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Launching a regional dialogue on democracy in Latin America

Reos Partners
February, 2016

Comprising 20 countries and more than 600 million people, Latin America is diverse and complex. But one important commonality is that the region’s democracies are relatively young and still in the process of being built—still both fragile and malleable. Alongside instability and uncertainty is a striking opportunity for Latin Americans to learn from each other and shape their future. Only a regional perspective can offer that learning.

Alerta Democratica (“Democratic Alert”), a transformative scenarios process recently undertaken by Reos Partners, is intended to fill the gap. We convened a team of 37 Latin American leaders from 13 countries to develop several possible futures for democracy in the region. The finished scenarios were launched in September to significant media coverage, following our most comprehensive communications effort for any project to date. Launches in five more countries are planned.

The goal was and is to construct a common language and to stimulate strategic reflection, discussion, and action. What do Latin Americans want from democracy? From the relationship between citizen and state? From each other as citizens? What can each country learn from the experiments, the successes and failures, of the others?

“This tool is useful and it’s serious and it’s needed,” says scenario team member Rossana Fuentes-Berain, founder of Start Up Mexico Media Lab S21 and the journal Foreign Affairs en Español. “The original dream of democracy has been turned to nightmares many times. We need to keep trying. I see a lot of potential in our region. People think the fact that we speak the same language means we understand each other, but that is a lie. We must be willing to learn how to speak to each other.”

Democracy in Latin America: “something we wear on our skin”

“Latin America is kind of a cauldron of innovation around democracy,” says project facilitator Mille Bojer, a director at Reos Partners. “It’s been achieved in terms of regular elections, but not in all its fullness. It impacts people every day because they’re still building it. It’s not abstract. Someone on the scenario team said democracy here is ‘something we wear on our skin.’ ”

Even as the first of three scenario workshops began in late 2014, though, team members were unsure that a regional dialogue on the subject was useful or even possible. “I think there was a concern that it was a naive attempt, or that we were going to overlook the individual countries’ contexts,” says Bojer.

And so the first step for the team was to create a regional picture, a visual map of common challenges. On it were issues of inequality, diversity, inclusion, concentration of power, and violence. “The challenges aren't playing out in the same way everywhere,” says Bojer. “It’s not one story, for sure. But there isn’t a country in the region that won’t recognize these top themes.”

A “far more honest” discussion on democracy

The team—which included academics, policy makers, public servants, youths, indigenous peoples, activists, businesspeople, and others from the media, religious institutions, and foundations—created four scenarios for democracy in Latin America through 2030 (details here):

  • Democracy in Transformation: Widespread reassessment overcomes structural inertia in some countries, with democracy becoming stronger and more representational through institutional innovation.
  • Democracy in Tension: Democracy in appearance only. Political and economic power are concentrated, disputed, and marked by patronage and authoritarian tendencies.
  • Democracy in Mobilization: Popular mobilization, pressure, and creativity challenge traditional power structures and renew the democratic model.
  • Democracy in Agony: A hijacking of democracy by organized crime leaves citizens feeling fearful and defeated. Corruption is a way of life, and the region as a whole is unstable.

The scenarios were simultaneously launched in Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, and the United States—at the Organization of American States (OAS) headquarters in Washington, DC. More launch events are being planned in Spain, Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico, and Ecuador.

“For academics, this is a very superficial work,” says Fuentes-Berain. “But narratives have always had a very important role in human life. I think that if anything, the scenarios are far more honest with democracy than some other ways of approaching it, where politicians appropriate the discussion. The politicians are not looking into the eyes of the people.”

One of the first signs of the scenarios’ relevance, and of the hunger for dialogue, was more than 2,000 “likes” at the Alerta Democratica Facebook page within two weeks of the project launch.

Broad ownership of the scenarios

For Reos Partners, Alerta Democratica was unusual in that there was no strong convener at the center of the project. (Our last large project in the region, Scenarios for the Drug Problem in the Americas, was organized by the Organization of American States pursuant to a mandate given by all of the hemisphere’s presidents and prime ministers.) Our work was supported by three foundations—the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and Fundación Avina—but they chose a supportive background role. The “client” was effectively the people of Latin America.

The project evaluation points to the difficulties of not having a strong and explicit demand for the project up front from one or more conveners, but also to the benefits.

“Sometimes when you have a strong convener,” says Bojer, “there’s a sense of ‘Thank you for participating in my process.’ This was different. It was very horizontal. The ownership was with the scenario team, and it’s the most active team I’ve seen. They really feel that these are their scenarios, that their voices were included, and that they are responsible for going out and disseminating them.”

How might we more consistently foster this level of team ownership in the presence of a strong convener? “I think it starts with the invitation, speaking to people as protagonists from the beginning,” says Bojer. Our land reform scenario project in South Africa (due to be released March 15) is doing just this. Rather than extending a cordial invitation to potential team members, we have emphasized the gravity of the challenge and the commitment needed.

Solutions begin with dialogue

To facilitate the intended regional dialogue and strategic thinking about the future, the Alerta Democratica website offers downloadable guidelines and other materials. Anyone can use them to host a dialogue, or to incorporate the scenarios into an educational program or strategic planning. The team is now working to ensure that this happens hundreds or hopefully thousands of times—that the exchanges and relationship building that they themselves experienced during the scenario workshops are replicated across Latin America.

“I now have thirty-six very unlikely friends,” says Fuentes-Berain. “I was generously taught by them to see my country in their country, and my humanity in their humanity. We need greater capacity to talk about larger issues that cannot be solved within the confines of nation-states. Even if you have the best of governments, not in Latin America, not in the developed world, can you come up with solutions without the kind of dialogue that was in that room.”

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