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Spring in September

It was September 1961. I had just turned twenty and was high above the Pacific on a Braniff jet enjoying an eight-course meal with white wine, courtesy of a booking error. As a Pomona College junior I was excited about my forthcoming semester abroad in Chile.

Yes, I knew about fall being spring in the southern hemisphere, but nothing could have prepared me for the blossoming cherry trees on the taxi ride into Santiago. Another surprise was the high tea that awaited my arrival. Chileans, I learned from my host family, have an affinity for English customs, as well as pride in the influence of the British on their politics. 

My research during that long Chilean spring concerned the fast- rising Christian Democratic Party. In response to the weak conservative presidency of Arturo Alessandri, broad sectors of the population, from students to street vendors, were flocking to the banners of a left-of-center version of Christian Democracy. I was privileged to interview Eduardo Frei, more than two years before he became president. 

Of my many other interviews and meetings, I remember in particular a visit by several German Christian Democrats to the party headquarters in Valparaiso. I asked one of them about their ideological differences with the Chileans, and he replied that if he were a Chilean he would also be more to the left than his German party. After all, he observed, with its highly inequitable system of land tenure, Chile desperately needed agrarian reform.

President Frei (1964-1970) did, in fact, undertake serious agrarian reform as well as vastly increasing primary school enrollment. He was succeeded by Socialist Salvador Allende. Despite Allende’s economic mistakes, and his political failure to ally with the center and the center-left, he respected the institutions of democracy. His death at the hands of military plotters ended forty-one years of multi-party democracy. Still, when the dictatorship ended in 1990, it was as if people took up again with democracy, as with an old friend that one has missed. Just as the Czechoslovakians quickly reestablished a new version their pre-war democracy in 1989, so also, there were enough Chileans who were proud of their democratic history and knew how to reconstruct their political institutions.

Fast forward to 2010 when Chileans demonstrated that they had the the political capacity not only to provide relief and rebuild their physical infrastructure, but also to continue to strengthen their democracy after the fall of the Pinochet dictatorship. Indeed, the earthquake provided the Chilean military with an opportunity to strengthen their democratic credentials. In contrast, Haiti has suffered under brutal dictatorships and violence for almost two hundred years and, that same year, even massive amounts of sustained outside help failed to provide Haitians with even a minimally decent life.

Although democracy remains, in Churchill’s phrase, “the worst form of government except for all the others,” the lack of democratic political capacity remains the foremost obstacle to peace and stability in the world. Failed states invariably possess only the capacity to repress and are often the arenas for civil war and genocide. Thus far, at least, democracies have not gone to war with each other, and although democratic governments can be corrupt, their people can at least hold them accountable. 

This does not mean that democracy can (or should be) exported militarily. The U.S. failure in Iraq has put paid to that neo-con illusion. Still, there is something patronizing about commentators who seem to be saying, therefore, that “these people” (or that country) can’t be democratic.”

So what is to be done? Despite the wave of democratization that took place in the late 20th Century, one election does not a democracy make, and sustainable democratic political systems must be built from within. Democracy is about law-based civil liberties, a loyal opposition, increased political participation, including elections and, perhaps most important of all, a democratic political culture. There is also considerable evidence that the wave of democratization characterizing the years around the turn of the last century has peaked, despite recent good democratic news from countries as diverse as Uzbekistan and Malaysia. Fortunately, people all over the world continue to use democratization NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) that promote these goals from within. Their work is tough, sometimes dangerous, and, above all, long-term. In many cases, they will not see the results of their efforts in their own lifetimes.

In 2005-6, I had the privilege of interviewing 90 of these democracy activists in South Africa, Tajikistan, and Argentina. Although South Africa is a democracy, it faces almost insurmountable challenges of inequality and poverty that could overwhelm all of its political progress. Because the government lacks transparency, one young lawyer is pushing for a freedom of information law that would apply to development projects in poor neighborhoods and an anti-corruption coalition remains active.Argentine democracy remains mired in the Peronist-Anti-Peronist polemic. However, one national NGO is working with small NGOs in almost every province to introduce participatory budgeting and transparency statues into local government. After the breakup of the Soviet Union and a brutal civil war, Tajikistan remains a dictatorship. Yet in Tajikistan a young woman I interviewed was re-training local police in human rights standards and practices, with the tacit approval of a dictatorial government that at least understands that this may avoid trouble at the local level.

Despite the differences among these three countries, two struggling democracies and one dictatorship, the people I interviewed were remarkably similar. Despite all the talk about a “post-enlightenment era”, any one of them could walk into Thomas Jefferson’s parlor and use his own writings to challenge him about the horrors of slavery.

And now, as Americans, we face the the most horrendous challenge to our democracy in my lifetime, and I am now 76. If we cannot protect the most vulnerable among us, immigrant babies and children, then, instead of strengthening our democratic heritage, as we will lose the laborious and only partial progress we have achieved on racial justice, women’s rights and gay rights. Equally terrifying, we will have lost our democratic heritage and values.

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