When we talked the other day about South America, we mentioned a basic thesis that somehow allows us to understand the socio-political reality of the subcontinent. We mentioned some institutional factors that were repeated in South America that allowed oscillations between presidential instability – in which the main characteristic of presidentialism is threatened (the fixed length of office terms) – and the emergence of personalist leaderships – which make from the weaknesses of the institutions and the party system its source of power, allowing the subjugation of the rights and freedom of parts of the population.
But, in addition, our countries inspired a key concept, related to citizenships of low intensity. These *delegative democracies, *in O’Donnell terms, (which “are based on the premise that whoever wins election to the presidency is thereby entitled to govern as he or she sees fit, limited only by the hard reality that exists in the relations of power and by a term constitutionally limited”), which present an institutional design that doesn’t favor the democratic or inclusive aspirations, are the ideal breeding ground for certain schemes restrictive of civil rights.
Meanwhile, the power strings are managed by the sphere that supports and surrounds the President, in whom the responsibilities and judgments lie, fed by the mediatization of politics.
A Little Bit of History
In the 20th century, when this institutional design that focus on both Presidents and the Republican divisions of power, was put to the test, the consequences were not good. There were several tests: from the massive entrance into the debate of sectors which the oligarchies had tried to banish from the political scene (workers, immigrants and natives led revolutionary episodes in which the rigidity of that exclusive system failed) to the authoritarian “solutions” implemented by the powerful economic and military sectors, prior strategic allies,.
Political participation was becoming an aspect of particular relevance. So much for its absence, with the social complicity in the abuses of civil rights, as in its more radicalized and determined appearance, the way in which the society, the People, read itself and read history. An actor so heterogeneous as the People became protagonist of every speech, of any political wing, because of being a concept so empty and susceptible to reinterpretation. The militancy, with participative fever, born in the mass movements of the 60’s, took to the final consequences the revolutionary ideals trespassing the obsolete or inefficient institutions, which answered back with repression and other violent forms.
The 20th century saw South America starring in bloody events and in many feats. It saw local parties, sons of the civil wars, trying to become “European”-like parties and then engage in social movements, and it saw those social movements transform into party structures to compete in elections. It saw elections fail, it saw the armies seizing power and establishing repressive regimes. It saw the public sectors emerge as representatives of majorities and minorities, but leaving behind other minorities because of either ideological differences or political purposes. It saw the intervention of foreign powers, who made of its lands a practice field for its troops, ideas and untested models.
It saw many comings and goings, but there is still a question we cannot answer with certainty and honesty, what is the South American identity? Most countries are crossed by a strong division within society, with different levels of conflict and discursive and physical violence, which are not tolerable and threaten the democratic stability that the Third Wave promised. The poverty violence and the inequality are common in a continent with abundance of natural resources and historic weaknesses in productive and management capabilities.
There is nothing left but to think of South America as a great continent with questions in need of desperate answers.