BOSTON — Time to party: Robert Mugabe turns 88 today.
For years, Zimbabwe's leader has celebrated his birthday with the gusto only a megalomaniac could muster.
There are sumptuous feasts, huge birthday cakes, beauty pagents, concerts, and soccer tournaments — this year's is dubbed the "Bob 88 Super Cup."
There's even a "February 21 Movement" to organize the events and celebrate the aging dictator's birthdays.
All of this, of course, takes place in a country where large numbers of rural people rely on United Nations aid, and many go hungry. And where businesses are expected to kick in cash for Mugabe's bash.
It wasn't always this way. In fact, Mugabe's celebration is an import.
Mugabe learned to party from one of the 20th century's most brazen dictators: Kim Il Sung.
More than a quarter century ago, Mugabe visited North Korea. There, he learned how to build a cult around himself, and he got the idea for the February 21st Movement, and the lavish celebrations (see video below).
The annual birthday celebrations have become more grandiose — many in Zimbabwe call the ostentatious displays obscene — as Mugabe has grown older.
North Korea's mass rallies — where thousands held up placards to create giant portraits of Kim Il Sung — also impressed the Zimbabwean dictator.
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Soon rallies at Harare's National Stadium featured mass displays of synchronized marches by school children and giant portraits of Mugabe, all thanks to help from North Korean advisers.
And Mugabe returned from North Korea singing the praises of "Juche," the ideology of "self-reliance" announced by Kim Il Sung in 1972.
Mugabe's office prominently displayed and distributed Juche books, which were little more than strings of quotes like: "Man is the master of everything and decides everything" and the most important work of "revolution and construction is molding people ideologically as good Communists with absolute loyalty to the Party and Leader."
North Koreans also bolstered Mugabe's promotion of the heroic struggle against white colonialist Rhodesia.
North Koreans built "Heroes' Acre" a burial ground for Zimbabweans who fought against the Rhodesians. The park features a towering statue of a man and woman leading the struggle. But angry Zimbabweans protested that the giant sculpture resembles Koreans, not Africans. North Korean workmen altered the features to make the statues' faces look more Africa. Now it just looks like they've had facelifts. Bad ones.
The friendship between Mugabe and North Korea's leaders also has a bloody side to it.
The North Koreans' most damaging legacy in Zimbabwe is the training they gave to the Zimbabwe National Army's Fifth Brigade in the early 1980s.
Fresh from their instruction by the North Koreans, the Fifth Brigade went into Zimbabwe's Matabeleland to stamp out a small but violent band of anti-government rebels.
The Fifth Brigade's brutal campaign is widely blamed for the deaths of 20,000 civilians of Zimbabwe's ethnic Ndebele minority. The massacres took place in 1983 and 1984 and remain a lasting scar on Zimbabwe's national psyche.
So as you read about Mugabe's over-the-top birthday celebrations, remember the festivities are not only a sign of how out of touch are the leader and the sycophantic clique around him.
The bizarre birthday displays are also a reminder of the harsh and violent repression that Mugabe and his Zanu-PF party, with a little help from the North Koreans, have used to stay in power for so long.