Shadow Government

A new way to witness the Arab spring

Looking at the various "Arab Spring" movements, I am struck by how events in each country have influenced other countries and shaped the broader revolution. The very fact that it is known as the "Arab Spring," (or "Arab Uprising," or any number of other variations) emphasizes its transnational character. This might even be expanded further beyond the "Arab" dimension, if we consider the 2009 Green Movement in Iran as one of the catalysts, or the recent protests against recrudescent Putinism in Russia as one of the fruits. Yet for all the transnational characteristics of this movement as a mass uprising against autocracy and repression, it is also a series of unique national movements with particular characteristics and diverse outcomes. These differences are evident in Tunisia's cautious progress, Egypt's imperiled transition, Libya's post-conflict fragility, and the crucible that is Syria, just to cite a few.

In each of these countries the uprisings have been comprised of motley crews and mixed motives, ranging from peaceful and democratic reformers who seek genuine freedom for themselves and their fellow citizens, to militants and Islamists whose purposes are more suspect. Even as the democratic reformers work to advance a positive vision grounded in human dignity and liberty, their efforts risk being eclipsed by non-democratic elements, and their stories risk being forgotten.

Here an important new resource has just been launched that will highlight the work and lives of these reformers, not only in the Middle East but from every continent: the Freedom Collection of the George W. Bush Institute. Shadow Government readers are encouraged to check out the Freedom Collection website.

The Freedom Collection preserves the stories of activists in repressive countries who have devoted their lives to the cause of liberty. Using a combination of video and oral interviews and a unique documentary archive, it features profiles of dissidents and reformers from every continent, of diverse faiths and backgrounds, and a common commitment to advancing human rights and democracy. Their backgrounds are remarkably diverse, and include well-known figures such as Vaclav Havel, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and the Dalai Lama, to others whose stories deserve to be highlighted, such as Chinese house church leader Bob Fu, Venezuelan democracy activist Cristal Montanez Baylor, and Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid. These leaders represent the very incarnation of courage, and yet "courageous" seems almost trite and insufficient to describe the suffering that many of them have endured, and why they have endured it.

The Freedom Collection communicates to reformers and dissidents around the world that they are not alone, that while the path they walk may seem isolated and perilous, their efforts are remembered. And not just remembered, but can serve as both inspiration and practical tool for other would-be reformers in other repressive countries.

It will also be a resource for scholars, who seek to understand better what drives such movements, and in particular what motivates the people who led such movements. In a way the Freedom Collection will also offer a contribution to the perennial debate over what drives change, human agency or structural forces. While both play a role, the Freedom Collection highlights the personal dimension of human agency -- the unique attributes of intrepid individuals who resist cultural and governance barriers in their efforts to promote better lives for themselves and their nations. Finally, I hope the Freedom Collection can put a human face on what are sometimes needlessly partisan debates over the question of democracy promotion in foreign policy. While the policy questions are manifestly complex, that complexity should not obscure the individual lives that are at the center of these questions, and whose voices should also be heard at the policy table.

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images

Shadow Government

The Vatican makes its choice in Cuba

On the flight from Rome to Mexico prior to his visit to Cuba, Pope Benedict XVI stirred the hearts of many by declaring that Marxism had lost its relevance in the 21stcentury.  The comment was seen as a preview to how he would comport himself in Cuba -- an anticipated and welcome contrast to the traditional international indulgence of the Castro dictatorship.

Alas, that was to be the most provocative thing he had to say over the entire trip. Instead, it is what he said next that appears to typify how the Church is approaching its mission in Cuba: that the Church was ready to help the island find new ways of moving forward without "traumas."

Apparently, "traumas" is Vatican-speak for the kind of upheavals seen elsewhere in the world of late, in which populations have risen up against oppressive and bankrupt dictatorships.

In other words, the Church has decided that its role in Cuba is not to be a change agent and it would shun any abrupt turn away from Castroism. It also means that the Church is placing its faith in the Castro regime (and its repressive apparatus) to manage a "soft landing" as Cuba supposedly transitions to wherever it is transitioning.

That is why the Pope's trip is a profound disappointment to many who were hoping for a stronger signal that the cries of the Cuban people were being heard for a better future over their dysfunctional and spiritless existence under the Castro regime. 

Pope Benedict did pepper his public remarks in Cuba with words like "liberty," "prisoners," (although not "political prisoners") and reached out to "Cubans, wherever they may be" (more than one million in exile), but even the international press covering the visit seemed disappointed by his lack of powerful symbolism and rhetoric. The Pope "delivered a carefully worded, nuanced and balanced arrival address" and "kept his language lofty, his criticism vague and open to interpretation."  Frankly, there is little in Cuba today that is "open to interpretation."

Indeed, the effort to avoid saying anything that would offend the Castro government was too conspicuous, as was the smothering regime choreography of the visit -- high-ranking officials always appearing near the Pontiff, media restrictions to control public perceptions, the arrests of dissidents. The Cuban people needed no translation on what was really going on: The regime was demonstrating that the Church did not exist as an alternative voice of authority, but that they and the Pope were compatible.

Neither was the visit enhanced by the fact that the Pope declined to meet with beleaguered Cuban dissidents (as Pope John Paul the Great had done 14 years earlier) because of a "busy schedule," yet found the time to reportedly add a last-minute meeting with cancer-stricken Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (in Cuba for medical treatment), a man who has notoriously insulted Church leaders in Venezuela time after time.

In one encouraging note, however, a brave Cuban refused to go along with the regime's charade and began shouting during one of the Pope's addresses: "Down with the Revolution! Down with the dictatorship!"  As he was being led away, he was punched by an official wearing a Red Cross vest. (Such is life in Cuba.) His fate remains unknown.

Cuba is, of course, hostile territory for the Church, which has been repressed -- at times violently -- for five decades. And it stands to reason there may be a bit of a whipped dog syndrome in the Church's reluctance to be bolder. But the Church is not without its own strengths -- a fact that terrifies the Castro regime, hence, the overexertion to try and co-opt it. But the bottom line is Pope Benedict declined the opportunity to meet the regime on equal terms, and the Cuban people are poorer off for it.

The irony is that the Vatican's choice of a passive and accommodating approach will only help to bring about the kind of turmoil it ostensibly seeks to avoid -- as the pent up frustrations of the Cuban people continue to be denied any viable outlet. It also diminishes the Church's own image as an honest broker in a future Cuban transition. 

History will ultimately render the verdict on the Vatican’s choice, but the record shows that placing one’s faith in the hoped-for good will of a dictatorship never really does work out very well in the end.

L'Osservatore Romano Vatican-Pool/Getty Images