07/08/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Can We Rescue Democracy from the Right?

Reposted from Foreign Policy In Focus

Back in the 1980s, it seemed the right thing to do. Groups were emerging in Eastern Europe that were just saying no to the Cold War, to the human rights abuses of their governments, to the stultifying lack of democracy in their societies. I joined the growing network of activists in the West that supported these groups in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and elsewhere. Across this East-West divide, we didn’t agree on everything. But we rejected war and dictatorship. We imagined a new kind of Europe and a new kind of trans-Atlantic partnership rising up from below: peaceful, Green, democratic. When, one by one, civil movements dislodged the communist governments in the region and ecstatic East Berliners tore down the Berlin Wall, we rejoiced too. Our efforts had succeeded. Score one for people power.

But there’s another, more conspiratorial version of this history, and its echoes can be heard today in some commentary on Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Burma. According to this version, the U.S. government stage-managed the whole affair in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The CIA was hard at work behind the scenes. The National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a U.S. government-funded operation, was handing out cash to anti-communist groups. The Soros Foundation, created by Hungarian-born financier George Soros, was meeting the technical and logistical needs of these new, independent movements. Forget about people power. The fall of communism was all about Reagan, “democracy promotion,” and big business licking its lips over all the new markets beckoning in the East.

And now the U.S. government is using this model to get rid of governments and leaders it doesn’t like around the world: Mugabe, Chavez, Castro. According to this updated worldview, the opposition movements in places like Burma or Zimbabwe are on the take. They are, whether they know it or not, agents of U.S. policy.

This conspiracy theory is not totally off the wall. The U.S. government has long been involved in these “soft” approaches to regime change, dating back at least to the CIA’s funding of the Christian Democratic Party in the crucial 1948 elections in Italy. Take the more recent case of Venezuela. In 2002, when a coup nearly toppled Hugo Chavez, the International Republican Institute (IRI), which is a part of NED, celebrated the news and its own role in supporting what would ultimately be only a short-lived insurgency. Writes Mukoma Wa Ngugi in John McCain and the International Republican Institute, “No matter what one may think of Chavez, coups are not avenues to democracy. Chavez was the democratically elected president of Venezuela meaning that the IRI was working against the popular vote of the Venezuelan people in order to serve U.S. interests.”

But there’s a huge difference between acknowledging the U.S. role in behind-the-scenes manipulations around the world and asserting that Washington has pulled all the strings in a half-century-long global puppet show.  The Polish people, not Ronald Reagan or NED, brought democracy to their own country just as Zimbabweans are desperately trying to bring democracy to theirs. Washington’s support of opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai doesn’t mean that he and his opposition movement are U.S. creations. By that argument, the U.S. civil rights movement was a creation of the Soviet Union simply because Moscow approved of what was going on and attempted to support it.

As Stephen Zunes argues in Sharp Attack Unwarranted, a defense of nonviolence activist Gene Sharp, “the right has given the United States unjustifiable credit for many of the dramatic transitions from dictatorships to democracies that have taken place around the world in recent decades. This, in turn, has led some on the left to see such ahistorical polemics as ‘proof’ of the central U.S. role because the imperialists are ‘admitting it.’”

Yes, the U.S. government has given “democracy promotion” a bad name. But progressives should not withhold support from movements in other countries fighting nonviolently against tyranny. Progressives worked with South Africans against apartheid, and now we are working with Burmese against the military junta, Pakistanis against Musharraf, Zimbabweans against Mugabe. Forget the National Endowment for Democracy – this is the People’s Endowment for Democracy. Nor is it a recent invention. Polish nobleman Tadeusz Kosciuszko fought in the American Revolution under the slogan of “for your freedom and ours.” Many of us on the Western Left were able to return the favor in the 1980s by supporting the democratic movement in Poland. And we continue that tradition today, ever mindful of the U.S. government’s often self-defeating promotion of its own version of democracy.

We can't let the neocons monopolize this democracy discussion. We must restore democracy -- not an imposition of our pale U.S. version but a respect for the many types of popular rule -- to the heart of a progressive foreign policy.

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