Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation: Keeping the Flame of Liberty Alive

“How do I describe Fidel Castro?” muses Maximo Alvarez in his powerful interview with The Witness Project, a podcast by Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC). “The guy was brilliant, but he had to be possessed. … He influenced so many people with that ingrained hatred.” 

In the early years of Communist dictator Fidel Castro’s regime, Alvarez, along with thousands of other unaccompanied children, escaped from Cuba to America with the help of the secretive Pedro Pan Operation. Alvarez’s powerful story is just one of the many VOC elevates. VOC’s mission is to educate future generations about the ideology, history and legacy of communism and to advocate for the freedom of those still held captive by communist regimes. 

Philanthropy Roundtable recently sat down with Ambassador Andrew Bremberg, president of VOC, to discuss his organization’s mission through its many educational resources. These include the new Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C., established to teach the truth, seek justice, remember the victims of communism and remind the world why American freedom is worth protecting. 

“It’s called the American dream because it happens in America, it’s the only country in the world where you can be free,” said Alvarez in closing. “Not only do you come to a country (where) you can achieve your God-given potential, but you also have the generosity of everyone in this country to reach that potential. That’s the American dream. That’s why we need to protect it.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: How was Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation started, and what is your mission? 

Bremberg: VOC exists to preserve the memory of communist destruction and oppose its expansion in the world today. This year marks our 30th anniversary, as VOC was authorized in 1993 by a unanimous Act of Congress signed by President Clinton, and we were incorporated in August 1994.  

However, the idea for building the Foundation started a few years prior in 1990 when Lee Edwards and his family resolved that an organization was needed to memorialize all the victims of communism around the world and to educate Americans. Dr. Edwards and Dr. Lev Dobriansky co-founded the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, and their first project was to erect the Victims of Communism Memorial, the world’s first memorial dedicated to every victim of communism. The Memorial is a replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue constructed by peaceful pro-democracy student protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It stands in sight of the U.S. Capitol and was dedicated by President George W. Bush on June 12, 2007, the 20th anniversary of President Reagan’s declaration to Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” 

On June 8, 2022, VOC opened the doors to the Victims of Communism Museum, located two blocks from the White House, for Americans and foreign visitors alike to be reminded of those who have been lost to this ideology and the 1.5 billion people—one-fifth of the world’s population—who still suffer under communist regimes today.   

Q: According to your fifth Annual Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism, Communism and Collectivism, more Americans have a favorable view of socialism and younger generations believe communism is a fairer system than capitalism.  

What factors do you believe contribute to this rise in favorability of socialism and communism particularly among young Americans?  

Bremberg: As our surveys consistently demonstrate, most young Americans do not know the basic facts about communism, a failure of education that is fueling the popularity of socialism and threatens the future of free society. The primary factor contributing to this rise is ignorance. Most students in the U.S. are not learning about communism, and we can’t blame the students for this massive failure to properly educate them about the destruction that caused it.  

To combat this gap in our education system, VOC provides professional development training to teachers around the country. We have a digital curriculum that is a free resource for teachers. We host in-person seminars in Washington, D.C., and in cities around the country, while also making this program available online. These tools are highly valuable to teachers, who, because they know and are trusted by their students, are best placed to reach them with the truth. 

Additionally, in 2022, VOC began partnering with state departments of education to formally build the VOC curriculum into public school classrooms. Currently, Florida and Arizona have adopted a requirement to educate about the history and horrors of communism, and several other states are in the process. 

Q: Currently, over one billion people are living under tyrannical communist regimes in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea and Vietnam. How is communism impacting people around the world today, including the Uyghurs in communist China? How does VOC work to expose these human rights violations? 

Bremberg: We believe part of exposing communism is continuing to research what is happening around the world today and increasing our understanding of violent communist regimes throughout history. VOC maintains a deep bench of affiliated scholars who produce leading research. 

Our China Studies Program, led by renowned China scholar Dr. Adrian Zenz, brings the truth about the brutality of the Chinese regime to hundreds of millions of people in dozens of languages. 

Since 2015, our China Studies program has become one of the world’s foremost authorities promoting a fact-based narrative about the Chinese Communist Party, exposing its human rights atrocities and countering its propaganda and global efforts to undermine freedom and the rule of law. VOC’s research has been cited in nearly every prominent news outlet around the world and our fellows are regularly called to testify in congressional committees. Our work has led to direct policy impact including the U.S. government’s Xinjiang genocide determination and its ban on Xinjiang products due to forced labor. 

One of our largest reports to date has been the release of the Xinjiang Police Files. On May 24, 2022, we broke the Xinjiang Police Files global news story demonstrating the prison-like nature of Beijing’s re-education campaign, based on a cache of files hacked from Xinjiang police computers and passed to VOC by an anonymous third party, including nearly 3,000 images from inside the camps and evidence of instructions for police to “shoot” escaping detainees.  

Our research on the Files was published with 14 media outlets including the BBC, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and El Pais; made prime-time news in U.K., Germany and Japan; prompted condemnatory statements by six governments and a European Parliament resolution affirming a “high risk of genocide” in Xinjiang and was cited 15 times in the UN report on Xinjiang published in August 2022. 

Q: What are some of your education initiatives that teach the ideology, history and deadly legacy of communism, and advocate for the freedom of those still living in repressive communist regimes? 

Bremberg: In addition to our student curriculum and teacher trainings I mentioned before, one of our most impactful educational initiatives is our Witness Project. We tell the firsthand stories of victims of communism in compelling mini-documentary films and podcast episodes. From the Killing Fields of Cambodia to the labor camps of the Soviet Union and the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, the Witness Project brings the tragedies of victims of communism to life, putting a face—a real person—into the story of communist destruction. 

To date, our Witness Project episodes have featured the stories of witnesses from Albania, Cambodia, China, Cuba, East Germany, Hungary, North Korea, Poland, Romania and Venezuela, showing how communism not only impacted millions of people in former communist countries, but continues to impact more than 1.5 billion around the world today. 

Q: In 2022, you opened the Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C., to commemorate more than 100 million victims of communism around the world. How did philanthropy play a role in this vision and the impact it’s making? 

Bremberg: The generosity of private donors, along with support from several former communist countries—Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia—was vitally important in allowing the Victims of Communism Museum to open its doors. Support from donors today is equally as important in allowing the museum to continue to operate. 

There are also many ethnic communities who are committed to seeing their stories presented to Americans who lack the lived experience and knowledge about how communism has affected the citizens of dozens of countries around the globe. 

Since the Museum’s grand opening, we have educated thousands of visitors through three permanent galleries, seven temporary exhibits and an educational center. The museum has been visited by teachers, dissidents, victims and diplomats, and we have hosted 42 school groups for a museum tour followed by a presentation and Q&A session with an expert/witness of communism. We host frequent events which draw a variety of audiences given the unique and informative topics of focus for each event, covering countries affected by communist regimes both past and present. 

This impact is made possible by our committed donors and partners who are as passionate about seeing the museum thrive as our staff and trustees. We truly value the generosity of each supporter. 

Q: As a nonprofit based on an appreciation of liberty, why do you believe in protecting the freedom to give, or the freedom of all Americans to support the charities and nonprofits they believe in?  

Bremberg: The freedom to give is at the core of our nation’s founding. We were founded based on the importance of private property. The first thing a communist regime does is abolish the right to private property. The regime does so because they want to control how all property is used, so they can have ultimate power over individual’s lives. By respecting one’s private property, we keep citizens free as both individuals and in their communities to decide how their property should be used, whether that is in business or in supporting nonprofits, religious entities or civic organizations. 

Q: VOC has many victims raising their collective voice against communist dictatorships because they now have the freedom to do so in America. Why is the ability of nonprofits like VOC who unite groups of people essential to counterweight government overreach? 

Bremberg: Change is so much more likely when people come together in community rather than attempting to conquer something on their own. It is important for us to collaborate in business and in civic society to accomplish shared goals. This is why nonprofits like VOC are crucial in bringing voices together. At VOC, for example, we are helping victims highlight their lived experiences which serves as an incredible and powerful warning to Americans about the real dangers of communism. 

Q: How do communist dictatorships use their power to isolate their victims and use that to strike fear in the right to associate?  

Bremberg: Communist dictatorships create a culture where the state controls all aspects of life through your relationships. Ethnic ties, religious ties, family ties, etc. are all broken down by the state so that the only relationship that exists is between the state and the individual. Communist regimes purposefully turn people on one another to break down the opportunity for community. Neighbors are made to report on neighbors, and children on parents, so one never knows who can be trusted. By isolating people in this way communist dictatorships create a culture of fear that allows them power over the individual. 

This is why for so many countries where communism has successfully been conquered, it was done by community-based resistance movements. Because when individuals living under a communist dictatorship decide to challenge the culture of fear, and do so as a community, in many instances it successfully breaks the regime because resistance is stronger together than separately. 

Q: We believe the freedom to give anonymously is a constitutional right. Why is it important for your donors to be able to give to you and other causes they believe in anonymously? 

Bremberg: China’s communist regime grows more alarming by the day. Xi Jinping has removed term limits and consolidated near-absolute power. He has doubled down on his oppression campaigns against Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities through human rights atrocities like mass internment, forced labor, forced sterilization and forced organ harvesting. 

Chairman Xi’s treatment of his own people and China’s relentless propaganda machine is a present-day demonstration of the brutal, manipulative nature of communism and the threats it poses to a free world. 

Unfortunately, so many Americans, U.S. businesses and other foreign countries have economic ties with China and could come under pressure or persecution for supporting the important work of educating Americans about the dangers of communism today. People don’t want their business interests being retaliated against by the CCP, which is why it is very important for donors to be able to give to causes they believe in, especially one like ours, anonymously. 

Q: Favorability toward communism is at an all-time high in America. What is at stake for America if communism’s popularity continues to increase, and how can we instill a love for liberty in future generations?  

Bremberg: Communism is the greatest threat to freedom in the world today. There has never been a more critical moment for the future of our nation than right now. “A nation,” as Thomas Jefferson wrote, “cannot be both ignorant and free.” Our ignorance of communism threatens freedom at home and abroad. 

I think we best instill a love for liberty by educating future generations about the sacrifices of former generations, so they appreciate the freedom made possible in America. This goes hand-in-hand with educating people about the destruction caused by communist regimes, past and present, because nobody is free under communism.  

When I speak with student groups who visit our museum, I always explain to them that our system of government may not be perfect here in the U.S.—as there is no “perfect” system of government—but it is far better than that of any communist or socialist government. I always say to look to the country where the most refugees are fleeing to, and look at the countries from which people are trying to escape. That says a lot. 

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