As we enter our own election season, protests erupting across closed places like Iran and Cuba stand as a stark reminder to all free people about what happens when freedom is lost.

It should prompt hard questions for those who want to be our elected leaders.

Will they be leaders on issues of human rights?

In recent days, it has been inspiring to see how many protests sprung up in local places like Irvine to stand alongside the brave women and men in Iran – sending a powerful message to thug regimes across the globe that free people won’t stand in silence and watch repression of fundamental human rights.

Much less do business with these kinds of regimes, turning a blind eye to the brave people who stand up against these kinds of thugs.

[Read: So Cal Rallies in Irvine To Protest Iranian Repression]

All this has left me thinking about our upcoming voter guide and the important questions that we put to the community leaders vying to become elected leaders in November.

Human rights.

It’s something that every voter should ask of their local elected leaders and candidates: 

Their world view.

Who will you stand up to?

What will you stand up for?

It prompted us to add three important questions to the Voice of OC election survey, which will be put to every candidate vying for seats in Congress, the State Legislature and County Supervisors. 

  1. Do you support doing business with regimes who have questionable human rights records, such as Cuba, Iran and Russia?
  2. Do you agree with the standing ovation given to the Cuban government by the California State Senate earlier this year? During such official recognitions, do you believe it’s important to hear from opposing views when there are human rights concerns about those regimes?
  3. Should visits by international delegations to government offices in the U.S. – such as the county or state or Congress – be tied to human rights and be fully disclosed before the visits?

More and more, with the war in Ukraine we are seeing the renewal of an age-old struggle, one pitting individual freedom, democracy and the rule of law, against autocracy and centralization of power in the hands of a repressive elite. 

Today, states like Russia, Cuba and Iran are at the forefront of a worldview that looks to systematically repress freedom of expression, with tools like a restricted Internet.

Alongside them are places like China, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam – countries with poor human rights track records that enjoy trade relations with the U.S. 

In stark contrast stands a pretty united and powerful Western, voluntary alliance – possibly the biggest and strongest in history.

Yet many of our elected leaders approach thug regimes as inherently powerful. And no matter how often their citizens stand up and hit the streets, it seems the international world continues to do business with such dark places, expecting good outcomes.

I think that’s wrong.

[Read: Santana: The Voices of Iranian Women Keep Resonating at Protests in OC and Across The Globe]

I understand others may differ.

That’s why we have things called media, debates and elections.

And that’s why I thought it important to test the concept that we are all international actors.

Indeed, the State of California – and Orange County – are among the world’s largest economies and governments.

We all carry a loud voice.

That is, when we choose to use it – as we all did so effectively in the case of South African apartheid. 

We should know who stands on the side of isolating lawless regimes and those who believe that economic engagement is best to improve human rights and other conditions abroad.

I am still reminded of the sad precedent established by California’s State Senate earlier this year, offering a standing ovation to the Cuban government recently despite having so many young Cubans jailed for having the bravery to step outside last July and demand freedom.

[Read: Santana: CA State Senators Applaud Cuban Regime as Biden Blocks Diplomats From Americas Summit]

It’s the same thing the Iranians and Cubans are doing today.

How many times do they have to hit the streets to send a clear message to the world? 

How many more will be brutalized or killed by the authoritarian regimes while trying to get their message out? 

In the coming days, a host of secret police forces will visit these young people protesting in places like Iran and Cuba.

In their cells, their guards and interrogators will show them tapes of standing ovations offered internationally – in places like the CA State Senate–- in order to break their spirit. 

To make them feel little, ignored.

To make them give up.

Photos and messages of support, like the ones visible on the streets of Irvine this past week, send a very different message.

Stay strong.

We are with. you. 

It’s the kind of moral force, along with a shit ton of ammunition and intel, that’s helped Ukrainians keep themselves free all these months. 

After the welcome given to the Cuban government in our state Senate, I was alerted to the one-sided nature of the welcome and wrote to alert civic leaders. 

In many months, nothing has changed.

Cuban dissidents haven’t gotten an invitation to present a different view to the state capitol.

Reportedly, elected leaders – both Democrats and Republicans – are too fearful to be seen as standing in opposition to the Senate Pro Tem leader, Toni Atkins, who partnered with Northern California labor leaders to offer the Cuban government a one-sided platform and a standing ovation from the State Senate.

A communist regime that systematically violates human rights, allows no opposition political parties and is allied with closed regimes like Iran and Russia got a chance to chum it up with California Senators.

But the brave local democracy activists on the ground in Cuba – being harassed on a daily basis – get a cold shoulder. 

These are the kinds of directions that the international exchange programs run by the CA Legislature – mirrored in part by local counties that have their own protocol foundations – can take if free people don’t keep watch. 

These government agencies and protocol groups oftentimes, in the name of business relations, offer warm welcomes to nasty folk. 

In private. 

It’s something many of these elected leaders won’t speak to. 

In addition to keeping watch on the answers to these human rights questions – along with quiet receptions in powerful places – every free citizen should take time to study human rights reports on countries from around the globe. 

Groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department Human Rights Report or the U.N. Annual Report on Human Rights offer an unsanitized view of the many counties that produce the t-shirt you’re wearing. 

We all have a responsibility to ensure those workers, activists and residents living under closed regimes have a chance at freedom.

If not, our own freedom is at risk. 

Times like these offer a reminder of the powerful statement made by the German pastor, Martin Neimöller, who stood against Adolf Hitler and the Nazis – whose words today are at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.

“First they came for the Communists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Communist

Then they came for the Socialists

And I did not speak out 

Because I was not a Socialist

Then they came for the trade unionists

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a trade unionist

Then they came for the Jews

And I did not speak out

Because I was not a Jew

Then they came for me

And there was no one left

To speak out for me.”

•••

Start each day informed with our free email newsletter. Be alerted when news breaks with our free text messages.

And since you’ve made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Since you've made it this far,

You are obviously connected to your community and value good journalism. As an independent and local nonprofit, our news is accessible to all, regardless of what they can afford. Our newsroom centers on Orange County’s civic and cultural life, not ad-driven clickbait. Our reporters hold powerful interests accountable to protect your quality of life. But it’s not free to produce. It depends on donors like you.

Join the conversation: In lieu of comments, we encourage readers to engage with us across a variety of mediums. Join our Facebook discussion. Message us via our website or staff page. Send us a secure tip. Share your thoughts in a community opinion piece.