The first day of the Oslo Freedom Forum 2021 of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF) took place this Monday in Miami, to discuss the alarming advance of dictatorships in the world and to point out those living in our hemisphere.
Under the theme of “Truth Ignited,” this year’s forum is dedicated to “amplifying the voices of those who speak truth to power and ignite movements that seek justice and defy authoritarian regimes.”
On its first day, the forum featured political leaders and victims of dictatorships in Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Belarus and Iran, and guests from the United States, Norway and other free nations of the world.
Dictatorships in the West: a threat of repression
The founder and president of HRF, Venezuelan Thor Halvorssen, opened the event by referring to the influence that the tyranny of brothers Fidel and Raul Castro has had in Cuba, its repercussions in Venezuela and the threat that both have posed to our hemisphere.
For Halvorssen, Miami is a central city in the discussion about what is happening in “the longest-running totalitarian system in this hemisphere”, in reference to the Cuban dictatorship, and he celebrated that the United States is a country of “life, love and freedom.”
After his opening remarks, Halvorssen introduced Norway’s Foreign Minister, Ine Eriksen Søreide. The European politician addressed the challenge facing the West’s liberal democracies, with the threat growing amid the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Freedom of expression is essential to uncover human right violations and to ensure that other human rights are being respected. Freedom of expression is the foundation on which all other democratic freedoms rest. Sadly, freedom of expression cannot be taken for granted anywhere in the world.”
The diplomat said freedom of expression is “under threat” around the world, and emphasized the need to protect “those who stand up to abuses of power.”
Bastion of freedom
Briefly commenting on the political divide between the mainstream parties were Miami County Mayor Francis Suarez, a Republican of Cuban descent, and Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber, a Democrat.
Suarez recalled his family’s experience with the oppression of the Castro dictatorship in Cuba and pointed to similar experiences such as that of Alexei Navalny in Russia and political persecution in Venezuela.
In July, during the wave of protests in Cuba, Suarez called for a U.S.-led international military intervention to “protect the Cuban people from a bloodbath.”
The Republican mayor said that seeing what is happening in Venezuela and Cuba, he “can’t help” thinking about the opportunities the United States offers. “This country has given us one of our most essential freedoms: the freedom to have a future,” Suarez said.
“The most impactful thing that [those dictatorships] take away is our future. We all believe in this country that tomorrow can be better and that out children can have a better world than the one that we have received, and I think that these dictatorships are robbing millions and millions of people of that very dream” he added.
Gelber, for his part, acknowledged the experience of Miami’s huge migrant community, which has “felt the boot of authoritarianism and tyranny,” and celebrated that the event took place in his town because of the closeness he has with that history. “So many people in our communities come from places where freedom is not even something you can taste,” the mayor commented.
“Even though we are from different parties, we believe that freedom is the essential need of all people,” Gelber said in reference to Suarez.
Iran, the silent threat of the West
Iranian journalist and activist, Masih Alinejad, who has been the victim of terrible persecution by Islamic fundamentalism, said in her participation that the West has a responsibility to defend the human rights of the oppressed citizens of the East.
Alinejad said that while most in the room were celebrating her escape from quarantines and confinement because of the coronavirus, she had spent months escaping “a much deadlier virus called Islamic Republic.”
“I want to tell you who I am,” she explained. “I’m not a criminal, but in the eyes of the Islamic Republic, of course I’m a master criminal. Because, as you here, I have too much voice, I have too much hair, and I am too much of a woman. And I am the biggest enemy of the Islamic Republic, as a woman.”
The journalist said that recently an attempt had been made to kidnap her from her residence in New York and that, according to her police sources, the kidnappers intended to take her to Venezuela and, from there, to hand her over to the Iranian regime.
She also warned that the Islamic threat is not only persecuting and oppressing in the Middle East but is beginning to affect the free nations of the West. Alinejad said that the Iranian regime has kidnapped international tourists to use them as “bargaining chips” with the international community, which, according to her position, is “is desperate to get a deal with such a regime.”
“Don’t think you’re safe,” Alinejad warned the audience present. “Don’t think this is about me, this is happening to all human beings.”
“The Islamic republic is like Coronavirus, Taliban is like coronavirus: they’re not going to stay in the middle east,” the activist sentenced. “If you don’t fight and support your own sisters and brother in the middle east, you have to deal with these dictators, these murderers in Europe, in America. Together, we are stronger.”
Berta Valle, wife of activist, opposition presidential candidate, and Nicaraguan political prisoner, Felix Madariaga, also participated in the forum. She denounced that her husband has been unjustly imprisoned for 118 days by the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega, who has prohibited the independence of political parties and persecutes the opposition.
Madariaga, as denounced by his wife, and other political prisoners, have been physically and mentally tortured. “We fear for their lives,” Valle said, warning that the Ortega dictatorship receives support from the Venezuelan and Russian dictatorships and other “local elites.”
“For many years, Félix has been speaking out in Nicaragua and abroad, denouncing that Ortega posed a severe threat to our democracy, and we have seen him consolidate his power and his abuse of our Human Rights,” Valle said. “Now we are living the nightmare my husband warned about many years ago.”
Valle urged the international community “not to remain silent” in the face of dictatorships like Ortega’s, and asked that political prisoners in her country not be forgotten.
“As Félix says: in order for nonviolence to be successful, we need international solidarity. We need attention from the world. And today, I would like to ask you to engage, to keep the pressure, in the Ortegas regime, to free the political prisoners and restore democracy in Nicaragua.”
During his keynote address, Halvorssen referred to the lesson the world must have learned in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and its effects on the world. He pointed to the abuse of authority in Australia, persecution in Cuba, Venezuela, North Korea and Russia, and warned that it is everyone’s task to fight them.
“If you consider the three things: safety, love, liberty. That’s what we’re trying to promote here, and those are the very first things that every dictatorship wants to make sure their people don’t have. No safety, no love and no liberty,” Halvorssen said.
“We stand against that. Even though it appears very dark, that the world is headed in the wrong direction, we believe that civil society is the answer. That the answer will come from us.”