Mercedes De Freitas
Fellow Since 2000
This description of Mercedes De Freitas's work was prepared when Mercedes De Freitas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2000.
Mercedes De Freitas is building a movement for citizen participation in governance and social activism by helping Venezuelans understand the opportunities and threats their democracy faces and the importance of the people's participation in legal and structural reform.
The New Idea
Mercedes created a non-partisan movement for citizen participation in government to popularize Venezuelan democracy. She is helping citizens understand their role in governance and, taking advantage of a historic moment when Venezuela's new Constitution aims to promote citizen participation, Mercedes is trying to ensure just that - that Venezuela's citizens play a key role in the design and implementation of the most significant electoral and municipal governance laws and mechanisms, currently in the process of formation. By researching the state of elections and funding for political parties, publicizing legal issues through the press, and arranging alliances between citizens and officials, Mercedes deters reliance on partisan politics and makes people central to legal reform. Rather than support one political party, she is working to strengthen political parties in general to further reinforce the democratic system. She is leading the general population toward a more transparent and effective democracy in Venezuela.
In Venezuela, government institutions exist to serve the state and do not answer to the country's citizens. All income and benefits from state-owned businesses go to the political party in control of the government and are not reinvested in the country for the benefit of the people. Historically, two political parties have maintained power through corruption and oligarchy. The old parties are now dead, and in the 1998 election, new parties emerged simply for the election, including that of Hugo Chávez, who would become the President. With no strong or constructive opposition, politics has become centered around the President himself rather than a multi-party system. This lack of accountability allows greater corruption and contributes to the system's failure to cover basic rights like health care and social security. The new constitution does not provide campaign financing for political parties outside of the government, giving obvious power to the governing party, which can make use of state funds for its own campaigns. Moreover, any existing opposition is fragmented and disorganized and tends to use confrontational tactics without actually presenting proposals or alternatives. Rather than finding a way to constructively participate in the political process, most political groups only serve to marginalize opposition and rally more blind support for the President. The current system is a clear detriment to Venezuela's democracy. The December 1999 Constitution makes several references to the protagonism of Venezuela's citizens but includes few mechanisms to ensure this participation. Without a concerted effort to incorporate citizen participation, the current government will continue to make policy without regard for public opinion. In addition to the problems at the national level, Venezuela's local governments are very weak. Each of Venezuela's municipal governments has the same structure, and all are dependent on the state. Moreover, municipal governments are highly unorganized structures without basic information about population or distinctions based on size. The country lacks practical voting mechanisms to truly express the will of the people.
Mercedes has elected to focus on the two laws in the new constitution promoting public participation, the Electoral Power Law and the Law on Municipal Regulations. Her strategy seeks to influence the legal framework and monitor the enforcement and application of the laws. Her strategy to effect citizen participation includes empirical studies, media outreach, and alliances between citizens, community organizations, community groups, and government agencies. Mercedes asserts that in order to make civil sector proposals viable, they need to have the backing of empirical information. An integral part of her strategy is to conduct studies about the electoral systems, both in Venezuela and abroad. In doing so, Mercedes draws on her experience as a year 2000 elections observer, through which she noted several human errors and technology failure. She is currently studying the structure of political parties and how they are financed and conducting public opinion polls as a part of her media strategy. Her first organization, Moment of the People, is also one of fifteen Latin American citizen participation organizations involved in the Lima Agreement for monitoring elections. She is using information collected through this network for a comparative study of Latin American electoral procedures. Mercedes' media strategy for citizen involvement has two main components: working directly with citizens to educate them about participation issues and influencing public opinion through press coverage. She holds workshops for local governing authorities and citizen groups to build public opinion on the content of the law and the mechanisms to enforce them. In addition to workshops, Mercedes spreads information about the laws through bulletins distributed by civil society organizations and other channels. Mercedes has built a good relationship with the press, through which she has positioned herself as the top authority on issues of democratization and civic participation. This publicity also increases pressure on the government, sending a strong signal that it cannot create these critical laws without voter participation. Through her diverse contacts, Mercedes creates dialogue and alliances with government officials. She has been named an Advisor to the National Assembly's Commission on Interior Policy, through which she is working directly with the President of the Commission to review and better enact the participatory aspects of the laws. Her organization also promotes partnerships at the municipal level, including the chambers of commerce, local businesses, and mayors, which are important allies in the formulation of a law on municipalities. Though she does not intend to generate one unified opinion on how the two laws should be formulated, Mercedes does expect to pique people's interest in the theme, encourage them to form opinions on the subject, and identify leaders in each community to mobilize others around important electoral and municipal issues. She uses alliances and public discussions to feed her organization's proposals to law-making commissions. Although there is no guarantee that she will be selected to the technical advisory committees for the new law commissions, her work will awaken Venezuela's citizens to their rights and prevent the government from further abusing its power.
Mercedes, the daughter of a Spanish mother and a Portuguese father, began working on social issues in high school as a tutor for children in poor neighborhoods. She maintained a strong connection to social and cultural movements at university, where she became involved in student politics and changed her academic concentration from computer engineering to history to gain a better understanding of world issues. She was frustrated by the lack of student participation and association with political parties at her university and chose not to affiliate herself with any political party, but with the protection of rights instead. Upon graduation from the university, she worked in marketing for an auto parts company and, later, started her own company, but continued to work on a volunteer basis with several organizations promoting democracy in Venezuela. In 1992, after the attempted coup in Venezuela, she joined forces with a civil society organization promoting the culture of democracy and the importance of citizen participation in governance and electoral issues. As director of the citizen education campaign, she conducted workshops across the country and became an expert on electoral systems. In 1995, Mercedes co-founded the Foundation Venezuela 2020 and left the auto parts business to become a public interest consultant and executive director of a business consulting company. Shortly thereafter, she founded Moment of the People to fortify Venezuela's democracy by strengthening opposition political parties and municipal governments whose decisions closely affect people's daily lives. She has since founded Observatorio Democrático to better address the issues of citizen participation and the strengthening of democracy in Venezuela.