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 Global Perspective

August 13, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 20

global perspective
Michael Gillgannon, a priest of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., is director of campus ministry for the Archdiocese of La Paz, Bolivia. He has been a missionary serving in Bolivia since 1974.



"After reading the litany of Latin America's traumatic democracies, one faces the historical enigma: after five centuries of Catholic culture, why is there no democratic culture? Why is the Catholic hierarchy mediating political structures?"

The dog days of Latin America's democracies

By Michael J. Gillgannon

LA PAZ, Bolivia -- The dog days of August in the northern climes refer to the late summer heat causing apathy toward active labor or creative thought. In our southern winter climes, the dog days metaphor now coincides with the winter of our democratic discontents. Democracy, as a utopian ideal and as an actual governmental practice, is bereft of popular support and public confidence. It has neither economic efficacy nor a political vision capable of moving the country, any Latin American country, forward.

Latin America is paying the price for its submission to the Cold War policies of the United States, which happened under the military dictators installed by such programs as Operation Condor in the Andean countries in the 1970s and 80s. Some of the best and brightest young Latin Americans were brutally tortured and killed, or exiled as communist revolutionaries. Thousands, a whole generation, of lawyers, doctors, political scientists, sociologists, politicians and ethicists were wiped out. This lost generation did not have a chance to experience the nascent democracies that began to emerge after worldwide revulsion to the human rights abuses and excesses of the military governments.

With constant military coups, social revolutions and legal interruptions of dubiously elected oligarchic governments, Latin America has never had the opportunity to develop a self-sustaining "democratic culture." North American democracy was an Anglo-Saxon Protestant, not a Latin American Catholic, experience. This is why the dream of the "1997 Synod of America" (one America of all the Americas?) under Pope John Paul II was such a leap of faith. And hope. And why this dream will take years in the future to be realized.

The current experience of Bolivia's democracy is an illustrative case in point. On Aug. 6, national independence day here, the elected coalition government finished its first year in office. The winner got barely 23% of the vote, and the second best party, a dark-horse party of newly united native peoples, lost the runoff election.

As happened in almost all recent Latin American elections, the winner gathered a divided coalition -- with no common goals and no programs -- to share the patronage and the political spoils of government. However, they forgot to govern the country.

No political or legislative programs found agreement. The constant constraints of international debts (unchanged despite the Jubilee Year 2000 rhetoric of the church and international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank) make changing laws and resource distribution a constant challenge for dependent democracies. As previously reported in this space (Latin America Smolders, Global Perspective April 9), Bolivia blew up last February. An enraged populace, which had lost its patience awaiting jobs, education, food and health care, rioted in the streets; throughout the country, more than 30 people died, hundreds were wounded and property damage totaled in the millions of dollars.

A traumatized government did not know where to turn. Once again, the Catholic church was asked to mediate. (The church is consistently chosen by professional and academic polls as the most trusted institution of public confidence in all Latin American countries - a confidence once held but sadly lost in the United States.) The bishops' conference immediately began a consulting process with contacts in all levels of government, political parties, institutions and associations of the civil society, such as labor unions, the chamber of commerce, indigenous groups, guilds of doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. The Conference aimed to structure a program of dialogue and "national reencounter" between all social and political forces in order to save the country, not from revolution, but from chaos and anarchy.

I took part in the consulting process, conducted at the national and diocesan levels. The outstanding concerns of the people are poverty and unemployment. The experience showed the great desire of ordinary people to live in democracy, as long as it functions, even minimally, without internal corruption and external domination by multinational interests. No one trusts the politicians or political parties. But no one wants a return to military dictatorships. So the bishops' conference has called the governing parties and the loyal opposition together this month for one last try at making democracy work.

One could lament Bolivia's plight as particular to the poorest country in South America. But look around Latin America as the process of a common market for all the Americas goes forward:

  • President Fox of Mexico just lost mid-term elections to Congress. He has little chance of passing needed economic reforms and faces social convulsions from agriculture and labor as the failed consequences of North America Free Trade Area.
  • Ecuador's new president immediately betrayed his base of new indigenous parties and will pay a huge price in continuing social conflicts about land and resources.
  • Nicanor Duarte, the new president of Paraguay, continues 56 years of power by the party of former dictator Alfredo Stroessnor, an unusual democratic achievement doomed to be repudiated in this coming year by an excluded citizenry, according to all analysts.
  • President Toledo of Peru has fallen to 12% popular approval and his twice-reshuffled cabinet is going nowhere.
  • Ex-Dictator Rios-Montt in Guatemala, after assassinating thousands in the 80s, will run for president again in a democracy still controlled by the military.

After reading the litany of Latin America's traumatic democracies, one faces the historical enigma: after five centuries of Catholic culture, why is there no democratic culture? Why is the Catholic hierarchy mediating political structures? Why are the 80% of Latin America's nominally Catholic population not prepared to govern themselves with a well-formed laity in a well-informed popular constituency? Why, indeed, 40 years after Vatican II and its sequels of Medellín* and Puebla*?

*The 1968 assembly of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, endorsed a "preferential option for the poor" on behalf of the Catholic church in Latin America. A similarly significant council meeting was in Puebla, Mexico, in 1979.

(Editor's Note: To learn more about Medellín and Puebla, read the two part series by Fr. José Comblin, Changes in the Latin American church during the pontificate of John Paul II, Global Perspective July 2 and July 9.

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