During my two-and-a-half decades as a U.S. Foreign Service officer, I had the privilege of getting to know political dissidents around the world. They were the most courageous people I’ve known. They fight for the freedoms we take for granted. Some sacrificed their lives.
Occasionally, in my last diplomatic posting, I used to meet the Vietnamese political dissident Dương Thu Hương in Hanoi. As a young woman during the Vietnam War, Dương served as a volunteer in a youth auxiliary—noncombatants who provided support services for the troops. She was one of only three in her 40-woman unit who survived the war. She also became a member of the Communist Party. After the country was unified in 1975, she turned to writing. Her novels became bestsellers in her country and later abroad.
Nevertheless, she became disillusioned with Vietnam’s repressive one-party regime and expressed her discontent in her stories. Her government responded by banning her books (which were then circulated underground samizdat-style, and smuggled out of the country); expelling her from the Party; imprisoning her and after her release, barring her from foreign travel. Her circle of friends, afraid to be seen with her, dwindled and the secret police constantly harassed her.
Her novel, Paradise of the Blind, banned in Vietnam, became an award-winning bestseller abroad. In it, she took on Vietnam’s political leaders’ boast that they had created a “workers’ and peasants’ paradise.” On the contrary, she countered, there was no paradise—only blind men promoting a faux “paradise” based on a flawed ideology that could never succeed. “Only the first lie really costs us; after that, everything flows from the same wellspring,” she wrote.
Over lunch one day, I asked her how she put up with it all—the harassment, the marginalization, the censorship. Plus, didn’t she worry about meeting openly with an American diplomat? She stiffened in her chair, chin up, and responded resolutely, “I spit in their face.”
The Vietnamese government, having their fill of the feisty Madame Dương, finally allowed her to leave the country. Today, she resides in France, busily writing away into her 70s.
When I worked on Afghanistan at the State Department, I occasionally met the young Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik. The son of a Novosti journalist assigned to New York, Borovik spoke nearly perfect American English (and excellent Spanish). He was urbane, highly educated and multilingual. At the same time, he was as comfortable in an Afghan tea house as he was at a Manhattan Starbucks. Borovik was a pioneer of investigative journalism during glasnost and was fearless in his criticism of the corrupt, oligarchic system that was supplanting the old communist regime.
True to form, he had been digging dirt on Vladimir Putin in advance of the 2000 presidential elections. In a scathing article, he quoted Putin as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.” Days later, Borovik, only 39, was killed in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident, an early journalistic fatality as Putin was consolidating power.
I also got to know many Cuban dissidents before Fidel Castro’s death, when my diplomatic duties included traveling throughout the island to monitor the human rights conditions of people we had repatriated, in accordance with a bilateral agreement, after they had unsuccessfully attempted to flee to the United States. Yet we took it a step further and resettled genuine political dissidents to the U.S. In Cuba, I was constantly surveilled and harassed. At one point, the secret police slashed my tires.
Later, during the 2003 crackdown known as the “Black Spring,” the Cuban government imprisoned 75 dissidents, including 29 journalists. Several years later, two of them, Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Wilmar Villar Mendoza, died from hunger strikes.
Around this time, the dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez summed up the dissidents’ sentiments: “Freedom is fundamentally the possibility of standing on a street corner and shouting ‘There is no freedom here!’” That reminded me of one of the earliest American political dissidents, Thomas Paine, who proclaimed, “Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must …undergo the fatigue of supporting it.”
Indeed, we face the same challenge now, in Trump’s America. Journalists are not “enemies of the people”; all voters need unhindered access to the polls; dark money needs to be taken out of politics; and whistleblowers are essential to democracy. That’s why we need to fight back. Because, as Paine made clear, and as the dissidents I knew exemplified, the most patriotic thing one can do is dissent. It means you love your country enough to sacrifice your own comfort for the sake of its improvement.
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