As I surveyed the photographs of people in Cairo and elsewhere in the Arab world, mostly young and brimming with enthusiasm, often with fingers raised in a “V” for victory, I was reminded of three similar moments in recent Latin American history, each of which I witnessed firsthand: the Dominican revolution of 1965; the Sandinista revolution of 1979; and the inauguration of Jean-Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s President in 1991.Decades later, what looked at the time like promising divergences from an authoritarian, unjust, poverty-filled past is now, in essence, more of the same. Will the Arab countries do any better? The Dominican Case The Dominican revolution resulted in the ouster of a government installed by the military after it had removed Juan Bosch, the first democratically elected President following three decades of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo’s tyranny. President Lyndon Johnson, fearing another Cuban revolution, intervened in force. The President’s representative, diplomat Ellsworth Bunker, negotiated a provisional government presided over by the centrist Dominican democrat Hector García Godoy, who brought the country to the elections of 1966, in which Joaquín Balaguer defeated Bosch. Democratic norms, with a few zigs and zags, have been respected since. When the revolution erupted, on April 24, 1965, I was enjoying my first overseas assignment with USAID as the program officer in Costa Rica. Some days later, I received instructions from Washington to get to a U.S. military airbase in Puerto Rico as quickly as possible for a three-week temporary assignment in the Dominican Republic. Those three weeks turned into three and a half years, during which I became Deputy Director of the USAID mission. I gravitated to young Dominican professionals, almost all of whom supported the revolution with the same kind of enthusiasm evinced about half a century later by young Arabs. Among them was Bernardo Vega, a Wharton School graduate who would subsequently move from his position as the Central Bank’s economic adviser to become the leader of the Bank, and then his nation’s Ambassador in Washington. He now writes articles and columns, including a recent one entitled, “We got bad marks in Davos”, in which he noted the following facts from the 2010–11 Global Index of Competitiveness: the Dominican Republic is number 101 of the 139 countries that participate in the Global Index; corruption is rampant in the public sector; the public lacks confidence in the politicians; organized crime, most of it drug-related, reaches into the security forces. I visited the Dominican Republic two years ago (44 years later) and was struck by two contrasting impressions: first, the physical changes (buildings, roads, resorts) were dramatic; but, second, the culture (the injustice, generalized abuse of power, the lack of consideration for others, the inefficiency) seemed substantially the same as it had been in the 1960s. Sandinista Nicaragua The Sandinista revolution reached its climax on July 19, 1979, with the entry of the Sandinista army into Managua. The caudillo, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, had fled the country two days earlier, ending 42 years of Somoza family monopoly on power. On July 19, Managua looked a lot like Cairo in February 2011, with young people cheering and raising their fingers in the “V” gesture. I was named USAID Director by President Jimmy Carter, left the USAID Director job in Haiti and arrived in Managua a week after the July 19 celebration. Symbolic of President Carter’s commitment to demonstrate the will of the United States to live with revolutionary regimes in Latin America, I flew into Managua in a Flying Tigers stretch jet filled with the first shipment of food, initially to be distributed by the Red Cross but then transferred to the Sandinista government at my recommendation and that of Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo, an entrepreneurial career Foreign Service Officer. I should mention that during the first 18 months of the Sandinista regime the United States was its principal source of financial, food and technical aid. But this is not the place to review the relationship between the two governments. Suffice it to mention my relationship with Jaime Wheelock Román, jefe of the Proletarios, the furthest-left faction of the three that formed the Sandinista Front. Wheelock was named Minister of Agriculture and Agrarian Reform, and we provided a lot of help to him, including advisers from the University of Wisconsin Land Tenure Center. Wheelock initiated a sweeping land reform that confiscated many of the largest farms, many of which belonged to Somoza supporters. The owners were referred to as terratenientes, a title which was in the revolutionary environment a term of opprobrium. Today, 32 years after the Sandinista Revolution, Jaime Wheelock is among Nicaragua’s principal terratenientes. Nicaragua is a good deal poorer than it was in 1979, and Daniel Ortega, first Sandinista President, is again President—albeit acting anything but democratically. After Fidel Castro, Ortega is Hugo Chávez’s closest ally. Appropriately, for the purposes of this article, according to a February 22 Washington Post report, “Ortega has been telephoning Moammar Gadhafi to express his solidarity.” Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s Haiti François “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled Haiti, an African-American country, with an iron hand, as had most of his predecessors since the country won independence from France in 1804. His reign lasted from 1957 until his death in 1971, at which point his son Jean-Claude (“Baby Doc”) became President for life at age 19. Fifteen years later, in 1986, he fled into exile in the wake of food riots. A bloody period of unrest followed under military governments until the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the governments of Canada and the United States joined forces to set up the election that on December 16, 1990, brought Aristide to power. That election has been described as the first clean election in Haiti’s history. It is also eloquent testimony to the relative ease with which elections can be organized in even the most democracy-averse countries. Converting such countries to stable democracies is an altogether different story. Aristide had been a Catholic priest who had been removed from the Salesian order by the Vatican. He had built his political base on Liberation Theology, the left-wing movement within Catholicism that promotes socialism and the redistribution of wealth, and views imperialism—above all U.S. imperialism—as the root cause of poverty in the Third World. Concerns registered about Aristide in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, but the United States fully supported him following his election. As evidence of that support, I was in Haiti at the time of Aristide’s inauguration on February 7, 1991, working on a project to strengthen Haiti’s democratic institutions. I might add that I undertook a similar mission for USAID in Egypt a few years later—with obviously similar results. As I described the inauguration in my June 1993 Atlantic Monthly article “Voodoo Politics”: Port-au-Prince experienced a rebirth for Aristide’s inaugural. The residents of each block tidied up or even painted their houses and joined the neighborhood cleanup platoons. Streets were swept, and curbs, telephone poles, and trees were painted. The mood of the city was atypically upbeat, almost jubilant. A scant eight months later, Aristide was ousted in a broadly supported military coup. His relations with the bicameral Parliament, chosen in the same elections that brought him to power, were deteriorating, in no small part because his goons had threatened and even roughed up some opposition legislators. What followed was two decades more of “Voodoo politics”, and then the horrifyingly destructive January 12, 2010 earthquake. A year later, both “Baby Doc” Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide showed up in Haiti. Implications for the Arab countries In his 1835 book for the ages, Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville argues that you can’t have democracy without democrats. He explains the successful American experiment as the consequence of “a form of Christianity which I cannot better describe than a democratic and republican religion. This contributed powerfully to the establishment of a republic and a democracy. From the beginning, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved.” He goes on to explain the undemocratic route taken by Latin America as essentially a cultural phenomenon, concluding: I am convinced that the luckiest of geographic circumstances and the best of laws cannot maintain a constitution in despite of mores, whereas the latter can turn even the most unfavorable circumstances and the worst laws to advantage. The importance of mores is a universal truth to which study and experience continually bring us back. I find it occupies a central position in my thoughts: all my ideas come back to it in the end. There are some obvious cultural differences between the Arab world and Latin America. Particularly as Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestantism make inroads into the former Roman Catholic monopoly in Latin America, receptivity to the democratic-capitalist model of the West is likely to increase. (The 2010 census in Brazil reports that 30 percent of Brazilians are now Protestants, a doubling since the 2000 census.) It is noteworthy that not one Arab country has achieved democratic stability. Moreover, only two—Indonesia and Mali—of the 47 Muslim majority countries are ranked “Free” by Freedom House as of its 2011 rankings. And those two barely make the “Free” category, with a total of five points for Political Rights and Civil Liberties. The most advanced Muslim country, Turkey, is ranked “Partly Free”, with a total of six points. Most First World countries have a total of two points. In its 2010 edition, Freedom House rated Egypt and Iraq “Not Free”, with a total of 11 points. Non-Arab Afghanistan received 12 points. That culture matters was eloquently restated in the United Nation Development Program’s celebrated study, Arab Human Development Report 2002, written by Arab professionals. The study evokes Tocqueville: Culture and values are the soul of development. They provide its impetus, facilitate the means needed to further it, and substantially define people’s vision of its purposes and ends. Culture and values are instrumental in the sense that they help to shape people’s hopes, fears, ambitions, attitudes and actions, but they are also formative because they mould people’s ideals and inspire their dreams for a fulfilling life for themselves and future generations values are not the servants of development; they are its wellspring. Governments cannot decree their people’s values; indeed, governments and their actions are partly formed by national cultures and values. Governments can, however, influence culture through leadership and example, and by shaping education and pedagogy, incentive structures in society, and use of the media… by influencing values, they can affect the path of development. Many, perhaps most, of the young demonstrators in Tahrir Square were motivated by frustrated job aspirations. But after decades of big aid programs, above all from the United States, Egypt has a GDP of less than $3,000, which suggests some fundamental problems, rooted in Egyptian-Islamic culture, that are unlikely to be resolved for many years. One of the most telling anti-progress features of Islamic societies is the inferior position of women, symbolized by the gender discrepancy in literacy. Uneducated women are transmitters of orthodoxy to their children. According to the Human Development Foundation, a research entity formed by Pakistani expatriates in the United States, the discrepancy is substantial in Arab countries. What proportion of those people in Tahrir Square were venting their frustration with their lot in life—as was largely the case in Santo Domingo in 1965, Managua in 1979 and Port-au-Prince in 1991? What proportion were genuinely committed to democratization of their society? What will happen—even provided that truly democratic political institutions emerge—if theArab economies continue to grow slowly? Surely the Dominican/ Nicaraguan/Haitian scenario is a distinct possibility in the absence of fundamental cultural change. Hope and enthusiasm are not enough to bring these countries into the modern world.
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Published on: September 1, 2011After the Arab Spring, Culture Still Matters