In late September, President Obama addressed the United Nations General Assembly to discuss peace and security, democracy, and international engagement. Recognition of the need to partner with the most marginalized communities and the outstanding need for continued reform is welcomed. On democracy, President Obama named governments accountable to their citizens as the thread which links progress of leadership throughout the world. To be successful and accountable, governments and civil society organizations must be able to collaborate in order to secure the advancement of basic human rights.
I openly welcome the importance of government accountability and collaboration with civil society as the basis of a thriving democracy. In this vein, it was concerning that during his remarks President Obama named Colombia as a country exemplary of successful democracy. His statement alluded to the importance of Colombia's former-President Alvaro Uribe stepping down after the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled a referendum-signature based campaign to extend term limits was unconstitutional.
Under his watch President Uribe, in direct collaboration with the U.S. government, maintained an insecure and unsafe environment for the vast majority of Afro-Colombian communities. The engagement of our own government, both through aid and development projects, security and anti-narcotics efforts and trade have hurt Colombia's Black communities. Afro-Colombian organizations, their leaders, and their partners continue to face growing displacement, threats, harassment and murders. The vast majority of these cases of intimidation and violence receive little follow-up from legal entities.
Democracy strengthening in U.S. foreign policy is often driven by internal political and monetary interests. In Colombia, where it is conservatively estimated that 26% of the population are Afro-descendants, inclusion and transparency by the government remain only aspirations for many communities. And the recently inaugurated president Juan Manuel Santos looks to be supporting many of the same policies that have been so detrimental to Afro-Colombians.
Despite extensive reports of abuse from human rights and labor organizations both within Colombia and the international community, the U.S. continues to recognize Colombia as a model in the region. Just next door, in Venezuela, participatory democracy and an active commitment to addressing extreme poverty and social inequities thrives.
Recently staff from my organization, TransAfrica Forum, participated in the international electoral accompanier mission to Venezuela. These important elections were to elect representatives to Venezuela's National Assembly, the unicameral representative legislative body of the government. While many observations were made by the U.S. and other international accompaniers, some very specific successes stand out including the widespread confidence in the electoral system, high participation across the political spectrum, and thorough protocol to address any irregularities.
With over 66 percent of Venezuela's eligible voters participating, the elections call attention to the importance of participatory democracy, access, and inclusion. The elections included a high level of enthusiasm and participation by voters from across the political spectrum. The electoral process also includes comprehensive protocols to address any technical, logistical, and material problems that arise prior to or on election day.
The recent elections in Venezuela can teach people in the U.S. a lot about participatory democracy and government engagement. Electoral processes in Venezuela have faced particular scrutiny since President Chavez was elected in 1998 with little balance to credit the successes of the administration. Venezuela's effort to include marginalized communities, people who previously had neither recognition nor a voice within the government, has been significant.
While nothing new in Washington D.C., such double-speak should call into question how we frame and support democracy. As a powerful financial and political player in international politics, the U.S. has a particular responsibility to recognize democratically-elected governments. U.S. engagement with the world must allow governments to be able to operate with sovereignty and organic leadership bodies while also endorsing the protection of the human rights of their entire populations, paying particular attention to communities who have been historically marginalized. It is my hope that we can begin to re-assess how we both define and support "democracy" worldwide.
Nicole C. Lee is the President of TransAfrica Forum