Joaquín Villalobos: The Arab Revolution and the Latin American Left

Joaquin_Villalobos022611.jpgEarlier this week we came across a very interesting article published in the Spanish newspaper El Pais by Joaquín Villalobos, a former Salvadoran FMLN guerrilla fighter turned peace ambassador. His experiences working to bring change under one of the most repressive dictatorships of the world have led him to become a prolific commentator on the vast number of uprisings and popular struggles to implement democracy across the world – including the most recent string of successful opposition movements across Arab North Africa. Below is our translation of the El Pais article.

The Arab Revolution and the Latin American Left


In the past 50 years, a good part of the Latin American left has defined its identity under the paradigm of social revolution as established by the Cuban model, with health and education as its biggest axes of transformation. Democracy was not considered revolutionary, but rather “bourgeois.” Neither did the right wing and its dictatorships hold democracy as their paradigm, but rather modernization through economic development. Both currents believed that so long if they attended to social needs or economic progress, democratic freedoms were not important. In Latin America there was only one left-wing authoritarian state in Cuba, and the rest were right-wing dictatorships. The result, in both cases, was poverty without freedoms and instability for decades, with societies in permanent conflict.

The United States equally disregarded democracy for Latin American, as the “Alliance for Progress” placed emphasis on economic development and not on freedoms. With anti-communism as its policy, the U.S. conducted interventions, embargoed Cuba, and supported dictators, coup d’états, electoral frauds and massacres. This situation began to change with the human rights policy of the Jimmy Carter government, which was decisive in the fall of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Carter’s position was visionary in bringing up human rights and the inclusion of the left. However, the conservative reaction in the U.S. brought the Reagan administration along with the most bloody conflict that the continent has ever experienced. As such, during the 1980s in Central America hundreds of thousands were killed in a wars, that having their own roots, were interpreted as an appendix of the Cold War.

Following multiple popular struggles, human rights and democracy started becoming hegemonic values of policy and the legitimacy of governments. The left came to power and began the change. The transition began approximately 30 years since the democratic changes took places in various countries. This process, despite its imperfections, has allowed the continent to experience a prolonged period of political stability which is aiming to consolidate.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, with the chain reaction it produced across Eastern Europe, was a foretold revolution. What is happening in the Arab world no one predicted. Before Tunisia and Egypt, the prevailing idea was that democracy was a Western value, culturally incompatible with the Arab culture. However, the revolutionary mobilization in Arab countries demonstrates that the development of educated, connected, and informed classes is incompatible with authoritarianism. This creates space in societies with great political, economic, and social backwardness. Behind every terminal crisis of an authoritarian regime there is a conflict of representation and participation in power of new social groups. More and more, Democracy is proving itself to be a universal value in the form of economic progress transforming the class structure of countries.

As citizens achieve a higher level of education, criticism, dissent, and diversity of thought inevitably multiplies. It’s impossible that the whole world would think in the same way, and the ways people think tend to shift with time and changes in conditions. Not everybody can be either left or right, believe in God or have the same God; this is absurd. When the number of citizens with critical conscience rises significantly it weakens the possibility of governing through superstition, religion, strong-arm, family dynasties, and the unitary truths of political dogma. The old alliance of Church, military, and landowners that sustained the majority of the continent’s dictatorships was put to an end by the growth of the middle class and the emergence of new economic influence groups.

Democracy and human rights are not just ethical or ideological issues, they are a government technology that allows for the maintenance of social cohesion amidst the differences and natural diversity of its components. This is possible when there are more educated social classes that understand that the tolerance between opposites is fundamental for peaceful coexistence. But the most important is that no extremely polarized society with profound divisions between its inhabitants is viable, nor does it have a chance for development. For this reason, social exclusion deriving from political exclusion is an issue to resolve. Latin America was not viable without the inclusion of the left, as well in the Arab world it will not be possible without tolerance toward the Islamists in order to achieve its moderation.

When society maintains cohesion it can utilize all its capacities and this gives way to a direct relationship between democracy and development. The social, moral, intellectual, institutional, and economic impoverishment of Cuba after 50 years of revolution contrasts with the social, educational, economic, and institutional development of Costa Rica, Chile, and Uruguay; the three countries with the most democratic culture and relevance of the continent. The same occurred occurred in Eastern Europe under the influence of the social democratic left. The current situation of massive violence, profound social crisis, extreme poverty, and risk of becoming failed states of Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are the result of having lived through the most repressive and longest dictatorships on the continent. The authoritarian risks and extreme polarization that Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador are living through has resulted from socially and politically excluding a considerable part of their populations.

After a half century of Cuban revolution, democracy has proven to be more revolutionary, more capable of solving poverty and more efficient in achieving citizen participation through voting and civil society organizations. In a democracy, if you divide your country, you lose. Resolving social exclusion at the cost of political exclusion steers toward permanent conflicts and toward the loss of vital capacities for development. Cuba has lost thousands of scientists, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs, many of them from the left, and the same is happening in Venezuela. The Cuban brain drain has been so significant that one cannot separate the successful development of Florida from the Cuban exiles.

It is impossible that just one unitary thinking comes along with progress. The key of development is the dialectical interaction between diversity, differences, balance, counterbalance, shifts, good ideas, and mistakes. Liberties, laws, and institutions are the more important for the poor than authoritarian paternalism. It is not revolutionary to want to leave governments to grow old in power, and then be inherited by their relatives. The Latin American left needs to abandon the Cuban myth in order to come to terms with democracy for everyone as its identity. The Cuban dictatorship and the authoritarian plans of Chavez are the final obstacles to the continent’s political maturity and the continuation of the advance of the left. There is no eternal authoritarian regime, Castro and Chavez will not stay forever, just as the Central American dictators did not say, nor will the South American or now the Arab regimes, no matter if they are religious or liberal, to the left or to the right, the people will always become fed up and they will collapse.