Libya 2011: The Human Right to Political Freedom

You canʼt separate peace from freedom because no one can be at peace unless he has his freedom.
— Malcolm X (1925-1965)

Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,…”
— Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948)

In politics the choice is never between good and evil but between the preferable and the detestable.”
— Raymond Aron (1905-1983)

Freedom from dictatorship is a human right. A global recognition of this right in modern times is Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.

(2) Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

(3) The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures.

Dictatorship is the captivity of a people’s political rights, and is thus an analog of slavery, which is the captivity of their personal freedom. Assisting popular rebellions against dictatorship is always a defense of human rights. Dictatorships, being inherently unjustifiable, can never claim self-defense in their efforts to cling to power; the only act they can justify is self dissolution.

Dictators hold unwilling supporters through intimidation, and willing supporters through promises of material gain and social elevation. Supporters of a dictatorship facing a popular uprising can never claim equal consideration in world opinion to the rebels opposing them, because such supporters are complicit in violating human rights by helping impose a dictatorship.

Doing what is right is not always convenient, and tolerating what is wrong is often temporally advantageous. So, despite the intrinsic illegitimacy of dictatorships, democratic nations may accept normal relations with certain of them because it is convenient politically and profitable commercially. Maintaining a foreign policy of such amoral practicality is never an honorable argument against assisting a foreign rebellion against dictatorship that has won public sympathy. Let us celebrate the few times international actions are taken because they are the humanly decent thing to do.

Later, our propagandists will easily recall the imperfections of motive and execution by our governments, and that data will then fuel the competition to define and exploit the historical record of the events. Though annoying, this is of minor importance compared to the immediate and most worthy goal: defending human lives and human rights.

The likelihood in late March of 2011 that a significant loss of life would be inflicted by Muammar Gaddafi’s jet bombers, artillery, armored troops and security forces in Benghazi was too real a prospect to ignore without then becoming complicit in the outcome, by omission. Gaddafi had vowed to “bury” the rebels, and we can be sure that after a Gaddafi victory a thorough purge of Libyan society would have occurred to ensure no embers of dissent remained to ignite another popular outburst of lèse majesté. Clearly, without outside assistance — minimally, a large infusion of heavier weapons — the lightly armed militias defending the western approaches to Benghazi would have been rolled back, and the anti-Gaddafi revolt crushed.

Opposition to intervention on behalf of the Libyan rebellion has been voiced from three perspectives:

Isolationism: it is an unnecessary national burden in possible blood and certainly treasure, with a risk of escalating into a political military quagmire;

Pan Africanism: it would undermine Pan Africanism if Muammar Gaddafi were to lose control of Libya’s wealth (which funds mercenaries from Sahelian countries, and foreign black political groups) and political power (to compel adherence to Pan African ideals by the largely Berber and Arab native Libyan population);

Anti-imperialism: NATO action in Libya is just an excuse to mount a Washington-consensus imperialist assault on an oil-rich nation that for over forty years has opposed such imperialism.

Beyond doubt, there is some truth to each of these. Isolationism is convenient selfishness and very often wise policy. In this case it is also a vote in favor of Muammar Gaddafi. The other two objections arise from doctrinal thinking on world affairs. Despite their merits, no worthy international goals can justify the sacrifice of a nation’s freedom to a dictatorship. One has to wonder about the coldness of certain opponents of support for the Libyan revolt, who are “merciless toward the failings of the democracies but ready to tolerate the worst crimes as long as they are committed in the name of the proper doctrines,” as Raymond Aron wrote in 1955 about the French intelligentsia’s bewitchment by Stalinism.

Every individual has their particular formative experiences, which set their adult “natural reactions” to subsequent rhetorical arguments. Let me relate some of mine, to invite your imagination to “feel” my point of view.

I recall visiting my grandparents in the city of Havana during a summer vacation in 1958. The colors, warmth, sounds and odors of Cuba were all rich, pungent and sensuous. Equally impressive to a boy growing up in New York City was the flagrant poverty of many Cuban people: adults with naked rented children huddled at street intersections begging from the passing tourists.

Fulgencio Batista was Cuba’s dictator, whose regime Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. characterized this way: “The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the regime’s indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice … is an open invitation to revolution.” Bohemia magazine — the equivalent in Cuba of Life magazine in the U.S. at that time — would print pictures of revolutionaries shot dead during gunfights with Batista’s police, lying rumpled in pools of blood on the street. I only heard the adults talk Cuban politics back in New York, when I was taken to the upper west side of Manhattan, our old barrio, for haircuts at the Cuban barbershop below the elevated train along Broadway, and in the brownstone apartments of relatives and family friends during Sunday visits. Everybody was anxious, everybody wanted a free Cuba, everybody was thinking of Fidel.

Then, on the first of January 1959, Batista fled the island and Castro’s victorious army rolled into an ecstatically jubilant Havana on the 8th. We returned in June for a long summer vacation. Even in the Cubana de Aviación four-engine turboprop one could sense the uplift, the exhilaration of the Cuban Revolution. But the full impact hit me when I exited the airplane and walked into the lush aromatic heat of a tropical country whose people were rapt with joy. The beggar “families” were gone and barbudos — the bearded ones — were everywhere. The barbudos were revolutionaries in pristine khakis, with gunbelts holstering highly polished and uniquely detailed pistols, some silver-colored, some gold-colored, some gun-metal blue, some with very long barrels, some with artistically engraved handles. Only the beards were shaggy, all other items from boot soles to cap crests were neat, shiny and crisp. At first I was a little nervous when a barbudo would climb onto a streetcar or bus and sit near me. But I soon got used to sitting next to gold-plated long-barrel Lugers, gleaming mirror-finish silvery Colt 45s, and robust Smith & Wesson 44 caliber six-shot revolvers. Sidearms were definitely the display items of identity.

During that summer of 1959, we travelled all over the island and saw many remnants of revolutionary struggle, one being a bullet-pocked hospital in the countryside, once the scene of a battle, now happily back in service. I even met Fidel at Isla de Pinos (now Isla de la Juventud). However materially poor some Cubans could be, especially campesinos, peasants in the hinterlands, they were all just so happy: believing themselves free, life despite its burdens was now a joy. Every person, every place, every moment exuded the same sense of uplift. I was immersed in a national sense of freedom, and it soaked into my psyche and bones. This experience permanently magnetized my political compass, so that regardless of verbal arguments and logical constructs in later years, my compass always points my sympathies toward freedom for any people.

Today, I see the people of Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen as similar to the Cubans I lived among when at my grandparents’ house in Batista’s Cuba. They want freedom from their dictators, and I am incapable of being unsympathetic to their desires. Perhaps if I studied their cultures and histories, I’d find good reasons to overcome my emotional impulses in their favor. I might learn that “countries don’t have friends, they have interests.” If so, I would want to make sure that I did not compromise anything I had an interest in by thoughtless support of foreign revolts.

However, I find it impossible to conceive of the individuals I see and hear on the streets of North Africa and the Middle East as being that remote from my experience, especially the “wireless” younger generation.1 They look like my kids. Do I really prefer to make logical arguments in favor of Muammar Gaddafi because it accords with my interest to oppose Western imperialism disguised as “humanitarian intervention”? I do not. Can I really put aside any consideration of the specificity of this particular revolution at this particular time (so inconveniently timed for us), and see a greater good in opposing any help to the anti-Gaddafi rebels because their freedom is not as important in the overall scheme of things as the effort to maintain strict nonintervention by Western powers? I cannot. I am unable to forget the people.

So let me ask you, is it possible to have a bias for freedom, an opposition to dictatorship anywhere, and also oppose the capitalist-imperialist consensus that dominates U.S. and European foreign policymaking? Is it possible to support popular revolutions against tyrants and dictators — no matter how doctrinally appealing certain of them might be for some of us — even to the point of arming popular revolts so they can credibly match the firepower of their oppressors? In short, can anti-imperialists elevate freedom to a guiding principle?

For me, solidarity with basic positive human aspirations throughout the globe supersedes strict adherence to any political doctrine.

Those who agree believe it is possible to identify situations worthy of support, where a people are visibly demonstrating their desire to throw off tyranny and govern themselves democratically, and their dictatorial regime is demonstrating its utter lack of legitimacy. In popular fiction, the character of Rick Blane, played by Humphrey Bogart in the 1942 movie Casablanca, could identify and support such revolutions. The French prefect of police in the film accuses Rick Blane of being a “sentimentalist,” because “In 1935 you ran guns to Ethiopia. In 1936, you fought in Spain on the Loyalist side.” Blane replies sardonically “And got well paid for it on both occasions.” The prefect rests his case with “The winning side would have paid you much better.”2

So, can we be sentimentalists? Was the French fleet at Yorktown in 1781 under the command of the Comte de Grasse entirely a matter of interests and not friends, or was there some sentimentalism involved? I leave it to you to decide if this French intervention was a good thing or a failure for history. Can the Cuban-led defeat of the South African Defense Forces at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988 during the Angolan Civil War, with the liberation of Namibia and the initiation of the subsequent fall of apartheid in South Africa, be seriously regretted? The 2289 Cubans who died during Cuba’s intervention in southwest Africa, and the 450,000 Cuban soldiers and development workers who spent time in this effort, were probably sentimentalists even if many were too young to remember Havana in 1959.

The French, British and Americans, under the guise of NATO, have chosen to intervene in Libya, initially to halt Gaddafi’s assault on Benghazi in early April. The motive for intervening was some admixture of “sentimentalism” and “humanitarian imperialism,” but the exact proportions of each is a matter of heated debate. The pace of the war against Gaddafi will be set by the level and consistency of military assistance to the anti-Gaddafi population.

If the Libyan revolt leads to a stable democratic government, then the cause of freedom will have been very well served, especially if the post-Gaddafi government is clearly independent. If the NATO nations are unable to accept the possibility of an independent post-Gaddafi Libyan government, they won’t supply the revolutionaries with sufficient arms for a quick and decisive victory. Instead, they will dribble in just enough resources to keep Gaddafi confined to his corner while they try micromanaging the gestation of the eventual post-Gaddafi government so that it emerges as a client regime. This would be like Stalin’s policy in Spain during 1936 to 1939. This attitude was captured succinctly in the film Lawrence Of Arabia, where General Allenby is asked if he intends to keep his earlier promise to T.E. Lawrence, to arm the Arab troops with artillery in addition to small arms, so their revolt against Turkish rule can advance significantly: “If you give them artillery you’ve made them independent.” But, Allenby knowing what London wants, replies: “Then I can’t give them artillery, can I?”3

Sentimentalists hope the Libyan revolutionaries get the “artillery” they need, and enjoy their version of 1959 Cuban euphoria, however inconvenient their freedom turns out to be, later, for the humanitarian imperialists. Sentimentalists prefer to have friends rather than just interests, and you can’t tolerate others being oppressed or enslaved if you want them as friends.

We should not let our opposition to the misdeeds, mistakes and misapplications of our governments throttle our willingness to take advantage of spontaneous events that can lead to the overthrow of tyrants, and the release of political freedom for more people.

  1. Emad Balnour (“We are clearing our country from Muammar and his gang.”), at 0:25-0:51. []
  2. Casablanca 04 (“sentimentalist”), at 1:48-2:18. []
  3. Lawrence of Arabia, “If you give them artillery you’ve made them independent.” []
Manuel Garcia, Jr. is an occasional writer who is always independent. His e-mail address is: mangogarcia@att.net. Read other articles by Manuel, or visit Manuel's website.