A cult of personality is often created through the means of propaganda, where a political leader is heavily glorified. Though the term itself is not inherently good or bad, it often has negative connotations as it is commonly used in dictatorships or totalitarian regimes. Here is a list of world leaders who have been accused of harboring a cult of personality.
10. Turkmenistan - Saparmurat Niyazov
The central Asian country of Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union until gaining its independence in 1991. Politician Saparmurat Niyazov began his term as First Secretary of the Turkmen Communist Party in 1985. Years later, in 1999, he was appointed president for life which garnered him a place in history as the leader of one of the world’s most notable personality cults. Under his totalitarian rule political opponents were routinely jailed or confined to psychiatric hospitals, the media was closely controlled by the state, and Niyazov enacted various
bizarre policies such as outlawing ballet and opera and banning young men from having long hair or beards. The leader also renamed months of the year in honor of his family members and had a revolving golden statue of himself constructed atop a building in the capital city of Ashgabat.
9. Iraq - Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein ruled his homeland of Iraq as its fifth president from July 1979 to April 2003. Hussein was a believer in socialism and Arab nationalism. Hussein’s cult of personality arises from his absolute rule of law of which the consequences of breaking such laws usually had fatal consequences. Hussein achieved in closely tying the military to the work of the government. Economically the Iraqi leader nationalized industries such as oil production and was given control over the national banks. Hussein’s regime was characterized by violence and repression. It’s been estimated that Hussein’s security force was responsible for the murder of approximately 250,000 people.The end of Saddam Hussein’s personality cult came with the invasion of American forces in 2003. After his capture, the ex-leader was jailed, put on trial, convicted of numerous crimes against humanity, and executed in 2006.
8. North Korea - Kim II-Sung and Kim Jong-il
Personality cults rely on the use of propaganda to create an idealized portrait of a leader or regime. Known as the Great Leader King Jong-il (the elder) imposed strict rules on every aspect of life in North Korea. Citizens were grouped into five strata in the "songbun" system. Placement was determined by the actions of one’s father’s ancestors. In 1967, Jong-il imposed his “Monolithic Ideological System” which forbid any form of contradiction. King Jong-il, Kim II- sung’s son, took over after his father’s death in 1994. Recently, the dictator has been in the international spotlight for his aggressive attempts to create an atomic weapon powerful enough to reach the U.S.
7. Haiti - Francois Duvalier
The Caribbean island of country of Haiti was once a Spanish and then French colony. Francois Duvalier rose to power in 1957 when he became the nation’s president. In keeping with the inner workings of personality cults, Duvalier, also known as “Papa Doc”, relied on the violent organization called "Tontons Macoutes" or "Bogeymen" to terrorize opponents and undesirable members of the public. Among the most outlandish claims made by the dictator was that he believed himself to be the physical embodiment of his country. He was also convinced that he had a special relationship with God and thought of himself as being immaterial as opposed to an ordinary human being. Duvalier went so far as adding a section to the Lord’s Prayer in his honor.
6. Russia - Joseph Stalin
Joseph Stalin is considered to be one of the most ruthless, powerful, and blood thirsty dictators in world history. The Russian leader combined his Marxist and Leninist beliefs into his own political theory known as "Stalinism". His domestic agenda reflected his desire to move the Soviet Union from being reliant on agriculture to a more industrialized nation. The dictator’s repressive policies were a key factor in the devastating famine of 1933-34. Stalin also systematically disposed of his enemies in operations such as the Great Purge in which countless Russians were imprisoned, exiled, or killed. Although at the beginning of World War II Stalin entered into a pact with the Nazi regime, Hitler invaded Russia in 1941 thus beginning a long and bloody conflict between the two powers.
5. Albania - Enver Hoxha
The authoritative regime of communist dictator Enver Hoxha lasted over forty years from 1944 until his death in 1985. Politically Hoxha subscribed to an anti-revisionist Marxism–Leninism ideology. The leader wielded his power by maintaining an image of charismatic authority over the country’s citizens. Hoxha ran the government without respect for the rule of law, democracy, and personal freedoms. Imprisonment, court trails merely for show, and torture were all routine practices. Any dissent was subject to severe punishment including being sentenced to a forced labor camp or execution. Hoxha’s policies included repressive control of the media, a clamp down on traveling abroad, and, in an effort to discourage the influence of Islam, beards were banned.
4. Equatorial Guinea - Francisco Macias Nguema
Equatorial Guinea is a small nation located on the western coast of Africa. Francisco Macias Nguema held the position as the country's first Prime Minister in 1968. His regime lasted until a political coup in 1979. Nguema became an orphan at a young age when his father, an alleged witch doctor, was murdered by Spanish authorities. Shortly afterward, he lost his mother to suicide. After Nguema embarked on a political career he served in a variety of positions including as mayor, territorial member of parliament, and deputy prime minister. Free elections were held in 1968 and Nguema then rose to the rank of head of state. From this point onward the leader moved to afford himself extensive political power over all branches of government. In 1972, after merging all of the country’s political parties into the United National Party, Nguema was given the distinction of President for Life and was afforded absolute power over the nation. Violence played an important role in Nguema’s regime and he is said to have ordered countless families killed and entire villages destroyed. A factor which might’ve influenced Nguema and help explain some of his strangest edicts was his steady consumption of cannabis and other various psychedelic substances.
3. Vietnam - Hồ Chí Minh
Hồ Chí Minh was a communist leader who began his career as the Chairman and First secretary of the Worker’s Party of Vietnam. As a young man, Hồ Chí Minh studied and worked in numerous foreign countries including France, the U.S., the U.K., the Soviet Union, and China. Various military campaigns and frequent violence marked the rule of Hồ Chí Minh and his efforts to secure Vietnam’s quest for independence. After the leader’s death in 1976, the Vietnamese city of Saigon was renamed Hồ Chí Minh City in his honor. The late leader also has a museum dedicated to his life and achievements and appears on the nation’s currency.
2. China - Mao Zedong
Chairman Mao Zedong played a major role in shaping China into the super power it has become today. The communist revolutionary/poet/political theorist/ military strategist served as Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China from 1949 until his death in 1976. Early on in his rule, he ordered the mass killing of his political enemies whom he referred to as "counterrevolutionaries". It’s estimated that during this 1949 purge, between two and six million people lost their lives. Zedong’s attempts to move China’s economy away from being an agriculturally based one toward the development of various industries contributed to a devastating country wide famine which cost some fifteen to fifty five million citizens their lives.
1. Venezeula - Hugo Chávez
Hugo Chávez ruled the South American nation of Venezeula as its President from 1999 to 2013. A former member of the nation’s military, Chavez went on to found the "Revolutionary Bolivarian Movement-200". After a failed coup he received a prison sentence but was released after two years. Chavez then went on to form the Fifth Republic Movement and in 1998 was elected for the first time as Venezuela’s president. Politically the leader implemented an array of anti-imperialist policies which were often at odds with U.S. interests. During his time in office, society in Venezeula was characterized by high rates of crime, prison overcrowding, corruption, a booming drug trade, and widespread crippling poverty.
About the Author
C.L. Illsley hods a BA degree in English and a BFA. in Film Studies. She has written for various publications & websites including Montreal Rampage where she currently contributes film reviews & entertainment related articles.
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