Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Freedom for the Have-Nots

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Freedom for the Have-Nots

Article excerpt

In Brazil there has long been a profound conviction that democracy is a political system that does not easily take root in underdeveloped countries. And yet for long periods in its history Brazil itself has had a formal democratic system. In the nineteenth century the Empire coexisted with parliamentary government, and in the present century, except for the periods between 1937 and 1945 and 1964 and 1985, there have always been elections and a plurality of political parties. The fact remains that people have always tended to emphasize the problems of democracy rather than its stability and the strength of its roots. The noted Brazilian historian Sergio Buarque de Holanda liked to say that democracy "is a delicate plant, and has great difficulty growing in the tropics".

In the so-called Third World countries, even when a regime has had leaders chosen on the basis of elections between representatives of different parties, it has always been criticized by someone, not without justification, on the grounds of its "elitist" or "oligarchical" character. In such cases, fragile democratic institutions were confronted with political realities such as the existence of systems of patronage, lack of real freedom for society's underdogs, and the artificiality of political parties.

These criticisms contain an element of truth. But in the light of world events during the last ten years, I wonder whether it is not the dictatorships and authoritarian regimes rather than the democracies that have turned out to be fragile. Dictatorships, as recent history shows, end up being less durable than democracy, which is increasingly becoming a universal value.

In his "Dictionary of Politics",(1) Norberto Bobbio reviews the various meanings of the word democracy from ancient Greece to the present day, and concludes by emphasizing the dichotomy between democracy as an egalitarian ideal and democracy as a method--in other words between democracy as a value and democracy as a mechanism. But his comments were made before the current great debate about the transition to democracy in eastern Europe. If he were writing now, he would perhaps comment that it is vain to think of merging these two meanings of democracy.

Nevertheless, I think he would primarily emphasize the key role of freedom, both in theory and in practice. It is freedom, far more than a definition of new rules of democracy, that has fostered the democratization process in eastern Europe, led to the downfall of anachronistic dictatorships in Greece, Spain and Portugal, and encouraged the fight against authoritarianism in Latin America. It still motivates the struggle for democratization, particularly in Asia and some of the newly industrialized countries such as the Republic of Korea.

All the same, we need to analyse rather more deeply the different processes of transition to democracy that are taking place today. I shall confine myself to those in Latin America, with which I am directly acquainted, but I shall compare them with those in eastern Europe. Apart from the aspirations to freedom which are common to them both, I see only differences between them.

In Poland in 1981 I observed at first hand the final stage of the events which led to the Gdansk agreements between Lech Walesa and the management of the Lenin naval shipyard. I drove to Gdansk from Warsaw, where I was attending a meeting of the International Sociological Association, in order to take a closer look at the strike. I remember that what surprised and even shocked me were the symbols displayed in the streets--effigies of the Pope, Polish flags from pre-people's democracy days, and lighted candles. Was this a return to the past?

Then I remembered the events of May 1968 in France, which took place while I was a professor of sociology at the University of Nanterre just outside Paris. On the barricades in Paris, at demonstrations by students, workers and others, the Internationale was always sung. …

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