Social Justice and Democracy in Latin America
As I walked around the Harvard campus on a characteristically cold slushy day in February 1996, I spotted several bright posters with slanted palm trees, inviting students interested in Latin America to sunny Panama the following January over intercession. This appeal prompted me to apply to become a member of HACIA Democracy in my sophomore year. I had little idea of what I was getting into or what HACIA Democracy did or stood for beyond the fact that it involved writing a 20 page research paper, which would entitle me to travel for free with the group to Panama for a government simulation conference. Learning some time later that HACIA Democracy was an acronym for the Harvard Association Cultivating Inter-American Democracy gave me a better idea of what the organization was but I still felt unable to explain to anyone else.
Two years later, as president of the organization, those days seem very far away indeed. Our efforts recently culminated in EXPO 1998, hosted by the University of Panama in Panama City March 20-24. More than 200 participants from Latin America, the United States, and Canada listened attentively as Panama’s First Lady H.E. Dora Boyd de Prez Balladares delivered the inaugural address.
At this conference, as at my first, I experienced HACIA Democracy as a forum for students from all over Latin America to propose and discuss realistic solutions to important issues as varied as the Panama Canal transition, malnutrition, faceless tribunals, and women’s issues in Chile. I watched students accomplish these tasks through democratic processes of cooperation, consensus, and compromise. We had the opportunity to learn about issues, social groups, and cultures through active involvement and participation, rather than through textbooks and lectures.
The full meaning behind HACIA Democracy’s activities, however, did not become really apparent to me until I attended my first conference in January 1997. The night before we left for Panama I was terrified; I was getting ready to fly to another country for a week with 25 Harvard students I barely knew to stay with a host family I did not know, for a conference whose purpose I was still unsure of.
I was a part of the committee which simulated the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States. Almost a year prior to the 1997 conference, I had written a 20 page research paper on violence against street children in Brazil. This paper was mailed to the students in my committee several months before the conference to frame the issue in a socio-political context and to serve as a guide for further student research. When the discussions and debates on this issue began at the conference, I was astounded at how seriously the students took their role-playing and at how well prepared they were.
Fifteen year-olds were making impassioned, sophisticated speeches on the problems street children faced in Brazil. They discussed the military dictatorship’s legacy on the judicial system and on the structure of the military police force in Brazil; the effects of rapid industrialization; socio-economic problems of poverty and inequality; as well as Brazil’s federative constitution which delegated almost all law enforcement duties to the state governments. Later, when the students were debating another issue relating to women and economic development, one young boy stood up and made a fiery plea for the need to change cultural attitudes which relegated women to inferiority. The students worked hard for five days to reach consensus on their debate, passing numerous amendments to their resolutions while struggling to accommodate dissenting views, and to convince their peers.
As I watched these proceedings in amazement, the relevance and importance of HACIA Democracy became clear to me. These students had spent close to a year preparing for each conference and were required to do extensive research on committee topics, frame position papers, and prepare tenable arguments often from the viewpoint of many different national and economic perspectives. Once at the conference, students actually experienced the emocratic process and the inter-American system as they role-played ambassadors, government ministers, senators, representatives, judges, and lawyers. Being half Argentine and having spent a great deal of time studying and traveling throughout Latin America, the importance of what I witnessed at my first HACIA conference, in terms of its efforts to encourage democratic participation from the bottom up, was not lost on me.
Although most Latin American nations are now governed by different forms of electoral democracy, the consolidation of democracy in this region has not been as widespread. Freedom House surveys, which measure freedom by the level of political rights such as the right to reply, opposition, and participation, as well as the level of civil liberties, have shown declines in freedom throughout Latin America. Much of the region continues to suffer from personalistic rule, weak parties, corruption and human rights violations. True democratic consolidation requires more than compliance with outward formal manifestations of democracy such as universal suffrage, elected officials, and free elections; a participatorycitizenry deeply committed to safeguarding democratic principles is also needed to give meaning and stability to democratic institutions. By targeting the youth of this region, many of whom will be future leaders in their countries, HACIA Democracy endeavors to contribute to the spread of a democratic political culture in Latin America.
My first HACIA conference formed a lasting impression on me and prompted me to seek the presidency of the organization. After becoming president, I realized that much of the confusion I had experienced when first joining the organization arose from the fact that the organization had been only 2 years old and had not yet struck a balance between idealism and practicality. Together with my executive board, for the past year and a half, I have worked to create a more firmly institutionalized organization whose vision and purpose was clear from the outset to its members and to those who participate in its programs.
Efforts were made to involve the HACIA staff in more organizational aspects of the conference ranging from recruitment to writing press releases so that they could get a sense of what HACIA was about and what it did. Additionally a Host Country Committee of students was created in order to enable students from the Host Country to exercise a voice in HACIA Democracy and play an important leadership role in the planning of the conference. By changing the dates of registration and of the conference to better fit the Latin American academic schedule, we were able to dramatically expand recruitment, and were successful in tripling our number of sponsors– among them American University, the Pan American Health Organization, and the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University.
This year’s conference featured simulations of the Organization of American States, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), an international court, a trilateral treaty committee, a domestic legislature, and a constitutional convention. Distinguished speakers from various international and domestic institutions also participated in conference activities, leading panel discussions which provided additional insight into the multifaceted issues discussed by students. Panel discussions were led by such notable personages as Dr. Claudio Grossman, a recent president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and Dr. Gustavo Garca de Paredes, Rector of the University of Panama.
Conference activities are aimed to make student participants eager to participate in the civic life of their communities, and to expose them to the variety of perspectives, cultures, and complex policy puzzles in today’s international community. Ironically, HACIA Democracy has had the same effect on me as well. Perhaps most fitting is the fact that throughout the course of its development as an organization, HACIA Democracy has experienced many of the very challenges of multi-lateral negotiations, of compromise and consensus building, and of balancing competing interests which are key elements in the democratic process explored by our conferences.
It is a long way from that blustery day in February, when democracy beckoned to me in the hidden guise of a seductive palm tree. Now I understand, in a very firsthand way, the importance of civic participation for democracy both north and south of the border.
Mercedes Hinton is the president of HACIA Democracy and is senior majoring in Government. She hopes to continue her studies of democracy and development at the graduate school level next year. For further information on Hacia Democracy, check out the website www.hcs.harvard.edu/~haciadem/
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