Standing before a podium with an angry mob before him, the leader rails against the media and mocks journalists. He calls his political adversaries enemies and threatens them with prosecution and jail. He denounces the entire system as corrupt and promises do away with the old elite. With no evidence or details he promises massive public patronage and unheard-of economic growth. And he declares himself in solidarity with anti-democratic leaders around the world.
These traits aren’t new to any Latin American who has lived under a populist leader. From Argentina under Juan Peron and the Kirchners (Nestor and Cristina), the Dominican Republic under Rafael Trujillo and Joaquin Balaguer, Cuba under Fidel and Raul Castro, Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega, Ecuador under Rafael Correa, and—of course—Venezuela under Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro, citizens of these countries have seen and suffered all these rantings, empty promises and vitriol—whether in their own countries or in the diaspora. As numerous news analyses and commentators have pointed out, the rhetoric and tactics of these demagogues are not that dissimilar from those of President-elect Donald Trump. In fact, the list above are all things the PEOTUS has done.
So, surely, those who have opposed modern-day demagogues—the likes of which Mr. Trump shares so many troubling anti-democratic traits—are up in arms about the upcoming inauguration of a president in the United States (a country many have professed their admiration of for its commitment to freedom).
As I’ve said before in another context—but for some reason am still surprised to find out—ideology and partisanship are thicker than moral clarity and consistency.
I’ve watched as a number of leading Cuban-American opponents to the Castro regime in Cuba and Venezuelan-American opponents to chavismo have cravenly applauded Trump’s moves and upcoming presidency, all with the hope that he will advance their narrow policy preferences—irrespective of the obvious similarities with the men they love to loath. In one case, a Venezuelan friend begged off a working group Global Americans is forming to speak out in favor of liberal trade and humane immigration policy, saying, in effect, “Look. My priority is Venezuela, and I think Trump is going to be harder on that so I don’t want to get involved.”
Or there was another Venezuelan-American who tweeted his excitement that General John Kelly was being nominated as Secretary of Homeland Security, saying this is a man who knows what’s up in Venezuela. OK, fair enough, I’ve met General Kelly and he’s a decent man. But just a few years ago this same Venezuelan-American was decrying the numbers of active-duty and retired military officers in the Chavez government as an example of a coup. At the same time that General Kelly’s nomination was being floated, Mike Pompeo’s to the CIA and Michael Flynn’s to the NSC were announced and David Petraeus’s to State was still being considered—all of them military officers for top government positions. But if you’re a Venezuelan who wants tougher policy on Venezuela, military officers in the U.S. government—all good. If you’re a Venezuelan-American focused on Venezuela, military officers in Venezuela—a coup.
The Trump-is-good-for-conservative-causes-in-Latin America-irrespective-of-the-signs movement is not confined to the United States. Across Latin America, conservatives who have decried populism in their own country—whether it’s Colombia or Ecuador—are embracing the president-elect as the inevitable ally to their cause. The problem, though, is two-fold: first, Trump doesn’t give a wick about Latin America and isn’t likely to; second, as a populist demagogue Trump is more likely to have an affinity for your enemy than with tried-and-true democrats. Don’t fool yourself. Nowhere is this moral and political confusion more evident than in the case of U.S.-Cuba policy.
A number of conservative individuals and groups that work on human rights have lined up with, and even joined, the Trump transition, all in the hopes of advancing their policy goal of returning to the George W. Bush-era hardline embargo policy. Leaving aside the seeming ineffectiveness of those policies (the worst roundup of dissidents in modern history in 2003 and more than 200 political prisoners), there’s the issue of what, precisely, individuals who have fought for human rights and truth in Cuba see as so “truthy” or “human rightsy” about a future Trump administration.
For advocates of the embargo, what Trump does hold, though, is the promise of overturning President Barack Obama’s loosening of their favorite religion: the embargo. (As in Catholicism, where believing in the Holy Trinity requires suspending disbelief, so too does believing in the effectiveness of the embargo.) Placing priority on their individual policy preferences, a troubling number of these individuals have chosen to ignore evidence that Trump represents the very traits and allies they have fought against.
Here are a few examples–though more will likely follow:
That Trump admires Vladimir Putin and that Russia interfered in the election and likely indirectly helped Trump? No problem. Just ignore that just a few years ago Russian interference in Cuba justified reinstating the embargo and Putin was the hardliners’ bete noir. (Admittedly this is a tough one. To play out the original logic it would require imposing a U.S. embargo on itself. Is that even possible?!)
That Trump’s principal political advisor was the editor of the infamously anti-semitic and racist Breitbart? No problem. Just ignore that the arrest of Alan Gross and the treatment of the Jewish community in Cuba was a regular—if tired—rallying cry for a hardline policy toward the Castros among many in the community. Hey, what’s a little anti-semitism in the U.S. and the dog whistle of a global financial elite? It’s Cuba we care about, not Jews. Or more important, re-instating the embargo.
That Trump has derided the CIA, an institution that many Cuban-Americans have long held a long, proud association with and relied on as a defender of their concerns over Cuba as a security concern? No problem. Just never mind that a thoughtful, now deceased, staffer who served with former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart was the child of a CIA officer who battled communism in the 1960s and 1980s. They may have given their lives, but it’s OK if Trump ridicules them, as long as we get what we want today: THE EMBARGO! And did we for forget to mention the embargo?
Oh, and there are more, such as just the other day when a Cuban-American activist forwarded me an incorrect Breitbart story—ironically in the same e-mail that decried the treatment of Jews in Cuba. Doesn’t matter. It’s all in the service of the embargo… errr, the fight against anti-democratic demagogues—outside the U.S., of course.
Now, don’t get me wrong. There is plenty—plenty—that the Obama administration could have done to speak out on human rights, defend democratic norms, and leverage its Cuba policy changes in the region. Syria, Crimea, Venezuela are all stains on the record of this administration. (Just one example, if the Cuba changes were intended to improve our ability to build alliances in the region, why didn’t we use them, especially toward the “cluster-mess” that is Venezuela? To misquote former President Bush, it isn’t political capital if you don’t spend it.) And despite the genuine and important advances in our relations with Cuban citizens and entrepreneurs as a result of the changes to the embargo, there were moments when the administration pulled up appallingly short on speaking out, such as Obama’s embarrassing press release on Fidel Castro’s death. (Would he have been so chary at Joseph Stalin’s death?)
But the advances also deserve to be highlighted.
For the first time we had a sitting president speak directly to Cuban citizens about human rights and publicly humiliate an aged, confused Castro in front of the subjects he’s attempted to subjugate for decades.
Let’s be honest: you don’t advance human rights in Cuba through the theater of preaching human rights to the choir in Versailles or South Miami—though you may build a local political career. Human rights are not advanced by emptily opining about them or trying to distantly shame a government in front of the converted, but by speaking directly at, and in front of, the government that has oppressed citizens on the ground and speaking directly to the people who struggle for them every day. In one speech, President Obama did more than the tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars that have been spent on Radio and TV Marti trying to compensate for the wet blanket of an embargo we have thrown over the island.
Do we want to roll all that back for a would-be demagogue? Why aren’t those who know and have suffered from populist demagogues themselves doing more to raise questions about this government ? It would be sad if it were only for their only narrow, policy preferences, because ultimately—I realize now—this is how dictatorships are built.