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The Triumph of Form Over Content When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

You Are Here: Home -> Glossary -> Democratic Institutions

Democratic Institutions

In the spring, 2001 Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) summit held in Quebec City, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien repeatedly pledged a commitment to introducing a "democracy" clause into the FTAA negotiations, such that only countries with, in Chretien's words "democratic institutions" would be allowed to play. Therefore, a country like Colombia, where US-trained and funded paramilitary death squads assassinate politicians, peasant organizers and outspoken critics, has elections, and so qualifies as a "democracy" whereas Cuba, which has a dictator in power but one of the best human rights track records in the region (not to mention public health and education indicators that put America to shame) is a grave menace to our way of life and so is not welcome to participate.

This is, of course, consistent with the historical pattern of American involvement in the hemisphere. US-backed murderous dictatorships in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, Guatemala, etc. have been denounced by human rights organizations and international bodies for the last 20 years. In Nicaragua, to take one example, the Sandanistas (named after Ernesto Sandino, a freedom fighter who was killed by American troops early in the century), a citizen based group with broad public support overthrew the bloody Somoza dictatorship in the late 1970s. Interestingly, Somoza himself and his high command were not executed, but rather told to leave the country and to take whatever they could carry. The "Somocistas" went to Florida with hundreds of millions of dollars in hard currency, and started agitating for America to restore them to power.

In the meantime, the Sandanistas immediately set about building a civil society, fostering grassroots based public education and health care systems, reforming land ownership (under Somoza, 1% of landowners controlled more than 50% of the arable land), creating co-op farms, changing labour laws to guarantee minimum wages and decriminalizing unions, creating an organization for campesino (migrant farmers) rights, etc. Most importantly, they began the process of cultivating a democratic, participatory culture in Nicaragua, even though they were still a revolutionary regime. Four years after taking power, they held a closely scrutinized election, and by all international accounts (except one - America tried to insist that the election was rigged) it was regarded as fair and open. The Sandanistas were elected with a huge majority, in spite of constant bad press from La Prensa, a Nicaraguan newspaper that was being financed by the CIA.

Once the Reagan Conservatives were elected in America, they immediately set about trying to discredit the Sandanista government, cutting off all aid to the country (previously, the money had flowed freely to support Somoza) and launching a trade embargo. The NATO countries (including Canada) followed suit, and Nicaragua found itself in a situation where the only country willing to trade with it was the USSR, which of course prompted more hysteria from American pundits. America also launched a covert war, creating and funding the "Contras" who were largely made up of ex-members of Somoza's National Guard. The Contras specifically targeted the results of the Sandanista civil society movement, blowing up schools, hospitals and bridges, and destroying crops and farmland. The American Military patrolled Nicaragua's water and flew over Nicaragua's airspace in clear violation of international law. The World Court denounced America's actions towards Nicaragua, but to no avail. Nevertheless, US President Ronald Reagan insisted on calling this band of mercenaries "freedom fighters," in one of his characteristic acts of re-defining words.

As the Contra terrorism escalated, more and more resources in Nicaragua had to be diverted to funding their defense, and the civil society program was halted. The Nicaraguan government began to censor La Prensa, which prompted American pundits into a hysteria of righteous ire. Through it all, the message from America to Nicaragua was, If you vote the Sandanistas out of power, we'll stop bombing you. Finally, the message got through, and the Sandanistas lost the second election to a party that was backed by American power and represented neoliberal US interests.

The same pattern had unfolded in Chile 10 years earlier. In September 1970, Salvador Allende, a physician and socialist democrat, was elected president in the first Chilean election in 50 years, in spite of the fact that America spent more money per capita than the Nixon and Johnson campaigns combined to get their preferred candidate into power. In the words of the US Ambassador to Chile on hearing of the election, "Not a nut or bolt shall reach Chile under Allende. Once Allende comes to power we shall do all within our power to condemn Chile and all Chileans to utmost deprivation and poverty." Once again, the US immediately launched into action, financing and training a CIA-backed terrorist group to undermine and eventually overthrow Allende's government, which committed the crime of trying to build schools and provide basic health care to its citizens. In the words of National Security advisor Henry Kissinger, "The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves... I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people." So much for democracy.

On September 11, 1973, the US-based army overran Chile and destroyed its democratically elected government, assassinating many governors, including Allende himself. They installed Augusto Pinochet into power, and he spent the next twenty years on a campaign of terror, assassinating and 'disappearing' many thousands of Chilean citizens through the National Guard and the Death Squads.

Every country in the hemisphere has a story. Panama was run by Manuel Noriega, a thug on the CIA payroll who was finally ousted in a bloody coup which needlessly killed thousands of Panamanian civilians because he was getting too many independent ideas. He's now sitting in a cushy "prison" that is much nicer than all but the very richest of his erstwhile citizens could ever afford. I could go on, but I think my point is clear.

This is "democracy," American style, where puppet dictators in rigged elections dance to the tune of US interests while the rights of citizens are trampled. The FTAA is an attempt to solidify and entrench American hemispheric policy objectives in an age where most of the ideological battles (like Nicaragua's where the public had to be convinced that doing what America wants is the least painful course) have already been won in Central and South America. That is why transnational corporations were allowed to buy private access to the leaders while flesh-and-blood citizens stood outside the fences and were assaulted by riot police.

Reagan once called Cuba a "terrible threat to our national security." He asked the President of Mexico to publicly agree with him, but the Mexican President said, "If I said that Cuba presented a threat to our national security, 40 million Mexicans would die laughing." It is too bad that the politics of the Americas do not contain more of these moments of clarity.

During the FTAA protest in Quebec, popular Canadian non-violent activist Jaggi Singh was kidnapped by undercover police officers dressed as protesters. Three of them grabbed him from behind, threw him to the ground and started kicking him in the middle of a crowd of peaceful protesters who were taking a break. When other people approached them, the three men identified themselves as police, pulled out nightsticks, and struck anyone who tried to get involved. Then, they threw Singh into the back of an unmarked van and drove off. He was then charged with possession of a weapon. The 'weapon' in question turned out to be a theatrical catapult that an unrelated performance art group - the Deconstructionist Institute for Surreal Topology (DIST) - used to lob stuffed animals over the fence. The police have no evidence whatsoever that Singh might have been involved with the catapulting, and all available reports indicate that he had nothing to do with it. Indeed, DIST issued a statement claiming full responsibility for the incident, but it was ignored by authorities.

Amazingly, a similar thing happened just before the infamous Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of 1997. Two days before he was scheduled to speak at a rally, Singh was grabbed in broad daylight by plainclothes officers and charged with "assaulting a police officer" - because at a previous rally, he had spoken through a megaphone and one of the officers claimed to have a sore ear as a result! Singh was held in custody until the summit was over, and then the charges against him were dropped. They effectively silenced an activist known for his eloquence and passion as a speaker.

In the final analysis, we can only conclude that democracy is as democracy does, to recoin an old pearl of country wisdom.

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Copyright © 2000, 2002 by Ryan McGreal