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Last Updated: 03/02/2015
Democracy if necessary but not necessarily democracy
Gerald Caplan

“We have a profound disagreement with the Cuban government when we talk about democracy and human rights,” President Obama’s representative said in Havana the other week. Except it’s not true. In fact, the two governments actually see eye to eye on the matter. Neither of them gives a fig for either democracy or human rights until it happens to suit their real national interests. And when you think about it, isn’t that true in practice for all governments that prate about higher causes? Just look at Canada’s chummy relations with China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, not to mention the contemptuous way Harperland treats democracy within Canada.

Look more closely at Cuba and the US. For 200 years Americans were indoctrinated with their glorious Manifest Destiny to rule the entire western hemisphere. Cubans understand a different perspective. Before Castro took over in 1959, Cuba was a de facto American colony universally known as “the whorehouse of the western hemisphere”. More precisely, America's whorehouse.

This was a literal description. Godfather part 2 wasn’t a mere Hollywood concoction. Ninety short miles from Florida, vicious Yankee gangsters ran the whoring and gambling, Yankee politicians got paid off for remaining silent, brutal Cuban soldiers kept the island safe for exploitation, the ubiquitous United Fruit Company ran the banana republic part of the island, and shoeless Cuban children got the fat worms that burrowed deep into their soles and up into their intestines. No wonder Castro was greeted as the great liberator, which he indeed was for maybe two years.

Henry Kissinger would never have allowed Castro to triumph. Say what you like about the man -- he has of course been accused of being a war criminal -- he has always been admirably candid, at least behind the scenes. A decade after Castro took Cuba, a democratic Marxist named Salvador Allende was democratically elected as president of Chile. The American government never rested until Allende was overthrown and replaced by a brutal military dictatorship passionately committed to neoliberalism. Kissinger was blunt: “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

“Communist”, for Kissinger, simply meant that American corporations would no longer be allowed free run of the country. Kissinger’s smart-ass comment actually summed up two centuries of US imperialism in Latin America and the place of democracy.

So what does democracy actually mean? If a party runs on a clear platform and is democratically and freely elected, shouldn’t that mean they have the right, indeed the obligation, to govern as they promised? Didn’t Allende earn the democratic right to govern his country? But democracy is one thing, real power something else. Americans chose brutal generals to rule in its interests and on behalf of giant American capitalist enterprises---the purest possible antithesis of democracy.

This is a universal phenomenon. Look at Egypt, which in 2012, in the country’s first really free election, elected the Muslim Brotherhood fair and square. Wrong choice, you foolish irresponsible Egyptians. Soon enough the new government was ousted by the army, to the great satisfaction of democracy-spouting western leaders from Obama to Harper.

Or look at Greece right now. A new government is trying to hold fast to its election promises repudiating the harsh, punitive, counter-productive austerity program that had been imposed on the country from outside. In straightforward terms of democracy, things should be simple enough in Greece today. But in practice democracy is once again proving the big loser.

The new Syriza movement won 149 of the 300 seats in the Greek parliament. No one disputes that. They campaigned explicitly against accepting any further austerity programs imposed by the European establishment, and then negotiated a coalition with another party to give them a clear majority against austerity. As it happens, this other party, in the Guardian’s words, was “extreme-right wing, nationalistic, anti-immigration, and anti-Semitic…It is hard to see how the ideas upheld by such a partner can in any way fit with Syriza’s call for democratic reform”. Ah well. Still, as the BBC correspondent reported, “a majority of voters in Greece have essentially rejected a core policy for dealing with the European crisis as devised by Brussels and Berlin”.

The new government’s position was vividly expressed by its charismatic finance minister: Austerity is fiscal waterboarding. Great phrase. There’s not much ambiguity here, but that hasn’t constrained the European establishment from successfully threatening Greece with hell and brimstone if they dare carry out their solemn election promises. As Henry Kissinger might have out it, “The issues are much too important for the Greek voters to be left to decide for themselves.” This, naturally, in the name of some higher wisdom that is the sole property of the unelected International Monetary Fund, the unelected European Central Bank, unelected technocrats in Brussels, plus German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for whom no Greek citizen has ever voted. And that trumps democracy every time. The spirit of Kissinger triumphs again.

Dr. Gerald Caplan is a political activist, writer, and analyst.