Monday, August 18, 2008

What I said & Democracy in Action

Hello my friends:

Several days ago I told how I was asked to give a spontaneous presentation to a group of about 300 poor slum dwellers meeting in the Communist Labor Federation building in Manizales, Colombia. Well, to the best of my memory, here is what I said:

My dear friends it is an honor to be here with you this evening and to listen to your stories of how you are participating in the life of your community, barrio by barrio. You tell of raising money to purchase a bottle of aspirins. You tell of forming committees to call on government officials to present to them your concerns about the help you desire from the government to address the needs in your barrio. I see here, in this room, that you are accepting your civic responsibility as a citizen in a democratic society.

Two weeks ago I met with Sr. Jose Galat in the national presidential palace in Bogota. He is the director of the program called "Integracion Popular" which was instituted by President Carlos Lleras Restrepo to help strengthen democracy in Colombia. The goal of this national program is to strengthen democracy by helping organizations such as yours develop among the two thirds of the citizens of this nation that are 'marginados' and do not have access to the resources of the nation. I commend you for your participation in this gathering here tonight and for your labor in improving life in your neighborhoods. That program, instituted by the president of Colombia calls on you to define your collective problems, to prioritize them, address them through "accional communal" (collective action) and to call on the government for help when and where needed.

As an American representing the people of my nation I want to thank you for the privilege to be with you this evening and watch democracy in action in Manizales.

The next day I received a phone call informing me that the head of the secret police (DAS - the FBI of Colombia) in the state wanted to see me. I went to his office and he told me he was very upset to hear that I was lecturing a group of communists and encouraging them organize against the government. I told him that I knew that he had one or more agents in the room the previous night and that if he wanted I would give them an exam to see if they really paid attention to what I had said. I then asked him if he wanted me, on my next visit to the presidential palace in Bogota, to inform the president of the nation that he, the local DAS director, was opposed to the policy of the president when it came to working with groups of the poor? He blanched at that and assured me that he merely wanted me to know that I was talking to a group of communists and that I had to be careful. So I left thinking that democracy will have a hard time to grow in Colombia.

The program of Integracion Popular was similar to other programs in Latin America of the same time such as Accion Popular, Participation Popular, Accion Communal, etc. What is interesting is that Dr. Carlos Lleras Restrepo, President of Colombia, knew exactly the political implication of what he was proposing. Jose Galat , the man he put in charge of the program, explained it as follows:

"If we wish to save our Democracy, we must be sure that the common good is also available to the marginal man (2/3 of the population of Colombia that do not partake of the "good" produced by the nation for popular consumption.) But, and here is the root of the problem, we can not hope that the common good be FOR the marginal man while at the same time it is not obtained, oriented and decided WITH them and BY them also. In other words, in order that the marginal individuals become beneficiaries of the common good it is necessary that they be permitted to participate as agents and protagonists of the same. And this implies, logically, a redistribution of political power."

Of course, such a redistribution of power never happened. The oligarchy, the elite, the current power holders, however you want to call them, made sure that such efforts on the part of the poor failed. Good intentions and pretty words alone can not bring about such changes in the nature of decision making in a society. The least threatening form of community action is where the citizens get together and through collective action buy a bottle of aspirin or raise a barn. Such action generally is non-threatening to the holders of power in the society. That is called 'resource mobilizing." It is when citizens get together and demand a redistribution of existing resources such as seeking a minimum wage law or a redistribution of land so the poor can raise food for their families or want a home loan program that would allow the poor to borrow money and build a home that the power holders get nervous. Such action is 'political mobilizing' and is calling for a redistribution of existing resources, not the generation of new resources. I define power as the ability to allocate collective resources and it is comprised of 'authority', the right to make decisions based on position or role in an organization or social system and 'influence' which is based on the personality and personal relationships of the 'social actor' involved in the decision making process.

So, what does one do with all this reading, visiting barrio groups and studying social power structures in Latin America? Well, on arriving in Washington State to take up my position in the Sociology Dept. at Western Washington State College (now 'University') I decided that I would do a study on the power structure of the Hispanic community in the state. I began with a simple questionnaire sent to over 1,200 persons such as mayors, county commissioners, county health officers, school district executives, chiefs of police, sheriffs, all elected city, county and state officials and many other "community knowledgables" who might know something of their Hispanic neighbors. I asked "If the governor were to appoint a committee to advise him on the needs of the Hispanic population in the State of Washington who would you nominate to that committee from the Hispanic population in your jurisdiction, whether or not you know them personally?" The questionnaire wasn't out more than a week when I received a call from the Governor's office asking that I come to Olympia to discuss my research with one of his staff. I was informed that the governor was already planning on setting up such an advisory body and wanted me to be a (volunteer) staff to that committee. Yup. Glad to do so and for a number of years I traveled all over the state, often in the Governor's plane, to attend meetings of the committee, helped them write reports and helped draft legislation. What started out to be the 'Governor's Mexican American Advisory Committee' now, 40 years later, is the 'Washington State Hispanic Commission."

Ah, yes, democracy in action.


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