How do you deal with a dictator? One way is to ignore him, which is convenient — until he becomes a nuisance.
Or until he begins to kill his own people. When Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi began murdering opponents in February, then threatened the greater population of Benghazi, President Barack Obama and America’s allies, unable to ignore Gadhafi any longer, decided to act.
But by attacking Libya, the United States has revealed a great contradiction in its foreign policy: Sometimes it challenges dictators; sometimes it embraces them. While the Obama administration has chosen to support rebels seeking democracy in Egypt and in Libya, it also supports authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia and China, to name only two examples.
That sounds like a double standard to me.
Obama disagrees. “I don’t think it’s a double standard,” he told me in a recent interview. “The world is a big place, and there are injustices all over the place. We deal with countries all the time that don’t have the same kind of government that we would like.”
What factors bear on the close relationship between Saudi Arabia’s royal family and the U.S.? And what is the motive behind U.S. efforts to foster close ties with China’s authoritarian regime, led by President Hu Jintao? The answers are obvious: oil and commerce. Human-rights violations, press censorship and a lack of true democracy in these countries are relegated to second place.
And it’s not just the U.S. — El Salvador’s President Mauricio Funes re-established his country’s relations with Cuba’s authoritarian regime soon after assuming power in 2009 because Cuba “has shown us solidarity when we have needed it,” he told me during my recent visit to El Salvador.
How does Funes justify El Salvador’s relationship with a country that, governed by two brothers for more than 50 years, imprisons political activists, brutally censors its press and doesn’t allow its citizens to travel freely?
“I don’t establish relations based on the type of government in a country,” Funes told me. He then spoke about an instance where El Salvador has benefited from its relationship with Cuba: so-called Operation Miracle, in which Cuban physicians have provided medical care for poor Salvadorans with eye illnesses, saving many from blindness.
I understand the value of such care. But I can’t understand why Funes hasn’t demanded that Cubans enjoy the same rights as Salvadorans: namely, democracy, free press, political liberty and basic human rights. That sounds to me like a double standard, especially coming from the leader of a nation with a long history of struggle against dictatorships and oppression.
I asked about Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother and successor as president of Cuba. Does Funes consider Raul a dictator? “I won’t meddle in domestic politics,” Funes told me, diplomatically. Then he added, “if I were a journalist like you, I could probably loosen my tongue a bit and speak without worrying about the cordial relations I must maintain with other countries.”
But Funes wouldn’t tell me what he really thought of the Cuban regime: “All I am doing is acting according to my position as a president.”
Most nations that maintain relationships with dictators are acting pragmatically and according to their interests. I’m not naive. This is the way the world works.
Given the prevailing double standard in international affairs, people in places like Egypt and Tunisia who want to topple dictatorships in their countries have to do it on their own. Libya is just an exception.
Dictatorships must be defeated from the inside, not from abroad.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2011 Jorge Ramos
(March 07, 2011)