Former Polish President Lech Walesa gives a talk in Miami

A dissident democracy advocate, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of Poland, Lech Walesa, spoke last Thursday at the University of Miami to Oxford students, faculty and community members.

While he spoke in depth about the invasion of Ukraine and his past dealings with Russia, Walesa also spoke about the future and how students like those in Miami are fitting into it.

“I have to convince you that you are in charge of the world,” Walesa said.

The conference was organized by the Menard Family Center for Democracy. Anna Kłosowska, a French teacher, served as a translator for the event, which was held at Taylor Auditorium and streamed live on Zoom. Before moving to the United States for higher education, Kłosowska grew up in Poland during Walesa’s rise to prominence.

A member of the working class, Walesa was a laborer at a shipyard in Poland until he was laid off and had to support his family of eight children through temporary work. Walesa joined other activists in the 1970s to organize non-communist trade unions.

In the summer of 1980, Walesa led a workers’ strike in the shipyard where he previously worked, demanding workers’ rights. Walesa became the leader of the region’s Solidarity Movement, and this workers’ strike sparked a wave of strikes across Poland that led to the eventual overthrow of the Soviet Union’s communist rule in the country.

“The theorists all said there was no chance [of overthrowing communism] without war,” Walesa said. “I said ‘who asked you?'”

Walesa discussed the creation of a new European Union to adapt to the current political climate.

“Half of Europe wants to be free, and the other half says no,” Walesa said. “And each side is convinced that their ideas are more valid.”

Walesa categorized the problems facing our world into three larger problems.

First, Walesa says leaders need to set the foundations for this new global period, because different countries have different foundations. Second, they must keep countries motivated to work together when there is no pause. Third, they must decide which economic systems will guide the current generation.

“Communism is periodically better than capitalism, but it is so unique, and we have to realize that it never succeeded. So we end up with capitalism,” Walesa said. “Leaving aside the free market, we have to adjust everything else.”

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The event drew a large following among members of the Miami community and those off-campus.

John Forren, executive director of the Menard Family Center, said the Center’s goal for the event was to get the Miami and Oxford communities to think deeply about politics and their role as citizens in a democracy.

“What [Walesa talked] It’s ultimately not just about Ukraine or Russia, it’s really about the future of democratic self-determination around the world,” Forren said. “So when people leave these kinds of events, do they think deeply about what it means to live in a democratic country?”

The audience included those who knew Poland and Walesa’s background deeply, and those with less knowledge who were interested in hearing a prominent person speak.

Alyssa Molina, a first-year mechanical engineering student, said she had never been around someone who had such a big impact on the world. The experience was therefore gratifying.

Molina said that when his family was driving to move in at the start of the semester, they drove past the signs for the conference, much to his father’s excitement.

“I was like… this sounds like a really cool opportunity,” Molina said. “It was cool to hear his opinions on everything.”

Molina’s father was also watching the conference from Zoom.

Olivia Pucciarella, a second-year journalism and media and communications student, said she was interested in Eastern European politics because many of her distant relatives lived there.

“I’m a huge fan [of Walesa’s]. I think it’s super cool how the unions basically overthrew a tyrannical government,” Pucciarella said. “It was more of a quiet, peaceful revolution than a violent overthrow, but I think it’s really interesting how one union essentially saved a country.”

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Angela C. Hale