Saturday, November 7, 2009

Berlin Wall's end in 1989: Opportunities taken and missed

Berlin Wall's end in 1989: Opportunities taken and missed

“Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing.”
– Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless 1978

The moral dynamics of this universal quest for freedom clearly appeared in Central and Eastern Europe during the non-violent revolutions of 1989. Unfolding in specific times and places, those historical events nonetheless taught a lesson which goes far beyond a specific geographical location. For the non-violent revolutions of 1989 demonstrated that the quest for freedom cannot be suppressed. It arises from a recognition of the inestimable dignity and value of the human person, and it cannot fail to be accompanied by a commitment on behalf of the human person.

- Pope John Paul II, Address to the United Nations 1995

In 1978 Vaclav Havel asked whether freedom was really something far off in the distance or that perhaps it had been there to grab but that "our own blindness and weakness has prevented us from seeing it around us and within us?" This is a provocative and necessary question. It is provocative because it was being asked ten years after the Czechs had stood up to Soviet tanks and suffered for it. Nevertheless it was a necessary question recognizing that real power always comes from the consent and tolerance of the governed be it a democracy or the most horrid of dictatorships for it to survive it requires consent.

At the same time losing or gaining allies internationally does not necessarily determine victory or defeat for those in power. There are two of the many instances that arise from the circumstances of 1989 worth taking a look at:
South Africa and Cuba . On the face of it the collapse of the East Bloc and the Soviet Union should have been at least indirectly positive for the South African Apartheid state which had as its principle adversary the African National Congress that had relied heavily on the Soviet Union and their Eastern European Satellites and a death blow for Fidel Castro. The communist dictatorship in Cuba had been a client state of the Soviet Union and heavily dependent on their subsidies and military support.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire the African National Congress's military option was taken off the table, and this allowed negotiations and non-violent action to achieve what political violence had not done in more than four decades: an end to the racist apartheid regime and Nelson Mandela as president of a multiracial South Africa. There are those in South Africa who in 1989 mourned the passing of the Berlin Wall but if not for the end of the Cold War things may not have changed. Paul Trewhela in politicsweb offers the following analysis:

On 9 November 1989, twenty years ago, the Berlin Wall cracked open, the Cold War in Europe came to an end, the Soviet empire tottered to its grave and the ANC military option lost whatever teeth it might have had. The military/security state erected by the National Party never lost a centimeter squared of its soil. Umkhonto weSizwe, the military wing of the ANC and the South African Communist Party, never won a centimeter squared of soil. True, the repeated mass mobilizations and popular uprisings within South Africa through the Seventies and the Eighties placed a colossal strain upon the regime, and, true, the economic strain upon the state - especially in conditions of attrition exercised against it by the US banking system - placed it under further serious pressures. Nevertheless, honest accounting must say that, given the continuation of the Cold War system in Africa, this nuclear-armed state at its southern tip was nowhere near collapse.

Andres Oppenheimer in 1992 had written the best seller Castro's Final Hour and around the world Cuba watchers waited for the inevitable collapse of the communist regime. Harvard professor Jorge Dominguez writing in Foreign Affairs in 1993 outlined in material terms what the Cuban dictatorship had lost with the collapse of the Soviet empire:

Gone was the Soviet economic subsidy worth no less than one-sixth of the island's total gross product; gone were the weapons transfers, free of charge. From 1989 to 1992 the Cuban economy contracted sharply, with imports shrinking from $8.1 billion to $2.2 billion.

Nevertheless as time passed almost everyone continued to wait, but the Cuban dictatorship had been working overtime. Prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union the Castro regime had banned Soviet publications and taken a dim view of both Gorbachev and Perestroika. Instead it redoubled its efforts in imposing Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy and political terror on their opponents. As the Soviet bloc imploded and the orthodoxy came into disrepute in Cuba the censorship and repression increased as did political violence. The extrajudicial killing of Cuban rafters fleeing the island in circumstances rivaling the brutality of the Berlin Wall reached its nadir in the massacre of 37 Cuban refugees many of them women and children on July 13, 1994.

On August 5, 1994 there was a social explosion in Cuba that threatened the dictatorship, but the opposition both inside and outside of the island was not ready to seize the moment. Instead the Cuban dictatorship cracked down internally and opened the ports turning a political crisis for the dictatorship into an immigration problem for the United States that led to a negotiated immigration agreement and a new lease on life for the dictatorship. The shoot down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes on February 24, 1996 brought an end to attempts by the Clinton Administration to reach a rapprochement with the Castro brothers. At the same time outreach by the dictatorship to the People's Republic of China and the European Union kept the regime from imploding completely until 1999 when one of Fidel Castro's ideological offspring Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela and the regime's international prospects began to slowly improve.

Despite the regime's improved international prospects events within the island would challenge them as never before when Cuban dissidents inspired by The Power of the Powerless and Charter 77 challenged the dictatorship using its own Constitution with the Varela Project. While others embraced Gandhian nonviolence and Universal Declaration of Human Rights to educate Cubans on how to exercise their rights even in a totalitarian dictatorship. This led to greater international and domestic recognition of the Cuban opposition and a sense of panic in the dictatorship that resulted in a massive crackdown on March 18, 2003 and increased international solidarity for the Cuban opposition.

The abandonment of Marxist-Leninist methods and the willingness to negotiate while at the same time pressuring the South African regime with both sanctions and civic non-violent resistance by the opposition led to a peaceful transfer of power between a nuclear armed racist minority government and the black majority. In the Cuban case there was a missed opportunity in the 1990s and unlike the Soviets an unwillingness by the regime to embrace perestroika (openness) and a willingness to defend the Chinese massacre in Tienanmen Square by, according to the British Guardian (6/6/1989), blaming the bloodshed on counter-revolutionary elements. All these factors increased the challenge posed to the opposition, but by the late 1990s and early 2000s they have met the challenge in an increasingly difficult geopolitical climate.Freedom is not something one waits for but something one practices and in the process serves as an example to others as well as an existing pocket of freedom. At moments of crisis these pockets can be the difference between freedom and continued repression.A lesson that the world saw in action on November 9, 1989 when the Berlin Wall dividing Germany came to an end.

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