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Interview with Paul Simon

Paul Simon was the senior U.S. senator from Illinois when he retired from public service in 1997. In June of that year, he served as the special coordinator for the monitoring of the Croatian presidential elections. Like Liberia, Croatia had been devastated by years of civil war, and the '97 elections were the first since peace had been brokered two years earlier. The following month, as a leader of The Carter Center delegation to Liberia, Simon monitored the elections in which Charles Ghankay Taylor was confirmed president.

Filmmaker Nancee Oku Bright interviewed Senator Simon in 1997, shortly after he returned from Liberia.


America's strategic interest in Liberia and the issue of foreign aid

Bright Is it likely we still are of strategic interest to the United States?

Simon The answer is [that] there is no place in the world that doesn't have some interest to the United States. But the ties of Liberia to the United States are the longest of any nation in Africa, so we have a kind of a natural affinity here. Plus, I think it is a special responsibility, just as the French or the British or the Germans or the Portuguese in some countries in Africa feel a sense of special responsibility.

Bright Given that, why do you think the U.S. didn't take a similar stance as it did with Haiti [following the coup in Liberia in 1980 and the assassination of Samuel Doe in 1990]?

Simon We have retreated somewhat in the whole area of foreign economic assistance. It was very interesting: One year ago...the National Basketball Association announced contracts for $927 million; this year, economic assistance for all of sub-Saharan Africa will total $628 million by the United States.

The country that led the world in the Marshall Plan in terms of development of assistance for other countries is now...we're last among the 21 nations in the world. We have retreated, and that's a mistake.

Bright In terms of the United States' involvement in Haiti, where they actually went in with troops, for instance, during ... 1980 and 1990, [during] those two critical periods for Liberia, why do you think that the United States didn't take that sort of role in Liberia? ... I think Liberians had very keen expectations towards the United States. Why do you think that their expectations were not met?

Simon I think there has been a diminishing interest in other countries, and Africa suffers, and Liberia suffers, as a result of that.

Tom Friedman wrote in the New York Times [that] France acts like a great power, but doesn't have the resources; the United States has the resources, but does not act like a great power. I regret to say there is some truth to that. I think we need to focus more attention particularly on Africa and its needs. It's the poorest continent in the world, and here in Liberia, where you had an election that any state in the United States could be very proud of -- all of us were very impressed by what took place here in this free election -- we ought to be helping this fledgling democracy.

The elections of 1997

Bright Why did you feel compelled to come [be an observer for] the elections?

Simon I was invited to come, and I have had a real interest in Africa. I've been to Liberia on two previous occasions and [had] met with the various factional leaders here, had urged them to come together. And now you have this coming together that in some ways is unprecedented in that all sides laid down arms and agreed that they would have an election and campaign freely throughout the country. Candidates have [had] that ability. There are transportation problems in Liberia that have nothing to do with candidacies, but the people of Liberia handled this in a very mature way.

You were here and saw those people standing in lines. They started standing in line at 1:30, 2:00 in the morning to vote, very orderly. And then as we stayed in -- my wife and I were in four precincts as they counted the votes -- they took it very seriously. The whole process was one that I think the people of Liberia can be very proud of.

Future U.S.-Liberian relations

Bright What do you think will be the future of U.S.-Liberia relations?

Simon I think they will be very good. I think the future of U.S.-Liberian relations will be good. The more fundamental question is, will democracy succeed, and will these people who have been so devastated by this civil war -- 150,000 to 200,000 people were killed here -- can they emerge? They have the will to do it. They need a little assistance. Will we provide that assistance, and will the new government move ahead on problems ranging... Everything needs to be improved.

And the expectations on the part of the people are probably too high. You cannot do [it] overnight, but we ought to be helping the government here so there is some visible improvement anyway, before too long.

Prospects for Liberia's future

Bright Are you optimistic about Liberia's future?

Simon I am basically optimistic about Liberia, as I'm basically optimistic about the future of Africa. One of the little-known stories of Africa is the spread of democracies in Africa. Most Americans don't realize that. We hear about Africa usually when there are disasters in Rwanda or Zaire or wherever it is. We need to hear more of the success stories. And the election that has taken place here in Liberia is a success story.

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