By William Blum
Author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II
For more than a decade, 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
During the period of the Cuban revolution, 1959 to
the present, Latin America has witnessed a terrible parade of
human rights violations��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, Haiti and Honduras.
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 Freedoms"��areas in which Cuba
has consistently ranked at or near the top in Latin America,
then it would appear that during the 46 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
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 years 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;
and 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 ones 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 insofar as
employment, food, health care, education, social safety nets,vacations, etc. 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.
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 limits 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 II period, the US had been using its pre-eminent 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 liberty icons.
The historical record, however, points in the opposite direction.
The two cold-war powers presented fraudulent faces to
the world. The Soviet Union's party line regularly extolled
"wars of liberation", "anti-imperialism" and "anti-colonialism",
while Moscow did extremely little to actually further these
causes, American propaganda notwithstanding. The Soviets relished
their image as champions of the Third World, but they stood
by doing little more than going "tsk, tsk" as progressive
movements and governments, even Communist Parties, in Greece,
Guatemala, British Guiana, Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines and
elsewhere went to the wall with American complicity.
At the same time, the words "freedom" and "democracy"
rolled easily and routinely off the lips of American leaders,
while 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
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; 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 fifty 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.