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Here's what you need to know about democracy this week:

1    Are Cuban protests helping Republicans?

Cubans have taken to the streets across their country in the largest protests in decades. Meanwhile, even though these protests are happening hundreds of miles offshore, they are already a partisan political issue in America.

2   China’s human rights ‘Whataboutism’

Chinese state media, in response to allegations of human rights violations against Uyghur people, is running its own human rights media campaign––this one claiming that the real perpetrators are Western countries like the U.S. and Canada. How is China weaponizing human rights rhetoric, and how does this fit into China’s legacy of propaganda campaigns?

    Narration: Executive Director Uriel Epshtein

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1    Are Cuban protests helping Republicans?
Photo by YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

Traditionally, protests in Cuba have consisted of small bands of intellectuals or activists. Not so anymore. On Sunday, chants of “libertad” rang through cities across Cuba, with everyday citizens rallying against hunger, inadequate healthcare, and a government in which they have no say. Cuban dictator Miguel Díaz-Canel blamed the unrest on “economic asphyxiation” from the United States and called for vigilante violence on Monday, saying, "The order to fight has been given — into the street, revolutionaries!"

In the U.S., Democrats and Republicans alike have expressed solidarity with protesters against the communist regime. President Biden stated on Monday that the U.S. stood with the Cuban people and heard their “clarion call for freedom” from authoritarianism. Republican Representative Liz Cheney shared similar sentiments on Twitter.

Still, not every American politician is so enthusiastic. The Democratic Socialists of America, a group which includes Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, tweeted its support for the communist regime, writing that “DSA stands with the Cuban people and their Revolution in this moment of unrest. End the blockade.” (“The Revolution,” when capitalized, refers specifically to Cuba’s perpetual communist “Revolution” and supporters of the regime refer to one another as revolutionaries.) Senator Bernie Sanders offered tepid support for the protests, but then reiterated the communist claim that the American embargo is to blame.

Understandably, several prominent Republicans, including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio––both of Cuban descent––have taken the opportunity to politicize a protest movement that the two parties largely support. In a bizarre tweet on Monday, Rubio scribbled the words “Socialist and communist” on a printout of Biden’s statement condemning “Cuba’s authoritarian regime” in order to imply that the President was somehow glossing over Cuban politics.

How are Republicans taking advantage of Cuba’s protests?

Two significant factors are at play: Republicans increasingly decry the Democratic party as socialist, and Cuban Americans have emerged as a key constituency for the Republican party, particularly in keeping Florida red.

In recent years, the claim that “Democrats are socialists” has become commonplace. It was one of Donald Trump’s favorite tactics, and everyone from Nikki Haley to RNC chairwoman Ronna McDaniel has joined in, claiming that "Democrats have chosen to go down the road to socialism” and that socialism is the Biden administration’s “vision for America.” Railing against the oppressive “socialist and communist” regime in Cuba is a not-so-subtle way to suggest that Cuba’s present is America’s future should Democrats get their way.

For what it’s worth, the attacks seem to be sticking. Cuban Americans have leaned toward the Republican Party for decades, but recent immigrants from Cuba are especially likely to support Republicans. In a poll from 2020, 76% of Cubans who arrived in the United States between 2010 and 2015 identify as Republicans. Just two days before the 2020 presidential election, Rubio rallied Trump supporters before the president took the stage in heavily-Cuban Miami by saying that “Not all Democrats are socialists, but all socialists are Democrats.”

What’s wrong with calling Cuba socialist and communist?

Well, nothing. Cuba is communist, and the effects have been disastrous. Left-wing authoritarianism is no better than right-wing.

But that, in essence, is the true issue here. The selective anger of certain Republicans against left-wing authoritarianism is inconsistent as the party cozies up to right-wing authoritarians around the world. Republicans largely stayed silent as Hungary slipped into authoritarianism under right-wing strongman Viktor Orbán, whom Trump even explicitly endorsed in 2019. As president, Trump expressed similar admiration at times for Turkey’s Erdogan, Brazil’s Bolsonaro, Poland’s Duda, and the Philippines’ Duterte. Right-wing authoritarianism gets a pass from the party complicit in the Capitol Riot, which, although unsurprising, is still troubling.

Are Democrats at fault?

Comparing the Democratic Party to Cuban-style dictators isn’t very fair, but some prominent Democrats aren’t doing anything to help themselves. If Republicans have a problem condemning right-wing authoritarianism, Democrats have a similar problem condemning left-wing dictatorships. Congresswoman Karen Bass described Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 as “a great loss to the people of Cuba.” Bernie Sanders repeatedly defended or equivocated on behalf of left-wing authoritarians, including Castro and the Sandinistas of Nicaragua, as recently as February, 2020. In 1988, he took a ludicrous 10-day “honeymoon” through the spiraling Soviet Union. 

Our political parties must reject authoritarianism, whether it comes from the right or the left. As long as a few Democrats continue to make exceptions when it suits their politics, the entire party loses credibility in calling out authoritarians elsewhere. The party must resolve to denounce socialism. In the meantime, Republicans would be wise to address their own right-wing authoritarian problem, which remains the greatest domestic terror threat

American freedom can never be safe until both parties unite to uphold global democracy. Just as there is no excusing Putin or Orbán, there is no excusing Cuba's communist dictatorship.


2   China’s human rights 'Whataboutism' 
Chinese anti-Western political cartoons, published in Global Times

In our piece on the COVID lab leak theory from June, we pointed out how a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry responded to allegations against the Wuhan Virology Institute by turning them around on the U.S. and suggesting that the virus actually escaped from Fort Detrick in Maryland. Lately, the Chinese government has doubled down on this redirection tactic regarding human rights abuses.

As the international community condemns China for its genocide against the Uyghur people of Xinjiang, China has answered using its state-run, English-language propaganda mill the Global Times. The site has run more than a dozen articles suggesting that Western countries––Canada and the United States foremost among them––are the true perpetrators of global human rights violations.

In an article on the Tulsa Race Massacre, the author wrote that “U.S. society today still witnesses extensive violation of human rights.” In another, the author declared that “The US human rights record shows that its human rights are only about protecting the white people's interests.” By opposing China’s policies in Xinjiang, an editorialist asserted that “Blinken and some other US politicians are standing opposed to all people in Xinjiang and even the ethics of the entire human race.” In ironic terms apparently lost on the propagandists, another piece described anglophone countries as inherently racist because “brutality against indigenous people is embedded in the genes of the Anglo-Saxons.”

Most absurdly, the Global Times published a piece entitled “Slow rescue of Miami condo collapse shows 'beacon of human rights' is falling.” The author declares that “The US' human rights fairy tale cannot hold water anymore. No matter how Washington brags, the results show the US' attention has not been devoted to the basic protection of people's lives.” Conversely, “China's human rights view has effectively guaranteed people's well-being and prosperous life.”

Clearly, the West has struck a nerve.

Why is China responding like this?

Labeling accusers as hypocrites, and turning the West's language against itself is a tried-and-true formula popularized by the Soviet Union. This practice, known as “whataboutism,” draws its name from Soviet officials responding to criticism with “What about in America, where they…” Rather than having to prove the accuser wrong, a propagandist can simply say that what they’re doing is no worse than what their accuser is doing. Almost always, it relies on a false equivalence.

Brushing aside the active genocide against the Uyghurs, Chinese state propagandists have dragged up a century-old race massacre, Jim Crow, Canadian Indian residential schools, slavery, and the colonization of the Americas. Of course, all these things did happen, and they were terrible. But none of them are ongoing, their cruelty is not meaningfully contested, and, most significantly, we discuss them. On the other hand, the Chinese government “launched a hotline in April for netizens to report other social media users who ‘distort’ the party’s history or attack its leadership” and pulled two million social media posts for breaking from the party line, according to Freedom House. While we have debate and reconciliation, they have evasion and censorship.

The Chinese government realizes that it can’t completely refute allegations substantiated by mountains of evidence. The Uyghur genocide is, after all, an inescapable reality. What it can do is promote a false equivalence so that the United States appears to only support human rights in order to defame China. It might not convince us, but it undoubtedly influences millions who interact with the propaganda. As a result, it’s the obligation of democracy advocates everywhere to resist those false equivalences and ensure that the West remains a global beacon for human rights.



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