On February 3 in Havana, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awarded its 2005 José Martí International Prize to Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. Cuban president Fidel Castro personally handed the award to his leading imitator as an estimated 200,000 people in Revolution Plaza watched on.
The Martí prize is intended to recognize those who have contributed to the “struggle for liberty” in Latin America. Chávez is clearly not among this group, and the award is a major embarrassment to the United Nations, illustrating a longstanding lack of moral clarity within the world body on issues of individual freedom and liberty.
As a major contributor to UNESCO, the United States should strongly protest its decision to award this major prize to an aspiring tyrant. The Bush Administration should serve notice that America’s continued support of UNESCO is wholly dependent upon the organization’s commitment to the ideals upon which it was founded.
A Blow to UNESCO’s Reputation
Founded after the Second World War, UNESCO was established “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.”
UNESCO has had a controversial history. The United States boycotted the organization for 18 years, from 1985 through 2003, in protest over its budgetary mismanagement and radical agenda, including policies opposed to democracy and freedom of the press. The United States rejoined UNESCO on the understanding that it was undergoing significant financial and management reform and had “resumed efforts to reinforce founding principles.”
The José Martí Prize carries a purse of $5,000, though the UN insists that no funds from the U.S. government have been used to pay for it. UNESCO, however, receives significant U.S. taxpayer support, amounting to $84 million in 2004 and $80.8 million in 2005—about 22 percent of its annual budget. It has requested a further $71.4 million in U.S. funding for 2006.
The award to Hugo Chávez is an affront to the founding vision of UNESCO and the latest blow to the UN’s rapidly declining reputation on human rights and democracy. Aside from Burma, Sudan, Iran, and Zimbabwe (all members of UNESCO), the UN would have to struggle to find two more repressive regimes than Venezuela and Cuba to glorify.
Subverting the Memory of José Martí
Created in 1994, the Martí award was instituted by UNESCO’s Executive Board “at the initiative of the Government of Cuba.” It is supposed “to promote and reward an activity of outstanding merit in accordance with the ideals and spirit of José Martí. By embodying a nation’s aspiration to sovereignty and its struggle for liberty, this activity has contributed, in any region of the world, to the unity and integration of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean and to the preservation of their identities, cultural traditions and historical values.”
There is a striking contradiction between who Martí really was and how the Left and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro imagine him. For decades, the Cuban regime has revered Martí as a left-wing revolutionary, a manipulation of his memory for political purposes. In reality, Marti was no Marxist radical, but a liberal thinker who opposed all forms of tyranny.
Born in 1853, José Martí was a Cuban writer, poet, educator, and nationalist who believed that justice, human rights, and individual freedom were the foundation of government. Martí would have had little time for the Castro regime were he alive today. “Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers,” begins a famous remark of his. “One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand.”
In short, the Martí Prize was named for a democrat, not a despot. Unlike Castro and those who conceived the UNESCO prize in 1994, Martí did not believe that sovereignty and national determination rest in the persona of charismatic bullies, but rather in each individual citizen exercising his or her free will.
Chávez’s Unsavory Record
Hugo Chávez’s actions as leader of Venezuela could not be further removed from the principles espoused by José Martí. Upon entering office in 1998, Chávez ordered the constitution rewritten to keep himself in power and established Cuban-style neighborhood spy committees, called “Bolivarian Circles,” to inform on citizens who harbor dissident thoughts. Chávez’s policies provoked protests that forced his temporary retreat from office and sparked strikes that shut down the state oil company. Dissidents were shot or incarcerated.
Chávez enacted new laws to seize private property, to close commercial radio and TV stations for airing content deemed “contrary to national security,” and to jail ordinary citizens for voicing criticism of public officials. He has consolidated single-party rule by stacking Venezuela’s courts with provisional, partisan judges, and won a 2005 referendum on his leadership only after padding the electoral rolls and intimidating his opponents.
Condemn the Chávez Award
The Bush Administration and Congress should rebuke UNESCO for its decision to reward Chávez. The House and Senate should pass resolutions expressing their outrage and demand that the UN organization be held to account. Congress should also call on Chávez to return the award, as well as the money that came with it.
The U.S. Ambassador to UNESCO should issue a formal protest at the organization’s General Conference. Moreover, Washington should publicly call on UNESCO to live up to its founding principles and actively advance freedom of opinion and freedom of expression, both of which are so blatantly denied to the peoples of Cuba and Venezuela. Oversight of UNESCO’s operations must be significantly improved.
Rather than give honors to dictators, UNESCO should reward the efforts of little-recognized champions of individual freedom such as Cuba’s Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), spouses of political prisoners who have raised awareness of their husbands’ plight. Another deserving recipient would be Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, a dentist jailed and beaten for advocating peaceful change in Cuba.
UNESCO’s award to Chávez is a stunning insult to the victims of two of Latin America’s most repressive regimes. As well, it is another major blow to the image of the United Nations as it attempts to restore its battered reputation in the wake of an array of scandals, from abuse by UN peacekeepers in the Congo and the decline of the UN Commission on Human Rights to its disastrous administration of the Iraq Oil-for-Food Program. While it pays lip service to the idea of reform, the world body remains true to its anti-democratic instincts.