Three-fourths of the countries included in Freedom House's "Worst of the Worst" have been on the list for more than 25 years. They include North Korea, Somalia, Cuba, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, China, Libya, and Syria. The endurance of those regimes -- which perpetuate themselves through violence, fear, and the ruthless persecution of dissent -- illustrate, as Freedom House puts it, "the deep entrenchment of the antidemocratic power structures in these countries and the difficulty of influencing them in any meaningful way."
But the world's most atrocious dictatorships are sustained as well by the willingness of free nations to turn a blind eye to their crimes -- or, even worse, to make excuses for them. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was justly slammed in March when she labeled Syria's Assad a "reformer," but Washington's appeasement of Damascus has long been a bipartisan project. The same is true of the zeal with which Americans and other Westerners seek to "engage" other human-rights villains from Beijing to Riyadh. There may be good reasons to do business with China and Saudi Arabia, but there is never a good reason to deny the moral gulf that separates totalitarian regimes from their subjects -- and from us.
The New York Times reported last week on the thriving commerce between the United States and Equatorial Guinea, a tiny African despotism where torture and corruption are rife, and which Freedom House has ranked for decades among the "Worst of the Worst." US oil companies have billions of dollars invested there, a US military contractor provides maritime security and police training, and until March former Bill Clinton aide Lanny Davis even had a million-dollar-a-year deal to provide Teodoro Obiang Nguema, the country's vicious dictator, "with an image makeover."
Not surprisingly, US diplomats don't go out of their way to speak bluntly about Obiang's hateful rule. Instead (in diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks) they have praised his "mellowing, benign leadership" and advised Washington "to abandon a moral narrative" when dealing with Equatorial Guinea.
But refusing to tell the truth about the world's most evil regimes, as Mario Vargas Llosa argued upon receiving the Nobel Prize for literature last year, only prolongs their brutality. "Dictatorships must be fought without hesitation, with all the means at our disposal," he said. "It is regrettable that democratic governments, instead of setting an example by making common cause with those, like the Damas de Blanco in Cuba, the Venezuelan opposition, or Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, who courageously confront the dictatorships they endure, often show themselves complaisant not with them but with their tormenters.
"Those valiant people, struggling for their freedom, are also struggling for ours."