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The Modern Dictator vs. Pragmatic Opposition

The Dictator's Learning Curve

By Hallie Golden

The journalist William J. Dobson was standing on a Venezuelan street corner, preparing to interview a local congressman, when a man approached him with what looked to be a stack of movies for sale. But instead of “Toy Story 15 or whatever the knockoff version is,” he found CDs full of voter information. For $1.50, he purchased millions of Venezuelans’ personal information, including their names, addresses, voter ID numbers, and how they’d voted in the last election.

This wasn’t just a random illegal vendor, but part of a ploy by Venezuela’s government to intimidate its people. The message was clear: voting against Hugo Chavez could have consequences. About 5.6 million people, or nearly 20 percent of the country’s population, depend on government money to live. In a country dominated by patronage politics, being branded an enemy of the state can lead to public ostracism, as people fear angering the government and losing their income.

“In the lead up to the last election, the opposition, Enrique Pretel, had to consistently put out a message that the ballots were secret ballots: ‘It will be okay, no one’s going to be looking over your shoulder,’” explained Dobson at a World Policy Institute Political Salon, where he spoke about his book The Dictator’s Learning Curve.

“Meanwhile, the government was putting out rumors that it’s not a secret ballot: ‘You better be careful. I mean, you could not vote for Chavez. I’ve never done it, but I heard there was a guy that once did it, and I don’t know what happened to him.’” In last month’s election, Chavez was reelected for another six-year term.

It is these types of subtle tactics that have begun to dominate the 21st century dictator’s arsenal. Strong-armed leaders are using democratic rhetoric to give themselves international legitimacy and then manipulating elections. And it is this theme that Dobson, the politics and foreign affairs editor at Slate, illustrates throughout his book. He says since the world’s dictators lost their chief ally, the Soviet Union, in 1991, it has become too costly to simply kill dissenters. Each person killed, according to Dobson, creates a dozen or so family members or friends who have now become your enemy. For a dictator, the best move in this day and age is to give one’s people the illusion of freedom. Increasingly, the most important battles across the world are between dictators and their civilian opponents.

Dobson devoted two full years to exploring this topic. He says he traveled a total of 93,268 miles, interviewing the people who work for these governments and those who try to up-end them. One of his main takeaways from his travels was: “It has never been so hard to be a dictator than it is today.”

This is not just because of the fall of the Soviet Union, but also due to advances in technology. As the Arab Spring has taught the world, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook are invaluable tools when it comes to overthrowing dictators. The Internet acts as an easily accessible tool for citizens to shine a spotlight on any regime. And unless a government wants to take the extreme (and somewhat futile) step of regulating the Internet, a dictator needs to become a clever strategist to maintain control.

From 1985 to 1990, Vladimir Putin had a front row seat to the collapse of East Germany. As a KGB officer in Dresden, he saw how building walls can actually contribute to the collapse of a state. Dobson said, Putin has been “able to achieve –with some degree – with open borders, what was once achieved through building walls.” Dobson elaborated on this by explaining that today in Russia, it is more likely to see a human rights organization shut down because of tax-code violations or health-code violations than group members mysteriously taken away in the middle of the night.

Leaders like Putin and Chavez have also realized that there is nothing to be gained from winning an election by 99-percent. There is no value in that, because no one actually believes that there was a fair election. So dictators have begun winning elections by 70-percent. “Seventy is the new 99, because the only election worth stealing is one that appears to be contested,” said Dobson.

This book, however, is far from being only about dictators. Half of it focuses on groups that work day and night to overthrow them. Dobson said that during his time researching his book, he found countless opposition groups finding creative ways to stand up to the regimes.

“When I was finally leaving a place, I was thinking to myself, I would not want to be in opposition to these people,” Dobson said. “These people are the real deal.”

The “people” he is talking about are not just the ones we see on TV, marching in groups of thousands or even millions. It is the people who are doing the work behind the scenes. These are the people who are doing the unglamorous, tedious, and often dangerous work that preempts the massive revolutions.

“And yet we see it as a spontaneous revolution,” said Dobson. “There’s really no such thing as a spontaneous revolution.”

A good example of this is the case of Hosni Mubarak. He ruled Egypt for 30 years, and throughout that time, his regime was clearly oppressive—stolen elections, violence against citizens, etc. It wasn’t that the population in Egypt suddenly realized that they could not stand the oppression anymore. No, the revolution was a long time coming, and took a lot of careful planning. Dobson highlights the courage and sophistication of many of these anti-government groups, who find ways to chip away at the image of these leaders. The Venezuelan student groups used humor to help defeat a referendum that would’ve allow Chavez to remain president for life. Many Venezuelans, said Dobson, are proud that their country regularly performs well in Miss Universe competitions, so the students created pictures of an old, decrepit Miss Universe who refused to give up her crown. “It’s really hard to argue with someone making a joke,” Dobson said, “because you look like a fool.” 

After two years of research, Dobson is optimistic in the long-term. Many of the opposition groups, especially the young demonstrators, are creative and—most importantly—persistent. “What I wanted to do in part was try to introduce people to some of those people who were challenging regimes right now,” said Dobson. “These are not high in the sky dreamers. Romantics do not last long. These are people who are tacticians. If there is a word that sums them up, they are pragmatic."

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Hallie Golden is an editorial intern at the World Policy Journal.

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