of Bogota in the mid 1990s.

Overall, this seminar of practitioners and experts provided an in-depth discussion and insight into the workings and worries of democracy in Latin America today. More than ever this is tightly connected with external factors and economic dynamics, and these must be taken into account when addressing more fundamental dilemmas such as the disillusionment with democracy and governance that many societies voice today. While the members of the Club of Madrid and experts have produced a concise list of proposals and recommendations following their diagnosis, now it is up to current practitioners and future leaders to heed this advice.





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