Hundreds of democracy activists from around the world are meeting in Durban, South Africa, for the third assembly of the World Democracy Movement. They agree on the need to strengthen and build democracy worldwide, but they often disagree on exactly what that means.
The conference has produced some surprising contradictions. Many of the African delegates at the conference are in a quandary over Cuba. It is hard to ignore the presence of several Cuban dissidents who have turned up on panels and workshops to discuss the repression in their homeland, and their efforts to bring democratic change from exile.
But in Africa, Cuban leader Fidel Castro is often seen as a champion of African independence and liberation from colonialism.
At a plenary session, Zimbabwean opposition politician Moses Nzila-Ndlovu stood and mused on the contradiction. Speaking to a Cuban panelist, he said the Cuban government strongly supported the Zimbabwean liberation movement and helped the black majority gain independence from white minority rule more than 20 years ago.
"I happen to have been trained by Cuban soldiers in Angola in 1976, as a fighter for independence," he said. "But as you give an account of the events in Cuba since then up to now, what I find striking most is the similarity in degree of repression in Cuba and the extent to which Robert Mugabe has borrowed in terms of the viciousness of a dictatorship in Zimbabwe."
His remarks elicited a sympathetic response from Cuban democracy activist Anna Isabel Rodriguez, who works with an exile group in Spain.
"One of the things that sometimes is confusing for the people outside Cuba is that the Cuban government has built an image of fighters for the freedom of poor people all over the world," she said. "And I understand perfectly how difficult it is for people in Africa and in Latin America to understand that even though these standards of freedom have been exported by the Cuban government, they do not apply these standards inside."
Other delegates have wrestled with similar contradictions regarding different countries. In a private conversation after one session, a former South African anti-apartheid fighter recalled his military training in Moscow. Like Cuba, the Soviet Union supported the South African liberation struggle and many here still think of it as a force for positive change and freedom from tyranny.
But at the democracy conference, that history has run up against another history, the legacy of repression in the former Soviet republics and the formerly Communist nations of eastern and central Europe. Delegates from those countries are here as well, and they are sharing stories of their own oppression and liberation and democratic transition.
In some ways, those stories sound remarkably similar to South Africa's own.
Another apparent contradiction has arisen regarding China. Exiled Chinese dissidents talk about China's poor human rights record and restriction of individual freedoms. Tibetan and Uigyur delegates discuss the oppression of ethnic minorities. All of them talk about efforts to democratize the world's most populous nation.
But some activists who focus on North Korea see China in a more favorable light. During the height of the North Korean famine of the 1990's, many desperate, hungry North Koreans began escaping into China. South Korean activist Young Howard of the Network for North Korean Human Rights and Democracy says they found life much better in China than it was at home.
"China, though it is quite dictatorial against Chinese people, to the eyes of North Korean people, China was full of food and freedom," explained Mr. Howard. "They saw that the Chinese dogs eat better than what they have eaten in North Korea. And in China, people in the restaurant or the bar can freely speak and criticize the bad things about the Chinese government. But in North Korea, it is totally inhibited. So in China, North Korean people study democracy, freedom, and economic prosperity."
Despite many differing points of view, the atmosphere at the democracy conference is amicable and friendly, even among those who disagree. The point of the meeting is dialogue, learning from each other, and broadening perspectives. The delegates will issue no closing statements and vote on no resolutions, which is may be a good thing, since it would probably be hard to get them to agree on very much.
But there are some things that unite them. In the words of Moses Nzila-Ndlovu, the former Zimbabwean liberation fighter trained by Cuban soldiers, regardless of their backgrounds the delegates are bound by the ideals of freedom