We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Sunday, December 28, 2008

NAMIBIA: Regional Councils - Government Launches Decentralization Campaign

Govt Launches Decentralisation Campaign

by Irene Hoaës
01 December 2008

WINDHOEK – The Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development has launched a public participation campaign on decentralisation.

The campaign will be known as “Participate-Influence! Use your Regional Council”.

The decentralisation policy, which was adopted in 1997, seeks to promote participatory democracy and sustainable development for the benefit of all Namibians.

The process is to give regional councils, local authorities and village councils the power, responsibility and funds to plan and administer basic services that affect the day-to-day lives of people in their areas.

What would make the process of service delivery effective is the fact that local authorities are more familiar with local needs and priorities and people at the grassroots, and have easier access to them than is the case with central government.

The ministry’s custodian, Jerry Ekandjo said one of the critical requirements for decentralisation is the participation of citizens in affairs that affect them.

“Citizenry participation has proven to enhance local voices. Hence policymakers are tuned to true aspirations of communities and effectively address needs and priorities,” Ekandjo, who launched the campaign, said.

The minister said while the process itself may be “smooth sailing”, the major challenge lies ahead, which is to bring the broader public into decision-making to facilitate a process whereby citizens have a direct say on decisions affecting them.

“A citizen’s role does not end after the casting of votes. This is only the beginning,” he noted.

Ekandjo said voters are at liberty to exercise their rights to speak and air their views and demand services, as long as demands are reasonable.

In order to implement the decentralisation policy, the ministry has identified the importance of good communication and information strategy.

The ministry, with financial assistance from the French government, conducted and finalised public participation surveys in seven regions and assisted them with developing of strategies to improve public participation between regional councils and their constituents.

Participation surveys are currently being conducted in the remaining six regions.

In order to enhance smooth transmission of the process, the ministry has decided to embark on a national campaign that would support the efforts of the individual regional councils.

For now, regional councils will be the focal point as most of the functions will be delegated to that structure of government.

A similar campaign is earmarked for local authorities in the near future.

The current campaign, which will run from now until March 2009, will cover three themes, namely the changing roles of regional councils, ways to participate in regional council activities and feedback received from the public.

Ekandjo also revealed that the decentralisation process will start in April next year.

The Finish Chargé d’Affaires, Asko Luukkainen, commended government on the initiative, whose main objective is to enhance participatory democracy.

Luukkainen said civil servants have the tendency to assume that people are naturally interested in government decisions and policies.

“From time to time, we should therefore remind ourselves that there is a countless body of research-based counter-evidence to this,” the diplomat reminded the gathering.

Luukkainen said Finnish financial support to the decentralisation process will stop in March next year and focus will shift towards other areas.

“In future Namibia and Finland will focus on promotion of trade, investment and private sector partnerships, institutional cooperation, non-governmental organisation support, various exchange programmes, cooperation with universities as well as between local authorities,” Luukkainen noted.

During the launch, it was revealed that significant progress has been made in policy implementation during the last few years.

Functions such as rural water supply were already gazetted to regional councils in 2007, while other functions such as maintenance, lands management and primary and secondary education are expected to be handed over next year.

Progress has also been made towards the development of an inter-governmental fiscal transfer system, which will provide for a transparent, predictable and poverty-sensitive way of allocating funds from central government to regional councils.

ESPAÑA: Las Consultas de Madrazo

Las consultas de Madrazo

El consejero de Vivienda y Asuntos Sociales reivindica durante su viaje a Suiza la participación ciudadana en todos los ámbitos



DV. El consejero de Vivienda y Asuntos Sociales, Javier Madrazo, propuso ayer en Aarau (Suiza) modificar la Constitución y el Estatuto de Autonomía para garantizar la democracia directa y la participación ciudadana de los vascos, aunque él considera que «no cierran la puerta» a esta vía. «Pero si hay quien lo cree, habrá que modificarlos», sentenció.

Madrazo rechazó que se empleen ambas normas y la violencia como «coartadas o excusas» para impedir esta vía política ampliamente practicada en Suiza. El consejero reiteró que «el mejor modo de deslegitimar la violencia de ETA es celebrar una consulta para que la ciudadanía vasca pueda decir a la organización terrorista que desaparezca para siempre».

El titular de Vivienda y Asuntos Sociales reivindicó la participación ciudadana en un sentido amplio, para todos los ámbitos: político, económico, social, medio ambiental y de género. No podía haber elegido otro lugar mejor que Suiza para hacerlo: los helvéticos son llamados cuatro veces al año a referéndum, y nueve de cada diez, según las encuestas, no aceptarían que les privaran de ese derecho.

El próximo día 30, los suizos tienen una nueva cita con las urnas. En la ciudad de Zurich se votarán catorce propuestas de orden local, cantonal y federal. Los ciudadanos podrán decidir, entre otras cuestiones, que los delitos de pornografía infantil no prescriban, flexibilizar la edad de jubilación, la elección libre en la compra de medicamentos o la prolongación del tranvía hasta el zoo.

El consejero considera a la confederación helvética un modelo y un referente, así como un «toque de atención para quienes niegan el derecho de la ciudadanía vasca a la participación política». Para Madrazo, la experiencia suiza demuestra que esta vía «no es una forma de distorsionar la vida pública, sino todo lo contrario: mantiene viva la política de un país».

El Gobierno Vasco, las formaciones políticas y los agentes sociales tienen la «obligación ineludible», según el coordinador general de EB, de mirar a Suiza como modelo «claro y concreto» de que la democracia directa «lejos de dividir, une, y en vez de provocar confrontación, permite avanzar en la convivencia».

En nombre del Departamento de Vivienda y Asuntos Sociales, Madrazo se comprometió a promover y desarrollar formas de democracia directa en su ámbito de actuación y competencia, desde la «convicción profunda» de que esta senda es «el futuro por el que hay que transitar y la única que permitirá superar la brecha existente y cada vez más profunda entre la política y la sociedad».

Labor opositora

En una reciente encuesta encargada por la Diputación Foral de Gipuzkoa, la gran mayoría de los guipuzcoanos entrevistados confesaron desconocer quién es el diputado general. En Suiza, el interés de los ciudadanos por quien les representa no es mucho mayor, pero en este caso se debe a que el nombre o el color de los cargos públicos tienen menor importancia.

El Centro para la Democracia de Aarau (ZDA), asociado a la universidad de Zurich, destaca que la labor opositora está más en manos de los propios ciudadanos que de los partidos políticos. Así lo demuestra el hecho de que más del 25% de las propuestas de enmienda constitucional realizadas por las instituciones han sido rechazadas por los electores.

En una encuesta elaborada por el sociólogo norteamericano Carod Schmid, el 70% de los suizos señalaron su sistema político como la principal razón para estar orgullosos de su nacionalidad. Madrazo destaca que la democracia directa permite que la sociedad civil helvética sea «activa, viva, comprometida y protagonista de su futuro».

El director del ZDA, Andreas Aauer, aclaró que el modelo suizo es el resultado de un largo y «fascinante» proceso político con raíces en el siglo XIX, por lo que considera «muy difícil transplantarlo a otro país». No obstante, estableció un «punto de comparación» entre la experiencia helvética y la vasca: la democracia directa «civilizó la política» en el país alpino, «muy violenta» hasta el siglo XIX.

Aauer señaló que la democracia directa «es una calle de sentido único». Una vez que se entra, «es imposible volver atrás», subrayó el académico, porque «cuando se deja en manos de los ciudadanos la decisión de las cuestiones importantes, ya no renuncian a ese derecho».

Monday, December 15, 2008

MEXICO: Impulsan Diputados Plebiscito y Referéndum

Impulsan diputados plebiscito y referéndum

Organización Editorial Mexicana
16 de noviembre de 2008

Víctor Godínez / El Sol de México

Ciudad de México.- El presidente de la Comisión de Puntos Constitucionales de la Cámara de Diputados, Raymundo Cárdenas, aseguró que existe consenso entre las tres principales bancadas legislativas para impulsar en el actual periodo de sesiones las figuras del plebiscito y el referéndum.

Reveló que ya se elabora un dictamen de iniciativa de ley para aprobar estas figuras de la democracia.

Por su parte, el diputado panista Eduardo de la Torre Jaramillo dijo que este instituto político accederá a estas reformas.

Raymundo Cárdenas, presidente de la Comisión de Puntos Constitucionales de la Cámara de Diputados, aseveró que existe consenso entre las diferentes bancadas de esta instancia legislativa, a fin de impulsar en el actual periodo de sesiones figuras de democracia directas como el plebiscito y el referendo.

En una reunión de trabajo realizada en el Palacio de San Lázaro, señaló que las tres fuerzas políticas más importantes en el país como son los partidos Acción Nacional (PAN), de la Revolución Democrática (PRD) y Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), han expresado su interés de abordar este tema.

Por tal motivo, reveló que en la Comisión de Puntos Constitucionales se elabora un dictamen de iniciativa de ley para aprobar estas figuras de la democracia.

Por su parte, el diputado panista Eduardo de la Torre Jaramillo dijo que este instituto político accederá a estas reformas, pero antes se deben resolver las diferencias, pues se tienen que estudiar los modelos utilizados en Latinoamérica y ver si son viables para aplicarse en la vida política nacional.

Sobre el particular, dijo que en el PAN se llegó a un consenso interno para estudiar e impulsar estos mecanismos de democracia directa.

A su vez, el diputado Salvador Ruiz Sánchez, del Partido de la Revolución Democrática, recordó que su partido siempre ha mostrado disposición para tratar los temas y proyectos con los que se pueda perfeccionar la democracia.

Sin embargo, negó que al promover el modelo de referendo se impulse al mismo tiempo la reelección electoral, ya que son temas que se tienen que ver por separado.

Recent Exercises in Swiss Direct Democracy

Swiss approve pioneering legal heroin program

By ALEXANDER G. HIGGINS – Nov 30, 2008

GENEVA (AP) — Swiss voters overwhelmingly approved Sunday a move to make permanent the country's pioneering program to give addicts government-authorized heroin.

At the same time, voters rejected a proposal to decriminalize marijuana.

Sixty-eight percent of the 2,264,968 voters casting ballots approved making the heroin program permanent. It has been credited with reducing crime and improving the health and daily lives of addicts since it began in 1994.

Some 63.2 percent of voters voted against the marijuana initiative.

On a separate issue, 52 percent of voters approved an initiative to eliminate the statute of limitations on pornographic crimes against children before the age of puberty.

Olivier Borer, 35, a musician from the northern town of Solothurn, said he welcomed the outcome in part because state action was required to help heroin addicts, but he said legalizing marijuana was a bad idea.

"I think it's very important to help these people, but not to facilitate the using of drugs," Borer said. "You can just see in the Netherlands how it's going. People just go there to smoke."

Parliament approved the heroin measure in a revision of Switzerland's narcotics law in March, but conservatives challenged the decision and forced a national referendum under Switzerland's system of direct democracy.

The heroin program has helped eliminate scenes of large groups of drug users shooting up openly in parks that marred Swiss cities in the 1980s and 1990s, supporters say.

The United States and the U.N. narcotics board have criticized the program as potentially fueling drug abuse, but several other governments have started or are considering their own programs modeled on the system.

The marijuana issue was based on a separate citizens' initiative to decriminalize the consumption of marijuana and growing the plant for personal use.

Jo Lang, a Green Party member of parliament from the central city of Zug, said he was disappointed in the failure of the marijuana measure because it means 600,000 people in Switzerland will be treated as criminals because they use cannabis.

"People have died from alcohol and heroin, but not from cannabis," Lang said.

The government, which opposed the marijuana proposal, said it feared that liberalizing cannabis could cause problems with neighboring countries.

"This could lead to a situation where you have some sort of cannabis tourism in Switzerland because something that is illegal in the EU would be legal in Switzerland," government spokesman Oswald Sigg told The Associated Press.

The heroin program is offered in 23 discreet centers across Switzerland that offer a range of support to nearly 1,300 addicts who haven't been helped by other therapies. Under careful supervision, they inject doses of carefully measured to satisfy their cravings but not enough to cause a big high.

The aim is to help the addicts learn how to function in society, with counseling from psychiatrists and social workers.

Sabina Geissbuehler-Strupler of the right-wing Swiss People's Party, which led the campaign against the heroin program, said she was disappointed in the vote.

"That is only damage limitation," she said. "Ninety-five percent of the addicts are not healed from the addiction."

Health insurance pays for the bulk of the program, which costs 26 million Swiss francs ($22 million) a year. All residents in Switzerland are required to have health insurance, with the government paying insurance premiums for those who cannot afford it.

The current Swiss statute of limitations on prosecuting pedophile pornography is 15 years. The initiative will result in a change in the constitution to remove that time limit.

Previously only genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and terrorist acts were defined under Swiss law has being without a statute of limitations.

The government had argued that it will be difficult to put the change into practice, partly because of the legal problems of determining the onset of puberty, which varies with each child. Also, the government said, it will be very difficult to prove such crimes in trials many years after the crimes are committed.

The proponents said in campaign literature that sometimes it only becomes possible years later to build a case against a pedophile when other victims "also finally find the strength to bring charges."

"It must therefore be only up to the victim to decide whether it should be forgotten or prosecuted," the proponents said.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

ESPAÑA: Sobre la Democracia Directa

Democracia directa

21.11.2008 -


Una de las críticas que suele hacerse a la democracia directa es que da lugar a políticas conservadoras. En esta forma de pensar late una profunda desconfianza hacia la voluntad de los ciudadanos y ciudadanas.

Frente a esta idea hay que decir que no es la democracia directa la que da lugar a posiciones conservadoras, sino que es la sociedad la que es conservadora o progresista. Los votos dieron sendos mandatos presidenciales a Bush y Aznar, que nunca han destacado por desarrollar políticas progresistas, y nadie ha puesto en tela de juicio las elecciones.

Lo importante, en la democracia directa, es que los ciudadanos y las ciudadanas debaten y deciden en todos y cada uno de los asuntos que les interesan, no sólo cada cuatro años y no sólo cuando se les pregunta desde el poder.

Javier Madrazo. Cádiz

PARAGUAY: Participatory Democracy Does not Come Easy

Police Repression and Presidential Promises: The Fight for Social Justice in Paraguay

Written by Lorena Rodriguez
Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Despite brutal police violence, on November 6, campesinos celebrated the victorious ending of a three day long mass mobilization. Some five thousands campesinos from all over Paraguay gathered in the capital city of Asuncion to celebrate what constitutes a first victory for the campesino and landless movement in Paraguay.

The crowd’s chants of “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido” [the people united will never be defeated] and “reforma agraria: urgente y necesaria” [agrarian Reform: urgent and necessary] urged recently elected President Fernando Lugo to represent the campesino movement and also denounced the vestiges of corrupt and conservative structure of the Stroessner dictatorship that continues to prevent true and democratic change in Paraguay.

What happened in this small country in South America is an enormous success to be highlighted in the midst of a global economic, energy and food crisis. In a small country that rarely makes it to the headlines in the international media, last week Paraguayans lived the beginning of a promising historic victory after campesinos mobilized for three consecutive days to demand their first truly democratically elected president in over 60 years to represent the needs of the landless Paraguayan campesinos to put an end to criminalization, violence and repression.

Hundreds of trucks, buses and other vehicles arrived in Asuncion last Tuesday from a number of provinces. Decentralized actions like street blockades, demonstrations and protests in front of key institutions and government buildings took place also in other parts of Paraguay. During the celebration at the end of the mobilizations, it felt like the country had returned to April 20th of this year, when Paraguayans celebrated as never before, hoping that finally democracy had come. Even though the Stroessner dictatorship had come to an end in 1989, many, if not the majority in Paraguay, reject the idea that 1989 marked the beginning of democracy, because since then Paraguayans have been living under the rule of the same corrupt leaders in power: the Colorado Party.

Of course, victory never comes easily. On the second day of mobilization, the police in front of the building of the State General Attorney brutally repressed protesters by beating them, spreading tear gas and shooting rubber bullets from very short distances, resulting in sixty people injured, including women and children.

Demands from the Frente Social y Popular (FSP)

The November 4th through 6th mobilization was coordinated by the Social and Popular Front (Frente Social y Popular –FSP). Born after President Lugo’s election, the FSP unites over a hundred organizations, representing small farmers, indigenous peoples, trade unions, women, homeless people, child laborers, students, among other groups, and functions as a “forum to summarize the debates, analyses and proposals of the social sectors and to report them to the government in order to secure a publicly accountable policy which truly works in the interest of the poor and excluded” and a “platform designed to represent the organizations and the social sectors, and to allow them to influence the policies of the new government based on their grassroots demands.” (See past Upside Down World coverage here).

The FSP presented six concrete demands. First and foremost, the urgency for a contingent plan to address social needs in order to tackle the increasing levels of poverty in rural Paraguay. Another major demand was the removal of the State Attorney General and the dismissal of the nine members of the Supreme Court of Justice. The FSP also demanded an end to the criminalization of social and campesino movements, beginning with the liberation of campesino leaders and organizers who have been unjustly imprisoned as a result of arbitrary detentions. Other demands were the promotion of an integral agrarian reform, the recognition and approval by Congress of the thirteen agreements signed with Venezuela and, last but not least, a demand for energy sovereignty through the re-negotiation of the controversial Itaipú treaty, which is a point of tension between Paraguay and the big and powerful neighboring countries of Brazil and Argentina.

The Grassroots and Lugo

Different campesino organizations are divided about the level of support and patience deserved by President Lugo. He owes his electoral victory to a grassroots base that believed in him, and initially found hope in his position as Executive. There are those who will unconditionally support him because they are aware that Lugo is alone in the middle of a political structure that could coalesce anytime to take him out of power to preserve the privileges they have maintained for six decades. The majority of campesinos, however, will not stand passively waiting for Lugo to lead in matters that they have an urgent stake in. Campesinos are aware that without their continued pressure and support, Lugo’s will turn out to be yet another administration that has gained a continuation of the same policies that have protected the private property of large landowners and the profits of international agribusinesses. Campesino communities need Lugo to take immediate action to stop the exponential growth of the agroexport industry, which is currently poisoning entire communities with agro-toxins and benefiting from the ongoing brutal repression of community members during evictions and protests, and to stop the criminalization of the campesino struggle for food and land sovereignty.

Victory of the Campesino Movement

Many times during these last couple of days I head that “democracy started last week in Paraguay,” and as all representative and participative democracies, it will face strong challenges. President Fernando Lugo himself will have to overcome numerous obstacles that will threaten not only his decision-making power, but also his compromise with the broad coalition that allowed his electoral victory, and most importantly, his commitment to a grassroots base that counts on him as their only hope of putting an end to decades of neglect and injustice. The powerful landowners, the majority being soy growing brasiguayos, Brazilians living and working in Paraguay for many years, will not let the campesino victory go unchallenged.

During the brutal repression on November 5th in Asuncion, President Fernando Lugo was traveling from the US to Mexico and arrived only on the evening of the last day of the mobilization without having publicly commented on the committed crimes. Even though he was absent during most of the mobilization and also during previous tense situations in the interior of the country, his meeting last Thursday with leaders from the FSP resulted in the first major victory for the Frente and the diverse and numerous sectors it represents.

As a result of the intense pressure from the successful mobilization and last Wednesday’s meeting between the main campesino leaders and various ministries of Lugo’s administration, the government agreed to establish an emergency and contingency plan for the rural sector and promised to invest in accessibility to food, drinkable water and electricity. Another major success was the government’s commitment to create a National Advisory for Agrarian Reform, which will be supported by the Ministries of Agriculture, Education, Public Health, and Infrastructure, among others. Most importantly, this advisory will be chaired by the National Institution for Rural and Land Developement, the INDERT (Instituto Nacional de Desarrollo Rural y de la Tierra), which is responsible for public policies concerning campesinos, especially access to and distribution of land.

The FSP proposed a Social Emergency Plan that promotes the active involvement of a number of state institutions in order to find sustainable and integral solutions and policies that address the root causes of the rural crisis, rather than band-aid or short-term solutions. Among the measures they proposed are: the distribution of seeds to farmers for the purpose of self-sufficiency and land recuperation; access to tools and credit; dialogue rather than repression; recuperation of illegally sold state lands and a return to their right owners through agrarian reform; a participatory budget; a tax to soy and large landholdings; and the careful respect for and enforcement of environmental laws in order to contain the aggressive advance of Genetically Modified soy monocultures which has resulted in deaths, malformations in children, and serious damages to people’s health and the environment due to the abusive use of agrochemicals.

As the National Attorney General refused to resign from his position, there was an agreement for beginning a process of impeachment. The dismissal of the members of not only the State Attorney General but also the members of Supreme Court of Justice is essential for democratic change in Paraguay since these institutions incite the criminalization of social movements through arbitrary detention of campesino leaders and organizers, violent land evictions, and repression during demonstrations and protests. They are not alone, since the local general attorneys in the various departments play their part as accomplices in such injustices in order to protect the property and profits of the large foreign landowners and agribusinesses.

Soy Bean Wars in Paraguay: How Far in the U.S. Backyard?

There is no better example of Washington’s continued policy of interventionism in Latin American democratic changes than the critical situation currently experienced by Bolivia. It is well known that the United States has a long history of masterminding and financially supporting acts of terrorism in foreign soil when the empire’s sees its “national security” (that is, the rights of foreign investors) as under threat.

The opposition’s violent attacks on Bolivia’s vibrant democracy are a terrible reminder of the power that our front yard neighbor still believes to be entitled to have over our sovereignty in the south. The results of this neocolonial agenda visible in the current conflict in Bolivia are also a wake-up call for the state of affairs in a smaller, neighboring country which is rarely in the headlines: Paraguay. Here we can easily point to a thread of U.S. efforts to destabilize the region. We hear little to nothing in the U.S. media about Paraguay, yet for more than 15 years Paraguayan peasant and indigenous communities have been fighting for their lives in of the most unheard of wars: the “soybean wars.” Soybeans in Paraguay are symbolic of the legacy of a U.S.-backed dictatorship and of U.S. economic interests, specifically those of agribusinesses. A convergence of economic and geo-political interests have made Paraguay a strategically significant stronghold for the U.S. in the region.

Paraguay has been a strategic ally in two of profitable wars of the U.S.: the war on terrorism and the war on drugs. In addition, as a member of Mercosur, Paraguay was at one point attractive to the U.S. for advancing the now dead agenda of a Free Trade Area of the Americas. Its biodiversity and wealth in one of the world’s most precious resources, water, also makes Paraguay of special concern to the United States. It takes only a magic combination of terms like ‘land reform’ and ‘justice for the poor’ for Washington to panic in fear of facing another “red threat,” and Chavez’s influence in the region.

Since his election, President Fernando Lugo has shifted sides from left to left of center, placing himself first along the lines of Chavez, Morales and Correa, to a more moderate stand like that of Uruguay’s Tabare Vazquez and Chile’s Bachelet. The inconvenient truth is that, despite being the executive, there is little he can do to make changes within a power structure that has been in place for over sixty years. The interests that continue to control the country in order to maintain the status quo, especially those of the large landowners, soy producers and agribusinesses are currently fighting a silent war to overpower the social and grassroots movements of urban homeless (“los sin techo”) and rural landless (“los sin tierra”) peoples in Paraguay.

Rural Violence

Last month Leticia Galeano, a young student and campesina leader with the People’s Agrarian Movement (MAP- Movimiento Agrario y Poupular) in the department of Caaguazu in Paraguay, went on a speaking tour of the United States. In a number of cities throughout the U.S, she shared the story of the ongoing soybean wars in Paraguay, one of land conflict, the impact of fumigations, disparities, criminalization and repression of the social movements, and the struggle for land and food sovereignty, with universities and colleges, communities, grassroots activists, human rights groups, and NGOs. During her time in the US, her campesino organization (MAP), her community as well as other campesino communities in Paraguay, were the target of more violent evictions, repression, and death threats, resulting in many wounded and one death in the province of Alto Paraná.

On October 3rd, Bienvenido Melgarejo, a landless peasant in the district of Mbaracayu, also a member of the Farmers’ Association in Alto Paraná (ASAGRAPA) became another victim of the of the fight for justice and land sovereignty in Paraguay at the hands of soy producers and the federal police. Sadly, the politics of criminalization and the repression of the campesino struggle continue under Lugo’s administration.

Also, in the districts of Vaquería and Yhu, ongoing threats were on the rise as leaders from MAP mobilized against soy expansion by occupying lands illegally held by foreign landowners. Campesino leaders from the MAP have received direct death threats, and were targeted by the governor himself. Such violence corresponds to campesino movements’ increased mobilization since Lugo assumed power in hopes that he will follow through with promises of agrarian reform. Lugo's recent condemnation, during the United Nations General Assembly, of the fumigation of people with agrichemicals, especially children, as "terrorism," has infuriated soy producers and added to their rage against campesinos.

World Witnesses

International allies and partners have been accompanying campesino leaders in their communities due to the current tension and fear that soy producers will keep up with their threats that there will be bloodshed. Earlier this month a small School of Americas Watch delegation from the United States visited Paraguay on a mission to request that President Lugo cease to send Paraguayan military to the commonly known “School of Assassins” (SOA/WHINSEC). During their visit, the delegation also learned about the current social and political climate of Paraguayan by meeting with various leaders from campesino organizations and visiting a number of communities in rural Paraguay to hear first-hand the stories of criminalization and repression of the campesino movement.

This is a crucial time for the international community to stand in solidarity with the social movements in Paraguay as organized civil society groups. A united grassroots movement remains the only hope for President Fernando Lugo to make real change and to maintain his electoral promises. International solidarity is also vital to exert pressure to hold Lugo responsible for the protection of the human rights of the people who have supported him from the beginning.

As campesinos continue to mobilize to express their support and exert pressure on the government to meet their demands, it is important that the world witness these important times in order for real change to happen in Paraguay.

Militarization in Paraguay and Stroessner’s Legacy

It is well known throughout Latin America and around the world that national security for the United States is synonym of securing the interests of the Hill-controlling, powerful transnational corporations through the criminalization of social movements that constitute a threat to the flow of profits from the exploitation of natural resources. Despite the fact that a CRS report released two years ago stated that there was no knowledge of operation cells of Islamic terrorists in the hemisphere, the State Department’s annual Country Reports on terrorism included Latin America in the region due to alleged concerns over terrorist threats, mainly domestic and also pointing at the fact that Latin American countries have been home to international terrorist battlegrounds.

Different from the interventions of the 1980s, at a first glance U.S. interest and role in Paraguay responds to alleged Islamic terrorist networks (activities of Lebanon group Hizballah and the Sunni Muslim Palestinian group Hamas) in the triple frontier (the tri-border area shared by Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil), and to narcotraffic networks and the suppose extension of Colombia’s FARC in Paraguay.

It is under this pretext that through the U.S. Department of State provides Anti-Terrorism Assistance (ATA) through training and equipment to Paraguay, as well as to other Latin American countries to help improve their capabilities in a variety of areas, including airport security management, hostage negotiations, bomb detection and deactivation, and counter-terrorism financing. Since 1997 there has been an increase in assistance to Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay in light of increased U.S. concerns over the mentioned activities in the triple frontier.

For Anti-Terrorism Assistance provided to the Western Hemisphere in Fiscal Year 2007, Paraguay, with $475,000, was only 3rd to Colombia. In fiscal year 2008, the number was reduced to $268,000. Military cooperation, however, increased from FY 2007 to FY 2008, specifically on international military education and training (from 44,000 for FY2007 to an estimate of 190,000 for FY2008 and a request for $350,000 for FY 2009).

Perhaps unintentionally, the justification for funding and “assistance” to Paraguay perfectly explains the true reasoning behind the U.S. interest in Paraguay, that of its private investors: "As a hub for international criminal activity, including drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, document forgery, trafficking in persons, and intellectual property rights violations, Paraguay continues to be an important partner against transnational crime. According to the Congressional Budget Justification for Foreign Operations in 2009, the United States will focus primarily on improving the following areas: rule of law and good governance; trade and investment; private sector competitiveness."

During the 35 years of dictatorship under Alfredo Stroessner, the U.S. played an accomplice role with the support of the bloody Condor Operation, for which Paraguay became the center of intelligence exchange among the three repressive countries including Chile and Argentina. Today, the U.S. military presence is allegedly humanitarian with a number of exercises in key regions. Military cooperation between the US and Paraguay also comes in the form of the country’s graduates from the School of Americas, where trainees are indoctrinated in “National Security,” the same doctrine that caused for the disappearance and assassination of hundreds of thousands of Paraguayans during the U.S.-backed military dictatorship. Today the excuse is the fight against terrorism. Currently, SOA graduates hold positions of military power (minister of defense, etc) in Paraguay and exercises within the country continue.

There is an indirect link between US exercises and the violence against peasant communities in Paraguay in order to control the territory, or more specifically, to maintain the control of the land, characterized today by the fact that approximately eighty per cent of the land is in the hands of just two percent of the population. According to a study prepared by Serpaj Paraguay (Servicios de Paz y Justicia), the presence of the US Army through SOUTHCOM manifests itself through military exercises and visits to areas where there is a predominant presence of peasant organizations, GM soy monoculture plantations and agrotoxic fumigations.

When one cross-posts data on the number of campesinos that have been killed in the period between 2002 and 2005, the presence of Paraguayan military forces, campesino organizations in a number of key departments (or states), and US military operations in Paraguay in those departments, there are some striking coincidences. In the department of San Pedro for example, there were 4 campesino organizations during that period. At the same time, there was also the highest number of US military operations. Strikingly, the number of deaths also coincides with these numbers being the highest with 18 deaths. During that same period, in Alto Paraná, home to the campesino organization ASAGRAPA and where the most recent assassination took place, there were 7 campesino organizations, 3 U.S. military operations, and 12 deaths. In Caaguazú, home for the district of Vaquería and Yhu where death threats are on the increase, there were 4 campesino organizations, including MAP, and seventeen deaths.

Even though Paraguay is not under a dictatorship per se, a number of social movement leaders in Paraguay have pointed at the fact that the transition to democracy brought no change to the political power structure, as we can see in the ongoing repression to those who dare speak up against the ongoing corruption and impunity of criminalization and repression.

Going after so called “terrorist havens” in allegedly “authoritarian and populist” regimes in order to “defend democracy and the rule of law” is nothing but the violation of people’s sovereignty and the continuation of misguided foreign policy decisions over what ground-up, grassroots, participatory democracy and human rights really mean.

Terrorist networks or terrorizing with fumigations?

Depending on who tells the story, terrorism has a different face. For the most marginalized communities and peoples from the global south it may well be the everyday struggle to have food on the table, to strive for a piece of land or simply to be able to enjoy the basic right to breath a clean air, as it is the case of Paraguay. During her speaking tour, Leticia Galeano shared the unjust story of the slow annihilation of entire communities, either by literally fumigating them to death, or strategically driving farmers out of their land by trapping them into debt, buying them off their land with absolutely unfair and deceitful amounts of money, thus exacerbating migration to urban slums, and the slow ethnocide of a traditional and indigenous rural culture of subsistence family farmers.

Among Leticia’s stories was the case of a family who lost a child only two months old from a case of hydrocephaly, other children with birth defects, premature abortions, numerous cases of cancer, and respiratory, vision and dermatological illnesses as a result of the industrial fumigations with matatodo [kill-all], as farmers call Monsanto’s pesticide cocktail ‘RoundUp.’

The reality behind US military assistance to Paraguay, allegedly humanitarian in character and directed towards funding anti-terrorism programs, is that these are nothing but excuses to maintain a stronghold in a territory that has been under unrestrained control of the agribusiness sector for decades. The three major agribusinesses in Paraguay are U.S. transnational corporations: agribusinss giants Archer Daniel Midland, Bunge and Cargill, and the genetically modified seeds guru Monsanto.

Today, in the midst of a global food and energy crisis, U.S. agribusinesses have made record profits through the expansion of large-scale industrial monoculture production of Monsanto’s genetically modified soy at the expense of local communities, human rights and the environmental. It is no coincidence that the most organized campesinos and indigenous communities in Paraguay have the higher number of killings. With yet another newly elected progressive President, as part of a wave of left and left-of-center leaders throughout Latin America, who promises of land reform, there is a challenge of the corporate-grab and hence a need for support for Paraguayan social movements that continue to confront injustices and impunity.

The Paraguayan struggle for sovereignty of land, food and life itself needs the solidarity of the international community. Too little attention has been paid to the rampant impunity in cases of human rights violations. Sadly, impunity has the tendency to be the rule rather than the exception.

More and more people are challenging the destructive industrialized agricultural model by constructing local and regional alternatives with a vision for food sovereignty worldwide. As momentum grows in the United States around truly local, sustainable and fair food systems, it is also crucial that the north stand in solidarity with movements in the global south that are actively pursuing these same alternatives and confronting the interests that oppose them—often in the face of violence and repression.

As the world sees hope for change in the recent US-elections and the grassroots mobilizes to demand fair and human policies towards Latin America it is crucial to remember the special role the US played in the past and realize the connection with today's ever powerful remains of the Stroessner regime.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

ECUADOR: Alcaldes Hablan Sobre la Participación Ciudadana

Los alcaldes hablan sobre la participación ciudadana

Alcaldes nacionales y extranjeros discutieron ayer, en Guayaquil, sus experiencias locales.


La participación de la ciudadanía en la gestión pública local fue la fórmula que presentaron ayer los panelistas. Lo hicieron durante la sesión de trabajo, en el IX Encuentro Iberoamericano de la Sociedad Civil, en Guayaquil.

Isabel Noboa, presidenta del Encuentro, dio la bienvenida a más de 300 participantes, de los cuales, 150 son extranjeros.

Ahí mencionó la importancia de promover alianzas entre las entidades públicas, las organizaciones de participación ciudadana y los propios empresarios, con miras a combatir la pobreza.

Jaime Nebot, alcalde de Guayaquil, indicó que para lograr una comunidad sana y segura, la administración local debe generar, junto con los empresarios, grandes obras y fomentar el empleo.

Aprovechó para defender las fundaciones municipales y criticó la Ley de Transparencia de Contratación Pública. “Suprimen los dictámenes de la Contraloría General del Estado y permiten contratar a compañías extranjeras sin domiciliarse en el país y entregar anticipos sin garantía”.

También señaló que este año se incrementará un 15% los sueldos del Cabildo y eso incidirá en la distribución del presupuesto para el 2009. El gasto público subirá del 11% al 13%.

Auki Tituaña, alcalde de Cotacachi, explicó su modelo de democracia participativa. Y mencionó la intención de lanzarse a una nueva candidatura, con el auspicio del partido Pachakutik.

Antanas Mockus, ex alcalde Mayor de Bogotá (Colombia), explicó cómo, a través de la cultura ciudadana, disminuyeron la criminalidad y los accidentes de tránsito y aumentó la tributación.

Antonio Sánchez Díaz de Rivera, diputado federal de México, propuso que partiendo de lo local se creen vínculos entre la sociedad y el manejo público.

NIGERIA: How about People’s Parliament at the Local Government Level?

How about people’s parliament at the local government level?

Thursday, 06 November 2008 00:14 Ebere Onwudiwe

In some emerging democracies such as ours, leaders tend to represent themselves and their cronies. Democracy becomes government of the leaders, by the leaders, for the leaders. In representative democracy, which in theory is what we practice in Nigeria today, the people elect their leaders, who are supposed to represent the people’s interests. This system of government is noted for accountability, constituency service and other forms of responsiveness when practiced by the book. But accountability and government responsiveness are hardly the trademarks of Nigeria’s representative democracy.

In our three tier federalism, the local government is possibly the least responsive and accountable even though it is the level that is closest to the people.

This column has argued recently that one way to ensure accountability at the state and local governments is to institute a policy of taxable revenue distributions (“The Alaska Option,” Business Day, 08 October, 2008.) Direct democracy at the local government level is another way of reaching the same goal. Direct democracy is not feasible at the federal or the state tiers, not even the modified version proposed here. But it is entirely feasible at the local government level.

In direct democracy, the people are the parliament. When the Greeks, especially the Athenians, instituted what is considered the origin of modern democracy, it was of this kind. The Athenians gathered at the Pnyx, a structure of concrete slabs, where they debated issues and made decisions. It was the ultimate manifestation of democracy as a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

The same practice is to be found in many African villages even today. At the sound of the gong, drum, or some other percussive instrument, the people would gather at the communal meeting place. The village head would state the issues and the people would debate them vigorously, often rancorously. In the end, a consensus usually would emerge.

Sometimes, the consensus is reached through a series of compromises. Other times, someone would have a brainwave and come up with the ultimate solution.

Why can’t we use this democratic tradition of our forefathers to reform our local governments where direct democracy is feasible in a modified form? We will still keep the local councils and chairmen. But in addition, there will be a periodic assembly of the people (representatives of villages and communities under the local government plus any other resident who wants to attend) where today’s council chairman and his councilors will render an account of what they have done, what they are doing, and what they plan to do, plus deliver an account of local government’s funds.
It would be people’s equivalent of what transpires in the British parliament. Periodically, the prime minister appears before the parliament to render an account on a variety of policies and actions. The members of parliament then pepper him with questions.

The sessions, which are televised live, are often raucous and feisty. Sometimes they are jocular or even whimsical. In all renditions, they are an age-long method of keeping the prime minister in check. The mere fact of having a leader account for his actions publicly and in a verifiable manner makes him think twice about straying from the proper and just.

For local governments in Nigeria, the people would constitute the periodic parliament and they would ask the questions. The parliament could be convened four times a year (on a Sunday to maximize attendance) and as necessitated by events.

The sessions would work roughly this way: The council chairman and councilors would render reports that specify the total allocation and revenues received by the council. They would then specify what the funds have been budgeted for or spent on. The expenditure would reflect priorities the people’s parliament had established during the last meeting. A concise and understandable summary of the revenues and expenditures will also be distributed.

The people would then ask pointed questions about any discrepancies between the government’s revenues and expenditures or between the people’s priorities and the projects pursued. They would also ask questions about budget lines or expenditures that seem bloated or unrealistic. Minutes of the meeting will be taken, circulated among the people, and sent to government auditors and the EFCC.

The strongest point about the people’s parliament is that there is strength in numbers. A major reason for the wanton pilfering of government funds is that individuals are afraid to speak out. Brave souls who speak out often suffer major consequences; from occupational reprisals to threats of physical harm. In contrast, the people’s parliament has the advantage of strength in numbers. More people speak out boldly when they are with a crowd, and reprisal against the whole is less practical.

Also, requiring local governments to publicly declare their revenues and expenditures makes possible the informed scrutiny by many people. As the saying goes, if only one person saw a worm, it could turn into a snake; if several people saw it, it couldn’t. Government officials can bribe accountants and auditors, but they cannot bribe all of the people, certainly not all of the time.
Even the EFCC can do its job much better if the people are given the chance to scrutinize their leaders.

ITALIA: Video - La Democrazia Diretta