Dutchess man heading to Iraq to promote democracy, trade

By PATRICIA DOXSEY , Freeman staff 06/13/2004

When the time comes to shape a free and democratic government in Iraq, a Dutchess County resident who has been working since the early 1990s to bring democracy to former totalitarian countries is likely to have a hand in the effort.

Pleasant Valley resident Daniel Odescalchi expects to be one of the players involved in shaping the new Iraq, helping the parties that are most receptive to real free markets and real democracy win elected office.

THE ARLINGTON High School graduate, who holds an associate's degree in liberal arts from Dutchess Community College, was scheduled to begin his work in Iraq as part of a project sponsored by the Center for International Private Enterprise, and funded by National Endowment for Democracy, on March 20, but the capture of America hostages just days before he to leave put those plans on hold and he now awaits word on when that that trip will occur.

In the meantime, Odescalchi is working with the ambassador and special presidential envoy at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, to help emerging democratic leaders in that country understand the pitfalls that countries and governments encounter when transitioning from dictatorships to democracy.

IT IS a role to which Odescalchi, president of the Pleasant Valley-based Strategic Advantage International, and for nearly three decades a major player in the domestic political scene, is not unaccustomed.

At home, Odescalchi, who also is the spokesman for St. Lawrence Cement, has worked on election campaigns at nearly every level of government.

In fact, it was while he was working in Washington, D.C., for former U.S. Rep. Hamilton Fish that the 42-year old Republican first found his interest piqued by the international political scene.

"Everyone remembers watching the Berlin Wall fall," Odescalchi said during a recent interview. "It just seemed a heck of a lot more exciting (than domestic politics). Behind the Iron Curtain was really where the world was transforming at the time. It just kind of sucked me in. I wanted to be a part of that.

"I was kind of drawn into what was going on over there," he said. "You really felt like you could really do some good ... take humanity forward a step."

ODESCALCHI was able to tap into his Washington connections to approach the embassies and make connections with those groups working to bring democracy to countries once part of the former Soviet Bloc in Eastern Europe.

His first foray into the international political scene was in Hungary, following the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He has also brought his skills, through his work with the U.S. Information Service, to bear in Bosnia, Poland, East Germany, Romania and Slovakia.

FOR ODESCALCHI, his work has shone a light on the way democracy is perceived in nations that never have known the form of government under which most in the United States have always lived.

"In Hungary, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, if you would have run a donkey for office and painted 'democracy' on one side and 'freedom' on the other, it would have been elected prime minister," Odescalchi said.

But, he said, few understood the ramifications associated with a democratic government and many feared what they saw.

"What we saw repeatedly, when countries moved from dictatorial or totalitarian systems to a democracy, was although they all wanted democracy, the first thing they realized is that democracy is chaos, and that's the way they interpret it.

"To us, we see a healthy exchange of ideas, what these post-Communist voters saw was chaos, a government falling apart."

ANOTHER problem Odescalchi said he encountered in working to win electoral victories for democratic-minded candidates is that those candidates had no real-life experience with democracy.

"The very first people who stepped forward to become politicians tended to be 'armchair democrats,'" he said. "They understood democracy out of textbooks but had no day-to-day experience, so when they were running for office, they would always talk about high-minded ideas such as constitutionality; meanwhile, the general populace was losing jobs."

In many cases, those candidates were loathe to go out on the campaign trail, something that politicians in this country recognize as imperative to gaining public support but which the early reformers saw as "beneath them."

In Bosnia, Odescalchi said, he finally was able to convince his candidates to campaign door to door - something, he said, they were very opposed to.

"They came back the following day signing praises - every door they knocked on, the people said they were going to vote for them," Odescalchi said. "I was elated. Come to find out, (the campaigners) had (rifles) hanging off their shoulder."

SEEING what happened in Hungary and Romania, Odescalchi established a program called "Survival in Democracy" and has lectured around the world to groups of governments and intergovernmental organizations, such as the Economic Democratic Union and the Atlantic Council, about how to gain an understanding of different political environments and how everyday people perceive those environments.

"It's important for world leaders to understand if you view (fledging democracies) through Western eyes, you can come to an entirely different conclusion about how things should be handled," Odescalchi said.

WHAT HE has learned from his experiences, he said, is that, for the most part, once you move beyond the cultural and religious differences, people - whether Bosnian, Serbian, Afghani or Iraqi - all hope for the same basic things in life.

"When you strip down humanity, we're all very similar. Those things that are dear to us - family, jobs, shelter, making sure our kids get a good education," Odescalchi said. "How you actually address those issues varies on culture and tradition, but when you come right down to it, as a society and humanity, we're not all that different."

©Daily Freeman 2004