I've always enjoyed the popular party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” In this game participants introduce themselves with three unusual factoids – two true, one false - and the others guess which is which. Of all the stories I've told in this game, I probably raised the most eyebrows with this one: “I once kissed a president.” However, this true fact is not nearly as scandalous as it sounds. In Latin American countries, a kiss on the cheek is a standard greeting, even when meeting someone for the first time. So, when I met Daniel Ortega, the President of Nicaragua, that was how I greeted him.
Ortega is the controversial president of a marginalized nation. Known as one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Nicaragua's history includes an indigenous past, Spanish colonization, British colonization, the fight for independence, and then a new conflict with a new imperialist – the United States of America – which exerted its influence throughout the twentieth century, invaded multiple times, and supported the multi-dynasty dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. As a young man, Daniel Ortega was a leader of the left-wing Sandinista movement that led the Revolution of 1979, overthrowing Somoza and establishing a socialist government which was ultimately destroyed by the US-backed Contra War in the 1980's But since being re-elected as president a decade ago, Ortega is widely seen by many – including his former Sandinista comrades – as a big sell-out.
In some ways, my brief photo opportunity with Ortega was a case in point. In 2012, I returned to Nicaragua (I'd lived and worked there for a year from 2007 to 2008) with a delegation of about twenty activists who hoped to meet Ortega and ask his government to stop sending troops for training at a US military institution with an ugly history: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly known as the School of the Americas. Located at Ft. Benning, GA, this school was founded shortly after World War II and became a main vehicle for the United States government's assertion of military might in Latin America. Alas, it was SOA graduates who assassinated Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, executed the 2009 Honduran coup, committed countless acts of torture and violence, leading the SOA to be nicknamed the “School of Assassins.”
In 1990, an American priest named Roy Bourgeois established a movement to close the School; every year since then, activists have gathered each November at Ft. Benning for a protest that is considered the longest ongoing antiwar demonstration in the US. During the first decade of the twentieth century, as a progressive wave washed over many Latin American countries from Argentina to Ecuador, the organization tried a new tactic: meeting with presidents and defense ministers of various countries and urging them to withdraw their troops.
I had gotten involved in this movement out of a sense of calling – I was a practicing Catholic and student of Latin American literature and culture, so these issues were close to my heart. Much to my delight, I did get to meet Ortega, and he informed us he was withdrawing his troops from the SOA-WHINSEC. I left Nicaragua with a feeling of triumph and the warm glow that comes when you feel you've done something good.
However, that feeling was accompanied by some unease. During our two-week visit, we'd met with many government leaders as well as representatives from local NGOs. We learned that the country was seeking foreign investment by promoting factory farming and producing a scheme to dig a large canal (rivaling the Panama canal) through the country with little regard for the environmental and human costs. When we met with members of the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista – a group that had split off from the main Sandinista Party – they asserted that Ortega had betrayed the principles of his youth. Learning a year later that he'd resumed sending troops to the SOA, and then seeing him elected to a third presidential term in 2016 (while getting his country's National Assembly to pass legislation abolishing presidential term limits) I found it hard not to agree.
Ortega's transformation should not be viewed in isolation from that of neighboring countries. The progressive trend that swept through Latin America in this century's first decade offered hope. As someone with much disdain for US imperialism abroad, I hopped on the bandwagon of admirers of ALBA (The Bolivarian Alliance of Latin American Peoples), a Venezuela-led coalition that used oil profits to finance various social programs in member countries, including Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and others. I rejoiced in 2006 when Bolivia, a majority-indigenous country long-ruled by a white minority, elected its first indigenous leader, Evo Morales.
But today, this progressive dream – in which I saw Latin America offering the world an alternative model to the capitalist one that has dominated since 1990 at least – appears to be collapsing. Left-leaning leaders are either being impeached (like Dilma Rouseff in Brazil), discredited (like Cristina Fernández in Argentina) or else morphing into power-hungry despots (like Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela). Meanwhile, international corporations are having a field day throughout the continent, and the Amazon continues to be cut down as leaders of all ideological stripes embrace a Western corporate-style model of economic development.
Returning to Ortega, I cannot help but wonder what happened to him. His story is almost a cliché – a youthful, idealistic revolutionary gradually morphs into the very kind of expedient, power-hungry tyrant he once fought against. “Power corrupts,” George Orwell tells us. “And, absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If that is the case, then why do so many of us continue to pin our hopes on political leaders at all?
Our collective response to charismatic political leaders always confuses me. At times, we defend them with all our being, as long as they conform to our ideology. I am appalled at the zeal with which Trump's supporters (like my mother and aunt) continue to defend his every move, to excuse his crassness and lack of basic decency and that chaos of his administration (all features that they would be quick to condemn were a President Hilary Clinton now doing the exact same things). At the same time, I am appalled at the zeal with which some of my leftist friends defend such tyrants as Fidel Castro and even Joseph Stalin. Somehow, their ideology excuses their human rights abuses.
Perhaps both my Trump-voting family and Castro-loving friends are right when they say I need to look at these figures with more nuance. “Nothing is completely black and white,” they inform me. If this is true of our demons, then I suppose it is also true of our angels. While most people universally revere such figures as Mother Teresa of Calcutta or Martin Luther King, Jr., many are quick to point out their flaws – the appalling conditions in some of Mother Teresa's clinics, King's infidelity to his wife – and suggest that these defects are bad enough to undermine the good things that these people did. But ultimately, this makes no sense. The best and the worst of us are still, unfortunately, all too human, with all our human complexity. Hitler was a vegetarian who reportedly would weep at the sight of animals being tortured;
Gandhi was a racist and an anti-Semite.
Looking at our fascination with politicians and other celebrities – our need to love and hate them, admire and disparage them – I cannot help but wonder if this fixation is at least partially a result of our society's high level of secularism. In the polytheistic civilizations of the past, our human characteristics – positive as well as negative – were isolated and embodied in various archetypes; the human person was scene as a complex arrangement of disparate forces united by a single ¨spirit.¨ Ancient Greek religion is perhaps the most well-known example of this, with Athena as the goddess of wisdom, Ares the god of war, Aphrodite the goddess of sexual love, and so on. Telling stories about these gods and goddesses allowed people to explore and understand different aspects of human nature, perhaps to make sense of the moral ambiguity that surrounds us. The advent of monotheism, which initially appeared to reject archetypes in favor of a total, somewhat abstract, and (at least in the case of Judaism and Islam) inhuman God, did not cure us of the need for elevated humans that symbolize our fears, needs and desires. The Hebrew Bible is full of complex characters, like the conniving Jacob and adulterous Jacob, who nevertheless hold God's favor. Catholic Christianity, the saints came to meet our need for heroes. While Islam does not formally approve of any idols, reverence toward holy men and women abounds, particularly in smaller, more localized communities.
Meanwhile, in the secular West, where even the abstract God has been largely set aside, a need for archetypes remains. Perhaps this is why we are so quick to view Donald Trump as either a messiah or a demon; perhaps that is why we struggle to deal with the moral complexity of all public figures, forgetting that, at the end of the day, they are no more superhuman than any of us.
A few years ago, I saw the smash-hit Broadway musical Wicked, which, based on the Frank Baum novel and classic film version of The Wizard of Oz, offers a surprising back story for the two witches. Originally schoolmates, the green-faced Elphaba morphs into the Wicked Witch only after she learns that the Wizard (whom she had admired since childhood and dreamed of meeting) is a corrupt despot using drastically unjust means to maintain his power. By seeking to start a rebellion against him (which unfortunately turns out to be a rebellion of one, ultimately forcing her to flee) she is deemed wicked. Meanwhile, the Good Witch initially believes in Oz's goodness and, always one to ingratiate herself with those in authority, begins a career in the Wizard's government. Later, after realizing the truth of the Wizard's corruption, she eventually finds herself at the head of that government – and promises to live up to her reputation as Glinda the Good.
This musical reveals the complexity in all humans, a reality that does not fit into clear-cut moral categories. It is easy to become cynical when looking at the actions (or inaction) of political leaders. But, perhaps remembering that they cannot serve as accurate symbols of our fears and desires might make them easier to understand. Perhaps in this way, I can view Daniel Ortega not with disdain, but compassion; I can resolve to watch him closely, seeing both the good he does for his country (like promoting gender equality in the political system) and the bad (like limiting freedom of expression through increased control of the media). And, I can remember that ultimately, the fate of Nicaragua does not lie in the hands of Ortega and his circle, but with all Nicaraguans – just as the fate of the US ultimately will not be decided by Trump, but by all of us who call ourselves American.
While wealth, power and fame have generally been concentrated in the hands of the few, while Orwell's dictum about the effects of absolute power remain all too true, the rest of us are not simply at the mercy of those who appear to be in charge. Like the two witches in Wicked, we can resolve to fight the system whatever the cost, or else seek a way to compromise and work for change within it. Perhaps if we spent less energy focused on our celebrity politicians, their bombastic speeches and illogical decisions would have a lesser impact, and our own actions would have a greater one. And, by recognizing and accepting that all of us – famous or not – are complex, multi-faceted beings, neither angelic nor demonic, we could start to transcend the ideological chasms that continue to separate us from one another.
Jeannine M. Pitas is a writer, teacher and translator living in Dubuque, Iowa.