Can a strongman dictator who suppressed dissent, jailed and killed his political opponents, and maintained power without a democratic mandate from the people redeem his legacy by accomplishing economic, social or geopolitical good?
As with all things in politics, it depends on who you ask. There are many people who — whether grudgingly or enthusiastically — find some appeal in the idea of the “benevolent dictator” and will tolerate certain excesses (read: human rights abuses) by that dictator when he (it’s pretty much always a he) deals with resistance to his larger agenda of social or economic change.
But if you ask me, the answer is a resounding no. Democracy, freedom of speech, and open political debate are first principles of political ethics. In a world where what constitutes social and economic good is so hotly contested, substituting one’s own view for the views of the many forgoes a discussion of what an ideal society might look like.
On the death of longtime Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, this debate has come to the forefront of Canadian political discussion. Prime Minister Trudeau released a statement that praised the deceased leader. Trudeau expressed his “deep sorrow” for the loss of a “legendary revolutionary and orator… [who] made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.”
Even if we were to assume that from time to time a “benevolent dictator” may sometimes produce better social and economic outcomes than democracy, the opposite proposition is just as likely. History is littered with dictatorships headed by violent authoritarian narcissists focused on their own glory and self-indulgence, for whom the greater good of the citizenry is of lesser importance.
Whatever democracy’s flaws, preferring dictatorship to democracy because we think it’s more likely to accomplish certain ends is the ultimate crapshoot.
Regardless of how we feel about a political leader’s accomplishments on other fronts we must unequivocally condemn the tendency to maintain power with an iron fist.
And it is true that there is something to be said for the fact that Cuba has been able to provide laudable levels of public services despite living under economic embargo for decades.
But the criticism of Trudeau for ignoring the less praiseworthy aspects of Castro’s legacy was fast and furious — both at home and abroad. And for good reason. Terry Glavin, writing for Maclean’s magazine, summed up what Trudeau omitted to say in his fawning eulogy:
“Any political activity outside the Communist Party of Cuba is a criminal offence. Political dissent of any kind is a criminal offence. Dissidents are spied on, harassed and roughed up by the Castros’ neighbourhood vigilante committees. Freedom of movement is non-existent. Last year, the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented 8,616 cases of politically-motivated arbitrary arrest.”
In fairness, many of Trudeau’s conservative critics (as most of them were) hardly come to the table with clean hands. It is a constant in politics that many people demonstrate a willingness to excuse human rights-abusing dictatorship in cases where they are more favourably disposed to other aspects of the dictator’s rule.
For example, crickets could be heard when less than two years ago, former prime minister Stephen Harper released a statement on the death of King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia, offering his condolences on behalf of all Canadians who “join the people of Saudi Arabia in mourning his passing.” Harper’s statement called the Saudi dictator a “strong proponent of peace in the Middle East… [who] undertook a range of important economic, social, education, health, and infrastructure initiatives in his country.”
As is typical of our country’s bizarrely cordial relationship with the oppressive Saudi regime, no mention was made of the Saudi monarchy’s legacy of never holding elections, suppressing dissent, and brutally oppressing women, homosexuals, “apostates” and others.
I suspect that conservatives who are selectively outraged by Justin Trudeau’s fawning tribute to Castro are more strongly motivated by their disdain for Castro’s socialist brand of economic management than his abuse of human rights. They were more willing to tolerate similar abuses when they accomplished things they were more favourably disposed to, like having a pliable force for stability in the Middle East that provides a nearly endless supply of oil.
But, conservative hypocrisy aside, Trudeau can’t be let off the hook.
We can debate whether it is ever appropriate to use a person’s passing as an occasion to rebuke their human rights record. The old chestnut, “if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all,” may be the most appropriate and sensitive approach towards the family of the dead.
Whether a national leader champions the poor and tries to stick it to America, or provides geopolitical stability and a steady flow of cheap oil, is irrelevant. If a leader falls short on democracy and human rights, the rest of their legacy is irrevocably tainted.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.