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By José Azel*
The Anti-Revolutionary Party was an orthodox Protestant political party founded in the Netherlands in 1879 by Abraham Kuyper, a neo-Calvinist minister and theologian. The Anti-Revolutionary Party was strongly opposed to the liberté, égalité, and fraternité, ideals of the French revolution. Instead of liberty, equality and fraternity, the Anti-Revolutionary Party favored divine providence, hierarchy, and pillarization (the vertical segregation of society into segments or “pillars”). As I have come to dislike revolutions, I bring up the Anti-Revolutionary Party into this article only to let the reader know it is not a name of my invention.
In political science, a revolution is defined as a fundamental and abrupt change in political power which typically occurs when a population revolts against the government due to perceived political, social, or economic oppression. But in mechanics, revolution means practically the opposite. It is defined as returning to the starting point, as rotating on a central axis returning to the point where the motion began. Or, as Cubans and Venezuelans have discovered, revolution often means going around in a circle getting nowhere.
A key question then, for a new generation of opposition leaders, is how to chart a course of change in their countries that does not return to the revolutions’ starting points. That is, how to construct and install a representative government based on popular sovereignty and the will of the majority. This is a challenge, given that recent Cuban and Venezuelan history does not provide much wisdom and direction for the future. It is a history of a static and lifeless political culture that only teaches what systems of government do not work.
Consider the implications for Cuba and Venezuela of an example cited by historian Susan Dunn in her excellent book “Sister Revolutions.” By the end of the French Revolution, the term “republic” had become a discredited idea in France. “In a plebiscite in 1799, the people of France voted for the constitution that guaranteed the autocracy of Napoleon. The vote was 3,011,007 to 1,562.” In other words, they voted overwhelmingly in favor of a dictatorship.
What the French then wanted was the stability that Napoleon offered. France would not know republican government for another 72 years. This vote for a “strongman” took place after only ten years of the French Revolution. As of this writing, the Venezuelan and Cuban Revolutions are twenty-three, and sixty-three years old respectively. Who in Cuba today has a living memory of what representative government entails?
In totalitarian and authoritarian states such as Cuba and Venezuela, the absence of any vigorous, competitive, and inclusive political culture, means that society lacks political wisdom. Whatever political understanding exists will be of the wrong kind.
Alexis de Tocqueville, commenting on the French Revolution and the constructing of a new society, noted that the absence of political freedoms had made the world of political affairs not only unfamiliar, but invisible to the French. His prescription for successful change called for bold political vision and practical experience in representative political institutions. But practical experience in representative government was not present in 18th century France and is not present today in Cuba or Venezuela. For Tocqueville, it was not possible for the France of his day to produce leaders capable of establishing a virtuous democracy. Does this hold for Cuba or Venezuela?
Thomas Jefferson was also unimpressed by French aptitude for serious political culture. In a letter to Abigail Adams, he wrote that “all one might do for the French was pray that heaven send them good kings” (Dunn). Somehow, Cuba and Venezuela, burdened with institutions that do not correspond to a free future, and populated by a political class unfamiliar with representative politics, must find an anti-revolutionary way to transformation. I refuse to accept that all we can hope for is for heaven to send them good dictators.
Hopefully, Cuba and Venezuela’s future will be determined, not by history, but by sound political thinking. Later in life, Jefferson revised his intense revolutionary thinking: “We must be contented to travel on towards perfection, step by step.” Perhaps, but Cuba and Venezuela have to use their imagination to shape, in freedom, an anti-revolutionary political future.
*José Azel is a professor at the Institute of Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. He holds an M.B.A. and a Ph.D. in International Relations from the University of Miami.
This article is part of an agreement between El American and the Interamerican Institute for Democracy.