Freedom's flame

AS the year draws to an end, there is violence and trouble aplenty around the world. But threaded through all this is an extraordinary and encouraging trend. It is the passion for freedom for millions of people who have never known it. From the cloying world of communism, from the new dictatorships of Africa, from the right-wing military autocracies, the arms and hearts reach out to the flickering flame of liberty. Many of those who seek it have lived their entire lives in some kind of bondage. Yet the quest for freedom is intuitive and instinctive and is often pursued with courage and endurance.

We are not talking about Jeffersonian-type democracy - although the United States's concept of democracy is a beacon of hope for many millions. We are talking about progression away from dictatorship, sometimes lurching and hesitant, in the direction of more freedom for individuals in their personal lives. Poland is a good example of a country which is certainly not free by Western democratic standards, but where sturdy Poles who abhor communism have managed to carve out a little more room for maneuver.

The fact is that freedom is gaining ground.

A particularly good example is Latin America, whose map 10 years ago was blotted with dictatorships and military governments. Today, huge swaths of Latin America may reasonably be termed free.

In Asia we have just witnessed remarkable progress towards freedom, and away from military control, in South Korea. The Philippines has shrugged off the despotic mantle of Ferdinand Marcos and, in the face of awesome continuing problems, is nevertheless operating as a society of free men and women.

In Africa the outlook remains rather bleak, both in countries under black rule and in white-dominated South Africa.

Then there is the communist bloc, where there has been some loosening up, but where confusing currents swirl and make it difficult to assess whether ``freedom'' as we know it in the West is making enduring gains. Glasnost has certainly opened up discussion and some cautious criticism of faults within the Soviet system. But the discussion is carefully controlled and regulated. Similarly, there has been some freeing of political prisoners and some prominent dissidents have been allowed to leave the Soviet Union, but the Soviets remain intensely sensitive and defensive about their continuing abuse of human rights.

Meanwhile in the USSR's Eastern European satellites there are varying reactions to Mikhail Gorbachev's policy of glasnost. Some old-guard communist leaders resent any movement towards liberalization, fearing that it threatens their own power.

An organization intensely interested in freedom's progress and setbacks is Freedom House in New York. A nonpartisan organization committed to strengthening free societies, for 16 years it has been conducting a worldwide, annual survey on how freedom is doing.

It has just completed its survey for 1987 and the good news is that more people are living in freedom than at any time since Freedom House started its monitoring. About 38 percent of the world's 5 billion people live in ``free'' countries. The bad news is that 37 percent of the world's people still live in countries that are not free, but even here the percentage is lower than at any time during the 16-year monitoring process. The balance of the world's population lives in countries rated ``partly free.''

There were setbacks in l987. There was the destruction of freedom in Fiji. There was erosion of freedom in Kenya. Malaysia and Singapore have been making some decidedly undemocratic motions. But Freedom House saw progress in Cape Verde, Malta, Nigeria, the Philippines and Suriname, and one would have to add South Korea to that list.

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