Global Freedom Had Few Blooms

Why 2009 was a bleak year


This year marked the 20th anniversary of the blossoming of democracy around the world, stimulated in part by the fall of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989. Far from producing much new growth, however, 2009 brought to mind an old folk song: Where have all the flowers gone?

Not to China, which had an anniversary of its own—the 20th since Chinese students occupied Tiananmen Square in an inspiring call for democracy and liberty, only to be crushed by the army. Looking back, Beijing shows no remorse. In fact, Human Rights Watch said in May, it "continues to victimize survivors, victims' families, and others who challenge the official version of events."

This June 4, Tiananmen Square was occupied again—by battalions of police. This month, Liu Xiaobo, the chief author of a manifesto calling for democracy and human rights, was indicted for "incitement to subvert state power."

A human rights lawyer was shot to death, along with a student journalist, in broad daylight on a Moscow street. After his government passed a law making it a crime to equate Josef Stalin with Adolf Hitler, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev urged the creation of museums documenting his crimes. A grandson of the dictator filed a libel suit against a newspaper that called Stalin a "bloodthirsty cannibal," but he lost.

Among the last Stalinists in power is Kim Jong Il of North Korea, whose new constitution mysteriously dropped all reference to "communism" but gave him the new title of "supreme leader." The human rights organization Impunity Watch claimed his regime holds 154,000 political prisoners, while a North Korean official told the United Nations Human Rights Council the actual number is zero.

Another old-school communist is Cuba's Raul Castro, who took over the government from brother Fidel three years ago but has maintained his repressive policies. A new law allows the incarceration of dissidents for "dangerousness" before they have committed any crime. When one of them, Alexander Santos Hernandez, was ordered to serve four years in prison, the sentence was dated two days before his trial began.

Such logic would pass muster in Tehran. After opponents charged Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with rigging the June vote to secure re-election, a state agency agreed to recount the votes—well, 10 percent of them—after declaring that no major irregularities had occurred. Protests by the opposition continue six months later, with mourners at the December funeral of a prominent opposition cleric chanting, "Our shame, our shame, our idiot leader!"

There was shame as well in the West African nation of Guinea Bissau. At a stadium rally put on by opponents of the military junta, one officer on the scene said, "They all must be killed. They think there is democracy here." When soldiers were done, hundreds of people had been killed or raped.

Somalia, plagued with civil war and piracy, was called "the worst country on Earth" by The Economist magazine of Britain. Dictator Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, which could contest that distinction, was forced into a tense power-sharing deal with an opponent after losing parliamentary elections last year.

A committee set up to give a $5 million annual prize for African leaders who serve well and then relinquish power found no worthy recipient this year. Calling it "an outstanding example of democracy in Africa," President Obama visited Ghana, which has had five consecutive free elections.

Democracy did not fare so well in Honduras, where the military roused President Manuel Zelaya from his bed at gunpoint and put him on a plane to exile in Costa Rica. He managed to return to Honduras, but not to the presidency.

On Election Day in Afghanistan, the man in charge of one voting station discovered the ballot boxes were full—before the polls opened. Despite rampant fraud, President Hamid Karzai was forced into a runoff. He won by default when his opponent, concluding that a "transparent election is not possible," withdrew.

Iraqi lawmakers approved a new electoral law that will allow balloting in March. If things go well, it will be the first time in Iraq, reported Reuters, "that a fully democratic, full-term parliament hands over to a successor."

Positive developments like that were not as common this year as they were in the glorious days of 1989. But the few that occurred suggest that the important moments in the progress of democracy may not all be in the past.