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Robert Mugabe, Fidel Castro, and Other Undead Dictators: Peter Godwin Discusses The Fear

​​A bloody uprising tears through a small, resource-rich country. A leader emerges, promising an end to years of elitist, white rule and the beginning of a new socialist utopia. But instead of relinquishing power, that leader becomes a strongman, an authoritarian... a dictator.

Cuba? No, this is the story of Zimbabwe under Robert Mugabe. But as journalist Peter Godwin describes in his book The Fear, it's also the tale of all dictators the world over.

"There are so many parallels [between dictators] that you can almost tell them as a fable," Godwin says. "I sometimes think that when Mugabe dies they'll send him to a taxidermist, pump him full of formaldehyde, put him back on the throne, and hire a ventriloquist. It'll be like the Wizard of Oz."

Sound familiar, Miami?

Godwin, who is white, was born and raised in Zimbabwe. He left to attend university in England, but returned to Africa as a correspondent for the Sunday Times and the BBC. For years, he watched as his country fell apart under Mugabe's violent rule.

"Zimbabwe was once the great hope of Africa," he says. "It was painful to see that country spiral down in this sort of death dive into an utterly collapsed state."

But things appeared to be changing in 2008, when Mugabe remarkably lost an election to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai. Godwin secretly raced back to Zimbabwe expecting to "dance on Mugabe's political grave."

Instead, the opposite happened. Mugabe and his supporters rigged the votes to force a run-off, then engaged in an all-out terror campaign against his own people. And instead of chronicling Zimbabwe's long-overdue liberation, Godwin could only document chidudu: "the fear."

​Godwin's brilliant book of reportage, which he will be discussing on Sunday during the Miami Book Fair International, will be a familiar story to Miamians, many of whom -- whether Cuban, Dominican, Nicaraguan, Haitian, Guatemalan, etc. -- fled dictatorship before arriving in South Florida.

In fact, it's that diversity -- and the exile's sense of political awareness -- that makes Miami special, according to Godwin. What's more, he says, is that sharing stories of dictatorship with one another can only help.

"It absolutely makes sense [to compare strongmen from around the world]," he says. "What's interesting in these stories... is that they are really universal." He cites the example of a recent book trip to Cartagena, Colombia.

"The place was packed," Godwin remembers. "They saw the Mugable fable through the lens of Chavez. Venezuela is of abiding interest to them and is crucial to Colombia. The more we spoke, the more parallels we all saw."

But for Cuban-Americans, not all of the parallels will be comforting.

"I was absolutely struck when I was in Havana of similarities in the whole way you create a dictatorship, especially ones that come out of a liberation movement," Godwin says. "The liberating party has this stranglehold on political legitimacy. Only it can have authenticity, and it tends to block out other voices. No matter how the ruling party atrophies and becomes sclerotic and atrophied, they are very difficult to dislodge without violence."

"In that sense, Mugabe is similar to Castro," Godwin adds. "When he looks in the mirror, he doesn't see a dictator looking back. He sees a revolutionary." Hence the insistence on (questionable) elections: "He yearns for the high ground."

Most worrying for Cuba, Godwin says, is that countries are loath to shed themselves of leaders or parties still credited with defeating colonial or imperialist rule. 

"If you look at southern African countries [that overcame apartheid and white colonial rule], none of them have lost power," he says. "That's how powerful the revolutionary legacy is."

The result in Cuba and Zimbabwe is that "people have been waiting for fucking ever" for their respective strongmen to kick the bucket. But Godwin says even playing the waiting game can be dangerous. "That can become unto itself a sort of panacea," he says. "It becomes something in lieu of real policy. You're just waiting for somebody to die."

If there is hope for Cuba or Zimbabwe in The Fear, it's that despite dictators, their peoples remain resilient.

"Sometimes you just want to lie down and weep," Godwin admits. "But the thing about Zimbabwe is that it can recover... If political normality returned, the country would flourish."

Peter Godwin will discuss his book, The Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe this Sunday at 12:30 p.m. in Miami Dade College's Building 2, 1st Floor, Room 2106.

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Michael E. Miller was a staff writer at Miami New Times for five years. His work for New Times won many national awards, including back-to-back-to-back Sigma Delta Chi medallions. He now covers local enterprise for the Washington Post.

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