Ideas

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In a time of public impatience and online mobilization, the region's governments are feeding frustrations with an outdated leadership approach.

May 25 anti-government protest in Quito, Ecuador
Gonzalo Sarasqueta

-OpEd-

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.

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Society

Oui-Haw! American Country Music Has Global Appeal

Some might ask: Why is there such a thing as International Country Music Day? Turns out the American musical genre has pockets of popularity around the world, from twanging sounds in Japan to South Africa to line dancing in France.

Japanese cover of a Dolly Parton album

PARIS — To the rest of the world, there may be nothing more American than singers with acoustic guitars crooning about beer, trucks and Southern living. But the longstanding genre has had surprising relevance faraway countries. Academic papers have even been penned on why these cultural symbols — so specific to the Yankee experience — have such global appeal.

The examples abound of the traveling power of this popular music genre that blends folk, blues slavery-era spirituals and Southern gospel. One famous story recounts that during his time as a political prisoner, South Africa's Nelson Mandela was allowed to play one song over the loudspeakers. What tune did he pick? The Dolly Parton classic "Jolene," in which the Tennessee icon pleads with another woman not to take her man.

Tokyo Sexwale, a fellow freedom fighter in the cell next to Mandela, told the podcast "Dolly Parton's America" that the choice was somehow perfectly natural: "We are all human beings. The jailed and the jailer. But we all come from one country, but we all don't want to lose. Whether it's a man or your country, nobody wants to be hurt. Don't hurt me."

With this theme of art's ability to transcend geographic boundaries in mind (and to mark International Country Music Day, here's a swinging tour of country music's worldwide influence.

Africa: Classic Country Imports And Kenya's Own Elvis

Nigerian country music singer-songwriter Ogak Jay Oke — Photo: Mgbo
  • Back in 2007, NPR reported about the popularity of country music in Nairobi, Kenya — particularly Dolly Parton and Texan singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers, who received extensive television and radio play. Reporter Gwen Thompkins highlighted how, despite cultural differences, Kenyans found strength and a common ground in songs about agriculture-based economies facing societal and political challenges. As Henry Makhoka, the head of programming at the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, told Thompkins: "Most of the country music we play talks about country life, talks about the farm life and so on. That kind of environment was abundantly available where I was born."
  • In fact, country music has been popular in Africa since the 1950s, with local artists across the continent interpreting the genre's musical and thematic elements (see Ivory Coast duo Jess Sah Bi & Peter One and Nigerian country-disco pioneer Emma Ogosi). Many harken back to country music's roots; the banjo was in fact an instrument brought to the Americas by African slaves.
  • Currently, one of the biggest country stars is Elvis Othieno (a.k.a. Sir Elvis), who grew up in a country music-loving household and was inspired by Garth Brooks and Hank Williams. Originally from Kenya, Sir Levis has performed around the world — he started his first country band while living in Norway — and is part of a generation of African country stars that also includes newcomers Esther Konkara and Ogak Jay Oke, who hails from Nigeria.

Asia: A John Denver Classic Hits Home

John Denver in 1975 — Photo: Wikimedia Commons
  • Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli is known for its rich depictions of Japanese culture and mythology, so it's somewhat surprising that the 1995 animated film Whisper of the Heart centers around a country song: John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads." Denver's ode to West Virginia is a unique fit in the coming of age story about the stress of urban life in Tokyo, but Studio Ghibli is far from the first to adapt "Country Roads" to a foreign audience.
  • The song has been covered by over 150 artists (from Olivia Newton-John to Hiwain singer Israel Kamakawiwo'ole) in at least 19 different languages, from Hindi to Greek to Hebrew, often changing the lyrics to be about the singer's homeland. Researchers in 2009 found that it was the most popular American song among college students in China. (Denver was in fact one of the first American artists to tour modern China in 1985 and his music was played widely on Armed Forces Radio in countries like Philippines, Korea and Vietnam where the U.S. had an important military presence.)
  • This ode to the Appalachian Mountains also has a special meaning for many who came to the U.S. searching for the American Dream. As Jason Jeong wrote in the Atlantic, many Asian-American immigrants see the song as both "an ode to an uncomplicated vision of the United States" and "a melancholic reminder of leaving a place they called home, and everything lost to the promise of a better life."

France: Translating Country Sounds — And Dance Moves

Linedancing in France — Photo: Country-France Facebook page
  • France, a country proud of both its language and cultural output, has a long history of rock stars pillaging country standards, often completely changing the songs' meanings: from American-French singer Joe Dassin changing "City of New Orleans" into "Salut les amoureux" ("Hello Lovers") to "Five Hundred Miles Away From Home" by Bobby Bare somehow becaming Richard Anthony's "J'entends siffler le train" ("I Hear the Train Whistle").
  • Whether it's creative liberty or cross-cultural miscommunication, this trend has been popular since the days of big '60s household names like Johnny Hallyday to Eddy Mitchell to Hugues Aufray. The result usually infuses the French ennui of the "everyday man" into these American classics.
  • Line dancing has also become somewhat of a phenomenon in France, with clubs around the country (especially in more rural areas) featuring dancers who dress the part in cowboy hats and boots. According to weekly news magazine L'Express, some 4 million people — nearly 9% of the French population over 18 — have tried country-style dances.



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