The Common Good
August 2004

Give Me Tortillas or Give Me Death

by David Batstone | August 2004

Revolutionary ideology is no match for rice and beans.

We charged into the 21st century confident that we were ushering in the most democratic era in human history.

We charged into the 21st century confident that we were ushering in the most democratic era in human history. But we are now seeing a worldwide backlash against the technologies and economic systems that further polarize the fortunes of the wealthy and the poor. To avoid a massive social uprising—and the wave of terrorism it spawns—we must make a stronger case for democracy.

Consider Latin America. More than half of Latin Americans would support the replacement of a democratic government with an "authoritarian" one if the strong arm of government could produce greater economic benefits, according to a United Nations report released this spring.

Compiled by the U.N. Development Programme, the report ran opinion surveys involving more than 18,000 citizens in 18 nations and conducted lengthy interviews with 231 political, economic, and cultural leaders, including 41 former presidents and vice presidents.

The report attributes the loss of confidence in elected governments to slow economic growth, social inequality, and ineffective legal systems. Despite advances in human rights from the dark days of dictatorships, Latin Americans still cannot expect equal treatment before the law due to widespread corruption.

The data confirms that elections and free-market economic reforms alone cannot bring democracy to life. During my days directing an economic development agency in Latin America, I came to realize that a few fundamental building blocks needed to be in place in order to nurture democracy. First and foremost, citizens need to have the wherewithal to make a livelihood.

I PAID A VISIT in the late 1980s to a village in rural Nicaragua with a member of the National Assembly for the Sandinista party. Nearly a decade earlier, the Sandinistas had led a revolution that overthrew the despotic rule of Gen. Somoza. My agency was supplying the village with building materials that would be used to add a classroom onto the community school. Nearly everyone from the village came out to an event celebrating the arrival of the materials. The Sandinista politician who accompanied me was seizing the opportunity to hold a general town meeting and to create some good will for the party. Once the meeting started, he surely wished that he had not come.

The local residents voiced deep frustration with their dismal economic conditions. The women in particular were upset about the scarcity of food in the market and the high prices for what was there. The Sandinista official reminded them that sacrifices were necessary to keep the revolution alive. That was the only cue an elderly woman needed. She immediately stood up and announced, "I don’t care about your revolution if I can’t get rice and beans. Life was better in this village during the time of Somoza." A sea of heads bobbed up and down in agreement.

I witnessed enough of these encounters in Nicaragua that season so as to not be surprised when the Sandinista party lost the ensuing elections. Revolutionary ideology was no match for rice and beans.

Democracy relies on more than economic survival, of course. Citizens also must experience civic entitlement—that is, a confidence that they can have a hand in shaping their own destiny. Many Latin Americans consider what they have seen of democracy a toss-up with authoritarianism because in neither system are they given the opportunity to participate in the policy decisions that affect their lives.

Finally, for democracy to work citizens must believe they have a place to go to seek justice. The U.N. report wisely puts a priority on the development of independent judiciaries. Democracy will struggle to take root if abusive police practices and corrupt judges flourish. Today, creative grassroots political projects and entrepreneurial business enterprises alike are too easily squashed by elites who see their own power base threatened.

Put bluntly, most Latin Americans don’t believe the hype about democracy. Fortunately, the jury is still out, but the people will not wait patiently much longer to see if they will get a fair trial.

David Batstone is executive editor of Sojourners.

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