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La Educación
Número: (116) III
Año: 1993


As democracy becomes once again an important concept in the discussion of development, it is appropriate to reexamine its definition, practice, and possibilities. For too long democracy has meant widespread participation in formal political institutions; “political” in turn has meant an exclusive concern for open political action (Scott 1990). The study of politics emphasizes people’s engagement in formal politics. It also reduces citizenship to the legal rights that individuals hold against the state (Mouffe 1992).1 Political behavior thus refers to participation in electoral politics, running for office, and lobbying. Dominant versions of democracy refer to the existence of competitive political parties, the exercise of free elections, and the making of decisions that receive majority approval (Dahl 1961). Political activities that receive primary attention are those regarding the attainment of economic growth and stability, and to a lesser degree those that redistribute income (Ackelsberg and Shanley 1992).

This conception of democracy, focusing on public and macro institutions, continues despite a renewed emphasis on the importance of democracy. Three documents in point are those recently produced by USAID (1990a and 1990b) and The Aspen Institute (1992). The two reports by USAID, The Democratic Initiative and Family and Development, recognize primarily the electoral process, legislatures, the courts, and local government as democratic institutions to be protected. While the USAID discussion of the family acknowledges that it can present different structures and functions across and within societies, the main areas of assistance are identified as being formal education, health, and economic productivity (USAID 1990a, 5-6).

The product of an international conference in which major political, academic, and economic figures of North and Latin American participated, the Aspen document focuses on economic integration, democracy, and inequality. Its definition of democracy speaks for itself: Democracy is “characterized by regular, competitive elections, a free press, constitutionally guaranteed rights, and civilian control of government” (21). The document recognizes the need for “a network for democracy” which would comprise a number of independent institutions, including women’s organizations. However, it falls short of acknowledging the household as a site where important citizen identities and practices are construed on ongoing and enduring ways.

For women the public conception of democracy has been limited because it bypasses critical terrains of social behavior in which democratic practices may not exist (such as the home and schools) and assumes that stable and legitimate institutions are necessarily democratic in their provision of social services (i.e., schools, welfare agencies, hospitals). For the many women, especially in the Third World, whose demanding existence does not allow them to use their citizen’s rights or for whom social norms about femininity are very constraining, the concentration on formal political institutions focuses on a segmented and rather peripheral aspect of their lives.

The experience of women, particularly poor women, suggests the need for a change in emphasis from reliance on formal political institutions and obvious but intermittent acts to more subtle ways of establishing nonauthoritarian gender relations. This means seeing as fundamental domains of democracy not only participation in public political acts and the procurement of material equality but also everyday social practices and with them the emergence of autonomy and transformed social identities (Smith 1988; Scott 1990).2 In this discussion of democracy, the feminist tenet that “the personal is political” acquires profound significance.

Notions of democracy need to change and are changing to incorporate women’s lived experiences. These new notions are sensitive to both micro and macro forms of democracy. Micro-democracy focuses on the exercise of power in interpersonal relations; it shifts attention from the means by which the powerful maintain ideological control to the forms by which the powerless produce a new culture. This alternative approach to politics has points in common with what Scott has called “infrapolitics,” which he defines as “an unobtrusive realm of political struggle ... the realm of informal leadership and nonelites, of conversation and oral discourse, and of surreptitious resistance” (1990, 200). In this discussion it cannot be overlooked that women from different social classes have experienced the multiple facets of power and, by extension, the state in different ways. As Schild (1992) observes regarding women’s interactions with the state and political parties, while “middle-class women have enjoyed an auxiliary role, helping to implement social programs and party goals, poor and working-class women meanwhile have on the whole been confined to a client status” (3). Micro-democracy links class and gender: When looking at low-income women, politics must be extended to see their everyday struggle to survive and how they resolve their basic needs (Morgen and Bookman 1988).

The discussion that follows examines a number of events in terms of what they mean for the attainment of democratic practices. It is developed with a key referent being the Latin American region, which recent changes are moving toward more democratic rule. While political and military stalemate exists in most of Central America and considerable social and political violence occurs in Peru and Colombia, there has been a return to democracy in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, and Chile; and demands for stronger democratization are being expressed in Mexico. In 1989 Argentina experienced its first democratically elected presidential succession in more than 60 years. Despite increasing political and military violence, Peru attained three consecutive presidential elections for the first time in 100 years. Yet, not only are these changes fragile, but there are also important contradictions between institutional changes and the continuing patterns of authoritarianism in decisionmaking and executive power.

Latin America’s shift toward democracy is important to understand fully for several reasons: It is a society with very strong features of male dominance, or machismo. The region has felt a significant impact from feminist ideas and practices. The economic crisis unleashed an unprecedented level of participation by women in peripheral neighborhoods to address family survival issues. Finally, as Schmukler notes, the long-lasting military dictatorships in several of the Latin American countries revealed the profound roots of authoritarianism in the interpersonal relations of public and private institutions (1992). Authoritarianism, defined as “a system in which stern and forceful control is exercised over the population, with no particular concern for their preferences or for public opinion” (Robertson 1985, 16), still permeates many institutions and micro social settings in Latin America. While it is true that the return to democracy has made the forms of authoritarianism more transparent, I would also concur with the assertion that “the democratization of Latin American civil society has proceeded far in advance of the democratization of the state” (Petras 1989, 210).

Two political scientists who have closely followed the process of transition to democracy in Latin America are O’Donnell and Schmitter (1986). Their analysis distinguishes two kinds of rights being acquired in the passage to democracy: “individual rights in the liberal tradition: habeas corpus; sanctity of private home and correspondence; the right to be defended in a fair trial according to preestablished laws; freedom of movement, speech and petition”; and group rights such as “freedom from punishment for expressions of collective dissent from government policy, freedom from censorship of the means of communication, and freedom to associate voluntarily with other citizens” (7). These rights link individuals to institutions of law and order, protect people from arbitrary decisions, and respect the right to life and liberty. In these configurations, democratization derives from electoral politics and results in collective arrangements within institutions about the new rights and duties of members. In this view, democratization takes place in public spaces, outside the sphere of interpersonal interaction (Schmukler 1992; Ackelsberg and Shanley 1992; Wasserspring 1992).

In the mainstream analysis of regime transition to democracy, the emergence or resurgence of democratic practices results from a new agreement among emerging elites or groups who are able to exert leverage on established elites. In a recent article on “what is democracy and what is not,” Schmitter and Karl (1991) assert that democracy may not require developing “ingrained habits of tolerance, moderation, mutual respect, fair play, readiness to compromise, or trust in public authorities” but rather finding “a set of rules that embody contingent consent” and “bounded uncertainty” (82, 83). But this account presents several unresolved questions. If democracy is seen in terms of institutions and rules, one needs to explain the process by which individual preferences become collective choices. How do members of a society develop these contingency rules? how do societies arrive at a moment when individuals are ready to begin a struggle for personal rights and duties? and how do value changes occur in institutions to make an authoritarian leadership less tolerable for the majority of the members and for those leading the new social arrangements? In Schmukler’s words, “We need to explore the coming to power of anti-authoritarian leaders as well as the process of negotiation which replaces these leaders with new social arrangements” (Schmukler, forthcoming, 4). The reshaping of the public sphere assumes a previous process of liberalization to protect individuals from repressive sanctions as they initiate a struggle for personal rights. To speak of collective rights without identifying the individuals involved assumes a fairly homogeneous mass of citizens. But, at the same time, some freedoms do not protect women insofar as they assume “sanctity of private home,” nor do they shield women from cultural constraints regarding freedom of choice and movement.

The analysis by established political observers seldom includes a focus on conceptions of gender. Yet, the nexus between gender, authority, and the nature of the state in Latin America is very strong (Ackelsberg and Shanley 1992); ignoring it can only produce partial knowledge. Schild (1992) maintains that:
The social relations which shape people’s everyday lives, criss-crossed as they are by gender, race, class, and other factors of discrimination, give the material conditions of their lives, and their lived senses of selves, distinct, and often limiting, characteristics. Thus forging forms of lived subjectivities which are not constraining or limiting of important human capacities is a fundamental dimension of struggles for citizenship. (4)
Accounts by more progressive political analysts are much more sensitive to the role of mass movements in Latin America in the ongoing transformation of its political culture; however, they do not distinguish the role of women in various forms of direct action (from demands for housing to organization in communal kitchens), nor do they consider the women’s experience as they come into contact with patriarchal forms of domination in these mobilizations (see, for instance, Petras 1989).

And yet, democratic processes are slowly intertwining class, race, and gender. We need to heed Arnot’s admonition to consider this intertwining “while retaining a feminist analysis” (1991, 26). A number of events affecting gender and social change are now being documented by women researchers in Latin America. As a whole, they cover instances of subtle transformations in family and community-level settings. On the one hand, these changes have been possible in part because they have occurred at the margins. This setting has allowed them to emerge since, “where subordinates may gather outside the intimidating gaze of power, a sharply dissonant culture is possible” (Scott 1990, 18). On the other hand, the occurrence of these transformations in spaces not usually examined by mainstream political scientists signifies that they have not been incorporated into the understanding of the democratization processes affecting Latin America. Among mainstream political scientists, who concentrate on easily observable phenomena and thus have not followed more elusive political acts, there is a serious lack of awareness of the scope and importance of these less public political acts. The political life of subordinated groups by its very nature cannot be very visible. To be studied, these processes rely on intense observations and in-depth interviews of social actors; qualitative research methods must be employed to detect subtle acts of defiance and the reconstruction of social identities.