From the Left



1989, history's stubborn twists, and the commencement speaker who warned us to remain vigilant

Luis Martinez-Fernandez on

Thirty-one years ago, 1989, the Soviet Empire -- the "Evil Empire," as Ronald Reagan liked to call it -- began to unravel. And two years later, the once-mighty USSR voted itself into dissolution.

Not to claim any prophetic powers, but when I read and saw news in May 1987 that an inexperienced teenage German pilot crossed into Soviet airspace and managed to land a Cessna off Moscow's Red Square, I smelled the land of Lenin rotting from within.

The U.S. won the Cold War. Then, President George H. W. Bush declared the advent of a New World Order. We were promised an enormous so-called peace dividend, but it lasted less time than a pizza in a college dorm -- more literally, less time than a $130 billion government funds pinata at a retreat for greedy bankrupt bankers. Remember the Savings and Loan debacle of 1989 and the early 1990s? Remember that no one remembered it, and thus, we fell into the Great Recession in 2008? Remember that since then, Republican legislators and President Donald Trump have forgotten to remember yet again?

The end of the 1980s and dawn of the 1990s was an exciting time. As a Duke University history Ph.D. student, I found the evening news exhilarating, particularly the revolutionary events of 1989. One of our fellow students, a young German, left suddenly, returning to Europe to witness, participate in and chronicle the unfolding collapse of the Eastern bloc. He changed his thesis subject and had the rare privilege among historians to live through one's dissertation.

None other than Tom Brokaw gave our commencement speech on Mother's Day 1990. Anthologized among the best commencement speeches ever, it overflowed with the wisdom of a truly engaged intellectual, one of those rare three-eyed beasts: one eye on the present, another on the past, the third telescoped into the future.

"Your time, 1990," Brokaw told us in his unassuming Midwestern voice, is "a time of explosive, dizzying, exhilarating, cataclysmic change." He reviewed the headlines of the previous year beginning with the protests and bloody massacre at Tiananmen Square -- remember the Goddess of Democracy statue and the unknown Tank Man? Then came Poland's Solidarity Movement that ignited a pandemic of freedom that spread throughout Central and Eastern Europe: East Germany, Czechoslovakia ... even Romania's Draculesque communist dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu, fell from power, the stake of democracy rammed through his chest by seas of torch-bearing Romanians craving freedom and democracy.

Winds of democratic change swept far beyond Europe. "You can feel the Earth moving now," continued Brokaw, "as freedom and independence erupt with volcanic force from the tip of South Africa to the northern Baltics, from the remote reaches of Mongolia to the rarefied heights of Nepal."

Not that I would have left for Havana and abandoned my 19th-century Cuba dissertation, but I was envious of the liberation of so many other countries, while in my homeland, freedom came only in the form of an emotive song by Miami's Willy Chirino. Thirty years later, the song's catchy refrain ("Our day is coming soon ... is coming soon ... is coming soon") rings in my ears like a cruel joke.


Convinced of the depth and permanence of those dramatic transformations, Francis Fukuyama penned one of the most widely read essays of its type: "The End of History?" (1989). "What we may be witnessing," Fukuyama wrote, is "the endpoint of mankind's ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government."

"You are privileged," Brokaw told our graduating class, reminding us also of our responsibility to remain vigilant against bigotry and racism, against those who "use the weapons of democracy to tyrannize those who do not completely embrace their own narrowly cast beliefs" and those politicians who "see reelection as their only obligation to the common welfare."

And here we are in the fall of 2020. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, Russia, the losing side, has successfully meddled in the U.S. elections not once but twice, helping erode our democratic system and institutions. Meanwhile, Trump, from the winning side, has come under the spell of former KGB agent and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin. If Trump could get away with shooting a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue, Putin has indeed gotten away with poisoning former Russian spies and political opponents and offering bounties for the heads of dead American soldiers.

By now we should all have been disabused of the Cold War era belief that capitalism and democracy go hand in hand in opposition to communism and authoritarianism; and of Fukuyama's contention that the former definitely triumphed over the latter, and that the end of history will bring centuries of boredom.


Readers can reach Luis Martinez-Fernandez at To find out more about Luis Martinez-Fernandez and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

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