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Democracies and Double Standards

October 8, 2009

by Christopher Sabatini

Exactly 30 years ago (1979) the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick wrote a famous, though controversial, article in Commentary that for a group of conservative foreign-policy analysts guided policy toward Latin America during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.  The basic thesis of the argument was that as autocratic regimes differed, so should U.S. policy toward them.  On the one hand were totalitarian regimes, more encompassing in their control over society and the state and thus more oppressive and durable.  On the other were traditional authoritarian regimes, less complete in their domination over politics and society, less suffocating, more temporary.  (Not coincidentally the former were also often of the Left and opposed to U.S. interests; the latter often more rightwing and shared the U.S.’s anti-communist orientation.)  The implication was that the U.S. should weigh human rights abuses differently under these two different dictatorial systems.

Today we’re seeing a similar cognitive and moral dissonance over Latin American democracy in the rhetoric around Venezuela and Honduras. This time, though, it comes from both the Left and the Right.  Commentators, activists and writers are holding democracies to double standards based on their ideological orientation.  The assumption for each is that a human rights abuse under one government is worse than under another.  They aren’t.  They’re the same. 

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The victims of this repolarization or return to Cold War discourse are the basic liberties and principles of democracy.   If this continues the basic consensus that has undergirded our policy toward the hemisphere from the administration of President George H.W. Bush until the end of the administration of President Bill Clinton may soon join the dustbin of history.

This can be seen no more clearly than in the arguments marshaled to defend the shuttering of the freedom of expression in Venezuela and more recently in Honduras.  In both cases, supporters of the respective governments cite the political and ideological biases of the targeted media—in the case of Venezuela a TV station and in the case of Honduras a radio station—to defend the governments’ illiberal actions.  In neither case, as despicable as the positions of the stations may have been (and I’m not judging here) were the actions taken by the governments defensible.

First, the case of Venezuela.  In 2007, the government of President Hugo Chávez revoked the broadcasting license of the television station RCTV.  Human rights groups, such as Human Rights Watch, and freedom of expression organizations, such as  Committee to Protect Journalists, rightly denounced the act, expressing their concern over deteriorating conditions for freedom of expression.  The government went ahead and closed it, part of a longer effort to muzzle the press that before the shuttering of RCTV included a restrictive media law and later included a series of investigations, fines and threats against selected media that have effectively cowed journalists and stifled the freedom of expression in Venezuela.

But despite these clear violations, Chávez’ defenders —including those in the U.S. —cited the bias of RCTV and the other outlets.  Their argument was that many of them had supported the unconstitutional seizure of power on April 11, 2002, and since had engaged in raw and personalized opposition that including inciting rebellion against President Chávez.  Some of what the stations broadcasted was offensive. Some of the allegations of the supporters were exaggerated.

In this case, the media’s defenders on the Right denounced the Chávez government—as they should have—ignoring these arguments.

Contrast this with the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti, which took over after the Honduran Congress and Supreme Court—in a closed hearing—tried and convicted elected President Manuel Zelaya of violating the constitution and then had him arrested and shipped off in his jammies in the dead of night to Costa Rica.  On Sunday, September 27, the Micheletti government declared a state of emergency and closed down the pro-Zelaya Radio Globo.

You’d expect outrage from the same people of the Right who denounced the closing of RCTV, right?  Surely these guys must understand the need to protect freedom of expression even of those who might offend, right???

If only. 

No. For some ideology is thicker than principle—to paraphrase the late, great, cocaine-addled Andy Gibb

Instead they marshaled the concerns of a recent Anti-Defamation League (ADL) press release and based their double standards on the alleged anti-Semitism of the radio station’s owner, David Romero—who had apologized for his comments,  a point few bothered pointing out.  Lobbyists for the Micheletti government manipulated the ADL press release, and some columnists bit, defending the violation of the freedom of expression.  And a handful (OK, only three)of Congresspeople who had just traveled to Honduras failed to mention the threat to the freedom of expression and even proudly declared Micheletti the legitimate president of Honduras.  One at least had criticized the Chávez government for the clamp down on its media critics.  Huh? 

Through all of this, centrist human rights groups have steadfastly defended the human rights in Venezuela and Honduras.   (Whether they have exerted the same amount of energy denouncing Cuba as they have President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia given the scale and comprehensiveness of the repression in Cuba is a different matter.  I don’t think they have, but we can discuss that later.)

On the Left and Right the consensus over a fundamental freedom—I fear—has frayed. We’ve reached a point where for partisans of the Left and Right this is somehow a dispensable liberty that we can have a double standard when it comes to the nature of the regime and the views of the media owners and the opinions they espouse. 

It’s an idea and path that is antithetical to the democratic ideal in the hemisphere. It takes us back decades, even before the article by Jeanne Kirkpatrick.  Her article—though often ridiculed and maligned—had its merits.  It is true that these regimes differ, and how we approach them should too.  But in each case we should be equally intolerant of violations of democratic and human rights.  Only by doing so can we demonstrate that these rights are inviolable—irrespective of ideology—to those who intend to tear down the existing order and rebuild a totalitarian, repressive state.  

Ignoring the fundamental consensus that has evolved over three decades is a real risk today.  Let’s hope we don’t, this time to directly quote Andy Gibb, throw it all away.

*Christopher Sabatini is the Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly and Senior Director of Policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

Tags: Venezuela, Honduras, anti-Semitism in Honduras, freedom of expression in Honduras, freedom of expression in Venezuela

To speak with an expert on this topic, please contact the communications office at: communications@as-coa.org or (212) 277-8384.
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