Daniel Henninger expresses that thought today in the context of what a PR coup it is for such dictators as Hugo Chavez to get their photo ops with President Obama or with the Congressional Black Caucus while no mention is made of what these men have done to civil liberties in their own homes.
The origin of the change-from-below movement was the 1975 Helsinki Accords, which ratified the legitimacy of self-determination. There was no stronger supporter of this liberal turn than AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland. Where is his like today in the Democratic Party or its unions? Where is the left-wing blogosphere when the pro-democracy prisoners of Cuba, Iran and Syria need them? It's ranting about Bush "war criminals."And here is a reminder of what is going on in these countries.
Hugo Chávez is a tin-pot dictator who has debauched Venezuela's democracy. Normally in such circumstances, an American president would show reserve. The weirdly ebullient Mr. Obama did not, and that image was the photo seen 'round the world.It would be nice if today's leaders would make these names famous and make it clear that we support those laboring for freedom in their own countries just as we supported prisoners of the Soviet regimes during the Cold War.
In New York this week, I asked a former Eastern European dissident who spent time in prison under the Communists: "If you were sitting in a cell in Cuba, Iran or Syria and saw this photo of a smiling American president shaking hands with a smiling Hugo Chávez, what would you think?"
He said: "I would think that I was losing ground."
The hopeful way to view the Obama administration's openings to Chávez, the Castros, Iran and the others would be: This had better work. Because if it doesn't, a lot of people who've spent years working in opposition to these regimes -- in hiding or in prison in Iran, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Burma, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan -- are going to get hammered. North Korea's opposition is invisible.
Other than physically controlling their populations, the biggest problem for autocrats -- most of them narcissistic monomaniacs -- is maintaining the legitimacy of their authority, which by definition is always on thin ice. To Mr. Obama and his handlers perhaps it was just a photo-op. For Mr. Chávez it was priceless. Merely being seen or photographed in the presence of civilized society -- at summits, negotiations, in state visits -- empowers the autocrat and discourages his opposition.
Within days of the Summit of the Americas, former Venezuelan presidential candidate Manuel Rosales formally applied for asylum in Peru, fearing a corruption trial at home.
When Barack Obama was a candidate for president, the main plank of his foreign policy, other than withdrawing from Iraq, was agreeing to "talk to our enemies," notably Iran and Syria. The intellectual rationale for this policy, as far as one can make out, is that because George W. Bush wouldn't commit the office of the presidency itself to direct negotiations with the leaders of these regimes, and because everything George W. Bush did was wrong, reversing that policy would bear fruit.
Iran just sentenced Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi to eight years in prison. Syria's leading pro-democracy dissident, Riad Seif, has spent the last year in Adra prison and is reportedly dying of prostate cancer. Syrian "president" Bashar Assad won't let him leave the country to get treatment.
In Cuba, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is serving a 25-year prison sentence. In China, the whereabouts is unknown of Liu Xiaobo, co-author of a new, online pro-democracy petition. His wife has written to Mr. Obama for help. Tens of thousands of North Koreans are hiding in China.
The Obama people seem to believe that talking top guy to top guy is the yellow brick road to progress. Why do they think that? They say Ronald Reagan negotiated over nuclear arsenals at Reykjavik. But virtually all desirable regime change in our time -- Soviet Communism, South Africa, the Philippines -- has come mainly from below, from the West protecting and supporting people in opposition to autocrats.