Democracy is like learning how to swim, former Polish President Lech Walesa told guests on Feb. 13: “You have to wade in to your knees and learn for yourself.”
Walesa delivered a keynote address in Polish, which was simultaneously translated into English, to attendees of the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies’ roundtable discussion, in addition to other guests. The Cuba Transition Project, Consulate of the Republic of Poland, U.S. Agency for International Development, and American Institute of Polish Culture, Inc. co-sponsored the day’s events.
In 1990, Walesa became Poland’s first democratically elected president since the Soviet Union installed a communist government in 1945. His election came a year after his Solidarity labor movement won control of a newly established parliament.
“I come here to tell you a few truths because there are some spots on this Earth that have been particularly touched by history and my country is one of those places,” Walesa said.
He began his remarks by giving a brief history of modern Poland, beginning after World War I, before going into detail about his efforts against communism in Poland during the 1980s.
“Nobody gave us a chance of winning,” he said. “By trial and error we noticed what opportunity for victory [there]was.”
This victory came peacefully after Walesa, formerly a labor leader, and his Solidarity movement, which included about 50 labor unions, pushed for change in Poland.
Regarding Pope John Paul II’s role in freeing Poland, Walesa said the Pope helped people realize their situation.
“He awakened the people of Poland,” Walesa said.
Soon thereafter, Poland became democratic and the Soviet empire fell as a result of several factors, allowing many other countries to move away from communism. Since then, according to Walesa, the U.S. remains the only superpower economically and militarily, but not morally and politically, which is what is most important.
“The new epoch should be based on generally accepted values,” he said, hinting that American ideals are not universally accepted and others’ must be considered as well.
Walesa also addressed the subject of Cuba and its long history of control by Fidel Castro’s communist government.
“I don’t know whether what I say to Cubans is good because there are different situations,” he said.
He portrayed Castro as a “very intelligent monster” who is “unbelievably demagogical.”
“I wouldn’t use force,” he said regarding how he would defeat Castro, “I would use intellect.”
Walesa said one unifying figure would work best to unite Cuba and inspire real change.
“I see too many Lech Walesas in Cuba, this is the problem,” he said.
What he said he didn’t see were any plans for urban development and employment in a post-Castro scenario. These, he said, are crucial to success, if they can be held on to.
Nick Schaad, a sophomore, appreciated Walesa’s remarks.
“I think he seemed very charismatic,” Schaad said. “He’s more of a practical guy rather than a theoretical person in how he approaches issues, and that’s something I can relate to and something I can ascribe to.
“I was disappointed that he didn’t focus specifically more on Cuba, but at the same time I think he did by providing his general diagnosis.”
Molly Kurnit, sophomore, agreed with Schaad’s assessment and offered some insight.
“He played a really integral role in big the changes in Poland back in the day and I think that you can apply a lot of the same things to Cuba now, except that the people know that there’s a problem and everyone knows it,” she said.
Greg Linch can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.