When four former presidents from Latin America converge for a seminar, the event is noteworthy. When they are convened by a Nobel laureate, the event becomes a must-attend. When the focus of the event is freedom, it is perhaps a once in a generation occurrence.
Because of this, I had to go.
The last time I visited Lima, Peru was the summer of 2000, just days after President Alberto Fujimori was elected to a third term in a vote that was widely discredited as fraudulent. The grey cloud over the country back then had little to do with the winter smog; it was the pall of oppression.
As Freedom House notes, “In 1992, backed by the military, [Fujimori] suspended the constitution, took over the judiciary, and dissolved Congress.” By 2000, he was running for an unconstitutional third term. Protests had been violently disbursed. Alejandro Toledro, the opposition candidate and future Peruvian president, boycotted a runoff. And evidence emerged that Fujimori’s intelligence chief had handed out bribes. Peru was a police state.
Today, more than a decade of economic growth, pro-market policies and relative political stability has made Peru one of South America’s shining success stories. What better location for a conference on the positive effects of freedom?
On March 20, in his first public event in Peru since winning the Nobel Prize for literature, Mario Vargas Llosa hosted an event at the University of Lima called “Latin America: Challenges and Opportunities.” Sponsored by Vargas Llosa’s International Foundation for Freedom, the event featured former presidents Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, Luis Alberto LaCalle of Uruguay, Tuto Quiroga of Bolivia and Alejandro Toledo of Peru. They took turns speaking with the audience of more than 1,000 people about their successes and failures in building free market, representative democracies in countries with histories of political instability.
The keynote speaker was the great writer himself. “The most important thing is that this model [democracy],” Vargas Llosa said, “which is finally laying down roots in our countries, is not degraded, returning us once again in history to dictatorship and populism; that is, to those institutions which are the very cause of our underdevelopment and backwardness.”
Events like these are important. They remind us of our common cause, and they provide the venue for the fellowship of like-minded freedom advocates. They also reinforce that those under the yolk of oppression can indeed be set free.
This message is especially prescient for individuals now fighting for freedom in Venezuela, and still fighting in Cuba. Like Lima in the 1990s, Caracas is now the epicenter of authoritarianism and violence in the hemisphere; and the misery of the Cuban people – a product of their totalitarian system – seems interminable. These countries are dramatically in need of the freedom this conference so eloquently highlighted. They should take courage from both the event and its venue, recognizing what can be accomplished with discipline and a steadfast commitment to the principles and institutions of freedom.
This post was written by Joel D. Hirst, a Human Freedom Fellow at the George W. Bush Institute. Find him on Twitter: @joelhirst