Otto J. Reich’s Perspective: As Americans celebrated the Fourth of July this week and the fundamental freedoms that we enjoy — the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, we honor the sacrifices of the Americans that fought and died so that we could enjoy them centuries and decades later.
It is no accident that the First Amendment to our Constitution is designed to protect speech, for without free speech, then the free press, religion, assembly and petition of grievances that emanate from the free speech would not exist. And yet freedom of speech, press and association are under attack in our own neighborhood.
The conditions of tyranny against which our founding fathers rebelled still exist in too many nations around the world, some of them our closest neighbors. Just 90 miles away, in Cuba, a communist dictatorship has remained in power 53 years only through the complete elimination of all personal liberties and the suppression of freedom by force.
Every day — literally — brave Cuban dissidents are arrested for the simple affront to “the State” (read: the Castro brothers) of saying publicly that they want the right to speak, assemble or petition their government freely. That “disrespect” lands the dissident in jail for as long as the Castro-controlled judicial system decides.
A Castro apprentice, Hugo Chavez, who fancies wearing military uniforms from his former career, and silencing all adversaries, is constructing a similar military dictatorship in Venezuela. In Bolivia, Evo Morales, another “socialist of the 21st Century” as these new despots like to call themselves, has repressed the rights of the citizens of his country including the very indigenous populations that joyously greeted Morales’ election in 2006.
Since Morales betrayed the freedom he swore to defend, many Bolivians have risen in protests that Morales has put down violently, costing the lives of many of his fellow Bolivians.
In Ecuador, there are increased threats and intimidation against freedom of expression and press. Recently, the administration of authoritarian leader Rafael Correa intensified its attacks on Ecuadorean organizations that advocate for freedom of expression and press in that country.
For example, Correa is again threatening to close Fundamedios and other non-partisan civil society groups and to continue his march toward an openly authoritarian regime that violates fundamental human rights.
We call upon the governments of Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia and also Nicaragua, where similar abuses are taking place, to respect the basic human rights incorporated in the Inter-American Democratic Charter that their governments have signed and to stop their unwarranted and gross attacks against independent civil society groups that are exercising fundamental freedoms guaranteed in their own constitutions and in international agreements signed by them.
We would add Cuba to this list, but Cuba has not signed the Democratic Charter since it was expelled from the Organization of American States and since its half-century old dictatorship has proven so brutal and impervious to the protection of freedom that it rejects all international pleas. Nevertheless, pressure has to be mounted on the Castro brothers to allow at least the most elemental liberties, starting with free speech, press and association.
It is not too late for the civilized world to pressure Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Bolivia to respect the rights of its citizens. This would be an appropriate moment to begin.
Meanwhile, to my fellow Americans who read this column on the hallowed week that we celebrate the Fourth of July, I ask that they remember the blood and treasure expended to protect our freedoms. And to realize that in nearby nations brave citizens are struggling, at a high personal cost, simply to achieve a government that will protect their inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of freedom.
Otto J. Reich is a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for the western hemisphere, U.S. ambassador to Venezuela and senior staff member