Democracy in Times of Crisis

Protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, January 2015 (Carlos Díaz/Flickr)

Protesters in Caracas, Venezuela, January 2015 (Carlos Díaz/Flickr)

Translation by Hector Luis Alamo

Much has been said of the economic crisis —whether in Puerto Rico, Greece or Spain— as if they were isolated and with different cases. Several institutions are offering remedies, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank or political bodies such as the European Union, despite the unilateral rejection of newly-formed parties such as Syriza and Podemos, resulting from these crises. Although they seem to have different faces, they have the same name and surname, which are “austerity” and “neo-liberalism.”

The best tool to cope with an economic crisis always has been democracy. Popular power through democratic processes that promote civic participation is what assures that the needed changes are made to curb the bloodshed of this global injury. Solutions that will actually have an impact on the daily lives of the people most affected by exploitative economic policies driven by vulture funds, banks and “investors” will come from the people themselves, not from the tiny elite who caused these crises. Nor should we wait for them to come to us with a new song; we know it’s the same capitalist blah blah blah as always.

Never doubt the impact that the active and massive participation of a people informed and committed can have in bringing their nation forward, despite bleak prospects. We saw it in Cuba in the days and years after that triumph of the revolution, when the Cuban people was given the task of forming new social and political institutions that would reflect the country’s great diversity, and that would work so that the needs and rights of all Cubans were respected and met. Today one sees a people quite educated and involved with the evolution and preservation of their country—whether it be the doorman at the hotel who shares his opinion on the most recent global events, the taxi driver who has traveled abroad or the artist on the corner who gets you talking about the musical theory of a new fusion of dance with Reggaeton.

Outside a theater in Havana, Cuba (Thomassin Mickaël/Flickr)

Outside a theater in Havana, Cuba (Thomassin Mickaël/Flickr)

One has seen it in Venezuela, where democracy has been deepened through an electoral system that has been declared the most transparent and effective in the world. So as not to wait until elections, millions of people are part of community councils, which are some 40,000 in the country, where the residents gather to discuss their communities’ priorities. Through these democratic processes, they reach an agreement on which community projects should be carried out and send the government a request for funds explaining how their project would benefit the community, whether it’s the construction of a school or the pavement of a street. These councils can form into a commune that would represent a district or neighborhood with the ability to manage funds for their projects. Venezuela is a country that, despite its ideological divisions and tough economic times, has maintained its commitment to continue working on the social gains achieved in the last 17 years.

True democracy at the community level in Venezuela recognizes that the participation of all citizens —especially the most vulnerable and marginalized people— is the key resolving the economic issues that affect everyone, some more than others. Through popular participation in councils and communes, the people are taking shape and informing themselves.

Living through the realities and consequences of economic policies in your country, whether self-imposed or forced, the people are they who have more first-hand knowledge of how to such policies are applied. Therefore, these councils exist not only to have a few neighbors ask for whatever they need, but also to propose solutions to problems they see and face. Options and alternatives to various proposals to the government have arisen which, though acting for the greater good and well-being of the country, fail to remedy the problems with higher effectiveness.

Puerto Rican flag-painted face at Occupy Puerto Rico protest in San Juan (Dave Lobby/Flickr)

Puerto Rican flag-painted face at Occupy Puerto Rico protest in San Juan (Dave Lobby/Flickr)

There is no better evidence of harmful policies toward the people, where the same have not had the opportunity to be heard, than in Puerto Rico. There they currently face an economic crisis —which inherently carries with it a political and social crisis for still being a colony which has a high impoverished population— caused by the financial abuse of vulture funds and facilitated by both governments. Last Friday an informational citizens’ assembly convened in front of the Capitolio in San Juan, where hundreds of people attended and generated concrete proposals for a social, economic and political transformation of Puerto Rico. The week before, a group of women had gathered to talk about how the crisis affects them in particular. In moments of crisis such as this, they recognize that one cannot fail to ensure human rights, especially when there are attempts to minimize and even eradicate them.

Through participatory democracy, voices other than that of Anne Kreuger —the now-famous author of the report of the IMF that proposed austerity measures that would destroy thousands of families on the island— are rising. If bond investors want the people to take responsibility for the debt, then the people have the right to demand their conditions and offer their solutions, which may include not recognizing the debt as a public one since it was created by private institutions.

Economic and social rights are also human rights that must be respected as much as the right to be free from torture or slavery. Under regulations and international laws, one has a guaranteed right to decent housing, an education and work in non-abusive conditions and with an adequate wage. The measures proposed by the Kreuger report would end many of these rights which many have fought so hard to achieve. Negotiating with our human rights to please creditors who enriched themselves abusing those same rights cannot be a viable option. The people already know that, and because of that, the solutions born collectively of them are the most irreproachable and forceful.

Democracy facilitates the transformation even in the most critical moments, as long as there are participants. The world cannot endure more complicity. It’s time to raise our voices.


Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan is a human rights lawyer and president-elect of the National Lawyers Guild. You can connect with her on Twitter @lyciaora.