Effective participation in Latin America - Razón y Palabra

Razón y Palabra



effective participation in latin america: from extralegal to legal mobilization. the challenges ahead



Por Miguel Ángel Lara Otaola


For the scream to grow in strength, there must be a recuperation of doing, a development of power-to” (Holloway, 2002:208)

 “The dilemma of the new Latin American democracies is how to transfer the new elements within the public culture to the political level in situations in which communication between the public sphere and political society seems to be blocked” (Arvitzer, 2002:136)


During the last decades, Latin America has witnessed the appearance of new forms of social participation that have pushed for further democratization1. In general these movements have helped improve the quality of democracy because of its intrinsic meaning and because they are the essence of the public sphere. In particular, we can distinguish between two different types of these new forms of expression and participation (legal2 and extralegal3) that have, each in its own way, and by different means, contributed to democracy. Legal movements have contributed to democracy by exercising freedom of expression, assembly and speech, by enriching the debate about public affairs and by achieving democratic changes within public institutions and practices. Extralegal movements (that have come into being by the lack of effective channels of participation, under representation and lack of trust in political institutions) have helped democracy by evidencing the institutional deficit for processing citizens’ demands and by putting pressure on governments to open more channels of participation for the population. However, there is the impression that only extralegal movements are really effective and have more chances of being successful. This essay will argue that, although extralegal movements have been paid more attention to by the authorities because they are more visible, it is in fact legal movements which are really successful and thus contribute more to democracy; this will be done through 4 different examples in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. This essay will also state that the use of extralegal methods of participation has increased in recent times, becoming a risk to democracy itself4, and that therefore there is the need to bridge the gap between civil society and the government by the creation and improvement of new and existing channels of participation.

Since the 70’s and 80’s Latin American countries have experienced new forms of grass-root social movements that have pushed to end military dictatorships and authoritarian regimes. Later on, with the democratic transition that swept across the region during the 80’s and 90’s, these same forms of collective action have struggled to attain further democratization through political reform and economic policy change5. Movements such as AMLO's6 post-electoral resistance movement and “Alianza Cívica” in Mexico, the neighborhood associations in Brazil and the “puebladas” in Argentina, amongst other groups of peasants, middle class, workers and indigenous communities, are evidence of this. These movements, respectively pushing for free and fair elections (first two cases), for more participation in the assignment of public goods or for a more just socio-economic system have , directly or indirectly, advanced the democratic effort.

Intrinsically these forms of social and political mobilization have improved the quality of democracy because of its dual and dynamic nature and because of what it entails (equality and participation) and second of all because of the role the public sphere7  plays in it. First of all democracy is both a normative and a descriptive concept, which, means that “in every democratic country a substantial gap exists between actual and ideal democracy” (Dahl, 2000: 31). Therefore, democracy and its institutions have to be in constant change and improvement for reaching that ideal, and one way to do this is through the sustained participation of those involved in it; hence the contribution of these new social movements. Also, democracies must have broad political equality, which according to Dahl “involves three different dimensions: the capacity of individuals to formulate their preferences; to signify their preferences to their fellow citizens and the government by individual and collective action; and to have their preferences weighed equally in the conduct of government” (Dahl, in Arvizter, 2002: 37-38). The effort of these movements through collective action for influencing the decisions, institutions and practices of the government is useful by itself.

Finally, these movements constitute the essence of the public sphere, an autonomous place located between state and market from where civil society acts to influence political decision-making. The public sphere is crucial for democracy since it is the forum where, through debate, the citizenship can participate freely and equally in public affairs and express its concerns and interests through organized collective action. The public sphere is a place, “where new issues are thematized, new identities are presented, and institutional innovation emerges” (Arvitzer, 2002:39). Civil society can improve the quality of democracy by bringing new issues and alternatives to the agenda, by promoting transparency, accountability, free elections, checks and balances, etc, “this sphere can provide the political realm with actors and deliberative processes that can further democratize political practice” (Arvitzer, 2002:39). This is the principal role of new social movements in a democratic context.


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1 For practical purposes, this essay will only focus on those movements that have democratic ends (transparency guarantees, more accountability, free and fair elections, equality, alternatives to the economic model, etc.).Movements without these type objectives don’t contribute or complement democracy.

2 Respectful of the rules of their countries and the rights of others.

3 Disrespectful of the rule of law.

4 In case people view them as the only possible means of expression and participation.

5 Although there seems to be no apparent relationship between democracy and the search of new economic models, there is. Democracy is about plurality and having a wide range of options; therefore the movements that criticize and present alternatives to neoliberalism, strengthen democracy by multiplying its options.

6 Former presidencial candidate for Mexico’s 2006 elections: Andrés Manuel López Obrador.

7 These movements as part of the civil society are also part of the public sphere.



Especialista en democracia, gobernabilidad, Reforma del Estado, medios de comunicación y temas electorales. Maestro en Política Comparada por la London School of Economics, donde fue Presidente de la Sociedad de Alumnos Mexicanos y en Políticas Públicas por el Tecnológico de Monterrey. Licenciado en Relaciones Internacionales por la misma institución. Ha colaborado en el Programa de las Naciones Unidas para el Desarrollo, el Instituto Federal Electoral y el Overseas Development Institute, en Reino Unido. Actualmente, colabora en la Asociación Mexicana de Impartidores de Justicia como coordinador del programa televisivo 'AMIJ Punto de Encuentro'.  

Correo: motaola@hotmail.com



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