The old Nicaraguan revolutionary, with his receding hairline and the goatee that he had finally let turn grey, spoke calmly into the camera as police swarmed toward his house, hidden behind a high wall in a leafy Managua neighborhood. Surveillance drones, he said, were watching overhead.
Decades earlier, Hugo Torres had been a revered guerrilla in the fight against right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza. In 1974, he’d taken a group of top officials hostage, then traded them for the release of imprisoned comrades. Among those prisoners was Daniel Ortega, a Marxist bank robber who would become Nicaragua’s elected president and later its authoritarian ruler.
And on this hot Sunday in mid-June, amid a weekslong clampdown to obliterate nearly every hint of opposition, Ortega had his old savior arrested.
“History is on our side,” Torres said in the video, which was quickly uploaded onto social media. “The end of the dictatorship is close.”
But history -- at least recent history -- is not on Torres’ side. In the last few months, the growing ranks of dictators have flexed their muscles, and freedom has been in retreat.
The list is grim: a draconian crackdown in Nicaragua, with laws that now let the government paint nearly any critic as a traitor; a military takeover in Myanmar, with bloody repression that the United Nations says has left more than 850 people dead since Feb. 1 and more than 4,800 arbitrarily detained; a tightening grip by Beijing on Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous enclave where activists and journalists have been harassed and imprisoned under a sweeping national security law.
In mid-June, Hong Kong’s last remaining pro-democracy newspaper shut down operations after police froze $2.3 million of its assets and arrested five top editors and executives, accusing them of foreign collusion.
“Why does it have to end up like this?” asked an Apple Daily graphic designer, Dickson Ng.
The backsliding of democracy, though, goes back far before 2021, with a long string of countries where democratic rule has been abandoned or dialed back, or where democratically elected leaders now make no secret of their authoritarianism.
2020 was “another year of decline for liberal democracy,” said a recent report from the V-Dem Institute, a Sweden-based research center. “The world is still more democratic than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, but the global decline in liberal democracy has been steep during the past 10 years.”
Countries like Sweden, Germany and the United States can seem like democratic outliers in a world increasingly dominated by authoritarian leaders.
“It’s an open question if we as a democratic grouping can push back against the Russias or the Chinas of the world and `win’ the 21st century,” said Torrey Taussig, a scholar of authoritarianism and great power politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. “Can the democracies rally to push back against this authoritarian tide that we’ve seen resurgent?”
It wasn’t supposed to be like this.
The late 20th and early 21st centuries saw country after country transition to democratic rule. The Soviet Union collapsed amid Mikhail Gorbachev’s attempts at political and economic reform. Eastern European nations that had long been controlled by Moscow became independent. In Latin America, decades of military dictatorships gave way to elected governments. A wave of democratization swept across Africa, from South Africa to Nigeria to Ghana.
“We had the largest number of democracies that ever existed in the world. It was unparalleled,” said Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, Columbia University. “It seemed that liberal democracy was the way of the future.”
But within just a few years the cracks began to show.
Maybe the world was just too optimistic. Democracy is messy.
“It takes a lot to make democracy work,” said Berman. “Getting rid of the dictators is not the end. It’s the beginning.”
As a result, many scholars aren’t too surprised when countries like Nicaragua or Myanmar stumble into authoritarianism. Both are very poor, with little history of democracy.
Hard times and turmoil are mother’s milk for authoritarians.
Russia’s experiment with democracy, for example, was short lived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. A plunging standard of living, a weak leader in Boris Yeltsin, thug businessmen and budding oligarchs fighting for control of state-owned businesses opened the way for Vladimir Putin.
Then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008, which began in the U.S. and rippled around the world. In the U.S., banks teetered on the verge of collapse and top officials worried about another Great Depression. In the European Union, America’s troubles helped lead to a debt crisis that sucked in Greece, Ireland and other nations that needed outside economic bailouts.
Those financial troubles, combined later with the political firestorms of the Trump administration and years of angry negotiations over Britain’s exit from the European Union, made liberal democracy look risky.
“The more attractive the U.S. and Europe looks, the better that is for the folks fighting for democracy,” said Berman. And the opposite is also true.
Frustration has grown, with a 2019 Pew Research Center survey of 34 countries showing a median of 64% of people believing elected officials don’t care about them.
Today, a man like Viktor Orban can look very attractive to many voters.
Orban, the nationalist Hungarian prime minister who returned to power in the wake of the financial crisis, feeding on an electorate that distrusted the traditional elite, spoke proudly of leading an “illiberal democracy.”
He now talks about Hungary’s “system of national cooperation,” a process that has hobbled the court system, re-written the constitution and given immense power to himself and his party. The country’s media is largely now a factory producing pro-Orban content.
Rival parties are regularly investigated by government auditors and sometimes fined to the brink of bankruptcy.
“We have replaced a shipwrecked liberal democracy with a 21st-century Christian democracy,” Orban proudly told lawmakers after a landslide 2018 election victory.
The world has a string of such leaders.
Some are authoritarians of varying degrees of power, from Putin in Russia to Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. Others are in the politically foggy wilderness between a one-party state and a solid democracy, like Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who runs the ruling party in Poland and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose father ruled the country for three decades and turned it into an affluent city-state.
The pandemic has sped up a democratic decline in Africa, scholars say, with elections postponed or opposition figures silenced from Ethiopia to Zimbabwe.
But in a world where democracy is often swimming against the political tide, scholars also see some good news. It just requires a longer view of history.
Eighty years ago, there were perhaps 12 fully functioning democracies. Today, the Democracy Index put out by the Economist Intelligence Unit says there are 23 full democracies, and nearly half the planet lives in some form of democracy.
Then there are the protesters, perhaps the most visible sign of a thirst for democratic rule.
Thousands of Russians flooded the streets earlier this year after opposition leader Alexei Navalny was imprisoned. Neighboring Belarus was shaken by months of protests sparked by the 2020 reelection of President Alexander Lukashenko, which were widely seen as rigged. Political protests are common in Poland and Hungary.
Such protests regularly fail. The demonstrations in Russia and Belarus, for instance, ended with heavy-handed crackdowns.
But political scientists say even suppressed protests can be important political sparks.
Plus, sometimes they succeed.
In Sudan, 2019 mass protests against the autocratic president, Omar al-Bashir, led to his ouster by the military. The country is now on a fragile path to democracy, ruled by a transitional government.
In a recent report, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House, saw signs of hope in the European Union’s sanctions against the Belarusian regime, exile Central Asian journalists and bloggers continuing their work from overseas, and the way a string of eastern European governments have slowed business ties with China, concerned about transparency and national security. Meanwhile, Hungary's Orban faced surprisingly united opposition.
Some scholars also see hope in the way President Joe Biden has reached out to America’s longtime European allies, reversing the approach of the Trump administration.
Biden’s recent trip to Europe, said Taussig, the Harvard Kennedy School scholar, was “an attempt to rally America’s democratic partners” against the authoritarian tide.
So maybe that old, arrested Nicaraguan revolutionary does have reason for optimism.
“These are the desperate blows of a regime that feels itself dying,” Torres said in the video before his arrest.
Maybe. As summer wore on, he remained in prison.