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Empowering citizens through technology in Colombia

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Empowering citizens through technology in Colombia


Ahead of the Presidential elections that will take place in Columbia on 14 May 2014, we talked to  Renny Rueda Castañeda from Ecodemocracy, a civil society organisation that advocates direct democracy and more citizen participation through technological means in Columbia and in Latin America as a whole. 

Democracy International: To start with, could you please tell us something about your organsation Ecodemocracy and its main goals?

Renny Rueda Castañeda: We are an organisation founded two years ago in Bogota. Ecodemocracy aims to boost the possibilities of direct, deliberative, participative as well as electronic-based democracy in Colombia. We believe that the current structures of representative democracy are not functional enough for the complexity, requirements and demands of today's societies and social systems. We believe that direct democracy can be considered as a possibility; a process that has to be connected with the advantages offered by today's technology and the cultural background of citizens.

Right now, we are a permanent working group of about six persons, located in Bogota. However, we are constantly in contact with honourable representatives in other regions of the country. As a group, we regularly hold meetings but the frequency of the meetings often depends on the political proccesses taking place in the country. The main group consists of two lawyers, a political scientist, an engineer, two journalists and a technological expert.

One goal of Ecodemocracy is to enhance direct democracy. What is the state of direct democracy in Colombia in general?

We believe that the concept of direct democracy in Colombia, and certainly of democracy in general, has been poorly developed. For us, during the recent decades, society has evolved in such a way that large parts of the population are excluded from the decision-making-process.

In Colombia, political structures are very complex. Colombia is a very unequal society. Culturally, it is highly fragmented between people with high educational levels. At the same time, large parts of the population lack technical or even primary or secondary basic education. These settings have led to the distortion of democratic life and the strengthening of political actors, who impose agendas that often go against the will of a well-informed citizenry. In this context, the voting process of the large majority of the population is decided by the capacity of some political actors, especially during Congressional elections. They "buy" the voters by giving them gifts and money. This is accompanied by populist discourses and entertaining. In this way, real and structural solutions are excluded from political debate.

Moreover, for many people it has become a profitable way of living to have a poorly educated population that is excluded from the decision-making-process. The same families or media leaders enjoy personal benefits and political advantages while Colombian society as a whole remains in political, cultural, social and economic stagnation.

For this reason, Ecodemocracy as an organisation aims to go one step further in order to empower citizens through technology. Ecodemocracy wants citizens to be the ones who take the decisions, who deliberate the political agenda and who even have a vote with the help of technological solutions. We believe that the only way societies can reach political maturity is by becoming an active part of the political structure. In this view, we think that direct democratic procedures are the path through which politics can return to society and profit-seekers can be set apart from the political environment.

In May 2014, Presidential elections will be held in Colombia. On 9 March 2014 elections to the Congress (Colombian parliament) took place. The elections are perceived as a vote on the ongoing peace talks between President Santos who wants to negotiate a peace agreement with the militant guerilla groups FARC and his opponent Uribe, who opposes talks with the FARC. How can direct democracy help to solve the conflict? Do you think a referendum could pave the way for peace in Colombia?

Concerning the current political situation in the country, we have a single approach. We believe that it should be the people who take decisions and neither the media nor political leaders. From an entirely procedural perspective, we may agree with the possibility of a referendum. However, we want to go a step further by considering the fact that a country's real peace cannot be reached through agreements between a few actors who meet beyond the domestic frontiers. What we need is a process of society’s maturation.

We think that society is deprived of the concept of "peace". The latter term has become a topic of tabloids instead of being seriously debated by society. At first glance, the situation in Columbia shows that the violence originates from the concentration of power and the idea that few actors can represent real interests of millions of citizens. We want to avoid such settings through direct democratic procedures in order to open new horizons for a highly complex political environment such as Columbia's.

Is Ecodemocracy active ahead of the Presidential elections? What do you do?

We are currently analysing our duties ahead of the Presidential elections. Concerning the Congressional elections (9 March 2014), during the recent months, we called all Congress candidates and asked them to let citizens propose, deliberate and vote law projects through a technological platform that we have launched on 3 March 2014. We contacted the candidates to ask them to accept a list of conditions that would allow the country's transition to a path of direct, deliberative, participative and technology-based democracy. We want those candidate to vote according to the citizens’ majority as expressed in online-polling, via our platform of Ecodemocracy.

Furthermore, we want them to agree not to be in politics for the high profits that the institutional arrangements offer them but for their true will to serve the citizens who often live in very difficult economic conditions. In Colombia, a member of Congress commonly earns  more than 13,200 Dollar per month and each member has additional funds of more than 15,000 Dollar in order to pay technical assistants, transportation and other benefits. In contrast, the average Columbian worker earned a bit more than 300 Dollar during 2013. We believe that such conditions erode the capacity of the country to evolve as a social as well as a political project.

What is your political vision of Colombia and Latin America?

We believe that the concept of direct, deliberative and participative democracy can be a reality as for the first time technology and education have spread to the most hidden places of the world. The challenge of Ecodemocracy is not only to make this conjunction visible in Colombia but also in Latin America as a whole. There are indeed many other initiatives taking place on the continent, which adopt similar methodologies and build up their own approaches. This, we believe, is just the beginning of a new era in which each citizen will recognise itself as a member with rights but also with serious duties to make democracy a concrete reality.

Learn more about Ecodemocracy and its goals here.

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