Modern Dictators: Third World Coupmakers, Strongmen, and Populist Tyrants » Chapter 4-The Fall of the Traditional Dictators
The Fall of the Traditional Dictators
The guerrilla “final offensive” against Nicaraguan dictator nasio Somoza closes in on the capital.
One town after another falls even though the regime is willing to kill peasants and destroy houses
and factories in revenge for the populace’s support for the rebels.
As the noose tightens, the dictator dons military fatigues to inspect the front, declares a
state of siege, and blames international communism for the crisis. Cracking under the strain,
Somoza reveals the weakness and cynicism behind his strong man facade. “If you’re like I am,”
he tells reporters, “you’re just a bunch of shits.”
While the dictator’s overfed associates revel in unearned wealth and seem totally out of
touch with their own country, the rebels are young and popular. “Almost all the kids have joined
the guerrillas,” says a peasant woman. “We support them. We give them medicine (and) food.”
Under the strain of fighting and workers’ strikes, the social and economic structures
break down. Guerrillas set up barricades in city streets; would-be purchasers form long lines for
scarce food and fuel; refugees fill the roads; foreign reporters fill the capital’s luxury hotel. It is
like the last act of a bullfight, and the old regime is headed inexorably for the sword.
The opposition escalates from hit-and-run raids to stand-up battles against the
government’s soldiers. The army starts to crumble. Officers desert their men; soldiers flee or
surrender in larger and larger numbers. “Liberated zones” are declared amid frantic U.S. efforts
to negotiate a resolution of the crisis. Meanwhile, the dictator holes up in his bunker, refusing
any compromise. Somoza had such contempt for the opposition, which he had so often
outmaneuvered before, that he now cannot take its challenge seriously until it is far too late.
Finally, Somoza flees to Miami in a private jet, ending forty-three years of his family’s
rule. Picked up by a Cadillac limousine, he is whisked to his huge private estate. From the
veranda Somoza blames the U.S. government and everyone else for his downfall. In fact, his
own greedy misrule, putting a priority on expanding the multimillion-dollar family fortune, had
destroyed his regime.
A few hours after the dictator’s plane has left the national airport, the guerrillas enter the
capital. There are joyous celebrations; the long night of serfdom has ended. Statues of the
dictator are pulled down, and political prisoners are released, blinking at the bright light of the
sun, to recount torture and mistreatment. The dictator’s estates are seized, his associates run
away, and some of his leading collaborators are shot. Everyone hopes that the revolutionary
coalition can hold together to inaugurate a new era of democracy and national reconciliation.
Unfortunately those aspirations are doomed.
These were the events in Nicaragua in the summer of 1979. A few months earlier, Iran’s
Shah went into exile under roughly similar circumstances, though the Iranian opposition
mobilized in massive peaceful demonstrations rather than guerrilla warfare and was spearheaded
by Islamic fundamentalists rather than Marxists. Elsewhere in Latin America-including
Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay–military juntas simply gave up under civilian
pressure and permitted a return to democracy. Elsewhere in the Third World army officers
overthrew dictators and formed their own juntas.
Somoza’s long rule and steep fall provide an apparent textbook case for the way most
Americans think about traditional dictators: corrupt, repressive, standing only for their own
aggrandizement, preserving a regressive capitalist economy, out of touch with their own cultures
and people, pro-American, and eventually losing power. To talk about politics in Latin America,
the remaining center of traditional dictatorship, is to summon up an image of hard, cruel men
wearing sunglasses and military uniforms with excessive braid.
Indifferent to the extreme poverty in the rural areas and urban shantytowns, the
traditional dictator is thought to want stability even at the price of stagnation. Such men, runs a
common perception, may seem helpful to the foreign policy interests of the United States-and
may he stout opponents of communism-but they are morally repugnant and historically doomed.
Such regimes still exist, complete with most of these stereotypes, but times have changed.
Even a dictator cannot long stay in office unless he learns the skills of a politician. The
modernization of the armed forces makes it increasingly difficult for one individual to dominate
them politically. There are fewer regimes headed by a caudillo, a single political strong man or
by hereditary kings.
This is partly due to the growing complexity of societies–more and more classes and
groups militating for some share of power, more highly educated people who will not he satisfied
with a cynical transformation of the country into a personal business-and partly due to a more
sophisticated opposition. The nature of traditional dictatorships-and how they match or challenge
the stereotypes-is illustrated by a look at four dictators and their regimes: Anastasio Somoza in
Nicaragua, Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi in Iran, Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia, and
Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines.
There are some striking common characteristics among these dictators despite the
differences in backgrounds and countries. Marcos was a veteran politician who set up a martial
law regime in 1972 after being elected president. The Shah was heir to a parvenu dynasty that
had appropriated the historic legitimacy of one of the world’s oldest monarchies. Haile Selassic
had maneuvered his way onto another historic throne by displacing its heir in the 1920s. Somoza
was the third in line of a family dictatorship established by his father in 1936.
Three of the four were overthrown by movements that created modem dictatorships.
Haile Selassic was brought down by a military coup in 1974 and was replaced by a junta with a
Marxist-populist ideological veneer. Somoza was defeated by an alliance of middle-class
moderates and armed Marxist guerrillas in 1979, producing a Marxist-Leninist government with
its own local flavor. The Shah fell to an Islamic fundamentalist revolution the same year.
Although these revolts came about in different ways and were led by different kinds of
ideologies, the resulting systems also have a great deal in common. In contrast, Marcos, who had
a background as a democratic politician, was defeated in February 1986 by a moderate,
electorally oriented opposition after he had lost control of a large part of the army. This outcome
was in large part due to the Philippines’ tradition of legalism, pluralism, and a professionalized
apolitical army–all factors largely lacking in the. other three countries. But even in this case the
transition probably was the last chance to head off a growing Marxist-Leninist guerrilla
insurgency which, if it had triumphed, would have taken the country down a road similar to that
followed by Nicaragua.
The political opposition in a traditional dictatorship has limited options. Obviously it
would not be allowed to defeat the regimes in elections. Although some dictatorships, including
Nicaragua and the Philippines, provided safety valves for critics to blow off steam-including
opposition parties with seats in parliament-attempts to stage public meetings or use the media
can lead to arrest, even torture. Marcos arranged for himself to win the 1986 election, but the
victory was so costly in terms of domestic and internal support as to force his abdication.
By nature, dictatorships do not yield power gracefully; they must be overthrown by force.
The failed or repressed efforts of reformers are taken by many oppositionists to show the need
for more drastic tactics. In a sort of Darwinian natural selection, open, moderate critics of the
regime are usually easier to identify and arrest. Leaders of workers’ and peasants’ unions,
Christian Democrats, liberal journalists and professors are the easiest victims for the dictator to
find. Not only are the moderates vastly reduced in number, but that route comes to seem far more
hazardous. At least with gun in hand one can fight back.
For civil servants and professionals the gap between government and people, between the
crying needs of the society and its dreams of instant modernization, conflicts with the existing
system’s passivity. Intellectuals, who play a disproportionately large role as dissidents, receive
the dictator’s open contempt. He makes no secret of the arbitrariness of his rule.
The traditional dictator’s key problem is that the old bonds of patriarchal loyalty are
disrupted and he has nothing in his repertory capable of replacing them. Aspects of modern
economies and societies in education, communication, and urbanization–even when imported in
a limited, piecemeal manner–have a tremendous effect. There are fewer peasants who
unquestionably accept an all-powerful landlord’s authority. Migration to cities and access to
radio or schools give the peasants and middle class new ideas and experiences. The fixed nature
of power and the inevitability of existing social arrangements become subject to challenge and
Hundreds of thousands of people discover that alternatives exist to the order that they
once took for granted. They see manufactured goods and different life-styles; the accepted
doctrine that status is permanently assigned at birth cannot be maintained as some poor people
gain upward mobility. Religion may switch from being a pillar of the regime to liberationist
Christianity or Islam; the middle class becomes larger and more restless. The Shah, Somoza, and
Haile Selassic thought that they could provide material benefits by becoming sponsors of
development, believing that growth could forestall change.
But the more their countries developed, the greater the forces for change became.
Nicaragua’s relative economic success and Iran’s oil boom in the 1970s laid the foundation for
revolutions, particularly when these periods of growth were followed by downturns.
Deprived of the historic loyalty and passivity that were taken for granted in the past,
traditional dictators had to turn to the other two pillars for their rule: repression and corruption.
All dictatorships practice corruption and repression, but these things come in many different
forms. It is, of course, immoral to kill and imprison men and women because of political beliefs
and peaceful activities or to rob the very subsistence from people and to steal the state’s financial
lifeblood. But ethical considerations alone do not help much in understanding the political rules
of repression and corruption. No amount of religious preaching and no system of ethics have
ever eliminated these vices. To understand why corruption and repression flourish in some
societies-and to comprehend their effect-a different approach is needed. The useful question to
ask is whether the particular types of corruption and repression used by a dictatorial government
add to or undermine the regime’s stability.
In preindustrial societies repression was exercised mainly against aristocratic conspirators
and the occasional peasant revolt. Repression, when successful, worked by being both narrowly
focused and comprehensive. The dissidents are completely eliminated; the cruel and terrible
punishments meted out discourage others from following their example. At the same time the
underlying assumption is that rebels are limited in number and are pushing against the grain of a
tightly structured society. They are the occasional drops of water escaping through the dam of
traditional relationships that maintain the status quo.
Religious beliefs, hereditary obligations, and the geographic, cultural, and even linguistic
barriers that run through and between classes protect the ruler. Merely proclaiming the
malfeasants ungrateful rebels against the legitimate authorities is sufficient to remove the threat
for a number of years to come. Revolts from within-except on the level of dynastic quarrels
among the aristocrats-are widely expected to fail, as demonstrated by ample historic precedent
and the popular understanding of the factors that block them.
In modern times, however, traditional dictatorships face a more complex problem: Many
of their counterparts have been overthrown, dissidents may be helped from abroad, and their
people no longer accept the ruler’s permanence or legitimacy. Western countries are more
reluctant and less able to save allied Third World dictators. Historically a revolution was the
strange anomaly. Now it is the traditional dictatorship’s continued survival that seems to run
Having advanced little in methods of distributing wealth, delegating power, making
propaganda, or organizing broader support, the traditional dictatorship’s only real advance is
better weaponry. Much of this equipment, however, is little help in dealing with internal
opposition. In fact, since the officer corps as a whole or individual ambitious officers are often
the source of a political challenge, the military’s greater strength may be the regime’s biggest
In contrast, the revolutionaries reap far more advantages from the changes of the last few
decades. They have successful examples to imitate, as well as new forms of organization or
tactics (urban and rural guerrilla warfare, terrorism, cell structures, disciplined parties) and
modern ideological justifications (Marxism, anti-imperialism, nationalism, Islamic
fundamentalism, or Catholic liberation theology). In short, they know that their societies could
be different, and they think they should be better. All these factors give them greater staying
power. Even if one conspiracy is rooted out, another will spring up. Permanent rather than
sporadic subversion must he expected.
The strategy of traditional dictatorships is to meet escalation of opposition by what might
be called the “broadcast” method of repression. An unpopular regime’s secret police has
difficulty finding out about enemies, particularly with widespread discontent and an opposition
organized in small, security-minded cells. Secret police and mercenary informers often provide
inaccurate information designed to please superiors or settle personal grudges.
The traditional dictatorship’s repressive strategy can be more easily understood by
comparison with its modern counterparts. Modern dictatorships are just as quick to use torture
and paid informers. However, they also may have broader popular bases favoring repression and
mass organizations to act as the regimes’ eyes and ears throughout society. By controlling
communications and education, they portray dissidents as traitors; opponents can easily be
denied jobs in a state-controlled economy. Especially important is the fact that repression can be
more easily justified by a widely accepted goal, like national sovereignty, economic
development, and redistribution of wealth.
Traditional dictatorships have more difficulty sustaining credibility with their own
citizens. A Mexican leftist cartoonist ridiculed Latin American dictators’ efforts to rally popular
support by showing an overweight oligarch in a hammock held up by a tree on one end and a
straining peasant on the other. The landlord explains to the campesino, “The Communists want
to take away our tree.” Since the peasant has neither stake in nor benefit from the existing
political order, only the fear of repression and the constraints of tradition keep him quiescent.
Modern dictatorships have conflicting ideas on how to handle publicizing their
repression. On the one hand, since the vast majority of the citizens are, by the government’s
definition of itself as popular, portrayed as being loyal and since regimes are image-conscious,
they try to minimize publicity on the extent of their repression. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
showed in his remarkable account of Stalin’s concentration camps, most Soviets were unaware
of the gulag’s extent and were unsympathetic toward prisoners. Even the Nazis, openly proud of
their brutality, did not publicize the details of its implementation. Modern dictatorships realize
that discrediting opponents in the eyes of the people-which includes portraying dissent as rare-is
more important than merely punishing them.
On the other hand, repression remains an important pillar of all modern dictatorships, and
the rulers want to leave no illusion in the minds of citizens that opposition will go unpunished.
The exaggeration of the threat to the government can justify many of its measures and serve to
rally people around their leaders. In the 1930s the USSR’s show trials, accusing Stalin’s
opponents of espionage and treason, were the first in a tradition of using repression to eliminate
the dictator’s leading rivals while, at the same time, using those individuals as scapegoats for the
regime’s failures and unpopular policies.
To consider Third World revolutions as inevitable reactions against repression and
oppression, however, is a conclusion that begs the question. After all, if the level of repression in
Iran, South Vietnam, and Nicaragua causes revolution, why do equally or more repressive
regimes in Iraq, Syria, North Vietnam, Cuba, and Ethiopia stay in power? One must look at the
style, targets, and popular perception of repression–its qualitative as well as quantitative aspectsto
understand whether it succeeds or fails in keeping the incumbents in office.
The Shah’s Iran provides a good illustration of these principles. Despite widely quoted
higher figures, Amnesty International estimated throughout the 1970s that the actual number of
political prisoners was “several thousands.” While torture was routine, the number of victims
was fairly small. On a list of countries holding political prisoners, Iran ranked behind Cuba,
Ethiopia, East Germany, Pakistan, Syria, and others. William Butler of the International
Commission of jurists, whose 1976 mission concluded that there was abundant evidence of
systematic torture, said that the Shah was “way down the list of tyrants. He would not even make
The most reliable estimates are that the Shah’s regime killed around 5,000 people during
his thirty-seven years in power up to the 1978 revolution. Amnesty International estimated about
300 executions from 1972 to the beginning of the revolution. This is a terrible toll but one
certainly comparable to the record of many Third World and most Communist states, not to
mention that of the post-revolutionary regime in Iran. Moreover, the Shah’s policy was in tune
with Iranian historical traditions. Those who sat on the Peacock Throne knew that any sign of
weakness could topple them and lead to certain death. The country had always alternated
between periods of strong centralization and eras of anarchy depending on the king’s ability to
destroy court rivals and provincial strong men. Consequently, rulers felt that tolerance and mercy
were qualities they could not afford. The Islamic Republic continued the pattern of
dehumanizing dissidents, denying fair trials, and invoking the severest penalties.
Obviously, this comparative perspective was not much comfort to Iranians living under
the Shah’s regime. The intensity of their hatred toward the deposed government after the
revolution can be explained by three particular features of his repression. First, prisoners were
subjected to horrendous tortures, among the worst ever devised. Jailers regularly used beatings,
shock treatment, electric drills, and other instruments that sometimes left prisoners crippled or
Second, the Shah’s secret police, SAVAK, deliberately spread fear of its methods and
exaggeration of its power as a way of maintaining control by heightening fear. Prisoners were
often released only if they, or members of their family, agreed to become informers. Further, in
view of the importance of the extended family in Iran, every time one person was arrested the
government made a hundred bitter enemies from among his relatives. Since most Iranians,
particularly in urban areas, had kin who had suffered from SAVAK’s depredations, its methods
became their most emotionally expressed complaint.
Finally, and perhaps most important, while SAVAK’s direct victims were a small group
of active dissidents from a politically conscious minority, its system of repression was designed
to frighten the entire population. SAVAK went out of its way to establish a reputation for
omnipresence, omnipotence, and arbitrariness. Fear and humiliation left many Iranians with a
deep desire for vengeance. Indeed, many of the revolution’s leaders were direct victims of
SAVAK. Khomeini’s oldest son, Mustafa, was killed under mysterious circumstances probably
by its agents. Ayatollah Hussein Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s chosen successor, was reportedly
tortured, and his eighty-five-year-old father was beaten up. The Shah finally faced a real radical
effort to launch urban guerrilla warfare in the mid-1970s; SAVAK, in response, tried to
intimidate the entire population.
In 1971 the Shah celebrated with great pomp and lavish expenditure the 2,500th
anniversary of the Iranian monarchy. These ceremonies symbolized his desire to identify with
the kings of the past who had created and preserved the Persian Empire. His family, the Pahlavis,
were parvenus; his father had secured the throne only in the 1920s. The Shah’s problems with
legitimacy, however, came not from a short tenure but from social changes in the country. The
most vocal critics of the 1971 commemoration were the university students, a group that had not
even existed in earlier decades.
For centuries the peasantry had looked on the Shah as having almost superhuman power,
as a figure of myth and legend yet one not held responsible for the misbehavior of “government,”
more often identified with the landlord. The pool of potential opposition within the country was
relatively small, confined to the aristocracy or, more immediately, members of the royal family.
Even if the reign of an individual shah was challenged, the system of having a shah and a small
minority of aristocratic oligarchs was accepted. On both psychological and pragmatic grounds,
then, the regime was accepted as legitimate. Repression against the court and officials or the
mistreatment of individual peasants did not provoke revolt.
The collapse of legitimacy came when authority could be questioned. The middle class,
itself largely a product of these changes, was given no political power, worried about repression
for itself or its children, and bridled at the limitations on its cultural and individual expression.
Some of this group thought the regime insufficiently pious, others considered it insufficiently
nationalist. Even high officials feared to criticize policies or use their own initiative, a factor that
helped paralyze the regime during the revolution; even those benefiting economically from the
government’s programs did not feel loyal to it.
At the same time the lower classes were now indifferent to the regime. They had higher
expectations of progress and benefits. The disorganization and speed of the modernization
program, the growing gap between the elite’s cosmopolitan culture and the masses’ largely
Islamic views, and other factors turned the traditional passive acceptance into a passive rejection.
When Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers offered a viable alternative, millions followed
them. The Shah had come to be considered not only a bad ruler but also no longer the rightful
In this context the issue was not that the Shah had a repressive policy but that his kind of
strategy no longer fitted the requirements of political survival and even contributed to the
consolidation of revolutionary opposition. In South Vietnam, Latin America, and the Philippines
the army’s mistreatment of civilians pushed many of them into the arms of the guerrillas, who, at
least until they came to power, behaved with relative restraint. Trying to win peasant support in
the insurgency phase, the rebels enforced discipline against looting, beating, or shooting
peasants. Only this way can guerrillas, as Mao Zedong put it, move among the peasantry like fish
in the sea.
One story about the guerrilla war in the Philippines in 1985 illustrates the point. A small
government patrol set out through villages in Isabela Province, threatening peasants with guns
and shooting at their dogs and livestock. Finally the soldiers stopped at a village and took drinks
without paying. After sundown Marxist guerrillas attacked and killed them, then emptied their
pockets of money to pay for the stolen goods and to buy drinks for bystanders. Such vignettes are
common in countries with leftist insurgencies. The guerrillas redistribute land in zones they
control, kill unpopular officials, and perform other acts to win popular support.
Brigadier General Dionisio Tan-Gatue, a regional constabulary commander in one of the
main areas of insurgency in the Philippines, commented in November 1983, “I often question
captured NPA (New People’s Army) guerrillas and ask them why they joined. They tell me that
either the army killed their brothers or sisters or the government took their land.” On the island
of Negros failing sugar prices led to a collapse of the plantations and of the historic paternalistic
relations between owners and workers. About 200,000 workers and their families faced
malnutrition and famine. When some of them tried to plant food on unused plantation lands,
estate owners used armed guards to stop them.
In a widely publicized case in March 1984 in the city of Butuan, on the island of
Mindanao, seven young men in military custody were murdered, turning residents of the
neighborbood into guerrilla sympathizers. As in Nicaragua and other places, the leaders of the
armed opposition were Communists, but most of the rank and file joined because they were
antagonized by the specific regime in power. Larry Niksch, a Congressional Research Service
analyst who carried out extensive interviews in the Philippines in 1985, cites constant popular
complaints on the “drunken behavior of troops, checkpoint shakedowns, and stealing from
civilians” and the torture or murder of people suspected-though often not accurately-of NPA
Journalists’ interviews with Salvadoran guerrillas indicate the motive for many recruits
was the death of civilian relatives at the army’s hands. People may become convinced that they
are safer fighting in the hills than living peacefully at home, subject to the military’s
indiscriminate killing or bombing.
If the guerrillas can convince people that the regime is vulnerable and that the rebels will
dispense order and justice and if the traditional dictatorship can be isolated from foreign support,
the insurgency has a good chance of success. But when the guerrillas themselves turn to harsher
tactics, they can lose popular support. In El Salvador the Marxist guerrillas forcibly drafted and
extorted money from peasants after democratic elections had produced a moderate government
more responsive to popular needs. The guerrillas in the Philippines started to intimidate or even
murder local leaders or peasants who were neutral or critical. As often as not, though, a
traditional dictatorship’s repressive strategy plays into its enemy’s hands.
Traditional dictatorships know enough in contemporary times to give lip service,
particularly when U.S. advisers or journalists are around, to winning the people’s hearts and
minds, but rarely have such notions been taken seriously. The new conservative rhetoric of the
1970s was that reforms should wait until after any challenge to the regime was crushed. This
strategy only gives dictators another excuse to avoid dealing with their regimes’ incompetence
and isolation. The dictator reasons that U.S. backing is a satisfactory substitute for the support of
his own people, a dependency mentality that helped produce the downfalls of Somoza, the Shah,
and Marcos and their subsequent attribution of blame exclusively to U.S. policy.
In essence, traditional dictatorships warn the populace: Watch out, terrible punishment
can happen to you! Modern dictatorships, in contrast, say they restrict repression to the “other,”
who is unlike the average citizen. Repression in modern dictatorships cloaks itself in the
psychologically satisfying rationalization of the majority’s revenge (the people) on the minority
(the oppressors), whether the latter he those genuinely responsible for the old regime’s abuses,
unpopular ethnic or religious communities, the wealthy, advocates of democracy and human
rights or even revolutionaries who have fallen from favor.
Just as there are different types of repression, so there are varieties of corruption. Again,
the political question is whether corruption contributes to or undermines the stability of a
dictatorship. Many people living in Western democracies tend to view all corruption as leading
to dissatisfaction and revolt, but this is not accurate.
In most traditional societies redistributive corruption, such as taking wealth from
government coffers to share with allies, relatives, and clansmen, is a social duty and a
prerequisite for political power. By spreading these benefits, the leader widens his base of
supporters and those of the regime as well. Corruption was historically viewed as appropriate:
loyalists demanded a share of the spoils of office in exchange for their military and political
Many traditionalist regimes continue this system in an effective manner. In Morocco and
Jordan, for example, the monarchs give disproportionate benefits to Berber and Bedouin
tribesmen, respectively, who furnish the soldiers to keep in line more politicized urban sectors.
Officers and government employees use kickbacks to supplement their salaries. While this
system wastes resources, penalizes those lacking influential friends, and retards development, a
regime which does not offer these perquisites may he even more threatened in the short run.
Arab oil-producing states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait have so much income per person,
considering their small populations, that those dynasties can buy off the whole country.
Traditionalist dictatorships err not in allowing corruption but in monopolizing it. The
benefits of government contracts, kickbacks, contracts as foreign “middleman,” etc. are confined
to a small group around the ruler. Favored “cronies” get franchises for foreign businesses as well
as state subsidies, damaging and alienating the mass of businessmen, merchants, and artisans, the
class that furnishes most political activists. This pattern prevailed under the Shah, Somoza,
Marcos, and Selassie.
Conspicuous waste of resources also turns people against the regime. The Shah’s high
spending for military equipment, which most Iranians felt the country did not need, particularly
stirred anger. Imelda Marcos, wife of the deposed Philippine dictator and a political power in her
own right, was once asked, “Why do friends of the Marcos family own everything in the
Philippines?” Her answer: “Some people are smarter than others.”
Investigators in the Philippines after Marcos’s fall found that about two dozen of his
friends had amassed assets of between $5 and $10 billion, including castles in Austria, villas in
Italy, holdings in over 180 major Philippine companies, and huge Swiss bank accounts. This
group included, besides Ferdinand and Imelda, her two brothers, their three children, two sonsin-
law, and the armed forces chief of staff. In addition, four close allies came, with government
help, to dominate the coconut, sugar, banana, and food-retailing sectors. In some of these cases,
the Marcos regime established monopolies, with state-backed low-interest loans or loan
guarantees. When many of these businesses lost money, they were bailed out by domestic banks
and international borrowing. Other businessmen were forced to grant Marcos stock in their
companies or other financial favors.
Under such “crony capitalism” landowners and businessmen are left largely alone unless
their businesses or markets draw the envious eyes of the dictator and his friends. The ruler, his
relatives, and his allies not only control the government apparatus but scoop up large fees as
partners, franchisers, or agents of foreign companies and tend to dominate new areas of business.
These actions alienate the middle class, driving many of its members into opposition.
Traditional dictators also tend to favor foreign companies and investments to an extent
that antagonizes national patriots. While multinational involvement in Third World economics
can he very beneficial if properly managed, the host regime often does not have the structures
necessary to bargain very well.
“When investments in Central America were considered,” wrote Somoza after his
overthrow, “the word on Wall Street and other financial centers was ‘place your money in
Nicaragua.’ This record always gave me a sense of pride.” Yet many Nicaraguans had little pride
in a situation that indicated their country’s weakness, low wages, and inability to tax foreign
holdings. While state companies are often mismanaged and inefficient, modern dictatorships
have found them a tremendous political asset for assuaging national pride and bringing more of
the economy under their own control.
Naturally, this unfair or unmatchable competition antagonizes the existing urban middle
class. Its members resent the elevation of crude outsiders who demand admittance to their social
circles and clubs; they are humiliated by the dictator’s demands for subservience and by their
own lack of political power. Their businesses suffer from unfair crony competition or from
foreign companies that gain privileges through dealings with the regime. The middle class is also
victimized by government shakedowns and sometimes from the regime’s economic
mismanagement. Even when many of these people do well economically under the system, their
displacement from power and the arbitrariness of repression–often against younger members of
their own families-embitter them.
Indeed, if radical revolutionaries do not come from military ranks, they usually spring
from the children of this sector of wealthy businessmen or middle-class merchants. The
Nicaraguan Chamorro family, which produced so many anti-Somoza activists, owned the local
General Motors and Toyota dealers and Tona, the country’s most popular beer. Bazaar
merchants supported, and largely financed, Iran’s anti-Shah revolution.
Educated in universities or high schools or through studies abroad about alternative
systems, either radical or liberal democratic, young revolutionaries come to see the injustices and
inequality of their own countries in terms of shame. In moral, developmental, and patriotic terms,
they resent the dictators’ domination and organize against it, often risking their lives in that
struggle. Such was the case for Iranian, Nicaraguan, and Ethiopian students.
This was what Somoza meant when he said that “if any one thing precipitated” the
revolution, “it was an excess of freedom.” Despite repression and torture, his regime did not dare
dissolve the university’s traditional autonomy or arrest too many antiregime priests. Worried
about foreign reaction, pressured by the influential parents of young activists, and smugly selfconfident
in its own permanence, the traditional dictatorship often stops short of the
thoroughgoing ruthlessness which one expects of it. The Shah, after all, did not unleash an allout
bloodbath in 1978, though his regime was willing to kill more than 5,000 people.
Furthermore, for traditional dictators, ambition and even self-preservation may be
engaged in a losing war with greed. Haile Selassic mistreated and underpaid his own army. The
Shah’s family and friends were involved in so much thievery and scandal as to provoke popular
anger. When Nicaraguan dictator Somoza was asked his family’s wealth, he replied, “I’d start by
asking how rich the British Empire is,” or, “Without counting the land, $40 million would get
you into the ball park.” For them and allied families the amount might have reached $1 billion.
Their holdings produced sugar, cocoa, tobacco, bananas, and vegetables and included shipping,
airline, cement, sugar, and textile companies.
Two turning points in the growing opposition to Somoza’s regime came from incidents
graphically illustrating the rulers’ conspicuous luxury and corruption. The first development was
the massive theft of relief supplies and funds after an earthquake in 1972 had leveled most of the
capital, Managua. The disaster provided Somoza and cronies with opportunities to buy up
resources at low cost. They paid $300,000 for cotton plantations and resold them to the
government for $3 million as housing sites. Yet few houses were built; the fields remained
planted with cotton. U.S. contributions of cement were purchased by the Somoza-owned
National Cement Company at prices set by the regime. A $5 million Brazilian contribution was
used to import Mercedes-Benz cars and trucks with a commission paid on each one to the
Somoza franchise. Other supplies were sold on the black market; the hangar where they were
stored became known in Managua as “Tacho’s Supermarket,” a reference to Somoza’s
Wealth was flaunted with expensive cars (courtesy of the Somoza’s Mercedes-Benz
franchise), bejeweled women, and luxurious living. The Sandinista guerrillas crashed one lavish
party in December 1974 and held the guests hostage until they were paid a large ransom,
freedom for some of the regime’s prisoners, and safe passage to Cuba.
While Ethiopians were starving, the emperor had fifteen palaces and made millions of
dollars from ownership of the Saint George brewery, the capital’s bus company, and other assets.
One former courtier poetically explained the elite’s attitude to Polish journalist Ryszard
Kapusdingki. “In a poor country”, he said, “money is a wonderful, thick hedge, dazzling and
always blooming, which separates you from everything else. Through that hedge you do not see
creeping poverty, you do not smell the stench of misery and you do not hear the voices of the
human dregs. But at the same time you know that all exists, and you feel proud because of your
hedge. You have money; that means you have wings. You are the bird of paradise that everyone
The Shah tried to alter this situation by using Iran’s new-found oil wealth to promote
development. Nevertheless, the cronies’ disproportionately large share stirred resentment, and
huge military spending was interpreted by many people as a way of serving U.S. interests rather
than as the expression of the Shah’s nationalism. Imports of cheap foreign goods hurt Iranian
artisans and merchants while imports of Western culture antagonized the clergy, whose
government subsidies were also being cut. The state’s economic policies produced social
dislocation rather than gratitude, and villagers who moved to the south Tehran slums saw the
lavish, “unIranian” life-style of the north Tehran elite. On a cultural and psychological level the
gap between rulers and ruled had become too wide. On a political and economic level the
differences had become too obvious.
The crony class and its repressive apparatus personify the slow pace of development and
the great injustices in their societies. The behavior of this class enrages the people and stimulates
revolutionary opposition. But this group is often not a pillar for the traditional dictator, who
protects and promotes it. By sending their money overseas, its members divorce their wealth
from continued possession of political power. Exile is a viable alternative and a much more
attractive one than fighting to the death against revolutionaries. As one Ethiopian courtier later
explained, instead of trying to avoid revolution, “as the boat started to sink, each one of our
magnates stuffed his bag and looked around for a comfortable lifeboat.”
For both traditional and modern dictatorships, control of the state apparatus provides new
means of enrichment. Foreign aid can he siphoned off, and foreign companies must pay
kickbacks to get contracts. International agencies and banks have lent billions of dollars to make
up for mismanagement–which prevents funds from being used effectively-and to replace funds
diverted into private hands. While the Third World debt crisis is due to a range of factors,
corruption plays a significant role.
Preindustrial societies usually had a small oligarchy at the top and a mass of povertystricken
people at the bottom. A patron-client system made this relationship both more tolerable
and less escapable. In Western Europe kings had undermined regional barons in order to build
strong nations and centralized states, steps that ultimately opened the way for a democratic
challenge to royal authority. Third World traditional dictatorships brought local authorities under
their control and replaced them with the crony system that sparked new kinds of opposition.
In the Philippines under Marcos, personal associates of the dictator gained economic
benefits and political office by supporting his political machine. Some cronies, like sugar
magnate Eduardo Cojuangco and the coconut kings, were given monopolies which allowed them
to underpay workers and small farmers. Military commanders made money from large-scale
illegal timber cutting and other rackets. Corruption exceeded the usual norms that had, ironically,
contributed to stability and began to destroy the economy. Those shut out and hurt by the
regime’s distribution of favors yearned for its collapse or became actively involved in attempts to
The modern dictatorship neither ends corruption nor discards the tool of having a favored
minority. But the new system strengthens itself by making these things less visible and more
“democratic.” A new ruling class is formed among leaders of the government, party, army, and
mass organizations. Control of the national budget and economy allows them to shift money
back and forth as they please, while domination of the media and judiciary eliminates the
possibility of embarrassing exposé or legal punishment. Under the auspices of the state, a whole
chain of vacation homes, special stores, foreign currency accounts, and services is provided for
the elite’s benefit.
Technically these and other perquisites still belong to the state or, in practice, to the
ruling group as a whole. Since these privileges are granted to individuals only in their roles as
“servants” of the party and regime, they can be easily withdrawn from those who cause trouble
or who are purged. None of these people has access to funds or patronage for any independent
power base apart from the regime. To earn their privileges, they must contribute to the
functioning of the state. The “idle” rich are discouraged.
Such beneficiaries have no power or standing if they fall from their posts. Rather than
create powerful enemies, as happens when traditional dictatorships split, purges in modern
dictatorships open opportunities to people eager for advancement. Similarly, members of the
elite would lose their perquisites if the regime fell, unlike the traditional wealthy group, which
can go into luxurious exile or keep its assets. Rather than the anarchic upper class of crony
capitalism-and its complementary antiregime middle class from which most revolutionary
leadership comes-the modern dictatorship forges a united ruling group.
The Soviet and Eastern European economies are models for this kind of corruptive
system. Their economics would collapse without their pervasive black markets. The most
effective advantage of this system is held by the nomenklatura, who control the party levers.
They get the best jobs, access to foreign goods and travel, and special use of “state-owned”
property (limousines, vacation houses, etc.).
Nevertheless, the opportunity for corruption may be somewhat “democratized” in a
modern dictatorship. To a greater extent than in traditional dictatorships, the ruling elite is
enlarged and opened to those from lower classes. Most important, no one can rise at all without
the rulers’ tolerance. The political elite is also given a monopoly on wealth, helping prevent the
funding of a viable opposition.
Traditional dictators reject such institutionalization partly because of faith in their own
personal strength and ability to outfox rivals. During a June 1985 interview, for example, Marcos
justified his intention to continue in office because other presidential aspirants were “weaklings”
and “lightweights” who could not he trusted to fend off communism or promote economic
recovery. Marcos ridiculed even his own supporters. “It will take me several years to build them
up,” he said, because they talked too much and were too self-indulgent and self-important. If he
left power, the country would “suffer more than it has ever suffered.”
Yet the dictator’s high self-regard was by no means totally misplaced. Marcos and many
Latin American dictators were self-made men who showed considerable skill by climbing to
absolute power. As Asia expert Robert Manning commented on Marcos, “He had no vision but
when it came to staying in power he was a tactical genius.” The Shah, Haile Selassic, Somoza,
and Marcos brilliantly outmaneuvered rivals and critics on numerous occasions before
miscalculating the greatest challenge that finally ended their careers.
This ability to survive and triumph creates a myth of the dictator’s omnipotence. For
decades he outlasts plots, negative public opinion, peaceful and violent demonstrations, strikes,
bombs, armed uprisings, and foreign threats. As Latin American journalist Eduardo Crawley put
it, the dictator is seen as master “of the eleventh-hour counter-coup, the last-minute reprieve, the
most unexpected political legerdemain.”
Such a reputation, in turn, may discourage opposition. Haitian dictator François “Papa
Doc” Duvalier sought to enhance this advantage by cultivating his image as an expert voodoo
practitioner. He claimed he could predict the future through dialogue with one late rival’s head,
which he allegedly kept in the presidential palace. In part, these antics are meant to capitalize on
or rebuild the popular traditional awe that has been one of the greatest assets of such dictators.
His son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, inherited his father’s luxury-loving ways but not his
stainless-steel backbone. As soon as opposition flared up he Red to a European villa in 1986.
The traditional dictator also knew that the public must have no doubt about his
willingness to be brutal in stifling opposition, a characteristic often shared by his modern
counterparts. Death is always the ultimate sanction for ensuring political quiescence. When a
Haitian dictator embraced Dominican dictator Rafaci Trujillo during a meeting, their hidden
guns clanked together. In countries where violence, torture, assassination, and murder are not
aberrations of the moment but deep-seated political traditions, no serious politician can be a
pacifist. The Shah used to say that Iran could he governed like Switzerland only when the
Iranians behaved like Swiss. The traditional dictator’s skill, however, had to go beyond a
reputation for magic and raw repression. He who rules by naked force alone often does not rule
Marcos’s strength, for example, was his ability to tie up opponents in legalistic knots. In
August 1983 the leading opposition figure and likely successor to Marcos, Benigno Aquino,
returned home after years in exile. Marcos seemed deathly ill, the economy was going down the
drain, Marxist guerrillas were gaining ground in large areas of the countryside. The prognosis
was bad for the Marcos regime.
As Aquino’s airliner came to a stop outside the terminal building, soldiers boarded and
dragged him off the plane. Suddenly shots rang out; Aquino, surrounded by soldiers, was
murdered walking down the ramp to the runway. The soldiers, who probably killed Aquino, then
shot an alleged civilian assassin.
It was obvious that high government officials had been involved in the killing. Huge,
though peaceful, demonstrations and unfavorable international press coverage followed. Marcos
tried to defuse the wave of opposition by a complex series of maneuvers. First, he set up one
investigating commission loaded with his friends. Then, under international pressure, he chose as
head of another commission that had independence and credibility a justice of the Supreme Court
known for her integrity. He also removed armed forces commander General Fabian Ver
temporarily from power.
About a year later the independent commission reported that there had indeed been a
military conspiracy involved in the murder rather than a lone assassin. Its research was hampered
by the fact that some key witnesses could not be found;
they had disappeared-voluntarily or otherwise-with the aid of the Philippine military.
By the time the case came to trial, almost two years had gone by and anger had cooled
somewhat. A Marcos-appointed three-judge panel then ruled that none of the testimony given to
the investigating commission, information sufficient to convict Ver of perjury and involvement
in a cover-up, could he used in the trial. In the end no one was punished.
Part of Marcos’s strategy was the ability to he flexible when necessary, using small
concessions as safety valves. In the 1983 elections Marcos allowed the opposition to win about
30 percent of the seats in order to whitewash an election fixed in favor of Marcos’s party.
Cardinal Jaime Sin supported the opposition with the slogan “Take the money, but vote your
conscience,” to cope with the regime’s payoffs to voters. Somoza regularly made deals providing
legal opposition parties with a quota of parliamentary representation. Both dictators also
permitted the presence of some critical media-La Prema in Nicaragua and the church-owned
Veritas radio station in the Philippines-as long as Marcos and Somoza continued to control the
bulk of news outlets.
When the United States pressured him for reform, Marcos responded with a February
1986 presidential election that he intended to seem just fair enough to win opposition
participation while ensuring Marcos’s victory. But he was so out of touch with popular sentiment
that even after all the campaign fraud, bribery, and propaganda, opposition leader Corazon
Aquino received almost 60 percent of the vote. The strain of seeming democratic (in a country
where such practices were taken very seriously) brought Marcos down, as the Catholic church,
large segments of the army, and even Washington took the side of the opposition.
Although truly trusting only himself, a traditional dictator prefers to choose as helpers his
own relatives and friends. The Philippine ambassador to Washington was Imelda Marcos’s
brother, imperial Iran’s last ambassador was the Shah’s son-in-law, and Nicaragua’s long-
serving envoy was related to the Somozas. Marcos chose his chauffeur as army commander. In
Nicaragua the key military unit’s commander was the president’s half brother, the development
bank’s president and the editor of the largest newspaper were cousins, and the power company’s
head was an uncle.
Traditional dictators tend to have a clear idea of what they support (preserving as much
of the status quo as possible, accumulating more money, promoting their clan) and what they
oppose (communism and revolution). While their practical orientation leads them to place a low
priority on developing theories, in recent years the accoutrements of party and ideology have
become too fashionable to resist. The Shah was proud of his “White Revolution,” which brought
some land reform in the early 1960s, and his establishment of a political party, the Rastakhiz.
But the land reform was quite limited, and the party remained a somnolent club of dragooned
civil servants. He did not credibly present even the shadow of grassroots involvement. To make
matters worse, his glorification of Iran’s pre-Islamic past to create a specifically Iranian
nationalism was condemned by the Islamic clergy as paganism.
Marcos hired a ghostwriter to turn out volumes of philosophy, and Indonesia’s military
orders that its own philosophy he taught in the schools to compete with Islamic fundamentalism.
By the 1960s even many Latin American juntas were codifying their nationalist and
developmental views. Nevertheless, there was always something halfhearted about these efforts,
as if the regimes were only mechanically imitating what they observed elsewhere.
Similarly, court intellectuals are sometimes purchased to write poems and books
glorifying the traditional leader. Still, traditional dictators have not taken very seriously either the
importance of propaganda or the political potential of intellectuals. When used at all, the former
is directed largely at shoring up Western support more than influencing their own people. The
intellectual and cultural circles of the nation are viewed with great mistrust and are often major
targets for repression. They have responded by working to undermine the regime’s legitimacy
and subvert its international image.
Modern dictatorships, in contrast, put a great emphasis on more sophisticated propaganda
and public relations techniques to defend their records abroad and mobilize support at home.
While modern dictatorships are having problems with their ideologies’ diminishing credibility,
up to now possession of a coherent world view has given them an advantage over traditional
dictatorships. Teachers and writers are given a clear choice between flattery, privileges, and
celebrity treatment combined seductively with a feeling of oneness with the masses and the
threat of the most severe repression. Either way the intention is to neutralize systematically one
of the most potentially active subversive groups, but the modern dictatorship would rather co-opt
than silence this sector.
Modern dictatorships loudly proclaim their support for egalitarianism and national culture
and their rejection of foreign influences. Traditional dictators tend to he insensitive on these
points. They make no effort to hide their attraction to Western culture and material goods. When
they attempt to establish credentials as patriots, traditional dictators rarely make a convincing
case. The Shah’s elaborate celebration of the empire’s 2,500th anniversary was more jet-set party
than a patriotic pageant appealing to ordinary Iranians. Imelda Marcos’s expensive cultural
festivals seemed more like contests in conspicuous consumption than politically useful patriotic
pageants. Compared to such events, the modern dictators’ penchant for building stadiums is
practical, providing places to hold mass rallies and entertainments.
While modern dictators may have the same cosmopolitan tastes, they must cultivate a
different image for professional purposes. PLO leader Yasir Arafat’s chronic three-day beard and
disordered kaffiyeh headdress make him look unkempt to Westerners and like a true man of the
people to Arabs. Mao Zedong without his “Mao” jacket, Zaire’s Mobutu without his leopardskin
hat, or Ayatollah Khomeini in a French suit would lose some of their appeal. Military uniforms
give the proper touch of revolutionary discipline and austerity to Fidel Castro, Iraq’s self-made
Field Marshal Saddam Hussein, and others.
The dictator’s image and mastery over all the reins of power, whether he is of the traditional or
modern variety, are obviously essential because he is the most important single force sustaining
the regime. A junta can usually survive regardless of the fate of an individual general, and even
the most charismatically led modern dictatorship (Cuba and Iran, for example) can pass on
authority through the party and collective leadership. But a traditional dictatorship and the status
of all the relatives and cronies depend on their man’s direct hold on power. Their only
alternatives are flight to join purloined assets abroad or imprisonment or execution at home. For
the king or dictator himself, as King Lear discovered, voluntary retirement is virtually
impossible. Caudillos give in only to armed overthrow or mortality.
In view of the system’s dependence on one man, his illness-the Shah’s cancer, Marcos’s
kidney problems, Somoza’s heart attacks, Haile Selassie’s senility, Syrian President Hafez al-
Assad’s circulatory problems-brings a national crisis and sometimes a change in regime. Without
the institutional framework of the modern dictatorship, however, the traditional regime is even
more vulnerable to these weaknesses. Even when one man clearly predominates, the secondary
leaders in a modern dictatorship seem to have a relatively stronger position in most cases.
By taking all authority and responsibility into his own hands, a traditional dictator
enervates his collaborators and prevents the preparation of a successor. By playing off high
officials against each other, he sows a distrust and competition for his favors that make it
difficult for them to work together. Rather than be welcome, a particularly efficient or popular
subordinate would he unpopular and disadvantaged because he can he seen as a threat to the
elite’s positions and the dictator’s preeminence. Dependence on a single individual shows why
traditional dictatorships crash so totally and resoundingly. A new dictatorial order may arise, but
the old one can never he reassembled. Modern dictatorships also undergo changes in personnel,
but the system itself remains more stable.
Similarly, all dictators are susceptible to becoming prisoners of their own propaganda and
illusions. Surrounded by courtiers and isolated from the country’s realities, the dictator can
seriously misread the extent of problems, the erosion of support, and the seriousness of a
revolutionary threat. Again, though, the traditional dictator-without the network of party and
other organizations–is more likely to be misled. The Shah’s behavior during the 1978 Iranian
Revolution is a prime example of this problem.
He was baffled by the spread of the conflagration and the hatred of his regime. “Driving
through the city of Meshed in an open car only four months before the situation became
desperate,” he later said, “I was acclaimed by 300,000 people. Just after the troubles in Tabriz
(in February 1978) my prime minister went there and had an overwhelming reception. 1 can
recall nothing in the history of the world-not even the French revolution-to compare with what
As the revolution reached the turning point toward its triumph, in August 1978 the Shah
was interviewed by the West German magazine Stern. He compared the rebels to the Baader-
Meinhof terrorist gang and attributed the upheaval to the fact that “there are people everywhere
who are easily instigated. They hear a few words and immediately they are electrified and stop
When the reporter suggested that “Corruption has grown constantly worse” and that
garbagemen, customs inspectors, and others worked only when bribed, the Shah asked, “Do you
really have to bribe people?”
“Yes, daily,” answered the journalist. Otherwise garbage would pile up in front of the
houses. “Believe me, your Majesty, everybody among the people knows that this is so.”
“Then,” concluded the shocked king, “we will have to talk with the people about it.
Perhaps the wages are too low, too. But the salaries we are paying are not so had after all.”
This exchange cannot be viewed as a mere cynical exercise. An inability to visualize the
changes his country has undergone is combined with a fundamental disbelief in the possibility of
revolutionary discontent. Contemporary traditional dictators can genuinely lose touch with their
In the Shah’s case it was difficult for those bearing accurate information to get through
the door of those who were promoted for their subservience and who prospered despite their
incompetence. A young officer with good contacts among dissidents, General Nasir Moghadam,
sent a report to the Shah early in 1978, outside normal channels, that warned revolution was
inevitable unless real reforms were made. The Shah made Moghadam head of the secret police,
SAVAK, and then ignored his efforts at compromise with the opposition. Moghadam saw the
handwriting on the wall and eventually went over to the revolutionary side.
Sornoza was able to speak of the success of agrarian reform when two-thirds of the rural
population were landless, and he claimed that few students were revolutionary activists when
underground Sandinistas dominated the universities. He was considered so megalomaniacal that
when he instituted daylight savings time to conserve electricity, people sarcastically referred to it
as “Somoza time.”
Perhaps the essential point about the dictator’s isolation from society is his inability to
understand the effect of his actions in fomenting opposition. He is used to a policy of overawing
the masses with his wealth, unbridled authority, military might, ability to make arbitrary
decisions, power of life and death over subjects, and international connections. At critical
moments, though, this strategy can backfire, alienating the very political base he needs-urban
middle class, government bureaucracy, military officers-to stay in power and providing ample
grist for opponents in appealing to workers and peasants.
In addition to mishandling ideology and propaganda, traditional dictators fail to promote
themselves effectively as patriots. No opposition charge has been more effective than to claim
the dictator is a puppet of the Americans who sells out his nation’s interests. The revolutionaries
present themselves as the true nationalists, seeking to remove foreign political, economic, and
cultural influence. This was an important factor in the overthrow of the Shah and of Somoza. It
was an effective tactic in South Vietnam and an often used one throughout Latin America. Rare
is the radical dissident or political party that does not blame the United States for the existence,
maintenance, and policies of the dictatorship against which it is
While U.S. overt and covert aid is often important in helping such regimes, the idea that
the rulers are subservient to Washington is less accurate. Indeed, the Shah, Somoza, and Marcos
pursued their own self-interest and fiercely resisted U.S. pressures for reform and human rights
when such initiatives were made. The Shah, who nationalized the production of Iranian oil in
1973, avidly demanded higher petroleum prices. Marcos was an equally tough bargainer over the
rental for U.S. bases in the Philippines. Unlike their radical opponents, however, they lacked the
ultimate threat to gain leverage with Washington: a credible willingness to seek Moscow’s
In view of U.S. links with the regimes of the Shah (arms sales, advisers in the country,
importation of American films and customs), Sornoza (aid, investments), and Marcos (air and
naval bases, aid), it was not difficult to make the puppet charge stick. Modern dictatorships make
every effort to avoid being placed in this situation. Anti-Western rhetoric, for them, serves an
important domestic political function and they often attack the United States in order to gain
domestic prestige even if they are seeking U.S. aid and investments.
Radical and Marxist opponents in traditional dictatorships aim to sweep away not only
the dictator’s regime but the dominant economic classes, not only a historically unequal
relationship toward the West but all vestiges of U.S. influence. Even the dictator’s establishment
opponents, those most likely to take over if elections were held, are considered bound to an
economic system that was slow to bring development and a political system that excluded the
Morocco provides a good example of a system in which the ruler and official opposition
have linked interests. As a member of this structure explains, “We are all members of a big
family…. Some call themselves progressives [socialists], others Istiqlalis [traditional
nationalists], others monarchists. But we all know one another, and one shouldn’t take our public
name-calling very seriously.” Only when the power of this entire political stratum is destroyed
can a lasting modern dictatorship emerge. Such a revolution is most likely to happen when this
establishment is already weak and has failed to coopt the army, most commonly in Africa and in
many Arab and Asian states. Where these conditions do not exist, particularly in Latin America,
traditional dictatorships follow one another or alternate with civilian parliamentary regimes.
Since many traditional dictatorships’ strategies of corruption, repression, modernization,
propaganda, and organization do not correspond with changing times and new demands, they
tend to he the political equivalent of dinosaurs. A few have adapted, at least temporarily. Middle
East monarchies–particularly in Morocco, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia-have learned how to gain
nationalist appeal and keep a firm hold on the army. Latin American soldiers have replaced
personal dictatorships with the rule of the armed forces as a whole and have tried to implement
ambitious economic development strategies.
Nevertheless, the advocates and practitioners of modern dictatorship have far more
sophisticated ideas and tools for gaining and holding power and are more difficult to defeat or
displace. Faced with these challenges, the traditional dictator is at a serious disadvantage and
finds the old responses are no longer adequate. For example, an Ethiopian ex-courtier described
the Haile Selassic regime’s response to famine in this way: “Death from hunger had existed in
our Empire for hundreds of years, an everyday, natural thing, and it never occurred to anyone to
make any noise about it. Drought would come and the earth would dry up, the cattle would drop
dead, the peasants would starve. Ordinary, in accordance with the laws of nature and the eternal
order of things.” When foreign countries sent aid, the monarchy taxed it. The regime’s behavior
was a modern version of Marie Antoinette’s response “Let them cat cake.”
Alongside famine can be added lack of medical care, unemployment, mistreatment by
landlords, lack of opportunity, torture, and a dozen other sufferings of underdevelopment. Where
once these things were accepted with passive acquiescence, now there is bitter resentment and a
demand for change, particularly among those who know-through education or travel abroad-that
something better is possible.
All this is true, but.starving people hardly ever make revolutions and never lead them.
Haile Selassic was overthrown and replaced by military officers with personal ambitions and an
ideology often impervious to suffering. Using the language of Marxism, populism, and
nationalism, Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam knew the key to his power was the
employment of Soviet military aid, brutal repression, and tightly controlled mass organizations.
When famine recurred in the mid-1980s, his regime looted relief efforts, diverted supplies to
soldiers and political supporters, forced refugees out of the camps, and resettled them in
inhospitable areas. When cholera broke out, officials were told to hide the fact, calling it only
“acute dysentery” or the “new disease.” Many dictatorial traditions transcend the leap from
monarchy to Marxism.
Whether modern dictatorships represent improvement over traditional ones must he
considered with the greatest caution on a case-by-case basis. Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas
Llosa rightly criticized Westerners who have a “double standard.” They advocate a “democratic,
reform-minded political system of elections,” “representative institutions,” and human rights for
their own countries. In contrast, they see “revolution, the violent seizure of power,… a single
state party, forced collectivization,… and concentration camps for dissidents” as the sole solution
for the Third World. “A Marxist-Leninist dictatorship is no guarantee against hunger,” Vargas
Llosa concludes, and may make matters worse.
Yet in Cuba and Nicaragua, in Africa’s transition from colonialism to independence, in
Libya, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, South Yemen, Iran, South Vietnam, Cambodia, and dozens of other
countries, this transition has already taken place. These revolutions were fueled not only by the
oppression and failures of the old regime but also by their very success, which had turned against
These governments themselves had unleashed powerful forces by expanding universities
and giving scholarships to students who would learn about alternative societies and strategies for
revolution. They fostered the import of Western ideas that brought subversive dissatisfaction
with the old order. Their policies, like the concentration of landownership or mechanization,
encouraged peasant migration to urban areas and provided new troops for the opposition. Their
better-trained and newly equipped armies began to dream of political power.
Societies, even underdeveloped ones, have become complex enough to make it more
difficult to maintain a one-man dictatorship based on personal relationships and the manipulation
of favors. The formation of new states, seeking their own identities and trying to consolidate
their very existences, spread the gospel of modern dictatorship to whole new areas of the world.
The traditional dictatorships died not only because they were evil-though abuses there were in
plenty–but because they were outdated.