Events

Analyzing Citizenship in Latin American Democracies

November 14, 2003 // 8:30am3:00pm

Citizenship in Latin America is in crisis. This was the overwhelming consensus of the scholars who gathered for the Latin American Program's conference, "Analyzing Citizenship in Latin American Democracies," on November 14, 2003. The day-long conference attempted to identify the current challenges facing the development and study of citizenship in Latin America.

The conference began with an overview of democracy literature and trends in democratic theory, as presented by Frances Hagopian (University of Notre Dame). This introduction highlighted several themes that were revisited by panelists throughout the course of the day. Hagopian stated that the current practice of looking at democracy and citizenship as separate issues provides an inadequate assessment of the quality of democracy and citizenship in Latin America. To improve the study of citizenship in democratic contexts, she maintained that the two issues must be thought of as interrelated and connected. Furthermore, she suggested that a successful democratic state depends upon the rule of law and the application of democratically-established norms.

The first panel, entitled "Conceptions of Citizenship," addressed broad questions of citizen inclusion, citizenship articulation, and participation practice. The panelists in this session included Deborah Yashar (Princeton University), James Holston (University of California, San Diego), and Ariel Armony (Colby College). In their presentations, each emphasized the need to look at citizenship not only in terms of the rights afforded citizens but also in terms of citizen responsibility and action. Joseph H. Carens (University of Toronto), in his comments, argued for the creation of more constructive dialogue between political theorists and scholars of comparative politics within the academic community.

Members of the first panel also agreed that the study of democracy and citizenship can be significantly enhanced by focusing on social cleavages. With reference to this point, Holston and Armony noted that civil disjunction becomes most visible at points of broad social inequality, manifesting itself through pervasive violence, injustice, and impunity. A multi-faceted approach, based on both quantitative and qualitative analyses, is necessary to adequately assess citizenship in Latin America and to address socially-linked behavior such as clientelism, patronage, and the active exercise of rights. The need for understanding social phenomena in the study of citizenship becomes even more relevant, as many panelists noted throughout the conference, if understood within the accepted view that the "third wave" of democracy has led to an increase in public insecurity. In short, it was noted in the first panel that increased emphasis upon social influence factors will benefit the study of citizenship greatly, insomuch as it will allow for the growth of a more nuanced and sophisticated view of citizenship.

Philip Oxhorn (McGill University) opened the second panel, entitled "Challenges for Citizenship," by arguing that democracy in Latin America has been shaped by authoritarian-influenced neopluralism – which has adversely affected citizenship through growing economic insecurity, growing physical insecurity, and the fragmentation of civil society. As a way of combating such obstacles to citizenship development, relationships between leaders and electors must be reevaluated and improved; that is, citizens must be viewed as agents of mediation and change, and not as objects of elite political designs. Roderic Camp (Claremont McKenna College) presented his perspective of citizenship by discussing the socio-political gender gap among Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. He argued that the internalization of insecurity and inequality has had an effect upon national politics vis-à-vis popular notions of what democracy should entail. In particular, he stressed that political trust and expectations in Mexico appear to be linked to concepts of procedural democracy. Through the use of this case study, Camp argued in that global analyses of democratic growth and citizenship need to take into consideration the nature and development of specific societies. Luis Bitencourt (Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars) made a similar case in his discussion of urban crime in Brazil, noting that any suggestions for improved public policy must take into consideration the social realities of the country and its diverse cities. Christopher Sabatini (National Endowment for Democracy) commented on the three presentations, highlighting the common threads among them. He noted that issues related to state-centric democracy, interest articulation, and citizen obligation were each addressed as challenges for citizenship in unique ways by the panelists. In response, he argued for continued and expanded ground-up action by citizens, so as to enable the growth of a greater sense of responsibility among citizens in Latin America.

The third and final panel of the conference, entitled "Promoting Active Citizenship," included panelists representing citizenship advocacy from three Latin American countries and the United States. Carmen Beatriz Ruíz (Ombudsman, Bolivia), Carlos March (Poder Ciudadano, Argentina), César Montúfar (Participación Ciudadana, Ecuador), and Harry C. Boyte (Center for Democracy and Citizenship, University of Minnesota) each brought their experience to the panel discussion. Ruíz argued in her presentation that it is fundamental to build bridges of communication between a government and its citizens, in order to formulate mechanisms capable of responding effectively to citizen complaints. She nevertheless maintained a practical view of state-citizen relations, noting that problematic aspects of citizenship (i.e. how certain issues and rights are perceived by the state and the citizen) will require significant dialogue and interaction for adequate resolution. Carlos March argued that people do not, at present, trust justice systems or political parties in Argentina. As a result, he noted that broad disillusionment is a key factor influencing the current "crisis of democracy" in the country. In César Montúfar's view, parties have attempted to re-legitimize themselves at the local level in Ecuador. Ecuadorian democracy currently suffers because political actors have privileged access to the state, and many leaders legitimize their influence by claiming to represent the interests of the people. Montúfar recommended that the solution is effective representative government via active citizenship. Yet limits to active citizenship are present and need to be addressed by all political actors: they include a lack of transparency and state accountability, as well as poverty and inequality. Harry C. Boyte, in his commentary on the presentations, argued that scholars and policy-makers need to break free from traditional categories of analysis with reference to democracy and citizenship. He noted that democracy should be closely scrutinized, and indeed problematized, if we are to move forward with new strategies for fully engaging citizens.

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