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Rubio Speaks at John S. McCain Freedom Award Celebration

May 16, 2024 | Press Releases

U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) spoke about worldwide threats to religious freedom at the International Republican Institute (IRI) John S. McCain Freedom Award Celebration. Senator Rubio presented this year’s award to Bishop Rolando Álvarez, a prominent victim of the Nicaraguan regime’s anti-Catholic persecution, in absentia. 

  • “Not only we, but our children, our grandchildren, and every generation that will follow us will have to confront totalitarianism. It is embedded in the DNA of humanity. Only a commitment to freedom and democracy can guarantee that it doesn’t return as a scourge on the Earth.” – Senator Rubio

Watch the video here or read a transcript below:

We throw around “political courage” and terms like that loosely these days in politics. But this [Bishop Álvarez’s stand for freedom in Nicaragua] is true political courage, the willingness to risk your freedom, your life, your safety, that of those you love, to speak for a very fundamental truth. 

The right to live and be free is a basic elemental right. It’s the one upon which our republic was founded. It was a revolutionary idea, this notion that God has given us rights, and chief among those rights are the rights to life, to liberty, and to pursue happiness. We read those words today and take them for granted…. 200 and some years ago, this was a foreign concept. No society had ever organized itself around these notions. Some people had written about it. Locke and others had talked about it. But no one actually tried to live it. 

In fact, if you look at the history of mankind, about 5,500 years of recorded human history, with the exception of a brief period of time in Greece, no society was free or democratic. Virtually every human being that ever lived up until about 200 years ago had no choice in who their leaders were. Their leader was the person who won the last war. Their leader was the person who had the power to conquer your village and to force you into slavery and servitude. That was your leader. You didn’t get to vote for him. You didn’t get to complain about him. You could, I suppose, but you wouldn’t live long. That was the condition of man for 5,500 years, up until about 200 years ago, with the founding of this country on that very powerful principle. 

Ironically, people like to point to our history and say, we never really fully lived up to it. We continue to not fully live up to the promise of our founding. But what I am most proud about this country is that each generation has brought us closer to fulfilling it, and we have come closer than any people at any other time in the history of the world.

But we are constantly reminded — in Nicaragua, in Cuba, in Venezuela, in Russia, in North Korea, in Iran, in much of the Middle East, to be frank, and in many other parts of the world, including on the continent of Africa — that while liberty is a natural right, it is not natural. One of the most basic instincts of those who acquire power anywhere in the world has been oppression, has been to force people to agree with you, has been to force people to fall in line with what it is you tell them they need to do. 

It is this endeavor [to chart a new course] that the United States has been an example of. But other nations now have been a key part of it, and it’s one of the great stories, not just of the aftermath of the Second World War, but through the period of the Cold War, in which democracy spread and, at the end of the Cold War, spread around the world. 

But it’s important to always remember that elections and democracy are not entirely the same thing. Elections and democracy and freedom are not always the same thing. You can have elections and not be a free society, especially if the media is controlled by one party, if candidates are oppressed, and if no one can run against you. Look at Venezuela. They’re going to have an election in a few weeks…, but they’ll cheat and steal the election…. Every one of the leading contenders has been put in jail or barred from the ballot. They’re having an election, but that’s not a democracy, and it most certainly is not freedom. The elections in Russia aren’t necessarily free. People say, Putin is very popular in Russia. I’d be very popular in America if I controlled all the media. Think about that. 

The reason why I point that out is, look at the problems in the world today. What is behind all these problems? If you go to the Middle East, it’s Iran and radical jihadists. If you go to Europe, it’s Putin and Russia. If you go to the Indo-Pacific, it’s China and then North Korea. In the Western Hemisphere, look at the sources of mass migration. It’s Venezuela. It’s Nicaragua. It’s Cuba. It’s Bolivia. It’s places that are overrun by drug cartels and narco traffickers and narco terrorists. What do all these have in common? What do narco-terrorists and Kim Jong-un and Fidel Castro and Maduro and the Ortega lunatics and Putin and Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party and the regime in Tehran and the radical jihadists and ISIS and al-Qaeda and all the others have in common? 

These are not democrats. These are not people that believe in liberty. These are not people that believe in the dignity of the human being and the dignity of the individual. [These are not people who believe in] the right not just to be free, but to have the freedom and the liberty to fully live up to your potential, to become what you were created to be by God and to serve the common good, to have the liberty to do what is right. 

Freedom is not the freedom to do whatever you want. It is the freedom to be who you were created to be and do what is right. All the problems of the world find their genesis at their core in totalitarian, oppressive movements or regimes. As much as we wanted to believe that history had ended in 1991 with the end of the Cold War, human nature has not changed. Human nature is the same today as it was 5,500 years ago, and it tends towards tyranny and towards oppression. We are seeing it re-emerge now. 

The challenges to freedom and democracy all over the world are embedded in this new coalition of governments, of China and Russia and North Korea and Iran, who are not in a formal alliance like NATO, but are increasingly cooperating. They argue that they want to have an alternative to the Western-dominated world, and they argue that they want to have an alternative to the U.S.-led international order. But at their core, what they are arguing is that totalitarianism doesn’t promise freedom, but it promises order. It promises stability. 

They point to our society and say, look at them. They’re fighting against each other. Their college kids take over their campuses and riot. You’ve got one presidential candidate standing trial, and the other guy, they want to put his son in jail. They’re at each other. They hate each other. They can’t even pass budget bills. Democracy is messy. It doesn’t work. Freedom doesn’t work. Here’s what works. What works is the order that we can provide. But you have to give up your freedom. That’s always the problem of totalitarians. The promise they always offer is, we will provide order and stability, but the price is your freedom. 

That movement is resurgent in the world. Frankly, for a world emerging from Covid-19 and all the disruptions of globalization, to some people, it’s increasingly appealing…. But it never works out. There is not a single example of long-term totalitarianism that has worked out. In fact, totalitarianism always leads to the same thing: poverty and exile, in which your best and your brightest and your biggest dreamers — the people with the biggest hopes, the ones with the most to contribute — are forced to leave the country of their birth. 

In the case of Nicaragua and the bishop we honored tonight, these aren’t just people standing up for freedom [as we understand it]. In America, if you stand up against somebody condemning you, every case is different, but generally what ends up happening is, people say really nasty things about you on social media. Maybe some friends will no longer talk to you because you didn’t vote the way they wanted you in the last election, and life goes on. In many parts of this world, the price for speaking up is your life. It’s your freedom. It’s suffering. It’s exile. It’s the people you love being targeted as well. So, it takes extraordinary, not just political courage, but courage to speak clearly and so valiantly, and to continue to do so in the face of the suppression.

Nicaragua’s [case is] particularly lamentable, because it doesn’t get much attention. It doesn’t have oil. It doesn’t have an economy that weighs on the world. So, it’s largely ignored. It’s not ignored by those of us who work on the issue, but it’s largely ignored. But…it’s a source of great instability [nevertheless]. If the Ortega regime had its way, the Russians would have a base in Nicaragua. The Chinese would too. 

By the way, if you pay them a thousand bucks, you can fly there from anywhere on this planet and within a few weeks, if not days, be able to transit into the United States illegally. They have opened their doors and welcomed people as a portal into our country. It’s a great source of instability. 

In the case of Cuba, [there have been] 70 years now of suffering on an enslaved island. Just in the last five years, three percent of [Cuba’s] population has left. In the case of Venezuela, eight million people have left that country in a decade. In place after place, these are the consequences of tyranny…. 

It’s critical that we continue to line up behind [those who stand up for freedom], that we continue to speak on their behalf. Freedom is not some quaint old idea whose time has come and gone. It is as important today as it’s ever been, and the threats to it are as elevated as they have been since 1991 or 1989. 

It’s amazing to believe that just three decades ago, as I graduated high school, the Berlin Wall came down. [It looked like,] never again will there be Marxism. Never again will there be tyranny. The whole world will now be free. They got a taste of freedom, and they’re never going to go back. But we forgot that human nature doesn’t change. So, not only we, but our children, our grandchildren, and every generation that will follow us will also have to confront totalitarianism. Sadly, it is embedded in the DNA of humanity. It is embedded in the DNA of those who take power. Only a commitment to freedom and democracy and liberty and systems that protect it can guarantee that it doesn’t return as a scourge on the Earth. 

It’s also incumbent upon us who live and function and work in democratic societies to prove that, yes, republics and democracies are messy — yes, our debates are vibrant and heated… — but we solve real problems, and ultimately, we make real progress. The United States has progressed, and we should never shy away from telling that story. 

We should never shy away from telling the story that all of the great movements in American history — women’s suffrage, the end of slavery, the end of segregation — every single one of them was an appeal to our founding principles, not a rejection of them. These were not people saying, overthrow the Constitution, ignore the Declaration of Independence, walk away from all the things we were founded on, and let’s embrace something new and different. Every one of them demanded that we live up to the principles of our founding. That’s how powerful that idea is, and that example is critical. 

Nations around the world need to see that freedom and democracy are not just something to aspire to as an ideal, but as a practical matter. It works, and it works better than totalitarianism. It takes longer. It’s harder. It requires you to listen to people you don’t agree with. It requires you to work with people you think may be crazy…. But the alternative is that a small group of people get to decide what happens, and we have no voice or role in it…. 

I have grown up virtually my entire life surrounded by people who lost a nation of their birth. Obviously Cuban exiles, but not just Cubans: Nicaraguans, Venezuelans, even Colombians who had to leave their home because their country was being overrun by dangerous narco-terrorists, that at one point threatened the very stability and existence of the country and its government. Sadly, there has been a wave of Venezuelans that have experienced the same. 

When you talk to people, whether it’s the Cubans that lived there in the 1950s, or the Nicaraguans that lived there in the late 1970s, or those who have had to flee Venezuela more recently, every single one of them says, in some form or fashion, the same thing: I never could have imagined that this could have happened. I never imagined it could happen. No Venezuelan 15 years ago believed that it was possible that their country would turn into a narco-Marxist state. No Cuban [believed totalitarianism would take form] in 1956. They may not have been a fan of Batista, but they never thought Cuba would become some Marxist puppet of the Soviet Union. No one living in Nicaragua in the late 1970s thought it was possible that some group of Sandinistas would take power and turn it into a satellite of Cuba. But it happened.

It happened because the -ism is relentless. Its desire to dominate never ends. The voices that speak out against it must constantly continue to speak out against it in every form or fashion, or it will continue to spread. It’s sometimes hiding behind some interpretation of Islam, sometimes hiding behind an individual like Kim Jong-un, who has to figure out how to remain a dictator for the next 40 years. Sometimes it hides behind the ideology of the Communist Party of China, sometimes behind the personal, singular ambitions of one individual, Vladimir Putin, who wants to be a czar. But it continues to spread, and it never stops. It is insatiable. It can never be negotiated with. It can never be accommodated. It will never settle for true peace or coexistence. 

October 7th reminds us of that. These people are never going to be satisfied, any group of people that’s willing to maim and murder innocents, kidnap and rape, take back people into these tunnels. Totalitarianism is insatiable, and so must the freedom fighter be….

I think the Church has always had a special role to play. It most certainly did in Poland. One of the things that I think we risk, those of us who believe in freedom and democracy and are involved in government, is that we end up worshiping government. Government is a tool. Ultimately, power is not the goal. The goal is to promote the common good based on the belief that every human being has basic dignity and certain inalienable rights that come from their Creator. The church is deeply rooted in that belief…. The Solidarity Movement probably would not have survived without the support of Pope John Paul II and the influence of the Church in Poland. It’s great and important to see that the Church has played such a valiant role in the struggles going on inside of Nicaragua. 

There’s a reason why when Fidel took over [Cuba], he ran out the Catholic Church…and declared an atheist state. There’s a reason why Ortega and Murillo have declared war on the Church. Above all else, totalitarians want you to worship the state. They want you to worship the party. They want you to worship the ideology. They cannot allow either family or God to come before the state. They cannot allow there to be any higher moral authority. They must be the absolute and final word on everything. And they cannot be challenged, particularly by a belief in God and our rights that are inherent in our creation. That’s why the Church has an important role to play.

The concept of liberty is not a [fundamentally] political concept. It is a spiritual one. Christ came to free us from sin, and the Church here on Earth is his representative, not just to help provide us the tools to follow Christ, but also to free us from tyranny and from the denial of our basic rights that are given to us by our Creator….

Thank you all for everything you do. And thank you to Dan Sullivan, who’s a great activist on behalf of this organization, particularly in the work he does in the Indo-Pacific, where religious liberty and freedom are challenged every single day. God bless all of you. Thank you for the chance to speak to you.