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"Saying he is no longer healthy enough to hold office, Cuban leader Fidel Castro has announced he will not seek re-election after 49 years in power" — the Miami Herald.
Hmm. Castro didn't really have to "seek" re-election, did he? He's a — what's the word? Oh, yeah — "dictator." If he "seeks" re-election, he's pretty much guaranteed to find it — assuming for the purposes of argument you can be "re-elected" if you've never been freely or fairly elected in the first place. In its own "news report," the satirical website The Nose on Your Face got closer to reality:
"Fidel Castro announced today that he would not seek a new term as Cuba's president, citing concerns that at 81, it may be difficult for him to serve the full, constitutionally-mandated 49-year term."
Indeed. We have been here before, of course. Three years ago, Yasser Arafat expired in Paris from an unspecified ailment, which the lads at Hamas now say was AIDS — or, to be more specific, the fetching young aides from Eastern Europe with which the Soviets endowed him so lavishly. At any rate, the old kleptocrat monster's passing was accompanied by much ululating in the Western press. The BBC correspondent broke down in tears live on air: if she'd been doing her job, she might have noticed how dry-eyed the locals were — hence, the Hamas takeover in Gaza shortly thereafter. Similarly dewy-eyed, Sir Simon Jenkins, grandee of Fleet Street, deplored the way that "America refused to acknowledge Yasser Arafat as a democrat."
Maybe that's because Arafat was elected in 1996 to a five-year term and he died in office in 2005: you do the math. Mister Democrat stayed on till the end — and, indeed, if the rumours coming out of that French hospital were true, for several days after the end. If he hadn't been carried out by the handles in the ninth year of his five-year term, he'd now be in the second decade of his five-year term. If, say, George W. Bush were to stay on till, oh, 2011, 2012, I doubt the media would be so eager to hail his democratic bona fides.
But there beats in the liberal breast a strange passion for normalizing dictatorships. You'll recall that, at the funeral of Pierre Trudeau, the Father of Our Country, the only fellow global colossi to show up were Fidel Castro, Jimmy Carter and Najib Zerouali (Minister of Scientific Research for Morocco, a nation renowned for its scientific research). This would have been a bleak enough comment on Trudeaupia's standing in the world, even without the general media swoon over Fidel. Apparently, millions of freeborn citizens of one of the oldest constitutional democracies on the planet were flattered by the attentions of the grubby strongman from an economic basket case representing the last redoubt of history's most blood-soaked and comprehensively failed ideology.
Of course, the realities of politics are such that the representative of a genuine democracy will at some point or other find himself sitting across the table from this week's president-for-life or generalissimo. But you hope your chap, even while high on the transnational cocktail circuit, will know the difference. Back in the eighties, Gerhard Schröder was a fairly standard West German pol on the make and, in the course of his progress up the greasy pole, found himself exchanging some social pleasantries with his compatriots over on the other side of the Berlin Wall. Here's one of the many creepy suck-up letters he wrote to the leaders of the East German prison state — in this case, to Erich Honecker's deputy, Egon Krenz: "I will certainly need the endurance you have wished me in this busy election year. But you will certainly also need great strength and good health for your People's Chamber election."
Well, except for the fact that, on one side of the border, the election result was not in doubt. In the sixties and seventies, as various decolonized territories in Africa shredded their Westminster constitutions and introduced "one-party states," the Queen would often find herself out on the road in some distant outpost of empire peddling multiculti bromides about how different members of our great Commonwealth family were pioneering their own distinctive forms of democracy. "Distinctive" mainly in the sense of being, even when not actively genocidal, non-democratic. When a free man enjoying the blessings of a free society promotes an equivalence between real democracy and a sham, he's colluding in the great lie being perpetrated by the prison state. A generation ago, to their shame, almost every Western politician did it — Trudeau, Mitterrand, Carter, Helmut Schmidt. Today, the political class is more circumspect, but the broader culture, almost instinctively, drapes thugs in the accessories of legitimacy. Just before he was overthrown, Saddam Hussein "sought" "re-election," and on the big day CNN covered it like a down-to-the-wire gubernatorial or senate race — full of shots of Iraqis going to the polls as if it was in reality what it was merely pretending to be: an election.
In his previous submission to the people seven years earlier, Saddam got 99.89 per cent of the vote. And, given that the 0.11 per cent foolish enough to write in Ralph Nader were no doubt subsequently shoved into the industrial shredder, it seemed a safe bet that the old butcher would do even better this time round. Nonetheless, throughout the day, CNN kept up the Election Special excitement to the point where you half-expected a Gallup exit poll showing Saddam plummeting to 99.82 per cent, or Frank Luntz live with a focus group of Tikrit soccer moms who want more spending on health care and less on anthrax. Saddam "sought" re-election and happily found it, and, after the removal of his regime, survived in his spider-hole long enough to enjoy an increasing number of approving pieces in the Western press bemoaning the way the blundering neo-cons and their incompetent stooges among Iraq's democratic parties had destroyed a smoothly functioning dictatorship. From the London Spectator: "Things Were Better Under Saddam." Once Cuba begins the inevitably messy birth pangs of democracy, expect similar Castro nostalgia to the nth degree: Havana not as quaint as it used to be, full of ghastly American banks and fast-food outlets.
Pondering Western enthusiasm for Castro and Co., you wonder whether the free world's urge to normalize tyranny is entirely confined to its exotic overseas exemplars. If you believe in big problems that demand "big government" solutions, democracy just gets in the way. Take Mayer Hillman, senior fellow at the Policy Studies Institute in London and big-shot eco-panjandrum. "When the chips are down I think democracy is a less important goal than is the protection of the planet from the death of life, the end of life on it," he said recently. "This has got to be imposed on people whether they like it or not." David Suzuki, Canadian eco-messiah, is cool with that: he recently called for politicians who disagree with him on "climate change" to be thrown in jail. It would be nice to think that Mr. Suzuki's totalitarian tendencies would render him beyond the pale, unacceptable in polite society, exposed as a buffoon who wants brute force to compel what his lazy arguments cannot. But come Christmas season he'll still be getting the A-list invites and schmoozing with celebs.
Suzuki has a point. Democracy, said Churchill, was the worst form of government except for all the others. It is, in fact, the best form of government for small government — for a rotating political class constrained by a sense of what is achievable in free societies. But, if your plans are bigger than that, then you need a freer hand. The totalitarian temptation lurks within every big idea, even the fluffily benign-sounding ones, and it will only grow in the years ahead.
Maclean's, March 3rd 2008