Organized Democracy

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Traveling through Guatemala and learning a bit about the history of US imperialism here.

Its arc is like this: Jorge Ubico, backed by the United States, wins an uncontested election in 1931 and becomes a famously brutal dictator. All the land which had been public ally or collectively owned is sold off, mostly to large international agribusinesses. In 1944, labor power and popular protest oust Ubico. Elections are held and a moderate is elected. In 1951 Arbenz, who aside from his strong land reform policies could only be a socialist by US standards, is elected. He begins a process of redistribution of unused land, granting land to about 100,000 families disenfranchised by Ubico regime. In 1954 the CIA engineers a military coup, instating a new military dictatorship and undoing the land reforms. Dictatorship devolves into a civil war that lasts until the 1990s.

Over the course of the 1990s the political situation stabilized. But this time it was without labor power or a popular left movement, both of which were devastated during the war. In 2015, a quarter of political campaign contributions came from business interests and organized crime each. The candidates with the most support, including Jimmy Morales (who won), were those who sought to discontinue the prosecution of former military officials for war crimes.

What do we mean when we talk about democracy? Here we see two answers at war. Liberal democracy, which is what we typically mean in the US, has to do with individual empowerment. A situation is liberal-democratic insofar as it permits individuals to express their political will and organize, within the God-given constraints of neoliberal capitalism (some sarcasm here). What’s notable is that the actuality of political organization isn’t taken into account—only its potential. Actual political organization may occasionally even be opposed to personal liberty, as in the disjunction between scabbing and worker’s solidarity.

Organized labor is not, in US discourse, considered as a lever of people power constituting democracy. Guatemala under Arbenz and Guatemala now can be seen as being on similar footing with respect to democracy only with such a hobbled definition of democracy. The US has shucked off meaningful popular power from the brittle and bureaucratic thing it calls “democracy.”