2007: The Year in Thugs

Damming the flow of freedom


For a few years in the 1980s and 1990s, the world was changing for the better and seemingly destined to keep doing so indefinitely. Back then, freedom resembled justice as described in the Bible—rolling down like waters. But in the last few years various governments have managed to dam it up, and in some cases, like the engineers who manipulated the Chicago River in 1900, even reverse the flow.

Between 1990 and 1997, the number of democracies in the world rose from 69 to 118, according to the human rights group Freedom House. In the past decade, though, the number has crept up by just five. Worse yet, in some places where democracy emerged back then, it has survived only in name.

This year, Russia noted the death of Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected ruler in its long history. The second, Vladimir Putin, sees no pressing need for a third. His party won a parliamentary election in which opposition activists were arrested and beaten and foreign election monitors were so restricted that they left long before the polls opened.

Meanwhile, Putin planned to get around the two-term limit on his power by installing a handpicked successor and becoming prime minister. "It's not even a third term; it's eternal," one former adviser told The Wall Street Journal.

Many of the former Soviet republics also proved inhospitable to rule by the people. One exception is Ukraine, which experienced an "orange revolution" in 2004 and held an election in September that The Economist magazine pronounced "a thoroughly democratic and unpredictable affair."

Unpredictability is not a condition favored by the rulers of China, where President Hu Jintao promised the expansion of "socialist democracy" in a country that is neither. Some 40 high school students in Tibet, some as young as 14, were arrested for allegedly writing pro-independence slogans on buildings.

In Myanmar, Buddhist monks in an anti-government demonstration carried a banner reading, "Love and kindness must win over everything." Maybe so, but not right away: The government killed at least 20 people in crushing the protests, according to Human Rights Watch, and arrested hundreds.

Cuban police detained dozens of young people for wearing white wristbands decorated with a single word: (SET ITAL) cambio (END ITAL), or change. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who takes Fidel Castro as his model, suffered two sound rebukes—one from King Juan Carlos of Spain, who said, "Why don't you shut up?" and one from his people, who voted down measures designed to keep him in power permanently.

Authoritarian rule, the exception in South America, remains the norm in Africa. The Human Rights Forum in Harare reported that human rights violations in Zimbabwe nearly doubled in the first half of 2007. But at a summit meeting of leaders from Europe and Africa in Lisbon, African leaders united in refusing to criticize President Robert Mugabe—under whose rule average life expectancy has dropped from 62 years to 37.

Former Liberian dictator Charles Taylor went on trial in The Hague for allegedly helping rebels who killed and maimed thousands of civilians during Sierra Leone's civil war. He pleaded not guilty, but one of his former soldiers said, "If you start prosecuting war crimes, you'll prosecute every Liberian."

Nigeria had its first peaceful transfer of power from one civilian government to another, after an election with so much vote-rigging that the winner's victory margin, according to The Washington Post, "surprised even supporters of the ruling party."

Iraq's parliament took a month-long vacation in August even as U.S. troops were surging in an effort to provide lawmakers the security they needed to overcome their political stalemate. In Saudi Arabia, a young woman raped by seven men was sentenced to six months in jail and 200 lashes for her crime—being in a car with a male who was not her relative. King Abdullah, under international pressure, granted a pardon.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf forgot a lesson most people learn young: Don't antagonize lawyers. His sacking of the country's chief justice sparked protests by attorneys, eventually moving the president to impose a state of emergency. Musharraf allowed opposition leaders Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif to return from exile abroad, but when asked when he would step down, he replied, unencouragingly, "When there is no turmoil in Pakistan."

That was the political story in many places around the world in 2007—enough turmoil to give authoritarian rulers an excuse to expand their control, but not enough to sweep them from power.


NEXT: The Wrong Man

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  1. Sigh, 2008 is going to be a long year.

  2. Wow, I didn’t realized how badly 2007 sucked until you collated all the suck points.

    And I agree with jtuf, who likely agrees with MikeP.

  3. Unfortunately, I find none of this surprising. In particular, when everyone thought liberty and freedom where inevitable around the world, I was on of the few cynics saying, “Just wait.”

    The problem lies not in our stars, but in ourselves. Freedom requires people to accept responsibility for their own lives, making their own decisions and accepting the consequences. Most people have trouble dealing with that burden. They would rather whine about how bad things are under an oppressive leader than to take on the stress of living their own lives.

  4. Please stop lumping Chavez in with those other thugs. Removing term limits (which most other democracies don’t have) would not “keep him in power permanently”, he would still have to seek reelection at the end of each term. Chavez accepted his defeat with good grace, especially considering there have been two US-supported coup attempts against him. He continues to be popular because under his government there have been vast improvements in the living conditions of poor Venezualans.

  5. “He continues to be popular because under his government there have been vast improvements in the living conditions of poor Venezualans.”

    please mention one.

  6. “Chavez accepted his defeat with good grace”

    Yup. Calling the opossition’s victory “una mierda” on national tv, not once but several times, is highly graceful. Appearing on tv with bruises and cuts on your hands from trashing your office after learning about your defeat is quite elegant. And having high ranking military officials stand up and shout “Patria, Socialismo o Muerte” is also a very nice touch from Mr. Grace.

    Give me a break.

  7. rana –

    The fact remains, he accepted defeat. Give credit where credit’s due. I’m not optimistic that he’ll ever step down willingly, but he hasn’t trashed Venezuela’s fledling democracy. Yet.

  8. The unconcionable double-standard when it comes to Chavez is amazing…apparently we are allowed to use whatever undemocratic force against him we are able to muster, but when he holds elections that are supervised by the international community he is being a crazed dictator. I shouldn’t be surpised, I guess…this has always been U.S. policy.

  9. I think we forgot to add perhaps the most murdurous regime to this list…the United States. The CIA is conservatively estimated to commit 100,000 illegal acts each year and the Medical Journal Lancet estimates that more than 1,000,000 excess deaths have occured (2-3 million refugees)since the beginning of the Iraq war.

  10. J Sub D,
    I was surprised as anyone that Sunday night when he showed up on tv accepting his defeat.
    I felt a sense of hope I had not felt in a long time.
    But then, that Chavez, the “polite and democratic” Chavez that appeared in front of the international press, vanished.
    He has been FAR from graceful since then.
    And that is my point.
    I will give him credit if, in fact, he accepts the results. believe me, this is far from over.
    Opposition leaders have been calling for reconciliation, but Chavez and his Thugs are vehemently opposed to this idea.
    And breaking news, the TSJ (Supreme Court) of Venezuela is looking to annul the results of the referendum.
    Chavez is not done with us yet.

  11. Let me add that the United States is the #1 dealer of armaments to 3rd world nations.

  12. Let me add that the United States is the #1 dealer of armaments to 3rd world nations.

    Hey, third world thugs like quality weapons. We make ’em. The best in the world. The French and the Israeli’s are fairly competitive on quality, but neither offers the broad selection that the US does. We’re the WalMart of destruction.

  13. Who pulled the trigger on those “1,000,000 excess deaths”* James?

    *highly exaggerated, unsubstantiated figure

  14. Rana, you did note the last word in my 10:19am post? Your concerns are shared by many.

  15. “But at a summit meeting of leaders from Europe and Africa in Lisbon, African leaders united in refusing to criticize President Robert Mugabe-under whose rule average life expectancy has dropped from 62 years to 37.”

    That decrease in life expectancy is largely due to AIDS, which I hardly think Mugabe is to blame for. Botswana has the same problem and it has a benign government.

  16. Ed,

    Many of these deaths are the result of American bombing, and many more are the result of ethnic/religious clashes that came about because of the U.S. invasion. If you think that the U.S. does not have any culpability because we lit the match to the powder keg(but hey pulled the trigger, I just disagree with you.

    Any you may say that 1,000,000+ is an exaggerated and unsubstantiated number, but if you read the Lancet study you will find that they used the same methodology used (cluster sampling) in many other tragedies. In fact 1 million is a low/average estimate.

  17. Like health care to many thousands who never received it before.

  18. The health care you are referring to Bill, is, much like in Cuba, practically non-existent.
    There simply isnt enough medical supplies, patients have to BUY there own medicines, cotton gauze, solutions, etc.. Doctors are underpaid.. um, correction, rarley paid. Thye were promised a 60% pay increase at the beginning of 2007 and have NOT YET seen bolivar one of this increase. The conditions in medical facilities are appalling.
    Im not going to say Chavez hasnt done ANYTHING but I will say he hasnt IMPROVED much- to the contrary, he has managed to make things that were perhaps “bad” before into simply “much worse”.

  19. I know I cringed when I read an interview with famous neocon Paul (holes in my socks) Wolfowitz last year. He said “democracy is the default position of humans” or something very close to that. At the time, I thought, no “power” is the default position. Democracies don’t grow more democratic. They grow less so as individuals or groups take power. Obviously in order for that to work, you have to have the corollary – that is, that powerless-NESS is also a default position for those who willingly give up their freedoms to the powerful. Just some thoughts generally relevant to this topic on a cold, rainy December morning in the PacNW.

  20. edcoast,

    You are right to cringe at Wolfowitz just in general…I guarantee he does not give a damn about democracy anywhere, he never has…I think I cringed the most when I heard people actually lauding him as a great head of the World Bank because he was such an ‘idealist’. My blood runs cold to hear neocons talk about freedom and democracy.

  21. Any you may say that 1,000,000+ is an exaggerated and unsubstantiated number, but if you read the Lancet study you will find that they used the same methodology used (cluster sampling) in many other tragedies. In fact 1 million is a low/average estimate.

    I thought that the methodology of the Lancet study had been so thorougly debunked that nobody talked about it any more. There is nothing wrong with clustering techniques if you use written records and can accurately randomized where you gather your samples. But Lancet couldn’t/didn’t do either.

    The (huge) flaw in the Lancet study is the use of interview techniques instead of written medical records. If someone is asked if they had a close neighbor die, they are likely to say yes if somebody 3 streets away died. If asked about immediate family, they may say yes if an uncle or second cousin died.

    The data is also flawed due to an inadequate randomization of sample points. A quick google search (work interferes with me looking more deeply) finds this BBC article

    IIRC, the original authors acknowledged these flaws, and included such large margins of error that the study was useless except as astarting point.

  22. In fact 1 million is a low/average estimate.

    Given the size of Iraq (around 27M), that would mean that Iraq has suffered a 4% death rate, made up almost entirely of civilians. It doesn’t pass the laugh test.

    A 4% civilian death rate is more than double that suffered by Germany (not counting Jews) in WWII. It equals the total (military and civilian) death rate for Japan, and is four times the Japanese civilian death rate.

    Only a complete fool would believe that the conflict in Iraq has been more intense or harder on the Iraqis than WWII was on the nations that lost it.

    Perhaps the most comparable rate of civilian deaths would be Yugoslavia, but even there the rate is between 3 and 4%. Anyone familiar with the history of Yugoslavia during WWII would laugh at comparing Iraq under the Americans with Yugoslavia under the Nazis. Yugoslavia was where the Nazis executed 100 civilans for every German killed, and 50 for every German wounded.

    To sum up: 1M Iraqi dead since the invasion? Give me a break.

  23. Once again, James checks in from a parallel universe, where the US bombs and kills a million Iraqis just to get oil, and President Chavez improves the lives of Venezuelans, who love him. The only people who don’t are those in the pay of the CIA!!!

    There is no logic here,not even facts on which to base a logical argument. Simply a bitterness, and a blind pathetic smugness.

  24. Elides Rojas, El Universal

    As usual, a fiery speech. Theatrical thunder. I am glad I did not hear the King talking to me. If I had heard him who knows what may have happened.

    We did not win. We did not lose. We simply reedited the for now of the day that we staged the coup, that we betrayed our oath, that we used the weapons against our own people and to finish off that illustrious epic, it fell on me the honor of surrendering with glory, dignity and with our moral at the highest level. They all know by now that I am impressionable. Mi favorite Minister said it, that philologist lent to the arms.

    For now there will be no milk, nor eggs, nor cheese. For now there is no meat, tuna and sardines. For now there are gas and gasoline shortages. For now we have plenty of crime and criminals. For now enjoy the sucking up, so as not to use the dignified language of the revolution. There are no losers here.

    For now get up real early and stand in line at the exchange control office CADIVI to gather the scraps of dollars that we hand over to the unconscious, immature and treacherous people. For now, the large bundles travel in suitcases and in airplanes to other dignified valiant people. For now, you bunch of ungrateful people; it is not that we are going to reform the Constitution to take away your cars and apartments. What we are going to do is to increase interest rates until the revolutionary moral and dignity drowns you and you lose even the last capitalist junk you own. You are stupid and bon vivants. All you do is ask. Missions, easy university degrees, students scholarships, trips to the Caracas marches, free t-shirts and caps, 150 thousand Bol?vars per march. People don’t know what they have until they lose it, you bunch of ignorant fools. For now, go to the Mega mercales, Mercal and little Mercales. For now, you pack of immature people; I will have to leave in 2013. Please don’t cry or stamp your feet. I am leaving. You lost; you bunch of lazy people, vagabonds. For now, tighten that spirit comrades.

  25. Honestly, if there are people out there who really stil think that Iraq has nothing to do with oil and that the United States(or any other empire in history for that matter) goes around the world on humanitarian altruistic missions…I feel profoundly sorry for you, but more than that I feel sorry for this country because your credulity puts us all at risk.

    Now you blindness towards Chavez…you simply refuse to see the double-standards that you live by here so…please take off your blinders. I am not making things up and twisting my moustache when I bring up historical facts about the U.S. supporting the overthrow twice (once by coup, once by referendum). Yes! These were conspiracies…anytime powerful people get together to expand their power and they don’t want you to know about it…it is a conspiracy. It has nothing to do with aliens or flying saucers(that is crazy).

    Now please understand me… I take no comfort in the deaths of the Iraquis. I take no comfort in CIA lawbreaking the world over and the horrible history of that agency(if that isn’t state-terrorism I don’t know what is!) I would love to see these things stop, I would be proud to shout the praises of the United States if we actually worked for peace and democracy…but right now that just isn’t true

  26. The elections in Iraq since 2003 are more transparent and above-board than elections in Venezuela. Prior to 2003, dictator Saddam Hussein got a wonderful 100% unanimous vote in 2002 (there was a puzzling shortage of opposition candidates).

    The number of civilians killed in Iraq has slowly dropped over the last year, to 540 during the month of October. Maintaining that rate through next September would result in yearly civilian deaths of 6,480. Murders in Venezuela during 2006 were 8,700. 2007 murders in Venezuela through September are 9,600, which puts the yearly rate at 13,000.

    The population of Venezuela is about 26 million and Iraq about 28 million. So currently, it’s far safer to be a citizen of Iraq than a citizen of Venezuela.

    Iraq oil production has increased to 2.3 million barrels per day while Venezuelan production has dropped to about that same amount. Iraq prewar oil production was about 2.2 million bpd.

    In Iraq, there’s much discussing, arguing and squabbling over how to spend the oil income. In Venezuela, there is no discussion about how to spend the nation’s oil money. Chavez the oilcaholic spends and gives away the wealth of Venezuela like a drunken sailor on shore leave after six months at sea

  27. I am not making things up and twisting my moustache when I bring up historical facts about the U.S. supporting the overthrow twice (once by coup, once by referendum).

    I rest my case.

  28. James… just stop. You are making a fool out of yourself. You are a prime example of not a useful idiot, but of a useless shithead.

    I know you think what you say is true. I know you think you have a tight grip on reality. But neither are true. Your mind is utterly dead. It’s people like you that truly enable the horrors of this world. Please, kill yourself. You are really *that* useless. There’s no point arguing with you. It would be as useful as arguing with Terry Schiavo. You have no critical thinking skills left. You have no reason left. People like you are cluttering up the world and making it a miserable place. The people you claim to hate in the other part of the ideological spectrum are just different versions of you. Kill yourself, and help make the world a better place.

    PS: I am not kidding or trying to yank your chain. I really consider you, and people like you, to be worth less than the dump I took this morning. You are totally, completely and absolutely useless and a net minus to humanity and the world

  29. I love it when gringos like Bill comment on the state of our country’s like he’s been there and lived through it. Remember this one Bill, as us Cubans say; the gringos aren’t swimming to Cuba.

  30. Chavez is not a thug because he has attempted to modify the Venezuelan constitution to vastly expand his authority. He is a thug because his government has done things that it has no right to do. It has seized private property, imposed numerous burdensome regulations, allied itself with Castro’s regime, and generally squandered his country’s wealth in setting up a vast socialist welfare state. THAT is why Chavez is a thug.

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