Lessons on Democracy from a Banana Republic

July 14, 2004
Published by Common Dreams, 7/14/04

by Sofia Jarrin-Thomas

Do you trust your government? Not just this administration but the government in general, your elected officials, the appointed judges, and the security forces that are set up to protect it? If you answered yes, let me tell you a little bit about democracy somewhere else than the land of freedom and liberty.

It is a general misconception that democracy was born in this country and that third world countries owe their understanding of democracy to the United States. In Ecuador, from where I'm originally from, we are taught at a very young age a communal sense of duty towards the people of our country and a general distrust of the government. Unlike the United States, the native people of South America had lived there for thousands of years and had an extremely well developed, self-sufficient society before the first European immigrants came. With the Spanish conquest however, their customs, religion, and form of government were practically destroyed in the name of Christianity; countless of lives were lost, but many survived and remember the bloodshed.

Very few people in Ecuador claim to be pure Spanish blooded, and even though we are mostly Christian, we have also proudly adopted many customs from the indigenous people, descendants of the Incas. Our Constitution was crated based on the French and US constitutions. But our sense of community, liberty, and justice has come from the indigenous people, from their historical woes and core values: do not lie (amaquilla), do not steal (amasua), do not be lazy (amallulla). Our definition of democracy is grounded on active participation, communal cooperation, as well as the understanding that people in power should not be completely trusted and that power and money corrupt completely.

Voting is obligatory in Ecuador and is seen as a notion of national pride. I remember clearly my excitement when I turned 18, the voting age in my country. My entire family came with me to the ballots and cheered for me when I came out of the voting booth. It didn't really matter whom I voted for; my father told me that that was my secret to keep. The important thing is that I was exercising my right and responsibility as a citizen. As a matter of fact, until recently the voting record in Ecuador was at 92% of the population. Only in the last presidential election, when both candidates were facing corruption allegations, the voting record fell to 72%. Compare this to the 32% voting record in the United States.

Unlike the electoral system in the US, in Ecuador we have direct elections where every single vote counts. It is a quite powerful feeling to go out to vote thinking that your vote might just make the difference.

Additionally, votes are counted nationally, not at the departmental or state levels, meaning that a number of departments can't decide an election. We don't have swings states like Florida, Ohio or North Carolina. In Ecuador, the majority of votes across departmental lines determine who the next president of the nation will be.

Ecuador enjoys a multi-party system. And even though control of the presidential post fluctuates between the top 3-5 most popular parties, it also means the indigenous community can have its own party, Pachakuti. Whereas, racial discrimination might make it close to impossible for an indigenous leader to be elected president in Ecuador any time soon, the indigenous party has been able to dominate a few departmental and city elections.

The system, of course, is hardly perfect. Crippled by a $16.3 billion national debt that amounts to 54% of our Gross Domestic Product, Ecuador is a poor country and unfortunately too many leaders have taken advantage of their place of power to enrich themselves. Corruption is rampant, slowly corroding our nation and even our legal system, creating social unrest. Moreover, our country is very vulnerable to foreign investors who will not hesitate to negotiate with corrupt leaders, whether it is in the general population's interests or not.

Bananas might be one of Ecuador's top exports, but it is the oil in our Amazon that has attracted the most ambitious foreign investors. For two decades in the 70s and 80s, Texaco pumped 90% of Ecuador's oil with billionaire profits from which my country benefited little. If anything, the oil industry has destroyed our rainforests (over the course of 25 years, Texaco spilled 17 million gallons of crude oil and 5 million gallons of toxic waste into the river systems), prompted political corruption, and severed public services such as health and education on behalf of oil development subsidies.

The greatest threat to the US might be terrorism; in Ecuador there is a general consensus that our greatest threat is foreign wealth seekers, mostly from the United States, and that all our natural resources are for sale.

My greatest admiration for the United States is its justice system, however flawed, for being able to protect our basic rights and hold people accountable for their crimes, even at high offices. Yet it saddens me to see their countrymen and women take their democracy for granted. The Bush administration's abuse of power, nationally and internationally, has undermined global standards of peace, law, and justice. Wounded nationalism has corroded the civic responsibility upon which this country was built.

I criticize Bush now, but I also criticized the Clinton administration, which sowed exponential profits from arms sales to corrupt, unstable governments. I recognize crooked ideals when I see them. I also realize that both Democrats and Republicans are in some way or another enslaved to corporate power. I will not sacrifice my right to question and speak up, for blind loyalties.

In Ecuador, my people are facing immense difficulties but they are not afraid to speak up, to take the streets, to hold their elected officials accountable. Maybe we are lucky after all that our history has taught us not to take anything for granted.

Sofia Jarrin-Thomas is the author of several articles on US policy in Latin America and has published her material in magazines such as Dollars & Sense, Z Magazine, and Tintaji.