When I landed at the international airport in Lomé, Togo, in late February 1986, the first thing I did, even before clearing immigration, was turn on the tiny Sony shortwave radio that I carried with me everywhere to catch the start of a BBC world news bulletin.
I was a freelance reporter in Africa at the time, but the story I was so eager to receive an update about was from another continent, then still completely unfamiliar to me: Asia. There, in the Philippines, unfolding dramatically throughout that month, a popular movement built around gigantic street protests had begun to crumble the once unassailable authority of the longtime dictator and US client Ferdinand Marcos. While still on the tarmac, I learned that the opposition movement, which had adopted the slogan "People power," had triumphed, and that Marcos had flown off into exile.
I have been haunted by this memory since the election two weeks ago of Marcos's son, Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr., as president of the Philippines after a populist electoral campaign that scarcely reckoned with his father's dictatorial rule and the massive corruption that went with it. The Philippines' drift back into personalised and increasingly authoritarian rule began under its outgoing ruler, President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in 2016 and whose daughter Sara Duterte is the new vice president-elect. Events in the Philippines offer an ideal opportunity to think about the hard work of creating lasting democracy in the wake of long-standing authoritarian rule.
Something equally unforgettable occurred to me once I was inside the airport terminal in Lomé all those years ago. My bags were searched, and I was whisked into a curtained-off stall by customs agents who took a keen interest in what appeared to them to be a typewriter.
It marked me as a journalist, meaning a person who could be dangerous to the dictatorship in Togo, and they ordered me to produce a typed sheet using every key on the keyboard. This was on the theory that if I produced any subversive material during my stay, they would have my machine's fingerprints, so to speak, and know it was me. They had never seen a device like mine, though: a slim, lightweight Japanese-made word processor that printed dot matrix text on special thermal paper, with each machine's characters identical to every other.
This was the dawn—both for me and for the world—of an era of epochal change, but one whose contours were still far from obvious. Soon, no one would be carrying around typewriters, not even battery-operated ones like mine. The internet would soon arrive, making the old-fashioned threat of samizdat feared by the Togolese police obsolete and providing widespread access to unfathomable amounts of information that easily and instantly crossed borders.
Even before then, though, as in the Philippines, some of the most notorious dictatorships of the late Cold War era had begun to topple. That same February, three weeks before the fall of Marcos, the Duvalier dynasty in Haiti, in power since 1957, also collapsed in the face of a popular uprising, sending Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier into exile in France.
I would go on to cover Haiti for the New York Times during the turbulent years that followed. The dictatorship in tiny Togo would turn into another dynasty, which survives even now, under the rule of Faure Gnassingbé, the son of the man whose rule began in 1967. But after covering Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean and Central America for the Times, I returned to Africa for that newspaper and witnessed a wave of fragile democratisation in country after country that defied the common predictions of political scientists who theorised that political transitions such as these could only occur in countries with large middle-class populations.
For some, Haiti, the Philippines, and Togo may seem to have little to do with each other. But all three, along with so many of the other nations that interest me, were allies or clients of the West during the worst of the Cold War, when it scarcely seemed to matter to Washington (or, in Togo's case, Paris) how big a bastard a ruler was as long as he was, as the adage had it, "our bastard."
Consider Haiti. With the United States obsessed with preventing the transmission of Cuba's revolutionary model to other parts of the Americas, Washington condoned or at least ignored the Duvaliers' use of state terror and their massive self-enrichment at the expense of the Haitian people to keep the country in the US camp. The same logic applied in the Philippines (as elsewhere in Asia) and in Africa, most notoriously in Zaire. In these cases, America's concern with containing the spread of Chinese or Soviet influence overrode considerations of governance and democracy.
When the Marcoses fled in 1986, the most famous symbol of their corruption was the 2,700 pairs of shoes that first lady Imelda Marcos left behind in her closet. But they were a mere token of the predation that had just ended: The Presidential Commission on Good Government established in the Philippines in the wake of the uprising found that the deposed dictator had amassed between $5 billion and $10 billion, stolen from the Central Bank of the Philippines during his reign.
Years later, in Zaire, I was one of less than a handful of reporters who managed to bypass roadblocks and evade detection by the fierce loyalist soldiers who were guarding access to the airport to witness President Mobutu Sese Seko's airborne escape from Kinshasa after its capture by rebels in May 1997. The United States had helped Mobutu seize power after a brief and turbulent experiment in democracy in what was then the Democratic Republic of the Congo under Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, who was brutally murdered with Western support.
These events, too, were inspired by a fear of communist contagion in Africa. It is likely that during his 32 years in power Mobutu surpassed even the Marcoses in corruption, with estimates of his embezzlement in a mineral-rich country where most people live in crushing poverty ranging as high as $15 billion.
Few in the United States spend much time nowadays ruminating over their country's role in backing ruinous regimes like these across what was once fancied as the Third World. And even among those who recall, much is misremembered.
Take for example the fact that, however belatedly, Washington eventually decided the tide of history was moving decisively against its longtime clients and abruptly cut them loose. With the despots who toppled in 1986, Marcos and Duvalier, this happened under US President Ronald Reagan. With Mobutu, it was President Bill Clinton who finally cut the strings. How this happened—or, more specifically, how Washington handled the aftermath of these abandonments of longtime clients—fascinates me not because of career nostalgia, having reported in all of the countries discussed here, but because of what it says about the narrow and profoundly short-sighted use of US power.
In some ways, the history of the US role in the overthrow of Mobutu and its aftermath is even more revolting than its complicity in Lumumba's overthrow in 1960 and possibly in his murder the following year. Rather than promote a democratic transition in Zaire, the United States provided diplomatic backing for Rwanda as it organised a covert invasion of its vastly larger neighbour in 1996 to install another leader with clear dictatorial tendencies named Laurent-Désiré Kabila. This was done not to fight communism, by then already a negligible force in the world, but seemingly out of expedience to promote order on the cheap in a region of the world Washington cares little about.
When I questioned then-US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during her visit to Congo in 1997, she spoke of Kabila, who was already busily threatening his opponents and blocking investigations into atrocities committed during the invasion that brought him to power, as someone who had made a "strong start" toward the goals of "honest government and the rule of law." Few things could have been further from the truth.
Millions of people were killed during that war, including through acts the United Nations later likened to genocide. But Washington had no appetite for looking into such matters. It seemed to treat Africa as a distraction from problems more worthy of a superpower. For all of America's ritual invocations of democracy, six of the seven African countries Albright visited on that trip were ruled by authoritarians, some of whom Washington had explicitly begun promoting as a refreshing new generation for the continent.
The details of the transitions from longtime US-backed dictatorships in Central Africa, the Philippines, and Haiti are, of course, all different, but these histories share a common thread in opportunities lost through a short-sightedness about US responsibility and power. This is not to say that the United States can or should attempt to manage the domestic affairs of other nations, nor that it has the power or even right to impose democratic outcomes on other countries. But the ending of dictatorships that Washington had a strong hand in supporting should have given way to generative new forms of engagement that did much more to favor the emergence of stable democratic rule.
It is true that there is no widely accepted set of tools for achieving such an outcome, but that is only partly due to the inherent difficulty of the many thorny challenges that post-authoritarian transitions pose. It is equally due to the paltry and inconsistent efforts that Western countries have made toward these ends, particularly in the erstwhile Third World. Today, it is hard to witness events in a country like the Philippines, where Marcos's son has just been sweepingly elected as president, as a kind of revenge of this history—the natural result of the inadequate work done over the last generation to give more institutional depth to democracy and give it more resonance in the lives of citizens.
Blowback like this is not limited to the so-called global periphery, though. In many parts of the West, led by the United States, populist demagogues now commonly flout the underlying principles of democracy. It is time that we see this crisis of democracy as it spreads in more and more Western countries as being linked with outcomes in the so-called developing world, where decades of Western mouthing of the values of democracy overseas with no corresponding investment have finally come home to roost.
Howard W French is a columnist at Foreign Policy, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and a longtime foreign correspondent.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Foreign Policy, and is published by special syndication arrangement