Perhaps the most beautiful achievement of political life in the late twentieth century was the international movement for democracy that brought down several dozen dictatorships of every possible description–authoritarian, communist, fascist, military. It happened on all continents, and it happened peacefully. It began in the 1970s, with the collapse of the Greek junta and of the right-wing regimes in Portugal and Spain; it continued in the 1980s, mysteriously jumping the Atlantic, with the collapse of dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and Brazil; then, vaulting the Pacific, it claimed the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. Finally, in the early ’90s, it spread to South Africa, where the white apartheid regime yielded to majority rule, and returned to the Eurasian continent, where the great Soviet empire itself shuffled off history’s stage.
The actors in this benign contagion acquired a name: civil society. “Civil”: they were peaceful, meaning that the bomb in the cafe, the assassination of the local official, the paratrooper invasion of the Parliament building were not their tactics. “Society”: they expressed popular will, not the will of governments. The movement broke or made governments. It was their master.
Recently, however, the movement has undergone a change both at home and abroad. Civil society groups in the more prosperous societies began to lend welcome assistance to poorer ones. But governments also joined in. Unlike private civil groups, governments are in their nature interested in power, and the civil society movements clearly exercised it. Here in America, the National Endowment for Democracy was created in the early 1980s. Funded by Congress and governed by a board that included active and retired politicians of both parties, it nevertheless called itself a “nongovernmental” organization. Its declared mission was to support democracy per se, not any political party; but the distinction was soon lost in practice. Most of the $10.5 million handed out in Nicaragua during the elections of 1990 went to the opposition to the Sandinistas, who were duly voted out of power. In 2002 the Endowment funded groups in Venezuela that backed the briefly successful coup against President Hugo Chávez, in which the Venezuelan Parliament, judiciary and constitution were suspended.
The day after the overthrow, which Omar Encarnación of Bard College has called a “civil society coup,” the president of the International Republican Institute, which is loosely tied to the GOP and is a conduit for Endowment funds, stated, “Last night, led by every sector of civil society, the Venezuelan people rose up to defend democracy in their country.” Speaking for the US government, the presidential press secretary, Ari Fleischer, stated that the coup “happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people.” In fact, the Venezuelan people opposed the coup, and Chávez, notwithstanding his own repressive tendencies, almost immediately returned to power.
More recently Endowment contributions went to groups in Ukraine that supported presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, who became president after fraudulent results engineered by the government candidate were reversed by popular pressure. In Venezuela, the outcome was the destruction, however brief, of all democratic institutions, whereas in Ukraine the outcome was the rescue of democracy; yet in both cases the integrity of civil society, which depends on independence from governments, was partially corrupted.