Democracy in Latin America: a slow-evolving concept

– High official (e.g civil servant) from a Latin American Ministry (e.g. public): “What can Mi EU/LAC do for us?”

– Things Mi EU/LAC thinks: “Well you are the government, so really the question should be what YOU, the government can do for US, the citizens, but alright”.

– Mi EU/LAC: “There is a lack of understanding of each other’s reality between the citizens of the European Union and Latin America and the Caribbean”.

– Answer from a high official (e.g civil servant) from a Latin American Ministry (e.g public): “I am a citizen and I know about the European Union, so who are these mysterious citizens in Latin America that do not know about it?”

– Things Mi EU/LAC thinks: “Your neighbor, your mother, your cleaning lady, pupils, basically everyone people – except civil servants who work in the field of Latin America-the EU cooperation. Including you: you might have heard of the EU, but that does not mean you know or understand it”.

– High official (e.g civil servant) from a Latin American Ministry (e.g public): “I think your project is very interesting and that it should indeed come from Latin America since we do not have many initiatives like this one in the continent, but we do not have calls for projects that you could apply to, so you should apply to a call for projects of the EU under the name of our governmental institution”.

– Things Mi EU/LAC thinks: “Well then the project would not be ours, it would belong to you, wouldn’t it? Also, if the EU finances it, it would not come from Latin America, would it? And finally: maybe you could think of creating aa way to fund your own initiatives, instead of expecting foreign countries to just finance everything for you?”

– High official (e.g civil servant) from a Latin American Ministry (e.g public): “I do not really see how we can collaborate. I believe the civil society and the government should remain objective and independent, which is why they should not interact with each other”.

– Things Mi EU/LAC thinks: “Wow, you are a public servant and either you do not know what democracy is or that the government is supposed to represent the citizens and hence, interact with them, or you know what it is and you are literally saying it is useless. Either way, you really should not work for the government”.

DEMOCRACY

These are some chunks of conversations that we have had with Ministries across Latin American and the Caribbean (LAC) in the last couple of months.

Let me guide you through the context: Mi EU/LAC has been trying to develop a project from a citizen perspective to contribute to the improvement of the relations between the EU and LAC. We thought we could try to get a funding in LAC because we believe it would indeed be better if this kind of project came from the LAC side for a change, instead of from the EU as it always is the case. After all, the EU already finances many projects in LAC and carries-out most of the work when it comes to bilateral/bi-regional cooperation, while LAC stands still, does not seem to do much to improve its relations with the EU, and well, cashes in. As a consequence, we have contacted various Ministries across the continent. We knew it would not be easy since there is a huge lack of vision in LAC when it comes to international cooperation, but we did not count on so little willingness to do so and, above all, so much disdain towards the citizens and our work.

When you hear for the first time this type of comment from a public servant, you really are left speechless and puzzled, and cannot whatsoever think of a good way to answer. Now I got used to it – well, not sure I could ever get used to it fully – but I still feel like there is no good way to answer without offending the person.

For the record, I am French and hence, European, while my partner in Mi EU/LAC is Latin American. He was shocked too, but sadly he is kind of used to it. I, on the other hand, although I have been living in LAC for the last five years, always say that the governments in LAC could not surprise me any more than they already have, but they always find a way. In French, we have a say that goes like: “We have the government we deserve”. Sometimes I believe it is true, and sometimes I do not. Regarding this specific topic, I do not. No one deserves to have such freeloaders deciding for them.

You see, I have a high-profile job at a civil society organization in Mexico, and I have also worked for governmental bodies in the past. I know that relations between the government and the civil society can be tense sometimes, and that we tend to consider the other part as an enemy, when there really is no point for that: it should be a mere collaboration, in which everyone could bring different things and experiences to the table. I may believe that collaboration between the society and the government is useful because of this dual experience that I have had, but in general terms I believe that the civil society has understood that it has to work with – and not against – the government. Now I am not sure that the governments in LAC have understood that the society is not the enemy, that they need to find a way to work with it, and that their purpose is basically to serve the citizens and that they are accountable to them. That is the definition of democracy. These meetings were pretty terrifying in that respect: these high officials, besides not caring about the population, do not even pretend to care about the people they must serve. And that is a serious issue. While I feel sad for the citizens in LAC, I feel pity for these civil servants. This feeling is probably not going to go away anytime soon, unless we do something about it. Democracy matters.

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