Daniel Ortega Plots a Sequel to 'Revenge of the Nerds'
Nicaragua's answer to Michael Dukakis.

New York City Tribune, Wednesday, August 15, 1990

If the speaker is former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and the city is New York, the venue must be Harlem's Riverside Church, the Manhattan Mecca for the religious left.

And so it was Monday night, when Ortega made his first visit to the United States since being trounced by Violetta Chamorro in February's election. As he took the podium, hundreds of fans clapped in rhythm. Having attended a pre-season football game two nights earlier, I kept expecting the audience to start chanting "De-fense! De-fense!"

And defensive he was. He blamed the United States for his election defeat: "We hadn't invited the United States to get involved in our political system. . . . They just came in and started nosing around," he whined. "The opposition candidate in these elections . . . [was] President Bush. . . . President Bush beat us in the elections."

If we suppose this is true, Bush is a master politician. Ortega, after all, lost by an even wider margin than did the pathetic Michael Dukakis in 1988, Bush made no campaign stops in Nicaragua, and Willie Horton was not a factor in the Nicaraguan race.

Generally, both Ortega's speech and the reaction of the audience were quite tepid. About midway through the speech, I tried to amuse myself by thumbing idly through the Riverside Church's hymn book. I noticed several of the socially conscious spectators leaving before Ortega was through speaking.

But what can one expect? Ortega is not Fidel Castro, a charismatic though brutal ruler. Ortega is, well, a nerd, a Dukakis from south of the border. He looks more like an accountant than a dictator.

But perhaps this explains his appeal to the American left. I suspect most political activists, especially on the left, are nerds as well. Ineffectual in their personal and professional lives, they embrace grand utopian visions, so they can blame their failures on "the system" rather than their own inadequacies. Ortega is someone they can identify with--the Sandinista revolution was the Revenge of the Nerds.

Of course, since he lost power, Ortega's appeal to the American left is considerably diminished. So, to rally the faithful, he promised a sequel. He said he and his followers will "govern from below," suggesting that the Sandinistas would destabilize Nicaragua unless the new government respected their "achievements and conquests." (The Associated Press misleadingly reported that Ortega "repeatedly called for stability in his homeland.")

The ex-dictator blamed the new regime for accepting aid from the United States tied to Nicaragua's adoption of a "neo-liberal monetary policy." And Ortega, who through his 10 years in power never stopped blaming the Somoza regime for Nicaragua's woes, declared: "The most ironic part--now that we're no longer in government, they still want to blame us for all their problems."

When he wasn't pitying himself, he was uttering truisms. He announced his support for international law, declared that "invasions are bad," and said that "government leaders are there to serve the people." He opined that "there can be no peace or democracy without respect for human dignity," soaring to a level of abstraction at which concepts are meaningless and words are interchangeable.

Would he have gotten an argument if he'd declared, instead, that there can be no democracy or human dignity without respect for peace? For that matter, is there anyone who would seriously argue that there can be peace or democracy without respect for human dignity?

Monday's program also included a tape-recorded message from Brian Willson, who announced that his lawsuit against the federal government had been settled for $920,000. Willson, you will recall, is the protester who had his legs severed three years ago when he sat on the tracks in front of a munitions train at the Concord Naval Weapons Station in Northern California. Willson, who is part of a convoy delivering supplies to "progressive churches" in Nicaragua, said the settlement sends a "message to the government that it cannot use lethal force to interfere with a peaceful protest."

"Lethal force"? For a train to roll down its tracks is "lethal force"?

The biggest applause line of the evening came after Ortega's speech, when one of the event's organizers said: "I want to tell you how glad I am that so many members of the press are here--especially those who have been writing that the enthusiasm for the revolution is flagging."

The audience cheered wildly. Thus, I can report that, though enthusiasm for the revolution is flagging, enthusiasm for enthusiasm for the revolution is as strong as ever.

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