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Building power — from the bottom up

Friday 25 May 2007, by Judy Rebick

Building Power through participatory democracy was the major theme of an extraordinary conference held recently at Ryerson University. Eight speakers from Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Mexico and Venezuela gave conference delegates an inside view of the transformative processes taking place in their countries.

Hugo Salvatierra, who just stepped down as Minister of Agriculture of Bolivia, mesmerized the audience of over 200 people with his view that Bolivia is the most politicized country in the whole world. He said, “As Bolivia goes, so go the rest of your countries,” looking at the other representatives from across Latin America.

By the end of the conference, most of us were feeling the same way about all these countries in Latin America.

From government representatives like Hugo to grassroots activists like Soraia Soriano from the powerful Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, the conference heard stories of mobilization and participation that were changing the face of the Americas.

Outside of Chile, which remains in the grip of neo-liberal capitalism, the other countries are working to build a new kind of power through citizen participation in a democratic, and in some cases cultural, revolution.

Pepe Vargas, a federal Member of Congress for the Workers’ Party in Brazil, explained it this way: “We are democratizing democracy. The extension of popular democracy leads to the reduction of bureaucracy. Citizens don’t have to demand their rights because they have the right to fully participate. Through this process, we are also training people to overcome the individualism created by neo-liberalism.”

Venezuelan professor Margarita Lopez-Maya explained that the goal of the Chavez government is to foster social inclusiveness to achieve social equilibrium in a highly polarized and racist society. Land reform, policies that better secure the human rights of Venezuelan citizens, and thirdly, making space for citizen involvement at all political levels are the key elements of the changes.

Related to this are the “missiones,” or emergency social programs through which Chávez attempts to resolve the urgent problems associated with health (Barrio Adentro provides Cuban doctors to rural areas, low-income citizens, along with free medicines), literacy (through the Robinson Mission, a country-wide literacy campaign), food distribution (subsidized and run through Mission Mercal) and various other co-operative programs.

There has been a huge investment in these social policies, financed primarily by Venezuela’s vast oil revenues. Moreover, through referenda, citizen assemblies and street parliamentaryism, ordinary Venezuelans have the opportunity to decide all aspects of public life. The Chavez government does, however, face some potential problems, the most significant of which is the contradiction that exists between the encouragement of autonomous citizen organizations and the financial and technical dependence of these organizations on the state, which could easily lead to clientalism.

Beyond the focus on participatory or radical democracy, the story of each country’s process of transformation was very different. While Bolivian indigenous people decided to create their own political instrument and fight for and win state power, indigenous people in Oaxaca, Mexico have decided on a different route.

“Our weapon is not the gun or the electoral vote,” said Dolores Villalobos, an elementary teacher and representative of APPO, the Indigenous People’s Council of Oaxaca. “It’s the movement. We are proposing to build a counter power so that no one has to exploit one another. They want to make us individual, but we are communal.”

The conference made it clear that throughout Latin America, left political parties and social movements are not only deepening democracy but they are also reinventing left strategies. Instead of strategies of seizing power like the revolutionaries and guerrillas of old or taking power like the social democratic parties in Europe and Canada, these parties and movements talk about building power and transforming society over time from the bottom up.

Judy Rebick holds the Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University in Toronto. She is the founder and former publisher of Her most recent book is Ten Thousand Roses: The Making of a Feminist Revolution.

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