Democracy for Me But Not for Thee: I’ll Take That as a No…

By Guest Blogger, Prof. Gregory Lobo, Department of Languages and Culture, University of the Andes, Bogota, Colombia. Lobo is currently the 2018-19 International Scholars at Risk Program Fellow at the CAIF.

I watched in dismay recently as Rep. Ilhan Omar, the freshman Democratic Congresswoman from Minneapolis, in effect provided cover—whether she knew it or not—for Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro, on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. While some celebrated Rep. Omar’s theatrics as apt hardball politicking (even as others denounced her for grandstanding), what I saw, most of all, from neighboring Colombia, was a blown chance to lend much needed support to Venezuelan aspirations for freedom and democracy.

What I witnessed, in other words, was—against the freshman congresswoman’s best intention’s, I would like to think—a propaganda boost for Maduro, who seeks to weaponize U.S. misdeeds of the past in support of his ongoing but—in every sense of the word—bankrupt regime.

Is the record of her target, Venezuela Envoy Elliot Abrams, unblemished? Certainly not. Few in my part of the world will say so, anyway. I flatly condemn the human rights abuses with which he was complicit, in El Salvador in particular. (Nor do I condone the argument that America’s missteps have to be understood, let alone overlooked, because they occurred in the context of a struggle towards a higher goal, for it is an argument that any good Stalinist would embrace, mutatis mutandis.) But this is 2019, not 1979.

So why was this bright young woman—a part of the coalition for change in America, a feminist, anti-racist progressive, ostensibly a democrat and not just a Democrat—drawing on and feeding the whataboutism that is the first refuge of authoritarian enemies of democracy everywhere? Including Venezuela. 

Her performance was amusing, especially her taking his “no” as a “yes.” Perhaps she was cutting her teeth, and why not on Abrams? After all, if his help in El Salvador was so great, why are so many Salvadorans intent on making the perilous journey out of that country? But, then again, if America is so bad, as Rep. Omar seemed to be implying, why is the U.S. their destination? 

The point is, reality is complicated—but support for democracy in Venezuela is not. So, Rep. Omar, how, in good conscience, could you divert attention from what is going on now, next door to me, in Venezuela, with a partisan spin on savagery in an entirely different country, and different political context, nearly forty years ago? 

Why conjure images of a nonexistent U.S.-backed “armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity,” while the people of Venezuela, in reality, suffer under the selfish policies of a sick regime, second only to North Korea in its mad adherence not even to a defunct ideology, but a defunct personality. 

Rep. Omar’s very presence in the new Congress is presumably evidence of the vitality, of the full-bloodedness of American democracy. Does she not want something similar for Venezuela? Surely it is not a case of democracy for me, but not for thee?

That said, my conversations with Venezuelans in Bogotá reveal that no, of course they don’t want armed intervention from the North. Perhaps Rep. Omar, then, instead of scoring points for taking on a Cold Warrior, could have pushed Abrams to commit to no military intervention in Venezuela’s inevitable, but now more distant, transition to something more like American democracy. For the vast majority of Venezuelans are more concerned about the present and future than the distant past and do want change: they want, more specifically, democracy and freedom of expression. Which is to say, they want Maduro to go, along with his everybody-is-equally-miserable brand of socialism.

Such a transition will be complex, requiring tact, concessions and the saving of face for all concerned. So what Rep. Omar should have done was inquire as to whether Abrams understood the complexity of the situation and thus the need for a complex solution—and that going in guns-ablaze would be far too simple an approach to be of benefit. In this way, she would have demonstrated her moral sophistication and true regard for the people of Latin America. Instead, she chose political theater, which despite its currency in the present context, must still be seen as the low road. 

Real democracy must still demand, if not expect (unfortunately), better. What we need now is not virtue signaling, but virtue.