Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Remembering Václav Havel, Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and nonviolent action

"A single idea, if it is right, saves us the labor of an infinity of experiences." - Jacques Maritain

Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas and President Václav Havel in Prague (2002)
Fifteen years ago on December 17, 2002 Oswaldo Paya addressed the European Parliament in Strasbourg at a ceremony awarding him the the Sakharov Prize where he outlined his nonviolent vision for change in Cuba.
The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together.’
 Václav Havel passed away six years ago on December 18, 2011 and his nonviolent resistance and dedication to truth in successfully resisting totalitarian rule in Czechoslovakia remain powerful legacies and examples that remain relevant today. In 2002, President Vaclav Havel addressed the Cuban people and offered words that should be heeded now:
"Our world, as a whole, is not in the best of shape and the direction it is headed in may well be quite ambivalent. But this does not mean that we are permitted to give up on free and cultivated thinking and to replace it with a set of utopian clichés. That would not make the world a better place, it would only make it worse. On the contrary, it means that we must do more for our own freedom, and that of others."
Nonviolence requires recognizing these extreme injustices and the justifiable anger that it generates but at the same time channeling it into creative and productive means to end the injustices. Some would argue that one must remove their anger, as one takes off a back pack, but that is profoundly mistaken. Martin Luther King Jr. offered a different approach that has proven far more powerful: 
"The supreme task [of a leader] is to organize and unite people so that their anger becomes a transforming force." 
Mohandas Gandhi spoke in 1920 of learning "through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power that can move the world."

This is not hating but harnessing a powerful spiritual energy and channeling it productively. Blowing up and screaming at someone is a waste of that energy that can be channeled into creative solutions to end the injustice.

Nonviolence theoretician Gene Sharp also recognizes that there is a moral dimension that cannot be ignored without dire consequences (as the recent drive to normalize relations with the Castro regime in Cuba demonstrated): "It is unreasonable to aim for a 'win- win' resolution. Brutal dictators and perpetrators of genocide do not deserve to win anything."

Nonviolent thought can be divided into two general categories: strategic nonviolence and principled nonviolence but although emphasizing different perspectives they need not be in conflict.
Strategic nonviolence takes a pragmatic approach that is based on being more effective then violence. Non-violent resistance is an armed struggle but its weapons are not deployed to do violence or kill. These arms are  psychological, social, economic and political weapons. Gene Sharp argues with much evidence "that this is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice and tyranny then violence. Historical studies are cited that demonstrate the higher success rates of nonviolent movements when compared against violent ones:
University Academics Maria J. Stephan and Erica Chenoweth in their 2008 study "Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic on Nonviolent Conflict" compared the outcomes of 323 nonviolent and violent resistance campaigns from 1900 to 2006. They found that major nonviolent campaigns have achieved success 53 percent of the time, compared with just under half that at 26 percent for violent resistance campaigns. Finally there study also suggests “that nonviolent campaigns are more likely than violent campaigns to succeed in the face of brutal repression.”
Principled nonviolence looks at the spiritual dimension, and the power of an individual to change and in doing so impact the world. Mohandas Gandhi described it as follows on September 8, 1913 in Indian Opinion:

"We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do."
The advantage of principled non-violence and taking it up as a daily practice in ones life is that it gives one the strength to resist provocations and builds up the character of the practitioner that assists in carrying out a strategic nonviolent plan.

Critics of nonviolence often argue that nonviolence works well against democracies but not brutal regimes, often citing the Nazis. Nevertheless in 1943 in Germany on Rosenstrasse street German wives married to Jewish men, who had been taken to concentration camps, organized a series of strikes and protests that forced the Nazis to return their Jewish husbands back from the death camps. Those men survived the Holocaust thanks to their wives courageous and nonviolent action.  

The disturbing questions that should arise are: What would have happened if instead of the violent Antifa movement, that fought the Nazis in street battles throughout the 1930s that escalated violence, opponents of the Nazis had followed Gandhi's advice at the time and resisted them nonviolently? What would have happened if the Weimar Republic instead of attempting to silence the Nazis by repeatedly prosecuting them for violating hate speech laws had challenged their evil ideas in the court of public opinion?

Since the founding of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights in 1976 there has existed in overall terms a general strategy of change that can be summed up as: " Carrying out a nonviolent struggle in defense of human rights for the freedom of Cuba."

Looking at another definition of strategy that divides it into three parts gives a better idea of the challenges facing the democratic opposition in Cuba:

1. Diagnostic: A totalitarian dictatorship with dynastic elements with the political will to hang on to power.
2. Guiding policy: nonviolence
3. Action plan: There exist different areas of emphasis by the opposition and civil society that is also something found in nonviolent struggles.
Strategic nonviolence takes a pragmatic approach that is based on being more effective then violence: 

Non-violent resistance is an armed struggle but its weapons are not deployed to do violence or kill. These arms are  psychological, social, economic and political weapons. Gene Sharp argues with much evidence "that this is ultimately more powerful against oppression, injustice and tyranny then violence." 
The reason for the greater success rate of nonviolent resistance is that it is easier to mobilize large numbers of people to take nonviolent action than to engage in violent action. Success is not only defined by overthrowing the existing regime, but having a transition that ends in a democratic regime. The methods used in nonviolent struggle translate better to democratic practices then violent resistance because they involve nonviolent discipline, the mobilization of large numbers and the encouragement of civic virtue.  

Czechs remember and honor Vaclav Havel by wearing short trousers
Furthermore the use of humor is not to be underestimated. Václav Havel in an address to the Central European University on June 24, 1999 at a difficult moment on the international scene made the case for laughter.
"The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world."
Following his death in 2011, every year on the anniversary of his passing admirers of Václav Havel the world over wear short trousers in his memory. Organizers explained its historic significance along with its particular Czech sensibility.
The “Short Trousers for Václav Havel” initiative started in 2012 to honor the memory of Václav Havel with a gesture that was unique, memorable and easily achieved by supporters of this exceptional person in modern Czech and European history.  Short Trousers is a reference to Havel stepping into political life in 1989 and his inauguration to the presidency in visibly short trousers. He explained vainly that rather than a tailor’s mistake it was his habit to pull his pants up at every dramatic situation. To this, one might say global mythology of his short trousers, he added with a smile: "I must say that I am glad of it, more or less. From my point of view it’s a pretty gentle way of mocking myself."  An effort to honor such a respectable person by a gesture that points to this humorous episode might appear, at first sight, as a contradictory act. But the opposite is true. We believe that rolled up trousers on the anniversary of the death of Václav Havel is a gesture which is Czech, slightly satirical and which can be easily joined by anyone who wants to honor the memory of the last Czechoslovak and the first Czech president Havel in a cheerful way.
This method of spontaneous remembrance contrasts dramatically with how dictators forcibly demand that they be remembered on penalty of imprisonment for dissenting as has been the case following the 2016 death of Fidel Castro

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