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Participating in Democracy

Author: Gethin Van Haanrath from Canada
21 December 2009

Democracy is undergoing significant changes in Latin America. For most of the 20th century this continent was ruled by military juntas, backed by the United States, which tortured and killed their political opponents. As a reaction perhaps, in the past 15 years, these countries have moved towards a system of participatory democracy. Liberal democracy in which citizens vote once every election cycle has been dismissed as being corrupt and in fact anti-democratic.

That's what this documentary is about, the new evolution of democracy in Latin America, which has since spread to other countries around the globe. The revolution started in Brazil in Porto Alegre where the city created a system of participatory citizen budget committees. Essentially, all the neighbourhoods of the city come together and decide what they want the government to spend money on. New community centres? New homes? New sewer systems? If a local representative isn't listening this is the way to get things done. The results look very promising.

The documentary also focuses on the Chavez phenomenon in Venezuela where the President has encouraged direct democracy by allowing the voters to make many of the decisions for themselves. It looks like there is some horizontal democracy in Venezuela but Chavez has also reformed the constitution to allow for indefinite term limits. Yes, he is an authoritarian who is using this new phenomenon of direct democracy to further his own power. This isn't really mentioned in the documentary, the term limits were reformed earlier this year (February 2009).

The movie also explores the economic crisis of Argentina in 2001 and the resulting direct democracy movement there. Many workers when laid off from their jobs re-opened the factories without their bosses. The documentary actually uses clips from the Canadian Avi Lewis documentary "The Take" here. Eight years later the concept of employee-run workplaces is still going strong.

These ideas haven't really taken a foothold in Canada. A few towns in Quebec implemented participatory budgeting but for the most part it's scarce anywhere north of Mexico. Maybe we have to face a military junta before this happens or perhaps we're all distracted by the shiny lure of capitalism and its many goodies.

For those who are cynical and say that humanity can't rule itself without representatives then this is proof that it can happen and does work. It's a step in the right direction because people should have the right to govern their own lives and have the same essential services to which everyone has a universal right.

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