Steve Chapman

On the other side of the globe, 85 percent of Venezuelans said they don't want their country to resemble communist Cuba. But President Hugo Chavez nationalized hundreds of businesses, closed down the last remaining opposition TV station and expelled a member of the European Parliament for calling him -- I am not making this up -- a "dictator."

Retired Cuban autocrat Fidel Castro, meanwhile, admitted the communist economic model "doesn't even work for us anymore." The number of political prisoners in Cuba fell to the lowest level since 1959.

Haiti suffered a horrendous earthquake, a cholera epidemic and a chaotic national election spoiled by violence and fraud. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega made it plain he will run for re-election in 2011 even though the Constitution forbids him from seeking another term.

In Africa, there are modest signs of progress. The number of coups on the continent fell by more than half in this decade compared to the one before, and 48 countries were scheduled to go to the polls this year.

Successful, credible votes took place this year in Tanzania and Somaliland. Guinea's military junta yielded to civilians after the country's first democratic election.

But many exercises in democracy were a sham. Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges, won after warning that if international poll watchers caused trouble, "we will cut off their fingers." The president of Ivory Coast lost a November election but has refused to step down, raising the specter of renewed civil war.

This year served mainly to vindicate the desires of tyrants and the fears of pessimists. To recapture the sense that the world is destined for universal democracy, you'd need a time machine.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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