February 21, 2006

February 21, 2006 | Commentary on Latin America

New Radical Chic: UNESCO's Bizarre Hero

Here's one for you: Early this month, in front of 200,000 screaming supporters in Havana's Revolutionary Square, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro bestowed Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez with UNESCO's 2005 International José Marti Prize for promoting Latin American heritage, liberty and values.

Huh? Chavez? Liberty?

I'm not sure what the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization folks are "partaking" of, in their cushy Paris headquarters, but the notion that Venezuela's caudillo is deserving of an award espousing these ideals (not to mention presented by Castro in Havana) simply boggles the mind.

It might be time for Washington to reconsider its membership in - and its $80 million-plus contribution to - this misguided U.N. agency.

But hold on - it gets worse. Not only was giving the award to Chavez a searing insult to the real José Marti, a 19th century Cuban liberal thinker who opposed all forms of tyranny; the event also turned into a raucous anti-American hate-fest pumped-up by blistering Chavez and Castro speeches.

The aged Castro, who by some accounts slurred his way through his speech, praised his island-prison Cuba, his protégé Chavez and Jose Marti and spewed predictable volumes of anti-American bile, calling the U.S. a world menace.

As Papa Castro presented the certificate (and $5,000 in loot) to Venezuela's Fidelito, the crowd cheered wildly, and waved Cuban and Venezuelan flags, chanting: Cuba y Venezuela, una sola bandera (i.e., "Cuba and Venezuela, only one flag").

Hardly unpredictable at a government-orchestrated rally.

In a mind-numbing 21/2 hour speech that only a despot (or, maybe, Bill Clinton) could give, Chavez called the U.S. a "brutal, cynical, murderous empire," promising that "we will do everything to shred it."

He also praised his newest anti-U.S. compadre, the recently elected leftist Bolivian president, Evo Morales.

Said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.): "It is astonishing and beyond the pale that a man such as Chavez, who poses a very real threat to democracy, not only in Venezuela, but in the entire region, and has engaged in virulent anti-American attacks, was honored by UNESCO."

That's only the half of it. Chavez has seized private property, closed radio and TV stations for anti-government content and jailed critics. He has consolidated single-party rule, stacked the courts with Chavistas and won a 2005 election by stuffing ballot boxes, according to Steve Johnson, a Latin America expert.

While Chavismo is a blight on the lives of Venezuela's middle class and the liberties of one of Latin America's (once) oldest democracies, Fidel's Mini-Yo (i.e., "Mini-Me") has used Caracas' significant oil wealth to dole out generous social services to the poor, making Chavez wildly popular.

In the region, Washington believes that Chavez is stoking the flames of his "Bolivarian Revolution" in places like Nicaragua, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. Chavez also supports Colombian FARC narco-guerillas in addition to providing them sanctuary in Venezuela.

The darling of the new authoritarian left, Chavez has become chummy with Iran, negotiating a number of economic and trade deals. Caracas also defended Iran's right to develop nuclear energy (read: nuclear weapons) earlier this month by voting "no" when the IAEA agreed to report Tehran to the U.N. Security Council over its atomic aspirations.

Besides being a big fat finger in the eye of the U.S. and Marti's legacy, what does giving the award to Chavez say about UNESCO, a highly controversial organization that Washington boycotted from 1985 to 2003?

UNESCO was founded "to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among nations through education, science and culture in order to further universal respect for justice, for the rule of law and for the human rights and fundamental freedoms which are affirmed for the peoples of the world."

Exactly how does honoring Chavez support UNESCO's mission?

Without question, elevating Chavez's stature through a U.N. award is an egregious violation of UNESCO's charter - and the latest setback for the U.N. in its rapidly sinking moral standing on human rights and democracy.

If anything, UNESCO should be rewarding the tireless efforts of little-recognized champions of human rights that toil in obscurity for individual freedom and dignity in places like Cuba and Venezuela, as Nile Gardiner, a U.N. analyst, puts it.

It's wise for UNESCO to remember that it's the U.S. that is one of its largest benefactors, forking over 22 percent of UNESCO's budget. It should also understand that this sort of outrageous anti-American, anti-freedom Theater of the Absurd won't be tolerated, either.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow. His book, "A Devil's Triangle: Terrorism, WMD and Rogue States," is just out.

About the Author

Peter Brookes Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy

Related Issues: Latin America

First appeared in the New York Post