Capehart: Mexican President Calderon, the Middle East and building democracy

By Jonathan Capehart
Thursday, March 3, 2011; 3:41 PM

The hour-long meeting President Felipe Calderon of Mexico had with The Post editorial board and reporters covered a range of topics, from the battles with drug cartels to the damage WikiLeaks caused to the relationship with the United States. But it was discourse on democracy -- how it is a process with components that must be learned over time -- that perked me up.

Considering Mexico's path from one-party rule to democracy, Calderon was asked what advice he would give to the nascent democracy movement sweeping across the Middle East. Near the outset, he said he wasn't sure what lessons Mexico could offer -- and then proceeded to expound on the ingredients needed to nurture and grow a democracy.

"We switched from autocracy to democracy without firing a single shot," Calderon noted. He said this was possible because of his country's principles of nonviolence. "We used the weapons of peace, but it took us 60 years to get them."

"You cannot build democracy without people who have democratic values," Calderon said. These are people who don't advocate, among other things, discrimination or segregation. "Tolerance is a learning process for everyone." He would later ask rhetorically what are the political values of the people in those Middle Eastern countries who are clamoring for democracy? And what are the agencies promoting democratic values in those countries?

"You need to learn the democratic process," Calderon counseled. "It's really hard to do. We're still learning." In watching the unfolding events in the Arab world, he wondered how hard, how violent could that process be. And he offered a wonderful truism upon which all successful democracies rest: "You need to learn to win and to lose."

Calderon did offer a word of caution. Just because people long denied a say in who leads them elect a president through the democratic process doesn't mean mission accomplished. "Democracy is a continuous process," he said before relating the story of the princess who kisses the frog who becomes a prince.

The 2000 election of President Vicente Fox in Mexico, which broke the 71-year hold on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), and that of other leaders in Latin American led people to think that their work was done. But, as Calderon pointed out, suddenly some realized that they'd elected someone who was setting up a dictatorship, killing people and doing other nefarious and undemocratic things dictators like doing. This was an unusual and a not-so-veiled shot at Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. From what my colleague Jackson Diehl tells me, veiled or not, it is very unusual for one Latin American leader to slap another in such a public forum.

Calderon might not have thought he had any useful advice for democracy-seekers in the Middle East. But in a few sentences he presented a useful guide to turn their ideals into a government that finally gives their people a say in who runs it and makes it responsive to their needs and concerns.

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