Wednesday, September 26, 2007

"Penniless" Baby Doc apologizes to Haiti

Former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier wants his former subjects to know how very sorry he is.

In a frankly bizarre radio address, the now exiled dictator who began his reign at the age of 19 admitted that "bad things" may have, in fact, occurred during his rule. Duvalier wisely omitted specifics, but claimed he "solemnly take(s) historical responsibility" for Haiti's miserable condition during his 15 years in power. Baby Doc also took the unusual step of begging the Haitian people's forgiveness, requesting "forgiveness from the people, and ask(ing) for the impartial judgment of history".

Broadcasting in French, a language only around 10% of his former countrymen can actually understand, the former dictator admitted his dire financial straits, saying he has been "broken" by his 21 years in exile in France. The irony of having a former dictator who embezzled a fortune from the poorest country in the western hemisphere talking about his hardships has not gone unnoticed by the relatively small handful of Haitians who were able to understand Baby Doc's unusual mea culpa. This report quoted a Haitian man named Robert Duval, who hit the nail on the head when he said "I don't accept his apology. He killed thousands of people, stole money and destroyed the psyche and heart of a people. This guy should be in jail and I'm just waiting for him to come back so that can happen."

The chances that France will extradite Duvalier to Haiti to stand trial are roughly equivalent to my chances of winning the Miss Venezuela contest, but one has to wonder why Baby Doc is suddenly in such a confessional mood? He certainly hasn't been at a loss for opportunities to apologize for his misrule in the past 20 years, so why now?

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Where's Mahmoud?

To date, I have said practically nothing about Iran's diminutive holocaust denying president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Surprisingly, nobody's written in to ask why a blog devoted to dictators hasn't devoted so much as a single post to such a prominent world leader who is frequently described as a dictator. And since nobody's asked, I can go ahead and explain why. Mahmoud's exclusion from Dictators of the World cannot be construed an endorsement of his politics, or his ability to govern Iran democratically. Mahmoud has been shut out from DotW because he's not a dictator.

Yes, you heard me right the first time. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is not a dictator. Ahmadinejad is the president of Iran, and Iran certainly is ruled by dictatorship. Mahmoud himself, however, is not the dictator of Iran. It seems that many people have forgotten, although I can't imagine how, that Iran is no run of the mill dictatorship, but a theocracy run by a dictator. During the American hostage crisis, nobody knew, or cared, who the president of Iran was, because everyone on earth by that point recognized the dictator calling the shots in Iran. So, I hear you cry, if Iran is a dictatorship, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad isn't the dictator of Iran, who is? That honor goes to Iran's "supreme leader", the reclusive Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

In fact, Ahmadinejad can claim halfway credibly that his election was perfectly democratic - in a sense. For you see, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election as president was only made possible when the theocrats in the Ayatollah's 12 man Guardian Council approved of Ahmadinejad's candidacy in the first place, signifying in advance that the presidential figurehead running the day to day affairs of Iran would be utterly compliant in advance with the wishes and desires of "Supreme Leader" Khamenei. So why is it that we don't hear more about the real dictator of Iran? Whatever other failings Khamenei may have as a politician, he certainly gets credit for staying out of the limelight. His name and image adorn billboards in Iran, but he stays extremely quiet when it comes time to discuss his job as Iran's dictator. His role as "guardian of the Iranian revolution" means he is free to involve himself as much, or as little, in Iran's domestic and international affairs as he pleases. Frankly, without Khamenei telling him what do, think and say, we can safely say that we have no idea how Ahmadinejad would rule Iran if he were merely left to his own devices.

So why haven't we heard more in the western press about the Ayatollah that actually rules Iran? It's very hard to say for sure. It could be because he is, if anything else, a powerful Muslim religious leader, and as we've all learned since 2001 or the Danish cartoon riots, the Western press has been very careful about offending Muslim religious sensibilities by calling a holy man a dictator, even if he is. Secondly, as I noted above, Ali Khamenei does most of his work behind the scenes. Unlike his very public predecessor, Ali Khamenei does not have the air of the firebrand cleric who never met a photo opportunity he didn't like. Rather, Khamenei is content to tell a puppet like Ahmadinejad what to do, and let Ahmadinejad take the political heat. It's probably nice work if you can get it.

As Iran's nuclear standoff with the planet intensifies, keep your eyes peeled for any mentions of Ahmadinejad's boss in the press. At present, those mentions are few and far between, but with Iran consuming an ever greater percentage of reporting, his name is bound to come up ... eventually. Until then? Khamenei is perfectly content having you believe that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is actually Iran's dictator.

"The jaunty nipples of collectivism"

Yesterday, I took a look at Kim Jong-Il's insane plan to use kidnapping to improve North Korea's dismal propaganda movie industry. If you've ever wondered why any dictator would think anyone would sit through a three hour long socialist parable featuring a cheap Godzilla knock off, you're not alone. Pulgasari: Legendary Monster obviously represents the low end of the communist propaganda arts spectrum, but that's not to say that The Party didn't occasionally dabble in more substantial fare.

The late Chinese dictator, Mao Zedong, declared that art becomes useless unless it has become wedded to politics, and that politics, naturally, are useless unless they are in the service "of the people". Art for art's sake? That, my friends, is decadent, and bourgeois! After the revolution, everything becomes political, don't you know?

Looking back, perhaps The Chairman didn't understand that "the people", broadly speaking, were not inclined to confuse political propaganda with art. The well known notion that the arts tend to slip away from ideological yokes when given half a chance also appears to have been ignored. Still, just as Kim Jong-Il couldn't wait to try his hand at the movies, Mao Zedong couldn't wait to tamper with his particular favorite art form: Chinese opera.

And so, courtesy of Jim Lileks, an analysis of the Maoist opera masterpiece "The Red Detachment of Women".

Monday, September 24, 2007

Portrait of the dictator as cinephile

It should come as no surprise that even dictators have hobbies, so it should come as no surprise that being a dictator allows one to pursue a hobby to extraordinary lengths. North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il is reportedly one of the biggest movie buffs on the planet, with a collection of over 20,000 foreign films in his library. Of course, like any true dictator, Lil' Kim is not content to merely watch movies when he could try his hand at making them.

In 1978 during his father's reign, Kim Jong-Il arranged for the kidnapping of an extremely famous and well respected South Korean director, Shin Sang-Ok, during a business trip Hong Kong. When Shin's ex-wife went to Hong Kong to investigate his disappearance, she too was kidnapped by North Korean secret police and spirited off to Pyongyang. To Shin's horror, the junior Kim turned out to be a fan, and naturally, put Shin to work on his pet projects.

It seems that Kim had been disappointed with North Korea's staid and boring propaganda films bureau, and sought to bring his tastes as a movie buff into promoting North Korean Normally, the phrase "socialist cinema" conjures images of movies about nickel smelting and tractors, so you can imagine the horror the "Orson Welles of South Korea" must have felt when Kim Jong-Il announced that his new captive would be directing North Korea's most ambitious project to date: a Communist reworking of the Japanese monster movie Godzilla. Shin gamely went ahead and produced Kim's monster movie, but was thrown into a North Korean prison camp for trying to escape. Shin and his ex-wife finally managed to escape in a daring flight from their North Korean guards during a business trip to Vienna, after which, the director was finally free to talk about their ordeal, both physical and artistic, under Kim Il-Sung.

Kim Jong-Il has remained committed to the arts, however, and is reported to shunt aside lesser concerns like famines, floods, and nuclear proliferation talks aside for his real passion: film. He hasn't apparently kidnapped any other famous directors, but now one of South Korea's hottest directors is offering to bring his hit movie to North Korea on the condition that Kim shares his creation with the people of North Korea.

The offer may be tempting, but I'd be willing to bet that Kim will take a pass on this offer. After all, he can always wait until it comes out on DVD, right?

Friday, September 21, 2007

Sympathy for the devil

People always say that if you live long enough, you'll see everything at least once. Today is one of those days, for today, I have come to defend the honor of Zimbabwean dictator Robert Mugabe.

OK, perhaps "defend" is a strong word, but I've been following the recent brouhaha surrounding Robert Mugabe's presence, or lack thereof, at a summit of European and African leaders to be held in Lisbon this December. British prime minister Gordon Brown has spared absolutely no effort to inform the press that he intends to boycott the summit if Robert Mugabe attends. Mugabe, whose dislike of the UK knows few boundaries, has gamely shrugged off Brown's threat as political grandstanding. Sadly, Mugabe is absolutely right.

Gordon Brown's decision to treat Robert Mugabe like a radioactive leper is, of course, quite fair. Mugabe is a horrible man, and he's managed to completely destroy Zimbabwe during the nearly 30 years he's been in power. However, I have yet to be able to find a single good reason that Mugabe has been subjected to a level of disgust and scrutiny that the United Kingdom has yet to apply to some of the world's even more notorious dictators. I have been searching in vain, for example, for any boycott threats Brown has made to yesterday's featured dictator, Omar al-Bashir of Sudan, or the truly infamous Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea.

My own opinion of Robert Mugabe has been quite clear. However it much it pains me to do so, though, I will be the first to admit that the UK's rhetoric on Mugabe has become somewhat ... overheated. It would be one thing, I suppose, if Mugabe's notoriety for violence were at issue, but it's not. In fact, when the Mugabe regime carried out the bloody gukurahundi, Zimbabwe's official relations with the United Kingdom were quite good, still basking in the post-colonial glow that claimed Zimbabwe would be the country that proved blacks and whites could live together in harmony on African soil.

While the low level war conducted against one of Zimbabwe's largest ethnic groups for political reasons does not appear to have overly troubled the United Kingdom, Mugabe's utterly scandalous comments about homosexuality appear to have done more damage to Anglo-Zimbabwean relations than the apparently more trivial murder of 30,000 Ndebele in Matabeleland. Yet this can't be the only explanation for Britain's stance on Mugabe either, since no other African dictator has gone on the record to express an even vaguely dissimilar view of homosexuality. Could it have been policy of forcing white farmers off the land? It's possible, but Mugabe and Britain worked as parters on this project before things went sour, and even then, Britain's tone regarding Mugabe wasn't even half as poisonous then as it is today. So what, then?

I'd also love to chalk it up to the sour relationships that develop between former colonies and their former colonial masters, but the theory falls apart when comparing official British government rhetoric about Mugabe to that of Omar al-Bashir. Considering Sudan's rather notorious involvement in Darfur, you'd think that his responsibility in the rape, murder and displacement of millions would generate just a bit more opprobrium than Mugabe ran into for having Morgan Tsvangvirai beat up in prison. Mugabe jailed him, but you can bet that al-Bashir or Obiang Nguema would have ordered Tsvangirai to be shot.

After, Mugabe might be an intractable dictator, but at least since the end of the gukurahundi anyway, he has not been a mass murderer. I wish the entire world would snub Robert Mugabe, but I also wish they'd extend the exact same rhetoric, and the exact same treatment, to dictators who make Robert Mugabe look like a creampuff. Consistency may or may not be the hobgoblin of small minds, it can serve as a checkpoint for keeping things in perspective. Mugabe cannot be compared to the likes of Saddam Hussein, Than Shwe, or Pol Pot, because he's simply not brutal enough. Bad, yes, the worst, no.

So there you have it: a defense, however, weak of Robert Mugabe. I hope I don't ever have to do that ever again.

UPDATE: Comrade Bob may be an asshole, but does he have to make me look like an asshole for sticking up for him one time? No sooner had I finished this post when I learned that Mugabe is withholding water from the city of Bulawayo to punish them for voting against ZANU-PF. Thanks for nothing, Bob.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Omar al-Bashir "ready for cease fire"

The military dictator of Sudan, Omar al-Bashir, has declared that he's ready to declare a cease fire with rebels in Darfur at the start of peace talks to be held in November. All across the world, professional diplomats are breathing a sigh of relief at finally receiving some sort of commitment from the Sudanese government to end the senseless violence in Darfur. To show how serious he is about pursuing peace, al-Bashir named his minister of "Humanitarian Affairs", Ahmed Haroun, to co-chair a panel set to investigate human rights abuses in Darfur. That Ahmed Haroun himself is one of the biggest perpetrators of human rights abuses in Darfur is, perhaps, besides the point, right?

Omar al-Bashir's sly inclusion of Haroun in his panel to "get to the bottom" of abuses al-Bashir himself has sanctioned is just another in a long list of his fuck-you gestures to the rest of the world. Omar al-Bashir knows that he's already won in Darfur, and that years of stalling tactics with the "international community" have already given him the time to either kill, or displace, the same people in Darfur that were causing him so many headaches to begin with. It's easy to talk peace when you've already won, after all. What's more, Omar al-Bashir is doubtlessly more than aware that the aforementioned international community, who have made themselves look busy on Darfur if nothing else, will not jeopardize the precious concept of "peace in Darfur" by insisting that any of the parties responsible for the violence actually be held accountable for their actions. Sure, in an ideal world we'd press for accountability, but we can't threaten the peace process with difficult demands. Which is exactly the reaction Omar al-Bashir has been waiting to hear.

Can anyone tell me when the idea that peace alone trumps justice emerged? What good will Sudan's "peace" be when the very men who orchestrated the mayhem will continue to rule over them? Just as Suharto remains unafraid of standing trial over his bloodbaths in East Timor, Omar al-Bashir will not be troubled about his role in Darfur just as long as he manages to stay in power. While that's no mean feat in a country like Sudan, Omar al-Bashir has held the reins long enough to stay on top, and he remains more than savvy enough to have powerful nations and international institutions kissing his ass for merely extending them the privilege of talking to him about resolving the problems in Darfur. In all the recent coverage on this story, I have yet to read anything by anybody that acknowledges the irony of having the world's most powerful leaders congratulating Omar al-Bashir for his sudden willingness to make peace, only after he's received everything he's wanted from the war.

Then again, what good is being a dictator if you can't have your cake, and eat it too?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Soviet posters

Thank heavens for the internet. First Stefan Landsberger took the time and care to create his archive of Chinese communist propaganda posters, and now Alexander Zakarov has upped the ante with a blog devoted solely to Soviet posters.

I certainly owe Josh at The Conjecturer one for linking to this amazing blog in the first place. where I could find it.

Interview with a dictator

After last weeks post featuring a video clip of Al Jazeera's interview with Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki, I would be remiss if I didn't offer a link to an interview with Afewerki's arch nemesis, Ethiopian dictator Meles Zenawi.

EthioBlog has reprinted a Time magazine interview with Meles Zenawi, where the interviewer asks some tough questions about democracy in Ethiopia, his proxy war with Eritrea in Somalia, Ethiopia's relationship with the United States, human rights abuses, and whether nor not he intends to step down for good when his term expires in three years. Compared to the soft soap questions Al Jazeera asked Afewerki, Meles Zenawi was clearly put on the spot.

I can't say the interview revealed any surprises until he admitted that "fear" keeps him awake at night.

It has always been fear — fear that this great nation, which was great 1,000 years ago but then embarked on a downward spiral for 1,000 years, and reached its nadir when millions of people were starving and dying, may be on the verge of total collapse. Now it's not a fear of collapse, I believe we are beyond that. It's the fear that the light which is beginning to flicker, the light of a renewal, an Ethiopian renaissance, that this light might be dimmed by some bloody mistake by someone, somewhere.
- Meles Zenawi

Despite his "fears" about Ethiopia's political and economic progress going down the tubes, Zenawi insists that he will be stepping down when his term expires, a claim dictators often make in haste and repent in leisure. You can read the rest of the interview here at EthioBlog, and judge the sincerity of his claims for yourself.

UPDATE: Thank you, Dan, for giving a shout out to DotW over on The Democratic Piece. Yes, there really are blogs about everything.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Nazarbayev honors Turkmenbashi

OK, so this story is a few days old, but Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev was on a state visit to Turkmenistan last week. I scoured the news for suitable photo opportunities of the man Reigstan playfully calls "Uncle Nazzy" and his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdimuhammedov, but alas - I can't find anything with a suitable freshness date. If anyone has a recent picture of Nazarbayev and Berdimuhammedov shaking hands, hugging, or laughing maniacally together, please consider sending it my way?

Anyway, this story has some intriguing tidbits about life in the dictator lane in Central Asia. Nazarbayev apparently had about as much fun in Turkmenistan as it's possible to have, and as a sign of respect, laid flowers on the grave of the recently departed dictator of Turkmenistan Saparmurat "Turkmenbashi" Niazov, who lest we forget, is reputed to be Berdimuhammedov's real father. I'm not exactly an expert on customs in the former Soviet Central Asia, but in the west, a visitor would have taken great pains not honor the memory of the likes of Niazov, no matter what protocol calls for. Nazabayev himself is a dictator, granted, but Niazov's infamy is such that you'd imagine that Nazarbayev should have been talked out of it. Needless to say, if anyone can link or provide me with a photo of Nazarbayev giving props to Niazov, I'm all over that like white on rice.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Chávez set to jettison allies

When Venezuelan autocrat Hugo Chávez described Cuban strongman Fidel Castro as his "mentor", he really wasn't kidding. Like Castro, and other communist dictators before him, Chávez has already begun to jettison the political allies that brought him to power and accused them being "counter-revolutionaries". The party in question is PODEMOS, a party which uncritically helped elevate Chávez to power in 1998. This is also the party that provided Chávez with crucial support for his efforts to pack the Venezuelan Supreme Court with Chávez's political cronies, issued threats against Chávez's political enemies, and in general, did anything the caudillo wanted them to do. Even better, they almost always anticipated his desires in advance. Well, that was then, and this is now, and as Janet Jackson once famously inquired, "what have you done for me lately?"

"If any of you has shame, this is the right time. You have time to join us sincerily and build the revolution. Stop talking nonsense, saying you are revolutionary"
- Hugo Chavez

So what terrible thing has PODEMOS done to transform them into dyed in the wool chavistas to treacherous counterrevolutionaries? PODEMOS leaders expressed reservations about Chávez's proposal to alter the Venezuelan constitution to allow himself to be re-elected in perpetuity. PODEMOS is not alone there, as the proposal is widely unpopular, even among voters who strongly support Chávez. So what gives?

Daniel astutely notes that this is part of the dictator dynamic. Now that Chávez has packed the legislature and the courts with his cronies, PODEMOS is no longer very important in maintaining his grip on power. What's more, one of the key personality traits of the authoritarian leader is the overweening desire to occupy the spotlight of attention. Not sometimes. Not most of the time. All the time. Any "ally" who attaches importance to themselves by virtue of boasting how close they are to Chávez is, by extension, taking some credit for his glorious tasks, and therefore, diminishes the volume of praise and attention that Chávez recognizes as his, and his alone.

Sorry, PODEMOS, you're 99.9% on board with the Chávez agenda, but for an autocrat, that's just not high enough. Enjoy your trip to counterrevolutionary limbo, PODEMOS, and count yourselves lucky that Chávez apparently hasn't gotten around to asking Castro how Cuba got rid of their "counterrevolutionaries".

Bainimarama alleges Australian invasion plan

The military strongman of Fiji, Commodore Voreqe "Frank" Bainimarama, is alleging that the chief of the Australian Defense Forces threatened to send troops to Fiji if Bainimarama carried out his (eventually successful) plans for a military coup last November. Speaking to reporters from the Fiji Times newspaper, Bainimarama angrily countered claims made by Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer that Australia was "no threat" to Fiji.

"(Downer) was lying" claimed Bainimarama, "because in November the Chief of the Australian Defence Force Angus Houston called me in Sinai. He said 'do not do anything that would pit my soldiers against yours'. In military terms when you threaten someone it involves capability and intention so there was an intention to move troops to Fiji."

Downer dismissed the Commodore's claims, noting accurately (if a bit defensively), that "dictators often make false claims like these in order to build public support for their illegitimate regimes".

While this is true in the general sense, the question arises: why didn't Australia consider an intervention to prevent the overthrow of Fiji's democratically elected government? Bainimarama launched his coup after providing months of warning, and surely, Fiji's ostensibly loyal allies could have found some way to intervene, either militarily or diplomatically, to assure Bainimarama that he wouldn't get away with it.

Whatever the reason, Bainimarama on his part, appears to have calculated very accurately that none of the world's great powers would do anything more than raise an eyebrow when he made his move. And in typical fashion, he was exactly right. What, was Helen Clark going to stop him? Considering how she's presented herself as Bainimarama's staunchest foreign political foe, it might have occurred to her that New Zealand, being considerably more powerful and influential than Fiji, could have brought its own pressure to bear to prevent the coup.

So if I have any disgruntled military leaders in politically unstable countries reading, take heart: all the threats that "America won't stand for this" or "Europe would never let you do this" are so much puffery. I suspect you already know it, but don't take it from me - take it from Frank Bainimarama.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

The Dictator Hunter

A new documentary called The Dictator Hunters is making its debut this week at the Toronto Film Festival. According to this article in the Toronto Star, The Dictator Hunters covers the search for deposed Chadian dictator Hissène Habré, and the efforts to bring him to trial for a mind numbingly long list of human rights violations, mass murders and outright massacres he ordered during his reign. Director Klaartje Quirijns focuses on a man named Reed Brody from Human Rights Watch who is now lobbying the Canadian government to get "more involved" with Habré's upcoming trial in Senegal. There's just one problem: the Senegalese have not asked Canada, or any other western nation, for assistance because they insist they don't need any.

As I noted back in July, justice ministry officials in Senegal have expressed confidence in their ability to bring Habré to trial, but have rejected the ruinously expensive and farcically long tribunal sort of trial of the sort that Slobodan Milošević was subjected to. Patiently, and not unreasonably, the government of Senegal has expressed their intention to have opted to try Habré in a regular criminal court.

Now, I will say straight off the bat that I haven't seen The Dictator Hunters. However, I've also seen absolutely no indication that Senegal has mysteriously changed its mind about their desire for the assistance of the industrialized world in conducting this trial. Frankly, it seems a little odd that Reed Brody is pressing Canada, a country with absolutely no expertise in the business of trying dictators, to assist in any way. What little assistance Senegal has asked for has in been in the form of obtaining documents that are, for the most part, already in Europe. In other words, they've asked for no special help, or financing, for the trial itself as far as I can determine.

Reed Brody's rationale that, as a non-colonial power, Canada is in some way "less tainted" than the other Western nations Senegal has already told to stop bothering them misses the point. Senegal is not rejecting Belgium's offers to put Habré in trial in Belgium because of their "colonial taint", as Senegal already has fairly warm relations with Belgium. Senegal rejected offers of assistance with the trial because they truly and genuinely believe that they are capable of conducting it themselves. The thought that a poor African nation can, with proper planning, conduct a criminal trial of a dictator may seem unspeakably farfetched to Reed Brody, but it's also fairly condescending. In the extremely unlikely scenario that the government of Senegal somehow begged Reed Brody to act as intermediary between themselves and Canada? Hey, I guess it wouldn't be so insulting after all.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Inteview with a dictator

Riz Khan of Al Jazeera interviews Eritrean dictator Isaias Afewerki about accusations of sponsoring terror by the United States, and the long running border dispute with Ethiopia. Afewerki, naturally, denies claims of sponsoring terrorism, and claims that there is "no reason" for tensions with rival dictator, Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia. It's interesting, but it would have been nice if Riz Khan had asked Afewerki any questions about his rotten records on human rights, and why his country is among rivals only North Korea and Cuba when it comes to curbing freedom of the press.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Suharto crushes Time magazine for telling the truth?

We all know the canard about the propensity of bad things to happen to good people. Well, thanks to fate's eternal perversions, good things often seem to happen to perfectly terrible people, even deposed dictators. Case in point, former Indonesian dictator Suharto will be probably be $100 million richer than he already was because a magazine actually printed the truth.

Time magazine's Indonesian edition lost a $106 million defamation lawsuit by the family of the former dictator for alleging, perfectly truthfully, that the former dictator had embezzled an enormous fortune during his 32 year dictatorship. A spokesman for the Indonesian Supreme Court, which rendered the verdict, declared "the article and photographs hurt the image and pride of the plaintiff as a great retired army general and the former Indonesian president."

Which might be true, but the Indonesian government is seeking to recoup with one hand what it is trying to confiscate from Time with the other. Suharto himself has been charged with a number of crimes related to his record breaking kleptocracy, but the frail 86 year old has kept himself out of criminal court by pleading that he's too ill to stand trial. This excuse will not, apparently, grant him immunity from a civil suit by the government which seeks to recover $440 million in embezzled funds, and a further billion dollars in damages.

It is also worth noting that the Indonesian government, while ostensibly democratic since Suharto was overthrown, is still governed by and large by Suharto's former cronies. Their attempt to recoup stolen money is one thing, but it also tends to explain why Suharto hasn't been charged with offenses relating to the massacres that gained him so much notoriety. After all, the civil suit is simply business, but charging the old man with murder? Not on your life. Since the defamation lawsuit verdict was delivered by the Supreme Court, it's unclear what Time can do to contest the verdict at this point. With any luck, the government will win their case, or Suharto will finally kick the bucked, and his embarrassed family will simply decline to press for the award money.

Or not. Congratulations then, Suharto, on adding another $100 million bucks to your stash of ill gotten loot. It's almost a shame you'll be dropping dead before you can treat us to yet another outrage of this sort. Almost.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Noriega prepares for la vie francaise

Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega is due to be released from his prison cell in Florida on Saturday, but he's leaving the frying pan for an express trip into the fire. An American judge ruled yesterday that the United States will not block an extradition request by the French government, clearing the way for the 69 year old (see footnote) dictator to spend his dotage in a Parisian prison. The former caudillo was tried and convicted in absentia in France on drug trafficking charges, and sentenced to 10 years in jail. The French, for their part, have promised to re-try Noriega upon his arrival in France, thereby extending his detention even further.

Noriega's lawyers have argued, not insensibly, that their client is a prisoner of war, and that he is entitled to return to Panama after the completion of his prison sentence. At first, Panama said they didn't want him back, but quickly changed their tune, saying that they intended to try Noriega themselves for his connections to a series of grisly politically motivated murders, and Panamanians are angry at being overlooked while the United States and France deal with their former military dictator. Barring any further complications, however, it looks like Noriega is still on track to head to France. Bon voyage, Manny?

Note: Noriega himself claims to have been born in 1934, which would make him 73 years old, but his court documents list him as being 69. Which figure is right is anyone's guess.

60 years later, Seeger is denouncing Stalin

I nearly spit out my coffee today when America's preeminent communist folksinger, Pete Seeger, finally admitted that, perhaps, Josef Stalin was more of a cruel tyrant than he was an enlightened socialist leader. I congratulate Pete for his bravery in denouncing Josef Stalin a mere 51 years after Stalin's own successor, Nikita Khrushchev, did. I guess he finally decided it was either safe, or non-controversial enough, to finally do so. Good show, Pete.

I name dropped "Stalin's Songbird" back in my post about dictator chic over a year ago, but never in my wildest dreams could I imagine that Pete Seeger would not only apologize for lionizing Stalin, but actually wrote a song daring to criticize Stalin. During the 1940's and early 1950's, Seeger stuck to the Kremlin's party line without error. When Stalin and Adolf Hitler forged their infamous non-aggression treaty, Seeger put out a strongly anti-war record, Songs for John Doe. Needless to say, when Hitler double-crossed Stalin, Seeger's mood and artistic outlook mysteriously changed in perfect accord with the party line. Songs for John Doe was withdrawn by the label, and Seeger joined the imperialist, capitalist, bourgeois American army. Who could have foreseen it?

In fairness to Seeger, he broke with the communist party in 1950, but oddly, he's had almost nothing to say for the past 50 years about the "paragon of humanity" he praised to the heavens and back during his years in the Communist Party of the USA. We heard a lot of singing about Vietnam, Selma and Lyndon Johnson, but not so much about Katyn or Kolyma. Seeger blames the Soviet emphasis on Leninist party discipline for his rigid adherence and continued silence, but let's face it: Seeger was also probably fairly embarrassed. Seeger's most enthusiastic support for Stalin came at the same time as Stalin was occupying himself with the starvation of the Ukraine and unleashing a reign of terror.

Now the octogenarian Seeger is attempting to make good with his usual tool - song. Included is a snippet of the "Anti-Joe Blues"

I'm singing about old Joe, cruel Joe
He ruled with an iron hand!
He put an end to the dreams
Of so many in every land

He had a chance to make
A brand new start for the human race
Instead he set it back
Right in the same nasty place

I got the Big Joe Blues
Keep your mouth shut or you will die fast
I got the Big Joe Blues
Do this job, no questions asked
I got the Big Joe Blues

OK, so it's a little on the obvious side, but I suppose it's better late than never, right?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Startling new information on Uzbekistan

You've got to hand it to non-governmental organizations for their unfailing ability to state the obvious months or years after everyone else has already noticed. To wit, the International Crisis Group (ICG) has, apparently, just noticed that the Central Asian country of Uzbekistan is ruled by an actual, bonafide, honest-to-God dictator, and that dictatorships, for some reason, tend to be unstable, sometimes even violent, places. No, really! The ICG has graciously taking the time to restate the obvious in a report on Uzbekistan that will surprise absolutely nobody who has paid even 10 minutes worth of attention to Uzbek dictator Islam Karimov over the past decade.

For starters, the ICG appears stunned (stunned!) that Karimov is still in office even though his term legally expired in January! I, for one, can scarcely believe that a dictator would do such a thing, but there's more. Did you know that under the Karimov dictatorship, there's scant attention paid to the rule of law, no freedom of speech, and that political opponents are often arrested and tortured without cause? And did you know that, for some reason, Karimov's daughter is filthy rich while ordinary Uzbeks barely manage to make a living? Nepotism, I hear you ask, in a dictatorship? I know, it beggars belief, doesn't it? Finally, the ICG has, by virtue of their fearless devotion to ferreting out the truth, determined that the Karimov dictatorship uses fear and violence as a tool of maintaining power. You don't say!

I suppose I shouldn't be this sarcastic, since the ICG is telling the truth, but why do I get the sense that they're just discovering that states ruled by dictators are inherently rotten places to live in? I can only wonder what eye popping revelations we can expect when the ICG decides to scratch the surface of what's going in Zimbabwe and Belarus.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Will Albania dabble in dictator tourism?

Could Albania be looking to turn the scars dictator Enver Hoxha left on the country into tourist attractions? This article quotes the head of the tourist agency Outdoors Albania as saying "there is interest in this paranoid, psychotic regime".

While Hoxha has been dead for 22 years, Albania has struggled to come up with the money to undo the damage done to Albania during the Hoxha dictatorship. For starters, over 700,000 concrete bunkers built to defend Albania against a "Western imperialist invasion" that never came still scar the countryside, while a former Soviet submarine base stands largely intact, inviting the question of converting it to a museum. With so much remained to be cleaned up, the lines between "dictator detritus" and "tourist attraction" have naturally started to blur. Of course the larger question remains: is dictator tourism in bad taste?

The short answer, of course, is yes, but beggars can't be choosers. Albania is still, by far, the poorest country in Europe. While the country boasts pristine (by European standards) beaches and coastline, the nation's reputation for poverty, chaos and violence has put an unwanted damper on tourism. Albania is most famous in Europe and around the world for having gone into seclusion for much of the 20th century during the Hoxha regime, so why not find a way to turn into tourism revenue? At present, the famous concrete bunkers are doing little more than gathering graffiti. After all, people don't visit North Korea for the food - they do so because of the illicit thrill at getting a glimpse of a paranoid, secretive society, and to gawk at oversize monuments of their dictator. Dictator tourism in Albania would offer all the sordid voyeurism of peeking through the iron curtain with none of the actual risks or drawbacks.