From Nicaragua to China, reckless autocrats betray the promises of revolution

Freedom and progress are hard won, and any gains made are all too often lost by a single, self-aggrandising individual

Do revolutions always end in betrayal? Sudanese citizens are but the latest group to see a democratic dawn blotted out by the forces of reaction. It’s an age-old story. Napoleon subverted the French Revolution, imposing an imperium where freedom briefly reigned. Stalin purloined the power of the proletariat to build a totalitarian dictatorship.

From southern Africa to Cuba to Myanmar, today’s ruling heirs to revolutionary political struggle dishonour their inheritance. European peoples who joyfully cast off the Soviet yoke watch liberties erode anew. The Arab spring swiftly wilted. The 1776 “American revolution” was arguably no revolution at all – more a white middle-class taxpayers’ revolt dressed up in fancy language.

Developments last week in countries as far apart as Nicaragua, Ethiopia and China are a warning of how radical change may be halted and reversed, how hard-won revolutionary gains are easily lost. In all three, as throughout history, a single, self-aggrandising individual squats at the heart of the problem.

Nicaragua has never been anything but poor. Yet the victorious Sandinista revolution of 1979 initially brought reform and hope of a better future. The defeat of the Somoza family dictatorship became the left’s biggest cause célèbre since the Spanish civil war. Volunteers flooded in. Fighting off US-backed Contra rebels, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega became a political superstar.

Yet Nicaraguans eventually tired of the war and tired of Ortega, too. In 1990 I watched as he toured the countryside atop a flatbed truck, trying to revive flagging belief in the revolution’s promise. To his surprise, Ortega lost the election that year. Defeat soured him. He vowed to regain the presidency – by any means.

He achieved his aim in 2007 and, abolishing term limits, has clung to power ever since. Abetted by his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, his regime has become “an insular dynastic tyranny that eerily resembles the one he fought decades ago”, wrote journalist and author Stephen Kinzer.

Political opponents and old comrades have been locked up, the press and judiciary silenced, and protesters killed and abused. Last week’s presidential election, won by a “landslide”, was widely condemned as a sham. But Ortega, 76, seems impervious to criticism. He’s expected to rule until his death, when he hopes Rosario or one of their sons will succeed him.

Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega with his wife and vice-president Rosario Murillo before last week’s election.
Nicaragua’s president Daniel Ortega with his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo, before last week’s election. Photograph: Cesar Perez/Nicaraguan Presidency/AFP/Getty Images

“He seemed a reasonably promising leader. Few could have imagined that he would degenerate into a hermit dictator,” Kinzer lamented. “How did this soft-spoken, introverted, even self-effacing revolutionary, who was a Boy Scout and once considered entering the priesthood, ultimately emerge as the most brutal ruler in his country’s history?”

That’s a cautionary conundrum Abiy Ahmed, Ethiopia’s embattled prime minister, would do well to ponder. Like Ortega, Abiy has morphed from global pin-up, winning the 2019 Nobel peace prize, to international outcast, after his disastrous invasion of northern Tigray province last year.

Abiy’s war of choice now threatens to engulf the capital, Addis Ababa, shatter Ethiopia’s fragile unity, and further destabilise the Horn of Africa. Like Ortega, his personal ambition and poor judgment have jeopardised the considerable gains made since the 1991 revolution that ended the Marxist Derg military regime.

Abiy declared a nationwide state of emergency last week, urging citizens to take up arms. African Union and UN ceasefire calls have been rejected. Human rights groups document ongoing war crimes allegedly committed by Abiy’s forces as well as by his foes and allies.

Meanwhile, his policy has brought famine back to Ethiopia – a horribly symbolic failure, given still vivid memories of the 1980s. The UN says 400,000 people in Tigray face a food emergency. Millions are displaced.

What kind of leadership is this? How may one reckless man, refusing to admit error and resign, retain the power to trash three decades of achievement and incinerate a nation’s future? It’s a question that should also be asked of China’s autocratic, over-reaching leader, Xi Jinping.

He spent last week securing internal Chinese Communist party (CCP) backing for an unprecedented third term as president, beginning next year. Xi is now the most powerful politician since Mao Zedong, to whose brutally authoritarian style he closely adheres. Official media sing his praises with sickly sycophancy. Critics keep mum out of fear of their lives. In Xi’s surveillance state, techno-fascism rules.

Yet what connection truly exists between Xi’s power politics and personality cult and the aspirations of the founding CCP revolutionaries who, meeting 100 years ago in Shanghai and inspired by Russia’s revolution four years previously, pledged to fight oppression? After decades of steady progress, what price might China’s people yet pay for Xi’s aggressive ambitions?

Facing a slowing economy, a growing debt crisis, a degrading environment, an ageing population and a widening array of external antagonists, Xi has but a few years to realise his “China dream” of global pre-eminence, geographical reunification, internal consolidation, strict political monogamy and stifling social conformity.

With one eye on history and another on the future, Xi gambles on glory. It could go either way. A China crash could lead to conflict or worldwide recession or both. Yet a China triumphant under Xi could be fatal, too, for global democracy, civil rights, free speech and international law. Hong Kong is the grim portent.

How do such rulers justify their betrayals of the people, the ideals and the struggles that brought them to where they are? Perhaps, like Ortega and Abiy, Xi believes only he can rule effectively, that he’s irreplaceable, unique. Perhaps they confuse confidence with hubris. They seek to secure fatuous “legacies”. They grow addicted to power.

In truth, there is no justification. Such traitors to reformation are a toxic blight. Like Mao’s one hundred blossoms, they seed across the modern world – not as flowers but as weeds.

• This article was amended on 15 November 2021 to amend a reference from “Mao’s one thousand blossoms” to “Mao’s one hundred blossoms”.

Contributor

Simon Tisdall

The GuardianTramp

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