Opinion: Tin Pots and Us

Ask any Latino over 50; the Mubarak type’s were a dime a dozen South of the border. You could say we made the mold: the stereotypic strongman military officer who crushes democratic opposition, ditches the uniform, assumes the presidency, then rules forever or until his son can take over; most with the decisive support of the United States. Just since 1945, we have backed 18 Latin American tin pot dictators. I interviewed a bunch of them over the decades, beginning with my first foreign assignment in 1973, a general who made himself president of Chile: Augusto Pinochet. He’s best remembered for herding his political opponents into football stadiums before disappearing them, bombing his own presidential palace and killing his one-time friend, the democratically-elected president Salvatore Allende. Pinochet then ruled with our backing from 1973 to 1990.

We cut him and the other thugs slack because they were good for business and, more importantly, it was the Cold War and we had the Reds looming. They were a real foe who challenged us around the world and in our own backyard, beating us to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, who later helped nurture Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez.

But we garnered most of them and befriended them because their thug-bully repression and corruption was a lesser evil than the Commie alternative. Now the boogeyman is radical Islam, and our angle is the same. Support the bums as long as they are our bums. So from Saudi Arabia to Libya to Yemen to Tunisia to Egypt and beyond, almost any Arab government, however repressive and unrepresentative, is preferred to one which would befriend our sworn enemy, radical Islam, like Iran did overthrowing our pal the Shah in 1979 and replacing him with the ayatollahs.

In Latin America, the reputation of the United States has barely recovered from our not-so-long-ago era of open complicity and willful ignorance of the human rights abuses of our allies in the region, including routine torture and worse. Mubarak reminds me most of Anastasio Somoza, another former military man whose family ruled Nicaragua with greedy venality beginning with his father in 1937, until he was run out in 1979.

Somoza came to mind Wednesday, as I watched the newsreels out of chaotic Cairo showing roving mobs of pro-Mubarak demonstrators threatening and roughing up high-profile journalists like CBS’ Katie Couric, CNN’s Anderson Cooper and ABC’s Christiane Amanpour. Fox News reporter Greg Palkot and Producer Olaf Wiig were hospitalized after being severely beaten while reporting on the protest. They have since been released from the hospital.

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If the intent is to scare them and other Western journalists away and thereby stop coverage of the mostly anti-government, anti-Mubarak demonstrators, then the thugs are misguided. The opposite is happening. It always does when reporters are attacked. The beheading in Pakistan of Daniel Pearl re-energized our fight against al-Queda in South Asia.

Somoza’s Danny Pearl was a colleague of mine at ABC News named Bill Stewart, who was executed in 1979 at point blank range in Nicaragua by one of Somoza’s National Guardsmen. Hard-pressed by the leftist Sandinista rebellion, the wily Somoza was clinging to both power and the tacit support of the United States at the time.

When I interviewed him for ABC’s 20/20 in his office in the capital of Managua, he was a charming creep who dismissed both the growing military prowess of his enemies and any negative connotation attaching to his family’s ownership of most of the nation’s major businesses, including shipping and the national airline. Bragging of his closeness to the United States, exemplified by his sprawling mansion in Biscayne Bay, Florida, Somoza also laughed off allegations of multi-million dollar embezzlement of the aid money that had poured into his nation following a massive earthquake in 1972.

When I returned to New York following the Somoza interview, Bill Stewart was ABC’s man of the ground in Nicaragua; an experienced, even-handed, straight-shooting reporter who never spun any political agenda. One night in June 1979 at a check-point in the capital city of Managua, Stewart was ordered out of his vehicle, which was prominently marked PRENSA. He walked up to the soldiers holding his press credentials in one hand, a white flag in the other. When he got close, an officer pointed his weapon at Stewart, ordering him to his knees. Stewart was then thrown roughly to the ground and, after a few taunting terrible seconds, shot behind the ear; along with Juan Espinoza, his translator, who had been pleading Stewart’s case.

After the initial shock and outrage, the story might not have gained traction but for the fact the execution was caught on camera. Exemplifying the golden rule of brave foreign correspondents and their crews to roll on everything threatening, Stewart’s courageous cameraman Jack Clark captured the mugging and subsequent murder on tape. When it was shown in the States and around the world, Somoza’s support evaporated almost immediately. The same thing almost happened in Iran in 2009 when a lovely young lady named Neda Agha-Soltan was shot in the chest during a protest against Ahmadinejad’s faux election. The horror and anger at her globally televised death was the Iranian’s closest call and gravest challenge.

Ahmadinejad survived, Somoza did not. Driven by the rage of my boss at the time, ABC’s Roone Arledge, the entire nation felt revulsion at the savage murder of Bill Stewart. Gone was the practical notion that Somoza had to be kept in office as a counter-weight to the Commies. Led by the public, the government had little choice but to cut off support to the dictator. Somoza lasted about a month after Bill’s murder before abdicating office and fleeing to Florida. Soon tossed out of the U.S. as persona non grata, he sought shelter in the embrace of a fellow dictator, Alfredo Stroessner of Paraguay, lasting only a year before being bushwhacked in 1980. Nobody mourned him.

Most of Latin America has shaken off the dreadful era when military strongman after military strongman ruled with sticky fingers and an iron-fist, suppressing dissent and enriching their cronies. The new era is a much sloppier hodge-podge of center, center-left, and hard left governments who at least share the distinction of actually having been elected. Not all of them are friends of ours, like Venezuela’s Chavez, but they were chosen by a majority of their own people. The Mid-East will follow. The age of the convenient dictator is ending. Mubarak must go. And his departure will be hastened every time one of his bully boys assaults a reporter.

Geraldo Rivera is a Senior Columnist with Fox News Latino. 

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