Monday, April 30, 2007

¡Socialismo hasta muerte!

Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez held a press conference yesterday to announce that elderly Cuban dictator Fidel Castro is "in charge" once again after nearly 10 months out of power following botched intestinal surgery. Chávez went on to quote his sycophantic Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales by saying that Castro will be present in Havana for Cuba's unintentionally retro-kitsch Soviet style May Day parade.

There has been no apparent comment yet from Fidel's younger (but still elderly) brother Raúl, who assumed Fidel's title and duties when the caudillo went under the knife in July. If you think Raúl is disappointed, imagine how Cuban dissidents and journalists feel about the end of Raúl's modest experiments with liberalization.

Before his hospitalization, Fidel had moved past late North Korean tyrant Kim Il-Sung for the title of the 20th century's longest reigning leader with 47 years in power. While Fidel does not appear to be dying of cancer, he is 80 years old, which is fairly old even by communist dictator standards. Will there be a backlash by Castro? A backlash against Castro? Will Fidel attempt to pretend this interregnum never even occurred? It's all too soon to say, but if Fidel really is back, we can all look forward to rich western Marxists creaming their jeans in delight at Cuba's extended date with repression and poverty.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: Postscript

The Ethiopian military and Somali Transitional Government have reportedly defeated the Islamic Courts Union and Hawiye clan militias in Mogadishu. There has been no comment yet from Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi on what Ethiopia plans to do next.

UPDATE: Mogadishu residents who had fled the fighting are starting to return to the city.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: What happened to Somalia?

It's time to wrap up Horn of Africa week, and what better way to finish things than with a look at a country front and center in the news. That would be Somalia, of course, a country currently being blasted to hell and back in a war between the Ethiopian army and the Islamic Courts Union's al-Shabaab "youth brigade" and Hawiye clan militias who are backed by Ethiopia's archenemy Eritrea. So why are they duking it out in Somalia? Isn't there anyone in charge there?

The quick and easy answer is: no. At least, not anymore.

You see, even in the best of times, Somalia has only barely conformed to the modern notion of the nation state. Somalia has a flag and borders that are more or less internationally recognized, but after that, similarities to what most people know as nationhood more or less ends. After what is now modern day Somalia emerged from Italian and British colonial rule, the concept of Somalia as a state rather than as an entity defined as "where Somalis live" still proved elusive. A centralized government in Mogadishu ostensibly called the shots, but in most areas of the country, the name of the game was 'regional autonomy', with power effectively wielded regionally by the leaders of Somalia's clans and their sub-clans, as had been done long before the notion of the modern nation state emerged.

When Somalia gained independence in 1960, the central government, such as it was, faced an uphill battle trying to unify Somalia into a country. When Somali President Abdirashid Shermarke was assassinated in 1969, it looked like a major setback for Somalia's transition into a modern state. That is, until the day of his funeral, when the military seized control in a coup d'etat. Out of the post-coup chaos, one military officer stepped to the forefront to take control. His name was Mohamed Siad Barre, and for the next 22 years, he would rule as Somalia's uncontested dictator.

The nice thing about being a dictator, of course, is the freedom to use means democratically elected leaders find abhorrent to achieve your goals. And so it was with Siad Barre, who decided to drag Somalia, kicking and screaming if need be, into the age of the modern nation state. Siad Barre quickly declared that he had come to break the hold of the clans on Somali society by transforming Somalia into a Soviet client state modeled on "scientific socialism". Since the average Somali knew nothing about Marx and Engels, Siad Barre didn't concern himself with the finer points of Socialist doctrine. He did, however, take a keen interest in building a ruthless network of secret police bent on eliminating any political opposition, as well as creating a pervasive (and successful) personality cult that declared "Comrade Siad Barre" to be the Father of the Nation.

Despite his heavy hand, Siad Barre proved to be popular with his people. He legitimized the use of the Somali language for official business, and even mandated orthographic reforms that helped increase literacy. Siad Barre was nothing if not proud to be Somali, a sentiment even the fractious populace understood, and he even found enthusiastic public support for his his most grandiose, and lasting, idea: Greater Somalia. Siad Barre sought to "reunify" traditional Somali stomping grounds and bring them under Mogadishu's centralized rule.

The only problem is, half of the lands in "Greater Somalia" belonged to countries like Ethiopia and Kenya. Siad Barre, who was already funding a Somali rebel group inside Ethiopia, bided his time, waiting for the right moment to invade Ethiopia's Ogaden region. Siad Barre decided to wait until 1977, when Haile Mengistu Miriam took control of military government who had toppled Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. At this point, Siad Barre's Soviet armed and trained forces greatly outnumbered the Ethiopian army, which was still reeling from the internal chaos caused by the military coup. What Siad Barre did not appear to know, however, is that Mengistu had just turned Ethiopia into a client state.

When Siad Barre finally invaded Ethiopia in 1977, the Soviets found themselves arming and financing both sides of the war, and told Siad Barre to halt his invasion. Siad Barre, however, refused to abandon the goal of a "Greater Somalia", and so the Soviets cut him off. Ethiopia, flush with Soviet and Cuban support, started hammering the suddenly beleaguered Somali military until Siad Barre was forced to retreat without gaining any territory at all. Needless to say, Siad Barre's love affair with the Soviet Union was over, and transferred his allegiance to the United States. While Siad Barre lost the war, he still managed to remained popular at home - a feat that's unusual for a military dictator who's just found himself on the losing end of the war.

Unfortunately for Siad Barre, however, things would only get worse. The Ethiopian government started to harass Siad Barre with small scale military incursions, and the Americans began to cut off aid to Somalia as Siad Barre's human rights abuses became more widespread and more egregious. When Siad Barre's military bodyguards killed 65 protesters at a soccer stadium in 1990, the public had clearly started to sour on the dictator they used to love. When clan based militias supported by Ethiopia started taking over large parts of the country, the dictator found himself powerless to resist their advances. By 1991, a rebel army led by Siad Barre's former military intelligence chief Mohamed Farrah Aidid had chased Siad Barre out of Mogadishu for good. Siad Barre launched a mercifully brief counterattack before fleeing to exile in Nigeria, where he died in exile in 1995.

If you don't recall what happened in Somalia after Siad Barre fled, you can catch up here. You may even recall a modestly successful Hollywood film about that era of Somali history. Suffice it to say, since Siad Barre's departure, Somalia once again found itself without central governance. This condition of quasi-anarchy worked well in the countryside, less so in the cities where rival clan militias started shooting at one another in seemingly interminable battles for control. The 16 year power vacuum in Somalia also turned the country into one of the world's most fertile training grounds for Islamic terrorist organizations and high seas piracy. I'm sure Mohamed Siad Barre is somewhere, feeling smug about how his country has fallen pieces without him.

Anyway. This concludes Horn of Africa week. As always, if my readers have any ideas for other themed weeks or posts, just be sure to leave a comment - it doesn't take me long to read all of them.

Dictators of the World now returns to its regularly scheduled programming:

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: Meet Meles Zenawi

Horn of Africa week continues here at Dictators of the World with an examination of Isaias Aferwerki's archenemy, Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi.

Meles Zenawi was a 22 year old medical school student when Emperor Haile Selassie was overthrown in a coup d'etat orchestrated by a group of military officers known as the Derg. The hostility of the Derg towards the people of Tigray prompted the young Zenawi (being Tigrinya himself) to join, and eventually lead, a Marxist resistance group called the Tigrayan People's Liberation Front who were bent on driving out the Derg, especially the eventual Derg chairman, dictator Haile Mengistu Meriam.

After decades of fighting, (and compliated political mergers) Zenawi got his big break when the Soviet Union collapsed, and Mengistu's primary source of military and economic aid completely dried up. By May of that year, the Zenawi led Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front chased Mengistu into exile, and Zenawi took power first as "transitional president" until 1995, when he took the title of Ethiopia's first elected Prime Minister.

"This is not your run of the mill demonstration. This is an Orange Revolution gone wrong."
- Meles Zenawi

Once in power, Zenawi became the darling of the industrialized west, who hailed him as a reformer and a democrat. While it was certainly true that Zenawi's rule was far more democratic than that of his predecessor, it's also true that he's either arranged or tolerated a wide array of "voting irregularities" that keep his party in power. His government has also been widely condemned for ordering an incredibly violent police crackdown on a crowd protesting the rigged elections in 2005 that left nearly 200 people killed, countless injured, and resulted in tens of thousands of arrests. Zenawi was quick to dismiss these condemnations, saying that the protesters in questions were harboring rioters armed with guns and hand grenades, an allegation denied by some eyewitnesses.

And then there's the war. In 1998, the former Ethiopian province of Eritrea led by former colleague Isaias Aferweki, led soldiers into the Ethiopian town of Badme. In no time at all, what had been a minor border dispute turned into a full blown war. During the conflict, the Zenawi government began to expel deporting Ethiopians of Eritrean descent across the deadly front lines to Eritrea, a flagrant human rights violation. Zenawi also used the war as a pretext to begin cracking down on his political enemies, throwing unknown thousands of dissidents in jail and harassing journalists deemed unfriendly to the government.

While less autocratic than his rival in Eritrea, Zenawi has certainly made it clear that he intends to stay in power, and does not mind resorting to vote rigging and political persecution to do so. Ethiopia's cooperation in the fight against Islamic militancy in Somalia has also led to a key alliance with Washington in the war on terror. This alliance has provided Zenawi with access to military and economic aid that might otherwise be denied, and has also caused Washington to look the other way when it comes to Zenawi's abuse of political and human rights in Ethiopia. Zenawi's dictatorship, while not entirely legitimized by the United States, European and African Unions, is tolerated, if only because they find his abuses of political and human rights "less egregious" than those in Eritrea, and because of Ethiopia's ability to keep rebel movements that are deemed to be even nastier in check. Zenawi's critics have rightly alleged that Zenawi has his hands dirty as well when it comes to sponsoring rebel armies in neighboring countries, and it is further suggested that should Zenawi ever find himself at peace at home and abroad he would face uncomfortable demands for political reform from his western patrons. A cynic might even suggest this provides Zenawi with motivation to pursue military solutions to problems that could be resolved peacefully, but as you all know by now, I'm certainly no cynic.

All of this leads us to the current fighting in the Horn of Africa. Will Zenawi or Afewerki come out on top in their proxy war in Somalia? Will they go back to the negotiating table, or simply declare war again?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: Meet Isaias Afewerki

You know, I hadn't actually intended to blog about the escalating violence in the Horn of Africa all week, but honestly, the renewed conflict between Eritrean strongman Isaias Afewerki and Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi is too compelling for anyone with an interest in dictators to ignore. I wrote about the tensions leading up to this conflict yesterday, but what I haven't done is talk about the men themselves, or what they've done to their respective nations.

I'll start with Isaias Afewerki, because quite frankly, he's the more authoritarian of the two. Under Afewerki's rule, the newest country in Africa has also become the most paranoid country in Africa. Under his rule, Eritrea has turned into one of the most totalitarian states in Africa, which is no mean feat when you consider the competition for that title.

As the old adage goes, one man, one vote, one time. Afewerki was elected just once after Eritrea's independence in 1993, and has stayed put ever since. A cautious man, he's decided that Eritrea's newfound independence was too fragile to risk multiple political parties or a privately owned press and has banned both. When foreign journalists in Eritrea started using the word "dictatorship", Afewerki simply kicked them out of the country.

"What is a free press? There is no free press anywhere."
- Isaias Afewerki

How bad is it for reporters in Eritrea? Bad. Scandalously so, in fact. The international journalist watchdog group Reporters Without Borders ranked Eritrea's press freedom as the third worst on earth in 2006, behind only North Korea and Turkmenistan. The situation becomes even worse when you consider that Eritrea will be going down yet another notch to the second worst on earth, because Turkmenistan's rating can only improve after Saparmurat Niazov kicked the bucket. Eritrean information minister Ali Abdou provided a pithy summary of Eritrea's attitude towards freedom of speech and information when he quipped, "it's up to us what, why, when and where we do things." Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the government has noted with classic understatement that Eritrea's tourism industry "isn't living up to its potential".

As if the complete and suppression of political freedoms in Eritrea weren't enough, Afewerki has found a remarkably efficient way to expand the size and scope of his government on the cheap. The government has done this by mandating a compulsory (and often indefinite) "government service" scheme that pays people around $45 a month to work as government employees, whether in an office or providing manual labor. Those not inclined to give up their former jobs that actually provided enough money to support their families were given another option: prison without trial. Afewerki's scheme ran into snags when young Eritreans started fleeing to Sudan to avoid indentured servitude to their dictator. Undeterred, Afewerki ingeniously tackled the problem by simply jailing the families of people leaving the country to escape his state mandated poverty.

Finally, how could I fail to mention the state sponsored persecution of religious minorities in Eritrea? Or the country's appalling record on human rights? It's completely superfluous to note that rights and freedoms he's denied to his people isn't exactly keeping Isaias Afewerki awake at night. If there's any personal or political force motivating Afewerki's actions beyond his apparently intractable hatred for Ethiopia, it has yet to manifest itself any discernible fashion. I don't know if it's safe to presume that Afewerki will survive this latest round of badger baiting with Ethiopia, or if his decision to provide money and weapons to anti-Ethiopian militant groups will wind up backfiring on him.

Perhaps the only thing it is safe to say about Isaias Afewerki is that he won't be stepping down, holding multiparty elections, or going back to the negotiating table with Ethiopia anytime soon. We have a natural inclination to root for the underdog, which Eritrea clearly is in relation to Ethiopia. As long as Afewerki is in charge however, this inclination should be put permanently on hold, effective immediately. And speaking of Ethiopia, stay tuned, dear readers! I'll be taking a look at the other combatant in the Somali proxy war tomorrow; Isaias Afewerki's sworn enemy, Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: Dueling dictators hammer Somalia

It's all Horn of Africa news all the time this week at Dictators of the World! And who are today's lucky despots? Why, that would be Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi and his Eritrean rival Isaias Afewerki, both of whom are once again locked in war, only instead of the usual bloody border conflicts, they're throwing down in Somalia.

For those people who haven't been following what's going on in Somalia this year, let's catch up. Following the decisive defeat of the ruling Islamic Courts Union by Ethiopian troops and US air strikes, the fragile internationally recognized (but militarily impotent) Somali government appeared ready to start the long hard slog to rebuilding Somalia's long demolished political and social institutions. Backed by Ethiopian troops, the government had moved back to Mogadishu, and appeared to be well on their way to getting down to business before all hell broke loose - again.

After their asses were thoroughly whipped by the Ethiopian army, Islamic Court Union leaders fled to the Middle East to start - what else? - jihad against the Ethiopian infidels. Enter Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki, whose ears pricked right up when the Somali holy war started looking for allies and weapons to kill Ethiopian soldiers. Just as Ethiopian troops started pulling out, and African Union and Ugandan peacekeeping troops started coming in, Mogadishu saw an enormous resurgence of violence that has since morphed into all out war.

Eritrea has publicly denied aiding the Somali Islamic militias, but have been unable to explain how Somali rebel leaders keep showing up in Eritrea to threaten Ethiopia with "total war". In a dictatorship like Eritrea which has no privately owned media, these sorts of threatening remarks are not just made, much less distributed to the press, without the assent of the government. What's more, these same rebel leaders have suggested that this "total war" may, in fact, involve an Eritrean military invasion of Ethiopia itself.

"If we let Somalia burn, we will end up getting scorched as well."
- Meles Zenawi
Isaias Afewerki, however, may have bitten off more than he can chew. In Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi says he's ready for whatever Eritrea is ready to dish out, be it on their shared border or in Somalia. The fact that Zenawi's opponents in Somalia have been linked to al Qaeda has won him military support from the United States in the war on terror - an X factor that may tip the balance in Zenawi's favor.

In the grand scheme of things, it seems like a good bet that the proxy fight in Somalia will be just one front for a renewed war between two rival dictators, regional stability be damned. Naturally, I'll be keeping an eye on the news to see just which tyrant comes out on top of Africa's newest, and most bitter, enemies. It sounds lame, but it's still true, that no matter which tyrant comes out on top, Somalia guaranteed to be the loser.

UPDATE: Behailu Damte weighs in on Eritrea's recent displays of gulliness at African Path.

UPDATE II: The gloves are definitely off. Eritrean backed rebels kill 74 people in Ethiopia, while Ethiopian tanks attack militias in Mogadishu.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Horn of Africa Week: The exile problem

As we all know, there's been quite a lot of news about Robert Mugabe's declining fortunes in Zimbabwe lately. There has been focus on the state of the economy, the harried political opposition and so forth, but I notice one story of interest missing from all the discussion regarding Mugabe's future. Namely, if Mugabe is ousted, what happens to exiled Ethiopian dictator Haile Mengistu Miriam? What happens to an ousted dictator when his dictator patron is knocked out, anyway?

After his ouster in a 1991 coup d'etat, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe where he was received in exile as a personal guest of Robert Mugabe, and given what has been described as a "lush" estate in the Harare suburb of Gunhill, protected by bodyguards provided by the Zimbabwean secret police, ostensibly to protect him from being kidnapped and dragged back to Ethiopia where he was convicted in absentia for crimes against humanity committed during his reign.

However, Mugabe's own position in Zimbabwe is increasingly untenable, and it's a good bet that whoever replaces him will be in no mood to extend such high profile hospitality to a notorious former dictator. Just ask former Liberian strongman Charles Taylor, who found himself deported from exile Nigeria back to Liberia and onwards to a war crimes trial in Sierra Leone. Mengistu is one of the last remaining former Marxist dictators on the continent, which is what prompted fellow Marxist Mugabe to offer him a cushy home in exile. With the odds of Mugabe himself finding safe refuge in exile after his seemingly inevitable ouster so slim, the chance that anyone will also Mengistu as part of a two-for-one deal are practically nil. Even Ethiopia's sworn enemy, Eritrea, won't have anything to do with Mengistu, as Eritrea was especially brutalized by Mengistu when it was still a part of Ethiopia.

I suppose there may still be a place for a former Marxist tyrant with blood on his hands to live free of charge as a guest of the state. Perhaps Cuba? Venezuela? San Francisco? I'm not sure who would have him, but when Mugabe's time is finished, be sure to keep an eye peeled for news regarding one of the world's most loathsome political refugees.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Never thought I'd see this

Because I update this blog frequently, I'm constantly on the lookout for news stories involving world dictators. Even a jaded tyrannophile like myself is still occasionally startled by a news item, like this one from the French International Herald Tribune - in Haiti, loyalists long for dictator's return.

Few dictators on earth have done as much damage to their country as Haiti's infamous Duvalier dynasty. François "Papa Doc" Duvalier and his corpulent son Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier were the quintessential dictators: kleptocratic, brutal and most all, widely despised. There is certainly no shortage of anger about Haiti's miserable political culture, but even I could not imagine for a moment that there was anyone in Haiti itself who would wish for Baby Doc to return from exile, much less wish for a return to Duvalierist rule.

"I'm going to die a Duvalierist, but I hope Jean-Claude comes back before that happens"

Since Baby Doc fled in 1986, Haiti has remained a mess, both politically and economically. Numerous coup d'etats, a successful rebellion, violent crime and the hemisphere's worst poverty have all made "the pearl of the Antilles" a little slice of hell. Playing devil's advocate for a moment, Haiti was a mess during the Duvalier regime, too. And while the Duvaliers bled the nation's pocketbook dry, I suppose order was more or less maintained thanks to the country's infamous secret police.

So is that tiny measure of stability worth the sort of dictatorship the Duvaliers imposed upon Haiti? I'd like to say no, but then again, I'm not Haitian.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Chávez caption contest

For cheap laughs, don't miss this entertaining caption contest over at The Devil's Excrement, a great anti-Chávez blog inexplicably smack dab in the left-of-crazy Here's the three
photos in sequence along with my submission:

"No, fuck YOU, Lula."

"Go on, Hugo. Pull my finger."

"Jesus, I surrender."

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Everything you think you know about Darfur is wrong

I need to preface this entry by saying that for far too long, I've been sick and tired of reading the same stupid gibberish about the disaster in Darfur. I also want to warn you that I've been on this rant before, and I'm tired of having to say it again and again.

Let me back up a bit and explain.

Here in the United States, the Darfur crisis is being covered in the news as a sort of slow motion tragedy. This, to an extent, is actually true. Then we have various famous people chiming in to demand that we ACT NOW TO STOP THE CRISIS IN DARFUR! Actually, I'm OK with this part, too. It is, frankly, an obligation for the rich and powerful to use their wealth and power to stop genocide, mass rape and looting.

Where my annoyance kicks into high gear is when I realize that neither the news outlets or the Hollywood glitterati seem to have any idea what to do about the crisis in Darfur.

Flashback to 1994, and the genocide in Rwanda, a conflict that we in the west boiled down to a absurdly simplistic, and completely mythical, "age old tribal hatred" between Hutus and Tutsis. Oh sure, we had the same public statements of shock, horror and outrage from anyone who had the opportunity to pontificate about it in public, but none of the powerful politicians or Hollywood entertainers ever took the time to consider what actually drove the genocide in Rwanda, how it happened, or how to another such incident from happening again. We hear the same gibberish about "age old hatreds" in Sudan, but that's not driving the violence. What is driving the violence is the use of civil war to amass political power. This is not a new story in Africa, and no matter how many times we see it replayed, we never catch on. This isn't "ethnic" or "racial" - it's political.

Invariably, the platitudes offered as a "response" are the same, too. Only a co-ordinated humanitarian response from the international community can bring people together and prevent genocide. It sounds great, doesn't it? And you know what? They're completely wrong.

The violence in Rwanda in was not random, nor was it based on "age old hatreds". What it did involve was the cynical use of identity politics and violence by dictator Juvénal Habyarimana for the purpose of staying in power indefinitely. What's more, when the Rwandan genocide was underway, the architects counted on not only the indifference of powerful nations, but the impotence of the "international community" to intervene. When United Nations peacekeeping commander in Rwanda Roméo Dallaire told the UN about the impending genocide and urgently requested a 5,000 man troop deployment, the organization blew him off. Then, when a small UN contingent of Belgian soldiers were massacred in Kigali, Belgium simply pulled their remaining troops out of the UN peacekeeping force, just as the Hutu Power leaders predicted. When the genocide finally ended, the United Nations bigwigs issued wistful "regrets", and left it at that.

In Sudan, dictator Omar al-Bashir is once again counting on the institutional incompetence and powerlessness of the United Nations and other international "peacekeeping bodies" to stop his government from winning, and even expanding, the war in Darfur. While al-Bashir makes token concessions on the presence of international peacekeeping troops, he's counting on all of them to withdraw immediately should any of them get killed. al-Bashir, is also fully aware that should they actually witness any fighting, their status as "peacekeepers" will prevent them from doing any actual fighting with the Sudanese government or the state sponsored militias. This is to say nothing of the rebel armies in Darfur, who may be counting on the international community to get lost, too.

After the Rwandan genocide, we were supposed to have learned "lasting lessons" about war and genocide, but what we really got were a bunch of cliches that were disconnected from reality. The first of which was "never again" - a platitude to alleviate our guilt over failing to intervene in Rwanda after we failed to live up to our first promise of "never again." The genocide in Darfur has been going on for years with no end in sight, so once again, "never again" fails.

The second "lesson" we were supposed to learn from Rwanda is that we must trust the "international community" to be the safety net we can all rely on to police the world. Oh sure, they failed in Rwanda, but surely, we've learned our lesson, right?

Wrong. The United Nations, African Union, et al are no better equipped to stop what's going on in Darfur than they were in Rwanda. What's more, the glacial pace of UN bureaucracy has become a sterling asset for dictators looking to buy time when they're carrying out a genocide. Rwanda's genocide took 100 days, give or take, during which time the United Nations couldn't even agree that a genocide was taking place. By the time they finally acknowledged something might actually be wrong, it was almost over. People have substituted saying "we must act!" for actual action.

Omar al-Bashir is playing the UN like a fiddle, with constant rounds of preliminary talks, tentative agreements, diplomatic standoffs, withdrawing from talks, rejoining talks, tentative commitments, etc. The diplomacy game is just that for a dictator - a game. Every time Sudan agrees to allow foreign peacekeepers in, and then backtracks on their promise, the negotiators chalk up a victory when the Sudanese sullenly agree to "return to the negotiating table". The concept that they're just stalling for time has not, apparently, occurred to anyone. This is what happens when more importance is placed on the negotiating process itself than the results of the process.

This brings to my last point - the lesson we actually should learn about genocide from Rwanda. The United Nations did not end the Rwandan genocide. Nor did economic sanctions, sternly worded (but empty) threats from foreign leaders, or least of all, candlelit prayer vigils thousands of miles away. They didn't make a bit of difference to Rwanda, and they're not going to help in Darfur. Does anyone actually remember who ended the Rwandan genocide?

If you said Paul Kagame and his rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front, go straight to the head of the class. It takes an army to actually stop genocide, and it always has. Kagame's military victory accomplished something worldwide hand wringing did not, and frankly, you'd think his success would mean we learned the lesson he was trying to teach us, but frankly, most of us over here still don't get it. In our almost comic horror of war in the west, we have, apparently, forgotten that it invariably requires a war to stop an even greater horror like genocide. Does anyone here actually believe that Omar al-Bashir is more afraid of "smart sanctions" and sports boycotts than he is of being attacked by powerful western armies?

Actually, don't ask me. Ask Paul Kagame.

Mugabe cries: "It's a conspiracy!"

Paranoia is a terrible personality trait for a normal person, but it's indispensable for any dictator worth his weight in self-awarded medals. Hence, it comes as little surprise to learn that Robert Mugabe has kicked his fear of everything up a notch and put a stop the operations of all nongovernmental organization aid groups operating in Zimbabwe on the pretext that they were working with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party.

Ironically of course, Zimbabwe didn't need handouts of food or medicine until Mugabe himself turned one of the continent's most economically successful countries into one of the world's poorest, but I will reluctantly concede a point to Mugabe: starving your own people to death is, generally speaking, a politically pragmatic approach to getting rid of your domestic political enemies.

With the foreign do gooders out, the ruling Zanu-PF party is set to take over distributing food, and as it so happens, there only happens to be enough food to go around to people who areas where people have voted for Zanu-PF. That's a pretty astonishing coincidence, is it not? Actually, no, it is not. Mugabe has always used food as a weapon, and Zanu-PF continually tells the people, very straightforwardly, that if they want to eat or work, that they must vote for Zanu-PF, or else go poor and hungry.

The question is: how long can Mugabe hold on once Zanu-PF voters start going hungry, too?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Journalists' union endorses war on press

I'm not sure if I should chalk this up to Great Britain's vastly overinflated reputation for dry and ironic humor - I certainly hope so.

Great Britain and Ireland's leading journalists' trade union, the National Union of Journalists, passed a "near unanimous" vote to "build solidarity" with Hugo Chávez's "Bolivarian revolution" at their 2007 annual conference in Birmingham. The irony, of course, is that Chávez is one of the hemisphere's greatest opponents of press freedom - an issue that the NUJ pays token lip service to on their website.

Chávez has declared war on the Venezuelan press, and passed draconian laws restricting press freedom to aid him in his struggle with newspapers and television networks deemed unfriendly to his regime. Venezuelan journalists have been thrown in jail and even beaten, leading one to wonder what sort of press climate it would take for the NUJ to distance itself from the "revolution" that has made this treatment of reporters possible. A cynic might observe that this is another case of rich westerners sympathizing with an authoritarian regime that they wouldn't put up with at home. There's always been a tendency in the Western leftist lunatic fringe to sympathize with repression, as long as the ostensible goals of the tyrant in question are judged to be romantic enough to suit their tastes.

Which leads me to ask: was Malcolm Caldwell a member of the National Union of Journalists?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Kim Il-Sung is still dead (thank heavens)

Yesterday was Kim Il-Sung's 95th birthday. The Dear Leader himself wasn't around to celebrate, as he's been dead since 1994, however a casual visitor to North Korea would have no idea that Kim Il-Sung is no longer among the living.

On every April 15th, North Korea hosts the enormous, and monumentally bizarre, Arirang Festival, where one of the world's largest stadiums is packed to the gills for what can only be described as an orgy of Kim Il-Sung worship. While foreigners are invited, only a few attend. I imagine that this is due in no small part to the perception of Kim Il-Sung as a loathsome megalomaniacal dictator outside the cozy confines of the prison camp of a country created in his image. Nevertheless, outsiders have made the trip to celebrate the Supreme Comrade's birthday festival, one such visit (well worth viewing) is documented right here.

If you're like me, one thought comes to mind watching this garbage: where the hell does a country that's constantly experiencing famine and economic catastrophe come up with the money for this crap?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Castro and Chávez lash out at ethanol

Once upon a time, a certain autocrat of an oil rich country decided to team up with his geriatric Marxist paramour to create a partnership for the production of a trendy biofuel we in the United States like to call ethanol.

In 2005, Hugo Chávez directed the Venezuelan state oil company to strike a deal with the Brazilian state oil company Petrobras to import ethanol to Venezuela. At the same time, Chávez ordered that 700,000 acres of land be set aside to grow sugar cane for the production of ethanol. Finally, as a hand out to his doddering Communist amigo, Chávez planned to let Cuba build 11 sugar processing plants as the final step in Venezuela's newfound commitment to ethanol production industry. After all, enthused Chávez, ethanol is clean fuel! More money for the Bolivarian revolucion! And so on and so forth. Castro was delighted because Cuba is rich in sugar, and poor in fuel. Sugar to Venezuela means fuel coming back to Cuba. Everyone wins!

And then, it all went sour. And for a reason even a five year old would be embarrassed to admit. Jealousy.

You see, Chávez's hated archenemy, US president George W. Bush, visited Brazil, and struck up an ethanol partnership of his own with Brazilian president Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. It makes sense, after all. The United States is the world's largest ethanol producer, while Brazil is the second largest. An ethanol partnership is not only logical, but frankly, inevitable.

One can logically presume that Hugo Chávez's face must have looked like he was choking on a rat sandwich when he saw this photo. What? Yanqui imperialists making their own ethanol side deals with Brazil? Unacceptable!

And so, Chávez did the only sensible thing a man in his position could do: throw a temper tantrum. Chávez performed an about face, and denounced ethanol as a "waste of space" that could be growing "food for the hungry" instead of "filling rich people's cars". A cynic would note that Venezuela's economy is completely dependent on producing oil to fill "rich people's cars", and that Chávez himself was going to clear 700,000 acres for growing sugar cane as a cash crop for ethanol, but I suppose there's no point trying nitpick with dimwitted Socialist autocrats, is there?

Never one to be outdone by his lapdog, Fidel Castro added further bombast by denouncing George Bush as "condemning three billion people" to "premature death" by starvation. All it took for Chávez's pie in the sky ethanol dreams to come crashing down was the participation of "the devil". In one fit of pique, Chávez has spited Venezuela out of countless millions of dollars worth of ethanol production, and Cuba has deprived itself not only of fuel, but of an actual market for its sugar crop. Producing ethanol from sugarcane not only provides a market for the existing sugar crop (now trading at near record lows on the world market), but increases demand for sugar cane, thereby raising the price. And that would actually provide Cuba with desperately needed hard currency to lift itself out of poverty, as well as providing cheaper fuel for itself.

But, no. It wouldn't do for the hemisphere's leading Marxist morons to engage in any enterprise, no matter how profitable or sensible it may be, that the United States may engage in as well. We can only hope for both Cuba and Venezuela's sakes that both Chávez and Castro ride off into the sunset, and leave the serious business of governance to new leaders who put the economic and social welfare of the people ahead of the petty personalities of their rulers.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Ceauşescu to stay buried

Apparently, the daughter of the late Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu had petitioned a court in Bucharest two years ago for permission to exhume her parents. Zoe Ceauşescu claimed that the purpose of the requested exhumation was to "establish the identity" of the two corpses buried in Bucharest's Ghencea cemetery.

Yesterday, the court denied her request, preferring not to provide an explanation.

Personally, given Romania's history with the undead, Zoe Ceauşescu's request doesn't sound entirely unreasonable. Then again, neither does the court's refusal. I can understand why the court would rather not have the graves opened: could you imagine how the populace would react if the bodies had disappeared?

Well, how would you react if vampire Ceauşescus were on the loose?

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Omar al-Bashir to deny everything

When in doubt, deny everything. Especially when you're the dictator of Sudan and the topic is the disaster in Darfur.

Rape? Genocide? Nonsense!

In an upcoming two hour interview with NBC journalist Ann Curry, Omar al-Bashir will apparently be denying that the events in Darfur count as genocide, and even if they did, there's no way the Sudanese government could ever be involved. Why, just take his word for it.

"The same forces behind the attack on Iraq are trying to do the same in Sudan" claimed al-Bashir with a straight face. Furthermore, al-Bashir regards any attempt to paint the events in Darfur as a major catastrophe, much less suggesting that the Sudanese government bears any responsibility, as an insidious American plot to seize Sudanese national resources. "The goal is to put Darfur under their custody, separating the region of Darfur from Sudan."

So what about all the photographs of destroyed villages, smoldering wreckage and dead bodies, not to mention the countless refugees fleeing for their lives? "Yes, there have been villages burned, but not to the extent you are talking about," al-Bashir states, as if the entire affair were a minor misunderstanding. And the depressingly well documented use of rape as a weapon in Darfur? Omar al-Bashir wants to put everyone's fears to rest on that topic. "It is not in the Sudanese culture or people of Darfur to rape. It doesn't exist. We don't have it."

So there you have it. I suppose we can all stop worrying about Darfur, because his excellency has finally set the record straight. No genocide, no rape, no problems!

For what it's worth, I've already mentioned how Omar al-Bashir might as well be telling the truth for all the good the international outrage over Darfur has done. Western human rights activists are attempting the unspeakably stupid task of trying to shame al-Bashir by attempting to prick a conscience we already know he doesn't even have. At the same time, we see how western politicians are paying lip service to the outrage about the Darfur issue by levying economic sanctions that Sudan doesn't even care about. The West certainly could end the Darfur crisis with a military response, but gosh, that's not very popular with the voters, and besides, can't the United Nations or African Union take care of it?

Of course they can't, and there's nobody more aware of it than Omar al-Bashir. So if you watch his farcical interview with NBC, don't get angry with al-Bashir when he lies through his teeth about Darfur. You should be getting angry with yourself for electing spineless leaders who acknowledge the genocide and then sit on their hands rather than fulfilling their obligation to actually stop it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Like father, unlike son

Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad is, at present, the most powerful Arab dictator in the Middle East. Oh sure, I hear you say, he's only gained this distinction because Saddam Hussein is dead. What's more, the weak chinned al-Assad is nowhere nearly as formidable as his late father, the infamous Hafez al-Assad. So what gives?

Perhaps the fact that an utter mediocrity like Bashar al-Assad finds himself in charge of Syria is a testament to the nearly extinct influence of pan-Arabism and Arab nationalism, the twin ideologies that spawned so many Arab dictators like his father, the aforementioned Saddam, Gamal Abdel Nasser, et al. Perhaps it's because Bashar was not groomed for the job. When his eldest brother, Basil, died behind the wheel of his Mercedes 560-SEL, the old man elevated Bashar to the position of heir apparent, regardless of whether or not he might actually have what it takes to be an Arab strongman.

The answer is "just barely". For example, nearly 30 yearis ago, his infamous father managed to turn Lebanon into a helpless client state. Fast forward 30 years, and the junior Assad has managed to drop the ball completely, by clumsily arranging for the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, an event that started a political chain reaction concluding with the hasty, and humiliating, Syrian withdrawal in 2005. In fact, things are so bad, Bashar al-Assad has given up on trying to force concessions from George W. Bush, and instead, has bent over backwards to accommodate Nancy Pelosi. Can anyone imagine Anwar Sadat dealing with second stringers?

Just when you think things can't get any worse, it's come down to this - being interviewed by Mother Jones magazine. Not Time, not Newsweek, but Mother Jones. Was he really so desperate to have Volvo drivers in Oregon hear about Syria's role as power broker in the Middle East or something? At least he found a publication who hates George Bush nearly as much (if not more) than he does, but really, what's next? An appearance on Fresh Air? A blog on the Huffington Post? How humiliating must it be for a dictator to be interviewed like any run of the mill Zinn, Churchill or Chomsky?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Turks to protect late dictator online

Fresh from their ban of YouTube, the Turkish government is set to filter out websites that are deemed "insulting" to founding father Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As usual, the justification comes from a provision of Turkish law that outlaws "insulting Turkishness". Most western readers would ask - how is insulting a dictator who's been dead for nearly 70 years tantamount to insulting the entire concept of "Turkishness", and more to the point, who cares if anyone insults "Turkishness" to begin with?

In Turkey, the answer is simple: Atatürk created, nearly from whole cloth, the modern Turkish identity when he dismantled the corpse of the Ottoman state. Therefore, when Turks assert that an assault on Atatürk is an assault on Turkey and Turkish identity, they actually may have a point insofar as both would not exist as we know them today without Atatürk. What the Turks also seem to realize is that they're fighting a losing battle by expecting the rest of the world to revere the late dictator. While Atatürk is the only dictator on my Top 10 list that I actually credit with doing something positive for their nations, I can understand why Kurds and Armenians, for example, might not be as enamored with the man who created the modern Turkish state.

At any rate, it's only a matter of time before Turkey's European Union aspirations collide with their efforts to stifle criticism or insults of Atatürk, but I have to wonder: will my blog be banned in Turkey as well?

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

North Korea faces famine - again

Things just aren't getting any easier for the Dear Leader, are they?

North Korea, who's official ideology (and religion) is juche, or self-reliance, will apparently be relying on the charity of western donors to stave off a massive famine after coming up a million tons of rice short on their annual harvest. That one million tons represents a fifth of North Korea's annual requirements for being self-sufficient in rice. I was not surprised to learn that the giant rabbit scheme that North Korea "planned" to solve their food problems won't be happening after all.

Once upon a time, Kim's father declared that North Korea was the richest country on earth, many North Koreans have grown up believing that however little they may have to eat, wear, or heat their homes with, people in South Korea, Japan and the United States were the poorest people on earth. It goes without saying that Kim's people will have no idea that their Dear Leader has stuck his hand out again to beg from his mortal enemies in the west, nor will they likely ever find out.

Forget about linking food aid to nuclear disarmament, however, as Kim would rather see a couple of million of his countrymen starve rather than hand over his job security ticket. As long as he has enough to feed his army, Kim would be content to stay put. Which brings us to the question:

Is anyone interested in setting up a PayPal button to help North Korea? I'm sure Kim would agree not to, y'know, spend the money on hookers and blow if you asked him nicely.

Mbeki speculates on Mugabe

Worried about the future of Zimbabwe? Well, according to Zimbabwe's neighbors, you shouldn't. For example, South African president Thabo Mbeki believes that Robert Mugabe will step down peacefully, although he sounded surprisingly non-committal about this bombshell revelation, as if someone asked him if he would be available for cocktails on Friday:

"I think so. Yes, sure."

And what does his excellency base this opinion on?

"You see, President Mugabe and the leadership of ZANU-PF believe they are running a democracy."

Robert Mugabe may believe a great many things, but at no point would he ever concede privately that "elections" in Zimbabwe are anything but a cynical exercise in ballot stuffing and voter intimidation. Mbeki, who is not actually an imbecile, tacitly concedes this point, thereby completing a logical circle and taking his observation back to square one:

"You might question ... whether elections [in Zimbabwe] are genuinely free and fair, but we have to get Zimbabweans to where they do have genuinely free and fair."

Did you catch all that? Mugabe and ZANU-PF will step down peacefully because they "believe" they are running a democracy, and while Zimbabwean elections are not free and fair, if we can just get Zimbabweans to believe that they are, well, then return to the first statement: Mugabe and ZANU-PF will step down peacefully because ...

Nobody with a grain of common sense could believe for a minute that President Mbeki actually thinks that Robert Mugabe or his loathsome ZANU-PF cronies are going to step down peacefully, but as I've mentioned before, Mbeki would rather not take Mugabe to task in public, which is why he's framed his replies to queries about Mugabe in such speculative, politically harmless language.

Does Mbeki have some sort of inside knowledge about Mugabe's political future? It's possible, but if he does, he's certainly not sharing it with the public, preferring instead to engage in harmless speculation that pretends there's nothing seriously wrong in Zimbabwe. In reality, Mbeki knows Mugabe, and knows that Mugabe has given every indication that he intends to be president until he dies. It's this realization that makes Mbeki's public squirming over Mugabe uncomfortable for everyone involved, especially for everyone who's fed up with the out of control events in Zimbabwe.

So what does all of this amount to? Another squandered opportunity for South Africa to do anything constructive in ending Mugabe's ruinous dictatorship, of course. Mbeki should pause for a moment to reflect on whether his country's allegiance to southern Africa's political and economic wellbeing outweighs his country's, long repaid, debt to Robert Mugabe for his aid in the struggle against apartheid. By taking the shortsighted view, Mbeki is engaging himself as a silent partner of Mugabe and taking a passive role in the oppression of millions of his neighbors.

UPDATE: The Zimbabwean state run Herald newspaper has printed a scandalous threat against resident British diplomat Gillian Dare.

Monday, April 02, 2007

The easiest, and hardest, $5 million in Africa

Via African Path comes news that former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan will be named chairman of the committee that hands out the world's biggest prize. And what prize is that, you may ask?

It's the truly prestigious Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership.

If you've never heard of this prize, don't worry - you're not alone, but read on - this is a prize that could, in theory, revolutionize world politics. Founded last year by Sudanese born billionaire Mo Ibrahim, the Mo Ibrahim Foundation's $1.3 billion dollar endowment is larger than even the Nobel Prize, and he's dedicated the money to one single purpose: to get successful African leaders to leave on time, and transfer power peacefully.

If this sounds unusual to most of my readers, consider this: Africa has the largest number of dictators any continent on earth, and many in office for three decades or more. Mo Ibrahim has correctly identified ossified dictatorships as an obstacle to Africa's progress - indeed - to that of an African renaissance, and he's put his formidable wealth to the task of shoring up his vision of politically transforming the political landscape in Africa. If leaders cannot be forced to change, or leave, Mr. Ibrahim will sweeten the pot with a buyout offer.

And what an offer it is: the winner of the prize to be awarded to an African leader who the prize committee decides "has demonstrated excellence in African leadership", and furthermore, transfers power to a successor legally and peacefully. In return, the winner will receive an a cash reward of $5,000,000 and $200,000 per annum for the rest of his or her life. And let's face it - with corruption and embezzlement endemic among Africa's most undemocratic leaders, Mo Ibrahim certainly brought the right package of incentives to the table. After all - why steal a fortune when you can win one from Mo Ibrahim? While this should be the easiest fortune any departing head of state has ever earned, Mo Ibrahim knows that in much of Africa, it will prove to be among the hardest.

Mo Ibrahim may be an idealist, but he's certainly not naive. He realizes that his prize will not transform Africa's political landscape overnight, but it's impossible not to admire his unique way of tackling the problem by going to the source - the leaders. Unfortunately, he seems to be alone in acknowledging that good, and accountable, governance is a prerequisite for Africa's economic evolution, and that poverty cannot be eliminated as long as nations are governed by despotic kleptocrats. His prize might also have been less necessary if large, powerful nations had stopped to consider what propping up some of these fetid dictatorships does to the unhappy subjects of these nations.

Mo Ibrahim has brought a perspective to the problem of bad governance that cannot come from governments or stale international bureaucracies: that of the entrepreneur. The winner of the first annual Mo Ibrahim Prize is set for October 22, 2007, and you can be sure that I'll be paying attention to who wins.

Chavista mob trashes RCTV

From Publius Pundit, pictures of of Radio Caracas Television after it was trashed by a Chavista mob, covering the premises with graffiti, and even leaving a dead dog (visible above) as a "message" to the unabashedly anti-Chávez network.

Chávez is by no means the first dictator to experiment with using mob rule to cement his political control - far from it. Yet I get the sense he hasn't stopped to consider that the anger of a mob can just as quickly mobilize just as quickly against a dictator. Just ask Nicolae Ceauşescu and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. Perhaps Hugo's newest best friend can tell Hugo about what happened to the Shah of Iran when he too lost control of the mobs.

If you haven't taken the time to familiarize yourself with Hugo Chávez's assault on Venezuela's free press, now would be a good time to so here.