November 14, 2008 | Commentary on Democracy and Human Rights
What are we to make of this epic election? Are we really, as some contend, a country torn between "red" and "blue" America. Are there truly "patriotic" and "unpatriotic" quarters? A closer look at our country's history reveals otherwise.
Many of us who are first-generation Americans retain immediate connections to nations truly savaged by civil unrest, ethnic and class conflict and political violence. We don't have to think too hard to think of places where "suffrage," "elections" and even "democracy" are generally just catchy slogans.
For many, these are the places our ancestors escaped. These are the places of enduring family and cultural ties, but not the lands of our political hopes and dreams.
Sadly, the history of Latin America and the Caribbean is riddled with coups, revolutions, fixed elections, massive voter fraud and deception that seriously eroded the confidence the people had in the idea of democracy. Worse yet, as in the cases of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay in the 1970s, political discontent was so severe that civil unrest eventually culminated in military takeovers.
In the 1980s, after the Sandinistas promised democracy, Nicaragua underwent a bloody civil war pitting the Sandinistas against the Contras. Ferocious political divisions in El Salvador and Guatemala claimed tens of thousands of lives. Cuba passed from the reactionary dictatorship of Batista to the revolutionary dictatorship of Fidel Castro without ever experiencing freedom.
And while Mexico was mostly spared bloodshed in the latter half of the 20th century, it suffered under a one-party grip for close to seven decades, despite frequent calls for change. Not until 2000 could it be said that Mexico entered the modern era of real democracy. In short, while free, fair and open election is still a relatively new reality in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has been doing elections and transitions since 1789.
It's a remarkable feat in many places to have even one peaceful transfer of power. Yet the United States has done it over and over across more than two centuries. This is particularly stunning since we've had our share of political and civil discontent. Yet only once -- the Civil War -- did citizens resist the decision of the majority.
While there's no doubt Barack Obama's election has angered many people, the peaceful transition we are witnessing is a testament of the greatness of this wonderful country and its diverse but deeply democratic people.
Even in an election where so many were emotionally invested in one candidate or the other, and where passions at times ran high, the outcome closed a chapter. Americans move ahead. On Jan. 20, President-elect Obama will be sworn in on the steps of the U.S. Capitol ensuring that this great, enduring, if sometimes overlooked, tradition continues.
As Americans of Hispanic descent, we should never lose sight of how fortunate we are to live in this great country where voting rights and a free and fair election are not fancy catchphrases, but are deeply ingrained in the very fabric of American citizenship. As it says in the Declaration of Independence, government must operate by the "consent of the governed."
The results of this election are still being analyzed, but election data indicates that Hispanics played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the presidential election in a number of "swing states," including Florida, Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico. It's clear that this election ignited the passions of many Hispanic Americans -- particularly younger Hispanics. The important thing will be sustaining their enthusiasm in the years ahead. A well-informed and civic-minded citizenry is absolutely vital in breathing new life into the spirit of our government.
Voting is just one of the many rights and responsibilities that come with being a citizen. Having a strong command of our English language, respecting the laws, working to build community, and appreciating our country's rich history will be even more important as our Hispanic minority grows in numbers.
Only by truly appreciating how fortunate we are to be living in the greatest nation on Earth and by acting as responsible citizens will we ensure that tomorrow's immigrants, like the millions before us, can enjoy the liberties we enjoy today.
Israel Ortega is a Senior Media Services Associate at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared on www.hacer.org (Hispanic American Center for Economic Research