Fred Thompson continues his virtual campaign today by asking an important question about our efforts to spread democracy and liberty. Why have we neglected the most powerful weapon in our arsenal — the truth? Thompson argues that our Radio Free broadcasts helped bring down the Soviet empire, and their neglect has allowed socialism to surge again in Latin America:
Well, he’s done it. Hugo Chavez was already systematically silencing criticism of his autocratic rule through threats and intimidation. Journalists have been threatened, beaten and even killed. Now he’s shut down the last opposition television networks in Venezuela and arrested nearly 200 protesters – mostly students. It’s a monumental tragedy and the Venezuelan people will pay the price for decades to come. Americans are also at risk as he funds anti-American candidates and radicals all over Latin America.
It’s equally tragic that the U.S. is in no position to provide the victims of this emerging dictator with the truth. There was a time, though, when Americans were on the front lines of pro-freedom movements all over the world. I’m talking about the “surrogate” broadcast network that included Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty, often called “the Radios.” …
The Radios were not some bland public relations effort, attracting audiences only with American pop music. They engaged the intellectual and influential populations behind the Iron Curtain with accurate news and smart programming about freedom and democracy. They had sources and networks within those countries that sometimes outperformed the CIA. When Soviet hardliners and reformers were facing off, and crowds and tanks were on the streets of Moscow and Bucharest, the radios were sending real-time information to the people, including the military, and reminding them of what was at stake.
Then we won the Cold War. The USSR collapsed in 1991, and America relaxed. Military downsizing began and the Radios began to reduce broadcast air time to target countries.
How badly do Venezuelans need an independent source of news? They’re marching in the streets in defiance of newly-minted dictator Hugo Chavez after he shut down the last major independent broadcaster for its criticisms of his leadership. Not that Venezuelans can know this through Chavez’ state-controlled media:
While almost 40 percent of voters in last year’s election opted for Mr. Chávez’s opponent, the president’s support topped 60 percent and he still enjoys wide popular backing. This level of support is expected to be on display Saturday, when Mr. Chávez has called for large demonstrations in support of the RCTV decision.
Until then, however, the message from students is still being heard, if not widely broadcast, in Venezuela. “They are taking our free speech away,” said Sandra Bellizzia, a marketing student at Alejandro Humboldt University who had “RCTV” painted in black on her face at a protest here on Thursday. “If they closed any channel, it would mean the same thing.”
Had we presented a continual and sustained effort to supply the people of Venezuela and the rest of Latin America with unbiased, truthful reporting, they could be relying on that information now. As Thompson notes, democracy activists knew they could rely on our communications channels during the Cold War. We helped people free themselves, not with weapons or surgical bombing strikes, but with reliable information that allowed them to see around the propaganda of their governments.
What happened? Too many people bought into the “peace dividend” mentality. Mitt Romney acknowledged this in my interview with him on Wednesday specifically regarding Chavez and Latin America. After the Soviet collapse, we stopped worrying about Latin America, not understanding that tinpolt dictators will still arise, even without Russian financing. We let our guard down, and more importantly, we let the agents of freedom down in the region.
Dictatorships and oppression will afflict mankind for ages to come, and we have to be prepared to fight against it, using the most effective weapons in our arsenal. Fred reminds us that simple communication of truth, and the establishment of our credibility from that effort, is perhaps the most powerful and effective weapon against tyranny that we possess. It’s high time that we start using it again.