Santana: Respect For Human Rights is a Local Story

Photo by Norberto Santana Jr.

I’ll stand with Janet Nguyen on this one.

I was horrified when I saw a recent video of Nguyen, a California State Senator from Orange County, being dragged out of the Senate chambers simply because she appeared to be offering a dissenting view, at an inconvenient time, to a recent memorial service for anti-Vietnam War activist and former Senator Tom Hayden.

It’s easy to understand that Nguyen – herself a Vietnamese refugee – delivered a very different perspective on Hayden’s anti-war activism, one that obviously struck a nerve amongst the ruling Democrat majority in Sacramento.

But how do you call for a colleague’s removal simply because they are speaking out of turn?

I’ve never seen that yet and I’ve been covering legislative proceedings for most my adult life, including stints covering the U.S. Congress, the territorial Senate in the U.S. Virgin Islands and local governments across Southern California.

Nguyen is drawing solid support from the Republican Party with a significant boost at this past month’s GOP state convention and a rally here in Orange County this past weekend where Vietnamese American community leaders called on Senate leaders to issue an apology.

They should.

As we head into Sunshine Week (March 12-18), celebrating freedom of expression and access to open government, we need to remember that accommodating dissenting voices is what makes our national experiment not only unique but possible.

As a reminder, the Voice of OC lawsuit against the County of Orange – contesting the county position that emails between county supervisors and county staff are secret – goes to trial next week on March 14.

Now to be clear, Nguyen had every right to offer her perspective on a public memorial involving Senator Hayden, even if it was uncomfortable for some.

Perhaps she should have offered it the very day Hayden was memorialized instead of waiting to a later date, where her dissenting view was ultimately shut down.

Too often, our system seems adept at avoiding uncomfortable discussions.

I still give Nguyen credit for speaking up for her community.

As a Cuban American, I feel kinship with Vietnamese American community leaders because I have somewhat of an understanding of what life under communism is like as well as its systemic violation of human rights.

I also understand what it feels like to watch political and business interests underplay the horror of such regimes.

Yet I also understand what it feels like to see a politician play to the crowd, with late gestures.

It reminds me of watching Nguyen as a newly-elected county supervisor running alongside the highway offering protestors water in front of the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort and Spa in Dana Point back in 2007 when Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet visited.

She could have potentially stopped the visit.

Yet Nguyen never questioned anything about county resources that went into preparing the visit or the Sheriff’s Deputies who were paid for with local tax dollars to protect the regime’s president from the very refugees who fled their terror.

The visit was seemingly negotiated through a shadowy non-profit group, called the Protocol Foundation operating here in Orange County that works with the State Department and the County of Orange to enable local visits but offers little information about who is visiting, especially not before the visits.

I’ve looked into the group before and found a few records, listing a host of official visits to the County of Orange from places like China, visits that are never publicized.

Nguyen, nor her successor Supervisor Andrew Do, have ever asked for one public report about the Protocol Foundation or any update about what specifically Chinese officials are doing in local government buildings.

For the record, we received a request from one Chinese delegation to visit the Voice of OC several years ago to hear about our “anti-corruption” efforts as investigative reporters.

As journalists, we believe in engagement, and we gladly hosted the delegation in our lobby and gave an update about how most public officials in our system are required to submit conflict-of-interest forms that allow reporters to question whether they profit from official decisions.

We detailed how we use those statements – in California they are called a Form 700 – to expose conflicts involving public business.

We also asked the delegation to tell us about Chinese approaches to transparency as well as human rights and didn’t get much of a response.

In fact, we never heard from the delegation again.

I’m still curious about how these secret visits to the County of Orange are handled.

Yet unfortunately officials like Nguyen or Do, who are often active on issues involving closed regimes like the Vietnamese government, have never expressed public interest. No other Orange County supervisor has ever expressed an interest in the Protocol Foundation either.

Now, while I support the concept of engagement, even with closed regimes that generate significant communities of political refugees in the United States, it should always be a double-edged sword.

Sure, regimes like the Vietnamese or Chinese or Cubans get American dollars and visits from activists like Tom Hayden.

In exchange, there’s supposed to be increasing respect for basic human rights.

Yet watching Nguyen get dragged out of a California Senate chamber is a stark reminder that too often, after the trade deals are done and history has been rewritten, our ideals take a quiet back seat to profit.

Even in our own house.