Sunday, December 19, 2004

What is democracy?

Given the title of this blogspot, Liberal Values, it would seem to make sense that I have devoted most of my criticism toward the right side of our political spectrum, who are in the ascendancy in our country and whose policies, I believe, will have long term destructive effects on our society and the world.

However, I also disagree on some issues with those further to the left on the political spectrum, particularly over the issue of human rights in communist countries such as Vietnam and Cuba. In the case of Cuba, there are a still a few people willing to overlook its gross human rights violations while praising the supposed egalitarian policies of that society. I oppose the embargo on Cuba and other restrictions, as I believe that isolation only serves to harden its leadership and gives Castro and his subordinataes an excuse for their various forms of repression.

Within the American Library Association, to which I have belonged, Cuba has become a hot topic, in particular the right of individuals to establish their own libraries without government interference and harassment. Some activists, based in the ALA-affiliated group, Social Responsibilities Round Table, have denounced those of us who support these individuals and seem to see it all as a U.S.-directed plot to overthrow the regime. In March of 2003, a political crackdown took place in Cuba in which 75 dissidents were given prison sentences ranging up to 28 years after rigged political show trials, in which they were charged with receiving funds and instructions from the U.S., among other things. To the SRRT activists, these rigged trials proved that these dissidents were indeed U.S. agents; but to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders and every other major human rights group, all of these individuals were considered as "prisoners of conscience", unjustly imprisoned, who should be released immediately.

I might discuss this controversy over the Cuba crackdown more in a later entry, but for now, a related topic is a debate on the SRRT Action Council list over what is democracy. Conservative SRRT member Jack Stephens inquired on the list about a posted statement of the Cuban Culture Minister, who said, ""we propose the defense
of the values of social justice and authentic democracy." Should not an authentic democracy include free and fair elections, independent newspapers, opposition political parties, free access to diverse information sources and the right to speak freely without fear of imprisonment, Jack asked. To this, Dana Lubow (one of SRRT's main activists on Cuba) responded that she had checked the Harper Collins Dictionary of American Government and Politics (1992) and the Oxford Companion to Politics and the World (1993) and found in neither of them were elections, political parties or the press mentioned in their definitions of democracy. On the other hand, they did mention Marxist-Leninist model, which I guess to Dana proves that a one-party dictatorship such as Cuba can indeed be considered a democracy.

I checked the Harper Collins dictionary, and it did indeed mention the Marxist-Leninist model, but only in the sense that democracy is a concept which has different meanings to different people, even to the point that Marxist-Leninist totalitarian models can be considered democratic by some people. The book did not endorse Marxism-Leninism as a form of democracy.

Every democracy is flawed, certainly that is true with out society, but it is absurd to say that in a modern society you can have democracy without free elections, an independent press, free speech, or opposition parties. When people are not allowed to speak freely and consider divergent views, nor to peacefully organize independent political alternatives to the political leadership of their society -- in short, when dissent is systematically suppressed -- then that society is not a democratic society, no matter how much the regime or it supporters may claim it to be so.

It is sad that within the American Library Association the most influential activists on Cuba are individuals so willfully ignorant on Cuba's repressive nature and on what consitutes a genuine democracy.


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