In Latin America, The Downward Spiral Of 'Digital Democracy'
In a time of public impatience and online mobilization, the region's governments are feeding frustrations with an outdated leadership approach.
Latin America is shaking. Peru has had the most recent flareup in a region heaving with discontent. Since last year, the streets of Santiago, La Paz, Quito, Buenos Aires, Bogotá and Mexico City have all gone aflame with indignation. And while each country has its own particular gripes, there are also certain institutional, social and political trends that may help explain these complex, multi-faceted convulsions.
To begin with, a large body of citizens feels their representatives are not defending their interests. As November's rioting in Lima showed, a good many Latin Americans do not see their demands shaping public policies. There is a significant breach between their expectations and the performances of their political leaders, regardless of ideology. Indeed, there are examples on both the right and left of governments failing to manage these sensitive scenarios.
The public is now better equipped, technologically, in terms of self-organization. Networking sites work as an escape valve for accumulating malaise, but also as a platform to organize and then act collectively. We are seeing hybrid social energies here, with online activism and strengthened presence outside. These dissenters know they are many. They feel it and, above all, communicate it in both spheres: online and offline.
There is a significant breach between public expectations and political performance.
As can be expected, regional democracies assure, to greater or lesser degrees, freedoms of speech and association.The problem, however, is that they lack the resources and leadership to turn this collective ire into new, regulatory norms to improve people's lives. In other words, our organizational system assures us the right to protest, but offers no solutions. This gap, besides exposing the system's flaws, feeds more discontent among people who feel they are ignored at the top.
Police forces in Lima, Peru, on Dec. 11 — Photo: Carlos Garcia Granthon/ZUMA
The Greek researcher Zizi Papacharissi terms these disruptive groups "affective publics." They are typically transitory, intensive and spontaneous. The speed at which they throw up issues like transparency or gender equality are problematic for the institutional architecture of democracies, which is functioning in "analog" mode. Add to this the tensions of a prolonged pandemic period, and there is a clear sense of politics stuck in another time.
Yet the problem goes beyond mechanisms or resources. Latin American leaders are stuck in the electoral loop, with campaign thinking engulfing all their activities. All their proposals, pacts and timing are conceived in anticipation of the next elections. Our politicians do not see citizens so much as voters, for whom they concoct "winning" narratives. Meanwhile, the mid and long-term transformations the country needs can wait. It is the rule of now.
Sometimes, this gap between people and their representatives is filled by actors from outside traditional politics. They present themselves as the immediate solution to the crisis, and end up exacerbating problems with their two-sided, shortsighted and extremist rhetoric. In doing so, they inject more instability into weakened systems, and destroy the few points of consensus that existed on resolving problems.
The pandemic, in the meantime, has hastened the transition from "tele-democracy" to "digital-democracy." That will create challenges in Latin America in areas like decision-making, representing complex social fabrics and accessing new technologies. Renovation has become an imperative, which means renewal of institutional substance, and not just form. The future won't wait. Nor will those who feel left out.
*Sarasqueta is a lecturer at the ESAN business school in Lima.