Cuba, the U.S., and this thing called democracy
by William Blum
CovertAction Quarterly magazine, Fall 1998
During the Clinton administration, the sentiment has been
proclaimed on so many occasions by the president and other political
leaders, and dutifully reiterated by the media, that the thesis:
"Cuba is the only non-democracy in the Western Hemisphere"
is now nothing short of received wisdom in the United States.
Let us examine this thesis carefully for it has a highly interesting
During the period of the Cuban revolution, 1959 to the present,
Latin America has witnessed a terrible parade of human rights
violation - systematic, routine torture; legions of "disappeared"
people; government-supported death squads picking off selected
individuals; massacres en masse of peasants, students, and other
groups, shot down in cold blood. The worst perpetrators of these
acts during all or part of this period have been the governments
and associated paramilitary squads of El Salvador, Guatemala,
Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Uruguay, Paraguay,
Haiti, and Honduras.
Human Rights in Cuba
Not even Cuba's worst enemies have charged the Castro government
with any of these violations, and if one further considers education
and health care-both of which are guaranteed by the United Nations
Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention
for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedom - areas
in which Cuba has consistently ranked at or near the top in Latin
America, then it would appear that during the near-40 years of
its revolution, Cuba has enjoyed one of the very best human rights
records in all of Latin America.
If, despite this record, the United States can insist that
Cuba is the only "non-democracy" in the Western Hemisphere,
we are left with the inescapable conclusion that this thing called
"democracy," as seen from the White House, may have
little or nothing to do with many of our most cherished human
rights. Indeed, numerous pronouncements emanating from Washington
officialdom over the years make plain that "democracy,"
at best, or at most, is equated solely with elections and civil
liberties. Not even jobs, food and shelter are part of the equation.
Thus, a nation with hordes of hungry, homeless, untended sick,
barely literate, unemployed, and/or tortured people, whose loved
ones are being disappeared and / or murdered with state connivance,
can be said to be living in a "democracy"- its literal
Greek meaning of "rule of the people" implying that
this is the kind of life the people actually want-provided that
every two or four years they have the right to go to a designated
place and put an X next to the name of one or another individual
who promises to relieve their miserable condition, but who will,
typically, do virtually nothing of the kind. Provided further
that in this society there is at least a certain minimum of freedom-how
much being in large measure a function of one's wealth-for one
to express one's views about the powers-that-be and the workings
of the society, without undue fear of punishment, regardless of
whether expressing these views has any influence whatsoever over
the way things are.
It is not by chance that the United States has defined democracy
in this narrow manner. Throughout the Cold War, the absence of
"free and fair" multiparty elections and adequate civil
liberties were what marked the Soviet foe and its satellites.
These nations, however, provided their citizens with a relatively
decent standard of living as to employment, food, health care,
education, etc., without omnipresent Brazilian torture or Guatemalan
death squads. At the same time, many of America's Third World
allies in the Cold War-members of what Washington still likes
to refer to as "The Free World"-were human-rights disaster
areas, who could boast of little other than the 30-second democracy
of the polling booth and a tolerance for dissenting opinion so
long as it didn't cut too close to the bone or threaten to turn
into a movement.
Cold War Propaganda
Naturally, the only way to win Cold War propaganda points
with team lineups like these, was to extol your team's brand of
virtue and damn the enemy's lack of it, designating the former
"democracy" and the latter "totalitarianism."
Needless to say, civil liberties and elections are not trifling
accomplishments of mankind.
Countless individuals have suffered torture and death in their
pursuit. And despite the Cold War blinkers, which even today limit
the United States' vision of this thing called democracy, there
would still be ample credit due Washington if, in fact, in the
post-World War 11 period, the U.S. had been using its preeminent
position in the world, its overwhelming "superpower"
status, to spread these accomplishments-to act as the unfailing
global champion of free and fair elections, multiple parties,
a free press, a free labor movement, habeas corpus, and other
civil liberties icons. The historical record, however, points
in the opposite direction.
Although the words "freedom" and "democracy"
rolled easily and routinely off the lips of American leaders,
American policies habitually supported dictatorships. Indeed,
it would be difficult to name a brutal right-wing dictatorship
of the second half of the twentieth century that was not supported
by the United States - not merely supported, but often put into
power and kept in power against the wishes of the populace.
As numerous interventions have demonstrated, the engine of
American foreign policy has been fueled, not by a devotion to
democracy, but rather by the desire to:
1) make the world safe for American transnational corporations;
2) enhance the financial statements of defense contractors
at home who have contributed generously to congresspeople;
3) prevent the rise of any society that might serve as a successful
example of an alternative to the capitalist model;
4) extend political and economic hegemony over as wide an
area as possible, as befits a "great power"; and
5) fight a moral crusade against what cold warriors convinced
themselves, and the American people, was the existence of an evil
International Communist Conspiracy.
Over the past 50 years, in striving to establish a world populated
with governments compatible with these aims, the United States
has - apart from monumental lip service - accorded scant priority
to this thing called democracy.
William Blum is the author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military
and CIA Interventions since World War II (Common Courage Press,
1995), portions of which can be read at http://members.aol.com/bblum6/American_holocaust.htm.
Secrets and Lies