TCS Daily

Still a Small "D" Democrat

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - June 28, 2004 12:00 AM

The New York Times's David Brooks points to an alarming lack of concern on the part of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry for the cause of democracy and human rights in Cuba. In discussing whether he would support the Varela Project, which is designed to bring about peaceful democratic reform in Cuba, Kerry remarked that he found the Project "counterproductive." Why? Because the Project "has gotten a lot of people in trouble . . . and it brought down the hammer" of the Castro regime on dissidents who are now being persecuted as a result of their participation in the Project. Brooks rightfully scorns Kerry's warped outlook on the issue:

"Imagine if you are a Cuban political prisoner rotting in a jail, and you learn that the leader of the oldest democratic party in the world thinks you're being counterproductive. Kerry's comment is a harpoon directed at the morale of Cuba's dissidents.

"Imagine sitting in Castro's secret police headquarters and reading that statement. The lesson you draw is that crackdowns work. Throw some dissidents in jail, and the man who might be president of the United States will blame the democrats for being provocative.

"Imagine if in the 1980's Ronald Reagan had called Andrei Sakharov or Natan Sharansky or Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel "counterproductive" because, after all, what they did spawned crackdowns, too.

"If there's anything we've learned over the past 20 years it is the power of moral suasion to buck up dissidents and undermine tyrannical regimes. And yet Kerry seems to have decided that other priorities come first."

One can be even blunter in describing the consequences of Kerry's statement. He is essentially saying that those who decided -- of their own free will -- to participate in the Varela Project and further its goals of peaceful democratic change in Cuba (a goal endorsed by former President Jimmy Carter, among others) -- brought persecution on to themselves. But contrary to the implication in Kerry's statements, the "trouble" in Cuba stems from the existence of a totalitarian regime that has consistently moved to snuff out any semblance of democracy and reform on the island. It isn't the fault of the Project organizers that dissidents have been persecuted. The fault lies entirely with the Castro regime -- which remains resolutely opposed to giving dissidents a voice in Cuba with which to express their loathing and dissatisfaction with an utterly failed and monstrous regime.

Indeed, the more one looks at the Kerry comments, the more off-kilter they appear to be. As Robert Tagorda points out, in deriding the usefulness of the Varela Project, Kerry undercuts his proud claims of multilateralist credentials. Regarding Cuba, Kerry tells us that,

"I want to work with the international community to increase political and diplomatic pressure on the [Fidel] Castro regime to release all political prisoners, support civil society and begin a process of genuine political reform."

Tagorda then goes on to describe the discrepancy between Kerry's claim, and his dismissal of the Varela Project:

"Yet the Project itself represents the type of cause that attracts broad-based support. In 2002, its leader Oswaldo PayƔ SardiƱas received the top human-rights award from the European Union. Subsequently, Vaclav Havel, Arpad Goncz, and Lech Walesa argued:

'It is the responsibility of the democratic world to support representatives of the Cuban opposition, regardless of how long the Cuban Stalinists cling to power. The Cuban opposition must have the same international support as did the representatives of political dissent in Europe when it stood divided. Statements of condemnation for the government's repression, combined with specific diplomatic steps coming from Europe, Latin America and the United States, would be suitable means of exerting pressure on the regime in Cuba.'"

Even liberal blogger Kevin Drum is similarly dismayed with Kerry's statements:

". . . I count myself a supporter of a realist foreign policy to the extent that realist means 'not so obviously clueless that it's doomed to failure,' and I support Kerry's approach to foreign affairs because I think it's more likely to win the war on terrorism than Bush's. But the bully pulpit is one of the most important aspects of the presidency, and there's nothing about a thoughtful, multilateral foreign policy that precludes a vigorous, inspiring support for human rights and democracy. After all, if the members of the Varela Project themselves were willing to risk jail for what they did, the least Kerry could do is join the European Union in supporting them."

It should be pointed out that "realists" should be fully on board when it comes to democracy promotion -- where that promotion is feasible. I've argued in the past that democratization is no magic bullet in the search for international peace and security. But neither is democratization negligible. Democratic societies are -- among other things -- transparent societies, and the more transparency we have, the less likelihood there is that there will be the kind of dramatic miscalculation in a country's decision-making that will lead to bad decisions that diminish security. One can be a security-centric "realist" and a supporter of democratization at the same time. The two conditions are not mutually exclusive, and on the contrary, democratization can help augment security, even if it is not a magic bullet.

But John Kerry is not a fan of democratization, and doesn't seem to understand its palliative effects for security. His comments on the Varela Project are of a piece with comments that Kerry has made regarding democratization elsewhere around the globe. As this article points out, democratization isn't even a key priority for Kerry when it comes to Iraq. Rather, "stability" is the goal. And never mind that, as the article says, stability is "a term that could describe Saudi Arabia or Iran -- or the Iraq of Saddam Hussein."

A little over one week after burying former President Ronald Reagan, we see just how extraordinary his commitment to human freedom really was. It would have been nice to think that serious candidates for the Presidency would have learned from Reagan's sterling example in the field of democracy promotion, and not turn the clock back in this area. But John Kerry shows that when it comes to the power of an American President to promote freedom for others and to preserve American security at the same time, he has learned nothing from Reagan's own epic achievements. Perhaps this is the kind of thing that voters should keep in mind come this November.


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