In Nicaragua, the democratic Constitution is a tender and vulnerable infant that will be born surrounded by dangers, if it manages to be born at all.
By Francisco Larios (Confidencial – Niu)
HAVANA TIMES – Among those who cling to the authoritarianism of the “left”, a favorite defense consists in demonizing their opponents as oligarchs, or elitists who are indifferent to the enormous economic and social gaps that mark the Ibero-American societies.
On the other side of the street are those who – in the name of a supposed “globalism” or “neoliberalism” – erase the goal of reducing the social and economic distances between citizens from the agenda of the democratic state.
These notions underline the intellectual poverty of the debate that surrounds us, and the truth is they speak more of the believer than of the saint. The “left” has been incapable, since the catastrophe of the communist projects in the former Soviet Union and Cuba, of presenting a program that’s convincing in a positive sense. The “right”, the “globalists” or the “neoliberals”, paint a very thin varnish over those who are looking to protect their privileges. They use this varnish to try and cover up their inaction, without taking a long or broad look at the future.
In truth, there’s not necessarily any contradiction between aspiring to political freedom and aspiring for social and economic equity. On the contrary. Despite our apparent differences, we have one thing in common: we’re born with the capacity, and thus the right, to not be subjects – to not be dominated by others any more than others are dominated by us. We have the right to exercise our capacity for being free without others limiting us any more than we limit them, in a pact of reciprocity that’s essential for everyone to get along.
For that reason, because what makes us equals is that we are all by nature free, protecting freedom is protecting equality. The two are inseparable. It’s not in vain that the conflict in Nicaragua has stripped bare our double defeat: a chronic lack of liberty and a deep wound of inequality. A double defeat that in reality represents one unique failure: the failure to construct a democratic state. From there, it’s vital that we put an end to our perverse cycles of violence and misery, and proceed to build such a state.
A democratic constituent assembly and a referendum
Every human being, as much as they’re members of society, should have a voice and a vote in the structure of political power, and in the construction and the eventual reform and replacement of that legal dimension that Rousseau called the “social contract”: the Constitution.
For Nicaragua, this implies that there can be no liberty without a new Constitution, a democratic Constitution, and there can’t be a democratic Constitution without the constituent assembly process itself being democratic.
Such a process could be summarized in two large steps:
- The election, with free and universal suffrage, of representatives that prepare and propose a draft of a Constitution;
- A referendum, for the citizens to approve or veto the draft.
To assure the greatest possible freedom, no Constitutional draft should be approved, unless two-thirds or more of the electorate vote in favor of it.
A similar rule must be established for Constitutional reforms, so that the Constitution not become a corollary of power, but its foundation and limits. Any proposed reform should be approved by a referendum; none should be approved unless a two-thirds majority of the electorate, or more, vote in favor.
A democratic Constitution is essential
It’s not enough for the Constituent assembly to be democratic. We must take care that the contents of the Constitution be democratic as well. What does this mean? It means that the new Carta Magna should structure the state power in such a way so as to maintain individual freedom in the face of the innumerable and inevitable threats that arise in the human jungle.
The new order must satisfy at least two requirements:
Firstly, it shouldn’t obligate the citizens to act against their own moral free will; it shouldn’t dictate to them behaviors contrary to those that they would display in the absence of a social contract, unless said behaviors infringe on the freedom of others.
Secondly, it must create a wall of contention that would protect the minorities [political, ideological, ethnic, sexual, religious, etc.] from being swallowed by the power of the majority. Without this, it’s impossible to maintain the mechanism through which democracy is periodically ratified and rejuvenated. Whoever can’t count on the support or acceptance of the majority today should preserve the opportunity to obtain it, without being squashed by the majority before this can happen.
Implications for Nicaragua
Given this, we need to:
- Abandon the idea that the ultimate goal of a democracy is to award power to the will of the majority and convert it into the overwhelming general will. Democracy is – and to survive must be – a lot more than the mechanism through which the majority imposes their will on everything. Democracy needs precisely to be a system that limits the power of the majority, the weight of the general will, and keeps it from invading all corners in a totalitarian way.
- Adopt the idea that the political system’s objective should be to assure the freedom of every citizen. This isn’t only an ethical aspiration, but a vital necessity. Because without freedom for all, there ends up being freedom for very few, if you can call the privilege of the oppressors freedom at all.
A good government isn’t one that does good
In practice, all this requires that the sphere of the individual’s and the family’s private decisions remain out of the State’s province. It also requires that we abandon another idea – that the legitimacy of any government action depends on whether this act is morally good in the opinion of the majority. To phrase it from another angle, the idea that if the government acts well, what it does is good.
In a democratic regime, the government isn’t acting well by doing good. It acts well if it acts with the greatest possible energy within its limits. It acts badly, even if it does what’s seen in the short run as good, if it goes beyond the limits of its scope and invades – even though it be for the good – the sphere of the individual’s and the family’s private decisions.
Here’s an example: the fact that the majority may be religious believers and consider the worship of God as a good thing doesn’t mean that the government should support it, for the same reason that it shouldn’t attack it: because it belongs to the private sphere, that of the citizens’ consciences.
Generally, governments that say that they support religion are really leaning on it for their support. Eventually they cause harm with this, because the use of religious faith in the political process has left a fatal trail for humanity, and in our own history. That’s just one illustration among many of the damage that occurs when the State oversteps its boundaries and invades areas where only the individual conscience should be acting.
Democratic Constitution – a baby surrounded by coyotes
It’s not enough to create a democratic Constitution through a democratic Constituent Assembly. It’s not enough to establish the legal boundaries of government action. In Nicaragua, the democratic Constitution is a tender and vulnerable infant that will be born surrounded by dangers, if it manages to get born at all. To start with, there’s the centralist, authoritarian and recent totalitarian experience in Nicaraguan politics.
There’s also a precedent of economic inequality.
After that, there’s a culture that, despite a lot of noise, is accustomed to racism and the stigmatization of poverty (or, equally, its vile inverse: its glorification).
Finally, in this brief list, there’s the risk that comes from foreign powers, political as well as economic ones, whose fundamental interest, as is natural, is assuring their own benefit, at times at the expense of our freedom.
An essential goal: minimize the central power
In the face of these great challenges, those of us who are democrats need to develop realistic solutions that reflect the enormity of the dangers and don’t assume that the politicians “of the new era” are going to be paragons of kindness, honesty and integrity. Moral postures aren’t enough, and we already know that the “new man” doesn’t exist, or at least no one has seen him for some two thousand years.
As a result, we should be concerned about decentralizing – I would say atomizing – the government’s power. It should be done in a permanent and structural way, so that none of the governing parties of the moment, however popular or astute they may be, can enthrone themselves.
This is a fundamental challenge, implying life or death for democracy, and peace or war for society. It’s not a matter of electing a “good president”, a person who’s “competent and has integrity”, but of designing a system and dispersing power so that democracy can survive those who aren’t democratic.
One idea that occurs to me (there will be more and better ones) is to fragment power into regional governments that don’t depend on the central government for their financing. Another is to abolish the National Police, and have the police forces be dependent on the regional and municipal governments, and also financed at that level.
As far as the army goes, they could be replaced by non-military forces under separate commands that assume different functions. For example: care of land borders, care of sea borders, caring for natural resources.
Reduce the influence of the strong, support access for the vulnerable
Economic inequality is a particularly complex challenge, one that merits much more space than is available here, even just to outline it. Nicaragua suffers from an extreme case of inequality. The country has very few national fortunes on a world level, but the estimated total wealth of the ones we do have is equivalent to an unusually high percentage of the Gross National Product.
So much wealth lives side by side with the large percentage of the population that barely subsist, and with a small and fragile middle class without many avenues for progress in an economy dominated by family businesses that are often also monopolies or oligopolies.
The double task is to take political and economic power away from the large, and facilitate the acquisition of political and economic power for the small, in order to begin closing the gap, and all this within a regime of guarantees that assure rights, and of laws that combat privilege.
The strategy needs to include regulation, taxation and a massive expenditure in education of a “futurist” shade – that is, education that prepares students for the current world of globalization, technology and high productivity.
None of this is possible if there’s not a simultaneous education in equal citizens’ rights, and if the nation’s self-esteem isn’t promoted in the children’s conscience: instilling in them that independently of how they look, of how much their parents have in property or in the bank, of whether or not they’ve been born poor or not, they’re citizens of a republic that belongs to them. This is clearly difficult work, but necessary and not impossible. In passing we should note that the formation of this new citizen’s conscience should be backed by laws that combat discrimination.
Feet on the ground
I’m not full of illusions: the road from where we find ourselves today to the free and prosperous society that we’ve never had is going to take a lot of work and a lot of sacrifice.
Certainly, we Nicaraguans will know how to send the current dictatorship to the museum of bad memories, but the most probable outcome is that the process will end up mediated by interests that today are much more organized and powerful than the rest of society. These sectors will have – or will believe themselves to have – the frying pan handle firmly in hand when that tragic chapter that we’re living through today ends, and will seek a way to preserve their privileges. It’s probable that they succeed in this in the short run.
However, we democrats need to treat the transition towards a non-dictatorial government as barely a first step in the construction of a sustainable democracy. Because if the inequality that’s reflected in the privileges of a few doesn’t disappear, sooner or later we’ll be back again where we are today.
For that reason, we must put practical solutions on the table, ones we’ve debated in the most intelligent, informed and broad way possible, guided by the principle that liberty can’t be sustained without equality, nor equality without liberty.
That’s the challenge that I dare to launch from the vantagepoint of my little corner.