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Citizenship and Equality in Latin America: A Troubled Link

8 Aug 2019

  • Author(s): Luciano Enrique Andrenacci

Citizenship and Equality in Latin America: A Troubled Link
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, Overcoming Inequalities in a Fractured World: Between Elite Power and Social Mobilization, launched to coincide with a major UNRISD Call for Paper Conference by the same name. In this series, experts from academia, advocacy and policy practice engage with the topic of inequality by critically exploring the various causes of deepening inequalities in the current context, their implications for sustainable development, and strategies and mechanisms being employed to reverse them as part of the global conversation on inequalities leading up to the review of Sustainable Development Goal 10 at the UN High-Level Political Forum in July 2019.

As the 20th century drew to a close, Latin America witnessed an unexpectedly virtuous alignment of factors favouring “inclusive” citizenship. A combination of global economic and political change weakened long-standing power arrangements, providing a window of opportunity in the region to strengthen the otherwise troubled link between citizenship and equality. So how did this come about? This think piece traces the historical genesis of the connection between modern notions of citizenship and equality, and the highs (few) and lows (many!) of how it has played out in Latin America up to the present day.

Luciano Enrique Andrenacci is a faculty member at the Escuela de Política y Gobierno, Universidad Nacional de San Martín (UNSAM), Buenos Aires; and at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO), Argentine Chapter.

Modern citizenship and equality

For at least two centuries, the modern idea of citizenship has helped to redefine states in a progressive way, from brutal, elite-led predatory domination, to people-sensitive, legitimacy-based government. Citizenship stemmed from ancient southern and western European traditions of membership in small and relatively libertarian and egalitarian political communities. For historically contingent (and controversial) reasons, citizenship eventually became a status based on the juridical relationship of individuals to large territorial organizations (states) combining fairly universal membership, rights and obligations. From the 18th century on, republics and parliamentary monarchies made the prevailing concept of egalitarianism operational through universal electoral systems, inclusion-oriented political economies, and rights-based social policies. In republics and monarchies in western Europe and the Americas, political representation, as well as economic and social policies, became arenas in which this new kind of egalitarianism was tested.

Against the background of powerful and persistent gender, socioeconomic and ethnic cleavages, modern citizenship arrangements evolved as systems of rights and obligations recognized by territorial political powers in at least three key aspects: membership, welfare, and political participation. Of course, citizenship never actually became egalitarian for all inhabitants of a territorial state; yet its equality-oriented bias made a difference.

In terms of membership, citizenship rights became the battlegrounds where pluralism and tolerance slowly became dominant. In contrast with notions associating membership and loyalty with language, religion or kinship, citizenship ideals blended with universalistic narratives contained in the major monotheistic religions that spread through the first millennium of our era, opening the way to the modern ethics of human rights. The suppression of differences never ceased to feed identity politics, but citizenship allowed the acknowledgement of differences within communities to prevail. Language, religion, gender and sexual orientation were gradually incorporated into citizenship rights.

Citizenship considerations also became a basis for compromise between social classes to guarantee a reasonable minimum standard of welfare, with the state as arbiter and regulator. In capitalist economies, this implied acting against specific kinds of market failures that brought about unacceptable consequences such as economic depression, unemployment or low-income employment. It also implied the creation of universally accessible services through public policy, particularly in education, health and housing. In socialist systems, citizenship even (allegedly) became the keystone of legitimacy and the main goal for central planning. The provision of a minimum standard of welfare by the state became another essential aspect of citizenship rights.

Finally, citizenship also worked as a means of compromise between egalitarian ideals and asymmetries in the distribution of political power. Strategies of representation, the most radical of which was universal suffrage, disrupted or limited elite control of political choices and decisions. Citizenship considerations became the leverage for the expansion of political rights, for example for women and marginalized groups, in democratic political regimes (what political scientists call polyarchies). Even in authoritarian (or centralized) political regimes, a more egalitarian citizenship notion became the key element of narratives justifying power concentration in the hands of “true” leaders and parties of the people.

On citizenship and equality in Latin America

In Latin America, modern notions of citizenship faced trouble from the very beginning. European colonies, like the monarchies from which they stemmed, had been built on the exclusion (or the extremely asymmetric inclusion) of large majorities (Indigenous or Native peoples, African slaves, and sometimes even locally born Europeans) from many key aspects of social power. The territorial states that arose in the 19th century, led by white, mestizo or mulatto elites, were quick to formally grant citizenship rights, but slow and unwilling to extend or enforce them. Latin American 20th century polyarchies generally failed to build the internal conditions and external autonomy necessary to uphold civil rights (let alone equality), social mobility (let alone welfare) or political participation (let alone democratization).

With rare and temporary exceptions, only by the late 20th century did political leadership and economic possibilities tend to allow citizenship to become “inclusive”. The very central and widespread use of the term inclusión / inclusão in civil, political and social rights movements is a telling sign of how universalism and equality were absent or insufficient in Latin American states’ ciudadanía / cidadania.

Tolerance had never been available for Indigenous or Native peoples. Latin American republican citizenships were built on the active ignorance of non-European social practices. A hypocritical universalism (sometimes dressed as multiculturalism) was built on differences rendered invisible. The conservative strand of Christianity that Latin Americans embraced had a comparable effect on gender relations and sexual orientations. Latin American families evolved as mechanisms for the subordination of women and the rejection of sexual heterogeneity.

Egalitarian welfare considerations faced a rough road as well. Latin American “extractivist” forms of capitalism, based on intensive exploitation of primary resources, only temporarily (or partially) reached situations in which growth provided widespread economic opportunities, full employment and upward social mobility. When the state stepped in to seek more effective development pathways it almost inevitably intervened in a biased or even predatory way. The result was (with the controversial exception of Cuba) a remarkable pattern of intense material inequalities within territories and among groups.

Last, but not least, citizenship hardly functioned as a way of making political systems more accessible or accountable. Latin American republics found ways to build formally inclusive institutions that actually worked as ritual frameworks for political powers in the hands of relatively small elites. If popular nationalist coalitions did provide occasional openings, they were seldom powerful enough to meaningfully change political asymmetries, if they ever intended to do so. When they achieved long-term domination, as in Mexico, these coalitions, too, tended to reproduce power concentration.

Citizenship as egalitarian inclusion in Latin America

As the 20th century was drawing to an end, Latin America witnessed an unexpectedly virtuous alignment of factors favouring “inclusive” citizenship. The contingent combination of global economic and political change weakened long-standing power arrangements, providing a window of opportunity involving new actors, coalitions and deals. If the link between citizenship and equality had been weak, it suddenly became ubiquitous.

In the first two decades of the 21st century most of the region underwent a multiplicity of citizenship-oriented changes which I have proposed to label “inclusionism”: democratic political regimes reassessed and resumed economic development, and launched remarkable drives to acknowledge and tackle enduring inequalities. Inclusionism even seemed set to become part of the zeitgeist, affecting governments of various ideological persuasions.

So how did this come about? Changes seem to have been triggered by political scenarios known as “transitions to democracy”. Civic-military dictatorships (as in most of South America) fell, while authoritarian civic coalitions (as in Mexico, Colombia or Venezuela) were forced to open their game. In new political regimes with less concentration of power, more encompassing coalitions were built including long-neglected actors (notably, the Indigenous peoples’ movements) and new social movements (notably, women’s organizations), and more transparent and accountable governance was achieved.

Global economic changes favoured Latin American capitalism, providing higher prices and new markets for local production, as well as better conditions for public and private credit. This shift was reflected in faster economic growth and rising public expenditure. Employment and social policy remarkably reduced poverty and even began to chip away at long-standing and persistent social vulnerabilities experienced by women, the young, and disadvantaged ethnic groups. Although external dependence, concentration of economic power and environmental unsustainability did not go away, they were dealt with in better ways.

The favourable scenario was accompanied by remarkable social change. The region was swept by two unexpectedly strong waves, one promoting cultural pluralism and the other attacking gender inequality. States recast institutions to bring about effective recognition of linguistic pluralism and created infrastructure capable of integrating segregated urban areas or abandoned rural communities. New laws challenged family practices and gender bias, favouring more equal communities. Even sexual orientation was acknowledged as a new civil right in many countries, while in others legal repression was neutralized.

The return of the troubled link?

Unfortunately, prospects for the alignment of citizenship and equality in the region seem to have darkened during the second decade of the 21st century. Evidence is still not definite, yet clouds seem to be gathering.

The changes in global economic scenarios, beginning with the 2007-8 global crisis, have had a negative impact on a region dependent on global exchange and finance. Economic slowdown and recession are limiting access to economic opportunities again, while at the same time fiscal constraints are affecting the implementation of inclusive economic and social policies, bringing decreases in poverty and inequality to a slowdown or a stop. All evidence points to the fact that inclusionism needs to be paired with structural economic change to generate effective socioeconomic inclusion. Making capitalism inclusive is becoming elusive again.

Democratic political regimes are also showing fatigue. Limited state capacity, corruption and bad governance remain widespread, casting shadows on egalitarian citizenship-oriented changes. In some countries, progressive incumbent coalitions seem unwilling to accept challenges to their hold on power, while in others they favour the old strategies of power concentration, straining the rule of law. New authoritarian brands of leadership have appeared, based on the outright rejection of citizenship as a universal and egalitarian status, most remarkably in the biggest state of the region, Brazil. Even if the considerable socio-cultural changes in cultural pluralism and gender relations look resilient for now, new political leaders have added hate-fuelled identity politics, relatively unusual for the region, and social conservatism to their electoral manifestoes. In a delicate macroeconomic and political ecosystem, the consequences could be dire.

Are these simply a few temporary setbacks? Maybe inclusive development could be resumed and made more effective. Maybe political storms are testing how soundly democratic our regimes have become. Maybe the backlash against citizenship-oriented socially progressive coalitions is the temporary cost of collective learning. Let’s hope so. As the beginning of the 21st century in Latin America showed, better worlds are feasible when the link between citizenship and equality is activated.

Photo: Secretaría de Cultura de la Nación, Argentina. Licensed under Creative Commons. Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)



This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.