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How can democracy be strengthened in the face of those who want to tear it down from outside and undermine it from within? The question is more relevant than ever since the 1990s, when the “third wave" of democracy was rising triumphantly, especially in Latin America and Eastern Europe, to finally win the hearts of the whole world.
This was the central theme of much of the discussion at the recent forum organized by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in honor of political scientist Larry Diamond, whose analyses of democracy have made his name in universities, think tanks and publications.
The forum was entitled "A Global Turning Point for Democracy. A Celebration of Larry Diamond", with the stellar presence of Diamond himself, and gave a rather stark overview of the threats to democracy.
"Larry, welcome back to the Endowment, an institution which reflects so many of your ideas, an institution that has been molded by your contributions," said Damon Wilson, president and CEO of the NED.
And the NED rewarded his work by awarding him the Democracy Service Medal, which over the years was received by figures such as Poland's Lech Walesa and the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel (instrumental in the democracies in Eastern Europe), as well as the Dalai Lama, exiled leader of Tibet.
The problems for democracy these days are notorious even in the historical referent of the democratic system, the United States, as Diamond pointed out, not at all complacent with the latest political and ideological developments in his country. Above all due to the growing and lacerating polarization of political preferences.
"The majority of Americans believe that democracy is in very serious danger. They are more polarized on the mass bases, forget about the nearly perfect polarization on Congressional voting behavior (...) than they've been anytime since the Civil War era. I believe there is a significant chance of a breakdown of American democracy in the coming years", he said.
Diamond thus advocated for an improvement in the quality of democracies around the world, both in countries where the system is chronically unstable and in more consolidated democracies. Nothing can be taken for granted.
"Democracies are just going to have to perform better in meeting the challenges that people face. I think a major reason for the erosion of support for democracy around the world is being dissapointment with it's economic and political performance. Effective performance is crucial. With manifestly defective institutions you may not be able to get the performance you need", he warned.
Thus, established democracies run the risk of moving towards less liberal schemes, and the usual autocracies could become entrenched in their closed minds and armor themselves against any opening.
Does this mean that we should give up and surrender to whatever fate delivers? Not at all, if you asked any of the forum participants, and the same of course for Diamond, indefatigable promoter of democratic values.
Vladimir Putin's Russia was definitely present at the NED forum, as it could not be otherwise. Diamond had already warned, in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy, that "no country has witnessed the marriage of autocracy and kleptocracy on a more staggering scale than Russia, where an increasingly fearful and despotic ruler, now more than two decades in power, has amassed one of the world's largest personal fortunes".
And while that was happening inside, despotism was spreading outside, in the form of territorial expansionism. Russia "has already used military force to shear off Crimea, a strategic portion of Ukraine, while waging a years-long war in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region to destabilize the country's democracy and warn it away from a closer alliance with the West", he pointed out weeks before the total invasion of the country that shocked the world.
Carl Gershman, founding president of the NED, serving from 1984 until his retirement in June of 2021, argued that the world's democracy has a lot at stake right now in Ukraine.
"The changes we are going through are just enormous. When we look to the immediate future, a possible (democratic) fourth wave... but I think it has to begin with Ukraine. Ukraine must win this war. The international community must help rebuild it and Ukraine must be boarded into the European Union. This is a long and difficult process, with a lot of obstacles standing in the way. But all of this is possible and it should be done," he said.
Gershman warned however that hopes for a democratic Russia depend on the nation not feeling "defeated and humiliated," which would turn it into a "Weimar Republic," a reference to German democracy after World War I, a politically and economically weakened system from the start, which collapsed to be replaced by the Third Reich.
Latin America was not left out of the discussion. On the contrary, Gershman himself emphasized recent developments in Cuba, perhaps the most widespread dictatorship ever known in the region, and its possibilities for democratization thanks to a new generation of civil rights activists and movements.
"The world is changing. The Cuban regime is in a disastrous state economically. The country is a catastrophe, and we have to help make that change happen. Obvioulsy it's the Cuban people who have to do this, but there's an opportunity there. And if you can get a democratic change in Cuba, which obviously we thought might happen in 1989, 1990 but it didn't... but now it's possible," he said.
And why is it possible? Because of its protagonists: "There is a mass, really a grass roots movement, the San Isidro movement, artists, Afro-Cubans and so many others. If that can happen, I think that can make and enormous change in democracy globally", for what this influential change on the island could mean for other countries.