Orizio’s Talk of the Devil by John Kultgen

Kultgen, John (Univ. of Missouri – Columbia). “Harder the Fall?: A Review of Ricardo Orizio’s Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators. Trans. Avril Bardoni. NY: Walker & Co., 2003.”; CPP Newsletter Vol. 23, Nos. 1-2 (Spring-Fall 2003).

Interviews with seven deposed autocrats are the substance of this work. “I deliberately chose those [tyrants] who had fallen from power in disgrace,” writes author Ricardo Orizio, “because those who fall on their feet tend not to examine their own conscience.” In his introduction he asks, “What goes through the mind of someone who has had everything, lost everything and has time to start again? How does a one-time dictator, whom the history books describe as ruthless, immoral and power-crazed, grow old? What does he tell his children and grandchildren about himself? What does he tell himself?”

Unfortunately, the responses of the interviewees are sketchy and do not answer either these questions, or many others, that we would have liked Orizio to ask. The accidental nature of the sample he has put together makes it risky to draw lessons from it, and he avoids doing so. He simply provides the cases and lets the reader learn from them. In what follows, I will suggest, however, that a few generalizations might be drawn from this work. They would, however, need to be tested by reflection on further examples of modern autocratic rule before they could be accepted.

First, here’s a list of the dictators with whom Orizio spoke:

Idi Amin Dada, Uganda (I971-1979), was deposed by Tanzania after a failed invasion of that country. He was given refuge as a Muslim by Gaddafi in Libya and then granted permission to stay Saudi Arabia on an “extended pilgrimage.” He lived comfortably with his family in Jeddah on a stipend provided by the Saudi government until his death in August 2003. At the time of the interview he was still dreaming of a return to power — and this even though he is accused of killing up to 300,000 people during his reign and committing acts of personal barbarism such as presiding over the execution of enemies and eating their flesh.

Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Central African Republic (1966-1979), was first installed and then deposed by the French. He is accused of killing up to 100,000 of his subjects and, like Amin, engaging in acts of barbarism and cannibalism. He was prosecuted, convicted, imprisoned and condemned to death and subsequently pardoned by new government of Central Africa. He continued to live in the capitol city Bangui until his death in 1996. Although he was a Muslim, he claimed that the pope had anointed him as the Thirteenth Apostle during his reign. He evidently wore the white robes of a saint for his interview with Orizio.

Wojciech Jaruzelski, Poland (1981-1990), who, as premier of his country, declared martial law and attempted to suppress Solidarity, claiming that these measures were necessary to prevent Soviet intervention during collapse of the Eastern bloc. He was voted out of office in a free election. He lives in Warsaw on a government pension as former head of state. He has successfully defended himself against prosecution on a charge that he ordered troops to fire on demonstrators during a time of unrest.

Enver and Nexhmije Hoxha, Albania (1944-1984), ruled over a tightly regimented closed society for four decades until Enver retired due to ill health. He died in 1985. The pair ruthlessly suppressed opposition and kept Albania isolated from the world, including other communist countries. Nexhmije now lives modestly in Tirana, sternly guarding the memory of her husband and their reign together.

Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier, Haiti (1971-1986), was installed as President for Life at age 19 by his ailing father, Papa Doc. He was ill-suited to rule, even dictatorially, and during his time in power was dominated by his wife Michele and her associates. With the assistance of Tonton Macoute, they continued the Papa Doc’s practices of suppressing opposition and looting the country, and were eventually ousted by the mulatto elite of Haiti with help from US. Duvalier now lives comfortably in southern France on what is left of his fortune and has a new wife. He trusts that either exiled supporters, or voodoo gods, will return him to power.

Mengistu Haile-Mariam, Ethiopia (1974-1991) came to power in a military coup. He is rumored to have personally strangled Haile Selasse, and attempted, with the assistance of the USSR, to put an end to feudal tribalism and create a rigorous socialist state. Unwise wars with Eritrea and Somalia and failure to provide relief during a catastrophic drought led to death of hundreds of thousands. These were the result of over-extending his powers and of mismanagement, rather than of a genuine effort to suppress opposition, though he attempted that as well. He was deposed by another coup when USSR collapsed, and since he had not amassed a personal fortune, he now lives modestly in exile in Harare, Zimbabwe.

Slobadan Milosevic and Mira Markovic, Yugoslavia/Serbia, (1989-2000). Slobadan was a banker who was pushed into politics by his professor wife Mira, a dogmatic Marxist sociologist. It is not clear whether the couple was motivated more by ideology, power, or the desire to enrich themselves. He was deposed by the Serbs themselves after the NATO response to ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Kosovo and is being tried for crimes against humanity in The Hague. Mira continues to be politically active in Belgrade.

In each of the chapters of the work, Orizio first describes his efforts to arrange the interviews, then reviews some of the details of the dictator’s reign, summarizes the interviews themselves, and reports the testimony of others connected with the subjects. The portion of the narratives devoted to each of these varies. Large portions of the chapters on Idi Amin and Mira Markovic are devoted to the author’s difficulty in catching up with his subjects. In the case of Hoxha and Milosevic, Orizio had to settle for interviews with the wives rather than the front men, though the wives had been deeply involved in their husbands’ activities and were plausible surrogates.

The interviews themselves occupy only a few pages and most are not very informative, even when the subjects (e.g. Bokassa, Mengitsu) happened to be garrulous. Amin could not be brought to talk about his atrocities or even his grandiose gestures when in power, though he displayed a hearty and jovial personality and seemed well thought of by those in Saudi Arabia who knew him. Bokassa appeared to Orizio to be mentally ill, while Jaruzelski, Hoxha, and Markovic gave the impression of being austere and defensive, but still willing to debate ideology, at least on a superficial level. Mengitsu was evidently somewhat more loquacious, but still neither particularly revealing nor penitent in any way. Finally, Duvalier’s present wife, Veronique, seems to have dominated the conversation which Orizio had with him, and hence relatively little important information seems to have been revealed in this case as well.

As far as any sort of examination of conscience goes, it is hardly surprising that most of the deposed autocrats deny they did anything wrong. Not only do they not indulge much in self-examination or critical reflections about their pasts, but they claim that, if they used harsh measures, it was for the good of their country, and also that they lost power not because they abused it, but because they were betrayed by disloyal friends, overwhelmed by circumstances, or defeated by unscrupulous enemies. Several were still under the illusion that they would be returned to power by loyal supporters – and, among these, Amin and Duvalier expected that such a change in their circumstances was imminent.

Naturally, deposed despots are not happy with their present circumstances. But they consistently deny that the course they chose when they ruled was responsible for their condition. They only remember the joys of absolute power and want it back, and express no regrets, but only anger at the tides of fortune and the perfidy of their enemies. Plato’s contention that absolute tyrants are made miserable by their insatiable appetites and lack of reliable friends appears, at first read, to be confirmed by testimony of these individuals – until one reflects on the fact that they are thoroughly deluded about their current life circumstances, the causes of their being deposed, and their ability to regain a hold on the power they once had. They enjoyed power and the wealth it brings and now they miss it – once again, the matter seems entirely straightforward until the reader realizes the level of self-deception and delusion that colors their present states of mind. And, unfortunately, it is this question that Orizio has not addressed — either in the context of his interviews with these people, or independently of them. It is perhaps equally unsettling to think that many of the rest of us might feel and act in a similarly unreflective fashion given the opportunity – and Orizio also does not, unfortunately, extract from his conversations with these “devils” any relevant lessons on this, either.

The talents of self-deception, pretense and rationalization seem to be as strong in deposed dictators as they are in those still in power. In fact, the acts of self-deception and deceiving others, respectively, seem to be interrelated in a sort of vicious cycle leading to ever greater perversity. In other words, the practice of self-deception further enhances the skills these people already possess with regard to deceiving others. Once they had control of the instruments of propaganda, all of them enjoyed ardent support of privileged groups under their rule and at least the passive acquiescence, if not loyal support of the public. Only the European tyrants (in Poland, Albania, and Yugoslavia) were deposed by anything like a popular uprising — and this only after a systemic collapse had occurred elsewhere (in the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc). In Africa and Haiti, they were deposed either by neighbors (in Uganda, by Tanzania) or internal factions with the aid of outsiders (in Central Africa, by the French; in Haiti, by the Americans).

One thing which the author did which may be questionable was to lump those dictators driven by ideology, or at least those using it as a cover (Jaruzelski, Hoxha, Mengistu, and to a lesser degree Milosevic) together with brutal thugs interested only in power, wealth, self-indulgence, megalomania, and cruelty (Amin, Bokassa, Duvalier). It was particularly inappropriate to include Jaruzelski with the rest. He makes a good case that he did the best he could for his nation under impossible conditions, and claims that if he made mistakes, they were indeed mistakes, not cynical maneuvers for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. Mengistu might claim this for himself, as might Hoxha and Milosevic, much less persuasively; whereas, the most Amin, Bokassa and Duvalier could claim is that their countries are not significantly better off now than when they were under their rule.

The thought that these addicts of power were all deposed, some sooner, some later, provides little consolation for the horrors they inflicted. In fact, several of them were replaced by others like them and many parts of the world are still under the rule of their peers.

If there is a lesson to be draws from Orizio’s work, it is that merely deposing dictators does not institute democracy, law and order, or even a modicum of justice. In those countries where there is a tradition of citizen detachment from the political process, the instruments of power will simply be passed on to individuals who are equally diabolical – and they will continue to use them to suppress rivals by brutal means and ensure that they control a protection racket with which to exploit the populace.

Orizio’s work also reveals that it makes a great deal of difference whether those who acquire rule are hired guns (Amin, Bokassa, Mengitsu), heirs to power (Duvalier), or products of the bureaucracy and its ideology (Hoxha, to an extent Milosevic and Jaruzelski). In other words, their origins seem to affect both the way they rule and how they are deposed. But, once again, there is, unfortunately, not enough in the author’s accounts of these individuals to justify further comment on these important matters.

The work is an easy read and can be absorbed over a weekend. Its loose organization makes for variety and also adds an element of spontaneity and depth. The narratives give a sense of what it is like to be a journalist in pursuit of elusive quarries — and then to have to determine how exactly to deal with them once one has caught up with them.

The author is sometimes sketchy with dates, so one has to consult other sources to determine the exact chronology of the events he is describing. The various chapters of the book seem to be arranged in the sequence in which the interviews took place.

Talk of the Devil is anecdotal rather than analytical or philosophical. However, it provides some substance for reflection on the uses and abuses of power, and is therefore devoting some time to.

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