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The world has recently been treated to an amazing sight: thousands of Cubans taking to the streets in a wave of demonstrations demanding, among other things, an end to a 62-year-old dictatorship. Beyond serving as a milestone moment for the island nation, the demonstrations in at least 15 cities marked the latest instalment in the greatest struggle of our times: the contest between democrats and authoritarians. In recent years, authoritarians often have seemed to hold the upper hand. Yet the Cuban unrest serves to frame the key question: whether authoritarian regimes will prevail in the long term, or are sowing the seeds of their own demise. The Cubans who took to the streets appeared to have some more immediate concerns on their minds. They were protesting a lack of food and a shortage of Covid-19 vaccines.

But their willingness to take their protests to the actual doorstep of Cuba’s Communist Party headquarters showed a deeper dissatisfaction. It’s hard to say whether Cubans on the streets, like citizens of Hong Kong pushing back against Chinese central government repression there, represent the beginnings of a new anti-authoritarian tide or mere footnotes in a generally bad time for those who cheer for democracy. Certainly authoritarian regimes appear to be having a good run right now. Freedom House, a non-partisan organisation dedicated to promoting freedom and democracy, reports that freedom across the globe has declined for 15 straight years, a trend that accelerated last year. “The long democratic recession is deepening,” Freedom House says.

Across Europe and Asia in particular, 18 countries have suffered declines in democratic trends last year, while only 6 in those regions saw improvement. Those trend lines, and the staying power of authoritarian rulers, are apparent among the world leaders who pose the greatest challenges to the US. In Iran, Ayatollah Khamenei has been the country’s supreme leader for 32 years, triple the time that Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, held the post. This year, he stage-managed an election that put his chosen candidate into the presidency. In Russia, Vladimir Putin has been in power, as president or prime minister, for 22 years, longer than Brezhnev ran the Soviet Union. Putin is moving up on Joseph Stalin, who ruled for 29 years, and is well positioned to pass him since according to Russian law he can stay in power for another decade.

In China, President Xi Jinping has been running the show for a mere 9 years, yet he has developed a personality cult and engineered a removal of term limits, thereby allowing him to become ruler for life. Turkey’s president Erdogan, and Venezuelan President Maduro seem no less intent on squelching any threats to their personal power. So this seems a boom time for autocrats. Yet the seething unhappiness in Cuba, Venezuela, Iran and Hong Kong, and the need for Putin to poison and jail his opponents, raises the question of how long the authoritarian run can last. Maybe embedded autocracies create the conditions for their own eventual downfall?  Democracy is messy, but in an authoritarian system the problem is that cults of personality develop, opposing voices with good ideas are squelched, healthy debates and innovative thoughts are blocked.

China expert Jude Blanchette notes “The greatness of ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ may strike outsiders as curious or even comical, but they have a genuine effect on the quality of decision-making and information flows within the Communist party.” China has done a good job of managing its economy. Elsewhere, authoritarian systems have produced a plundering of national resources, corruption and mismanagement of the economy. Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House notes that today’s autocrats are more politically savvy and attuned to meeting material needs when necessary to blunt calls for civil liberties. Maybe autocrats do lay the groundwork for their own demise. But they also are getting better at being autocrats. Meanwhile, democracy’s best offence is simply to make democracy work better so it is more easily seen as the superior alternative.

Source: The Wall Street Journal