The revolution in Tunisia, which earlier this month ended the 23-year rule of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, has sent a clear message to other authoritarian leaders around the world: A dictator has fallen; sooner or later others will fall.
Authoritarian regimes from Beijing to Havana to Caracas are understandably
experiencing some restlessness and anxiety following the protests in Tunisia.
Dictators operate in a state of paranoia, always fearful that they are next in
line to be toppled.
Ben Ali seized power in Tunisia in a bloodless coup in 1987. The nation had
endured more than two decades under autocratic rule when street riots broke out
in late December 2010. On Jan. 14, after violence spread to the capital of
Tunis, Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia. He was the first Arab leader
overthrown in modern times by a popular revolt, and his ouster was helped along
substantially by the use of Facebook and Twitter.
This is not an exaggeration. Most of Tunisia’s media, under strong
governmental pressure, avoided relevant reporting on the protests against the
dictatorship. So social networks, which constantly broadcasted the message “Down
with Ben Ali,” were responsible for spreading information and fostering
communication among citizens, namely about the massive protests along Tunis’
central artery , Bourguiba Boulevard. The outcome was the end of the
The question now is: Will this revolt affect only Tunisia, or will it spread?
“I am sure that that there are other Arab governments in the Arab Middle East
looking on rather nervously right now,” Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the
United States, told me in a recent interview. “In Israel, we believe that it is
something good … We hope democracy emerges throughout the entire Middle East;
Israel has long been the only functioning democracy in the region.”
Is it possible that protests similar to those in Tunis could happen on the
streets of Beijing, Caracas or Havana? It is indeed not only possible, but
probable — current struggles for individual liberties and the right to free
expression are not limited to the Northern Africa. After all, no one man has the
right to decide the fate of millions. Not Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, nor Hu
Jintao in China, nor Raul Castro in Cuba. Tunisia’s victory against oppression
offers evidence that this idea is spreading.
Hugo Chavez believes that he alone is Venezuela. In a speech to Venezuela’s
National Assembly on Jan. 15., Chavez used the word “I” 489 times. In that same
speech, Chavez referred to “Chavez” 52 times, as though he were another person.
Of course, he is wrong. Chavez is not Venezuela, and someday the country will
go on without him. He knows this, and he is anxious. In fact, Chavez, so
obsessed with maintaining control, recently barred the broadcast of a Colombian
soap opera that featured a dog named “Huguito,” or “little Hugo,” as its star.
It’s unbelievable but true.
Cuba, also, is not Fidel and Raul Castro, though the brothers would beg to
differ. And these dictators do not take to criticism kindly — that is why their
regime has pulled CNN en Espanol from the airwaves. But Cubans, a wonderfully
creative group, have manage to stay connected; some even hide TV antennas inside
water tanks and within roofs. And despite all the regime’s efforts to isolate
the nation, the incredibly courageous journalist Yoani Sanchez ( (AT SYMBOL)
yoanisanchez) sends messages to the outside world almost daily on Twitter and
tells us about the situation on her island and its repressive dictatorship
through updates on her blog (desdecuba.com/generaciony).
China is, undeniably, the world’s new economic superpower. And Hu Jintao’s
regime, years after the Tiananmen Square protests, cannot ignore the possibility
of another uprising. While the dictator dined at the White House on Jan. 19,
China’s new Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, languished in a jail, serving
an 11-year sentence for suggesting that leaders embrace democratic reform. How
much longer will China stand for this sort of tyranny? How much longer can 1.3
billion Chinese be held back from demanding the freedoms that are rightfully
I absolutely believe that ordinary citizens’ desire for justice, democracy
and freedom is much stronger than the will of a bunch of iron-fisted dictators
protected by armies. Sooner or later, they will also fall.
With the help of the Internet, revolution is possible and change is
achievable. Tunisia’s example should be a lesson, and a warning, for dictators
around the world: None can ever withstand the force of an idea — or an image —
that arrives at the right moment.
By Jorge Ramos Avalos
© 2010 Jorge Ramos
(January 17, 2011)