When the balance sheet for 1988 is added up, it must surely be deemed a year of surprising gains in the struggle for freedom.
Burma, which had suffered for 26 years under one-party socialist rule, offered the most drama. At first it seemed we were witnessing a replay of Filipino people power. Massive street revolts forced the resignation of iron-fisted Ne Win and then of his successor, the former head of state security. But, just when it appeared that the opposition had routed a despotic government, the Burmese military unexpectedly resurrected the iron fist.
But as hopes were being dashed in Burma, the universal yearning for human freedom bubbled up elsewhere. In Poland a series of strikes provoked by a new generation of Solidarity leaders forced the hand of the Polish government. The government called a special session of the legislature—heretofore a familiar response only in Western democracies—to deal with the crisis.
In Czechoslovakia, 10,000 protestors turned out for a march commemorating the reformist Prague Spring 20 years earlier. It was the first mass protest since 1969.
In Hungary, miners engaged in the first officially acknowledged strike in more than 30 years, demanding pay increases to reduce the squeeze of new taxes. A reform-minded government quickly conceded a point, slashing new income taxes on bonuses.
In the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, forcibly incorporated into the Soviet Union in 1940, the natives are growing restless. This year, "popular fronts" were formed in all three, and they now rival the local Communist Party in membership. These fronts have held several-day congresses to hammer out platforms demanding measures of autonomy ranging from economic self-determination, the right to veto mandates from Moscow, and an end to atheistic education in the schools (Latvia), to constitutional guarantees of private property and an end to compulsory military service (Estonia). The Estonian front even announced plans to run its own candidates in 1989 elections (not even Solidarity has attempted such a challenge to Communist Party rule).
Halfway around the world, the citizens of Chile peaceably voted against eight more years of Gen. Augusto Pinochet, the dictator whose junta seized power in 1972. In troubled Haiti, an internal revolt of 30 young military officers and non-coms brought to power Lt. Gen. Prosper Avril, who moved quickly to clean up pervasive graft in the military, end its bloody oppression, and effect a transition to democracy.
Why this seemingly contagious ferment for freedom? Some of the possible reasons augur well for millions of oppressed people around the globe.
Consider first how the information revolution is hopelessly complicating the life of the dictator. Except in places such as Albania and Ethiopia, where rigidly imposed isolation or grinding poverty prevent the speedy and thorough spread of information, it has become next to impossible for governments to keep people from knowing what is happening both outside and inside their own country.
Can anyone doubt that protesting students and workers in Burma drew inspiration from the dramatic events in the Philippines two years earlier? Estonian economists now propose that their country operate as a special economic zone within the USSR, with its own currency and rights to foreign trade; their model is Communist China's lately devised special economic zones.
Within countries, the technology of the information revolution is likewise debilitating the best efforts of dictators who may still be able to shut down the press (Burma) or control the supply of newsprint (Nicaragua). The personal computer is still relatively expensive—and controllable. But the lowly radio and tape recorder, ever cheaper and smaller, are widely available.
From China come reports that a student speech pleading for democratic freedoms will be taped, copied, and distributed through the underground. In Latvia, people kept up with the two-day meeting of the Popular Front on radios held to their ears, just like baseball fanatics in America following their favorite team. A Roman Catholic Mass at the conclusion of Lithuania's Popular Front meeting was broadcast live on radio and television—a first in a Communist country. And this summer a young East German woman may have been directly saved by a video camera. In broad daylight and in full view of Western tourists, she jumped into the river Spree to swim from East to West Berlin. A guard in a pursuing patrol boat had his gun aimed; but a British visitor on the West German side had his video camera aimed as well, and the East German police backed off.
Second, and relatedly, even dictators are not all immune to opinion, that of their own people and that of the world. It is strange but possibly true that Chile's Pinochet, having restored a measure of economic prosperity, would like to be remembered as a ruler who had the guts also to restore democracy. Certainly Haiti's new military head of government seems so motivated: "My vision," he told American journalists, "is to enter history as one who has saved the country from anarchy and dictatorship and who has asked for the establishment of an irreversible democracy."
The Economist suggests that even one of the most unbudgeable tyrants, Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu, could be pressured out of his ruthless scheme to uproot half the villagers of Romania and resettle them in "agro-industrial centers." "Ceausescu longs for flattery in the big wide world. Insult this vanity—by vocal condemnation and ridicule at…international gatherings—and western countries might just prevent a lot of senseless destruction in Romania."
Finally, it does not seem too soon to speculate that Mikhail Gorbachev's push for economic reform in the Soviet Union, whatever its own ultimate outcome, may be rippling in unintended yet beneficial ways throughout the world. Hungary is openly critical of its comrades' latest scheme in Romania, home to nearly 2 million people of Hungarian descent. But Gorbachev, what with holding down the home front, has declined to intervene. Likewise the stirrings of independence in the Baltic states are benignly tolerated, in evident hopes that Gorbachev will win much-needed popular support. And now, political turmoil in Yugoslavia—non-aligned but ever-mindful of the might of the Soviet Union—is leading some observers to speculate that it may become the first Communist nation to abandon the creed.
Of course, it would be foolish to predict that 1988 marks a turning point in history, a moment from which future observers will date a measurable flowering of freedom. We cannot predict. We can only hope.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "1988, Year of Hope".