In Support of Demoracy Abroad, by Arica Young

Hopes among Bush Administration officials for a more democratic Venezuela as a result of the recent coup attempt in that country in mid-April earned the President criticism from the American media.

Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, survived a coup that came about due to his own anti-democratic and socially-divisive governing policies. In shutting down the free press, battling labor unions, seeking to nationalize portions of the industrial sector and preaching an empty Marxist rhetoric rather than seeking practical, free-market economic solutions, Chavez essentially drove Venezuelans of all socio-economic classes into the streets to oppose him.

The coup – which was misguided in its approach and execution – failed. But the broad support of those who wished to see Chavez removed and the steadfastness of their demands for a pro-democracy regime, even from the coup leaders, stands as a potent sign that this was not a typical military coup.

American journalists didn’t look at the actions by Chavez that fueled the popular support for a coup. Instead, some insinuated that the Bush Administration and U.S. government-supported organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) were in league to overthrow Chavez as part of an American imperialist plot. This is both unfair and misguided.

The NED is a bipartisan, congressionally-funded institution that supports the development of democratic infrastructures in fledgling democracies. It also fosters change in countries suffering under repressive regimes. The NED has supported peaceful opposition. It was instrumental in the peaceful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic’s violent and despotic regime in Serbia.

Some media outlets, however, insinuate that the U.S. government and institutions such as NED – via their support of labor organizations, beleaguered opposition parties and an independent media – essentially tried to undermine the Chavez government for imperialist aims. This opinion shows faulty reasoning on the part of an alarmist left. Restricting our government and pro-democracy groups could slow the spread of freedom and improved civil liberties around the world.

The first error made by leftist critics is the assumption that a democratically-elected government is in and of itself democratic in its behavior and supportive of fostering freedom and respect for all of its citizens. History abounds with examples to the contrary, from the classic case study of Nazi Germany to South Africa’s former apartheid regimes and Milosevic’s Serbian government.

The second error is misinterpreting support for the opposition to a democratically elected but despotic government as imperialistic and interventionist. History is littered with examples of inherently illiberal governments that are democratically elected but deserving of rigorous opposition both domestically and internationally. Again, think of South Africa and the Nazis.

Yes, it is a thin line that governments and pro-democracy organizations walk in promoting civil liberties and human rights abroad. Respect must be paid to local culture, customs and laws. Being effective oftentimes means supporting local opposition groups such as organized labor, journalists and fledgling political opposition parties.

I applaud having an observant and free press, and believe it is fortunate for our own democracy that our media is vigilant in not letting our foreign policy run amok as it sometimes did decades ago. On the other hand, the Bush Administration’s positive reaction to Chavez’s temporary ouster and the role of American pro-democracy organizations in giving succor to beleaguered journalists in nations such as Venezuela is not the same as supporting Allende’s assassination in Chile in 1973.

It would be unfortunate if the U.S. government, which has played such a vital role in promoting peace and respect for human rights and civil liberties from Angola to Serbia, were hindered by a misguided press and the American left. It would also be unfortunate if American organizations such as the NED, which does vital work in fostering democracy and human rights, were negatively affected to the point that they would be unable to assist the millions around the world working desperately for a safe and democratic future.

(Arica Young is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21. She can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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