As the world speculates about the future of post-Gaddafi Libya, it’s hard to believe any successive regime or leader could harm the country more than the man who for four decades unleashed both bloody social experiments on his own people and sponsored notorious terrorist attacks abroad. But we need only look to history to find that ousting the “bad guy” can have the unintended result of elevating to power a far worse monster. Below are five dark chapters in modern history where regime changes, instead of fostering hope and reform, sparked chaos in their home countries and even entire regions for many years to come.
5. Chile and Pinochet
When Gen. Augusto Pinochet came to power in Chile in 1973, the United States and Chileans embraced the change. After all, anything seemed to be better than Salvadore Allende’s failed economic policy experiments. The first democratically elected Marxist head of state in Latin America, Allende nationalized key industries. During his three-year reign, inflation skyrocketed and food shortages and widespread strikes became prevalent. The administration was also accused of corruption, illegally seizing farms and repressing the media. Conditions were favorable for an individual like Pinochet to rise to power under the guise of “saving Chile from Marxism.” Following a bloody coup — which was backed by the CIA — Pinochet instead began a nearly 16-year reign of terror. Thousands of people were killed or disappeared, and nearly 30,000 “dissidents,” including women and children, were tortured during his rule. The Pinochet era ended in 1990 with the election of Patricio Aylwin to the presidency.
4. Guatemalan Coup and Civil War
The United States played a key role in a 1954 coup that eventually resulted in more than four decades of turmoil and a civil war that cost as many as 200,000 lives. Elected president of Guatemala in 1950, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman was immediately viewed as a threat to American commercial interests. In an effort to distribute land ownership among the country’s peasantry, Guzman reformed property laws, which did not favor large landowners (most notably United Fruit Co., today known as Chiquita Brands International Inc.). In addition, Arbenz openly embraced the Communist Party — another big no-no for the U.S. In documents released by the CIA in the 1990s, the U.S.-backed coup to overthrow Arbenz included specific suggestions for how to assassinate the leader (with references to “accidents,” such as drugs and firearms, and sites for “falls,” such as elevator shafts and stairwells). Luckily for Arbenz, he didn’t die in the 1954 coup; he went into exile and died in Mexico nearly two decades later. His successor, Carlos Castillo Armas, was the “anti-Arbenz” and undid Arbenz’ popular policies, including seizing newly acquired land from peasants. The populace revolted, and a palace guard assassinated Armas three years later. Over the succeeding decades, a series of uprisings ensued at the hands of Guatemalan military personnel who utilized U.S. training and resources to crush their own people.
3. Liberia and Charles Taylor
Liberia could be a case study in “how not to create a nation.” The country named for “Liberty” began in the early 1800s as a refuge for freed slaves. As you can imagine, natives did not welcome these new residents. The animosity between natives and ex-slaves and their descendants led to a classist system; for 160 years, all Liberian leaders were from the U.S. or descendants of those first settlers. That changed in 1980, when native African Samuel Doe seized the presidency in vicious fashion — ousting William Tolbert Jr. and his fellow officials in a public, videotaped execution on a beach. Doe also targeted members of the Gio and Mano tribes for killings, torture, rape and other crimes, which naturally led to retaliation against Doe’s Krahn tribal members. Doe eventually lost his life quite publicly to a rebel leader, Prince Johnson, who nonchalantly consumed a beer as his men hacked off Doe’s ears. Johnson proclaimed himself as president following the coup, but that, too, didn’t last long as a former Doe lieutenant and warlord, Charles Taylor, consolidated rebel power and was elected (using voter intimidation) in an election sanctioned by the international community in 1997.
Doe and Johnson were nasty individuals, but Taylor turned out far worse during a six-year reign before being forced from office. In a trial that has lasted several years, Taylor has faced multiple charges of crimes against humanity, including the use of child soldiers, who were sometimes made to kill or cannibalize their own parents; the widespread mutilation of opposing factions; and the kidnapping of citizens into forced labor or, in the case of women and children, as sex slaves. The Truth & Reconciliation Commission for Liberia estimates that during Taylor’s reign, around 200,000 people were killed and another 1 million were forced to leave their home country. As with the other countries on this list, the United States had a vested interest in Liberia that has affected the country’s geopolitical situation.
2. Iran and the Ayatollah Khomeini
No doubt Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi (AKA the “Shah of Iran”) had an entitlement complex, proclaiming his ties to a long line of ancient Persian kings. In 1967, he crowned himself “Emperor” and his policies furthered the gap between the rich and poor. As a secular Muslim, the Shah also alienated Islamic fundamentalists. Latching on to dissatisfaction in Islamic circles, the Ayatollah called for the Shah to step down, and he established an Islamic Republic in 1979. Meanwhile, the Shah fled to Egypt and remained in exile until his death the following year. As an Islamic Republic, everything that was Iran prior to 1979 went out the metaphorical window. Thanks to the Ayatollah’s Cultural Revolution, books were burned or revised, people were forced out of their jobs and women were forced to be covered. Of course, it gets worse; those who resisted the Ayatollah’s rule were either imprisoned under horrific conditions or put to death. To expedite the killings, the Ayatollah established a technique in which more than 30 imprisoned individuals as young as 13 were hung en masse from nooses suspended from several cranes. This went on in 30-minute intervals all day. The Ayatollah’s estranged former deputy claimed some 30,000 people were executed in 1988. When the Ayatollah wasn’t wreaking havoc in his own country, he was orchestrating chaos around the world, including sponsorship of the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 in 1988. Of course, Iran remains a thorn in the side of the United States and the United Nations to this day.
1. Russia, Stalin and Communism
If you were to rewind to the Russia of 1917, it wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Starving individuals in the streets. Calls for the tsar’s head. Riots and strikes. But these dire circumstances paled in comparison to what was to come. A once great power, Russia collapsed under the weight of costly military campaigns, notably its war effort during World War I, as well as the tsar’s anti-Semitic pogroms and — as with the other tyrants on this list — his penchant for eliminating his political opponents. Eventually, Tsar Nicholas II and his family were killed in a hail of bullets by Bolsheviks from the Marxist party on July 17, 1918. Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin headed the Soviet state during its early years but eventually warned of the dangers of one of his disciples: Joseph Stalin. Despite his warnings, Stalin went on to assume leadership of the Communist Party following Lenin’s death in 1924. He abandoned Lenin’s policies and adopted a series of five-year plans to advance a state-run economy. During more than three decades in power, the paranoid tyrant managed to gut even his own party in purges which eliminated one-third of its 3 million members.
Stalin’s collectivization of farms had a far more devastating impact; it’s estimated that 10 million peasants died due to these policies — from either starvation as grain continued to be exported rather than shipped to famine areas or as victims of murder for resisting such policies. More than 5 million citizens awaited other fates, as those who committed a crime as seemingly insignificant as writing a poem thought to be against Stalin or the state were sent to the most desolate corners of the country to work in hard labor camps where many would never leave. This network of camps, known as the Gulag, existed well into the Gorbachev era. The final death toll from the reign of Stalin and communism in Russia is in the tens of millions.