David Dreier, “Freedom Train,” World Affairs Vol. 172, No. 1 (SUMMER 2009), pp. 54-63.

We have come a long way since 1989, that year of miracles when we felt, at least for a brief moment, that something fundamental about human freedom had been decided and that we had seen a permanent greening of the global political environment. History didn’t end twenty years ago, as some prematurely assumed; the clash of ideology became a clash of cultures and we still struggle over issues of threat and response, stability and security. Yet it would be wrong to feel so trapped in the moral grayness of the present that we fail to observe the landmark twenty-year anniversary we celebrate now and take a moment to recall what was accomplished by the inspired mechanics working throughout the 1980s in shop rooms of democracy around the world and how their work resonates today.


This much I know: history was set on fast-forward in 1989. Anyone even remotely involved in the great events of that year felt himself to be present at the creation. For me, there were two prestige moments. The first came six months before the fall of the Berlin Wall when I was in El Salvador as part of a U.S. congressional delegation watching a swearing-in ceremony for the country’s new president, Alfredo Cristiani. It was a moving ceremony, especially when the man Cristiani was replacing, Jose Napoleon Duarte, struggled to his feet to embrace his successor. Duarte, much vilified by leftists throughout Latin America and the U.S. for the uncompromising war he had waged against the Soviet-supported FMLN guerrillas who at one point seemed on the verge of taking over his country, was suffering from terminal cancer. He and Cristiani had been bitter rivals in the electoral campaign just concluded. Yet here, after two decades of bloody civil strife played out against the backdrop of the Cold War endgame, they were collaborating in the first peaceful transition from one democratically elected presidency to another in El Salvador’s history.


All of us who attended this dramatic ceremony knew that a stone had been tossed into history and that the waves it created would continue to lap on Salvador’s shores for years to come. But I doubt that any of us imagined that two decades later the FMLN would have laid down its guns in favor of democratic participation in the country’s future or that the neighboring Sandinistas, who had supported the Salvadoran guerrillas’ brutal campaign throughout the 1980s, by then would also have traded the bullet for the ballot.


The second unforgettable moment in the drama of 1989 came two days after Cristiani’s swearing in. I was on a plane for Krakow, Poland, as part of a congressional delegation led by Jim Denton, then head of the National Forum Foundation and later Freedom House—organizations that played pivotal roles in nurturing the growth of democracy movements throughout Eastern Europe—and now the publisher of this magazine. We arrived on the eve of the first free Polish elections, a concession Solidarity had extracted from the Communist government two months earlier after two generations of Communist subjugation. The decision to hold a vote had come suddenly and unexpectedly, and the members of our delegation were the only international observers present.


On the night of June 3, just hours before the polls opened, we were at Solidarity headquarters crowded around a small television set watching Chinese tanks lumbering menacingly into Tiananmen Square in preparation for a bloodbath. General Wojciech Jaruzelski’s junta had ordered the tape loop of the scenes from China to be played continuously to convey the not-so-subtle message to Poles about what might happen to them if the election didn’t produce the correct results. Indeed, the Solidarity leaders worried aloud that they wouldn’t get 50 percent of the vote. Yet, the next day in the first free election in the Communist empire, the people of Poland spoke as one—over 95 percent voted to oust the Communist regime. As we traveled through the region that day, we saw hordes of citizens lined up at the polls with stunned looks on their faces, still unable to comprehend the magnitude of the event, like sleepwalkers in the middle of a historical moment they never expected to experience.


It was inevitable that the poetry of that annus mirabilis should eventually give way to prose over the next few years; and that ecstatic acts of liberation and the poignancy of first elections should be followed by something more workaday and methodical. Yet the chronicle of democracy compiled since then has a quiet grandeur of its own. Throughout the 1990s, I worked on a U.S. House of Representatives task force coordinating with the parliaments of ten former Soviet bloc states to embed the promise of democracy in their countries’ social and political institutions. We worked to build libraries and judiciaries, police departments and political parties. Some of these countries, like Poland, which had the benefit of a democratic movement that had functioned almost as a shadow state to the increasingly illegitimate Communist government, made the transition with relative ease. Others, like Ukraine and Belarus, had greater difficulty in exorcising their Soviet ghosts. Yet the democratic revolutionaries continue to grapple with the promise of 1989 in their efforts to establish the rule of law and inviolability of personal liberty. The road to democracy was filled with potholes and occasional rest areas, but the brave people in these countries understood that however fast it moved, or was occasionally diverted, the traffic was headed one way.


There have been daunting lessons to learn since the historic election in Poland. Even the best intentioned and most committed members of new democracies are not always able to resist those who exploit fragile institutions for personal gain or political malice, or those who use freedom as a cover to create corruption and chaos. Yet the work of twenty years ago continues today—often quietly and hidden from view but with vigor and success. In 2004, for instance, the U.S. House of Representatives Democratic Assistance Program was created to help countries ranging from Kenya to Indonesia whose 1989s have been partial, not yet yielding their full promise. Discussing parliamentary committee systems in Jakarta or budget oversight in Nairobi—work which may not pay off for years or decades, or perhaps ever—I sometimes think back to where it all began in the jungles of Central America and the factories and universities of Eastern Europe and think too of the winding path 1989 has created for our generation. It reminds me of the story of an old man whose sole occupation was to sit in a chair waiting for the Messiah. When a passerby asked him how he could spend his life this way, the old man replied that what he did might not appear to be exciting but it was steady work. That is what the events of 1989 have provided for so many democracy activists in so many countries around the world: steady work.