News and Notes

Issue Date Winter 1991
Volume 2
Issue 1
Page Numbers 121-24
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Paz Wins Nobel Prize

Octavio Paz, noted Mexican poet and critic, was awarded the 1990 Nobel Prize for Literature. Paz’s most well-known works include The Labyrinth of Solitude (1950) and One Earth, Four or Five Worlds (1985). His latest book, Sor Juana: Or the Traps of Faith (1988), is a study of the life of a seventeenth-century Mexican poetess and mystic. Paz served as Mexican ambassador to India during the 1960s, having previously been assigned to diplomatic posts in Paris and Tokyo. He is the publisher of the monthly magazine Vuelta and is a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Democracy.

Many of Octavio Paz’s writings touch upon themes related to democracy. One powerful statement of his political vision may be found in the following passage from his book The Other Mexico (1970):

“None of us knows the shape of the future. This half-century of disorders teaches us that the future is a secret which is divulged neither in the works of Karl Marx nor in those of his adversaries. But we can say this much to the future which a few impassioned young men are building: every revolution that stifles criticism, that denies the right to contradict those in power, that prohibits the peaceful substitution of one government for another, is a revolution that defeats itself—is a fraud . . . . We must renounce outright the authoritarian tendencies of the revolutionary tradition, especially its Marxist branch. At the same time, we must break up the existing monopolies—whether of the state, of parties, or of private capitalism—and discover forms, new and truly effective forms, of democratic and popular control over political and economic power and over the information media and education. A plural society, without majorities or minorities: not all of us are happy in my political utopia, but at least all of us are responsible. Above all and before all else: we must conceive viable models of development, [End Page 121] models less inhuman, costly, and senseless than those we have now. I have said before that this is an urgent task: the truth is, it is the task of our times. And there is one more thing: the supreme value is not the future but the present. The future is a deceitful time that always says to us, ‘Not yet,’ and thus denies us. The future is not the time of love: what man truly wants he wants now. Whoever builds a house for future happiness builds a prison for the present.”

Senegal Hosts Conference on African Democracy

An international conference of over one hundred democratic activists and scholars met in Dakar in early November to assess the democratic gains that have been made in Africa during the past year and to chart democracy’s future course as the number of transitions from authoritarianism rapidly multiplies.

The conference was organized by the Centre d’Etudes et de Recherches sur la Democratie Pluraliste dans le Tiers Monde (CERDET), in association with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. Conference speakers discussed the formulation of new constitutions in Uganda and Benin; the role of the military, the judiciary, the media, and the electoral system in society; the problems of religion, civil society, economic development, and education in democratic transition and consolidation; and issues of tribalism, human rights, women’s rights, and cultural values.

President Abdou Diouf of Senegal opened the conference with a welcoming address. Participants included Maurice Glele, president of the Benin Constitutional Commission; Bona Malwal, editor of the Sudan Democratic Gazette; Olissa Agbakoba, president of the Nigerian Civil Liberties Organization; Githu Mugai of the Kenyan Legal Assistance Project; Frederick van zyl Slabbert of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa (IDASA); and Teodosio Uate of the Law Program at the Mondlane University of Mozambique. Other countries represented included Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, the Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Côte d’Ivoire, Congo-Brazzaville, Botswana, Togo, and Mali.

One of the most remarkable debates at the conference concerned the question of conditional foreign aid. Although some participants doubted such a policy’s probable effectiveness, the consensus was that Western aid donors should make assistance to a country contingent on its respect for human rights and its progress toward democratization. As one conference speaker declared, “The international community must cease financing tyranny and autocracy.”

Participants unequivocally endorsed multiparty democracy. They agreed that events in Eastern Europe had inspired much of the change in Africa, but also insisted [End Page 122] that indigenous pressure for democracy has been building for many years. At the end of the conference, the participants established informal channels of communication in order to continue to disseminate information about African democracy and to monitor its progress.

Democratization Conference Held in Moscow

The outlook for democratization in the Soviet Union was the subject of vigorous debate October 7-9 at a conference in Moscow organized by Interlegal, one of the leading new democratic civic organizations in the Soviet Union, and the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Among the participants were 10 scholars from the United States (including Leszek Kolakowski, Walter Laqueur, Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Malia, and Juan Linz) and about 30 Soviet democratic intellectuals and activists (including Andrei Fadin, Yuri Levada, Gleb Pavlovsky, and Victor Sheinis).

The conference discussions underscored the urgency and enormity of the challenge facing democratic forces in the Soviet Union. Everything must be transformed fundamentally and at once: political institutions, economic structures, the legal system, social relations, political culture, and individual consciousness.

One aspect that distinguishes transitions from totalitarianism, it was repeatedly suggested, is the need to build and reconstitute civil society almost from scratch. The values and orientations of democratic citizenship do not yet extend very far in the population. Democratic political parties and movements are sprouting everywhere, but they are highly fragmented and factionalized groups of elites, not mass-based parties. Building such democratic infrastructures and values is a long-term challenge, but the Soviet Union is entering what some participants characterized as an almost revolutionary situation, where political choices and alignments in the coming months could have lasting historical consequences.

Conference participants disagreed on the best political strategy for democratic forces. Some counseled patience and favored a “government of national trust” composed of both moderate and radical reformers. They emphasized the need for stable and broadly based government in a period of immense turbulence and danger—several Soviet participants spoke of the real possibility of civil war.

Most of the Soviet participants, however, believed the time for moderation, incrementalism, and patience had irretrievably passed, and only a democratic breakthrough could rescue both the country and the democratic prospect from chaos and violence. They doubted the possibility of genuine reform under Gorbachev, [End Page 123] citing Andrei Sakharov’s observation shortly before his death that Gorbachev’s reform resembled a snake simply shedding its old skin. They argued that no resolution of the Soviet Union’s economic, political, and ethnic crises would be possible until power is in the hands of governments that have some popular legitimacy, which the Communist Party has lost utterly throughout the union.

Implementation of free and fair elections and decentralization of power thus emerged high on the agenda for democratic change9 However, little enthusiasm was expressed for democratizing a government at the union level that most Soviet participants felt would probably soon cease to exist.

Soviet Democracy: Liberalism or Anarchy, a collection of the conference essays and presentations edited by Brad Roberts and Nina Belyaeva, will be available from CSIS in March.

Milan Širnečka (1930-1990)

Milan Širnečka, one of Czechoslovakia’s finest writers and political commentators, died on 24 September 1990. A professor at Comenius University in Bratislava until he was expelled in 1970 for his dissident views, he was charged in 1981 with “subversion of the republic” and held in custody for a year without trial. He was the author of The Restoration of Order, an analysis of the return to communist control in Czechoslovakia after 1968, as well as numerous samizdat articles. His essay on “The Restoration of Freedom” appeared in the Summer 1990 issue of the Journal of Democracy. Just weeks before his death he had been chosen to head the Council of Consultants to President Váiclav Havel. Širnečka’s funeral, held on September 28 in Bratislava, was attended by Havel, Alexander Dubček, Karel Schwarzenberg, and numerous government officials. Below are excerpts from Czech historian Vilrm Prečan’s eulogy:

“Milan Širnečka had an exceptional gift for grasping a topic and explaining it clearly and intelligibly9 He was not a bookish philosopher9 He thought and wrote about human beings and their stumblings between the pressure of their everyday concerns and the pressure of large historical events9 . . . He also wrote on the miracle of the birth of independent culture, which started with ordinary copy paper, old typewriters, and often-questioned hope that this kind of activity was an effective defense against lies, oppression, and ignorance . . . .

This is the last time we may spend in the company of Milan Širnečka . . . . He should remain as a present force in our hearts and minds, as the admonitory voice of our conscience whenever we yield to the temptation to be petty, vain, or quarrelsome, and whenever we yearn for superficial praise and acknowledgment9 All these things were deeply alien to Milan Širnečka.” [End Page 124]


Copyright © 1991 National Endowment for Democracy