Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Commentary to the Book "Social Capital in Developing Democracies: Nicaragua and Argentina Compared". Some Reflections on Colombia

After his trip to the United States in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his book Democracy in America which highlights several of the democratic traditions of the nascent American society and shows its contrast with the case of some European ones where the democratization process was so complex. One of his conclusions is that democratic systems work best in societies where citizens have a high level of mutual trust, are used to cooperate and are considered equal to each other. The underlying concept in this idea, known today under the name of social capital, has seen a remarkable development in the last twenty years in the literature in the social sciences. Part of the research agenda on this issue is to understand how people create ties within their societies, and the role these ties play in processes of transition and consolidation of democracy, the collapse of political regimes and even economic performance.

The book Social Capital in Developing Democracies by Leslie E. Anderson proposes a comparative study of the current democratization processes in Nicaragua and Argentina and focuses its analysis on the role that each of these societies has played in the political life of their countries over recent decades. It is interesting to see that the political development of these two countries is contrary to what their economic development and industrialization levels would make one expect. Thus, the text shows how in a relatively modern society like Argentina, horizontal ties among citizens are rather weak, there is a low level of political capital, a poor democratic nature of citizenship and little citizens' initiatives for political organization. By contrast, a largely agricultural society with one of the poorest economic performances in the region, like the case of Nicaragua, is characterized by high levels of citizen participation and is permanently involved in their own political affairs.

A recent example of the divergence between the political realities of these two countries is the uneasiness with which some of the recent practices of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, described as "caudillistas", have been received, as well as the opposition he faces from the legislature, other leftist parties and even within the Sandinistas. The contrary of this occurs in Argentina where since the transition to democracy several presidents have resigned, corruption scandals and economic crisis have erupted and not only the presidency has been held for years by the same party but, even worse, since a few years ago it has been held by the same family. The little dissent that these facts have had in the public opinion reveals a major weakness of the democratic character of the Argentinean society.
-Sandinista Nicaragua-
In her effort to identify the causes that have led to two completely different paths in the performance of civil society in these countries, Anderson identifies long-term historical processes as the major explanation. Specifically, she focuses on two well-defined phenomena: Sandinism and Peronism. According to the author, the Nicaraguan people's need to fight against a totalitarian regime required the cooperation between different sectors of the population, social and age groups, as well as economic sectors, creating the idea of a "we" that identified virtually the whole population. Within the revolutionary movement that put an end to more than forty years of dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty, personality-based leadership was virtually nonexistent, while its members developed a sense of solidarity and camaraderie among themselves. Moreover, given the repeated losses of the leaders of the movement, the incentives to all types of personalisms or the appearance of charismatic leaders were reduced. The Nicaraguan revolution belonged to the Nicaraguans and did not respond to the interests and passions of a few leaders; on the contrary, the society built significant horizontal ties among its members, while creating civil society organizations that are officially recognized once the Sandinistas come to power.

-Juan Perón and Eva Perón-
The case of Argentina with Perón offers an interesting contrast. Unlike the Sandinistas, Perón frames its political project around himself without subscribing his ideas or objectives to any predecessor, nor he strives to frame it in any international context. Similarly, important vertical ties are developed between Perón, Peronism, and its followers, where aspects such as the personality and charisma of the leader played a key role. Coming from the lower middle class, Perón shows an interest in the lower classes but from a position of power over them, in the style of a benefactor of the population. Thus, during this period an ideologically inconsistent process of reform is carried out in the country from above rather than a scenario of struggle, mutual support and close ties among citizens.

As part of a worldview in which he sees enemies of the regime everywhere, Perón closed the possibilities for the emergence of leaders within Peronism, opposed to students, teachers, other political parties, the media and any political alternative that would escape his direct control. In fact, Eva Perón, who enjoys a high popularity during these years, acts mainly as an asset that adds political capital to Perón's leadership and authority. Again, her participation is limited to a charitable scheme instead of inviting the most vulnerable sectors of the population to mobilize and work together for their own welfare.

According to Anderson, the type of social capital developed under this type of semi-fascist political regime is anti-democratic. With respect to Peronism she states: "[Its behavior] undermined trust among average Peronists, between lesser leaders and Perón himself, among secondary leaders and between Peronism and its non-Peronist opponents in the wider society." In short, a political regime that is based on its leader charisma rather than on a clear ideology, creates the idea of an "us" -the Peronists, in this case, and a "them" (the non-working class, the capitalist elites, the Radicals, the intellectuals, the press, the Church, universities, etc.). In addition to this, economically this kind of movement needs to perpetuate poverty and its influence on the population in the long run, as its clientelist mechanisms are weakened at the same time that poverty is reduced.

While social capital in Argentina is quite low, given its importance to building democracy, a question arises: how to explain the democratic advances that Argentina has achieved in recent years? Anderson points out at the political institutions as an alternative to overcome the lack of social and political capital in some societies. Thus, she stresses the important historical role that the legislative and judicial branches have taken over the history of Argentina in contrast to their poor development in the Nicaraguan case. For example, during the Argentine Radical period (1916-1930) the Congress was a counterweight to the interests of the executive in head of Hipólito Yrigoyen, which led to major clashes between these branches of power. Although during the Perón years the legislative served mainly to legitimize the role of the executive thanks to its Peronist majorities, the legislature and the courts played a key role in the transition to democracy in the eighties, as well as in the prosecution of those responsible for human rights violations during the dictatorship. Similarly, following the change of the constitution that allowed Menem's reelection, at the end of the nineties the Congress and the Judicial branch blocked his attempts to remain in power for a third term, while bringing to light important cases of corruption of his government.

After reading the text it is impossible not to think of the style of politics present in Colombia during the last eight years. It is not worth listing all the details that characterized the last government now; at the end of the day they are widely well-known and in many cases that would imply repeating some of the practices mentioned above for the Argentinean case just changing the names of the protagonists. It's enough to recall phrases like "I do not read international newspapers, "these little flesh and bones" or the famous "crossroads of the soul" Remember? Well, I think it is no doubt for anybody that the earlier Colombian government was characterized by high doses of personality, charisma and mass movement by its leader, and the development of vertical ties between him and other members of the governing party, the party and its followers, and between them and the non-followers. All this, of course, to the detriment of the developing of ties between citizens and the construction of the type of social capital that is conducive to the advancement of democracy.

In order not to expand further here, I want to refer to an article that appeared in the last issue of the Semana magazine indirectly related to this issue and that shows a clear example of the negative impact of this way of doing politics. It contrasts the communal councils, the practice that most closely embodied the charisma and vertical ties between the President and the citizens (characteristic of the previous government) with the equivalent mechanisms of the government of Santos: the agreements. Although it is still hasty to draw conclusions about the new President, it's interesting to see the description of the communal councils because of their demagogic character and its dubious practical efficiency:
"Despite its proven effectiveness in achieving closeness between the President and citizens, and to fill the agenda of the media, few imagined Santos touring the country every Saturday with a poncho and a hat to hear complaints in journeys of over eight hours. Much less siding with the people to criticize the inefficiency of the State in addressing specific issues as the need to put a stoplight on a corner, remodel a school or build a community hall .... [Santos agreements] are more serious and may be more effective, but will hardly produce entertainment like the one that filled television newscasts on weekends in the last eight years."
The question that remains open is the kind of social capital that is being built in Colombia today; whether this is a society in which people are identified in the other and see in themselves the possibility of cooperation to succeed in solving its problems or whether, on the contrary, it is a society with vertical ties where the public expects the emergence of a leader that will mobilize it and bring solutions to their needs.

The charismatic character and personal aspects that characterized the previous administration suggests that in the Colombian society the vertical ties between leaders and citizens are stronger than those horizontal links between citizens on equal terms. This, as we have seen, is an unfortunate result, as it leaves the path of democracy only in the hands of the political institutions -no matter how responsible and efficient they might be- instead of holding every citizen accountable of the advance of their political system, as it has been found in other societies with long democratic traditions. Hopefully in the future there will be fewer charismatic leaders and, instead of these, there will appear more citizen initiatives to carry out the transformations that the country needs. Or, rather, following the language of social capital: we better start working on it!

-Communal councils of Uribe and Santos' Agreements-

pd. At this point I am preparing a detailed review of Leslie Anderson's book which I hope to publish in a few months. Needless to say I recommend this book to anyone interested in the topics of social capital or political development in Latin America.

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