Octavio Paz (1914-1998)

Issue Date July 1998
Volume 9
Issue 3
Page Numbers 188-89
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The death of Mexican poet and essayist Octavio Paz on April 20 was (in the words of Mexico’s president Ernesto Zedillo) “an irreplaceable loss for contemporary thought and culture—not just for Latin America but for the entire world.” Born in Mexico City on 31 March 1914, Paz published his first book of poetry while still a teenager. In 1937 he participated in the Second International Congress of Anti-Fascist Writers in Valencia, Spain, and remained in that country to join the fight against General Francisco Franco. In 1945 he entered the Mexican foreign service and was posted to France. After serving in Paris and Tokyo, he was appointed ambassador to India in 1962. Paz resigned from the foreign service in 1968 to protest his government’s brutal suppression of student demonstrators in Mexico City’s Tlatelolco Square.

Continuing his work as a writer, editor, and publisher, in 1976 Paz founded Vuelta, Latin America’s leading literary magazine. In 1990 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Nobel Prize committee commended him for his “impassioned writing . . . sensuous intelligence, and humanistic integrity.” Though best known as a literary figure, Paz was also a redoubtable champion of democracy, and we were honored that he agreed to become a founding member of the Editorial Board of the Journal of Democracy. We are pleased to present below some of his thoughts on democracy:

From The Other Mexico: Critique of the Pyramid (Grove, 1972), translated by Lysander Kemp: [I]n the West the word “democracy” has lost almost all of its magnetism. This symptom is terrifying: whatever may be the limitations of Western democracy (which are many and grave: bureaucratic rule by parties, monopolies of information, corruption, et cetera), there can be no political life without freedom of criticism and a variety of opinions and groups. For us, as modern men, political life is synonymous with rational, civilized life. . . . Critical thinking cannot be sacrificed on the altars of accelerated economic development, the revolutionary idea, the leader’s prestige and infallibility, or any other mirage of that sort. The experiences of Russia and Mexico are conclusive: without democracy, economic development has no meaning (p. 10). [End Page 188]

From One Earth, Four or Five Worlds (Harcourt Brace, 1985), translated by Helen R. Lane: Latin American democracy was a late arrival on the scene, and it has been disfigured and betrayed time and time again. It has been weak, hesitant, rebellious, its own worst enemy, all too eager to worship the demagogue, corrupted by money, riddled with favoritism and nepotism. And yet almost everything good that has been achieved in Latin America in the last century and a half has been accomplished under democratic rule, or, as in Mexico, a rule heading toward democracy. A great deal still remains to be done. Our countries need changes and reforms, at once radical and in accord with the tradition and the genius of each people. In countries where attempts have been made to change the economic and social structures while at the same time dismantling democratic institutions, injustice, oppression, and inequality have become stronger forces than ever. The cause of the workers requires, above all else, freedom of association and the right to strike, yet this is the very first thing that their liberators strip them of. Without democracy, changes are counterproductive; or, rather, they are not changes at all.

To repeat again, for on this point we must be unyielding: changes are inseparable from democracy. To defend democracy is to defend the possibility of change; in turn, changes alone can strengthen democracy and enable it to be embodied in social life. This is a tremendous, twofold task. Not only for Latin Americans: for us all. The battle is a worldwide one (“Latin America and Democracy,” pp. 187–88).

But elections, while they are essential, are not everything. In our time the legitimacy of a government is based on the free, universal, and secret vote of the people; nonetheless, to be called “democratic” a regime must fulfill other requirements, such as the protection of individual and collective liberties and rights, pluralism, and, above all, respect for the individual and for minorities. . . .

In its simplest and most essential expression, democracy is dialogue, and dialogue paves the way for peace. We will be in a position to preserve peace only if we defend democracy. From this principle, in my opinion, three others follow. The first is to pursue unremittingly any and every possibility for dialogue with the adversary; this dialogue requires, at one and the same time, firmness and flexibility, giving ground and refusing to do so. The second is not to yield to either the temptation of nihilism or the intimidation of terror. Freedom is not merely a precondition of peace but a consequence: the two are indissoluble. To separate them is to yield to totalitarian blackmail and in the end to lose both. The third principle is to recognize that the defense of democracy in our own country is inseperable from solidarity with those who are fighting for it in totalitarian countries or under the tyrannies and military dictatorships of Latin America and other continents. By fighting for democracy, dissidents are fighting for peace—fighting for all of us (“Peace and Democracy,” pp. 211–12).


Copyright © 1998 National Endowment for Democracy and the Johns Hopkins University Press