Sen. Rubio Fights for Democracy, Forgets History

Sen. Marco Rubio sat impatiently while the Democratic senator from Iowa described the social wonders he’d encounter during his three-day tour of Cuba late last month. No doubt each word of praise that the Iowa senator showered on the Castro regime scalded large swaths of Rubio’s soul. As the son of Cuban immigrants who’d fled the island shortly after the Communist takeover, Rubio, like many members of the Cuban diaspora, celebrates the sacrifices his parents were forced to make in coming to America, and he’ll embrace those sacrifices, now 55 years after the fact.

When it was his turn, the bright-eyed 42-year-old Tea Party senator from Florida rose and made his way to the floor. He began calmly (full video here):

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A few moments ago, the body was treated to a report from the senator from Iowa about his recent trip to Cuba. Sounded like he had a wonderful trip visiting, what he described as, a real paradise. He bragged about a number of things that he learned on his trip to Cuba that I’d like to address briefly. He bragged about their health care system. Medical school is free. Doctors are free. Clinics are free. Their infant mortality rate may be even lower than ours. I wonder if the senator, however, was informed, number one, that the infant mortality rate of Cuba is completely calculated on figures provided by the Cuban government. And, by the way, totalitarian communist regimes don’t have the best history of accurately reporting things.

From there Sen. Rubio went on to cite the defection of Cuban doctors and athletes to America, state censorship and the imprisonment of political dissidents as proof that the island is home, not to the utopian paradise that the Iowa senator had painted, but to a repressive regime with no regard whatsoever for human rights.

Rubio labeled Alan Gross a “hostage” instead of a prisoner. “You know what his crime was?” he asked. “He went to Cuba to hand out satellite radios to the Jewish community.”

Unfortunately for Rubio —and Gross’ friends, family and supporters demanding his release— Gross was found guilty of something much more serious than simply selling products bought at Radio Shack. The former USAID contractor is being held by Cuban authorities for his involvement in a $20 million Washington operation to weaken the Cuban government, which is why the U.S. government rarely mentions the American citizen imprisoned in Cuba since 2009.

After citing the cargo ship stopped at the Panama Canal last year carrying two 1950s Soviet-era fighter jets from Cuba to North Korea (under tons of sugar) as evidence that the Castro regime sponsors terrorism (though many analysts have long disagreed) Sen. Rubio turns to what he considers to be Cuba’s real export:

Let me tell you what the Cubans are really good at, because they don’t know how to run their economy. They don’t know how to build. They don’t know how to govern a people. What they are really good at is repression. What they are really good at is shutting off information to the Internet and to radio and television and social media. That’s what they’re really good at. And they’re not just good at it domestically. They’re good exporters of these things.

Anybody with even the shallowest understanding of American foreign policy should choke on their own tongue when they hear an American government official (and a descendant of Latin American, no less) accuse one of the United States’ neighbors of exporting repression. Washington has actively supported repressive right-wing regimes for over a century, both monetarily and militarily.

I could remind the senator of the instances where the U.S. government has relied on repressive tactics globally, over a dozen in my brief lifetime alone. But since he restricts his examples to “our hemisphere,” I’ll do him one better. I’ll only give a few examples of U.S. intervention in Latin America, and only those based on public information.

There’s the 1915 invasion of Haiti by American troops —the same troops Pres. Woodrow Wilson used to “make the world safe for democracy”— who brutally murdered countless Haitians (“n****s speaking French, as State Sec. William Jennings Bryan put it) to establish an occupation lasting until 1934.

When Pres. Wilson sent the Marines to Haiti in 1915, he warned the neighboring Dominican Republic they were next. Turned out he was a man of his word, because the U.S. invaded the D.R. the very next year, installing a military government. Later they created a military academy that would train the infamous Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. When Trujillo was assassinated in 1961 after ruling the country with an iron fist for 31, and Juan Bosch became the nation’s first democratically-elected president in 1963, the CIA orchestrated a coup which removed Bosch from power after only seven months in office.

U.S. troops invaded Cuba in 1912 and 1917 to secure its cane fields, and later supported the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, supplying him with planes and other weapons in his fight against Fidel Castro and the guerillas, only canceling the shipments when Castro’s victory was all but certain. As soon as Fidel came to power in 1959, Washington immediately began training anti-Castro Cubans for a 1963 invasion, which failed.

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By the way, those anti-Castro Cubans were trained in Guatemala, where in 1954 the CIA orchestrated a coup (sensing a pattern?) which toppled the leftist government and replaced it with a military junta. When a 1982 coup brought Gen. Ríos Montt to power, ushering in a period of genocide, the Reagan administration called the dictator “a man of great personal integrity … [who] wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.” The general currently faces charges for crimes against humanity.

The troops involved in the 1954 coup were trained in Honduras, the original “banana republic,” which has been invaded, occupied and otherwise pinned under Lady Liberty’s sandal for more than 100 years. In 2010 Wikileaks published cables revealing the U.S. State Department’s support for the 2009 coup that removed Honduras’ democratically-elected president, Manuel Zelaya.

Of course I could go on —the 1973 coup in Chile that installed a military dictatorship, the military dictatorship installed in Uruguay the same year, the support of brutal right-wing regimes in Central America during the 1980s, the Iran-Contra scandal, the 1989 invasion of Panama to overthrow former-CIA-operative-turned-dictator Manuel Noriega— but I think I’ve made my point. Plus there’s only so much my fingers can type in a few hours.

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Even so, if Sen. Rubio wants me to limit the discussion to what’s going on in Venezuela and Cuba today, then we can do that too.

As Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, recently pointed to in The Guardian, the U.S.’ 2014 budget has $5 million (at least) committed to anti-government activities in Venezuela. “And this is almost certainly the tip of the iceberg,” he writes, “adding to the hundreds of millions of dollars of overt support over the past 15 years.”

In Miami, Radio Martí broadcasts anti-Castro propaganda into Cuba (and some parts of Central and South America) on a 24-hour basis at an annual cost of $15 million.

As with the failed U.S. invasion of Cuba in 1961, the failed attempt to remove the late Hugo Chávez from power in 2002 was also secretly orchestrated by top Washington officials. Days after the Chávez presidency was restored by massive demonstrations supporting the socialist leader, The Observer in London reported that two former members of Pres. Reagan’s anti-communist team had met with conspirators and even planned the whole thing, “right down to its timing and chances of success, which were deemed to be excellent.”

As The Observer reported in 2002:

The visits by Venezuelans plotting a coup, including Carmona himself, began, say sources, ‘several months ago’, and continued until weeks before the putsch last weekend. The visitors were received at the White House by the man President George Bush tasked to be his key policy-maker for Latin America, Otto Reich. Reich is a right-wing Cuban-American who, under Reagan, ran the Office for Public Diplomacy.

The Observer goes on:

But the crucial figure around the coup was Abrams, who operates in the White House as senior director of the National Security Council for ‘democracy, human rights and international operations’. He was a leading theoretician of the school known as “Hemispherism,” which put a priority on combating Marxism in the Americas. It led to the coup in Chile in 1973, and the sponsorship of regimes and death squads that followed it in Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and elsewhere. …

A third member of the Latin American triangle in US policy-making is John Negroponte, now ambassador to the United Nations. He was Reagan’s ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985 when a US-trained death squad, Battalion 3-16, tortured and murdered scores of activists. A diplomatic source said Negroponte had been “informed that there might be some movement in Venezuela on Chavez” at the beginning of the year.

When the coup didn’t work, when the people of Venezuelan took to the streets demanding the return of their democratically-elected leader to power, the right-wing elites organized a strike of oil workers that brought the country’s economy to the brink of collapse.

The result of both attempts only saw support for Chávez among the Venezuelan people grow deeper.

Following his death in March of last year due to cancer, his hand-picked successor chose to hold elections the very next month. The opposition immediately called foul, and Nicolás Maduro’s slim win was labeled fraudulent. U.S. Secretary John Kerry echoed Washington’s position when he refused to accept the results of the election.

Never mind that former Pres. Jimmy Carter, whose human rights organization had monitored elections in Venezuela, judged the country’s electoral process “the best in the world.” And if that weren’t embarrassing enough, Pres. Carter also said Americans “have one of the worst election processes in the world,” citing “the excessive influx of money.”

Still, even if Maduro had used the recent death of Venezuela’s beloved leader to steal the presidency for himself, that doesn’t explain Maduro-backed candidates winning municipal elections by wide margins as recently as December.

So no matter how outsiders view the Chavista government, one thing’s clear: it’s upheld by a majority of Venezuelan voters. Therefore, any calls from the American government to see the Venezuelan government toppled, any Washington sanctions against the Maduro administration and in support of the protesters, amounts to yet another instance of the United States opposing the force of democracy.

As for Cuba, I’m tired of critics talking about how repressive the Castro regime is without mentioning the reasons for why it may be so. They pretend as if the Castro brothers are paranoid despots, barricading the island against an imaginary foreign plot to kill them, remove them from power or topple the Communist government.

Was the Bay of Pigs not proof enough that the Castros may be on to something? Is the half-century-long blockade a delusion? Was Operation Mongoose a figment of Fidel’s imagination? Is $15 million a year for Radio Martí all of the money being spent on regime change? Was a contractor for the federal government working on a “democracy-building project” really in Cuba just to hand out radios?

If Sen. Rubio wants me to believe all of that, he must think I’m stupider than I look.

That’s not to say that I don’t support a freer and more open democracy in Havana and Caracas. I do. But I understand why those governments have deemed it necessary to impose restrictions on individual liberties.

The U.S. government hurried to eliminate a number of civil liberties following the attacks on 9/11, rights we still haven’t had restored to us. I can’t imagine what kind of restrictions Washington might’ve adopted had we been attacked —and were the government constantly threatened— by a much larger, much wealthier, much more powerful foreign menace just 90 miles off our shores.

Viewed in this light, that the Castro and Maduro governments allow as many political freedoms as they do is pretty surprising.

Think, Sen. Rubio, of what Cuba and Venezuela could be like if the U.S. government stopped viewing Latin America as “our backyard” and actually tried being a “Good Neighbor.”

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Hector Luis Alamos, Jr. is a Chicago-based writer. You can connect with Hector @HectorLuisAlamo.

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