Monday, March 24, 2014

Democracy depends on good losers

I have been reading Making Our Democracy Work by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer (Knopf 2010). One passage may be of particular relevance to the struggle for democracy now underway in many parts of the world from South Sudan to Egypt. It is also a challenge to those in Washington whose reluctance to follow the basic operating principles of a two-party democracy has led to government paralysis. 

In the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore won the national popular vote. But elections are decided by the electoral votes and everything hinged on Florida. Under Florida law (like most states) the candidate who receives the largest share of state’s popular vote also receives all the state’s electoral votes. In the original count, Bush led Gore by fewer than two thousand votes out of the six million cast, thus triggering an automatic recount. Bush still came out ahead but by a narrower margin and Gore challenged the count in four districts. 

The Florida Supreme Court then ordered a recount of the entire vote. Bush’s legal team leapt into action and challenged the state’s decision. The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear the case and in a highly controversial decision voted by 5 to 4 in Bush’s favor.

The process had been complicated by hand counting of machine-uncountable ballots due to various types of voter error. Subsequent studies produced conflicting conclusions on which candidate would have won, had the state been allowed to do a complete recount. For many the Court’s decision was a huge disappointment and many regarded it as unfair.

Justice Breyer, who was among the dissenters on the Court, writes: “Whether the decision was right or wrong is not the point here. If I and three other members of the Court thought the decision was very wrong, so did millions of other Americans. For present purposes, however, what is important is what happened next. Gore, the losing candidate, told followers not to attack the legitimacy of the Court’s decision. And despite the great importance of the decision, the strong disagreement about its merits, and the strong feelings about the Court’s intervention, the public, Democrats as well as Republicans, followed the decision. They did so peacefully, with no need for troops… without rocks hurled in the streets, without violent massive protest. The leader of the U.S. Senate Harry Reid, a Democrat, said that the public's willingness to follow the law as enunciated by the Court constitutes a little-remarked, but the most remarkable, feature of the case. I agree”

In a New York Times commentary on December 13, 2011, Scott Farris reflected on what some observers have called one of the great political speeches in American history: “In many countries, losing candidates do not peacefully accept defeat, and their obstinacy leads to political chaos, riots and sometimes civil war. Gore understood the risks to America from a prolonged dispute over an unresolved election. Our democratic political system works only when the losers give their consent to be governed by the winners. So, on Dec. 13, 2000, Gore chose to begin a process of healing. He did not merely concede, he gave a remarkably upbeat and friendly concession speech and quoted an earlier losing candidate, Stephen Douglas, who pledged to Abraham Lincoln upon losing the 1860 presidential election, ‘Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I’m with you, Mr. President, and God bless you.’”

In order to function, democracy requires a loyal opposition which puts country before political partisanship. Al Gore offered a lesson we all will do well to remember.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pain and hope in Ukraine

It is difficult not to write about Ukraine at this time. And I realize how little I and most of us really know about this huge country, the second largest in Europe, which now stands at the crossroads of history.

Recently, I read Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin by historian Timothy Snyder of Yale University (Basic Books, 2010). It is a sobering read, a meticulously researched history of how 14 million people were murdered in Eastern Europe between 1933 and 1945. Snyder writes, “During the years that Stalin and Hitler were in power, more people were killed in Ukraine than anywhere else in the bloodlands, or Europe, or in the world.”

For both Hitler and Stalin, Ukraine was the place that “would enable them to break the rules of traditional economics, rescue their countries from poverty and isolation, and remake the continent in their own image.” Everything depended on control of Ukraine's fertile soil and its millions of agricultural workers.

In 1933 Ukrainians suffered the “greatest artificial famine in history of the world.”  As a result of Stalin’s policy forced of collectivization and export of grain from starving villages, 3.3 million Ukrainians died (some say up to 6 million). In the spring of 1933 they died at a rate of 10,000 a day. Thousands of others were deported to the Gulag or to Kazakhstan.

Then, in 1937 and 1938, NKVD operatives shot 70,868 inhabitants of Soviet Ukraine in the operation against the so-called “kulak resistance.”  A disproportionate number were of Polish origin. Of the 681,692 death sentences in the Great Terror, 123,421 were carried out in Soviet Ukraine (this does not include natives of Ukraine shot in the Gulag).

When Hitler seized control in 1941, writes Synder, he tried to realize his own colonial vision beginning with the shooting of Jews and starvation of Soviet prisoners of war. The German plan envisaged “a vast eastern colony.” The native pollutions were to be deported, killed or forced into slave labor. Depending on demographic estimates, between thirty-one and forty-five million peoples, mostly Slavs were to “disappear.” Under the “hunger plan” sixty-five percent of the population of western Ukraine and eighty-five percent of Poles, and seventy-five percent of Belarusians were to be eliminated.

The German military conquest failed, but three million Ukrainians (non-Jews and as many as 900,000 Jews) were killed, sometimes with the assistance of local police forces.

Further suffering followed when the Soviets regained control. Synder records that many new Gulag prisoners were from the lands that Stalin had taken in 1939 with German consent and then took again in 1945. Between 1944 and 1946, more than 182,000 Ukrainians were deported from Southern Ukraine to the Gulag.

This is just some of the history that continues to impact Ukraine today and which the courageous young Initiatives of Change team in Ukraine has set out to heal as described by one of its leaders, Lena Kashkarova. It is a daunting but vital task. Last fall Lena, who is of mixed Ukrainian-Russian background, interned in Richmond, Virginia, with the Initiatives of Change program Hope in the Cities. She is currently in Crimea interpreting for CNN. Her recent emails help to correct some impressions created by the media:

Events of the last three months united people from different backgrounds from East and West alike. As I see it, a big part of the population finally lost Soviet identity and became aware that Ukraine is home for all of us, no matter what origin we come from, and learned to hold responsibility for this home.

Another important factor is the role of churches of all confessions as well as other religions who demonstrated enormous support for the protest movement. It started with the beatings by riot police youth by offering refuge in the Orthodox monastery, and it continued with the installation of a prayer tent at Maidan square, and turning churches into underground hospitals; then providing space for cooking, running dialogues and meetings in the cities where no other institution would dare to host them; staying for hours between riot police and protesters; and reading the last rites for those killed.  At times of attacks on Maidan, all the churches rang bells in warning.

In the past there was lots of controversy between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Ukrainian Patriarchy and Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy (which is subordinate to the Russian one). Not any more. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Russian Patriarchy condemned Russian occupation of Crimea along with its Ukrainian counterpart, despite a completely different message from its 'boss' in Moscow. In my opinion they all became not separate institutions but one real Christian Church and played a huge role together with doctors, journalists, veterans, students, etc., in making true what seemed to be completely impossible three months ago.

Paradoxically, Russian occupation both divided and brought more unity among Ukrainians. There are people from East and West alike who are ready to defend their country. Russian-speaking Ukrainians with Russian background are ready to fight against the Russian army. There are almost no Russian citizens in Ukraine! There are many people of Russian or mixed origin (as I am) whose native language is Russian, but they are not citizens of Russia. There are huge lines of those who want to get mobilized in the Ukrainian army in a country where [normally] people pay bribes and do everything not to be mobilized for [required] military service.  

At the same time there is a huge divide with those people who hold what I would describe as 'Soviet' identity and – what is most important – have listened to Russian propaganda that pours from Russian TV and other media. The amount of lies and bluff is just overwhelming.

Overhearing Russian TV is just painful. It is not just manipulating facts; it simply fabricates news and rouses hatred! No wonder people who listen to it are scared of "fas—Āists" from the West and are full of hatred towards them. This propaganda will affect our society for a long time.

It's easy to bring division and conflict. It is very hard to reconcile. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Diary of an Encuentro (continued)

Tuesday - Day 5
Getting practical

Throughout these days there has been virtually no public criticism of the United States. This is remarkable given its long history of interference in Latin American affairs. However, I think most people here recognize that there is a need for honest conversation and I have appreciated the opportunity over meals to at least begin to hear some of the feelings beneath the surface. Hopefully these days will have created the trust that will make that more difficult conversation possible.

This morning we worked in small groups to identify some important focus areas for IofC over the next five years. Among them:

  • Collaborative, sustainable, and replicable models of reconciliation and social justice focused on key issues. This might also involve partnerships with like-minded organizations whose goals are aligned with our strategic vision.
  • Reconciliation with the earth. In the spirit of IofC we must start with ourselves. We also need to develop a new language of spirituality appropriate for today's world. 
  • Ability to have internal dialogue within the IofC Americas network and also to promote constructive public dialogue on critical issues.
  • Trustbuilding between Latin America and the United States; and also between and within the countries of Latin America around issues of class and the indigenous people. In this context there is also a need to address Issues of identity. 
  • Capacity building in such areas as project management, funding, increased human resources, and communications. 
Tonight we closed with a celebration in music, dance, poetry and art.

Wednesday - Final day
A commitment to support each other

"I felt empowered. All voices were taken into account. Diversity is not just having everyone at the table but it is about their voices being heard."
Perhaps this statement by Fabiola Benavente Mancilla from Mexico,  sums up better than anything the spirit of the Encuentro of the Americas which closed this morning.

I am writing this on the bus back to Bogota, trying to digest all we have experienced over the past four days.  

Coming from 11 nations of the Americas and Caribbean, the group has left with a commitment to support each other despite the challenge of distance. Pilar Griffith is starting a "cyber quiet time group" and plans to work on a manual on "how to start a team" using her own context of Costa Rica as a pilot. Another group plans to work on ideas on how to build bridges of trust between generations in IofC and to support transitions to younger leadership. 

We are also looking at how to make existing resources more widely available. Some Colombian friends are expressing ideas to translate my book Trustbuilding into Spanish.

I was particularly interested in a group that discussed ideas to align business models with social and spiritual change. The goal would be to develop values-based businesses that provide goods or services that generate income to support IofC workers.

Of course the "elephant in the room" at such meetings is the US-Latin America relationship. As I noted in a previous blog, this gathering was notably free of recrimination. However, Rodrigo Martinez Romero from Mexico and I and others have agreed to start a working group dedicated to seeking ways, in partnership with other organizations, to heal the relationship and build new partnerships for the future.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Diary of an Encuentro (continued)

Monday - Day 4
Regaining trust and confidence

Today has been another very intensive day. We began by gathering in national groups to consider some of the things we most hoped for in our countries.

German Munich from Argentina spoke of his longing to end the deep political divisions as a result of violent repression under the military dictatorship in the 1970s. Reporting for the Brazilians, Alline Serpa highlighted the social inequalities due to corruption. Pilar Griffin from Costa Rica said that Latin America needed self-knowledge and healing, and self-confidence in its strength and possibilities. In a similar vein, Killy Sanchez from Guatemala said, "I need to regain the trust and confidence that my country can change and transmit that change to others."

Juan Carlos Kaiten from Mexico is a collaboration architect at The Hague Center which "focuses on international societal challenges whose complexity requires collaboration between multiple stakeholders." He said, "We need to heal the story of our country. In Mexico we don't accept our native mother or our Spanish father. We need to heal our soul and spirit. Only then will we be able to create the social systems we need in our country."

Together with another young Mexican, Rodrigo Martinez Romero, who works with the Oxford Leadership Academy in Mexico City, Juan Carlos led the Encuentro through a process of identifying critical spiritual, network, and organizational needs in IofC. They said, “We all seek clear, concrete actions that address deep social needs, and that are true to the principles of IofC, and are based on best practices.” 

I was fascinated to learn from Rodrigo that he is a direct descendent of Matias Romero, the Mexican ambassador to the US during the American Civil War. I immediately googled Romero and found this fascinating story of his encounter with President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1861. 
The writer further notes: “By December 1860 Mexico had emerged from its own civil war, and the liberal victors who came to power had long believed the path to modernization ran through economic integration with the United States. This dream had been impossible under the annexation-obsessed Democrats who dominated American national politics in the 1850s. With the ascendancy of the free-soil, free-labor Republicans, Mexico’s leaders believed they had a natural ally who would respect Mexico’s territorial integrity and, in future Secretary of State William Seward’s words, “value dollars more, and dominion less.”

Monday, February 17, 2014

Diary of an Encuentro (continued)

Sunday - Day 3
Becoming a learning community

Today the International Council of IofC reported to the Encuentro on their visits to several Latin American countries. The council members hail from Mexico, USA, Canada, India, Taiwan, Nigeria (absent because of visa difficulties), Egypt, the UK, Australia and Sri Lanka. All were deeply touched by the warmth of hospitality they received on their travels. One said, "I have become addicted to hugs!" Each of the Council remarked on the ways in which Latin American teams were integrating the core principle of IofC in all their activities.

A young Argentinian responded: "Thank you for making me feel so proud of being a Latin American."

Edward Peters, the executive vice president of IofC International, said that after a survey of 350 people from 102 teams, the Council believed it should focus on nurturing the spiritual well-being of the movement; facilitating networking and capacity building; and providing strategic direction and focus.

Omnia Marzouk, IofC's international president, left the participants with three challenging questions drawn from her own decision to accept her leadership role: "Do you believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things? Are you willing to serve despite your limitations? Are you willing to move outside your comfort zone and be led by God?"

This afternoon we spent several hours with pictures and first-hand accounts exploring a historical timeline of IofC in the Americas, from the 1930s to the present day, posted along the length of one wall. We were privileged to have with us "veterans" of more than sixty years who provided institutional memory.

We heard about a young trade unionist who encountered IofC in 1948 and later became the president of Costa Rica; and John Riffe of the American Steelworkers who brought a new spirit to US industry in the forties and fifties; the remarkable resolution of labor-management conflict in the port of Rio de Janeiro in the late fifties, and initiatives to rehouse whole communities by favela leaders; theater productions that played before tens of thousands of people in Bolivia and Peru in the sixties; the growth of the Quente que Avanza youth training program beginning in 1970; a village business in Jamaica that became the rural economic development model for the nation in the eighties; peace seminars in El Salvador in the eighties and nineties; racial reconciliation work in the US and the launch of Hope in Cities in 1993; emergence of of a vibrant new team in Colombia over the past decade, and much much more.

As well as celebrating the successes, we talked  honestly about events and ways of working that had harmed a spirit of unity or had broken trust. Some moving apologies were made. The session ended with everyone walking silently along the timeline.
Throughout these days the interpreters have done an incredible job of
enabling Spanish, English, and Portuguese speakers to understand each other in sessions that often last for two hours or more. They must be exhausted! 

Dancing by a nationally recognized Colombian dance group provided a wonderful ending to a memorable day.