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Dictators without an exit

The world’s despots know that losing power will mean a long prison sentence and the loss of the vast fortunes they pillaged. Therefore, for dictators, retaining power is no longer just about politics: it’s an existential requirement

Sudanese army
Abdel Fattah al Burhan, leader of the Sudanese army, greets soldiers during a visit to their positions in Khartoum, in an image posted on the armed forces' Facebook page on May 30.- (AFP)
Moisés Naím

One of the critical debates of our time is how to deal with dictators. In dozens of countries there is a fierce clash between those who will only accept the unconditional defeat and the eventual prosecution of a dictator and his cronies and those who are willing to accept horrible concessions in order to establish a democracy.

It is an issue whose urgency has become impossible to ignore. Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his democratic neighbor, Ukraine, amplified the world’s attention to this difficult problem. But it is not just a problem in Russia: from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concentration camps in Xinjiang, to the tight control over dissent that Teodoro Obiang has maintained in Equatorial Guinea since 1979, the world today is governed by no less than 39 dictators (and that’s without counting the eight kings, emirs and sultans who rule single-handedly).

Of those 39 dictators currently in power, 20 of them rule with impunity in Africa, 14 more in Asia, three in Latin America and two in Europe. Three command nuclear arsenals — Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Kim Jong-un. Others are the despots of countries with significant international influence, as Egypt, Cuba and Vietnam. Several rule the poorest countries in the world: Burundi, Laos, Nicaragua and many others whose misery stems in many cases from the dictator’s incompetence and corrupt leadership.

Getting rid of a dictator today is far more difficult than it was a couple of generations ago. Back then, a common solution was exile. Tyrants like Idi Amin of Uganda or Baby Doc Duvalier of Haiti knew that, if push came to shove, they could discreetly board a plane with suitcases full of money and retire in a luxurious mansion, preferably in the south of France. Those days are over.

On October 10, 1998, General Augusto Pinochet was arrested in the name of universal jurisdiction during a stay in London, on charges of genocide and torture during his regime (1973-1990). Although he was finally released for health reasons and returned to Chile, his arrest marked the beginning of the end of exile as a solution to removing entrenched dictators from power. Years later, in 2006, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević died in a cell in The Hague while awaiting the verdict in his international trial for crimes against humanity, genocide and war crimes.

The intentions of these international prosecutions were undoubtedly good, but their unintended consequences continue to shape politics worldwide. By substantially increasing the cost a dictator faces for relinquishing power, these cases have paradoxically hampered all subsequent attempts at excising entrenched despots.

When the alternative offered to dictators is a long prison sentence and the loss of the vast fortunes they and their cronies have amassed, it is not surprising that they will do whatever it takes to avoid losing power. For dictators, staying in government is no longer about politics: it becomes an existential requirement. Partly because of this deeper entrenchment, the process that took place in past decades, when dictators left power and were replaced by democratic leaders and their followers, is now very infrequent.

Of the last five countries which ousted their dictators, only one — Armenia — seems to have had any success in its transition to democracy. The others have seen their democratization process regress (Tunisia), collapse (Myanmar, Egypt), or degenerate into civil war (Sudan). In the latter case, there is an open war between military factions while the former dictator, Omar al-Bashir, sits in prison awaiting a trial that will likely carry the death penalty.

There are few cases in which massive street protests, combined with the support of the armed forces and parts of the international community, succeed in ousting a dictator. But this is happening less frequently. Much more common is the experience of countries such as Belarus, Cameroon, Cuba, Hong Kong, Iran, Thailand, Nicaragua or Venezuela, where large protest movements have been repressed by their dictators, in most cases brutally.

The world has lost the ability to remove dictators from power. The lack of attractive options and tolerable risks that result from losing power has led autocrats to redouble their efforts to repel the attempts to remove them. Thus, dictators today are overthrown less frequently than in the past. And when they leave, what is often left is a country that is very difficult to democratize or even govern.

The world needs to relearn the art and science of ousting dictators. Or get used to the dismal reality that tyranny and anarchy, not democracy, are the world’s most common form of government.

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