10. P.W. Botha – South Africa (1978-1989)
The first and penultimate Executive President, and last Prime Minister, of South Africa’s white supremacist regime, “the Big Crocodile,” as Botha was also known, managed, with the help of the U.S. government’s diplomatic cover and material support, to maintain South African apartheid in the face of almost universal international condemnation. Botha radically expanded the power of South Africa’s repressive military and police forces through changes to the country’s constitution. By citing “Marxist” threats among South Africa’s disenfranchised blacks, Botha was able to secure significant military subsidies from the Reagan administration, this despite a widespread South African divestment campaign among U.S. universities. Still, Botha’s refusal to concede to the demands, the release of Nelson Mandela among them, of black protestors and activists, as well as his government’s aerial bombardment of leaders of the nation’s strongest anti-apartheid group (the African National Congress), brought about international sanctions that crippled the South African economy. He remained in power until a debilitating stoke forced him to resign in 1989. After South African apartheid was ended in the 1990s, the nation’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission found Botha directly responsible for the kidnapping, torture and extrajudicial killing of thousands during his years in power.
Unfortunately, Botha’s atrocities didn’t stop at South Africa’s boarders. His government trained and financed the Mozambique National Resistance, which fought to topple the popular government which took power in Mozambique after the Portuguese abandoned their colony there in 1975. The MNC was infamous for mutilating and dismembering civilians and for forcing prospective young child soldiers to watch the rape and murder of their relatives before their own forced recruitment. Botha justified his government’s support for the terrorist organization by stressing the need to strengthen capitalism on the African continent. Clearly, the Big Crocodile understood how to effectively appeal to the sensibilities of his Washington paymasters.
9. Fulgencio Batista – Cuba (1932-1944 & 1952-1959)
FDR’s choice to replace ousted U.S.-backed strongman Cerardo Machado, army sergeant Batista first seized power in a military coup in 1932. Though relatively progressive in some ways during his early years in power, Batista consistently acted ruthlessly when faced with opposition to his rule. He effectively neutralized the leftist political elements that had helped to overthrown his predecessor. After twelve years in power, sometimes directly but often from behind the scenes, Batista left Cuba and settled down to a comfortable retirement in Miami in 1944. It was not to last.
In 1952, Batista returned to Cuba and reassumed power through another coup, this time ousting elected President Carlos Prio Socorras. Batista’s second presidency was greeted with enthusiasm by the Eisenhower administration, who characteristically viewed the dictatorial Batista as an effective bulwark against popular leftist movements in Cuba and a trusted guardian of the considerable American commercial interests on the Caribbean island. Batista’s second presidency was much more autocratic than his first; he suspended the Cuban constitution, purged the Cuban intelligentsia of leftist lawyers, teachers and officials and targeted Cuban labor -his earlier allies. As Batista cozied up to the American mafia during in the 1950s, Cuba became a hub of smuggling, gambling, drugs and other vices and rackets. American celebrities and gangsters, like Meyer Lansky, mingled in gaudy Havana hotels and casinos while segments of the indigenous Cuban population continued to toil and suffer under Batista’s harsh repression, especially in the poorer rural areas of the country. In 1953, rebels under Fidel Castro staged a failed uprising and Batista, with the help of Lansky (who maintained a highly lucrative drug trafficking operation out of the Havana airport), unleashed a new wave of brutality. By the time Castro returned from exile and eventually ousted the president after a guerrilla war, Batista’s death squads had killed and tortured thousands. Fleeing for his life, Batista left Castro’s Cuba with a personal fortune estimated at $700 million for Portugal on January 1, 1959, where he died of a heart attack years later.
8. Ngo Dinh Diem – South Vietnam (1954-1963)
Three factors lead to Ngo Dinh Diem being installed by the CIA as president of the artificial South Vietnamese state: he spoke English and had spent years in the U.S.; he was a Christian; and he was rabidly anti-communist. After the French, crippled by the devastation of WWII and unable to maintain their costly overseas empire, abandoned their colony of Indochina in the early 1950s, the U.S. took over the suppression of independence movements in Southeast Asia. In exchange for exorbitant American military subsidies and U.S. State Department counsel, Diem was expected to take orders from Washington while presenting an air of liberal democracy in Vietnam.
Grossly incompetent and cruel to boot, Diem, along with his brother and sister-in-law, utilized a secret police force called the Can Lao Party, a brainchild of the State Department, as a personal mafia and kidnapped, tortured and killed all urban opposition to his rule in Saigon (the capital of South Vietnam). Though he never exercised any real control outside of the capital city, it wasn’t for lack of trying. Again on the advice of the U.S. government, Diem rounded up rural peasants throughout Southern Vietnam and relegated them to concentration camps in order to keep them from fleeing to North Vietnam, which was by then swelling with refugees fleeing Diem and the Americans’ terror. Naturally, these camps became breeding grounds for pro-Vietcong sentiment and regularly churned out anti-Diem/American insurgents. By the early 60s, the situation in Saigon itself was becoming desperate, with the city on the verge of open revolt. Though he refused Washington’s repeated pleas to implement political reforms, Diem did attempt military ones. Alas, it wasn’t enough to save his skin; he and his brother’s bodies were found riddled with bullet-holes in the back of a van on November 2, 1963 (two and half weeks before the assassination of JFK in Dallas). The stage was set for the American invasion of Vietnam.
7. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi – Iran (1941-1978)
The last Shahanshah (or “King of Kings”) of Iran, Reza Shah’s overthrow in 1978 brought an end to more than 2,500 years of continuous monarchal rule in the ancient Middle Eastern kingdom. Even so, prior to 1953, he was just a constitutional monarch with little real power or privileges, with true authority in the hands of a Prime Minister. It had been that year that the CIA, along with British MI6, conducted a coup ousting the popularly elected Prime Minster Mohammad Mosaddegh and handed de-facto power over to the Shah. Mosaddegh had nationalized Iran’s considerable oil industry, enraging the Western oil companies that were subsequently driven out of Iran. The Shah was of a different mind. In exchange for diplomatic and material support from Western governments, he handed Iran’s oil industry back to American and British corporations, denounced the Soviets for good measure and began his direct rule.
Naturally, the Shah’s actions, and subsequent policies, provoked widespread domestic opposition, especially from religious and working-class segments. The Shah responded by outlawing opposition political parties, jailing or (often publicly) executing opponents and rigging elections (his favored political party taking 100% of the vote in 1954). The most notorious aspect of the Shah’s rule was his SAVAK secret police. Created and managed by the CIA, the SAVAK employed dreaded torture methods including, but not limited too, the following: electric shock, whipping, beating, inserting broken glass and pouring boiling water into the rectum, tying weights to the testicles, and the extraction of teeth and nails. By 1978, Iranians had had enough. Under the leadership of the fundamentalist Shia leader Ayatollah Khomeini, they staged a revolution that drove the Shah from Iran. He died of an illness less than a year later as a fugitive, the U.S. government having stubbornly refused to extradite him back to Iran for punishment.
6. The House of Saud – Saudi Arabia (1932-present)
The U.S. government’s continued support of the Saudi royal family fully disproves any naive notion that it’s foreign policy is based on anything other than narrow self interest. It was the great liberal internationalist FDR himself who famously cut a deal with the first Saudi King, Abdul Aziz, in the 1940s guaranteeing perpetual American diplomatic and material support to the monarchy in exchange for a promise by the Saudis to keep the global price of oil cheap, Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest exporter of the vital commodity. Even today, as wealthy Saudi individuals (and possibly members of the hyper-extensive royal family) funnel money to radical Islamic terrorists groups like Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS), the U.S. government continues to prop up the secular Saudi monarchy in the face of repeated attempts by the Arabian people to dislodge them.
The domestic dissatisfaction with the Saudi regime is unsurprising considering the monarchy’s brutal medieval rule. In Saudi Arabia, nonlethal crimes like drug trafficking, adultery, apostasy and “sorcery” (whatever that means) are punishable by public beheading. Torture is regularly used by Saudi police to extract faulty confessions with no regard for internationally established human rights conventions. Furthermore, Saudi women remain effective property of their fathers and husbands and polygamy is widespread (most intensely among the royal family itself, with King Abdul Aziz having reportedly fathered 45 sons by 22 wives). Impractically, women are even prohibited from driving in Saudi Arabia, just one among many factors that have retarded the country’s economic growth. Clearly, any talk of spreading democracy throughout the globe on the part of the U.S. government should be met with chuckles so long as it continues to fund arguably, in many ways, the most backward regime in the world.
5. Mobutu Sese Seko – Zaire (1965-1997)
When the young freedom fighter Patrice Lumumba was popularly elected as the first Prime Minister of an independent Congo in 1960, his country was poised to embark on a new era after almost a century of horrific Belgian colonial rule. Unfortunately, Lumumba’s idealism, and his opposition to the virtual annexation of a particularly mineral rich part of the Congo to the Belgians, angered the foreign corporations that had for so long ruled his unfortunate country. Thus, twelve weeks into office, Lumumba was ousted and murdered by the CIA and their man in the Congo, an eccentric army general named Mobutu Sese Seko. Mobutu would go on to consolidate his power and take the presidency in a coup in 1965. Like the Belgian King Leopold II had done in the 19th century, Mobutu transformed the Congo, rechristened Zaire, into a personal fief, allowing multinational corporations to exploit the country’s considerable cobalt, copper, uranium and diamond supplies in exchange for hefty bribes to himself.
Mobutu’s 30+ years in power were characterized by corruption on a mass scale. By the time he was driven out of Zaire by rebels in 1997, he had stolen an estimated $15 billion from his people. Zaire, though the most naturally wealthy country in central Africa, became the fifth poorest in the region under Mobutu’s criminal mismanagement. Half of Zaire’s children died before the age of five, mostly of malnutrition, during his reign. Characteristically, Mobutu ignored the suffering of his people, focusing instead on the ever illusive communist threat that always prompted Washington to open up its wallet. When the U.S. government gave Zaire’s government $1.4 million to fight rebels in 1974, Mobutu embezzled the whole sum. It was characteristic of Mobutu’s modus operandi, and helped earn his government the the title of kleptocracy that it was later to receive.
4. The Somoza Dynasty – Nicaragua (1927-1979)
FDR once said of the patriarch of Nicaragua’s most infamous family “Somoza may be a son-of-bitch, but he’s our son-of-bitch.” Strongman Anastasio Somoza Sr. took power after a two decade long semi-occupation of Nicaragua by U.S. marines, during which time one American general confessed to having served as a “muscle man for big business, for Wall Street, and for the banks” and as a “racketeer for capitalism” in Nicaragua. Somoza earned the gratitude of Washington after assassinating the troublesome rebel leader Augusto Sandino in 1934, and was subsequently allowed to assume dictatorial power. The almost five decade rule of his family was characterized by brutal repression, including the murder of countless dissidents, and unbridled corruption.
Thankfully, the elder Somoza was shot down by assailants in 1956, but his sons, who succeeded him, presented little improvement. Shamelessly avaricious, Luis and Anastasio Jr. Somoza drained Nicaragua of everything they could get their hands on, including blood (which Anastasio Jr. bought from his people and sold internationally at a 300% mark up, yielding $12 million annually). Anastasio later embezzled $30 million in international aid after a devastating earthquake struck Nicaragua in 1972, selling relief supplies to those citizens who could afford it. Though the dynasty was able to cling to power, with U.S. support, until 1979, going so far as too bombard their own capital city when it was seized by unrest, rebel Sandinistas eventually overthrew them. Outraged and worried by the successful toppling of one of their puppet regimes, the U.S. government inflicted crippling economic sanctions on the Sandinistas’ Nicaragua and began training, funding and managing anti-government death squads composed of ex-solders of the Somoza regime (known as Contras). A decade of civil war and suffering later, the Sandinista government fell and Nicaragua was brought back into line.
3. Efrain Rios Montt – Guatemala (1982-1983)
General Efrain Rios Montt was just one in a series of dictators that ruled Guatemala in the decades after the CIA, acting on behalf the American company United Fruit, ousted the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz in the 50s, each tyrant receiving his due of U.S. training, funding and other support in the name of anti-communism. United Fruit had been disturbed by Arbenz’s progressive education polices and were terrified that he would successfully implement land reform in the seemingly semi-feudal country and redistribute some of the company’s huge Guatemalan properties among the landless poverty-stricken farmers that worked the fields. Where Rios Montt distinguished himself was in the brutality with which he set about genociding Guatemala’s indigenous rural population, the most persistent victims and opponents of the dictators’ (and their American paymasters’) continued abuses.
An evangelical Christian, Rios Montt once proclaimed that “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine-gun.” Rios Montt’s rural massacres, which he saw as an anti-communist Christian crusade, killed at least 10,000 indigenous Guatemalans and drove 100,000 more to Mexico as refugees. The Reagan administration lauded Rios Montt, with the U.S. ambassador declaring, upon the dictator’s assumption of power, that Guatemala had “seen the light.” The administration’s enthusiasm is easier to grasp when one considers their close ties to the Guatemalan dictatorship; Reagan’s presidential campaign had received $500,000 in donations from Rios Montt’s predecessor and a particularly notorious general of the dictatorship, a “Godfather” of Central American death squads, named Mario Sandoval Alarcon had personally attended the “Gipper’s” first inauguration celebration. Rios Montt was finally convicted, in Guatemala nonetheless, of genocide and crimes against humanity in May of 2013, but his grime legacy lingers on in the memories of countless traumatized Guatemalans to this day.
2. Augusto Pinochet – Chile (1973-1990)
Pinochet’s decades in power present arguably the most pure experiment in ultra right-wing governance that the modern era has to offer. Assuming power in 1973 after the CIA, with the enthusiastic support of President Nixon and his minion Henry Kissinger, orchestrated a coup that left the democratically elected socialist Chilean president Salvador Allende a bloodied corpse in his office, Pinochet consistently implemented economic policies based on the advice of a cabal of American trained economists, each of which was a disciple of Milton Friedman’s “free-market” fundamentalism, dubbed the “Chicago Boys.” Specifically, Pinochet abolished the minimum wage, outlawed union bargaining, privatized the pension system, abolished all taxes on wealth and business profits, slashed public employment, privatized 212 industries and 66 banks and ran a fiscal surplus. Predictably, it was a complete disaster; poverty doubled, unemployment reached 22% and real wages declined by 40%. Wealthy financial speculators Javier Vial and Manuel Cruzsat bought up most of the state’s assets and carried out a massive pyramid scheme to defraud investors, ultimately crashing the country’s economy in the early 1980s. At that time, Pinochet was forced to abandon the “Chicago Boys” and implement sensible reforms, but the damage had been done.
The Chilean people hadn’t accepted Pinochet’s “free-market” policies quietly. Pinochet resorted to repression and terror to maintain power and force through the “Chicago Boys'” economic program, with Amnesty International reporting tens of thousands of civilian disappearances, exiles and instances of torture and killing at the hands of Pinochet’s regime. Two of Pinochet’s top enforcers, Raul Iturriaga and Manuel Contreras, were trained at the U.S.’s infamous School of the Americas in Panama, where they were educated in propaganda, torture, terror and other nefarious practices. Tried and true CIA torture methods, electric shock prominent among them, were redeployed regularly in Pinochet’s prisons. Throughout his reign, Pinochet received continual loans from the U.S. government, which brushed aside his gross human rights violations (again) in the name of anti-communism. Though Pinochet was driven from presidential office by a plebiscite held in 1988, he remained head of the nation’s military for another decade and managed to evade prosecution for his crimes, dying peacefully at the age of 91.
1. Suharto – Indonesia (1967-1998)
Suharto was a totalitarian monster. Having been installed as Indonesian President, predictably, by the CIA in 1965, the former army general immediately began massacring any and all leftist elements in Indonesia. Citing the need to destroy communist influence, but more interested in solidifying his own power and eliminating his predecessor Sukarno’s working class and rural supporters, his solders killed nearly a million Indonesian citizens in the 1965-66 period, imprisoning and torturing countless others. Paratroopers would arrive in a village by air, round up the inhabitants and force the communities’ children to point out supposed communists for immediate public execution. All the while, the U.S. government, by this time embroiled in Vietnam and eager to expand its imperialist operation throughout Southeast Asia, happily lent advisory aid, in the form of CIA counsel, and weapons to the bloodthirsty despot.
In 1975, Suharto was given the green light by Washington to invade neighboring East Timor and snuff out the recent revolution and resulting leftist government which had cropped up there. The occupying Indonesian forces proceeded to genocide the Timorese population for the next 25 years. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were starved, raped, died of illness or were killed outright (often brutally and publicly with bayonets and other crude weapons). A bipartisan succession of U.S. presidents refused to publicly acknowledge the atrocity and continued to arm Suharto’s military with cutting-edge weaponry throughout the period. Finally, in 1998, Suharto, now fabulously wealthy through various corrupt activities, was forced to resign due to the Asian Financial Crisis of that year. He died of renal failure ten years later, never having faced justice for his crimes.
Sources: 1) Dennis Bernstein and Laura Sydell “Friendly Dictators” Third World Traveler: accessed November 19, 2014 http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/US_ThirdWorld/dictators.html
2) Paul Street “Against Escalation” Z Magazine (November 2014)
3) Gregory Palast “Miracle cure, but the medicine was bright red” the Guardian (November 22, 1998): accessed November 19, 2014 http://www.theguardian.com/business/1998/nov/22/observerbusiness.theobserver
4) Human Rights Data Analysis Group, accessed November 19, 2014 https://hrdag.org/resources/timor_chapter_graphs/timor_chapter_page_02.shtml