Nicaragua's d'Escoto Embraces Gaddafi's Cause: But Why?
By Mike Rivage-Seul
Yesterday's Washington Post reported that "Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi has selected a fiery former Nicaraguan foreign minister and U.N. General Assembly president, the Rev. Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, to represent him at the United Nations." The choice, I believe, represents, a "teachable moment" as far as understanding today's Libya is concerned. I mean, by offering to represent Gaddafi, d'Escoto implicitly calls attention to the parallels between Nicaragua during the 1980s and today's Libya. The parallels shed light on the situation in Libya, and make clear the likely reasons for the Maryknoll priest's decision .
To begin with, like the Sandinistas, Gaddafi is an anti-colonialist nationalist. When he and other junior officers led a revolution against the West's client dictator in 1969, Gaddafi was rebelling against more than 50 years of western colonial control of Libya. That brutality reached its nadir under Mussolini's fascists who were not unlike Somozistas who had controlled Nicaragua for 50 years as well. Under Italian control, more than half a million people perished in Libya between 1911 and 1943. In other words, Gaddafi, like d'Escoto, has good reason for being anti-colonial and suspicious of the West.
Once in power, Gaddafi and his junta, like the Sandinistas, instituted a modernization campaign focused on improving the lot of lower and middle classes. They closed American and British military bases and incurred western wrath in doing so. They instituted education programs which has made Libya the most literate of all African countries. Health care, land reform, and jobs programs soon followed. Age-old tribal systems of social organization were replaced by People's Congresses and Popular Committees. The regime was extremely popular. In fact, till 1980 Libya was the Cuba of Africa. However, as we'll see, western intervention not unlike the Contra War was soon to turn Libya into the continent's Nicaragua.
Before getting to that however, it must be noted that like the Sandinista revolution with its ties to liberation theology, the Gaddafi revolution had its religious dimension as well. In Nicaragua, liberation theology evoked from the United States strong support for evangelical fundamentalism which was pro-American, moralistic and counter-revolutionary. In Libya, Gaddafi advocated what he termed "revolutionary Islam." It took seriously Islam's commitment to the poor, promoted women's rights, democracy, and advocated interracial marriages between white Arabs and black Africans. Revolutionary Islam stood in contrast to Wahhabi reactionary Islam which was supported (some say even created) by the western colonialists. According to Gerald A. Pereira, Wahhabism supported feudalism, female genital mutilation, separate systems of law for different classes, and the death penalty for Islamic apostates. It condemned interracial marriage. Gaddafi's opposition to all of that incurred Wahhabi fury, and even led to a fatwa calling for the Colonel's assassination.
Additionally, like the Sandinistas and their Cuban supporters, Gaddafi's anti-colonial sentiment had its international dimensions. Anti-colonialism led Gaddafi to work on creating a United States of Africa with one central government, a single currency, and one army. The West didn't like that either. Unification work had him courting alliances with all sorts of African leaders, even the most unsavory like Uganda's Idi Amin. It also led him to support national liberation movements wherever the opportunity presented itself, including those branded communist by the West, for instance in South Africa. As a result, till the "80s Gaddafi was regarded as the ally of oppressed people throughout the neo-colonial world.
The turning point came in the 1980s and the accession of the Reagan administration. It declared war on everything socialist -- in Libya, as well as in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, even though they were opposed by the Communist Party of Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were branded "Marxist-Leninist, Communist, totalitarian dictators." Accordingly, and beginning in 1981, the U.S. organized, trained and armed an internal opposition force, the Contras. In 1985 a sanctions regime was erected against the Nicaraguan revolution. The CIA sent agents to undermine the Sandinistas. Additionally, age-old divisions in the Nicaragua were exploited. These included fissures between the Pacific and Atlantic coasts colonized respectively by the Spanish and British. The animosity of Nicaragua's indigenous towards colonials of all stripes was fanned into flame. Together the sanctions, the Contras, and the "divide and rule" strategy had a single aim. It was the same goal that lurks behind every sanctions regime, be it in Nicaragua, Cuba, Bosnia, Iraq, Iran, or Libya -- viz. to make the local civilian population so miserable that it would rise up and overthrow the designated enemy routinely identified as the latest reincarnation of Adolf Hitler. It worked in Nicaragua; the Sandinistas were deposed in 1990. Today a similar strategy is working in Libya.
In Libya, the Reagan administration saw Gaddafi too as a socialist threat, despite the Colonel's strong anti-communism. Then in 1986, he was linked to a terrorist bombing attack on a discotheque in Berlin. The response was an attempt on Gaddafi's life. The U.S. bombed his family compound in Tripoli resulting in the death of 60 people including Gaddafi's adopted daughter. That attack and others moved Gaddafi in the direction of paranoid suspicion. In 1988 a terrorist bombing of an airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland was also pinned on the Gaddafi regime. Though to this day the matter remains unresolved, severe sanctions were nonetheless imposed on Libya. In addition, religious differences between Wahhabism and Revolutionary Islam were exploited by the CIA. And according to Pereira, Great Britain used Al Qaeda terrorists in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) against the Colonel just as the U.S. was using the Taliban terrorists in Afghanistan against the Soviets.
The end result of all of this was an undermining of Libya's revolution. The country's economy rapidly deteriorated; social programs were cut back. Gaddafi himself became increasingly mistrustful of everyone. He saw opposition and CIA influence on all sides. He clamped down. In doing so, he alienated his base; unions became his enemy. College students who had benefitted from Libya's generous educational programs turned on the Colonel. To protect himself, Gaddafi surrounded himself with yes men, and more and more turned to his sons as his most trusted advisors. In a last-ditch, desperate, and pragmatic effort to reverse the sanctions regime, Gaddafi embraced western neo-liberal policies. To get sanctions removed, he agreed to pay reparations to Lockerbie families. As a result, sanctions were indeed lifted. Libya was also taken off the list of nations supporting international terrorism. But neo-liberal privatization and cooperation with the International Monetary Fund further reduced social programs in healthcare and education. Unemployment rose to 25%. Corruption abounded. The Colonel was now out-of-touch with those he once championed. Libyans of all stripes turned against the former liberator now perceived as a dictator.
And that's where things stand now. An internal opposition has taken up arms. The West is bombing Libya. And Gaddafi has turned for help to Miguel d'Escoto, an old ally in a long struggle against western hegemony. D'Escoto understands intimately what Libya is going through. He recognizes the historical pattern: make conditions for ordinary people so intolerable that they'll overthrow the one the West identifies as a new Hitler. D'Escoto also understands that the West's aim is to replace Gaddafi with a client like Somoza who will administer oil-rich Libya on the West's behalf. Perhaps the priest's aim is to help Gaddafi step down gracefully while preventing that tragic transfer of power from Gaddafi to another Somoza. We'll see.
Mike Rivage-Seul is a former priest and emeritus professor of Peace and Social Justice at Berea College in Kentucky. A liberation theologian, Mike has been a frequent visitor to Nicaragua since 1985. His book, "The Emperor's God: Imperial Misunderstandings of Christianity" (IED Press, 2008) examines empire's manipulation of Christianity since the fourth century.