October 8, 2009
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.
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.