Is Democracy Worth Fighting For?
Ambassador Curtis A. Ward
(01 January 2024) –– My concern about preserving democracy is fundamental to the freedoms and the rights to which all of humanity are entitled. I reiterate my several messages and warnings on the challenges to democracy as my primary entreaty for 2024. The freedoms and rights I wish for all are only possible in democratic systems of government. Please do not confuse possibility with realization. There are complexities in all societies which are determinants of the realization of promises and expectations of a democratic system. But no other system of political governance offers more possibilities to fulfillment of full freedoms and basic rights, including human rights.
Wars have been fought for these rights and freedoms and peoples of many nations have fought and died to preserve the freedoms they already have, or to gain hoped for freedoms. Peace and justice will not prevail where freedoms and rights are suppressed or denied.
What are these rights and freedoms and why are they so important in human existence? It’s befuddling that many who enjoy these rights and freedoms take them for granted. It is even more concerning that most do not recognize the threats to them.
Freedoms & Rights
These rights and freedoms, collectively and individually, which are only possible in a democratic form of governance create responsibilities of states to protect their citizens from abuse, and the expectation of equal protection under law, in a system in which justice and rule of law are guaranteed. These rights and freedoms cannot be taken for granted, and must be defended and protected at all times and at all costs. The democracy dividend is a guarantee of the most basic freedoms: freedom of speech; freedom of the press; freedom of association; freedom from want; freedom from fear; freedom of religion; freedom to petition government; freedom from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, gender, social and economic class, or sexual orientation.
Within these freedoms are the rights to equal justice, the protection of basic human rights of all citizens, and human security in all its forms — access to quality education, access to adequate health care, access to dignified housing and living environment, food security, guarantee of personal safety, and provision of equal opportunity for social upliftment.
Dying to preserve democracy
America’s 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), in an address to the U.S. Congress, on January 6, 1941, declared the defense of the four most basic freedoms as reasons for the United States entering the second world war to stop Hitler’s tyranny. Defense of the same basic freedoms resonates today as challenges to democracies and freedoms and protection of human rights intensify around the world. More recently, we were jolted to recognize the urgency to defend democracy, now more than ever. A global audience watched, in real time, as thousands of insurrectionists inspired by America’s 45th president, on January 6, 2021, exactly 80 years after FDR’s speech, attempted to destroy the democratic foundation of the world’s strongest democracy.
The basic freedoms FDR declared as worth fighting for in WWII are the freedoms the people of Ukraine are now dying for. Ukrainian patriots are bravely defending their newly won freedoms as guaranteed by their nascent democracy, fighting, and dying on the battlefield, against the invasion of their country by a tyrannical, autocratic Russian regime.
Denying democracy and the rights and freedoms of a people are not usually the result of a single cataclysmic event in a nation’s history. Incremental erosion of democratic institutions and core principles of law and order and good governance, often seemingly inconsequential in isolation, are signs of creeping autocracy. This dangerous threat is accumulative and transformative to a point of no return. At some point in time, no amount of political opposition will be sufficient to peacefully reverse this trend. Nothing short of violent struggle will become the only option to reclaim and restore democracy.
The quest for individual or collective power by individuals or groups has been the bane of societies since the beginning of time. Wars among and between nations, internal and international conflicts, political and other forms of domination comprise the history of mankind. At the same time, I can find no reference of people in any nation freely choosing to replace a democratic system with an autocratic system. Rather, history is replete with examples of peoples everywhere and throughout human existence passionately seeking to replace authoritarian, dictatorial, and autocratic systems with democracy and the rights and freedoms offered by democratic systems of government.
Autocracy in the Americas
We don’t have to go outside of the hemisphere of the Americas to see how the gradual erosion of rights and freedoms can reach a critical juncture in a country’s history. A point where a free and fair political process is no longer guaranteed. A point where fraudulent elections processes and restrictions on freedom of assembly and protest are employed by authoritarian leaders and governments to perpetuate their power. A point where the population in frustration expresses their rejection of undemocratic governance by mass demonstrations against the authoritarian regime, sometimes violent demonstrations in response to state violence deployed against them. At such point, protesting civilians are often killed in the streets by agents of the state, and hundreds are detained and incarcerated for long periods of time without due process.
The recent histories of Venezuela and Nicaragua are prime examples. The impending elections in Venezuela in 2024 offer no hope for change. But In 2022, we saw a resounding reversal as the people of Brazil rejected its autocratic leader, dumping Jair Bolsonaro.
Across the Americas, including countries of the Caribbean, challenges to the nascent democracies of the region are increasing. Autocratic tendencies are mistakenly conflated with strong leadership. And citizen apathy and acquiescence are contributing to poor governance.
Strong-arming as a failed strategy against violent crime
Denial of due process in dealing with gang violence in El Salvador, though popular in the short term to quell the high crime rate, is a sign of erosion of democracy in that country. The frequent use of states of emergency (SOEs) in any country as a primary crime fighting tool without vigorously enforced constraints by independent courts that are prepared to protect, in real time, the rights of all citizens is troubling. The Jamaican government’s frequent use of SOEs as its primary crime fighting strategy has raised political, civic, and legal challenges. But these challenges have proven to be ineffective so far in curbing the government’s use of SOEs.
While SOEs appear to provide temporary respite from uncontrolled criminal activities, the conditions conducive to gang recruitment and criminal activities require medium- to long-term social, economic, civic, and political intervention which would create an environment of human security across all sectors. We all know this truth, yet government fail to provide adequate resources for effective programme implementation.
Citizen apathy endangers democracy
Democracy is under threat around the world. All democratic systems are vulnerable. Citizen apathy in the face of these threats is as dangerous as the threats themselves. Civil society appears constrained and often lacks robust, consistent advocacy for people’s rights and freedoms. Defense of democracy requires all of us to be perpetually vigilant and proactive. Democracy gives us the tools we need which we will lose if not used to preserve them.
Lack of transparency and impunity for corrupt practices hasten democracy’s decline. Free and fair elections to choose a government representative of the people’s interests and rejecting political leaders who are focused on their own aggrandizement, enrichment, and power are fundamental to preserving a democratic system of government. There is no reasonable excuse for voter apathy. Failure to participate in the electoral process, failure to participate in selecting the best available leadership is a sign of irresponsible citizenry which contributes to the erosion of democracy. Failure to vote contributes to a lack of good governance.
Remember, also, that history is replete with examples of autocrats being elected. My message for 2024 is when you vote choose wisely — choose defenders of democracy and reject wannabe autocrats. Don’t wait until you must make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve your freedoms. Make 2024 the year democracy triumphs over authoritarianism, autocracy and dictatorship, the year of reversal of poor governance, and the year to end impunity for corruption at all levels of society. Let peace prevail!
© Curtis A. Ward