Monday, February 25, 2013

Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators

Ever since high school when I learned about totalitarian states, I have been fascinated by dictators and their personality cults. I focussed my attention on North Korea and Albania, and would clip newspaper articles whenever these two nations made the papers. The articles were never long, mostly a single paragraph in length, yet I cut them out and stored them into two large manilla envelopes entitled "Articles on North Korea" and "Articles on Albania". It was my way of documenting these extremely secretive societies with current information. In the pre-Internet age, and when books on these two countries were few and far between (not to mention, sorely out of date), current newspaper articles were all that I had.

When I read the preface to Talk of the Devil: Encounters with Seven Dictators by Riccardo Orizio (translated by Avril Bardoni), it was like going back in time. Orizio did the same thing. He clipped articles on countries such as Equatorial Guinea and Togo, tiny African nations that rarely made the news and whenever they did make the papers, it was always bad news. And in the case of Equatorial Guinea in the 1970's, it was really bad news.  

Talk of the Devil features interviews Orizio conducted with Idi Amin of Uganda, Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Republic (later the Central African Empire):

Wojciech Jaruzelski of Poland, Jean-Claude Duvalier of Haiti and Mengistu Haile-Mariam of Ethiopia. He also interviewed the widow of Enver Hoxha of Albania, Nexhmije Hoxha, and the wife of imprisoned Slobodan Milošević of Yugoslavia, Mira Marković. In choosing which dictators to interview, Orizio states:

"I encouraged them to voice their thoughts, these one-time tyrants. But I deliberately chose those who had fallen from power in disgrace, because those who fall on their feet tend not to examine their own conscience."

Enver Hoxha however does not belong in this category. He died after being in power for well over forty years, and the cult of Hoxha only grew following his death. It was only after the downfall of communism in Europe, last of all in Albania, that Hoxha and his legacy were reinterpreted through the eyes of revisionism. Thus only in the years following his death might he qualify as disgraced. That his iron-fisted "Black Widow" Nexhmije Hoxha was imprisoned by the new democratic regime also taints his legacy.

When given the opportunity to talk, some of the dictators, especially Amin and Bokassa ramble on as if they were still in power. Once a screwball dictator always a screwball dictator. Amin still seemed to want to invade South Africa. Duvalier can't seem to keep his story straight, for when he talks about his earliest memories in the national palace in Port-au-Prince, he claims:

"The very room allocated to me when I was seven years old and my family moved into the Palais on my father's election to the presidency."


"I was four and a half when I witnessed the first attempt to overthrow my father: I saw the armed policemen running into the palace and François Duvalier wearing a helmet to protect his head."

So when did he move into the palace? When he was seven years old or four and a half? And doesn't he mean he witnessed the first attempt to overthrow his grandfather? Duvalier seems insecure and uncomfortable during the interview and leaves most of the answers to his common-law wife, Véronique Roi:

"Véronique is the organising brain behind the refurbished image of Baby Doc...
"Sitting at the low table in the Métropole, removing papers from her bag and using the first-person plural, Véronique looks and sounds like a successful company executive. 'We're very busy at the moment. One meeting after another.' She smiles reassuringly. 'But don't worry, the president will be here any moment now.'"

No one Orizio speaks to regrets anything, although it is only Jaruzelski and the wives of Hoxha and Milošević who express this. Whatever their husbands, and often they themselves, did, it was all par for the course. Nexhmije Hoxha seems the most unrepentant and would do it all over again if she was back in power. Duvalier and the African dictators just seem too wacky to bother asking whether they regret anything.

After stating his fascination with Equatorial Guinea in the preface, I was surprised Orizio did not include an interview with anyone associated with president Francisco Macías Nguema, surely the worst African dictator in history. Orizio included Enver Hoxha and Slobodan Milošević in Talk of the Devil, yet had no access to interview either (because of death or imprisonment, respectively). Macías Nguema may have been executed, but why not talk to his relatives, including his own nephew, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, who overthrew him (and is still in power as president, since 1979)? I shudder at the possible answer to that question: Macías Nguema had all opponents murdered, including members of his own family. It is highly possible that Orizio simply couldn't find anyone in Equatorial Guinea to talk to.

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