- Women and Civic Life in Argentina
Defending democracy means defending not just this or that institution, but an entire political system. A democratic form of government is like a child: it must be carefully nurtured and strengthened. Since the early 1980s, the Argentine Republic has through its own efforts rebuilt a democratic system that most of the country's people had either forgotten, never known, or lost faith in.
The year 1982 was a crucial one for Argentina. After its war with Britain over the Malvinas ended in disaster, the six-year-old military government promised to hold free national elections. People were anxious for change, having just survived not only foreign conflict, but also a bloody period of terrorism and state-sponsored counterterror (the so-called dirty war) that caused much suffering throughout all reaches of society. Elections seemed to offer a chance to close a chapter in the nation's history. There was a widespread and fervent desire to look to the future with a different conception, to make a new start.
Argentina has one of the oldest constitutions in the world; in 1853, it became only the third country in history to incorporate a bill of rights [End Page 138] into the text of its fundamental law. This Constitution was reintroduced upon the return of elected civilian rule in 1983, and still governs us to this day, with reforms that have not modified its spirit.
There was no question of the path to democratic recovery being an easy one, for too much had been obscured or forgotten. We had a federal republic that had become completely centralized in practice, while our economy depended too greatly on the state and was drowning in a morass of bureaucracy and overregulation. Many essential services were state-run and consequently inefficient, while the wealth of the provinces, like oil, in practice did not belong to them but to the central government. Education was also centralized.
These circumstances—products of a deep-rooted centralist and authoritarian tradition—caused many citizens to lose their creative capacity and powers of initiative. There was little confidence that results could be obtained through active community participation, and little faith in the possibility of being recognized and heard by authorities.
Work at the grass roots was clearly needed to change attitudes so that Argentineans would be prepared to meet the challenges and transformations that the restoration of democracy would bring.
CONCIENCIA—whose name in Spanish can mean consciousness, awareness, or conscience—was founded in that fateful year of 1982 by 22 women in Buenos Aires. It now has 4,300 members, many of whom work in 37 offices spread across 14 of Argentina's 22 provinces and the federal district of Buenos Aires. Today, as it has since its inception, CONCIENCIA continues to take on the challenge of carrying out democratic education at the grassroots level.
Thus did CONCIENCIA aim to turn the passive subjects of authoritarian rulers into mature citizens well versed in the democratic principles and values embodied in much of our history and in our national Constitution. By instilling self-confidence in our people, we wished to unleash their creative energies, teach them their civic responsibilities as well as their individual rights, and convince them of the advantages of democratic participation. We believed that democracy in Argentina could never become strong until the conscience of a responsible citizenry was awakened.
CONCIENCIA's activities are based on a few key premises:
Because CONCIENCIA is a nongovernmental and nonpartisan organization, it has been able to reach a diverse audience and attain widespread credibility. Ten years have now gone by. We have come very far, but we have many projects for the future. Education for democracy must continue if we are to preserve the system that we have fought so hard to establish. Our present circumstances show that fresh chapters in the history of Latin America are being written. Strengthening the cultural underpinnings of democracy by stirring the beliefs, values, ideals, and deepest sentiments of our people must always be our top priority.
In accord with current global trends, the reach of the...