History has shown that the path to democracy is not an easy one. For countries where authoritarian regimes exist and basic human rights are denied, the peaceful transition to democracy is even more difficult. Pro-democracy reformers require the support of the international community as they stand up to brutal regimes. In Belarus, Burma, Cuba, North Korea, Syria and Zimbabwe IRI is supporting activists and reformers in their efforts to find and open political space.
Training Democratic Activists in Burma
Conducting political activities inside Burma is dangerous and difficult. Despite this, regular political meetings are held, small scale demonstrations occur and grassroots organizing continues quietly. In a country where one can be imprisoned on the mere suspicion of participating in political activities, these actions demonstrate incredible commitment to democracy and freedom.
IRI provides support and training to political organizations and individuals inside Burma and those that are working in exile on topics such as political party organizing, communication strategies, campaigning and message development and community organizing. IRI’s ongoing governance initiatives provide training on economic governance, policy development and international relations to help develop the skills of future democratic leaders. IRI also supports the work of the Political Defiance Committee (PDC), an umbrella organization of pro-democracy political and ethnic groups. Risking imprisonment and torture, PDC activists distribute civic education and civil and political society development information inside Burma. These materials offer an important source of information in the effort to educate and empower a growing internal democracy movement.
Helping Citizens Share Information in Cuba
Citizens in Cuba remain trapped in a structure that suppresses individual freedoms while discouraging entrepreneurism, non-conformity and activist-thinking. Citizens are prevented from exploring the potential for economic-, social- and political mobility, as well as pursuing other freedoms and human rights which exist in most of the world. Indeed the freedom for Cubans to travel, communicate with foreign visitors and simply be informed of the world around them through newspapers and the Internet, is virtually non-existent. While reform has come (and gone) in small spurts, Cuba remains the epitome of a closed society, similar to Burma or North Korea.
IRI is one of the only organizations that successfully administers public opinion research in Cuba that is not regulated or pre-censored by the Castro regime. This research allows the Institute to accrue meaningful data on how Cubans truly feel about their country, and to what degree they aspire for social, economic and political change. For example, recent IRI surveys show that nearly 80 percent of Cubans want greater access to the Internet and cell-phone networks. For those Cubans who aspire for more knowledge and expertise, IRI helps by offering access to new channels of communication, while broadening their abilities to gain information about current news events and global perspectives. IRI helps with communication coming out of Cuba as well, recognizing the positive impact solidarity and global awareness can have on the morale and spirit of those who bravely seek change.
Likewise, IRI provides support to Cubans who want to communicate and connect with their fellow citizens inside Cuba, on subject matters ranging from economic policy to literature and music. These groups include entrepreneurs, bloggers, academics, independent journalists, artists, students, laborers and women – all of whom share the common desire of growth, but lack experience, training and resources under Cuba’s current conditions.
Opening Political Space in Zimbabwe
Zimbabwe’s economy has steadily declined in an atmosphere of severe political and social repression. At the heart of the crisis was a regime which adopted a set of policies that claim to protect national interests by limiting the role and influence of political parties and civil society—particularly those that advocate human rights and democratic values. Formal and informal elements of the state’s security apparatus often uphold restrictive legislation through violent means. For every advance that pro-democratic groups seemed to make, there seemed to be a devastating setback, like the violent crackdown following the Save Zimbabwe Campaign and the rash of inter-election violence following the success of the Movement for Democratic Change at the March 2008 polls. Such a two-step forward one-step back scenario has proven no less true with the signing of the Global Political Agreement and the swearing in of a government of national unity in February 2009.
In light of these challenges IRI supports Zimbabwean democratic political parties and civil society in maintaining some modest level of political space, while paying particular attention to traditionally underrepresented groups in Zimbabwean society, such as women and youth. IRI encourages democratic organizations to focus on democratic consolidation and advocacy, and to push for issue-driven reform that can benefit all Zimbabweans regardless of political stripe. Through IRI’s training sessions and workshops, the Institute works to better educate democratically-inclined groups on methods of mobilization, outreach, leadership, strategic planning, message development and works to equip them with the tools necessary to leverage popular support for lasting democratic reform.