Tomicah S. Tillemann
Senior Advisor for Civil Society and Emerging Democracies
Washington, DC
January 29, 2013

The video is available with closed captioning on YouTube.

Senior Advisor Tomicah Tillemann: Let me welcome all of you not only here in Washington but also at embassies around the world. We have a number of missions who are hosting viewing parties in conjunction with this event today, and we are delighted not only to have your physical presence for those of you who are here at the Harry S Truman building but also virtual presence of our colleagues in a number of different countries all over the globe. We are very fortunate to have with us, on the stage, a number of outstanding leaders and outstanding activists who feature very prominently in this movie. It is a great film, and, at risk of possibly giving away a secret of the plot, it is a very very powerful demonstration of the importance of civil society, and the role of civil society has, of course, been at the heart of much of the work that we’ve done at the State Department over the last several years. I’d like to start, if I can, with a brief introduction of our panelists and, in many cases, they need no introduction, but Roberto Patino is a youth movement leader from Venezuela. As you’ll see in the film, the work that he has done there is truly inspiring, encouraging young people in particular to come out and register to vote with the hope of bringing greater democracy and progress to that country. We then have Larry Diamond who is the director of Stanford Center for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law. Larry has about seven hundred titles, but the only thing that you really need to know about Larry, or at least the only thing that I have ever really needed to know, is that wherever I go in the world, whenever I meet a truly impressive civil society leader, somebody who just blows me away, there is about an eighty-percent probability that they were a student of Larry’s at some point along the way. We then have Esraa Abdel Fattah who is the leader of the Egyptian Democracy Academy, and who features very prominently in the film as one of the activists behind the changes that have occurred in Egypt over the last few years that have really re-contoured the entire political landscape of a region. And then last, but certainly not least, Ben Moses who is the writer, director, and producer of A Whisper to a Roar and brings a very distinguished background in broadcast journalism to this effort. Let me begin, if I can, by posing a question to the activists we have on stage, and then we’re very eager to turn to audience questions as well, and we would ask those of you who have questions to line up behind the microphones and we will, in short order, get to your comments. But if I can, especially with you, Esraa: it is incredibly difficult work to lead a civil society movement that actually generates real change and has an impact on society. What has been your motivation in deciding to engage in this work? This is not for the faint of heart; the stakes are incredibly high but so are the challenges, and why did you decide to do what you’ve done?

Esraa Abdel Fattah: First I want to thank you and thank all the audience to come to see this film and listen to us in this discussion, and thank Ben and Larry and all of you. Yes, it is not an easy work to be in engaged in civil society work and even in the activism to achieve a real democracy in Egypt. But the motivation of me to participate in this life is, I dream for Egypt to be a democratic and a free country; I want to see Egypt as I dream of. I feel that Egypt and the Egyptian people deserve freedom, deserve democracy, deserve dignity, deserve justice in their lives; that is my motivation, that is, I find that is what happen in Egypt it’s not justice; Egyptian need more to be leader, Egypt is a leader country in the country but the people who controlling this country, they’re working in this country just for their beliefs, just for their sakes, just for their interests. So, I’ve found that it is important to have a time of change. The time of change is started for me in activism from two thousand four, from the starting of Kifaya movement or Enough movement, and it’s followed for many things, we can see that in this film, that is six April strike, it is the reason of my arrested about eighteen days, and it is the first thing which motivated me to complete, that is to say, I can’t wait for my freedom, I can’t wait for this country to be in jail for eighteen days. So, I think, yeah, this work is not an easy one but Egypt deserve to work and engage in this. Also, I want to mention that, the revolution, because I think that is all the audience wanted to, to know: is there is a revolution still in Egypt or what? What has done now in Egypt? I believe in my thought that the revolution never go backwards, but maybe it’s very long process, maybe it’s a very long road to achieve what we demands. And now, I think, when Egypt, we try to make a new phase of revolution, we try to return our revolution back, we try to reform the way of revolution. Now, the people in the street come back again to say that is “No, there is not our demands in the ground . We just elect a new president but this new president cannot achieve the demands of revolution; the bread, the freedom, the social justice, and the dignity. We cannot feel this from after two years from the revolution.” So, we now try to send again the message; the new leaders cannot understand the message of revolution. The real power of any country lies in its people in the street, not in the leader, and the leader can step down if they found that’s the leader are away, totally away, from their people in the street. So we will continue and, I think, we, as activists, we try to work and in parallel with our working in the street and also to be politicians, to try to engage ourselves in political body, in the parliament process. We try now not to just concentrate in the working in the street because we feel that this is after finishing this work in the street and our activist, we will face the politician face, and we should be ready for this. Thank you.

Dr. Tillemann: Thank you very much, Ezra, and Roberto, let me ask you as well: there are a lot of students in Venezuela; most of them do not make it their life’s work to engage their peers in the political process. What was it in your experience that prompted you to go that route and led you toward activism?

Roberto Patino: Hello. I also want to thank everyone for the invitation and for being here to listen to us. I think, first of all, that the student movement in Venezuela that started in two thousand and seven was a student movement that didn’t have one only leader. We have a lot of leaders from every university doing the work and taking students out to the streets to defend our freedom of speech. I, we grew up in Venezuela that was feel with an anti-politics environment. When Chavez came to power in nineteen ninety-eight, I was only ten years old. We had, we saw while we were growing up, a lot of confrontation in Venezuelans, we saw a lot of violence, we saw how the problems of the country got worse when time was passing. And in two thousand and seven, the government decided to shut down the biggest TV station in the country, it was called RCTV, and for us, that was a turning point. We decided to come out to the streets in a nonviolent way. We, as you’re going to see in the movie, didn’t throw any rocks, we didn’t have any weapons, we only wanted to be heard. And this movement started to grow around the country and we also managed to stop at the end of the year, a constitutional reform that President Chavez was proposing, and other, in some of the aspects of this constitutional reform was the almost elimination of prior property, was the, the president, the president didn’t have any restrictions to get re-elected, and other things that were very not good for our country, so we decided to come out and to ask people to vote, and that was, that was Chavez’s first defeat at the, at the elections. We then, after that, we decided to keep organizing, we founded different groups, for example, we founded a group called Votojoven which goal is to invite young people to register and to vote. We did a lot of campaigns all around the country, we had a lot of teams to take people out to the streets to vote, and in two thousand and twelve, we had a presidential election. I was part of this presidential election and we were running against a candidate, Chavez, who had all the resources from the oil state, that has, was a very unequal election because what we believed that we have in Venezuela, is an autocracy that dress itself as a democracy. So, we have a lot of elections, but it is very difficult for people in Venezuela to vote differently than to vote for the government. And I say this because several reasons. In first place is the amount of resources that they have, in second place, they don’t have any restrictions to go to, to put television advertisement or even to broadcast all of the media when the president once, in the middle of the campaign, to show to the people the things, the things that he is doing. We have also a lot of violence. We have groups, we have armed groups in the streets of Caracas that are always harassing people that think differently, and I think that the most important thing is that they also use, they disrespect the poorest people in Venezuela by, they take the people’s needs and they offer solutions, but they ask in return for political favors.

Dr. Tillemann: Can I ask, just building on that, and these are great, I think, illustrations of the importance of activism and what leads people toward work in civil society. Larry, you have worked with leaders in civil society for dozens of countries all over the world. You’ve seen some fail and you’ve seen some succeed. What, in your opinion, makes for a great democracy activist and what are the qualities that determine whether a movement for democratic change makes the transition from a whisper to a roar? What are the key catalysts for progress?

Larry Diamond: Well, I think you’ve seen some of the qualities on display in the last few minutes. I’d say you begin with conviction, democratic conviction. A politician may, in the end, kind of flip over and embrace the transition to democracy because he or she calculates, they can play the game and succeed that way but you can’t push democracy through as a civil society activist without having the burning conviction about and commitment to freedom, dignity, social justice, the things that Ezra was talking about, the things that Roberto has also been fighting in the streets for and been talking about in terms of their violations under Chavez, without deep conviction and then you have to have the courage of your convictions in terms of a willingness to organize and mobilize in what each of these two remarkable young people have experienced, potentially dangerous circumstances. Ezra has been to jail; we’ve worried about Roberto’s safety repeatedly, I’m sure we’re not the only ones. Students have been killed in Venezuela for standing up for democracy and free and fair elections, and then, Tomicah, part of this may be just willingness to take a stand and be a dissident like Sakarov or Hovel or Lu-shal-bo or Chen-Guang-Cheng. But if you’re going to be a civil society activist, you’ve got to know how to be active effectively and that means collaboratively, so to work as a team, to mobilize, to communicate and in this era, and these two individuals know this and have proven this with intimate and powerful creativity, how to use the modern tools of information and communication technology, the social media and so on, to inspire, organize, lead collaboratively, you know, your fellow young people and others, and put together a effective and creative and sustainable, because they’ve really had to sustain it over a long period of time, mass movements. I’ll just say, finally, Tomicah, that sustainability is very important. You’ve really got to have both a strategic sense analytically and the kind of determination in your gut that this may be a very long process. It’s, it’s not uncommon, we’ve seen this in Egypt, we’ve seen it in Venezuela, God knows, we’ve seen it in the film in the case of Zimbabwe, that, you know, you may have a struggle over a long period of years until you finally get a breakthrough, and if you give up midway, you lose everything.

Dr. Tillemann: Let me ask you, Ben, you’ve made movies, Larry has devoted his life to this work, so it’s not surprising to see him at this table; you’ve made movies on a lot of different subjects, you’ve covered a lot of different subjects. Why turn to civil society, and what’s the interest, and why does this theme, do you think, resonate in the United States? Obviously, we’re a country that, in many ways, has been shaped by civil society, but what’s its relevance today?

Ben Moses: Well, I think you’ve seen the reason right here, but, more broadly, I didn’t know a lot about how all this works. I was a, I avoided the concept of politics and public policy and all of this for most of my life. And then I met Larry, and read his book, The Spirit of Democracy, and met some of the people, like Roberto and Ezra, who are standing in front of tanks, if you will, and, and I really wondered how a dictator becomes a dictator and why and also why do people stand up and risk everything to change that. And that’s why I got involved in this project, because I felt like Larry was incredibly knowledgeable about this and his colleagues, and I wanted to know why, and I wanted to know, and once I got into this subject, I wanted to tell everybody that, “Wait, we have to pay attention, we can’t just sit back and let government run itself; we have to be involved, be out there, paying attention to what’s going on. Power corrupts, and when power corrupts too much, people get hurt, and we have to make sure that doesn’t happen or we reverse it if we can or prevent it,” and that was my drive for making this film, was to communicate that fact to everyone I possibly could.

Dr. Tillemann: Let me ask our members of the audience now if there are questions from the audience. If not, we have plenty of other things that we can talk about, but if there are we can certainly don’t want to pass you by. Please, if you wouldn’t mind just going to the microphone so that our colleagues who are watching over broadcast can hear you.

Tina Huang: Hi, my name is Tina Huang, I cover human rights issues in Colombia and Venezuela. My question is to Roberto; as we’re watching the events in Venezuela very closely, one of the counter-narratives that we hear is that the human rights situation in Venezuela is not nearly as bad as the Middle East, it’s very different, and when we interact with human rights activists, and the broader civil society, there’s also that sense, that the electoral work, we’re asking for free and fair elections but then the actual, like, the traditional human rights that we talk about, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, those aspects are not part of that work. So, I don’t know in the Votojoven movement and in your work as you continue into the future, how do you mobilize youth to incorporate the spirit of the range of human rights into your work, and whether you have heard that narrative , and how do you explain that to you colleagues?

Mr. Patino: One of the things that I think is more important about human rights is the right to leave Venezuela. We have more than one hundred and thousand young people that have been assassinated in the streets because of violence. This week, we had a crisis in a jail where sixty, more than two hundred people that were in the jail were killed too. So, we see a lot of violations to human rights in Venezuela and that’s the prior motivation that drives students and drives young people to get involved into politics. We want a country of prosperity, we want a country of human rights, we want a country of freedom of speech. I have said this before. In Venezuela, you can say whatever you want, the problem is the consequences after you say it. And, we have seen, then, before, in a lot of cases, and, maybe in the movie you will see some of the things that has happened, and Larry talked about one, that was the assassination of student that were demonstrating in the streets and they were killed. So, I do believe that we have a difficult situation in terms of human rights in Venezuela, regarding what I think is the most important one, is the right to leave, and I do think that those aspects and those problems that we have are the main drivers of our actions.

Mr. Moses: In case anyone misunderstood that, in case anyone misunderstood, the right to live, not the right to depart. Okay? Leave is salir.

Mr. Patino: Oh, sorry.

Mr. Diamond: I just wanted to say that during the making of this film, we were struck by many of the parallels across the countries, and I know that over the years there was a joke during the Mubarak era: “There’s freedom of speech in Egypt, there’s just not freedom after speech.” How do you say it in Arabic?

Ms. Fattah: In Arabic? (Repeated in Arabic)

Dr. Tillemann: Well, these are again extraordinary stories and we are really looking forward to seeing the film today, which is a remarkable work of filmmaking and really just an exceptional documentary. I was struck, as we were talking, by something that the great student of American democracy, Alexis de Tocqueville, once said, and he remarked that, in democratic societies, the knowledge of how to combine, of how to bring people together, is the mother of all forms of knowledge, and on its progress depends that of all the others. And I think that what we will see today is the story of how to bring people together, and it’s an extraordinarily powerful phenomenon, and one that I think is relevant in every country in the world today. Before we get to the film, I wanted to quickly read a note from Secretary Clinton who was very sorry that she couldn’t be with us here today but is very excited about this movie, and she sent her greetings to all of you and said, “I want to send my congratulations on the success of your film A Whisper to a Roar. Over the last several years, we have watched in awe and admiration as civil society activists in dozens of countries have risked their lives in pursuit of democracy. Much of their work is anonymous, and their stories are often lost in the rush of history, yet their efforts provide millions with the opportunity to realize their God-given potential. A Whisper to a Roar gives voice to those whose courage is a catalyst for progress in countries around the world. The film not only provides a riveting documentary but also offers inspiration to people everywhere who seek to make governments more accountable to the citizens they serve. The stories in A Whisper to a Roar demonstrate that democracy is a product of tremendous sacrifice and that we all share in the responsibility to secure its promise for future generations. I’m delighted that the State Department has the opportunity to host a screening of A Whisper to a Roar and that you and activists profiled in the movie will participate. The United States is committed to supporting democracy and civil society in our foreign policy, and your film provides a powerful reminder of the principles that should define our diplomacy.” On that note, I hope that all of us will pay very close attention to the screening that is about to take place, and again, we look forward to continuing the conversation virtually with our missions around the world who are taking part in this event as well. Thank you.

(Unidentified speaker): Could I ask for just one more question right now or can we do it later?

Dr. Tillemann: Uh, we don’t have time later, so if you’re going to ask one, ask it now, and we’ll try to be very quick, we were going to wrap up right at four.

(Same unidentified speaker): What is your plan for the distribution and use of this film, and do you think that the people in the five countries profiled will be able to see it?

Mr. Moses: We, we hope to … am I on? Hello? Hello? We hope to be banned in all those countries, there is a serious possibility that, as you will see, there will be a few countries that will not want this seen. Distribution is now scheduled to begin in April. We’re having discussions with PBS via KQED in San Francisco, and international distribution is being set as well. It’s already been translated into six or seven languages, we’ve got about eight or nine more to go that we know of, so there will be, in the next twelve to eighteen months, fairly wide distribution of the film so keep an eye out for it.

Mr. Diamond: Many different languages

Dr. Tillemann: A very important question. Thanks very much, thank you all.