The List

Democracy’s Backward March

The six countries where freedom is fading fastest.

The year 2012 reminded the world that the forward march of democracy is no sure thing. While the upheavals of the Arab Spring gave hope to oppressed peoples around the world, it also sent a clear message to the world's dictators that their time could be up. Fearing that they could join their fallen comrades, the world's autocrats cracked down on opposition groups and happily abandoned any pretense of democratic reform. As Joshua Kurlantzick writes in Foreign Policy's March/April issue, "democracy is going into reverse" -- largely because a growing global middle class "is choosing stability above all else." 

While countries such as Burma, Libya, and Tunisia have made enormous strides in establishing democratic freedoms and freely elected governments, others like Bahrain, Madagascar, and Ukraine have hurtled in the opposite direction. According to Freedom House, 34 percent of the world's population -- or 2.4 billion people -- spread across 47 countries live under political regimes "where basic political rights are absent and basic civil liberties are widely and systematically denied." Of those people, more than half live in China.

As part of its efforts to monitor freedom in the world, Freedom House also compiles data on the countries that have seen the greatest changes -- both positive and negative -- in the degree to which they grant democratic freedoms and rights. The list provides a portrait of the year's biggest backsliders in democratic development -- an ignominious ranking that Mali topped in 2012. 

Below are the six countries that regressed the most last year (in parentheses are the number of points each country lost on Freedom House's index, which runs from 0 to 100, with the latter denoting the freest countries). Taken as a whole, they highlight the fact that democratization is anything but inevitable.

Mali (-46) 

The year 2012 was one of extreme instability in Mali. A blossoming Tuareg rebellion in the country's north -- compounded by the presence of an aggressive Islamist insurgency led by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and an influx of fighters and arms from neighboring Libya -- precipitated an impromptu military coup in March. With the government in Bamako in flux and the military in chaos, Islamists instituted sharia law in large parts of the country, including measures that forced women into marriage, mandated strict dress codes for women, and meted out harsh punishment for the most minor of crimes -- stealing, for example, was punished with swift amputation.

Amid fears that AQIM would set up a terrorist safe haven in Mali, France launched a military intervention in January 2013 to drive out the Islamists. While successful in quickly banishing the militants from Mali's north, the operation has left many observers wondering whether the insurgents simply beat a hasty retreat only to return in full force once French forces withdraw. 

Incredibly, prior to the fall of the government, the emergence of an Islamist shadow state, and French intervention, Mali had been considered a model democracy in Africa. But in short order, the country has gone from model state to failed state to warden of the international community.

Mali's decline in Freedom House's index was one of the largest ever recorded by the organization. 

Madagascar (-23)

Riven by political conflict since a 2009 coup ousted then-President Marc Ravalomanana, Madagascar was plagued in 2012 by a return of violence, increased human trafficking, and harassment of journalists. Ever since President Andry Rajoelina, a former radio DJ and mayor of the country's capital, came to power, regional efforts to broker a solution to the crisis have met with little success, though recent promises by both Rajoelina and Ravalomanana, who is living in exile in South Africa, to not run in scheduled presidential elections in May have raised hopes that a resolution could be in sight.

Those expectations have been tempered by persistent turmoil in the country. In September, for instance, clashes caused by cattle thefts in the country's south resulted in 100 deaths. That same month, two radio journalists in the country were forced to take refuge in the South African embassy after repeated harassment by the army. Journalists from the radio station had previously been detained by the government for critical coverage of the country's leader, and the military stepped up reprisals against the reporters in response to coverage of a mutiny at an army base. Lawlessness has also contributed to a spike in human trafficking; One report issued by the U.S. mission to Madagascar alleges that since 2009 thousands of Malagasy women have been forced to take jobs as domestic workers in Lebanon, where they were subject to rape and torture.

The Gambia (-20)

This time around, it seemed The Gambia, a highly repressive country wedged into Senegal in West Africa, could not fall much further in Freedom House's ranking. But the country's mercurial leader, who insists on being called His Excellency President Professor Dr. Al-Haji Yahya Jammeh, found a way to yet again upend expectations. In September, Jammeh, who claims to be able to cure AIDS, announced that he would clear his country's death row by carrying out a rash of executions. In August, nine prisoners, including one woman, were executed by firing squad. According to Freedom House, the defendants lacked access to attorneys, and the government did not inform the prisoners' families of their execution. The country's death row includes former government officials accused of plotting to depose Jammeh, who gained power in a 1994 coup, and the decision to clear death row was widely interpreted as an attempt to intimidate the country's political opposition. 

Guinea-Bissau (-20)

As in Mali, a coup precipitated Guinea-Bissau's backsliding on democratic rights. Unlike Mali, however, Guinea-Bissau has never been held up as a model democracy. The country has seen so many coups since gaining independence from Portugal in 1974 that experts can't even provide an exact number for the number of times someone has tried to topple the government. And in April it happened again when the army seized power ahead of presidential elections that were likely to propel Prime Minister Carlos Gomes, who had threatened to reduce the size of the military, to power.

By November, Guinea-Bissau, which even before the coup was a popular transit point for South American drugs destined for Europe, had become a hot spot for drug trafficking, and experts now speculate that the coup may have been an attempt by top generals to take control of the highly lucrative drug trade. With a sham government and an army calling the shots behind the scenes, Guinea-Bissau is now, in the words of Freedom House, a country that "has increasingly come to resemble a military narcostate." 

Bahrain (-18)

The Persian Gulf kingdom's Arab Spring-inspired protest movement demanding serious political reform has now entered its third year, but the ruling Al Khalifa family shows no signs of ending a brutal crackdown on dissent. In 2012, political repression continued unabated, courts meted out stiff jail sentences to opposition figures, and the government continued to do battle with protesters in the streets. In August, a Bahraini court sentenced human rights activist Nabeel Rajab to three years in jail for attending what it deemed to be an illegal protest. That sentence came on top of a previous verdict that landed Rajab in jail for three months as punishment for posting comments critical of the government on Twitter. Other human rights activists, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja and Zainab al-Khawaja, have also been jailed. All three activists were named Foreign Policy Global Thinkers in 2012

The United States has avoided pressuring Bahrain's rulers to implement political reforms as it did with other regional leaders facing democratic uprisings, in part because it maintains a major naval base in the country, but also due to the 800-pound gorilla -- repressive Saudi Arabia -- next door.

Ukraine (-16) 

In an era of European politics when few, if any, opposition leaders are sent to jail on politically motivated charges, Ukraine has stubbornly insisted on upholding the continent's tradition. The crackdown began in late 2011 with the conviction of Yulia Tymoshenko on charges that she acted against the national interest in negotiating a gas deal with a price tag above the market rate. The trend continued in 2012 with the conviction of Tymoshenko's ally Valery Ivashchenko, a former acting defense minister, on corruption charges.

Political debate in Ukraine centers on whether the country should embrace Europe and turn West or work in closer cooperation with Russia in the East. That divide is mirrored by a linguistic split, with the eastern part of the country speaking Russian and the western part Ukrainian. It's no surprise, then, that when parliament -- amid fistfights and ugly brawling -- adopted a law that made Russian the country's official language, it was interpreted as a step toward entering Russian orbit. More importantly, the law also risks seriously disadvantaging non-Russian speakers in the country, an issue noted by Freedom House. Concerns over President Viktor Yanukovych's attempts to consolidate power and remove his opposition crystallized in October's parliamentary elections, which the European Union said were marred by irregularities and resulted in Yanukovych's party retaining control.


The List

Innocents Abroad

When celebrities do diplomacy.

Dennis Rodman's recent visit with Kim Jong Un set a pretty high bar for weirdness, even by North Korean standards. It's rare enough for a U.S. citizen to get a sit-down with a North Korean leader, let alone a flamboyant former NBA star known as "the Worm" accompanied by an entourage consisting of the Harlem Globetrotters and the staff of a Brooklyn hipster magazine.

But Rodman's just the latest in a long tradition of unlikely Americans making forays into diplomacy. Here are some of the most interesting:

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Jane Fonda in Vietnam

During a 1972 trip to Vietnam -- with the U.S. war still raging -- "Hanoi Jane," as she came to be known, was photographed sitting on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery. The Barbarella star and heir to one of Hollywood's legendary acting families was surrounded by opposition troops who serenaded her with a song about the day "Uncle Ho" declared the country's independence. She returned the favor by struggling through a rendition of "Day Ma Di," a song written by anti-war South Vietnamese students that she had memorized before the trip.

Fonda was harshly criticized for the photo, which she now says she will "regret to my dying day." She was surrounded by North Vietnamese photographers as soon as she got to the site, and now believes that they invited her as a propaganda stunt.

She may not have meant to pose for the photo, but her comments are harder to defend. Fonda was angered by the U.S. government painting what she thought was a distorted picture of how the North Vietnamese abused U.S. prisoners of war, and lashed out in one of her 10 Radio Hanoi broadcasts by calling those POWs "liars, hypocrites and pawns." She claims that the Nixon administration sought to charge her with treason, but could find no evidence.

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Shirley Temple in Ghana and Czechoslovakia

The former child star was a rare celebrity who became an official ambassador. Temple retired from films when she was just 22 years old and, 17 years later, jumped into the world of politics by running for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives as a California Republican. She lost the bid, but was appointed five years later by President Gerald R. Ford to be the U.S. ambassador to Ghana, which she called "the best job I ever had."

She served from December 1974 through mid-1976 and 13 years later was named U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia, where she watched the Velvet Revolution begin from Wenceslas Square in Prague.


Muhammad Ali in Iraq

Ali had been making international headlines for activities unrelated to boxing since 1966, when he said he would refuse to serve in the Vietnam War. An outspoken political activist, Ali converted to Islam in 1967, winning millions of fans in the Muslim world.

His global following came in handy in 1990, just before the first Iraq war, when Ali traveled to Iraq in an attempt to negotiate the release of 15 American hostages who had been seized by the Iraqi government as an insurance policy against the impending U.S. invasion.

At first, then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was unwilling to meet with Ali, so the three-time world heavyweight champion walked the streets of Baghdad followed by scores of fans. Eventually, Hussein took notice of those crowds and sat down with Ali, who walked out of the meeting with a deal to release the Americans.

Camera crews captured grateful hostages thanking the star after their release, though he demurely told them, "I don't need publicity for helping people. Then it's no longer sincere."

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Sean Penn in Venezuela

Sean Penn has supported the now ailing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez since he was first elected in 1999, earning him the description of "communist a--hole" from one of his co-stars and the ire of more than a few Americans.

Chávez may have called former president George W. Bush "the devil" and claimed that the United States gave him cancer, but that didn't stop Penn from recently describing him as "one of the most important forces we've had on this planet." The actor has said that anyone who calls Chávez a dictator should be thrown in jail, and declared that the only reason Americans view him as such is because they have been "hypnotized" by the mainstream media. Before the Venezuelan president was hospitalized again, Penn could be found fist-bumping his friend at a campaign rally last August.

The Hollywood icon has made waves elsewhere in Latin America as well. He recently jumped into the contentious debate between Britain and Argentina over the Falkland Islands, known locally as the Malvinas. He accused Britain of having a "ludicrous and archaic commitment to colonialist ideology" during a meeting with Argentinean President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, then promptly said that "true dialogue" was the only way the two countries could solve the problem.

But Penn's international work hasn't always involved stepping on someone's toes. He is also "ambassador at large" in Haiti, where he founded the J/P Haitian Relief Organization after the earthquake there in 2010. The charity does everything from remove rubble to supply Haitians with medical supplies.

AFP/Getty Images

Nicolas Cage in Uganda and Kenya

When Cage was appointed as a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the organization's Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa demonstrated a knowledge of the eccentric star's oeuvre, saying, "The Lord of War has become a messenger for peace, the Bad Lieutenant has turned into a good cop, and the inmate from Con Air has become a champion of prison reform."

The actor visited Uganda for eight days in November 2009 to highlight human-trafficking problems that help spread HIV, and learned about how child soldiers there are recruited. He also stopped in Kenya, where he visited a prison full of dancing Somali pirates.

Nearly a year later, at a United Nations conference against organized crime in Vienna, Austria, Cage said, "Through working with UNODC, I've come to understand who the world's real heroes are. I've seen the brave souls working on the frontlines, operating under the most difficult circumstances and with very limited resources."

Cage now knows a little more about limited resources. Around the same time he was in Uganda and Kenya, the world discovered he had bankrupted himself during a spending spree that included 15 homes and a fleet of Rolls Royces.

Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images Entertainment

Mike Tyson in China

In December 2010, Iron Mike visited Tianjin to promote the World Boxing Organization and the Tianjin International Boxing Exhibition -- only, he didn't really know much about what he was promoting, or why he was doing it. About a month prior to the visit, Tyson had already called himself a U.S. ambassador, but the trip had no real agenda. When a reporter asked him what the itinerary looked like, he said, "Yeah, tell me. I'm pretty interested."

He didn't seem to know much about the job parameters of his self-appointed position, either. "I didn't even know what an ambassador really was," he said at the time. "When I think of ambassadors I think of living off government money and jet-setting with girlfriends."

That comment wasn't the best start to his term as unofficial ambassador, but Tyson gave it another swing. "Didn't you guys have an altercation with the Japanese people at one time?" he asked Gary Yang, an executive with Tianjin International Sports Development. "Here's what you do: You go looking for a Chinese fighter who will beat the evil Japanese guy and get revenge. That will sell."

Yang hoped Tyson could bring even greater popularity to amateur boxing in China, where Yang says the former heavyweight title-holder is "above Muhammad Ali."

Joe Klamar/AFP/Getty Images