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Derek Jennings

Land of the Free?



Despite a busy schedule of ducking allegations he mishandled terrorist warnings, flip-flopping on free trade, antagonizing our European allies, bailing out of some nuclear weapons treaties and avoiding any semblance of diplomacy in the Middle East, President Bush recently made time for something truly important: a stern denouncement of Fidel Castro's Cuban government. Addressing a raucous, largely Cuban exile crowd in Florida, the president proclaimed that the United States' total trade embargo against that tiny island nation would remain firmly in place, unless they installed a "new government that is fully democratic."

"Nearly a half century ago, Cuba's independence and the hopes for democracy were hijacked by a brutal dictator who cares everything for his own power and nada for the Cuban people," Bush said. "In an era where markets have brought prosperity and empowerment, this leader clings to a bankrupt ideology that has brought Cuba's workers and farmers and families nothing--nothing but isolation and misery."

While it was impressive to see how smoothly he flipped the word nada into his statement, Bush's message was underwhelming. His recapitulation of an ill-conceived, long-standing U.S. policy (one condemned by nine United Nations resolutions), timed to undermine any good will generated by former President Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba, is pretty standard political fare. And it's not all that attention-grabbing in the midst of the other domestic and international turmoil going on. But when you pause to consider the source of this blunt political pronouncement, George W. Bush, and juxtapose that with his administration's glaring lack of leadership in world affairs, this bit of posturing is off the meter of presumptuousness and hypocrisy.

Let's examine some of the underpinnings of the Bushocracy, our present form of government. Three major factors culminated in an otherwise improbable presidency: pedigree, money and influence over the election process. None of these things, on paper, lend themselves to a textbook definition of a governmental system of the people, by the people and for the people.

Democracy? We're damn near a monarchy. With more than 275 million people, you'd think the odds would've been against an encore from the First Family. I'm still scratching my head over that. The Duvaliers in Haiti--themselves nice, "democratic" friends of the United States--are the only others in the Western Hemisphere I can readily recall who had that father/son leadership thang going on. We don't have torture squads like the Ton Ton Macoute manipulating public opinion with machetes in the middle of the night. So what was Bush's secret? Must have been name recognition.

Then there's the money. A whooooooole lotta money. That was the big differentiator between George W. and his challengers in the Republican primary. Dubya wasn't particularly distinguished as a statesman, but by golly, when he stood on top of those stacked money bags, he towered over his competition. His record-breaking fundraising gave his campaign, from the earliest days, the momentum of a juggernaut--a force to which even the politically formidable Sen. John McCain eventually had to concede.

And where did that money come from? The lion's share came from Kenny Boy an 'nem down at the company sto'--known less convivially as Kenneth Lay and Enron. You remember Enron, that deregulated nightmare of a corporate vampire that bilked investors of billions of dollars via three-card monte accounting AND defrauded the state of California through price-gouging schemes? I know that the citizens of this country place a high and solid wall between "white collar" criminals and working class crooks, but I cram to understand how this situation differs from having a drug kingpin or bank robber bankrolling the Oval Office. That's supreme clientele.

The ghetto dictum of "don't hate the playa, hate the game" was certainly applicable to the election itself. In that game, George W. used the home court advantage of his brother Jeb to eke out a last-second victory. It also didn't hurt that most of the referees on the Supreme Court were either handpicked by his dad, or his dad's former boss.

The Justice Department has finally launched an investigation into thousands of complaints of selective disenfranchisement of Florida voters in the 2000 election. Hopefully, they'll change some rules in time for the next big game in 2004. Imagine, though, how our press would have sneered had that exact situation taken place in another country; at the notion that those elections constituted a fair exercise of the will of the people. And yet, here we are lecturing Cuba on democracy.

So why kick Cuba now? Because they deserve it, or because we can? We've maintained an economic embargo against this communist nation since 1961. But is communism really the problem? Even at the height of Reagan's "Evil Empire," we maintained trade in food and other goods with the former Soviet Union. China remains unapologetically communist, but far from embargoing them, we've given them Most Favored Nation trade status and their don't ask labor market is the growth engine behind Wal-Mart, one of the mainstays of American capitalism.

Perhaps human rights is the problem? As Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others faithfully report, to oppose Fidel Castro's government from within is to court jail time. I'm sure some bright readers will remind me that I couldn't write this kind of column if I were living in Cuba. But does that justify the embargo?

When the racist South African apartheid regime was at its zenith as the world's unparalleled pariah, we levied some rather loosely enforced sanctions, yet continued to trade with them. Our aforementioned trading partner, China, appears perennially on human rights reports for forced prison labor, persecution of religious groups and political dissidents. And our targets du jour, the Taliban--reviled post 9-11 for their appalling human rights record and particularly harsh restrictions on women--were nonetheless deemed palatable enough last June for $1.5 million in aid from the Bush administration to further suppression of the poppy trade. I s'pose the Unocal oil pipeline project negotiations helped absolve them of their sins in the eyes of our government.

To hear the president speak, the absence of free and fair elections in Cuba is an intolerable grievance: "For 43 years, every election in Cuba has been a fraud and a sham," Mr. Bush said. "Mr. Castro, once, just once, show that you're unafraid of a real election."

See, this kind of stuff is why nobody takes us seriously anymore. Far from encouraging democracy abroad, the United States has consistently supported a stable of dictators and has a long and well-documented history of using the CIA to assassinate foreign leaders and topple governments. To misty-eyed apologists who insist that those "black operations" (as they're known in CIA-speak) were necessary evils of the Cold War now relegated to the past, we need only look back as far as April for a rebuttal. That's when, in a hilariously short-lived two-day coup d'etat, Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's democratically elected president, was temporarily overthrown. It was embarrassing enough that our country was the sole member of the Organization of American States to react positively to the coup. But as it turned out, the coup's leaders--composed chiefly of members of Venezuela's pissed-off business class and military, had met for several months with high ranking Bush administration officials in Washington.

"Viva la democracia!" Wink, wink.

Anti-terrorism is a great justification these days for just about anything. Take Undersecretary of State John Bolton's transparent attempt to sabotage Jimmy Carter's mission to Cuba by uttering some nonsense about Cuba providing biological weapons to "rogue nations." I guess any country with a hospital now is in danger of being accused of developing weapons of mass distraction . . . ahem . . . destruction.

To the chagrin of the White House, Carter declared from Havana that during a briefing with U.S. intelligence officials prior to his trip, he'd repeatedly asked whether there was any evidence that Cuba was engaged in terrorist activity, or was supplying either weapons or information useful to terrorists to any other nation. The answer to all of his questions was, "No."

Meanwhile, our own "defensive" stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons contravene numerous treaties, making us a "rogue nation" by our own definition. (It should be added that a recent scientific analysis published in the journal Science implicates the U.S. Army's BioDefense Lab at Fort Detrick, Md., as the likely source of the strain of anthrax used in the mail attacks last year.)

The hypocrisy evidenced by our country's inconsistent championing of democratic principles is typified by our policy toward Cuba. While Bush's posturing makes our lack of moral leadership egregiously apparent, in fairness, this overriding commitment to do-as-I-say democracy has been a characteristic of Republican and Democratic administrations alike--including those of Bill Clinton and the now-sanctified Jimmy Carter.

The Constitution, Bill of Rights, women's suffrage, civil rights--all that stuff is wonderful on paper. But we've been resting on our laurels for so long that it's becoming increasingly rare for us to exemplify the ideals to which we think all other nations should aspire. And that's a real danger, as we isolate ourselves internationally--and domestically, rush headlong down the path toward becoming a police state.

In our country, common sense and the common good are vetoed regularly by monied interests. Individual freedoms are eroding while governmental secrecy increases geometrically. I find myself wondering just how long will it be before someone in the office of Emotional Security decides that since I didn't write this article in red-and-white ink on blue paper, I've abdicated my citizenship and should be whisked off to legal limbo in a Guantanamo Bay prison camp for insufficiently democratic dissidents?

As I shift my glance from a newspaper article on the Florida elections probe to the text of President Bush's comments to Castro, where he outlines all of these wonderful freedoms that the Cuban people should have, I can't help but think: We need some of that, too. EndBlock

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