Lech Walesa: “If we don’t give people solutions, it will awaken the demons of the past”

Lech Walesa: “If we don't give people solutions, it will awaken the demons of the past”

The former leader of Solidarnosc talks to Equal Times after a meeting with other Nobel Peace Prize laureates during the Voy por la Paz (I am for Peace) forum in Montevideo on 27 April 2018. From left to right: the Guatemalan political and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú; former Polish president Lech Walesa and Iranian lawyer and human rights defender Shirin Ebadi.

(Ana Isla)

Lech Walesa is one of the iconic figures of the end of the Cold War. His life is riddled with ironies. He was born in Nazi-occupied Poland, which was liberated shortly afterwards by Soviet communism. Communism didn’t last either, and after a few decades the liberation of the country from its liberators led Walesa to the presidency.

He is now leader of the peaceful revolution in Poland. However, the Nobel Peace Prize winner is booed in his own country where – at the same event – Donald Trump is cheered as a hero. Part of the reason for this rejection goes back a long time: in 1995, as the first president of the definitively post-communist era, he sought re-election, lost, and announced his political retirement. He stood again in 2000 but his retirement was firmly respected by 99 per cent of voters who turned their backs on him.

Another reason for the rejection of Walesa is that the post-communist state that he helped to create accuses him of collaborating with communist intelligence in the 1970s.

Walesa comes across as formal, academic, calm, distanced from the reality that sees him as the mythical, historic figure that he is. But the politician and trade unionist is charismatic and persuasive when he feels involved, and makes pointed observations, at times egotistical, at others defensive. Sometimes he uses ambiguous slogans that everyone can interpret the way they want. And there are moments when the passionate believer, almost theologian, who can talk about political issues with words from John the Apostle, comes to the fore.

You were a key figure at that pivotal moment, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the communist bloc. In fact you leapt up to lead the opposition to Polish communism after leaping over a wall. How do you view the current international scene, in which those who were critical of the wall at that time are now talking about building new walls?

In our generation, we think at the level of entire continents, or even the whole world. And we face three big questions. First, what is an acceptable common basis for countries with different religions, cultures and levels of development?

Then, what should be the economic system in the new world structure? Certainly not the communist system, because it didn’t work for any country. But neither should it be the ferocious capitalism that we see in the world today, in which 10 per cent of the world population controls 90 per cent of its wealth. And so we are faced with the alternative of taking this wealth away from them or agreeing with them about how to make it benefit everyone.

And the third question is: what form of democracy should we have? Today elections are being won by populism, lies and demagoguery. We have to improve democracy.

What is your analysis of the rise of the far-right in several countries, and how does it compare to the powers that occupied Poland when you were born?

If we don’t give people solutions, the demons of the past will reawaken and people will turn back to what attracted them then. The elite needs to meet in forums, to find much better solutions than those of the far-right, and convince the people. If we don’t do it in time, the extremists will.

Is this a systemic phenomenon, in which the United States is using military power to fight for the hegemony it is losing in the economic and political field to China and Russia, and abandoning the political, diplomatic and communications competition of “soft power”?

The only superpower we have today is still thinking with a Cold War mentality. And yes, it wants to maintain its hegemony. If we cannot get the United States to change its perspective, it will be a huge failure for all of us. We want the United States to continue to take the lead, but in another way. The world must unite to force the United States to change.

Let us talk about human rights and trade unions, two of your specialist areas. There is a curious parallel between your trade union and political career, and imprisonment, and that of former president, Lula da Silva, currently facing court proceedings that are questionable because of their apparent political motivation. He was not accused of anti-social behaviour as you were in Poland, but of corruption. However, there appears to be a lack of proof and bias in the legal proceedings against him, compared to politicians accused on the basis of more and stronger evidence. How do you analyse the situation in Brazil? Do you see similarities between your own and Lula’s situation, beyond the ideological differences between you?

I met Lula in 1981 in Rome. We understood that we were talking about the same thing, but also that I was questioning communism, and he capitalism. We met again two years ago. And we agreed that we were both right. However, he is in prison now, I am not and I am not going to be.

Regarding the accusations, we don’t know if they are justified. But he fought against the capitalists, and they are not going to forget that. It is possible that they have laid a trap for him. My situation was easier because I built capitalism. They didn’t need to attack me.

There needs to be a thorough investigation. We must show solidarity with Lula, but we must be honest all the way, whatever the consequences. I don’t supposed he is guilty of any serious mistakes. Despite our differences, he is my friend.

On the other matter, human rights, while your devout Catholicism is well-known, you surprised people when in 2013 you expressed the opinion that the homosexual members of parliament should sit outside the chamber. Today, do those opinions reflect your views, do you regret them or repudiate them?

I don’t regret it because my intentions were distorted. I am fanatical about parliament representing society proportionately, and I said to the homosexuals: “You form less than 1 per cent of society, therefore, on the basis of proportionality, we can never see each other inside parliament, because you represent too small a group”. Every group in society should have representatives according to the proportion of society it represents.

Gay people form 1 per cent of Polish society? Are you talking about quotas...?

In Poland, 20 percent of people consider themselves on the left. I understand that they should have 20 per cent representation in various bodies. I am not against homosexuals because God made them that way…peace be with them, but…I am simply insisting that they should be represented according to their proportion in society. Homosexuality should be respected, and we should not fight against it, but…we must maintain proportionality.

Why should the sexual orientation of a politician be more relevant that their ability or their political outlook? And what stops you from applying your principle to other minorities?

I am a democrat. And in democracy it is how many votes you have that counts. That is how I understand democracy: I represent the votes that I have. I am not imposing anything on the homosexuals. And they should not impose anything on me.

How does the fact that you were accused of collaborating with the former Polish communist secret police influence your drive for regulations against abuses in freedom of expression? And in this time of false news, of Cambridge Analytica, what rules would be acceptable, that do not restrict the legitimate exercise of that right?

There are rights in relation to freedom of expression, and also responsibilities. If this were the norm, you could accuse me of one thing, but only once and it would not be repeated.

Regarding the question of whether I was in the service of the secret police: if that were the case, in reality they would have been in my service, because I won and not the other way around. I have won all these cases in court, but people keep telling lies. So, is that freedom of expression? No.

These are examples of why we should regulate freedom of expression. Imagine if we were to forget about traffic rules, and if there were no road signs or traffic lights. Driving rules take a lot of freedoms away from us, but we accept this in order to drive safely. The same applies to freedom of expression: we have to accept some limitations.

This article has been translated from Spanish.

This interview was carried out in collaboration with Diego Anchorena.