Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Softening at home, hardening abroad

Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi has reportedly provided a full presidential pardon to 38 people, alternately described as "opposition political activists" or "terrorists" depending on who was asked and when. The move came as something of a surprise to foreign observers, especially since the Ethiopian government had originally sought the death penalty for the 38, before sentencing 35 of them to life in prison.

Meles Zenawi's pardon could be read as a peace offering to his political allies in Washington, who appear willing to overlook Ethiopia's rotten political climate as long as their strategic ally in the war on terror doesn't do anything too repressive to embarrass the United States. After all, political unrest at home at home is but of one of Meles Zenawi's concerns, and he's got bigger fish to fry. I speak, of course, of Ethiopia's bitter enemy Eritrea, and his increasingly personal duel with its dictator, Isaias Afewerki.

Whether Meles Zenawi's pardon was due to magnanimity or expedience, the escalating border tensions with Eritrea, along with Ethiopia's proxy war in Somalia, have insured that keeping the flow of American cash, weaponry and good will are essential to keeping Afewerki in check. His strategy appears to have borne fruit; the flow of American aid has continued unimpeded, a new $140 million dollar embassy is in the works, and best of all, his hold on power appears to be unassailable. With rewards like these, pardoning political prisoners hardly seems like a risk at all, does it?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Cuba's year without Fidel

Yesterday marked the 54th anniversary of the beginning of the revolution that brought dictator Fidel Castro into power in Cuba. Yesterday also marked the first year of Fidel's unprecedented absence from Cuban life since 1953.

Last year, Fidel traveled to two rallies for his annual July 26th speeches. And then he disappeared, for good. After suffering an unknown intestinal ailment and transferring power to his only slightly less elderly brother Raúl, Fidel has been photographed, videotaped, interviewed over the phone, and feted by fellow autocrats from Vietnam and Venezuela, but he hasn't been seen in public by anyone. Fidel's appetite for enervating four hour speeches and interminable television appearances quickly sparked rumors that the "real" caudillo had died on the operating table, and the "recuperating Fidel" (as seen above) was nothing more than a body double for a dictator now pushing up daisies.

Do I believe Fidel is dead? No, but I believe Fidelismo is dead, and has been dead since Cuba's oil-for-sugar deal with Soviet Union collapsed. The lingering 17 year hangover has seen the corpse animated, like a zombie, but the consciousness had been snuffed out. Cuba is now in a bizarre holding pattern, with Fidel still officially alive, while Fidel's revolution is dead but unburied. The entire world appears to be holding its breath, waiting to bury the dictatorship the second the dictator himself expires (except, of course, the people who Fidelismo even more than Fidel does). Even Raúl himself has seen the writing on the wall, but he too feels compelled to wait until Fidel's body is in the grave before he starts shoveling the dirt of la revolución on his coffin.

Après le déluge, que vient après?

UPDATE: Apparently, an editorial in the Wall Street Journal linked to this article, but it's for subscribers only.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Will Spain erase Franco?

The government of Spain is having a hard time with caudillo Francisco Franco nearly 32 years after his death in 1975. Spanish prime minister José Luis Zapatero is championing a controversial law that would, among other things, ban all images of Franco and his regime from public places, including all Nationalist symbols and references.

So what's the problem, you ask? Hasn't Spain already torn down nearly all of the statues of Franco?

Well, yes. That's not a problem. Zapatero's proposed law goes a step further than simply tearing down Franco's statues, but starts to get into attempting to erase Franco's memory from Spanish history entirely. Zapatero's eerily titled Law for the Recovery of Historical Memory provides monetary compensation, burial with honors, and retroactive political rehabilitation for victims of Franco's fascist government, as well as the relatives of Republican fighters killed during the civil war. However, the attempt to erase the memory of Franco and his government entirely smacks somewhat of Spanish civil war veteran George Orwell's famous "memory hole" from his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where the past has been erased, the erasure forgotten, and the new history becomes true by default. Will whitewashing get rid of Franco's legacy?

Not on your life. In fact, Zapatero's attempt to legislate history has brought everyone back into the act of rehashing the Spanish civil war. Parties on the left are outraged that the new law doesn't compensate enough or annihilate Franco's memory enough. Parties on the right are outraged about the selective memory of the radical left's abuses during the civil war. The rancor has been pretty impressive for a war that's been over for 70 years. After Franco's death, the left and right wing political parties themselves had managed to put aside arguments about the civil war itself by means of the unspoken pacto del olvido ("pact of forgetting"), which put rebuilding Spanish democracy and reintegrating with the world ahead of their own civil war squabbling. Considering Spain's fragile democracy was by no means assured in the 1970s and 1980s, the truce was seen as a viable way for the country to move ahead without risking another left-right fissure that led to political discord, or worse, Fascist or Communist radicalism.

However, it can be more or less successfully argued that Spain's democracy is vibrant enough today to the point where it is no longer threatened by a Fascist resurgence. So why has Zapatero put aside the unspoken pact? God only knows, but once he did, the Spanish left and right have been going at each other like cats and dogs, trading body counts, atrocities, etc. with each other nearly non-stop. It could be that Zapatero's attempt to whitewash the history of the Spanish civil war and the Franco regime was either the best idea Spain ever had, or the dumbest. Yet Spain need only look to Germany to realize that political reconciliation and unvarnished history can, in fact, live side by side, if allowed the opportunity. The folly in legislating history should be self-evident, but then again, it could just be that Spain hasn't learned the hard way yet.

UPDATE: Nobody's quite sure yet what this proposed law would mean for the one of Spain's most visited national monuments, the Valley of the Fallen.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

al-Bashir to West: "Knock it off, you drama queens"

Sudan's military dictator Omar al-Bashir has a few words for anyone in the West concerned about the years long humanitarian disaster in Darfur:

You're all making a big to do about nothing, really!

"Bush and Brown exaggerate what's happening in Darfur to hide the operations carried out in Iraq", explained al-Bashir apropos of nothing in particular.

That will doubtlessly come as startling news to the rest of the world, especially to foreign aid agencies which, at present, are keeping nearly half of the population of Darfur fed, watered and clothed. It also comes as something of a surprise to Western politicians who have spent more time ignoring al-Bashir's personal role in Darfur than, say, doing anything to stop the violence. It's almost as if Omar al-Bashir is trying to get them to feel less guilty by suggesting that there's really not that much to be concerned about. Genocide? Mass murder? Rape? Pillage? Forget it! It's all an exaggeration by neo-colonialist powers, dudes!

Still, the message is clear: concern over Darfur is a Western imperialist trick meant to divide and conquer Sudan. More so than even a dictator who uses mass murder as a tool of domestic policy? Apparently so. Thanks for setting us straight, your excellency.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Mugabe offers to step down in 2008

Zimbabwean despot Robert Mugabe is reportedly offering to resign after the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2008. The 83 year old Mugabe is said to have informed his military general staff that he would be willing to step down in exchange for their assistance in securing a parliamentary win for Mugabe's ruling ZANU-PF party.

Mugabe wishes to run for re-election in 2008, and if the reports are accurate, he wishes to win the election to save face and "humiliate the Western governments bent on re-occupying us". After winning in 2008, he would hypothetically turn control of the country over to a successor. Which successor? Nobody knows, as Mugabe has cycled through countless sycophants since coming to power in 1980. Mugabe certainly knows how to control the Zimbabwean electoral process, with a mix of force and fraud, and there seems to be little doubt that Mugabe could pull out another ZANU-PF win if he really wanted to.

Mugabe's advisers have read the writing on the wall, however. Zimbabwe's economy is the worst in the world, and Mugabe's own security services chief has publicly advised Mugabe that the public is so fed up that Mugabe might not even win a rigged election in 2008 - an unthinkable proposition for Robert Mugabe. Mugabe's lied for so long that it's hard to imagine anyone taking him seriously this time, but this certainly is the first time Mugabe has made any indication that he'd be willing to step down at all period.

UPDATE: Radio Netherlands Worldwide hosts a round table discussion on the political and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe (available here).

Chávez to expel foreign critics from Venezuela

If you're visiting Venezuela any time soon, you'd best keep any observations about the autocratic rule of Hugo Chávez to yourself, or else expulsion from the country. On his television show Aló, Presidente, president Hugo Chávez vociferously promised to expel any visitor who might dare to publicly criticize either him or his cabinet. "No foreigner can come here to attack us!" the caudillo thundered, "anyone who does must be removed from the country!"

Chávez has long been sensitive to the "dictator" label (as we've seen before), and has not been shy about drying up criticisms of his regime at the source. Chávez's bluster appears related to comments made by a visiting Mexican politician attending a Venezuelan pro-democracy conference who made comments that Chávez's plans to eliminate presidential term limits were anti-democratic. A visibly fuming Chávez blasted back, saying:

"How long are we going to allow a person - from any country in the world - to come to our own house to say there's a dictatorship here, that the president is a tyrant, and nobody does anything about it? It CANNOT BE ALLOWED! It is a question of national dignity!"

- Hugo Chávez

Chávez apologists in Europe, the United States and Canada are finding it harder and harder to excuse Chávez's increasingly erratic, and autocratic behavior. Domestically, Chávez's political opponents are worrying that the expulsion order of foreign critics is a precursor to a fresh round of crackdowns on Venezuela's political opposition. The vow to expel foreign critics comes on the heels of Chávez's attempts to further concentrate political power in his own hands. The elimination of term limits is only set to apply to Chávez himself. Chávez is also set to attempt to further mold the rubber stamp National Assembly (who have already granted Chávez the power to rule by decree) in his own image, by gathering all of the currently pro-Chávez lawmakers into a single pro-Chávez party.

So there you have it. Chávez's rich Marxist friends from America are still welcome in Venezuela, but everyone else? Better keep your mouth shut. You have been put on notice.

UPDATE: I really wish he'd take that goddamned beret off that poor defenseless Amazon parrot.

Lukashenko purges security chief

Judging from the news, this appears to have been something of a busy week for the man who has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator", Aleksandr Lukashenko of Belarus.

First, Belarus reported that they had "smashed" a Polish spy ring in Minsk that had been stealing secrets about a proposed joint air defensive system with Russia. And then the next thing you know, Lukashenko goes ahead and purges the chief of Belarus' KGB. Is that how you thank your domestic intelligence agency for busting up a spy ring?

Apparently, the purges reflect an ongoing struggle between Lukashenko and his secret police. Lukashenko claims his removal of KGB chief Stepan Sukhorenko was an "administrative" move, but Lukashenko apparently isn't finished purging his apparatchiks. Next on the chopping block is prime minister Sergei Sidorski who will probably be history sometime this week. What's gotten into Lukashenko, anyway? Is it possible that he's worried about a possible coup d'etat?

Dictator's WMD stockpile destroyed

At long last, a stockpile of weapons of mass destruction assembled by one of the world's most notorious tyrants has been destroyed.

No, not that tyrant. We're talking about the late dictator of Albania, the paranoid Stalinist Enver Hoxha, who in the 1970s had assembled a stockpile of over 18 tons of mustard gas to protect his isolated communist paradise from his myriad (mostly imaginary) enemies. With the destruction of the stockpile, Albania has become the first nation to certifiably eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.

After Hoxha's death in 1985, the Albanian government appears to have forgotten about the deadly cache resting in a massive arms bunker outside the capital of Tirana. The post-communist government's attempts to get rid of the stockpile were derailed in the 1990s, when the country collapsed into chaos following a massive Ponzi scheme that nearly bankrupted the entire nation.

Fortunately (or unfortunately - depending on your outlook), most of the elaborate public monuments dedicated to Enver Hoxha have long since been torn down by his ungrateful nation. However, a tourist with a taste for a dictator's legacy can still travel to Albania and see Hoxha's most notorious gift to his country: hundreds of thousands of concrete bunkers meant to defend Albania from foreign aggression.

The only thing missing from the equation? Actual enemies who wanted to invade Albania.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Papa Doc wants YOU to write for Dictators of the World

Got a hankering for history's most infamous strongmen? Do you yearn to let the world know about dictators in the news? Perhaps you'd care to become a contributing editor for Dictators of the World. Simply drop me a line and let me see what you've got, and who knows? Perhaps you too can contribute to the first (and only?) blog solely devoted to the world's most notorious tyrants.

UPDATE: Someone has picked up the gauntlet! Our newest contributor is also known as blogger in chief at Asian Wild Rose. Bring it on.

Venezuela's brain drain

It's a safe bet that Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez hasn't given much thought to the concept of labor as capital. Oh sure, he's given some scant surface level attention to the Marxist concept of the labor theory of value, but it's hard to be certain he even understood what that meant. Well, unfortunately for Chávez, he's going to have to start giving the human capital idea some serious thought, because Venezuela is starting to feel the pinch of the nemesis of every developing economy, the dreaded brain drain.

For those unfamiliar with the term, brain drain describes the loss of skilled labor in a national economy; doctors, engineers, lawyers, and so on. Chávez, whose populist politics are built on pandering to Venezuela's lowest economic classes, has made a point to label Venezuela's formerly sizable middle and upper classes as "fascists" and "parasites". It's been no secret that the middle and upper classes in Venezuela have been hostile to Chávez's use of Cuban style class struggle rhetoric, and have turned against him at the polls and in the streets. Nearly 3.4 million people, many of them from the middle and upper classes, were signatories to a petition in 2004 for a referendum to recall Chávez.

While the recall referendum failed to oust Chávez, the petition remained. Never failing to seize on a way to screw his enemies, Chávez demanded that the Venezuelan government get their hands on the petition signatures. Chávista parliamentarian, deputy Luis Tascón, did just this, publishing 2.4 million names and ID card numbers on the internet. This list, now known as the "Tascón list" suddenly provided the Chávez government with the personal information of millions of political opponents, and predictably, Chávez moved to get even.

Once the list was online, Chávez appeared on television to provide the URL of the list, and exhorted his supporters to go online to examine it. Within days, thousands of the signatories found themselves losing their jobs, both in the public and private sectors. Some signatories from the Venezuelan armed forces found themselves suddenly demoted, while others found their contracts with the Venezuelan government mysteriously revoked without explanation. The message was crystal clear: oppose Chávez, and you just might find yourself out of a job.

Between the Tascón List and Chávez's infatuation with painting the middle classes as fascist parasites, Venezuela's educated professional classes found themselves doing something they'd never imagined doing before: leaving Venezuela. The numbers of people leaving, which had started as a trickle, is now turning into a torrent. A number estimated at more than 150,000 mostly middle class Venezuelans have fled to the United States alone, with many more applying for visas at the American embassy in Caracas, with hundreds of thousands of others reportedly heading to Europe, Canada and Brazil. The attitude of the Chávez government appears to be along the lines of "good riddance to bad rubbish", but there's certainly cause for concern. Not all of the same people who are fleeing Venezuela are idle plutocrats. Most of them are the trained professional specialists that a nation relies on to function, like the aforementioned doctors and engineers. So what is Venezuela doing to stop the brain drain?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. It seems that Chávez is content to let malcontents leave, reasoning that one less political opponent equates to one less vote against him the next time he runs for office. The thought that the loss of the people who run his hospitals, power plants, law firms and the like, not to mention the loss of an ever increasing chunk of his tax base, might be a disaster doesn't appear to have crossed his mind. The thought that so many of his skilled professionals are going to the United States, home of his sworn enemy George W. Bush doesn't appear to have occurred to him either. Apparently, he suffers from a classic delusion that when enough force is applied, a political enemy will be converted into an ally when he or she gets tired of fighting the system. The answer, incidentally, appears to be a resounding "no". They'll simply pack up and leave, taking as much of their money and all of their skills with them.

Some Venezuelans have voiced concerns about the possibility of Chávez restricting travel from Venezuela along the lines of Fidel Castro's Cuba, but for the time being, the Chávez government appears content to use emigration as a political steam release valve. Will Chávez crack down on professionals leaving once the effects of brain drain become too severe to ignore? We probably won't know for a few more years yet, but in the meantime, Miami welcomes the cream of the Venezuelan crop. Chávez's brain drain is proving to be America's gain.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Just the tip of the iceberg: part II

Last week, I posted a story about how the government of Indonesia is seeking to retrieve $420 million of the money looted by their former dictator, Suharto. Now it appears that the government of Switzerland announced it would be returning $6.6 million dollars of money stolen by the late dictator Mobuto Sese Seko to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

As before, the proportion of loot returned is a pitiful fraction of the estimated $5 billion Mobutu is thought to have looted from the treasure of the country then known as Zaïre. How does Congo's current autocrat, Joseph Kabila, feel about his diminished windfall? Well. Kabila's spokeswoman diplomatically described Kabila as being "disappointed" at hearing that the Swiss only found $6.6 million dollars, but frankly, I can imagine his actual emotions were probably a little more intense. This $6.6 million appears to be the last remnants of the billions looted by Mobutu, as Mobutu's tangible real estate and other assets in Europe and Congo have long since been auctioned off - albeit for dimes and pennies on the dollar. So where the hell did the money go?

While Mobutu certainly was one of history's greatest kleptocrats, efforts to find out where he's stashed the money have been time consuming and fruitless. Part of the problem, of course, is that while the sums looted by Mobutu were impressive, much of the money passed through his fingers almost as fast as he stole it. His fortune, mostly from assistance provided by the United States for Zaïre's development, bought the usual trinkets dictators waste their money. There was the luxury jumbo jet, lavish vacation homes in Europe, the usual fleet of pricey cars, and even an opulent palace with its own international airport deep in the heart of the jungle.

Time and money are fleeting, however, and nobody seems to have realized this more than Mobutu. The majority of the money was spent buying the loyalty of Mobutu's political enemies, most of whom forgot whatever grievances they had when a manila folder stuffed with $100 bills arrived mysteriously at their house. Under Mobutu, a ruling clique of kleptocrats nicknamed "les gros legumes" ("the big vegetables") emerged, all bought off with a steady stream of looted cash.

After all, Mobutu reasoned, why use violence when bribery will suffice?

France wants a piece of Manny

Could prisoner number 38699-079 be headed for an all expenses paid vacation in France?

Yesterday, lawyers for the United States Department of Justice have filed a request before a federal judge in Miami to extradite former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega to France when his US prison term expires on September 9th of this year. The Justice Department is seeking an arrest warrant for Noriega to be issued the same day his sentence is up in Florida for extradition to France. The 69 year old Noriega was convicted in absentia in France for drug trafficking charges, and sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 75 million French francs. It would appear that the French are really chomping at the bit to get their hands on them.

Noriega himself was hoping to return to Panama, but the Panamanian government has made it clear that they want nothing to do with their former caudillo whatsoever. Noriega's lawyers are arguing, with fairly good reasoning, that their client is a prisoner of war, and is entitled to return to his country of origin. Panama's refusal to take him back, combined with the determination of the Americans and French to see Noriega extradited strongly suggest that Manuel Noriega will be 80 years old, broke and homeless by the time he's finally had his fill of French liberté, and égalité - to say nothing of all the fraternité.

So where will Noriega go if he actually survives his French prison term? I'd be willing to bet that Hugo Chávez will have a spot ready for Noriega in Caracas. And why not? Military strongmen need to stick together after all, and as the saying goes, "any enemy of my enemy is a friend of mine".

UPDATE: The Panamanians want Noriega back after all - to try him for the murder of a political enemy whose severed head was found in a mailbag. Who gets him first, Panama, or France?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mao: The Movie!

Idi Amin Dada had his moment in the Hollywood sun with The Last King of Scotland, prompting me to ask: where are the rest of the dictator movies?

Well, Robert De Niro of all people has heard my plea, and will be making a movie about the late Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. De Niro has managed to secure the film rights to Roy Rowan's book Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist's Firsthand Account of the 1949 Chinese Revolution. Presumably, De Niro will be shortening the title to Chasing the Dragon, because, you know, it's impossible for Americans to write books or make movies about China without the words like jade, pearl or dragon in the title.

There's no word yet on how the film intends to frame Mao's bloody war with Chiang Kai-Shek, or the bloody chaos that ensued after the Communist victory. Because the book focuses on the Revolution, it seems to be a safe bet that we're going to be shown Magnanimous Mao, hero of the Agrarian Dispossessed, Enemy of Japanese Fascism, and so on and so forth. Hey, beggars can't be choosers, and I'll take a defanged Mao movie over none at all. But if anyone's listening, it's time to deliver the goods on a Mao movie we can sink our teeth into. Has anyone ever made a movie about the Great Leap Forward? How about a Scorcese style treatment of the Cultural Revolution? They could call it Redfellas!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Saddam's British sycophant MP suspended

British MP "Gorgeous" George Galloway will have an entire month off from work to wax nostalgic about his late bosom buddy, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. That's because the British Parliament's Committee on Standards in Public Life is about to hand out a one month suspension to Galloway for "failing to properly declare his links" to a shell charity that funneled money from the United Nations "oil for food program" into Galloway's pockets. Under the scheme, the oil revenues were transfered to the transparently bogus charity devoted to ending sanctions on Iraq, before disappearing into Galloway's hands. One hand washed the other, turning sanctions busting into Mercedes Benzes and a swank luxury villa in Portugal for Galloway. Not bad for a poor boy from Dundee, eh?

The one month suspension is one of the harshest penalties to be handed out by the Parliamentary regulatory body, but Galloway isn't particularly worried. Perhaps he's waiting for someone to salute his "courage and indefatigability" while he's out?

Hissène Habré to face trial in Senegal

The government of Senegal has announced that it is "nearly ready" to begin the trial of former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré for war crimes and crimes against humanity resulting in over 40,000 people killed. Habré is accused of launching a nearly genocidal assault on ethnic minority groups opposed to central rule, and directing his secret police to kidnap, torture and murder tens of thousands of political prisoners during his eight year reign between 1982 and 1990. After his 1990 ouster by Chad's current president, Idriss Déby, Habré fled to Senegal to escape the vengeance of his victims.

In 2005, the government of Belgium invoked its ludicrous "universal jurisdiction" law (which had expired two years earlier) to indict Habré on war crimes charges, and demanded that the Senegalese extradite Habré to Belgium to face trial. The Senegalese government, somewhat sensibly, told the Belgians to forget it, saying that they don't recognize Belgium's self-appointed authority to indict war criminals, especially under an expired law. So is Habré going to get off scot free?

Apparently not. The Senegalese parliament has recently passed a law to allow Habré to face trial in Senegal, and placed him under house arrest. Furthermore, the Senegalese have rejected calls for a special tribunal for the Habré trial, opting instead for a regular criminal court, claiming that the creation of a special tribunal would cost upwards of $90,000,000. The figure sounds preposterous, until one realizes that the tribunal created for the late Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milošević cost nearly $300,000,000. Senegal won't be doing this on the cheap, however, and said they have plans to "transport and protect" over 20,000 witnesses against Habré to Senegal to take part in the trial. The Europeans are fuming about how long it's taking to bring Habré to trial, but then again, none of them are offering to pay for it, either.

The Senegalese are determined to give Habré a "fair" trial, but skepticism abounds that the government has the will to convict someone of such prominent notoriety who had been living out in the open for so long. Other questions linger, too. Will Habré's political connections inside Senegal be a help, or a hindrance? Will the Belgians continue to sulk about being dissed by Senegal? And, oh yeah, what about Habré's victims? Anyone remember them?

Friday, July 13, 2007

No South African bailout for Mugabe

Apparently, the rumors that the South African Development Community were planning to rescue the Zimbabwean economy by pegging the value of the Zimbabwean dollar to the South African rand have, apparently turned out to be inaccurate.

Well, the reports probably were accurate. After all, they were leaked by sources inside the SADC itself. However, the SADC wasn't quite prepared for the flurry of condemnation that followed. Why would anyone in their right mind prop up Robert Mugabe's regime by fixing his economy and leaving (for the most part) the political problems that have ruined it in place? Within less than two days, South Africa went from expressing "concern" over the Zimbabwean economic nightmare, to pitching the rand idea, to denying everything. I've got to hand it to Thabo Mbeki - he's certainly figured out the mechanics of the news cycle par excellence. Once an invaluable ally in the anti-apartheid struggle, even some of the same black South Africans who once owned Mugabe a debt of gratitude are starting to get fed up with Mugabe's intractable tyranny.

There's no denying, however, that South Africa has made a royal mess out of their relationship with Robert Mugabe, and they're looking for a quick and politically painless exit from their once inseparable relationship with Mugabe. President Mbeki is learning first hand how "regional leadership" isn't all it's cracked up to be. South Africa did not create the Mugabe dictatorship - true. However, they suddenly realized just how ineffective their "quiet diplomacy" with Mugabe was.

I suggest that Thabo Mbeki start reading up on the nature of dictatorships to find out why Robert Mugabe has put his own interests ahead of his relationship with South Africa, or even that of his own people. It might even save South Africa a bit of embarrassment down the line when they will inevitably deal with the same problems down the line with Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos! And until then? Well, there's always the strategy of "quiet disengagement", which is also known as, "ignore him, and maybe he'll just go away". It doesn't work any better than "quiet diplomacy", but it certainly offers the same results with even less work.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Welcome to Stalinworld!

Russia has recently declassified documents from the reign of Josef Stalin to allow access to the records of people arrested, jailed, tortured, exiled to the GULAG or executed by family members of the victims.

From the years of 1920 - 1950, nearly 30 million Soviet citizens were "repressed" (to use the official term) by Stalin's security services, with anywhere from 10 to 15 million of them dying either from execution or exposure and starvation in a prison camp. Today, the modern ancestor of Stalin's NKVD (the FSB) is the agency taking the lid off the histories of people who, for all intents and purposes, had simply disappeared.

So is there a catch? Yes. Access to the archives is only provided to surviving relatives of the politically repressed, and will not be made available to the public. While this is certainly a boon to the families of victims, it must be remembered that most of the surviving relatives who were small children during Stalin's bloodiest are now starting to get quite old. Why aren't the Russians releasing the information to journalists and historians? Perhaps they are, and just want the families to have first crack at them, although the current trends under current Russian president Vladimir Putin suggest that these records will head back under lock and key once the "healing period" is over.

I wondered: is it too much to hope that the Russians will opt for total disclosure, as the Germans have with regards to Nazi atrocities? The quick answer is, "yes, of course it is". Since the end of World War 2, no other country on earth has undergone as much self-analysis and self-criticism as Germany has. Russia, by way of contrast, will have none of it. Would you believe that Stalin, even today, remains popular in Russia? Where German schools have spared no details on the nature of Nazi atrocities, most Russians don't learn the extent of Stalin's bloodbaths at home or abroad until they leave Russia.

You know, why dwell on the negative all the time, anyway?

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Final finale for Fidel?

The political role of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been up in the air since he transferred power to his younger brother Raúl nearly a year ago. Fidel, who has not made a public appearance since the handover, was still seen as being at least nominally in charge despite the formal handover. Skepticism abounds, with some people believing Fidel may actually be dead, while others believing that he's been shunted aside, while others believing that he's primed for a comeback.

Soon, however, we may be finding out what role if any Fidel will be officially playing. Raúl has set October 21 as the date for general elections to the Cuban National Assembly, the Communist party organ that "chose" (actually rubber stamped) the country's president, who just happened to be Fidel Castro, decade after decade, by unanimous margins. National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon declared that he would once again nominate Fidel for the presidency back in March, but if Fidel's name doesn't come up when the Assembly convenes after the election, it's a safe bet that Raúl will win the job by a Fidelesque landslide. And after that? You can bet that only time we'll be seeing Fidel in the news after that is in the obituary section.

All of this begs some interesting questions. Is Fidel out of the way for good? What sort of changes will Raúl make? Obviously, Raúl has seen the writing on the wall regarding the economic and political viability of one party socialist states after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Cuban people are becoming noisily fed up with empty store shelves and ever shrinking government rations. It's a safe bet that Raúl, who is no spring chicken himself, won't rock the boat too much (least of all on human rights). After all, he's invested too heavily in the status quo to turn Cuba into Canada, but it will certainly be interesting to see what Raúl will do once he wields the same unlimited political authority that Fidel was used to.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The incredible shrinking Kim Jong-Il

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is looking, well, decidedly mortal these days. After reportedly undergoing heart bypass surgery in May, Kim has finally reappeared in public for a meeting with China's foreign minister during a celebration of the North Korean army's 75th anniversary.

The once rotund "Dear Leader" appeared much thinner than usual, and his once resplendent pompadour has given way to a terrifyingly sparse and patchy scalp full of bald spots and odd bursts of wiry hair. Never before has such a powerful dictator looked so ... mangy. Of course, Kim's health is a strictly kept state secret, so how did the illustrious Stalinist monarch explain his recent frail appearance? By claiming he's been spending long nights in the office. Obviously, Kim can hardly afford to do something as bourgeois as dropping dead before he settles the question of which of his sons will succeed him when he dies.

Kim's oldest son, Kim Jong-nam, is nearly 36, and apparently, had devoted himself mostly to living a life of leisure. By contrast, Kim Jong-Il had already joined the North Korean politburo by the age of 32. While Korean tradition obviously favors primogeniture, the porcine heir apparent is reportedly in disgrace with his father. After Kim Jong-nap was arrested in Japan for trying to enter the country with a fake Dominican passport, Kim Jong-Il apparently began grooming his second oldest son, 25 year old Kim Jong-chul. Rumors abound, however, that Kim Jong-chul is a homosexual, and is considered "too effeminate" to rule North Korea. That leaves 22 year old Kim Jong-woong as the last choice, but he's considered far too young to enter the cutthroat world of North Korean politics.

Ladies man Kim Jong-nam

What dictator watchers really want to know is: just what kind of "leader" will take over when Kim Jong-Il dies? Papa Kim Il-Sung was the "Great Leader", while his son Kim Jong-Il is the "Dear Leader". Following the downward trend of adulatory adjectives, can we expect an "Alright Leader" or even a "Just Okay Leader"? Would anyone like to propose a new adjective for North Korea's next Stalinist despot?

Monday, July 09, 2007

Berdimuhammedov goes for the bling-bling

Turkmenistan's president Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov continued dismantling the personality cult of the late Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niazov by mandating the removal of the overlay of Niazov's profile (seen in the upper right hand corner of the photo) from television programs in Turkmenistan. What's more, statues of the late "Father of all Turkmen" have been quietly disappearing, while villages named after Niazov have been quietly re-named.

The quiet demise of what was one of the world's most powerful dictator personality cults is perhaps one more indication that Berdimuhammedov is serious about dragging Turkmenistan out of the political dark ages. It's also a sign that he's coming out on top of a recent power struggle with the remnants of his predecessor's former lackeys and apparatchiks. Berdimuhammedov was apparently expected to be a puppet controller by Niazov's former director of state security, Akmurad Rejepov. However, in a move reminiscent of Nikita Khrushchev's triumph over Lavrenti Beria, Berdimuhammedov unexpectedly had Rejepov sacked and arrested for "crimes against the state", thus eliminating his single greatest political obstacle.

It's still too soon to say whether Berdimuhammedov is a genuine reformer or not, but there appears to be no doubt that he's firmly in the driver's seat. So, will Berdimuhammedov be a dictator or not? Despite the nascent political reforms and dismantling of the Niazov personality cult, some signs remain that old habits die hard in Turkmenistan. Despite an official pronouncement that he would not welcome an official celebration of his fiftieth birthday, Berdimuhammedov apparently changed his mind at the last moment.

After only six months in office, Berdimuhammedov presented himself with the medal of the "Order of the Motherland", an award created by Turkmenbashi himself to honor, well, Turkmenbashi himself. The medal itself is said to weigh just over a kilogram of solid gold and is adorned with diamonds. It's also worth noting that the Order of the Motherland prize comes with a $20,000 cash bonus and a 30% increase in salary and pension benefits. Not bad for a former dentist, eh? What's more, despite his previous refusal to create a personality cult, Berdimuhammedov has decided to splurge a bit and release a commemorative gold coin with his portrait as a part of his birthday celebration. No word yet on whether or not he'll be going for gold statues, as Niazov did, but Berdimuhammedov's abrupt volte face in favor of Niazov style self-aggrandizement shows that he's still relevant fodder for discussion on Dictators of the World. Thank heavens!

UPDATE: Does anyone know what's going on with the status of the Ruhnama in Turkmenistan under Berdimuhammedov? It's hard to imagine that Berdimuhammedov would dismantle Niazov's personality cult while leaving the Ruhnama's intact.

Just the tip of the iceberg

Prosecutors in Indonesia have filed a lawsuit against their former dictator, Suharto, seeking to reclaim some $420 million dollars embezzled by the elderly kleptocrat. So what's the problem?

The problem is that $420 million is the tip of the iceberg. As the most infamous of the 20th century's kleptocrats, Suharto's haul of stolen monies reads like a typographical error: over $15 billion dollars, with some estimates going as high as $25 or $30 billion dollars obtained through bribery, the establishment of monopolies and outright embezzlement. This figure elevates Suharto to, perhaps, being the greatest thief in history. Certainly, the amount of money looted by Suharto far surpasses his somewhat more notorious kleptocrat peers like the late Mobutu Sese-Seko of Zaire, the late Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines and the Duvalier dynasty of Haiti.

So why are prosecutors only looking for such a relatively paltry amount? It's alleged that the money has been widely dispersed, both in the forms of economic monopolies on everything from clove cigarettes and fuel at home, to investment properties overseas, nearly all of which are nominally owned by Suharto's brainless playboy son, Tommy Suharto. Much of the money allegedly resides in bank accounts in Switzerland and Austria, countries whose banking laws favor the privacy of the depositor.

It's doubtful that Indonesia will recover so much as a thin dime from the octogenarian dictator, who has been in poor health for years. What's more, much of the stolen money has been so thoroughly laundered through legitimate (or semi-legitimate) business interests inside Indonesia for so long, that recovering the stolen money by appropriating the assets that laundered it could seriously damage the Indonesian economy. So it appears that the $420 million figure may have been reached by attempting to calculate the cash reserves kept by Suharto and his family inside Indonesia itself, which really, is nothing more than pocket money for the world's most successful kleptocrat.

Friday, July 06, 2007

How I love foreign news services

I believe I already mentioned how I love reading Syria's awkward information ministry press releases on SANA (home of the mandatory celebration isosceles trapezoid!) - but wait! Fresh from the Caucases, the generically named Trend News Agency reports that dictator Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan "felicitates US President on Independence Day". It almost sounds filthy when you put it that way, doesn't it?

Speaking of Azerbaijan, I love how their official tourism site contains a list of all the "filthy and despicable" acts committed by the "Armenian aggressors" in the Nagorno-Karabakh war. Yeah, nothing sells Azerbaijan as a tourist destination quite like that, fellas.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Is Chávez cracking down on journalists?

Roger Santodomingo, the editor of the Venezuelan web site Noticiero Digital, resigned last week in the face of increasing threats from supporters of autocrat Hugo Chávez. Santodomingo received a letter that had been circulating at his son's school which called him a "traitor", and began receiving voicemails that suggest that his son would be run over while walking home from school. The cherry on the sundae occurred yesterday when his car was set ablaze while it was parked outside his home.

Chávez has been working hard to stifle media opposition to his "Bolivarian revolution", but the targeting of Santodomingo marks a new low in Venezuela's rapidly diminishing press freedoms. Just as when a Chavista mob attacked the offices of the (now closed) RCTV, Chávez could wash his hands of it and blame overzealous supporters. However, Chávez cannot wash his hands either of the incendiary anti-opposition press rhetoric that inspires his followers to use violence, much less forget that power in Venezuela is from the top down. If Chávez doesn't issue a statement calling on his party's regional leaders to stop, or even condemn, the violence, the attacks on journalists will continue. Granted, the Mercedes Marxists in America and Europe are embarrassed by Chávez's institution of Cuban style repression of journalists. A law passed in 2005 threatens journalists with legal action for "insulting" public officials, and while it had used mostly as a threat to journalists unfriendly to Chávez, the government has gone on the offensive with a spate of prosecutions.

Is anyone starting to realize why Hugo gets along so famously with Robert Mugabe and Alexsandr Lukashenko?

UPDATE: Welcome readers of The Beak Speaks!

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Will Meles Zenawi attack Isaias Afewerki?

Rumors abound that Ethiopia is planning a "preemptive" invasion of Eritrea, starting a new chapter of military tension between perenially dueling dictators Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia and Isaias Afewerki of Eritrea.

While their proxy war in Somalia continues, Meles Zenawi raised tensions by moving thousands of troops and heavy military hardware near the perpetually contested border with Eritrea to "prevent a possible Eritrean invasion of Ethiopia" while simultaneously issuing a warning to Afewerki to butt out of Somalia. Unperturbed by Ethiopia's threats, Afewerki's government blasted Meles Zenawi as a "boot licker" to the United States, and predicted Ethiopia's imminent defeat in Somalia.

While Ethiopia does indeed have its hands full at home and in Somalia, there's little doubt that Ethiopia's recent military training and equipment upgrades have given Meles Zenawi a decisive tactical edge in any potential conflict with Afewerki. And who knows? Kicking Eritrea's ass might take his mind off improving human rights or expanding political freedoms on the home front.

Obviously, you can tell I think Meles Zenawi is dealing from a position of strength with Afewerki, but perhaps that's just me. Looking through my site statistics, I see a couple of readers in the United Kingdom who read my posts about Eritrea and Ethiopia for hours a day. What do you the readers, especially you blokes in Epsom, think?

Top 10 Profile: Adolf Hitler

Name: Adolf Hitler
Born: April 20, 1889 in Braunau am Inn, Austria
Died: April 30, 1945 in Berlin, Germany
Length of rule: January 30, 1933 - April 30, 1945 (12 years)
Means of ascent to power: Quasi-democratic
Means of removal from power: Committed suicide to avoid capture
Style: Police state, cult of personality, fascist, national socialist


Even though Adolf Hitler is arguably the 20th century's most infamous dictator, his very notoriety makes him a difficult topic to analyze rationally. We in the Western world all know the man's basic biography by now: born in Austria, a failed artist, wounded in the first world war, attempted to overthrow the German government in a clumsy putsch, took power more or less democratically before seizing total power, started a ruinous war, instituted genocide and finally, killed himself and his girlfriend to avoid capture by the Soviet Red Army. In fact, thanks to Hitler's infamy, he may be the most intensely studied dictator in world history. Ever watch The History Channel? The Hitler Channel is more like it. No matter where we go, there are comparisons of X to Hitler, warnings about "new Hitlers", footage of Hitler, soundbites of Hitler, usage of Hitler as a metaphor for raw evil, and so on.

All of this is fine and useful up to a degree, but the West's ceaseless interest in all things Hitler tends to overlook the finer points of what Hitler was like as a dictator. How did he assume power so easily? Who were his political role models? What was his relationship with other leaders really like?

We know that Hitler was certainly faced a gap between his boundless political ambition and his actual political conviction. Hitler drew his inspiration from Europe's contemporary revolutionary movements. Hitler certainly admired Italian dictator Benito Mussolini's fascist doctrine, but what good is mere ideology alone? Hitler also greatly respected the willingness of the burgeoning socialist revolutionary movements to resort to utterly ruthless violence to achieve their political ends. At some point, Hitler appears to have asked himself: what if Red violence were tied to the power of a fascist state? What would the characteristics of empire engaging in a perpetual statist revolution be? While Josef Stalin arguably beat Hitler to the punch in mixing leftist revolutionary violence with omnipresent state authority, Hitler nevertheless found the combination quite potent.

As a dictator, Hitler let his cunning and unerring political instincts fill in any troublesome ideological gaps. When Hitler wiped out his potential political rivals during the infamous night of the long knives, no less an authority than Stalin himself exclaimed admiringly, "that's how you do it!" And while his comical penchant for dramatic Wagnerian aesthetics and military pageantry was ridiculed at home and abroad, Hitler's innate grasp of politics found a way to make his dictatorship resonate emotionally with the masses in a way that eluded Stalin or Mussolini. After all, Hitler argued, the all-powerful state is the culmination of your revolution!

With a pervasive cult of personality to win the adoration of the masses and a disciplined secret police to weed out enemies, Hitler kept himself at the center of attention at all times, recognizing the need for the dictator to constantly be the focus of political attention. His admirers, both domestic and foreign, were enthralled by how the drab little Austrian became an electrified man of action in rebuilding a Germany shattered by war. And Hitler certainly recognized the value of being the center of world attention. No other dictator in history, not even Saddam Hussein, managed to crowd the spotlight so effectively. Even 60 years after his death, Hitler's loathsome fans find a way to stay enthralled. How many dictators can say that?

So where did Adolf's hold on power slip? It's quite simple: he flatted himself into believing that he possessed a talent for military leadership that simply didn't exist. While his political instincts were excellent (Hitler correctly foresaw the willingness of France, England and the Soviet Union to capitulate to German demands), he wound up biting off far more than he could chew when he insisted on overruling his generals on actual military decisions. Leading the masses is one thing, but leading troops? That's a job best left to the professionals.

In a way, it's a shame we've (somewhat understandably) reduced Hitler to an empty cartoon embodiment of pure evil, because this gets in the way of understanding the real man and real events of his time with the proper distance and seriousness they deserve. Hitler is the most famous dictator on my top 10 list, while simultaneously being the most frustrating to talk about. The most analyzed tyrant in history is also still the biggest blank slate when it comes to putting the pieces together. People have attempted to build psychological profiles of Hitler to little avail. We've asked if he was a homosexual, what role his vegetarianism may have played in his personality, how deep his anti-semitism ran on a personal level, what impact his failure as an artist had on his ambitions, and so on ad nauseam. I could talk about Hitler for a month straight and still feel like I've added nothing new.

So perhaps the readers who voted for Hitler in the last Top 10 profile contest can tell me: what do you want to know about Adolf Hitler?

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Mugabe's comatose economic policy

Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe is living proof why octogenarian Marxists have absolutely no business trying to manage a nation's economy. Consider Mugabe's classic Marxist response to his country's eye popping, regime threatening, hyperinflation, to wit, unleashing the state security services on shopkeepers who violate state price controls. Mugabe's blamed the British government for hatching a devious plot to undermine his regime by somehow getting shopkeepers to ignore government price controls and has instituted a crackdown by the "inflation police" to remedy the problem.

If you're the sort of person whose eyes glaze over when the topic of economics comes up, pay attention to this painless summary of what caused Zimbabwe's hyperinflation. Due to horrendous economic mismanagement and scandalous public corruption, the value of the Zimbabwean dollar has plummeted as the reserves of foreign "hard" currency in Zimbabwe's central bank dwindled to nothing. Without any hard currency to back up the value of the Zimbabwean dollar, the Zimbabwean government found itself unable to pay for imports of things like oil, food, and so on. With no cash on hand, the government simply printed more money. When you have a growing supply of worthless money chasing an ever dwindling supply of goods, inflation is born. When the government's printing presses outstrip the supply of goods by an enormous margin, you wind up with hyperinflation.

Mugabe's fetish for implementing halfassed Marxist economic policies have left him unprepared for dealing with the world's worst hyperinflation. The classic economic view of inflation states that inflation is always a monetary phenomenon. Mugabe himself probably knows this, but for whatever reason, he continues to ignore the reasons the Zimbabwean dollar is worth less than a square of toilet paper. Why institute economic reforms when you can have the cops rough up shopkeepers for failing to adhere to prices concocted at random by government bureaucrats?

"Do not distort our prices. Stop it or we will force you to close or we take over your factory!"
-Warning to Zimbabwean shopkeepers in government newspapers

Mugabe is doubtlessly aware that even if shopkeepers sold their goods at the official price, the actual value of the currency received at the end of the day will be worth much less by the end of the next day, precipitating the need for yet another set of "official" prices on a daily (or more!) basis. The merchants lose money on every single transaction, and when they're out of goods, they're out of business, thereby reducing even further the number of goods available to buy with the still skyrocketing supply of banknotes. As always, Mugabe's solution is making the problem infinitely worse.

It's impossible to imagine that Mugabe actually believes he has any chance of succeeding, which prompts the question of what Mugabe intends to do when his police and soldiers are getting tired of being saddled with mountains of worthless money that can't buy them food or clothing. A real economist would have stopped the bleeding years ago by implementing government austerity plans and tackling corruption. Mugabe, however, relies on extravagant perks to his minister and access to stealing public monies as the cement that holds his ever increasingly shaky government coalition together. In other words, when beating the crap out of store owners fails to fix the problem, Mugabe's going to need one hell of a Plan B.

UPDATE: Archbishop Ncube is begging Great Britain to invade Zimbabwe and overthrow Mugabe. I think this qualifies as a "discourse on post-colonial power", don't you?

Monday, July 02, 2007

The masses have spoken!

The polls are closed! The vote to choose the next dictator to receive a Top 10 profile has ended, and the masses have chosen German Führer Adolf Hitler as the next tyrant to be profiled on Dictators of the World. It's like 1933 all over again! Hitler's 30% share trumped heavyweights Josef Stalin (25%) and Mao Zedong (17.5%) and also unfortunately trounced my personal favorite, François "Papa Doc" Duvalier (2.5%). To be honest, I was dreading Hitler's triumph, will or no will. I'm really going to have to dig a bit to avoid a standard biographical rehash a la The History Channel.

Der Führer will get what's coming to him shortly, after which, the field of contestants will be reduced to five. Who will be next? And why isn't poor Enver Hoxha getting any votes?

Chávez and Lukashenko indignant over "dictator" label

Happy belated Canada Day! While our neighbors to the north were off doing the barbecues and beer thing, Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez was putting the finishing touches on a trip to Minsk, Belarus to hobnob with Europe's last dictator, Aleksandr Lukashenko. After pledging "mutual cooperation" in trade, military affairs (?!) and scientific research, both caudillo and commissar sniffed indignantly about their rotten images abroad. Chávez in particular was indignant, huffing the following:

"We have many obstacles and opponents, above all this empire that calls us dictators."

This is a moment of irony so absolutely perfect, that I can't even bear to ruin it with a sarcastic comment.