Autocrats, dictators and tyrants – III

From the Middle East to Africa to South America, the world is becoming less and less congenial for dictators and despots. We are witnessing “climate change” in more ways than one.

(Published in Daily Times, 26 September 2012)

Argentina, which shares a long border with Chile and is one of the two “superpowers” of South America along with Brazil, has had its share of dictatorship and tyranny.  In the “Dirty War” against the mainly leftist dissidents which lasted for about seven years (1976-83), many Argentines were tortured in secret detention centers.  Some were eventually killed there, others were flown in airplanes and dropped from the sky onto the Atlantic Ocean after being drugged.  The total number of victims range from 10,000 to 30,000.

When the military junta which had carried out this dirty war against its own people got to taste a real war, that too of its own choice, it was left with a really bad taste in the mouth. It nearly choked to death.  Hoping to drown its dirty deeds in a sea of patriotic hysteria, the junta occupied the Falklands (Malvinas) in 1982, thinking it would be a walkover.  Instead, the UK, led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, threw them out in 74 days, killing 649 and capturing 9,800 Argentine troops. 

In the Caribbean state of Haiti, François Duvalier, affectionately called “Papa Doc” for his services as a doctor before he became a dictator, was President from 1957 until his death in 1971. Duvalier claimed to be a vodoo priest, using it to great effect on a superstitious nation.  There was even an image showing Jesus with his hand on a seated Duvalier’s shoulder with the caption “I have chosen him”.  He held in his closet the severed head of his former opponent Blucher Philogenes, who tried to overthrow him in 1963.  His 14-year rule, helped by a rural militia called Tonton Macoutes, resulted in the death of an estimated 30,000 Haitians. “Papa Doc” was duly succeeded by “Baby Doc”, his 19-year old son.

In the small Dominican Republic next door, the tyrannical rule of Rafael Trujillo, nicknamed “The Boss”, lasted even longer, from 1930 right until his assassination in 1961.  He killed over 50,000 people, about half of them in a pre-planned massacre of Haitians.

In Cuba, Fidel Castro ruled from 1959 to 2008 when, at the age of 82, due to illness, he passed the mantle to his “healthy” brother, 77-year old Raul.  Castro has many admirers worldwide for his “socialism” and defiance of USA.  Too numerous to describe here are the petty, but brutal, dictatorships of the small Central American countries, such as Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Panama, which were famously called “banana republics” thanks to American intervention and banana exports to the US.

Belarus has been called the last outpost of dictatorship in Europe.  Alexander Lukashenko, who won the first democratic election in Belarus in 1994, after the breakup of the USSR, has been in power ever since. Opposition meetings are broken up by the police and political opponents, including presidential candidates, imprisoned.

General Francisco Franco, having seized power in Spain in 1939, ruled until his death 36 years later.  In next-door Portugal, Antonio Salazar ruled from 1932 to 1968, until incapacitated by a stroke.

Adolf Hitler (Germany) and Benito Mussolini (Italy), live in such infamy that they do not merit mention here. For lack of space, we will also skip the post-Second World War Communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, installed and propped up by Moscow, which ruled until the late 1980s. 

In a different category we have Chairman Mao, the “Great Helmsman” and supreme leader of China from 1949 until his death in 1976.  And before him Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the USSR from about 1924 till his death in 1953.  Between them, these two caused millions of deaths through executions and forced famine.  Stalin executed his fellow Bolshevik leaders through the infamous “show trials” of the 1930s, while Mao purged the party and state through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s.

But while the Communist dictatorships of Stalin and Mao are now historical curiosities, there is one that survives the demise of Communism and defies the current of history.  North Korea has been ruled since 1948 by one family, where the mantle of leadership has been passed from father to son. Those who can flee, flee this “socialist paradise” ironically called “People’s Democratic Republic of Korea”, and those who cannot, are obliged to dance and cheer the “great leader” and the “dear leader” on empty stomachs.

Arguably the most brutal of the communist dictatorships, the regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia caused two million deaths in four years (1975-79), from starvation, overwork and executions.  A quarter of the country’s total population died as the direct or indirect result of a totally misguided and totalitarian attempt by the Khmer Rouge to create a peasant-based, egalitarian Communist society. Forced evacuation to the countryside, on foot and at gunpoint, of Pnom Penh alone caused 20,000 deaths.

Pol Pot’s murderous, tyrannical regime has been replacedd by the despotism of Hun Sen, in power since 1985, through a combination of luck, trickery and thuggery.  That’s a quarter century of rule with no end in sight.  Of his six children, named Manet, Mana, Manit, Mani, Mali and Malis, the first is a major general in the army and the deputy commander of the prime minister’s bodyguards. Hun Sen can sleep in ease knowing that he couldn’t have entrusted his personal safety to a safer pair of hands! 

The above is by no means an exhaustive list.  And as mentioned at the outset, excluded from this survey are Muslim autocrats, despots, dictators and tyrants, whom I have mentioned often in the past.  I am happy to note that in the last few months some of them have been overthrown in the so-called “Arab spring”.  From the Middle East to Africa to South America, the world is becoming less and less congenial for dictators and despots. We are witnessing “climate change” in more ways than one.


By Razi Azmi 

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