Russian anarchist and philosopher Peter Kropotkin described quite accurately the curious form of democracy that exists within the United States:
America is just the country that shows how all the written guarantees in the world for freedom are no protection against tyranny and oppression of the worst kind.
There the politician has come to be looked upon as the very scum of society. The peoples of the world are becoming profoundly dissatisfied and are not appeased by the promise of the social-democrats to patch up the State into a new engine of oppression. — Peter Kropotkin
Democratic forms and institutions, in other words, are not sufficient to guarantee genuine democracy. The above was penned in 1891, and to be sure, much has changed since then.
Jim Crow laws ended, for example, and the Civil Rights Act arose in their place. Many battles have been fought and rights won by various previously oppressed groups, and it hasn’t been easy.
The 60’s and 70’s brought about a revival of the democratic spirit among the American people, a spirit which has since ebbed and flowed in the face of a revised corporate takeover of the political system.
New forms of oppression have since arisen in the place of the old, replacing the more explicitly racist era of Jim Crow with mass incarceration and the “war on drugs,” forms which are indeed more covert in some sense, but no less profound in their anti-democratic effects.
The United States is today home to the largest prison population in the world.
Those who commit crimes have a hell of a time reintegrating into society after their prison sentences are completed, due to a lack of programs which address this very serious issue. Further, ex-felons are, as Michelle Alexander details in her incredible work The New Jim Crow, legally treated as second-class citizens, restricted in their right to vote, to get a job, and even to find a place to live.
American police officers are more violent, on the whole, than those of other industrialized countries.
Torture has been a mainstay throughout the “war on terror,” both in the detention center still open in Cuba and in black sites in the United States, itself.
Prisoners, a significant percentage of whom are non-violent drug-offenders, are subjected to solitary confinement, and the death penalty is still on the table, something that, once again, makes the United States unique in the advanced world.
Mass surveillance of the population is something that is actually debated seriously among political elites, rather than rejected entirely as being in violation of basic constitutional freedoms.
Anyone who dares to expose the criminality of the government, like Chelsea Manning and many others, is subjected to harsh punishment.
Money in politics makes a joke of the political system, leading to the buying of politicians by a handful of billionaires looking to secure their own interests at the expense of the masses, which are fighting for a raise in the minimum wage to a meager $10-15 per hour, a disgrace for the richest country on the planet.
Few would describe the above as democratic.
Still further, the United States’ policy since the end of World War II has been to subvert, overthrow, and utterly destroy democracy all around the world — from Iran in 1953 to Chile in 1973 to Honduras in 2009 — actions which don’t quite square with the high-minded rhetoric of politicians and pundits.
What does all of this mean, and why is it relevant?
On Friday the United States raised its flag once more in the capital of Cuba, symbolizing the ongoing process of reestablishing relations with the island which has been such a headache for U.S. planners for a century.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke at the ceremony, declaring that,
we remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders, express their ideas, practice their faith.
Indeed, Cuba is a country which “does not allow independent media, political parties other than the ruling communist party or direct election of anything but low-level municipal posts,” write Michael Weissenstein and Bradley Klapper for The Associated Press.
This assessment is simplistic, as most are, but true enough.
The problem, however, is that the United States is in no position to be lecturing the world about democracy, human rights, civil liberties, or independent media.
The United States is the most consistent violator of its own high-minded standards — well-deserving of the label ‘hypocrite’ — so its political leaders should really be focusing on what they can control: namely, human rights violations by the United States government itself and violations by its allies around the world, to which the U.S. contributes directly through military assistance, training, and other forms of aid. This approach would have far more impact than hollow calls for democracy in other nations.
This is not to understate the crimes of the Cuban government. They are real, and they are serious, as are all violations of human dignity, including those committed by the United States.
But the government of the self-anointed Moral Beacon of the World continues to press forward in the face of its obvious hypocrisy, giving patrimonial lessons to weaker countries ruled by governments that often oppose U.S. interests, while turning a blind eye to allies which commit far worse atrocities on a daily basis.
Indeed the very reason that the United States carried out its massive terrorist campaign against Cuba in 1961, before the Cuban Missile Crisis, was due to their “successful defiance” of U.S. interests, their unwillingness to conform to the global strategy of the superpower.
This becomes all the more clear when you recognize the fact that United States supported Cuba under the brutal dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. This fact lends credence what is now almost a truism: The United States only supports democracy when it is in their interests to do so.
U.S. support for democracy, therefore, is not principled, but self-interested, as revealed by the long, bloody history of U.S.-backed dictatorships and military coups. And there is no reason to believe that the scenario is much different today.
The U.S. thus continues its tired tactic of calling for democracy in countries which have in the past opposed U.S. interests, while ignoring the horrifying despots it continues to support across the globe, a trend that has been remarkably consistent since the end of WWII.
There is much for the Cuban people to do, and, to his credit, John Kerry recognized (at least in rhetoric) that the future rests in the hands of the Cuban people, not the world’s superpower.
American officials would, in a perfect scenario, be focusing on what they can control: particularly relevant in this case being closing, finally, Guantanamo, along with ending the crushing embargo on Cuba which has crippled the economy, effectively stripping power and dignity from the people.
Perhaps this event marks a change in the United States’ approach toward Cuba, and perhaps the relationship will move in a positive direction from here.
But this can only be the case if the U.S. respects the sovereignty of Cuba, and stays, for once, out of their affairs.