How is Participative Democracy Progressing in Brazil?

Brazil is the largest country in Latin America, founded, unlike most of its neighbors, by Portugal instead of Spain. It was a colony of the Portuguese Empire until 1822, when the son of the Emperor of Portugal declared independence, transforming the nation into the Empire of Brazil. This stage lasted until 1889, when a military take-over declared the country to be a Republic. The next century alternated between periods of apparent democracy and periods of dictatorship. The basic historic tradition of the nation was always that of imposition of decisions by the political leaders on top, whether king, emperor, general or president, and submission to those decisions by the population. In 1985, however, the last dictatorship ended, and by 1988 Brazil had a Constitution, declaring the rights of the people to participate in the decisions to be made concerning their future.

Since then, the Brazilian federal government has developed several instruments to promote a democracy of responsible citizens. One of these tools are Conferences, each related to specific major issues in governance health, education, public housing, urban planning, environmental protection and recuperation, women's rights, and many others. These Conferences begin with events on the municipal level, where both local and national problems related to the general themes are discussed, and where local representatives are chosen to carry the municipal contributions to other discussions on the state and national levels. The Conferences are convened every year or two, and last 2-3 days each session. Usually, anyone can speak in these meetings to suggest actions that should be carried out or investments that need to be made, but only legally registered institutional groups can vote as to what are the highest priorities and which suggestions should be carried further up the chain. Thus, the Conferences become a way of documenting the desires and needs of the people, which theoretically the politicians must act on if they wish to gain votes in the future and remain in power.

Another instrument for guaranteeing popular participation in democratic decision making are Councils. Once again, these groups are organized on the city, state and national levels, each Council being competent to deal with one specific issue. They usually meet once each month and last a few hours, discussing local needs or evaluating local political actions (or their lack). These Councils can establish sub-groups for analyzing technical matters in more detail, which meet more frequently and then advise the larger group as to their conclusions. As in the case of the Conferences, anyone can participate by speaking or listening to the discussions, but only formal institutions (associations, Non Governmental Organizations, cooperatives, trade unions, professional groups, along with government officials) with activities relevant to the specific theme of each Council can take part in choosing which issues get more attention.

A third tool for promoting democratic administration in Brazil are Committees. Actually, these function along the same lines as the Councils, but in some cases cover an ampler geographical region. One of the most innovative types of groups in this category is the Watershed Committee, responsible, among other things, for administering investments to continue the protection of rivers and lakes that have not seriously suffered from human interventions, and to promote activities for recovering the quality of watercourses which have been polluted or otherwise damaged. In general, the physical area for which this type of Committee is responsible is delimited not by city limits, but by the natural boundaries of a watershed basin from the highest altitudes surrounding a region that drains water, down to a single outlet or river mouth, which in many cases may include a dozen or more municipalities.

Even with all these opportunities for popular participation in decision making, rights on paper are not always rights in practice, and so the Brazilian people have been trying to learn how to break out of their habit of leaving the decisions to the leaders. They often encounter barriers in their own psychological conditioning, because of memories of forced oppression in the past, and still other barriers in the conditioning of many government officials, who seem to resent the invasion of their authority by non-qualified amateurs, even though those amateurs are the very people who the government officials have been hired to serve. This paradox, of public servants treating the public as their servants, apparently exists all over the world, but in Brazil this out-dated model is beginning to change. We can only hope this progress continues.

Author: David Michael (Teres'polis, Brazil)

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Edited by: Rajesh Bihani ( Find me on Google+ )

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