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Wave of Defections Reveals Marxist Failure in Ethiopia

December 24, 1986|SCOTT KRAFT | Times Staff Writer

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — Foreign Minister Goshu Wolde was the good face of Ethiopia. He had attended Yale University and he genuinely liked the West. But he was also an unfailing cheerleader for Marxism and for the generous Soviet gifts of weapons to his country.

"Goshu could sure give you the Marxist spiel," a European diplomat said recently. Speaking at the United Nations in October, Goshu paid what he called "deserved tribute" to the Soviets for their disarmament proposals, and he assailed U.S. policy in Nicaragua.

Then, less than three weeks later, Goshu Wolde defected.

"Our revolution," he wrote in a resignation letter from New York to Ethiopian head of state Mengistu Haile Mariam, has deteriorated into "absolute dictatorship and cruelty."

Goshu is the highest-ranking Ethiopian to have reached that conclusion in the last year. But he is not the only one.

The ambassador to the Nordic countries defected on Dec. 15, saying that the government had "trampled upon the dignity and pride of its people." Three months ago, it was the ambassador to France. Six months ago, it was the deputy director of the internal commission that coordinated the famine relief effort, and a year ago, it was the director of that agency.

When four members of the Ethiopian national soccer team defected last year in Swaziland, and a dozen players on the second string team failed to return home last summer from Cairo, the government announced that the team needed more practice and halted international competition, except with "friendly countries."

The rash of defections points up one of the serious problems facing Ethiopia's iron-fisted regime: the Communist ideology it has showered on this country over the last decade has failed to penetrate much below the tiny group of presumably committed Marxists that control the country.

"I don't think the Ethiopian will ever make a good socialist," a foreigner and longtime resident here said the other day. "They're nationalists and capitalists at heart."

But this is a country of contradictions. "It's awfully difficult to say where this country is headed and when," a Western envoy says.

Ethiopia's government continues to put up red hammer-and-sickle banners and proletarian slogans around the country, moving resolutely down the Communist path. It has a Workers' Party and plans to adopt a new constitution and proclaim the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, perhaps as early as next spring.

A Cultural Watershed

Nevertheless, the famine relief effort, which filled the country with thousands of Westerners for the first time in years, was a cultural watershed for many Ethiopians who still look west rather than east. The government slightly loosened its restrictions on contact with the West, allowing revolutionary television to show old American feature films on Saturday nights and more Ethiopians to apply for academic and cultural exchanges, Western embassies say.

An affection for Westerners, especially Americans, is still apparent in Ethiopia today. Not long ago in downtown Addis Ababa, a shopkeeper helping an American visitor waited until a government official was out of earshot and then, with a smile, whispered conspiratorially, "Yea, America!"

One of the most prized shopping bags in Addis Ababa is a white cotton sack bearing the words "Gift of the United States of America," a sturdy famine relief leftover now on sale in the markets.

Suspicious of West

Tens of thousands of Ethiopians who were in the United States at the time of the 1974 revolution simply never returned home. Many settled in Southern California, where the weather is similar to that in their homeland. Although many Ethiopian government officials have relatives in America, the hard-liners in the Politburo remain suspicious of the West.

Dawit Wolde Giorgis, who headed Ethiopia's relief and rehabilitation commission during the famine, defected last year after a Politburo meeting at which officials were preoccupied, he said, with the notion that "Western imperialism" was using the drought "to destabilize the Ethiopian revolution."

Dawit recently told The Times of London newspaper that the West's famine relief effort saved millions of lives but "it also saved Mengistu and his regime" from being overthrown.

Situation Still Desperate

Despite the political upheaval here since 1974, when the pro-American Emperor Haile Selassie was dethroned by junior army officers, the situation facing most of Ethiopia's 42 million people has not changed drastically. It was desperate before the revolution and it remains so today.

Most farmers, still called peasants as in the feudal days, live on plots of land so remote and inaccessible that some relief workers think they may not know of the revolution. For the remainder, the revolution has meant little more than a bookkeeping change: They pay the tax man rather than the landlord for the right to farm the land.

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