Dictatorship: The Wave of the Future?

by Theodore Dalrymple (November 2011)

Some dictators slip away quietly, and not a few re-invent themselves as democratic candidates in presidential elections, by no means always unsuccessfully. Often people begin to feel nostalgia for the days when they made the trains run on time, the streets were swept and there was little crime. Carlos Ibanez of Chile and Getulio Vargas of Brazil come to mind who were elected democratically after having ruled despotically. The thirst for order is at least as great as the thirst for freedom.

Still, I was able in one country, Guatemala, to visit a few ex-dictators and their henchmen. The reason was that they were all in the telephone directory, not in the yellow pages under the rubric of Dictators (ex) or Dictators (former), but listed in the ordinary residential pages. More surprising was that when I called, they answered the phone themselves and invited me round for a chat. Most surprising of all, perhaps, was that when I took them up on the offer, I found that there was no security procedures to be gone through, unlike say the Chicago to Atlanta, or the Bristol to Aberdeen, flights, not even so much as a check of my identity. When I rang the door, either the ex-dictator or his maid answered and ushered me straight in, with no thought that I might be an assassin or a suicide bomber. This was all very odd, because some of them had been compared to Hitler. No search of my person was ever made.

Now if I were to try to interview a supposedly democratic ex-politician of my own country, say Mr Blair, I doubt that I should approach within a hundred miles of him without voluminous and intrusive checks, and access would probably be granted only on condition that I mortgaged my house to pay for it.

What is the moral of this contrast, if there is one? Perhaps it is merely that, in a world in which even Dutch and Swedish politicians face assassination, times have changed in the direction of the self-preserving paranoia of politicians. In any case, it would be wrong to make too much of the contrast, even if sometimes I am inclined to have night thoughts about the relative freedoms to be enjoyed under British parliamentary democracy and Latin American military dictatorship, not always to the advantage of the former. This, of course, is to forget the sheer scale of the brutality of the latter.

There is, perhaps, no perfect solution to the problem of what to do with a fallen despot. To allow him to live in peaceful, and usually very prosperous, retirement seems unjust to the victims of his despotism, and is likely to embitter them. He will seem to them almost to have been rewarded for his deeds, for a prosperous retirement is the wish of any, rarely fulfilled. To treat him as a scapegoat, as if he alone were responsible for his despotism and he had no accomplices, is to create an abscess of hypocrisy and historical untruth that sooner or later will have to be opened, or will burst spontaneously. To punish not only the despot but all who co-operated with or benefited from his rule is to risk endless social conflict and violent reaction.

Anything Goes.

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