On Aging Revolutionaries and Irrelevant Liberation Theologies

Well, it had to be somebody. So it might as well have been Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega:

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega yesterday confirmed that he spoke with Libya’s Col. Muammar El Qaddafi and expressed his support to him and his government during the current political tensions in Libya. “I have been communicating by telephone with him. I’ve been talking to him, and logically he is fighting yet another great battle in the many battles Qaddafi has had to endure… and under these circumstances they have been looking for ways to engage in dialogue while defending the unity of the country in order to avoid its disintegration and prevent anarchy,” said President Ortega. “I relayed the solidarity of the Nicaraguan people to him and the Libyan people, the solidarity of Nicaraguan Sandinistas to him and the Libyan people, and that we were confident that that problem can be resolved… that it is a difficult situation and, God willing, that that situation can be resolved and be overcome.” Mr. Ortega delivered his remarks at an event in Managua commemorating Nicaraguan revolutionary hero Augusto César Sandino.

Ortega and Qaddafiy are among the last two of a dying breed of 1970s revolutionaries. Qaddafiy hasn’t aged well, looking (and sounding) more like a mentally ill homeless man in need of a decent meal, a quiet place to sleep and a refilled bottle of thorazine (as opposed to the crack cocaine he self-medicates with) than the leader of an actual nation-state. Time has not been kind to Qaddafiy. It has been kind to Ortega. But maybe that’s because he wasn’t allowed to be Chairman of the Central Committee/Leader of the Revolution/President-for-Life. No, unlike Qaddafiy, Ortega had to take a few years off and then win a real, live, free election. Maybe that’s kept him so youthful looking — being out of power for a while.

There aren’t many of Ortega’s and Qaddafiy’s pseudo-revolutionary swaggering ilk left around. Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe comes to mind, and he and Qaddafiy make quite a pair — brutal kelptocrats in need of two more for a proper round of no-holds-barred Texas Hold ‘Em. (“Loser of the hand has to take the revolver with one bullet, spin the chamber, put it to his head, and pull the trigger!” Oh, it must have made meetings of the Non-Aligned Movement so much fun!) Yasser Arafat is long dead, Omar Torrijos even longer dead. Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seiko are are deposed and dead and long disappeared. Julius Nyerere discredited and dead. There are more, I’m sure, swaggering leaders of third world “revolutions” (sic) who strutted onto the stage in the late 1960s and 1970s and promised bold new tomorrows full of liberation and progress, only to bury the people they governed under penury and oppression and bloodshed. And the occasional war.

(They couldn’t all be Nelson Mandela…)

So I’m glad that Qaddafiy, in what may be his last days or hours on earth, has one old “friend” he can find some consolation in. Because the rest are all gone. As he will soon be too. And eventually Daniel Ortega will be something Qaddafiy can never be — a retired, living ex-leader, drawing a pension and making speeches on the umpteenth anniversary of some Augusto Sandino or Sandinista-related activity. Perhaps even something of an elder statesman.

There was a time, and I want to say not so long ago, but 25 years is long ago, when Ortega was hot. Nicaragua was the Kingdom of God breaking in upon the world, and the Sandinista Revolution was the herald of that kingdom for a certain kind of liberation theologian who mistook the predictions of Marx with the prophetic promises of the Gospel, and the pseudo-revolutionaries of the 1960 and 1970s for prophets and saviors. I would ask what those liberation theologians would make of the leader of God’s revolution giving comfort to Qaddafiy as he is fighting “yet another great battle” — because it is ever so heroic to order planes to strafe unarmed people — but even condemned sinners deserve some comfort, and need confession and absolution. And Ortega, and his revolution, really are irrelevant now. Especially outside Nicaragua. I suspect most liberation theologians today wouldn’t know a Sandinista from a sacrament.

And no, they never were the same thing.