As millions of citizens across Latin America are seeing their countries become subject to authoritarian rule, the continent appears an unlikely source of inspiration for political innovation. From Nicolás Maduro’s illegitimate dictatorship of Venezuela to Daniel Ortega’s campaign of oppression in Nicaragua, as well as the election of far-right Jain Bolsonaro in Brazil, there are clear signs of democratic recession.
Yet the very instability of the region means it is a hotbed for political participation and democratic experimentation. With a history of conflict and economic struggle, the region has grown accustomed to social-political flux and citizens themselves often tackle deeply rooted problems through political participation and reorganisation. Many international innovations have their roots in Latino decision making – participatory budgeting arose from Porto Alegre, for example.
In trying to reduce the distance between citizens and governments, hundreds of democratising initiatives exist in Latin America right now. And whilst there are a number of NGOs, political parties, and companies comprising this ecosystem, the most disruptive examples of innovation lie with grassroots initiatives and civil society-led networks. They may differ in purpose and intent, but, ultimately, each looks to bring people closer to public power and ‘update’ democracy in the region.
In Brazil, Legislando increased citizen participation in law-making by facilitating the creation of bills for future laws through a digital platform. It has since developed into Mudamos, an app developed for collecting certified signatures to make it easier to introduce legislation directly into the Brazilian congress. The initiative has demonstrated that there is a high demand for effective civic participation, and that there is sufficient intent for innovations to succeed at a larger scale.
Similarly, platforms such as Participa.br and Rio+ look to bring about Brazilian ‘government 2.0’. The former is a social participation app used to make public policies: it opens up a space of dialogue between Brazilian Federal Government and civil society by allowing citizens to interact with discussions live in the platform. Rio+ involves popular voting amongst citizens, companies, and governments, and is facilitated to propose, decide, and realise creative solutions for the city.
Continent-wide, an interesting example of collective experimentation lies with Red de Innovación Política en América Latina. As an initiative intent on the redistribution of democratic power, it builds regional alliances so that ideas and innovations can be shared throughout Latin America. It is a network unconfined by national boundaries, and so its aim of a common democracy that expands political inclusion can be more readily accessed. By thinking of scalable solutions and how they can be implemented across different contexts, Latin America becomes a shared space for action – from Argentina to Mexico.
As post-Brexit Britain looks to reconnect power with people following a period of unprecedented political turbulence, there may be lessons for those in the UK currently looking for sources of innovation. Counter to a frequent refrain used as a reason not to expand opportunity to participate in a UK context, the examples in Latin America show that participation isn’t just for those with existing social capital, but that it can in fact be egalitarian and targeted at the poorest in society. Creating a context in which the opportunity to participate, linked to people’s desire to do so, has tangible routes into decision-making processes, could begin to establish over time a greater culture of ongoing participation.