Thursday, June 28, 2007

Memorable CIA failures revealed

For some inexplicable reason, people outside of the United States still regard the American Central Intelligence Agency with the fear and respect the organization hasn't commanded inside the United States since the end of the Cold War. For the most part, the CIA is a mere shadow of its former more infamous incarnation, and has more famous for interoffice leaks than heroic feats of international espionage. So why were they once so feared? This week, the CIA released its so called "family jewels", a treasure trove of previously classified information detailing the shady operations of the American spy agency.

So is there a dictator angle to any of these reports? You bet your ass there is. The CIA's role in bringing Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to power is pretty old news, but the release of the jewels shows that the CIA had other dictators on their mind as well. The CIA's comically hamfisted attempts to knock off Cuban dictator Fidel Castro are also old hat, but the newly released documents reveal that the CIA tried to outsource getting rid of Castro to the midwestern branch of La Cosa Nostra (aka, "the mafia"). After arranging a relatively modest payment, the CIA provided the mob with a powerful poison to take out Castro. Apparently, the plan was abandoned when the mob's Cuban stringers got cold feet and gave up.

Another interesting revelation is that the CIA had hatched a hopelessly botched assassination plot against then Panamanian dictator Omar Torrijos, apparently to stall or possibly derail upcoming talks on the transfer of the Panama Canal from United States to Panamanian sovereignty. Apparently, word had leaked out to the press, forcing the CIA to cancel the plans and issue a denial to reporters. What it may have involved, or how it would have been pulled off is strictly a matter of conjecture.

Want to read more? Of course you do. Indulge yourself by clicking here, but be warned - there's a TON of information to download.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

200th glorious post, comrades!

After a slow 2006, I resolved to knuckle down in 2007 and get serious about blogging about authoritarianism. Lo and behold, I think I've managed to do just that this year. I'm grateful to you, my loyal returning readers (however few!) for posting your comments and questions about the dictators who've made history and headlines since launching this blog. I'd also like to thank Joshua Foust at Registan and The Conjecturer for not only linking to DotW, but providing us with boatloads of news about the often authoritarian events going on in the former Soviet Union. I'd also like to thank the visitors to this blog who live in dictatorships, like the visitors I've been receiving from Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe, Angola and Fiji.

The one question I've been asked over and over is "why would anyone blog about dictators?" Well. 2007 has, for whatever reason, shown that most of the world appears to have made their peace with dictatorial regimes. 62 years after the death of Adolf Hitler, 54 years after the death of Joself Stalin and only 13 years after the Rwandan genocide, the so-called civilized world only too ready to tolerate our rogue's gallery of dictators for no other reason than to avoid rocking the boat. More than ever, we're living through a golden age of dictatorships, both old regimes (Fidel Castro, Muammar Qaddafi) and new (Hugo Chávez, Frank Bainimarama). Would be be so passive if they knew just what sort of men rule these countries, or the terror and violence they use to cling to power?

My biggest motivation in dictator blogging came over the curious absence of the word "dictator" itself in the press. Of course, the largest press outlets strive for some measure of neutrality in the tone of their coverage, but most of the world's largest news stories, from the Darfur crisis, to Iraq to North Korea all involve dictatorships, and precious little analysis is paid to how the very existence of totalitarian leadership leads to these crises. In the days leading up to the coalition invasion of Iraq, I lost count how many times I'd heard Saddam Hussein referred to rather blandly as the "leader" of Iraq. In the same vein, nearly all the press coverage of the North Korean nuclear crisis refers to Kim Jong-Il with the same deceptively neutral term, calling him only the "leader" of North Korea. While the term "leader" certainly applies, the use of such a neutral term effectively equated Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong-Il with the prime minister of, let's say, Luxembourg.

The very avoidance of the word "dictator" as a purely pejorative term has, inevitably, begun to inure the public to dictatorships themselves, to the obvious detriment of people who have to live under totalitarian rule. We live on a Dictator Planet, but we seem to spend very little time talking about dictators. I hope that be keeping the spotlight on dictators themselves, we can begin to reacquaint ourselves with the word "dictator" and hopefully even restart the dialog about why the free world has made so little progress in reducing the power and influence of authoritarian regimes around the planet.

So that's it. Thanks for sticking around, and hopefully I'll be back tomorrow with some actual new content for everyone - even my increasingly robotic chavista audience.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Gurbanguly gone wild!

One of the occupational hazards encountered while blogging about dictators is that some of these guys refuse to stick to the script. And do you want to know who really knows how to rain on my parade lately? Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov.

Turkmenistan was, perhaps, one of the world's most notorious dictatorships under the infamous Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niazov, and why not? It had all the ingredients - a post-Soviet political pedigree and an isolated (some would say exotic) Central Asian locale added an irresistible setting for the world's most notorious political personality cult. So when the lunatic despot kicked the bucket back in December of 2006, everyone sat on the edge of their seats: would the dictatorship crumble, or would some party hack close to Niazov simply pick up where the late dictator left off?

Things seemed promising for Dictators of the World when Niazov's successor, Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, replaced Niazov after a nakedly fraudulent election. I guessed that I would simply be able to pick up where I'd left off with Niazov, and write all of these juicy exotic stories about bizarre edicts, gold statues and secret policemen terrifying the populace. But that would just be too easy, wouldn't it? Instead, Berdimuhammedov appears to be doing the nastiest thing a man can do to a dictator blog, namely, instituting genuine political reforms and dismantling his predecessor's authoritarian state. What a dick!

Sure, he started off slowly, but he's gaining steam with every passing month. And now? Now I'm reading this article in Kommersant which talks about Berdimuhammedov instituting a political thawing out in Turkmenistan. First he decided to dispense with Niazov's all pervasive personality cult, declining all offers to build a new one of his own. Now, he's even declined to stage national celebrations in honor of his own birthday. Veteran dictator watchers know that serious dictators always live large on their birthdays. But would Berdimuhammedov stop there? Apparently not. He's also decided to disburse Niazov's secret oil and gas contract kickback slush fund. Now, granted, there are a number of criteria that make a dictator a dictator, but you show me a leader who declines a ready made personality cult and a multi-billion dollar slush fund, and I'll show you someone who's itching to make meaningful political reforms.

That's good for Turkmenistan, of course, but it's obviously bad for Dictators of the World. Will Gurbanguly go whole hog with this reform business, or will he pull back? I'd like to think he's going for something akin to Nursultan Nazarbayev's style in Kazakhstan. You know the type of regime I'm talking about - autocratic enough to get what he wants politically at home, without being brutal or dismal enough to make Turkmenistan an international laughing stock and pariah again. Obviously, we don't know which way he's going to turn ... yet. I'm still starting to worry that I'm not going to have anything to blog about from Turkmenistan in the near future.

Tomorrow: Dictators of the World celebrates its 200th post.

The mouse that roars

Shortly after returning from a $3 billion dollar arms shopping spree in Russia, Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez told his armed forces to get ready to fight a guerrilla war against the United States. And what's his evidence that Washington is preparing to invade Venezuela? Why, the fact that students in Venezuela had the temerity to protest the shutdown of RCTV, of course. Who else but dirty dealing Yanqui imperialist capitalist swine could turn the revolutionary people against their caudillo?

Sure, Hugo Chávez may be out of his mind, but he's certainly putting his petrodollars where his paranoia is. In the past year, Chávez has gone on an arms acquisition binge the likes of which South America has never seen - not even when Argentina, Chile and Brazil were ruled by military dictators. The Russians are particularly eager to sell Chávez 9 hopelessly obsolete diesel powered submarines to stem the Yanqui tide of Ohio class nuclear submarines. While Chávez's attempts to build a modern navy from submarines that were outdated before Leonid Brezhnev even took office, such a purchase would, unbelievably, give Venezuela the largest submarine fleet in all of South America.

The real irony here, of course, is that the United States has no intention of invading Venezuela, and has no real need to. The United States is perfectly comfortable buying Venezuelan oil, which provides Chávez with the cash he needs to spend Venezuela into the poorhouse. The more oil the United States buys, the more hard currency Chávez throws down the drain, and the less valuable the Bolivar Fuerte becomes. The United States would, doubtlessly, not shed any tears if Hugo Chávez were to disappear, but unless Chávez is looking to build nuclear weapons, Washington considers him to be nothing more than a vulgar pipsqueak whose belligerent rhetoric can't keep up with his laughable ambitions and pitiful arsenal. The status quo is, ironically, exactly to Washington's tastes, especially since Chávez's self-inflicted out of control inflation can be just as hazardous to a dictator as any military invasion.

There's Something About Mao

At Dictators of the World, we'd like to think that fashion and celebrity reporting are pitiful trifles reserved for the women's magazines. Inevitably, the worlds of celebrity, fashion and tyranny are bound to collide sooner or later, and that appears to have finally happened last Friday in Peru. Hollywood actress Cameron Diaz took her apparently fashionable bag emblazoned with a red star and a Chinese phrase (seen at left) with her to the ruins of Macchu Picchu. No biggie, right?

What Miss Diaz didn't know is that her bag is emblazoned with a red star as well as Mao Zedong's political slogan "Serve the people!", which also happened to be one of the rallying cries of Peru's own bloodthirsty homegrown Maoist rebel group, Sendero Luminoso ("Shining Path"). Oopsie! Miss Diaz was suitably embarrassed about her faux pas to issue an extremely Hollywood celebrity style apology:

"I'm sorry for any people's pain and suffering and it was certainly never my intention to reopen what I now know is a painful wound in this country's history"
Apparently, she went on to praise the "beauty" and "warmth" of the Peruvian people, perhaps forgetting that the "Peruvian people" also includes the aforementioned Maoist rebels who caused so much misery in Peru. At any rate, I touched on the phenomenon of Communist chic back in December, and as I said back then, Che Guevara t-shirts and Mao Zedong bags should only be the beginning. Where the hell are my Josef Stalin throw pillows and Kim Il-Sung placemats?

Monday, June 25, 2007

Less than a week remains

Less than a week remains to vote for the next Dictators of the World tyrant to receive a top 10 profile. Who's winning? Well, so far, Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler are locked in a struggle for supremacy. Hmm, sounds familiar, doesn't it? While the heavyweights duke it out, there's still time for a come from behind win by the likes of François "Papa Doc" Duvalier or Enver Hoxha, and I have a feeling this one could go down to the wire.

So why wait? Let me know which autocrat tickles your fancy by voting in the poll located on the right sidebar.

The Lives of Others

Ever wonder if secret policemen get the blues? Set in East Berlin circa 1984, the German film The Lives of Others tells the story both of secret police of the Stasi and that of hapless targets and informers. The plot revolves around an earnest socialist playwright loyal to the East German regime, and the Stasi officers who have been tasked with spying on him. Unlike Good Bye Lenin! which trafficked in cheerful Ostalgie, The Lives of Others deals with the grim details of one of the most paranoid countries in history.

Even by the standards of other nations behind the Iron Curtain, the East Germans had the dubious distinction of being the most spied upon people on earth. It has been said that nearly every man, woman and child in the country had a Stasi dossier, and nearly two thirds of the populace had either been a Stasi agent, Stasi informer, or spied upon by the Stasi, a feat of espionage that dwarfs even the formidable efforts of the Soviet KGB and Romanian Securitate. From simple bugging, to video surveillance to collecting scent samples, no scrap of information was apparently too trivial for the organization charged with being "the sword and shield" of the Communist party.

Like their Soviet counterparts, the Stasi's primary task was to ferret out "politically unreliable" people, a category that included not only genuine dissidents, but even loyal party members or Stasi other Stasi officers who might be caught telling a joke about Erich Honecker within earshot of his superiors. Loyalty to the party, naturally, was certainly no guarantee of immunity from the Stasi. When the film's playwright protagonist, himself a true believer in the socialist system, finds out that he himself has been targeted by spies and informers, the shock is nearly too great to bear, and immediately, he begins asking himself why the Stasi come to search his house, and which one of his friends may be an informer.

I can think of no other film that has presented life behind the Iron Curtain with such seriousness and which has eschewed resorting to cheap political polemic or Yakov Smirnoff style comedy. At a time when former Stasi agents are trying their hand at historical revisionism, The Lives of Others dismisses sentimentality and nostalgia for the unvarnished paranoia and mistrust that characterized the most spied upon society in human history.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Crushed by cash

Robert Mugabe has ruled Zimbabwe for nearly 30 years, and during this time, he's tackled a number of challenges to his authority without breaking much of a sweat. You name the crisis, and Mugabe's had a response. Is a portion of your populace supporting rival politicians? No problem, just send a North Korean trained goon squad to blast them to pieces. You say trade union leaders are clamoring for democracy? Just arrest them and beat them within an inch of their lives. Even if the problem is just poor people creating unsightly slums, Mugabe's found ways to come out on top.

However, not all problems can be solved by force, and one such trouble in particular might just lead to the end of the Robert Mugabe era. What's that problem, you ask? Hyperinflation. I've mentioned before on how Zimbabwe's inflation rates have gone well over the 1,500% mark, but it appears now that the worst is yet to come. In the past three days alone, the Zimbabwean currency has devalued by half, a rate of inflation of somewhere between 5,000 and 8,000 percent for the month of May alone. June's been even worse, with currency values now changing twice or more per day as the government simply prints more Zimbabwean dollars to chase after a scandalously tiny supply of goods to buy with their mountains of money.

Yesterday, one US dollar bought 300,000 Zimbabwean dollars and it's expected to rise to 400,000 to 1 by today. Outgoing US Ambassador to Zimbabwe Christopher Dell said the embassy's economic forecast based on the past year's pattern predicts the rate of inflation to reach a staggering one and a half million percent by the end of the year. Normally, the ZANU-PF regime has been untroubled by Zimbabwe's economic woes, just as long as long as the ruling elites had access to reserves of foreign currency that had, in the past, usually been gained by taking kickbacks on government contracts. At one point, this was a very lucrative business in Zimbabwe, and more than one ZANU-PF minister made a fortune skimming contracts on everything from pencils, to oil, to canned goods.

The good old days can't last forever though, and Zimbabwe no longer has any hard currency with which to buy anything. With the country flat broke, power brokers in ZANU-PF are nervously contemplating the possibility they will have to try and make do with getting paid government salaries in Zimbabwean dollars - a frightening prospect for anyone at the moment. The fear of their own poverty, more than any other issue, appears to have driven a solid wedge between Mugabe and the ZANU-PF leaders who used to act as his rubber stamp ministers and parliamentarians. Party infighting, and even coup plots, are tearing apart Comrade Bob's once politically unassailable ruling clique.

Mugabe is desperate to buy US dollars on the black market, if only to secure the gasoline and electricity to keep his security services with the bare minimum of resources required to scare his enemies. He's learning the hard way that these same security services have a finite level of patience for being paid with Zimbabwe's Monopoly money currency, and the odds of Mugabe collapsing under the weight of mountains of worthless cash increase every day. Sure, normal people in Zimbabwe are screwed by this, and the poor even more so!, but they might be able to take comfort in knowing that the symptoms of their economic misery might just prove to be fatal to the man responsible for it all.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Indulge your Ostalgie

Via Reason Magazine's Hit and Run blog comes news of a German hostel that deliberately recreates the ambiance of the late East Germany (aka, the German Democratic Republic). According to the hostel's website, you too can indulge your Ostalgie with a stay in the "Stasi suite" for a mere $78.

Frankly, I would demand true authenticity. If the room isn't bugged, then honestly, you're just wasting $78 for a room with lousy wallpaper, uncomfortable beds and pictures of Erich Honecker on the walls. For less money, you could get even greater authenticity by staying in a country that still behaves like East Germany. Why play around with recreations when you could get the real deal in Cuba, Moldova or Belarus?

Oh, I know. You can leave the fake East Germany whenever you want.

There ARE new posts today

Today's new post about appeasing dictators is up, but because it was started yesterday, it appears with yesterday's dateline. You can read it right here. I blame Colonel Mobutu for any inconvenience.

Blame me all you want - just keep the money coming!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

No new posts today!

Uncle Joe disapproves, but hey, that's how it goes sometimes. Tomorrow, a piece on why ostensibly civilized countries continue to appease third world dictators.

Unacceptable, comrade!

Defending the indefensible

High profile Burmese democracy activist and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi just spent her 62nd birthday under house arrest - her 17th such year under detention. Over the past 17 years, I'm sure she's had ample time to consider the nature of her erstwhile friends in Western democracies that (at least ostensibly) champion her cause, as well as that of her jailers, the junta of generals led by Burma's de facto dictator Than Shwe.

Aung San Suu Kyi isn't the cause célèbre she was in the early 1990's, but if anything, political freedoms and human rights have gotten even worse since she won her Nobel Prize. So what gives? Who's got her back now? Frankly, who's got the back of dissidents in dictatorships who are paying the price of speaking out? Why are things getting worse in places like Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe instead of better?

A large part of the problem is that dictators are never at a loss for enablers, both in Western governments and academia. For every US State Department press release denouncing conditions in a dictatorship, or university professor leading a candlelight vigil on the behalf of some dictator's unhappy subject, there are twice as many people urging "caution" and "moderation" towards dictatorial regimes. Why? For a number of ridiculous reasons.

The first is the hoary old realpolitik workhouse of stability. The theory goes that if the world puts heavy pressure on dictators, or worse, removes them altogether, the country will collapse into economic free fall or wanton violence without the strongman holding it all together. In fact, you could even call it the Saddam argument in light of what's going on in Iraq. You've probably even heard this argument from people you know: "Sure, Saddam was a bloodthirsty monster, but gee whiz, without him, those little brown people over there will just kill each other non-stop."

The problem with this argument is that the world's most destabilized places are already dictatorships. To go back to our first example, Burma is already rife with "destabilizing" violence in the form of endless ethnic civil wars, replete with attempts at ethnic cleansing, and innumerable narco-terrorist warlords both on the government and rebel sides. 80% of the world's present armed conflicts are instigated by and between autocratic regimes, and a nearly equal percentage of the planet's armed civil wars are taking place inside countries run by dictators. Preserving the dictatorship does not, has not, and will not restore "stability" to these regimes, precisely because dictators are the ones instigating the mayhem in the first place.

The second argument is that that dictatorships can be eased away from totalitarianism into the warm, fuzzy fold of liberal democracy. You've doubtlessly heard this argument before as applied to China. "Sure, China is a one-party dictatorship, but if they open up to the outside world, political reform is inevitable!" Supporters of this concept point to Spain and South Korea, former dictatorships that are now democracies. The problem with this argument is that it ignores the social and political factors that transformed Spain and South Korea into democracies, and ignores the fact that economic and political co-operation with the outside world didn't play much of a role in that transformation.

In fact, dictators are keener observers of the politics of appeasement than the allegedly enlightened politicians who pay lip service to their ouster. Has Kim Jong-Il suffered one iota for his nuclear gamesmanship? He squeezed fuel, food and countless concessions from the six party talks, and wound up obtaining nuclear weapons anyway. He remains in control of North Korea, and what's more, the sanctions slapped on North Korea after his deceit was revealed largely only hurt his already poor and malnourished populace, a group who Kim already regards with complete disinterest. Similarly, Western attempts for "constructive engagement" with Omar al-Bashir on Darfur are treated as signs of lunacy in Khartoum. Why, it's almost as if dictators think that the sight of powerful Western governments begging dictators pitiably to behave themselves is a sign of weakness.

They're right, of course. Most dictators do not operate in an isolationist vacuum, but their interests always do, and the overweening interest of any dictator is staying in power for as long as humanly possible without being murdered or deposed. Saddam Hussein prided himself for his ability to play the international appeasement game, both during the Iran-Iraq war, the aftermath of the first Gulf War, and during the weapons of mass destruction crisis that led to the laughable oil for food program. Saddam came away from each of these events as the winner, until he suddenly found himself on the gallows.

That, sadly, is the point where the game is up. Removing a dictator does not guarantee freedom or prosperity, this is true. However, leaving one in power guarantees the absence of both. We know this, so the question remains: why do we continue to defend, however weakly, the completely indefensible?

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Lukashenko and Castro urge world to suck it

Ah, some things never change. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has voted to remove two totalitarian police state dictatorships from its human rights blacklist, while moving to "permanently indict" Israel. Belarus and Cuba, both of whom deny even token freedoms and human rights to independent journalists, political dissidents, homosexuals and too many others to list, have been removed from the UNHRC blacklist for reasons nobody is willing to state (on the record, anyway). Israel, on the other hand, now joins countries like North Korea, Haiti (!), the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Burma, Burundi, Somalia and Cambodia.

You may recall that the UNHRC was born out of the ashes of the widely reviled and ridiculed United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCRH), and that the new body was supposed to do a better job of keeping countries that neglect, abuse or downright disregard human rights (like Belarus and Cuba) at arm's length. Despite promises that the "new" UNHRC would start with a "clean slate" and would not "target Israel", the UNHRC has morphed, in just over a year, into the disreputable human rights body it was created to replace.

Aleksandr Lukashenko and Raúl Castro (pictured above at left), however, are in no mood to quibble. A win is a win, after all. And while neither man is any mood to legitimize the sudden boost in their image with any actual improvements on human rights in their respective countries, they'll certainly take any good publicity they can get.

UPDATE: Raúl Castro's wife has died at the age of 77. Look for absolutely no changes in Cuban politics to follow.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Hafez al-Assad is still dead (thank God)

You may recall my earlier post involving the wacky Syrian Arab News Agency and their frankly bizarre article about the celebration isosceles trapezoid? Naturally, I've started reading their website religiously, partly for weird, poorly translated stories about Syria, but also because SANA is a perfect example of what dictatorships do to the press.

Case in point: this article about Syrian cabinet ministers "celebrating" the seventh anniversary of Hafez al-Assad's long overdue demise. I admit that I'm no expert on Arab culture, but celebrating the demise of a dictator whose cult of personality was (and still is) a part of everyday political life in Syria seems, at best, a very strange choice of word. I can understand Syria's long suffering neighbors (Israel and Lebanon) breaking out the champagne, but why would Syrian officials publicly celebrate the death of someone whose boots they're still officially required to lick?

We may never get a sense of how ordinary people in Syria feel about the demise of their most notorious dictator. People in Syria will immediately change the topic when someone begins discussing religion or politics; after all, you never know who might be eavesdropping. Who knows what Syrians might say about the old man given a chance to speak freely? After all, there was no shortage of people in Syria who nursed serious grudges against Assad.

After seizing power in a coup in 1970, Hafez al-Assad turned Syria into a dictatorial police state, rivaled only by that of his neighbor, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. Like Saddam, al-Assad used his power to settle grudges, often in a spectacularly bloody fashion. When the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood seized the city of Hama, al-Assad swore he would rather level the city to the ground than tolerate any challenge to his authority, and level it he did. Without any hesitation, al-Assad called in the army, who assaulted the city with artillery and poison gas until over 30,000 people perished. In fact, "the politics of revenge" more or less defined the style of Hafez al-Assad, whether it involved his own Kurdish population, his dealings with Israel and Lebanon, or even his penchant for doling out money and support to terrorist groups - every move made by Hafez al-Assad was invariably shrewd while simultaneously being brutal, vicious and repugnant. Is it any wonder that people would rather not discuss his legacy in public?

If anyone inside Syria has reason, and permission, to publicly celebrate the demise of Hafez al-Assad, it's his weak chinned son Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the top job when his more capable and ruthless elder brother, Basil, died in a car accident. An ophthalmologist by training, Bashar al-Assad appears to be learning the ins and outs of the dictator business as he goes. While Bashar has preserved his father's aggressive secret police and penchant for preserving rule by a tiny Alawite elite, Bashar lacks his father's instincts for making intuitively shrewd moves. Hafez conquered Lebanon, but Bashar lost it.

So while I doubt that Bashar al-Assad's sycophantic cronies are celebrating the demise of Hafez al-Assad, I think I'll take a minute today to do so myself. I think I'll save the champagne, however, until Bashar kicks the bucket, too.

Friday, June 15, 2007

E Unus Pluribum

Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe paid a leisurely visit to Tripoli this week for a warm tête-à-tête meeting with his Libyan counterpart, Colonel Muammar Qaddafi. On the agenda? Qaddafi's favorite topic, of course: African unity. What did two of Africa's longest serving dictators propose? Why, uniting the entire continent under a single government for the purpose of "solving [Africa's] own problems". You don't have to guess too hard what it means when a pair of utterly unrepentant dictators are both calling for when they suggest ruling an entire continent under a single government.

To western ears at least, the phrase "African unity" has a peculiarly soothing ring to it to western ears. To American ears in particular, applying the word "unity" to "Africa" conjures up images of "problems" solved by "togetherness", even though both are hopelessly ignorant misconceptions. The first misconception is that there's some sort of monolithically identifiable entity of "Africa" that is universally hungry, poor and maladjusted. The second notion is that this place would somehow become "fixed" if only there could be "unity". Both notions are complete rubbish.

Africa is a mix of many nations and even more peoples. Some of them are together by choice, but most are not. The borders of most modern African nations were hobbled together by 19th century European technocrats half a world away, with practically no concern for whom they wished to associate with, or how they wished to lead their lives. Some nations have managed to make these curious new artificial nation states work. After all, if Belgium can do it then why can't Kenya? More often, however, this is not the case, nor should it be the case. Because there are so many "Africas" and countless different African peoples, no single possible government could ever hope to represent them all.

Africa, unlike the United States or Australia or China, does not have a single dominant culture, political tradition, or even a common language. This was the case in Africa before European colonialism, during colonialism, and will continue to be the case well after colonialism in Africa passes from living memory. In our frenzy to deny a pluralistic identity to people in Africa, we are essentially infantilizing an entire continent. There is no more a pan-African identity than there is a pan-Asian one, or pan-American one. Frankly, heterogeneity has a far better track record than artificial unity. Many have tried to cobble such an identity together, but have invariably failed, and usually for reasons they don't even seem to be able to understand. I'll give them a hint. Identity and culture transcend mere incidental geography, and the individual is naturally resistant to being subsumed into a group. In other words, "it would be nice if you'd ask us if we even want your artificial unity".

If your next door neighbor were a con-artist, would you open a joint checking account with him? Of course not. So I'm not clear how anyone in their right mind would still hang on to the "African unity" shibboleth when the greatest and most visible supporters of the concept just happen to be dictators like Qaddafi and Mugabe.

Forgetting to remember? Remembering to forget?

OK, OK - I know what I said yesterday. I really hadn't intended to spend most of the week at Dictators of the World going on and on about communism, Sometimes, however, that's just the way it turns out. So it's fitting that on the day I wrote about history's "killing joke" and took a moment to ponder communism's earth shattering body count, a monument was dedicated in Washington DC to the victims of the world's bloodiest political ideology.

President Bush was on hand to dedicate the Victims of Communism memorial in a small park between Massachusetts and New Jersey Avenues in Washington, but in an age where the president of the United States can't even take a leak without at least 300 reporters following him around, this event received fairly minimal notice. The memorial itself was created in 1993 by an act of congress which sought to dedicate some sort of memorial to the more than 100,000,000 people who died as a result of communist oppression, slavery, mass murder and genocide. In typically bureaucratic Washington fashion, the most memorial was finally finished a mere 14 years later. Depressingly, that long since nearly everyone in America had stopped caring, and long enough to realize that kids today probably won't be learning much about it in schools.

Right on cue, China denounced the memorial, saying that it "[provoked] conflicts between different ideologies and social systems". China, of course, may have simply been somewhat embarrassed. In the truly epic body count caused of communism, somewhere between 20 to 30 million people starved to death - the worst famine in world history - during Mao Zedong's disastrous Great Leap Forward. It's a predictable denunciation. After all, a communist party - even if it's communist in name only - still runs the show in China, so it stands to reason that their culpability in the senseless deaths of so many dozens of millions makes them just a bit uncomfortable. It probably also doesn't help that the memorial statue itself looks like a certain statue that featured prominently in the 1989 Tianamen Square demonstrations.

America's memorial, however good the intentions were in building it, feels a day late and a dollar short. A number of countries in the former Soviet bloc have built their own memorials to the victims of communism that evoke something ours cannot - the horror of familiarity. It's a good bet that schoolkids in Prague and Warsaw will not be forgetting the lessons of communist rule because their parents' generation won't allow it to happen. In fact, making sure our own kids learned the history of communism's deadly legacy would be worth more than a hundred of these memorials, and better still, would make the memorial itself irrelevant in practical terms.

The sad fact of the matter is, as long as the system's apologists continue to be so robustly overrepresented in academia, the arts and even in governments around the world, the victims of communism will never really be at rest. Who cares about a memorial when the horror it remembers is not only still alive, but even remembered fondly?

UPDATE: Michael Weiss writes a stellar piece blasting the "faux-cialist" movement over on Jewcy.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Faux Joe

Over at Jim Lileks' Bleat comes this astounding 1940's era Soviet propaganda film showing a mythical visit by Josef Stalin to newly occupied Berlin. The propaganda film was created to glorify the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, but if you think it seems a little weird, you're not alone. The most interesting thing about it (which Jim notes) is how it has the genuine authenticity found only in totalitarian propaganda. Stalin's is shown flying in one kind of plane, landing on another, while long shots of Stalin were performed by a body double, and only a portion of the footage, filmed deep within Soviet territory, is actually of Stalin. Check it out for yourself:

All that makeup makes him look too much like Rip Taylor for my comfort. Or anyone's comfort.

UPDATE: I really didn't intend to have a communist/Soviet theme this week, but that's the way it goes sometimes.

The dissident and the autocrat

Who's that shaggy old hobo shaking hands with Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin? Why it's none other than Russia's most famous political dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. You may remember Solzhenitsyn as the author who did hard time in a Soviet gulag for the crime of saying something not entirely positive about Josef Stalin. Solzhenitsyn's stay in the gulag provided him with the fodder for an explosive little book called One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, a novella that blew the lid off the entire Soviet prison camp system. While certainly revolutionary by Soviet standards, the publication of Ivan Denisovich only saw the light of day because Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev's eagerness to "de-stalinize" the Communist Party. In the Soviet Union, even dissidence acquired a role as being nothing more than a tool for the Party's internal power struggles, leaving the actual machinery of totalitarianism more or less unscathed.

Our bitter national experience can yet help us in a possible repeat of unstable social conditions. It will forewarn and protect us from destructive breakdowns

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

However, Soviet "tolerance" - even used cynically - only went so far. When the Soviet authorities broke into Solzhenitsyn's house and seized the manuscript for his masterwork The Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn knew that once again, he was on the official Soviet shitlist. When Solzhenitsyn unexpectedly won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970, the Soviets forbade him to travel to Sweden to pick up the award. By 1974, he was finally allowed to go into exile, settling first in West Germany before a moving on to a long stint as a virtual recluse in Vermont. It was only some time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, in 1994, that the man once hailed as the conscience of his people returned to Russia.

So you can imagine my surprise when I'd read that Solzhenitsyn had accepted the "State Prize" on Russia Day from autocrat Vladimir Putin, who may not be Josef Stalin, but is certainly not anything resembling a bonafide democratic leader, either. In fact, Putin has taken a decidedly Stalinist "destroy them all" line when it comes to high profile political dissidents, an irony that appears to be lost on Solzhenitsyn. The worst part of it is that Solzhenitsyn's photo-op with Putin was likely cynically planned by Putin to establish his bonafides as a kinder and more gentle ruler. After all, any friend of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn can't be all that nasty, right?

Well, no. Not really. Solzhenitsyn is 88 years old, wheelchair bound and reportedly in poor health. It's hard to say whether or not he appreciates the irony of his decision to help legitimize, even if just a little bit, the regressive path Putin has laid out for Russia. Perhaps he knows and doesn't care, or cares and doesn't know, at this point, I can't even guess. However, when Solzhenitsyn is dead and buried, it's a good bet that Putin's authoritarian pseudo-democracy will stay in place, validated just a little bit by a lousy photo op.

Mengistu appeal delayed until July

The appeal for exiled Ethiopian dictator Haile Mengistu Meriam has been delayed until July by a judge in Ethiopia. Mengistu, if you recall, has already been tried and convicted in absentia for his role in orchestrating the notorious Red Terror that left over 100,000 dead, and sent countless more fleeing the country.

Both sides are now engaged in an appeal of the penalty phase of Mengistu's trial, and lawyers for the prosecution are trying to secure a death sentence for Mengistu. They're arguing that Mengistu's role in orchestrating the mass murder of so many people must surely qualify him for a trip to the gallows, while the defense team is simultaneously appealing the original life sentence handed down when Mengistu was originally convicted. No matter the result, it's still infinitely depressing that all of this action is taking place while the man himself is thousands of miles away, living a life of comfort as the guest of another dictator.

Idi Amin, the greatest Ugandan?

For some reasons, Europeans are fixated on the concept of which of their number was "the greatest". Britons, Frenchmen and Spaniards all seem to go nuts when some television network asks which of their countrymen was the greatest of all time. Occasionally, the answers are startling. You may remember that I blogged about Portugal's bizarre elevation of dictator António Salazar to the top spot, or Spain's insistence that Francisco Franco was the twenty-third greatest Spaniard of all time. I can only hope they don't ask Russians the same question, because I really don't want to know where they'd rank Leonid Brezhnev.

Uganda is obviously not a European country, but I'm sure that there are some Ugandans who wonder, if only for a moment, who the greatest representative of their fairly young, artificially hobbled together country is. While he doesn't speak for everyone in Uganda, obviously, African Path blogger Dennis Matanda makes the case that no other man in Ugandan history has left his imprint on Uganda quite as much as the late dictator Idi Amin Dada has.

Before you drop dead from surprise, read his case for Amin being the greatest Ugandan right here.

UPDATE: Dennis posts the second part of his argument for Idi Amin Dada!

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The killing joke

The story may be apocryphal, but is nevertheless revealing. After the Soviet archives, recently opened to the west, confirmed without a doubt the deliberate and calculated nature of Josef Stalin's punitive famine in the Ukraine, the British Sovietologist Robert Conquest was asked by his publisher if he would like to add a subtitle to the newest edition of his book about the famine, Harvest of Sorrow. Conquest, never at a loss for a memorable quote, is said to have quipped, "how about: I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?"

There was certainly no doubt about the brutal nature of communist rule during the existence of the Soviet Union. Indeed, Lenin and his politburo made almost no effort to hide the extent of their Red Terror campaigns from the rest of the world, reasoning somewhat sensibly that the world would only respect their reign only if they sensed they were operating without mercy or scruples. The question is, why would anyone lend their support, tacit or explicit, to a political system whose primary political concerns often seemed to boil down to the elimination of its enemies, real or imagined? The answer, of course, is that the Soviet system talked a progressive game while playing a more brutal one. Yes, the free health care and housing for all angle appealed to the progressive political left, but even when it came at the price of genocide, the complete elimination of freedom of expression, and the institution of a paranoid police state? Today, we consider ourselves politically and historically sophisticated enough to laugh at any defense of Benito Mussolini's fascist state by arguing that he made the trains run on time. Yet we don't have to look far to find tenacious defenders of Soviet brutality operating out in the open.

The defense of the indefensible was put on display yesterday in a book review of Oxford University historian Robert Service's "Comrades!: A World History of Communism" for the left-leaning Guardian newspaper. Guardian editor Seumas Milne denounced Service for being so damned negative about the history of communism. Milne blasted Service for downplaying the way the Soviet Union delivered, "rapid industrialization, mass education, full employment and unprecedented advances in social and gender equality", and scolded Service for downplaying the Soviet role in defeating Nazi Germany. In other words, Milne wants us to know that the trains ran on time!

We can give Milne the benefit of the doubt by presuming his ignorance about the cost to benefit ratio of Soviet achievements to Soviet horrors is based on a misty nostalgia about a Communism that never was - a communism that could deliver egalitarianism coupled with the universal material comfort that Marxism promised. Unfortunately for Milne, even the Soviets knew better than to believe in political fairy tales. Which isn't to say they didn't try, of course. The "rapid industrialization" of the Soviet Union that Milne would like us to remember as such a towering accomplishment could only take place after the deliberate annhiliation of the Soviet agrarian class. Mass education? Of course, but only after the Soviet Union had attacked the intellectual class, created the world's largest bureaucracy dedicated to censorship and eliminated freedom of speech. And so it goes. Each advance brought by Communism was paid for in blood, death and terror. So why would anyone in their right mind continue to shill for the world's deadliest political system?

Robert Service promptly a fantastic rebuttal to Milne's loathsome nostalgia for tyranny, and set about dismantling Milne's Soviet eulogies piece by piece. Service correctly maintains that the primary lesson to be learned about the history of communist governance is that "repression was not some aberrant phenomenon under communist rule around the world. It was condoned in advance." Indeed, as Service also notes, when the Soviet Union finally collapsed and people could choose communist parties as just one of many other options, they rejected communism resoundingly.

Finally, Service took aim at Milne's sloppy tarring of hostility to communism with the world's trendiest catch-all epithet neoconservative with the following:

It would seem that Milne and his like consider it fair game to denounce anybody who comes to an anti-communist standpoint as a neocon. This is a shoddy way to handle a serious political discussion. If this farrago had not come from the editor of the comment pages of one of our national newspapers it would not be worth bothering about. What is more, Milne is typical of a more general trend that retains a nostalgia for communism, and is a trend that ought to be repudiated.

Could you imagine, for a moment, the scandal Milne's naked defense of communist totalitarianism would cause if applied to the benefit of German Nazism or Spanish fascism? I can't, and it's heartening to see that Service is in no mood to apologize for totalitarianism simply because its ideological pretenses made a stab at his own left-of-center political erogenous zones. If only Seumas Milne, and so many others like him, would stop providing the laugh track for history's killing joke.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

What, Charles Taylor worry?

Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor is on trial in The Hague, facing charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. So why doesn't he appear to be very concerned about his fate?

Specifically, Taylor is being taken to task for his role in fueling a nasty civil war in Liberia's neighbor, Sierra Leone. Somewhat comically, Taylor is facing absolutely no charges regarding his much more prominent role in starting an incredibly bloody war in his own country. The "Special Court for Sierra Leone" must know about how Charles Taylor's 1989 armed rebellion against then president Samuel K. Doe led to nearly 17 years of bloodshed and mayhem inside Liberia, but curiously, nobody inside the cogs of the travesty of the international justice system appears to have given that much thought. Instead, he was arrested for the crime of supplying arms and cash to an illiterate warlord in Sierra Leone.

Taylor was set to be tried by the infamously impotent International Criminal Court, but due to predictable procedural and bureaucratic foul ups, they'd decided that "too much time" had passed to try Taylor under their auspices, leading to the current "Special Court for Sierra Leone", which is a hybrid organization convened by the United Nations and Sierra Leone. How, exactly, the world's most lethargic international organization and Sierra Leone managed to convene a court to take care of Charles Taylor is baffling enough, but the question of how Charles Taylor has managed to escape justice in Liberia is even more confusing.

When Taylor was finally forced out of office, he was offered (and accepted) refuge in Nigeria. However, the Nigerians bowed to international (and more specifically, American) pressure to do something with Taylor, and promptly sent him back to Liberia. Liberia's current democratically elected President, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, formally requested that Taylor be sent back to Liberia. After his return, he was arrested at the airport by Liberian police, and sent just as swiftly via UN helicopter to Sierra Leone. At no point does Johnson-Sirleaf appear to have publicly discussed so much as the possibility of bringing Taylor to account for crimes committed during his reign in Liberia, and offered no explanation for why she was so eager to comply with the demands of the United Nations and so reticent to keep him in Liberia for trial there.

Some of the usual explanations come to mind. Liberia had not yet rebuilt its judicial institutions after the civil war, which is valid, but frankly, Sierra Leone's judicial institutions were in no better shape than Liberia's. Then there's the canard about "political unrest" in Liberia should Taylor face trial, but that doesn't hold much water, either. By the time Taylor was forced out of office, there wasn't a political faction loyal to Taylor remaining in Liberia powerful enough to do anything at all.

Whatever the reason, Taylor is doubtlessly relieved. He's currently facing victor's justice in the Netherlands, with the worst possible outcome being life in a cushy jail cell, complete with cable TV, maid service, and croissants for breakfast. He could be in Liberia facing victim's justice - which could very well have led him to a life sentence in a Liberian jail, surrounded by hostile countrymen who remember the chaos Taylor caused only too well. For Taylor, the decision was a no brainer. Hell, he might even beat the rap for all anyone knows. The entire Taylor trial as it stands now is being treated like a laboratory experiment in international bureaucracy, with the outcome being seen as less infinitely important than "the learning process". Apparently, Slobodan Milošević really threw a wrench in the works by having the gall to die before his interminable experiment with the same process concluded. Happily for international bureaucrats everywhere they can try again, as Milošević's death now leaves Charles Taylor as the newest guinea pig for the process. The chances that the Special Court trial hits a fatal snag and declares a mistrial on procedural grounds aren't all that remote. On the other hand, Taylor's conviction and punishment in Liberia would practically be guaranteed.

The lesson here for aspiring dictators is: in the event of ouster, please surrender immediately to whatever international legal organization you can, as quickly as possible before you find yourself being judged and imprisoned by your own victims. Charles Taylor would certainly agree with me on this one.

Monday, June 11, 2007


From This is Zimbabwe comes news of a new book about Robert Mugabe's infamous Gukurahundi ethnic cleansing campaign in the early 1980's. If you don't know about Mugabe's war against his country's own Ndebele population using North Korean trained death squads, you owe it to yourself to read the newly released Gukuruhundi in Zimbabwe (available via import from I also personally recommend Our Votes, Our Guns by Martin Meredith, which provides a history of Gukurahundi, a detailed political history of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe, as well as a personal and political history of Robert Mugabe himself.

Dictator club gathering in Russia

For a blog like Dictators of the World, what could be better than a roomful of autocrats getting together to talk shop?

Such was the case this week when post-Soviet autocrats Islam Karimov of Uzbekistan, Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan and the world's newest dictator, the multisyllabic Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov of Turkmenistan, met in what was described as an "informal summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States" at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum. Any such CIS gathering involving Berdimuhammedov would have be "informal", I suppose, as his illustrious predecessor voluntarily reduced Turkmenistan's participation in the CIS to that of an "associate member".

So what was discussed, exactly? Given that the big English language news outfits seemed to have snoozed through this gathering, we have to turn to the government press releases for more information. However, they say only that "trade-economic and humanitarian spheres were called the priority areas of cooperation" - whatever the hell that's supposed to mean. Given that Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan are major producers of crude oil and natural gas, it's not unreasonable to presume that the conversation drifted towards what's generically been called "energy co-operation", but which can be more accurately described as "how can we work together to whack the Europeans with higher fuel prices?" Of course, they also might have had a chance to discuss juicier topics that only dictators need to worry about, like "which Swiss banks ask the fewest questions?" and "how the hell do I get Transparency International off my back?"

Whatever they talked about, I think it's safe to presume that the topics of human rights and democratization weren't on the agenda. With any luck, Joshua and/or Nathan at Registan can come up with some of the missing details regarding this week's gathering. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall ...

UPDATE: The photo at top left is of Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, who's starting to bear an eerie resemblance to Saparmurat Niazov. There were, apparently, rumors that Gurbangly is Turkmenbashi's illegitimate son, but even I'm shocked when I check out the photos. Berdimuhammedov is on the left, Niazov on the right:


Conté nearly out of options

Longtime Guinean dictator Lansana Conté fired the country's top military officials this week, including his own Secretary of Defense, as a response to weeks of rioting by unpaid soldiers. The last time we checked in with Monsieur Conté, it was the general populace that was up in arms over Conté's choice of Prime Minister. During the unrest, Conté relied on the army to quell the riots and restore order. No big story there, right? Just another dictator relying on his armed forces to keep the status quo humming along. Well, Conté's been writing IOUs to his military for years, most notably promising better pay and housing after a full blown mutiny in 1996. This time, however, the soldiers do not appear to be inclined to listen to Conté's empty promises of being paid sometime down the road.

Contrary to popular belief, many of the world's dictators have been able to operate without the benefit of good relations with their own military. However, very few manage to get by with an openly antagonistic relationship. Conté, who is elderly and reportedly afflicted with a serious heart ailment, has already alienated the public, and he doesn't appear to have a real plan to placate the army. With Conté's position quickly becoming untenable, rumors that a military coup d'etat will oust him from power this summer are swirling, leading even the most jaded observers (myself included) to wonder how he's going to manage to hold on this time.

UPDATE: Professor Inertia bites my style without so much as a link to DotW. Scandalous.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Mandatory celebration isosceles trapezoid

Part of what makes blogging about tyrants such a pleasure is reading the bizarre articles from dictatorships that have been either poorly or hastily translated into English. Such is the case with this blurb from the Syrian Arab News Agency which hails the arrival of something called the "al-Mahaba carnival" to the city of Aleppo. The article breezily informs us that that:

al-Mahaba (amity) carnival arrived in Aleppo, the capital of Islamic culture, celebrating the re-election of of President Bashar al-Assad. The carnival, held by several economic and culture activities in Syria, set out from Damascus, crossing the Syrian cities from the south to the north. It marched through the streets of Aleppo city where people gathered and welcomed the arrival of the carnival.

The only photo included in the article doesn't really look much like a traveling "carnival" so much as it resembles a vaguely menacing isosceles trapezoid floating down an empty street, daring the terrified natives to behold its power, magnificence, and triumph over gravity. Compared to the way some other dictators glorify themselves, this is a pretty low rent display of self-glorification by Bashar al-Assad. I'm aware Junior is a pretty bush league kind of dictator compared to his old man, but surely he can do better than this, right?

UPDATE: The trapezoid arrives in Idelb!

Is Kim Jong-Il a goner?

North Korean "Dear Leader" Kim Jong-Il is rumored to be nearly incapacitated with a heart ailment (as reported earlier here on Dictators of the World) related to type II diabetes. Kim's condition is so bad, that reports leaked from Pyongyang say he cannot walk more than 30 yards without stopping to rest. A team of cardiac specialists from Germany reportedly traveled to North Korea last month to treat Kim, but the doctors themselves denied treating Kim, and as usual, the North Korean government issued flat denials regarding why they were actually there.

Japan's Shukan Gendai, however, reports that Kim has already undergone emergency heart bypass surgery, and remains in serious condition in Pyongyang. Kim's condition will likely remain shrouded in secrecy for a number of reasons, not least of which is Kim's status as a demigod in North Korea's official juche state philosophy/religion. What's more, it appears that the Kim dynasty has not yet ironed out the question of succession to the Dear Leader, and any power vacuum opens up the possibility of a military coup d'etat. This is no small concern, because if there's only one thing North Korea isn't have shortages of, it's military officers.

Would North Korea change if Kim kicked the bucket? Would Kim Il-Sung's grandsons see the writing on the wall and move to unify Korea on the South's terms? Would a clique of hardliners take over in a coup? It's all way too early to tell, but if Kim dies, we may be looking at the final days of the world's most repressive dictatorship.