Wednesday, March 2, 2005

Column: UC visitor a reminder of U.S. principles

by Doug Pennington

Last Monday, somebody you've never heard of risked his life to visit the University of Cincinnati. No, he wasn't trying to cross Clifton Avenue at lunchtime; he crossed the Atlantic Ocean, instead. Aleh Panamarou is a journalist traveling from Belarus, a country run by dictator Aleksandr Lukashenka.

Lukashenka is a gangster who calls himself "president," and who governs his country like Vito Corleone governed Little Italy. He "protects" Belarusians in exchange for unlimited tenure in office, but anyone who threatens his power is intimidated or killed. As Human Rights Watch reported in 1997, "Lukashenka has reversed nearly all the advances in the field of human rights, freedoms and democratization that had marked ... the post-Soviet period. ...[T]he government campaign to control civil society is killing it."

Lukashenka has little use for a free press. And he's unlikely to tolerate journalists visiting the United States, where press freedom is carved deeply into the oldest-written constitution in force on the planet. Panamarou gave two talks on Monday, the first of which I attended at The News Record's office. As he described a seemingly endless chain of killings, disappearances and jailings of political opponents and critical journalists, a thought occurred to me: This guy has just stuck his neck out across the ocean to speak with an age group who can't find Kansas on a map, much less Belarus. (I'm not kidding. A 2002 survey of 18-24 year-oldAmericans showed 11 percent couldn't find the United States. Almost half didn't know where New York is. Seventy percent couldn't find New Jersey.)

I'd like to consider myself well-informed, but until this past weekend I didn't know where Belarus was, either.

Nevertheless, after doing some background research before his discussion I had a question for Panamarou: If Belarus decides to change, would it would look more like the peaceful revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia, or like the violent revolution in Romania (where President Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena were shot dead by firing squad)?

Panamarou answered that none of these cases is particularly instructive. He said the Belarusian people are more passive and accepting than the Romanians and that about half the country actually likes Lukashenka's policies. Neither is an American military invasion likely, as in Iraq, since Belarus has few natural resources to secure. Rather, he said, the combination of fear, passivity and agreement requires a uniquely Belarusian path to democratic change.

But then Panamarou said something remarkable which I paraphrase here:

"Whether or not things change in Belarus will depend largely on public opinion in the United States."

What a canon shot of a statement! You who have traveled abroad must have heard something like this before, but for me it was a first. I have long believed that America is fundamentally great because of the ideas we (still) stand for. Yet here was this blunt confirmation from an outside source - a source who has everything to lose and realistically nothing to gain.

Regardless of our geographic ignorance, despite our government that has antagonized the world with its hare-brained, half-baked, self-rationalizing and unilateralist foreign policies, this Belarusian visitor sees through all of that.

People see through the stupid behavior of our leaders and into the core of our country because it is lit from within.

We stand for fairness, freedom, human decency, and equality, even though we don't always elect governments that live up to those principles. The world's oppressed still understand the meaning of America as much as - and sometimes more - than we do.

As "the last best hope of earth," we have no choice but to meet their expectations.