It’s easy to define the right side of history. It’s always on the side of democracy, justice, freedom and the defense of human rights. To coddle dictators – like the ones in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua – is not part of it.
That’s why Vladimir Putin and the Russian invaders of Ukraine are not on the right side of history, just like Hitler was not. Brutal tyrants like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, the military dictators in Argentina, the Somozas in Nicaragua, the Duvaliers in Haiti and Idi Amin in Uganda are all part of a long list of men who killed, tortured and abused their power.
Some US governments can’t be spared, because they came down on the wrong side of history. For example, the invasion of Iraq ordered by George Bush in 2003 was completely unjustified because it never had weapons of mass destruction. More than 200,000 Iraqi civilians may have died in vain, according to the Web page IraqBodyCount.net. What’s more, there have been US invasions and military coups in various Latin American countries. Those were the days when the United States hypocritically divided the world into our dictators and the others.
There are no good dictators.
It’s a mistake to make the distinction that US Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick made more than four decades ago. In the middle of the Cold War, she tried to split the “totalitarian” regimes in the Soviet bloc from the “authoritarian” regimes closer to the United States. She was wrong. The truth is that all those governments – totalitarian and authoritarian – murdered, violated human rights, monopolized power and censored the news media.
This brings us to the brutal dictatorships that jail and abuse millions of people in 2022 in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Their respective dictators, Miguel Díaz-Canel, Daniel Ortega and Nicolás Maduro, are at the head of regimes that murder, torture and do everything possible to stay in power.
The latest report by Amnesty International charged Cuba with holding more than 700 political prisoners after the pro-democracy protests on July 11. On Nicaragua, it condemned the arbitrary arrests of activists, journalists and presidential candidates. And in Venezuela it highlighted the “continued crisis of human rights.”
To coddle, protect and speak on behalf of the dictators of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela – like Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has done – is a mistake. It is to turn our back on the thousands of victims of those dictatorships. AMLO had the choice: the dictators or his own people. And he opted for the strong, for the abusers.
I have never heard the Mexican president say that Fidel Castro, his brother Raul, Díaz-Canel, Ortega or Maduro are or were dictators. Never. All are responsible for thousands of murders. AMLO has even called Díaz-Canel, the human rights abuser in Havana responsible for jailing hundreds of political prisoners, a “solid man.” The old and uneven claim that Mexico does not meddle in the internal affairs of other countries pales before the guiding principle that human rights are always – always – above any concept of sovereignty. Life comes first.
Every day there are more dictatorships in the world. That is a grave global tendency. The number of liberal democracies dropped from 42 in 2012 to 34 in 2021, according to a Gothenburg University study. That means 5.4 billion people live under tyrannies or authoritarian governments.
Nicaragua is in the 10 percent least democratic countries in the world, along with North Korea. Cuba and Venezuela are in the bottom 20 percent. For comparison, the most democratic nations in the world are Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Costa Rica and New Zealand.
The absence of the presidents of Mexico and other countries from the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles (to push for invitations for Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela) suggests more than anything else the existence of an anti-democracy bloc. It signals tolerance and tacit support for regimes that are illegitimate and use force to remain in power.
The Summit of the Americas is a meeting of democracies. Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela are not. There’s no reason to give their dictators the same recognition as legitimately elected presidents. What’s more, it sends a truly powerful message to Cubans, Venezuelans and Nicaraguans: We know you live in a tyranny and that you cannot speak, but the world knows how you live. You are not alone. And that’s why your dictators are not coming to the party.
The argument that isolating dictators is not going to generate changes in their country is valid. And that more contacts, more tourism and more investments could lead to a democratic transformation. But that strategy has failed spectacularly with Díaz-Canel, Ortega and Maduro. All sorts of concessions and negotiations have moved those countries no closer to democracy. The Chilean option, when the Pinochet dictatorship was forced to accept democratic elections under international observers – is one of the last hopes for Venezuela and perhaps for Nicaragua. Cuba, sadly, allows not opposition parties and requires a different kind of peaceful and democratic solution.
When someone supports or speaks up for dictators, he is granting them even more power. “The biggest part of the power of authoritarian regimes is surrendered voluntarily,” Timothy Snyder wrote in his magnificent book, On Tyrannies. “Don’t obey in advance.” There’s nothing more shameful and humiliating than to speak up for dictators and defend them in public. I don’t understand why López Obrador is doing the dirty work of the worst rulers in the hemisphere. He chose the wrong side of history.
As the planet changes and diverse futures are discussed, López Obrador chose to lock himself in his Palace. That’s what happens when you coddle dictators.