Former Foreign Affairs editor William J. Dobson has been making the rounds of dictatorial states for the last half decade, interviewing the autocrats' top functionaries as well as leaders of their democratic opposition. From Putin's Russia to Mubarak's Egypt, Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia, Chavez's Venezuela, and, of course, the very model of the modern authoritarian state, China. He concludes that dictators have smartened up since the heavy handed days of yore, when they had to give themselves 99 percent in every election and sealed their borders, preventing people from leaving and trying to prevent information about the outside world from getting in.
The totalitarian regimes of the far right - National Socialism and fascism - were destroyed in World War II. Those of the left - the Soviet Union and its East European client states, Maoist China - collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s, or in the case of China, underwent major reforms. This has left North Korea as the sole indisputable exemplar of the totalitarian model. Cuba stands somewhere between there and the states labeled authoritarian.
During Ronald Reagan's presidency the United States was excoriated by progressives for adopting UN ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick's Cold War doctrine of supporting authoritarian dictatorships against totalitarian ones, on the claim that they were more likely to be reformable. In those days right-wing military juntas were plentiful, from Greece to Argentina. Today the shoe is on the other foot, as a list of today's ten worst dictators would most likely comprise Kim Jong-un (North Korea), Bashar al-Assad (Syria), Omar al-Bashir (Sudan), Robert Mugabe (Zimbabwe), Islam Karimov (Uzbekistan), Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow (Turkmenistan), Seyed Ali Khamanei (Iran), Aleksandr Lukashenko (Belarus), Isaias Afwerki (Eritrea), and King Abdullah (Saudi Arabia). Of these, nine have a generally leftist or anti-imperialist origin, only King Abdullah being unequivocally of the political right. Dobson's subjects are drawn from the runners up, a lighter shade of pale due to the smarter tactics that are the subject of his book.
The murderous scale of the old tyrants seems to be a thing of the (recent) past. A hundred million murdered by the Communist states, 35 million of them deliberately starved to death during China's Great Leap Forward when Mao refused to call off grain seizures to meet impossible quotas, when doing so would lose him his post as head of the regime. Two million executed by Pol Pot in Cambodia, 500,000 killed by Idi Amin in Uganda, 250,000 by Saddam Hussein in Iraq, 25,000 in a single month in the Syrian city of Hama by Hafez Assad, Bashir's father. Bashir, over a somewhat longer time spread, is now around the 60,000 corpse mark in his determination to remain in power. The newer, gentler despots try to avoid this kind of Grand Guignol. In part this is because it is no longer possible to keep such carnage secret. It was decades before the true toll of the Great Leap Forward was established with any certainty.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990 there was a sharp upturn in the number of liberal democracies, a trend that briefly seemed unstoppable. Then, in 2005, the reverse set in. Movements for democracy have become more widespread, but, as Dobson writes, today's dictators "are far more sophisticated, savvy, and nimble than they once were." Instead of arresting or shooting members of a human rights group, they send out health and building inspectors to shut down their offices. "Today's dictators pepper their speeches with references to liberty, justice, and the rule of law. . . . Today, the Kremlin's operatives typically stop stuffing the ballot boxes when they reach 70 percent."
In the old USSR a black van would drive up to a dissident's street in the night. They would be taken away and never seen again. Nowadays they have an accident or are the victim of a random mugging.
Back in the 1960s in its fight against Soviet and Chinese Communist influence, the United States backed whatever government or movement was fighting on the other side, commonly, but not always, something right-wing or dictatorial. Today most of the battles for democracy are internal to the country involved, while the U.S. is committed to strong economic or political ties to many of the more regressive leftist governments. As Dobson writes:
"The United States is one of China's largest trading partners, is the biggest buyer of Venezuelan oil, sends billions in aid to the Egyptian military, and courts Russian diplomatic support on a range of crucial strategic issues."
The pseudo democratic autocracy is becoming more the rule than the exception. Dobson writes:
"Forty years ago, before the beginning of the democratic wave that began in 1972, the line that separated democracies and dictatorships was clearer. At that time, only a handful of authoritarian states masked themselves behind a democratic faÌ¤ade. Today, several dozen states - many that were once thought to be on the road to democracy - have become only a few shades less dark than their authoritarian past. Asia, Africa, and central Asia are littered with governments that are more democratic in form than function."
Vladimir Putin began to housebreak other centers of power in Russia in 2003 with the arrest of oil billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky on trumped up charges. Khodorkovsky remains in prison. When Putin took office there were three major television networks, of which the government controlled only one. The two independent networks were forced to sell to the state under threat of imprisonment and their owners fled abroad. Dobson reports that the Russian government now controls 93 percent of all media outlets. Media editors are instructed on a daily basis on what to present and what to say about it. When Medvedev, due to term limits, succeeded Putin as president in 2008, the media were instructed to open each broadcast with a story about Medvedev, followed immediately by a story of equal length about Putin, whether or not Putin had done anything that day.
To sustain the illusion of a multiparty state, Putin's United Russia party itself invented loyal opposition parties to represent nationalists, the poor, and old people, with the Kremlin writing the scripts for them. The only actual opposition party of any size is the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, a neo-Stalinist, ultranationalist and antisemitic body thoroughly hostile to liberal democracy.
Dobson interviews Boris Nemtsov, a former provincial governor and Minister of Fuel and Energy in the national government, now a critic. Asked what is the difference between Communism and Putinism, Nemtsov puts his finger on the dividing line between the old totalitarians and the new dictators:
"Putinism looks smarter, because Putinism comes just for your political rights but does not touch your personal freedom. You can travel, you can emigrate if you want, you can read the Internet. What is strictly forbidden is to use TV. Television is under control because TV is the most powerful resource for ideology and the propaganda machine."
The Russian state has instituted punitive regulations for nonprofit organizations, which can be shut down at will for building code violations, use of pirated software, or even typos in documents, essentially at the government's discretion. Fire inspections are a favorite.
As they have done with political parties, the Putin government has created dummy nonprofits, officially independent of the government but actually controlled by the Kremlin. Notable here is the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. When, in 2008, the New York-based Human Rights Watch issued a report on kidnappings, executions, and torture in the Russian republic of Ingushetia, Alexander Brod, the head of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights, held a press conference to give the government a clean bill of health.
Between 2000 and early 2012 nineteen Russian journalists were murdered, the most famous, Anna Politkovskaya, in 2006. Scores more are beaten with impunity.
Russian functionaries defend the system by pointing to the economic success of authoritarian China and Singapore. This is a tricky case, that I will come back to. Dobson concedes that over the last forty years, planetwide, autocracies have matched the democracies in economic growth. But this parity disappears if East Asia is excepted. Outside of that region the autocracies displayed a median per capita growth rate 50 percent lower than poor states that were democratic. In the Russian case, Dobson notes, while the Asian authoritarians built their economies on manufactures, especially automobiles and high tech electronics, 70 percent of Russian exports in 2008 were gas and oil and only 1.7 percent were goods and services.
Moreover, while China nominally remains a Communist country, total state employment there in 2009 was only 10.2% of the working population, while in Russia it is almost 40 %, and the World Bank estimates that close to half of the Russian economy consists of bribes and other forms of corruption.
The Russian government at all levels rigs elections. One official told Dobson that Putin is popular enough that he doesn't need to do this, but that mayors and regional officials do it routinely to head off any sign that their power is weakening. In 2009, for example, in elections for the Moscow city Duma, Sergei Mitrokhin, the head of the liberal Yabloko party, was not credited with a single vote in his home district despite the fact that at minimum he, his family, and friends all voted there.
In 2009 Putin succeeded in abolishing elections for provincial governors, replacing popular votes with appointments from the Kremlin.
Dobson tells the story of Yevgenia Chirikova, who became an ecological activist in defense of Khimki Forest. The forest is part of the green belt surrounding Moscow, and abuts the suburb of Khimki on the city's northwest border. Comprising twenty-five hundred acres, the forest is supposed to be inviolate under Russian law. In 2008 the government, without public notice, began construction of a highway to go from Moscow to St. Petersburg and would run through the middle of Khimki Forest. Developers were also lined up to build housing along the roadway. Chirikova called meetings of her neighbors, set up a website, and began organizing demonstrations to save the forest. Mikhail Beketov, publisher of a small local paper, supported the protest. He was beaten with baseball bats almost to death, losing a leg and four fingers and suffering brain damage. He never regained the power of speech and died on April 8, 2013, at the age of fifty-five.
In July 2010 an environmentalist tent camp, set up in the forest to give advance warning if construction went forward, was attacked by almost a hundred masked men. When police finally came it was the environmentalists they arrested.
Construction was halted briefly while President Medvedev called for further study but was finally approved in December 2010. In March 2011 government agents raided Yevgenia Chirikova's husband's electrical engineering firm. Authorities threatened to take her children, on anonymous and false accusations of child abuse. Construction is still underway but the environmentalists won a case in a Moscow court in December 2012 that the construction company was cutting a swath more than three times wider than allowed under their permits.
Dobson next turns to Mubarak's Egypt. He talks to Omar Afifi, now an attorney, but back in 1995 he was a cop. The night before parliamentary elections the Cairo police chief called a meeting of seven or eight hundred of his men. They were ordered to go to the polling places in plain clothes and hand out pre-marked ballots choosing the government party. They were instructed to start fights, and during the disturbances to go into the polling stations and stuff the ballot boxes. In later years as a lawyer he conducted classes in Egyptian law to help people defend themselves in court. When he published a book on this subject state security agents seized all the copies.
Ayman Nour, an attorney, founded El Ghad, a liberal secular party, in 2004. The following year he was arrested on spurious charges of improprieties in El Ghad's founding documents. He was released from prison and ran for president against Mubarak in the 2005 elections, getting 600,000 votes, or 7 percent. This was the second-highest total in the rigged elections. Nour was returned to prison in December 2005, where his case became an international issue. In November 2008 his party headquarters were burned to the ground. He was released from prison in February 2009, but the government ordered him dropped from the bar association. His contract to teach at a university was canceled. He was unable to sell a house he inherited from his father when the government ordered all of the country's notaries to refuse to notarize the sale documents.
El Ghad split going into the post-Mubarak parliamentary elections, held from November 2011 to January 2012. The official El Ghad Party ran as independents, while Nour formed the Ghad El-Thawra Party, which took part in the Muslim Brotherhoods slate.
Back in the United States, Dobson in March 2010, while Mubarak was still in power, talked to long-time Egyptian human rights activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim. The regime, Ibrahim said, uses intimidation, prison, and character assassination against its critics. And if those fail it tries to destroy its victim's livelihood. "They are draining my resources filing cases against me," he told Dobson. "At one time, there were twenty-eight cases filed against me by different people from different places around the country. . . . They filed a suit [against me] for inciting El Baradei to run and therefore destabilizing Egypt. I don't know the guy [who filed it] but for the next year or two it will be like a sword hanging over me."
Mahathir Mohamad's Malaysia
Dobson spends a day in February 2011 with Anwar Ibrahim, leader of the People's Justice Party, the principal opposition group to the authoritarian regime of Mahathir Mohamad in Malaysia. Anwar had been Mahathir Mohamad's deputy prime minister, 1993-1999, when he fell afoul of the dictator and spent six years in solitary confinement on almost certainly fabricated charges of corruption. He received an additional nine-year sentence in 2000 on the charge of sodomy, but he was eventually acquitted on that count. His party won more than a third of the seats in parliament and five of the thirteen state governorships in elections of April 2008.
Mahathir ruled Malaysia from 1981 until 2003, and has been replaced by his hand-picked successors. When in power he made wide use of the Internal Security Act that allowed him to arrest critics without filing charges and to hold them indefinitely. His arrests included ten members of parliament. He also closed down three opposition newspapers. He promoted an act of parliament that stripped the High Courts of the power of judicial review of laws. When the judges tried to appeal this, Mahathir fired five of them, effectively eliminating an independent judiciary. Mahathir is best known in the West for his antisemitic rants.
The regime remains relatively stable because the economy has been far more successful than in Egypt.
Dobson visited two of Venezuela's most famous political prisoners: former Defense Minister Raul Baduel and Judge Maria Lourdes Afiuni. Baduel had joined with Chavez in founding the Chavista movement in 1982, used his units in the military to restore Chavez to power after the 2002 coup against him, and was commander-in-chief of the Venezuelan army from 2004 to July 2007, when he resigned in protest against the extensive constitutional amendments that would have made Chavez president for life. Chavez had him arrested at gun point, charging Baduel with responsibility for missing military funds. Baduel is treated as a political prisoner by both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
Dobson visited him in the Ramo Verde military prison in July 2010. He writes:
"Baduel told me he was bothered by what he saw: his longtime friend ruled like an autocrat and was surrounded by people who told him he could do no wrong." He quotes Baduel directly:
"They say I know him well, but now I think I met an impostor. He wanted power. He was able to hide that well through the years. He takes actions to sustain his only political project, which is to be president for life."
Judge Afiuni's case is even clearer. Under Venezuelan law people cannot be held without trial for more than two years. In December 2009, the case of businessman Eligio Cedeno came before her. He was accused of evading currency regulations. He had been illegally held for three years at that time. The government's tactic was to have the prosecutors repeatedly fail to show up for scheduled hearings. In their absence, Judge Afiuni granted Cedeno bail. This was the required action under the constitution. She was immediately arrested. Chavez went on national television to order that she be given a thirty-year sentence. The government accused Afiuni of taking a bribe to release Cedeno, but never produced any evidence.
William Dobson interviewed Judge Afiuni in her cell in the country's only women's prison, on the outskirts of Caracas, in July 2010. She told him about her arrest. She had just been placed in a jail cell when,
"A senior intelligence official came in and said, 'We have good news, and we have bad news. The good news is that we have found nothing against you. The bad news is that Chavez just condemned you to prison for thirty years on national television.'"
While in prison she contracted cancer, and was raped. She became pregnant from the rape and underwent an abortion that became a hysterectomy. After undergoing cancer surgery she was transferred to house arrest in February 2011. At the end of 2012 a trial began, which she refused to attend, as she said it was a political frame-up. It appears to have been suspended, as she remains under house arrest today, in April 2013, after Chavez's death.
Numerous human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, have demanded Maria Afiuni's release. Unusually, the United Nations has taken up the case. In February 2013, Margaret Sekaggya, the U.N.'s special rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, issued a statement declaring, "Judge Afiuni's situation represents an emblematic case of reprisal." The U.N.'s special rapporteur on torture, Juan E. Mendez, also challenged the Venezuelan government's refusal to investigate Afiuni's affirmation that she was raped in the infirmary of the women's prison in 2010, saying, "Rape and other grave acts of sexual violence by state authorities" amount to torture.
Chavez came to power in popular reaction against the corruption of the traditional party governments, which catered to the rich and ignored the plight of the poor. Using the country's considerable oil wealth, he subsidized major improvements in the living standards of the bottom thirty percent of the population, and provided generous foreign oil aid to leftist governments in the hemisphere, most importantly, Cuba, whose economy had been in the doldrums after the fall of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s.
But along with the tilt toward the poor, Chavez increasingly tilted the system toward disfranchising voters of all classes and concentrating power in his own hands. In the process the economy, despite it oil wealth, descended into chaos, inflation mounted to the thirty percent annual rate, threatening the survival of both the poor, and the elderly who live on fixed incomes. In response, before his death this year, he rigged elections to less and less reflect the real wishes of the Venezuelan masses.
Dobson interviewed Teodoro Petkoff in November 2009. Petkoff, today the editor of Tal Cual, was, at different stages of his life, a leftist guerilla fighter under Douglas Bravo, a professor, a member of the Venezuelan Communist Party, and a government minister. He calls Chavez a fascist. He concedes that Chavez, at least early in his presidency, was wildly popular, but says that his support steadily eroded and by 2009 was below 50 percent. Chavez compensated by closing off avenues through which he could be challenged:
"Is this an authoritarian government? Of course. Is this an undemocratic government? Of course. There is not an inch of separation of powers. There are no checks and balances. Chavez has encroached on all political powers, all of them - parliament, justice, attorney general, comptroller, ombudsman, and the National Electoral Council."
So just how does this system work? Chavez established a new national assembly with rewritten rules, which, Dobson says, give him 93 percent of the seats with only 53 percent of the votes. The Senate was abolished, leaving a unicameral legislature. Public funding for political candidates was outlawed, but Chavista candidates, especially incumbents, have virtually unlimited access to the public trough. Exclusion of opposition candidates from television coverage, prohibition of some of the more popular ones from running for office, and free use of television by regime supporters, along with Chavez's initial popularity, left the government free to hold frequent elections and referendums with no need to stuff ballot boxes as other authoritarian regimes commonly do. One former member of the National Electoral Council told Dobson:
"Election Day is not a problem. All the damage - the use of money, goods, excess power, communications - happens beforehand." Dobson comments:
"While the new constitution had banned public financing for the political parties, the prohibition was only applied against the opposition. Government ministries openly flouted the ban, pouring millions of dollars into pro-Chavez banners, leaflets, and billboards, as well as sending state employees to convass for the president."
Other tools have been gerrymandering, and massive distribution of voter IDs. This last doesn't work the way American Republicans do it, to fight nonexistent in-person voter fraud in order to suppress minority voters. In the Venezuelan case all voters already had IDs. Between 2003 and 2009, the number of voter IDs issued jumped from eleven million to eighteen million, and 40 percent of the total in 2009 did not list an address. The fraud risk here is people who collect multiple, unverifiable IDs, to allow them to vote many times.
The gerrymandering strongly favored rural areas over the cities. There is no lack of poor people in Venezuelan cities, but there they tend to support the opposition while the rural poor are more likely to go with Chavez. Dobson gives as an example of the new districts, Amazonia, a rural state strongly pro-Chavez, where it takes 42,000 votes to get a member of parliament, compared to Zulia, where the opposition is popular, where it takes 708,000. In the September 2010 legislative elections, the Chavista candidates won 48.3 percent compared to the opposition's 47.2 percent. But the Chavistas got 96 seats while the opposition got only 64. In Carabobo and Caracas Capital District the Chavistas lost the popular vote but took seven of the ten seats in each district.
Chavez also used intimidation. In 2004, nationwide petitions qualified for a referendum calling for Chavez's recall. Before the vote Chavez had the names of all three million signers of the petitions posted to a public website. The health minister announced that any doctors or nurses who had signed the petition would be fired. Workers for the state oil company were also fired, as well as state bank workers. The next year the government distributed CDs with the names, addresses, and voting history of twelve million citizens, a list known as the Maisanta. One ninety-eight-year-old woman was denied her medical prescriptions because the Maisanta showed she had voted for the referendum. Others were turned away from hospital emergency rooms when admitting nurses checked their voting records.
The claim that the Chavez government has championed the poor, which has won it the admiration of leftists around the world, is a mixed bag. It is true that large numbers have been lifted out of poverty, mainly by subsidies from Venezuela's oil wealth. At the same time, Transparency International, an NGO that monitors political corruption, ranks Venezuela at number 164 out of 178 countries, on a level with Angola. There are more murders in Venezuela than in Mexico, and 91 percent are unsolved. Inflation is running at 30 percent. Government price controls require food stores to sell staples at fixed prices, but with the rampant inflation this is often below the price the merchants have to pay, leading to bankruptcies and empty shelves.
In North Korea loudspeakers blast continual propaganda that can't be shut off. In Venezuela while Chavez lived, all radio and television channels, including such apolitical venues as Animal Planet and National Geographic, were required to interrupt their programming to carry any presidential address, called a cadena, in full. In his first eleven years in office Chavez delivered almost two thousand of these addresses, some lasting for many hours. Dobson says the total of these speeches came to almost 1,300 hours. Apart from the cadenas Chavez had a weekly Sunday television show, Alo Presidente (Hello President), in which he monologued, on average, for just under five hours.
The law prohibits "defaming the president," which is punishable by thirty months in prison. People also face stiff fines for "offending" public authorities. When Chavez was first elected the government owned one television channel and two radio stations. When Dobson made his survey the government had six TV channels, two national radio stations, and three thousand community radio stations, as well as three print media companies. In December 2010 a law was passed making it a crime for any Internet provider to permit content that causes "anxiety or unrest among the public order."
Chavez's justification for his many antidemocratic measures was that he was defending the interests of the poor against the rich. But by 2008 large sections of the urban poor were starting to vote for the opposition, one reason why the electoral system was reconfigured to give greater weight to rural areas over the cities.
People who live in areas that vote for the opposition are severely punished. When in 2008 Henrique Capriles won the race for governor of the state of Miranda, with a population above three million, the central government retaliated by closing nineteen hospitals and 250 emergency and primary care centers. The state budget was cut by $200 million.
The Chavistas were shocked that same year when opposition leader Carlos Ocariz was elected mayor of Sucre Municipality, one of the poorest sectors of greater Caracas, home to two million people, 80 percent of whom are below the poverty line. Ocariz won 55.6 percent to 43.8 for the Chavista. He told Dobson, "The day after the election, the government took away sixteen garbage trucks, which was 60 percent of garbage collection." Water pressure for the hillside town suddenly dropped, leaving many residents without water. Ocariz said, "It's a mixture of negligence and political revenge."
Ocariz responded by getting water trucks to deliver to the poorest sections and installing stronger pumps.
Chavez, following an example set by the Iranian theocracy, on his personal authority alone ordered the government to ban candidates he disapproved of from running for public office. In February 2008, 400 political figures, 80 percent of them from the opposition, were declared ineligible to stand for election. A particular target was Leopoldo Lopez, mayor of Chacao, who was the favorite to become the next mayor of Caracas. By the time Dobson finished his book the number of the banned had reached more than 800.
After Lopez was forced out of the race, the Chavista candidate was defeated by another opposition figure, Antonio Ledezma. Chavez retaliated by effectively overturning the election, stripping the city of 80 percent of its budget and replacing the power of the mayor with a new, unelected, "head of government" for the Caracas Capital District. Dobson recounts how armed Chavez supporters "seized city hall and other municipal office buildings and refused to relinquish them. Offices were ransacked, equipment and city vehicles destroyed or stolen." In a meeting with Ledezma a year after his election the powerless mayor told Dobson, "Chavez wins when he wins, and he wins when he loses. If he doesn't win, he just takes it."
The death of Chavez, paired with the downward spiral of the Venezuelan economy, puts the future of the Bolivarian Revolution in doubt. The April 13, 2013, election was devastating for Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, despite his eking out a paper-thin victory, 50.78% against 48.95% for opposition candidate Henrique Capriles Radonski. This was despite the fact that the ruling party totally controlled the airwaves, granting the opposition candidate four minutes a day. At the least the election dispelled the claim that the population, including the poor, are solidly with the Chavistas, as approximately half went for the opposition. Also notable was the fact that while Capriles carried only 8 of the country's 24 states, he won 6 of the 9 largest, Zulia, Miranda, Lara, Bolivar, Anzoategui, and Tachira.
The Rebels' New Style
From Serbia to Egypt to Venezuela, as dictators have learned to cloak their rule in trappings of populist pseudo democracy, their opponents have evolved as well. The old Marxism has largely gone by the board and with it notions such as the Leninist combat party and of revolution aiming at a proletarian overturn of private property. The goals are political rights, civil liberties, and democratic institutions, not overturn of property relations, much less a one-party dictatorship.
In Venezuela when students mobilized to oppose Chavez's May 2007 closure of the country's most popular television station, RCTV, followed later that year by his proposed constitutional referendum that would make him president for life, their demonstrations were attacked by the police and the national guard. In response, instead of large gatherings the students dispersed in small groups to a hundred Caracas subway stations to distribute flyers. They set up roadblocks where they would let people pass only if they could name one article of the Constitution Chavez was trying to change.
The government accused the students of being CIA agents. They in turn staged a rally outside a bank, protesting that the government was delaying their checks from the CIA.