Nora Astorga In Her Own Words
Nora Astorga died in Managua on February 14, a victim of cancer. Of middle-class extraction, a Somocista Liberal Party family and Christian upbringing, Nora had been a Sandinista since 1969. Her final task for the revolution was to represent Nicaragua in the United Nations for two years. She traveled a long road before coming to hold such a responsible position, a road marked by commitments, decisions and risks. Nora Astorga was 39 years old when she died.
In these years of revolution, she is the first such high-ranking Sandinista to die of natural causes. "We must fill the void she has left us with the power of her example," said President Daniel Ortega, moments before burying her. "Daughter, sister, and compañera," was how Father Miguel D'Escoto, Nicaragua's foreign minister, described "la Norita." All of Nicaragua bid her farewell with the honor of "Hero of the Nation and the Revolution."
In July 1987, the revolutionary government awarded Nora Astorga its highest tribute: the Order of Carlos Fonseca. By that time she, and many with her, knew that her illness had made her life a race against the calendar .
We decided then to interview her, taking advantage of a few weeks she spent in Nicaragua, the last she would live in her country with relative health. We asked for the interview, not needing to explain the timing, or what we would later do with it. "What has life been like for a Sandinista who received such recognition? What were the milestones on the path that brought you to this moment?" A few initial questions were enough, bringing up memories that flowed out of each other and formed their own pattern.
Nora Astorga reconstructed her autobiography without hurry, with a clear intent to be open, and with pleasure, laughing often and crying only when she recalled Gaspar García Laviana. Without saying so, it was clearly her desire to take stock, as one who is conscious of nearing the end of the story, that only the final period remains. There was not a single allusion to this, although it was implicit in the reason for the interview, which became Nora’s personal testimony, her final biographical interview. We print it in full.
We held it a few months in order to publish it now, when she is not going to read it. Now, when Nora Astorga is fertile seed planted for all time in Nicaragua’s revolutionary soil.
* * *
When I got involved with the FSLN, I had a romantic idea, almost a movieland idea, of what it was to be a guerrilla. I wanted to be some sort of “Tania the Guerrilla.” Now it makes me smile. I was a rebel without a cause. I opposed everything for the sake of opposition. I knew that wasn't good, but I couldn't see what was behind much of anything.
At 19 years of age I was absolutely self-sufficient. I think at that age we often believe we're on top of the world, and I was no exception. That's why I hold such affection for Oscar Turcios, who introduced me to the FSLN [Sandinista National Liberation Front]. He could see that, behind the facade of self-sufficiency and liberalism, I had other things inside me. It was those things that he helped me to develop.
You begin slowly, and a moment comes when you know you’re part of something larger. Then the road becomes simple. Many women see me—see us, women who have become more politically developed—as super-women because we've been able to do a bunch of things. But one must look back and see how it all began. Growing is a very slow, day-to-day matter. When one starts thinking of all one has done...* suddenly I'm doing it. It's always good to look back, to see where you've come from. For me it has always been very important.
* A note to our English language readers: In Spanish, three dots (…) are often used to indicate a pause to collect thoughts, or to leave an idea open. They serve as markers for those moments when the speaker invites the listener to reflect, or is herself reflecting. In the translation they help illustrate the tempo of Nora's words, and ask the English speaker to pause with her.
The nuns opened my eyesEver since I was a very small girl, my grandmother helped me a great deal. She taught me a set of principles that are still values for me today. She used to say, "Don't measure people by what they have, but by what they value." Or, "You must always try to see what’s inside a person and not settle for appearances." I lived with her for some time, and learned a lot from her.
I also learned from my father, who was a military man, a member of Somoza's National Guard. From him I learned in a negative sense. The continuous conflict with his ideas helped me to clarify my own, and that strengthened me.
I spent 11 years in a religious school. The sisters who educated me were of the order of St. Theresa of Avila, and for all the weaknesses of the religious women of that time, they had the enormous virtue of introducing us to a different reality from the one we lived in, the reality of our own social world. Because I had been a catechist in the marginal barrios of Managua since I was very small, and there had lived alongside a reality so different from my own, a whole complex of social uneasiness was growing within me. It was the nuns who first opened my eyes to a reality I had not known.
Like all little girls who undertake such tasks, I lived them with Christian generosity. From there, more and more political and social questions were born, and I began to ask about the world I lived in. And when I questioned it, I began to find resistance at home. My family told me that "everything’s fine" and there was no reason to want to make changes.
You begin by asking yourself questions, but very naively, and to give, but only as an individual. But a moment arrives when you say this isn’t enough; it’s not a question of having an untroubled conscience, you're not giving much when what you give is incapable of changing society.
I would come home from my work in the poor neighborhoods, from my "apostolate," as we used to call it, and my father would say accusingly, "You’re a communist!" "But what does that mean?" I would say to him; "I don't know what you're talking about." Throughout those years I was only a Catholic girl doing my duty as a good Christian, who took Holy Communion every day, went to mass every day, was a daughter of the Virgin Mary. And did social work.
Doing that social work was a consequence of what I believed and I’ve always tried to act in a way consistent with my beliefs. I had no kind of conception; forget about Marxism, I mean even of politics. Honestly, neither then nor later when I was already in the FSLN did I have any Marxist preparation. I studied Sandinismo and its values, I studied our own reality to start there in the search for answers, but I didn't study any Marxism. Later, I wanted to read, to understand better, but there was never the chance. My ignorance about Marxism is quite deep.
After 11 years in a Catholic school, I continued studying, now in a Catholic university. That was a strong influence in my life. What happened was that, when the first strike took place at the Central American University and the first takeover of a church, I went to my old school to seek support from the students and the nuns, but the latter told me, '"That’s not what we taught you."
“It’s the result of the education I received from you,” I said to them; “don't complain, I’ve had no other influence than yours.…” But they didn't agree with the conclusions I had reached, and they appealed to me to be a “good follower” of St. Theresa. What had happened was that they didn't draw any conclusions from what they were teaching me.
All that was moving me away from the school and the nuns, but I have always maintained a special fondness for them. And I now think I ought to make my peace with them, because I’m still grateful to them for the foundation they gave me. I owe my central values to them... and my central distortions as well!
The “apostolate” wasn’t enough for me. I had a lot of questions. In reality, I was moving toward the FSLN because of a sense of emptiness, because I lacked an understanding of life, an understanding I hadn’t found in the circles I was moving in. I did a lot of searching. I spent a great deal of time trying to find a path.
When I was 16, I started to see the possibility of change through the Conservative Party. And I began to get involved in the election campaign of Fernando Agüero. That caused me big problems at home, because all my family were Liberals: my grandfather a Liberal general, my father a Somocista Liberal military man. And I was saying I wanted to be a Conservative! I was breaking family tradition. Those clashes helped me begin to understand what I myself wanted.
The day of Agüero' s betrayal, when there was the demonstration in his favor that ended up with so many dead, I was quite close.* So many people I knew, so many compañeros beaten, imprisoned—I felt Agüero’s betrayal that day in my own flesh and told myself this solves nothing.
*January 22, 1967, was a turning point for many. Fernando Agüero, the extremely popular presidential candidate, backed by a coalition of opposition parties, called a mass street demonstration for that day. Wearing a bullet-proof vest, Agüero hid in a hotel as the National Guard gunned down hundreds of demonstrators of all ages in Managua's packed Roosevelt Avenue, later torturing scores of other hundreds taken prisoner. On February 5, to no one's surprise, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, of the Nationalist Liberal Party, “won” the elections. Agüero soon signed a pact with Somoza on behalf of his party, which Pedro Joaquín Chamorro baptized in the pages of La Prensa the “kupia kumi” pact—Miskitu for "two hearts beating as one." Agüero's betrayal of his people led the multitudes to finally see that the traditional opposition offered no alternative. Like Nora Astorga, many also began to see the FSLN as the only solution.
By then my father was enormously frightened for me and said that I was crazy and "totally irresponsible." He decided to send me to the United States because "that will make you more levelheaded." He booked my passage right after Agüero’s betrayal.
It was the first time I left Nicaragua. I was a provincial girl. And even after all these years, I don't think I have succeeded in losing that provincialism.
I retrieved Sandino from my familyI spent 1967 to 1969 in the United States. I decided to study medicine because I believed it was a profession where I could work for social change. It was madness. I was incapable of cutting open a little animal. I went through agony: if I can't cut open a little animal, how am I going to cut open a human being? I went to a hospital and I felt so awful—I couldn't stand the human pain. Finally, the tutor said to me one day, “Look, I get the impression that you just don't have many of the qualities you will need for this work. Look for another profession.” I was relieved.
What was most important in the United States was not so much my studies, but the experience of life that those two years gave me. I was in Washington when they killed Martin Luther King. I cannot forget the reaction of the Blacks. What impressed me most in the United States were the contrasts within that society and more than anything else the racism. I had never known such racism in Nicaragua. Things like that were deepening my distress. And a political consciousness was born in me. Consciousness that things were going wrong not only in my own country, but that on every side something very wrong was happening.
Although I had not known the FSLN directly before I went away, it was almost natural that I would begin to look to them as an option when I returned to Nicaragua. An option of struggle, an honorable option that had nothing to do with Somocismo, an option with a long history. I began to study Sandino.
What information I had about Sandino I had learned in my Somocista family. They always spoke to me of the gringo image of Sandino as a bandit, the man who wiped out the cooperatives in the north... This was the baggage I began with.
In order to understand the real Sandino, the first thing I read was El Pequeño Ejército Loco [the crazy little army] by Gregorio Selser. There I began to understand things a little. I think that book has been an important introduction for all of us.
It was Alfonso García, the compañero of a friend of mine from school, who approached me and won me over to the FSLN. It was he who began to work hard with me. Afterwards, at university, when I was studying law, it was Carlos Agüero. He talked with me a lot, but after about six months Carlos left to join the guerrilla forces.
When I joined the Front, they put me to work with Oscar Turcios, who was a member of the National Directorate and at that time worked between Managua and León. He was my first chief. And my first responsibility in the FSLN was to be messenger for Oscar, drive him places and find him safe houses. I worked with him from 1969 until 1973.
One of the first things I learned in the FSLN was that the tasks may be different, but all are important. Oscar taught me how decisive an ant's work can be, although one never sees it. My work was like that, and it allowed him to do a number of very important things for the struggle.
I scarcely knew Carlos Fonseca. I only saw him a few times. But in the Front his example, his values, were always with us. We didn't see him, but he was an enormous presence. For us, the lifelines, the examples, the political teachings, came from Carlos. He had left some writing, but he came to us through an oral tradition more than through written words. We all saw him as a leader.
After the first strike in Catedral, in 1972, I met Jorge and three months later we were married. That began a period when my participation in the FSLN declined. The marriage lasted four years. He helped me to grow and mature, but in 1976 we separated. It was no longer working.
Once again I began to challenge myself, with the same question I had asked when I was 19: am I giving what I ought to give and doing what I ought to do, or am I simply trying to soothe my conscience with small things where I risk little or where I risk absolutely nothing?
The break-up of a marriage implies a very important decision in one's life. I began to search. What do I want to do with my life? Am I going to go on being a company executive with a good position and a good income? Am I going to conform by settling down into a comfortable, peaceful life, with money, house, dog, everything pleasant, agreeable, intelligent...? I couldn’t do it. It wasn’t just. It wasn’t consistent with what I thought and how I had lived.
The restlessness returned. And this time it came from those who had been killed. It came from the example of the people with greater commitment. From Oscar, who had fallen in 1973. From Ricardo Morales, from Jose Benito Escobar, for whom I had also provided transport... I thought about those compañeros who were in the mountains and said to myself: no, it can't be that people as wonderful as they struggle and die while I stay here doing nothing, comfortable, with my future laid out before me.
In these concerns, my Christian influences weighed heavily. For me, it was all a question of life, of decency. Life cannot be only comfort, money. We weren’t born just to have material goods...
By that time I was estranged from the Church, or from what the Church then was. I have finally come to understand that my break was not a rupture with my faith in God, because that’s something very personal, something that grows out of your experience, your history, your life... My break with the Church was because of the attitudes of the majority of priests I knew. I did not then understand that those who represent the Church aren’t necessarily the Church itself. Unfortunately, they have an influence that can separate you from everything you believe, and you can end up believing that faith is a mere formula, that it's not genuine, that it's magical rites, that at its foundation there is nothing.
That was what happened to me. It was much later that I learned to separate the church from its representatives. And that I owe, above all, to Father Miguel D'Escoto, because he helped me restate my faith, he along with a group of priests who were committed. And I'm there still, asking myself questions about my faith in God...
No guilt about Operation "El Perro"The social group into which I was born, in which I lived and moved, seemed so superficial... It was the Front that gave meaning to my life, gave me a sense of belonging to something, of sharing values, objectives, ideals. That gives you great strength, because you’re not alone on the road, you always have a compañero at your side.
I returned to the FSLN. One event stands out as having been greatly important to me: the assassination of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. It was not his death itself, although I knew Pedro. What changed me was seeing people take the streets, and feeling that the dictatorship would not be overthrown that way. I was nearby that day in a car… It was one of those moments in which you suddenly see things clearly, which open your mind. Like a revelation, and suddenly you understand.
I finally understood that armed struggle was the only solution, that a rifle cannot be met with a flower, that we were in the streets but if that force didn't get organized we wouldn’t achieve much. For me, it was the moment of conviction: either I took up arms and made a total commitment or I wasn't going to change anything.
Later came the opportunity for operation “El Perro.” It was no more than a consequence of the personal decision I had already made, and that I went on making little by little. Because a big decision isn't taken all at once. It's the little decisions you go on making each day that make you consistent with what you believe. This means the big decisions take you a very long time, but when you make them, there's an enormous leap and you begin a new stage in your life.
The decision about operation “El Perro” was important. One of those that mark your entire life...
In order to talk about operation “El Perro,” which involved Pérez Vega, I have to go back a little.* At that time I was a lawyer and chief of personnel in one of the biggest construction companies in Nicaragua. That gave me very broad protective cover. I moved in the ministerial circles of government, and also with the National Guard. The company itself did almost no work with the Guard; what happened was private, if you like. This man, this general— because "El Perro" was a general in the National Guard--had a block of land near a real estate development of the company where I worked. He showed an interest in developing that land. From there a work relationship developed.
*Nora Astorga did not want go through the details of operation “El Perro,” which made her so famous and was the excuse for the US government to refuse to accept her as Nicaragua's Ambassador in 1985, objecting that she was a "terrorist." We reconstructed this part of the story from Nora's interview with Margaret Randall in 1980, which appears in the book Sandino's Daughters.
Naturally, the guy had a reputation for being a womanizer and, like a classic Guard member, he went after the women he fancied, for better or for worse, however and whenever it occurred to him. So it was important that I be extremely cautious. Every time I had to go to his office, I would behave with extreme care: I would be cordial, but with a terrible coldness. It was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever been called on to do.
When my divorce came, and he found out, like a classic Latin American macho, he said: "That woman is easy prey." And he began an aggressive romantic campaign. It was then that I suggested to the compañero I worked directly under: “Look, I think that man is in a state where we can get him to go to a place we choose, and get information from him.” He said to me, “Keep him interested, and we’ll tell you when we've analyzed the situation. Let's see what good we can get out of him.”
That's how the situation developed. I felt I was walking a very thin line. On the one hand I had to let him think I was inclined to give him what he wanted, and on the other to maintain a position where I didn't give anything until I was ready. Perhaps at some level my attitude helped to maintain his interest.
But the moment arrived when the situation became impossible: I had to give in or break it off. I couldn’t continue lengthening the wait. He said it was now “yes or no.” I remember I put it as a final excuse: “Look, you know I’m willing, but it's going to have to be my way. I’m not the sort of woman you’re used to dealing with. I’m an independent woman and I have the right to choose who, where, and when.” He quickly accepted my answer. And by that time my compañeros had the plan ready.
It was originally conceived as a kidnapping, to exchange him for political prisoners—many brave people from our organization were prisoners at that time. The plan was to make a date for him to come to my house. In the house, there would be three compañeros: one in a big closet that opened into the main room, another in the room opposite and another in a very small room. We had a signal. I was to disarm him, while he suspected nothing. I would then have him totally defenseless, and would hold him while I gave the countersign for my compañeros to move into action.
He arrived ready to simply get on with it. No little drinks or conversation first. None of the subtlety or delicacy men use from time to time, right? He just arrived and said, “Here I am. Let's do it.” “Okay, but won't you have a drink?” “No, no, no. What for?” “Ah, well, okay. If you don't want to, it's up to you.” And so it began. We went straight to the bedroom.
I disarmed him, and I took off all my outer clothes. I did everything as we had planned. The compañeros came into the room and immobilized him. He put up quite a fight. He was a man of about 45, maybe 50 years, but he was very strong. He began to shout to his guard, but the guard didn't hear him. It was when I went to the garage to get a car that they had to kill “El Perro.” He resisted too much and they had to execute him.
It was a difficult decision. I knew that after that I wouldn’t be able to return to my life, that I wouldn’t be able to return to my daughters—one was six years old, the other two—and that cost me most dearly. I knew I’d have to go underground. And no one then thought the triumph of the revolution was going to be any time soon. From the start of the plan, my compañeros made me see all the bad interpretations that could be heaped on me, what it would mean living underground, everything. No, it wasn’t a romantic decision.
At times I ask myself why I didn’t feel guilty after “El Perro,” how I could handle such a powerful experience without feeling guilty. I believe it's because of three things. The first is that he was supposed to be kidnapped, not killed. The second is that I wasn’t present at the moment he died. And the third is that he represented repression. In reality, he was Somoza's second man, the one who directed all the “clean-up” operations in the north, and was involved in massacres in Masaya. He really was a monster. I took his death as part of the liberation struggle and now I only remember it when journalists remind me of it!
From there, after three months, I was sent to the Southern Front, to the guerrilla forces. Military matters terrified me. Because of my father, I recoiled from it, and guns frightened me. I was in the guerrilla cell for eight months. It was a definitive period in my life.
With the guerrillas, I was a studentIn the guerrilla front, I was the political leader for my squad. And I had to learn to fight. Really, using arms terrified me and when I arrived I said to my compañero, "Look, I’m going to have to do everything, but don't ask me to grab a rifle because I can't."
I remember the first time I had a pistol in my hands. What do I do with this? My first shot... The same: you slowly grow used to it. And after the first battle you begin to have a very special relationship with your weapon because you know your life, and the lives of your compañeros, depends on it. And at that time, the life of Nicaragua also depended on it. So you rid yourself of your fears, step by step. I grew to like military life; after the triumph I would have been happy to stay in the army.
In the mornings we had military training, and in the afternoons political study circles. Basically we talked about the realities of Nicaraguan life, the conditions in our country, the Sandinista platform for struggle. We had a lot of information about what was happening in other parts of Nicaragua; we were both informing and forming ourselves. We talked a lot about the objectives of our struggle: education, the position of women, health, the Atlantic Coast, fundamental rights... Everything we wanted for the future.
I was more of a student than a teacher there, and those who taught me most were the peasants. What I knew in theory, they were living. It was an extraordinary experience to see how the individual experiences fused and the differences just disappeared. Share lack of food, rain, danger, the possibility of death with someone, and a very strong group feeling grows, a feeling of human solidarity that I’ve felt at no other time in my life.
At that time I began to share a shack with Gaspar Garcia Laviana. I only knew him starting then, as a military priest, a guerrilla priest. For me he was a compañero, a friend; I shall never forget my relationship with him. I was then pregnant with my third child. I still did everything, like everyone else, but they also took care of me. They did it without paternalism, but they took care of me. They looked for guavas for me, for example, and if they found fruit, they always gave it to me.
Gaspar also took good care of me, for the baby that was going to be born. I remember he said to me once: "It may be that I won't still be here when we triumph. But if you cry when I die, it will trouble me greatly. The most I will allow is that someday you bring me a bunch of small flowers, but they must be from the countryside. And no one must go around crying, since I will always be deeply involved in the struggle."
Gaspar’s death affected me so deeply that I couldn't cry. When they told me, I didn't react. Everyone who knew the enormous affection I felt for him asked why I didn't cry. After the triumph, when his parents came here to Nicaragua, I didn't go see them. I couldn't. Truly, I couldn't come to terms with “Martin’s” death.
It wasn't until two years later that I went with my son to Tola, where Gaspar had been the parish priest. I arrived, sat down in the church, and began to imagine him there, in his church, as priest—it's such a pretty church, all whitewashed. Afterwards, I went to see his grave, which was right there. And I cried. I don't know how many hours I wept. My son asked, “Why are you crying, mama?” I told him I was crying for a friend who had died two years ago and I had not been able to cry until then, and that when a feeling is very strong, it's sometimes hard to find a way to express it. You carry the pain with you and it leaves you only when you can face it. I know that Gaspar would not have liked my crying, but... It was also very unfair of him to leave me that order!
In the Southern Front I participated in several combats. First I was in a medical squad, then a gunner in the mortar squad, and then a simple combatant. I saw compañeros die, of course. The nearness of death teaches you a great deal.
It's not that I have a lot of military experience, and the war is now very different from what I lived through, but with a little training I would be quite willing to return to combat. If the gringos come, I would return to battle. Against them.
Trying Somocistas—A difficult jobLife is like a little box—one takes things out and puts things in; you take out the things that aren’t useful and put in those that are. Military life was a great help to me in figuring out which was which.
On July 19, 1979, I was in San José. My son had been born in April, and at the end of my pregnancy they had sent me off to Costa Rica to do propaganda work there. I flew back to Nicaragua.
From those early days of the revolution, the strongest feeling I remember is liberty. To walk freely through the streets and find a whole bunch of people I hadn’t seen in so long. We all lived a year or more in which neither food nor sleep had any place, they just weren't necessary. We had so many things inside, and so much to do that the boundaries of normal life were broken; nothing was like the past. It was a kind of dream, not because we lived outside reality, but because it felt like a dream that Somoza had been conquered. Life had different dimensions. I can't put it into words.
We didn't have anything. They gave you a job and you had to do everything from finding people to do it and a house to do it in, to inventing the mechanisms. From nothing. They’d say to you, “You’re in charge!” And you had to figure out how to do it. Everything was your responsibility and you had no experience. It was an extraordinary stage in the revolution. We did it from nothing!
My first job was to be vice minister of justice for a week. Then they put me in charge of finances for the recently-created army. I did that from July to October, when they made me the public prosecutor for the cases of Somocistas who had been taken prisoner.
At a human level, the work of public prosecutor was very hard. I had before me the dossiers of the National Guard members, and I saw their crimes very clearly, but on the other hand I also had before me the families of those Guard members. The lower level Guardsmen were generally very poor, and were the source of income for their family. The woman would arrive, with her swollen belly and her malnourished children, to ask me for clemency... At those moments I wished that the Guard member had no crimes so I could say, okay, here he is, take him home with you...
I remember one pregnant woman who planted herself at the entrance to my office very early each morning for a month. She said nothing to me. I already knew. Every day she was there, with her belly and her baby. And the case against her husband was very strong; he was clearly responsible for crimes... I looked for alternatives; I went to the barrio to try and get them to help her economically, but... Finally, I sent the case on to the tribunal. 1 charged him, and they found him guilty. It was hard, because you had to divide yourself between what you felt and what you had to do.
I did that for a year and two months. I was responsible for presenting the charges against the Somocistas but I also could sign the order to release them, without sending them before a judge, when we found some merit, some reason.
I then had the job of closing down those special tribunals. I worked through all that first stage of revolutionary justice. We heard about 6,000 cases, and set free some 1,200 or 1,400 of the Somocistas without sending them to a tribunal. Later there were other amnesties for sickness or for family reasons. The largest percentage of the Somocistas who were judged were sentenced to five years in prison; 11% were sentenced to between five and ten years, and some 12-15% received the maximum penalty of 30 years. Those we sentenced to between one and five years are now all out of jail.
I followed up on those I had accused, to see what happened to them when they were released. I made mistakes with some of those I gave liberty to, because there was later proof that they had been criminals. Others went the other way. But the majority of those who were condemned to prison and have now been released have gone home to their families, are working and settled back peacefully into their lives.
This revolution has not done what has been done in other cases: a bloodbath by the people on their own. For me, one of the most interesting and most wonderful things about those days was to see people who would arrive to hand over a Guard member to us and say, "Look, this is a criminal and he's out loose. And they'd hand him over to you. There was never a spirit of revenge among us, only a desire to make fair decisions. We had a group of compañeros who would go to where the Guard member had lived to get information, to investigate why he joined the Guard, how he had behaved, what he had done .. I’m not saying we were never unjust. It's difficult to be fair 100% of the time, but we made a tremendous effort.
The Nicaraguan people are not bitter . We're not a people who hold resentments for a long time. Above all, there’s love and generosity in this country. That doesn’t mean we aren't firm when we need to be, but there isn't a lot of bad feeling among us.
A witness to solidarityFrom the tribunals, I came here, to work for five years in the Foreign Ministry. In this job I felt the weight of the war, and above all the weight of my own ignorance. I had no idea about foreign policy, or about diplomacy; I knew nothing of the whole protocol thing or international relations. Nothing!
I began my apprenticeship. In reality, my whole life has been a constant apprenticeship. Here I learned from Miguel [D'Escoto], from Daniel [Ortega], from Victor Hugo [Tinoco], from all the other diplomats. And little by little I grew to enjoy it, because I realized that diplomacy is nothing more than constant negotiation. When I was a lawyer, what I liked most was the negotiating part of the job, making contracts.
The advantage of my work is that we have a principled foreign policy. That makes it very easy. If you have the principles and the interests of your country clearly in mind, it's enough to see you through. I have friends who have known me a long time and when they meet me they say, “I don't understand how you can be a diplomat.” And I can't explain it to myself either. A friend said to me a little while ago, “You’ve always said just what you thought, the way you wanted to say it. How can you be a diplomat?” The fact is that I’ve gone on saying what I believe. I've only learned “the form” in which to say it. The great advantage in representing Nicaragua is that this is a revolution with principles and it bases its foreign policy on its principles. Because of this, you never need to lie, to say one thing when you mean another, to dissemble. I believe there are few diplomats for whom this is possible.
I've also found it very interesting to have the chance to grow in my understanding of other areas of the world. The Contadora process appealed to me very strongly. I was involved in the birth of Contadora and in its first stage, and that was a great apprenticeship. Later, when I moved to the United Nations I continued learning. The UN is a negotiating forum per se and that interested me a great deal, as well as the opportunity to learn deeply about other realities. Especially the realities of the third world, because, independent of the differences we may have among ourselves, we’re all poor countries, we’ve all been exploited, we’ve all suffered intervention. Because of this there’s solidarity, there’s greater understanding.
I’m a witness to the solidarity Nicaragua has in all the international forums. There are countries that don't have anything specific to do with us, but who see us as a small country under attack and one that has principled policies; because of this they feel they should support us.
There’s a lot of talk about “Sandinista ideology.” For me, the principle of Sandinismo is nationalism, anti-imperialism. I also believe that we're extremely pragmatic. We don't want to copy anyone, we're trying to fully understand our own reality and find answers and solutions in tune with what we are. We don't want to do anything that’s alien to our historical roots. For many countries of the third world, we represent the possibility of finding a new way to overcome the problems of poverty. And our anti-imperialism is not anti-US. It’s the reaction of a small country that doesn’t believe in the concept of "limited" sovereignty" and aspires to exercise its full sovereignty, without having to suffer domination just because another country has the luck to be big, rich and powerful.
When I was sent as Ambassador to the United Nations, the hardest part was to think that I would have to live outside Nicaragua. I said to Miguel: “Look, I'm like those tall trees that have roots deep in the earth; if you pull them up and transplant them to a different environment you make them shrivel up.” I told him that would happen to me.
“No, you’ll see, you won't shrivel up,” was his reply. It’s very difficult to live outside Nicaragua, not only because of the work responsibilities I have but also because of the things one doesn't find there. Nicaragua’s a country in which you live constantly in contact with reality. In the United States that just isn't the case.
Hard to understand the United StatesIn the United Nations we've had so many tense moments that I find it hard to say which was the most extreme. My first public speech in the Security Council I found very difficult. I remember the first time in my life that I had to speak in public—in university at the age of 19—I trembled from head to foot. The fact is that speaking in public has never been one of my strengths. I've now learned how to do it, but I know I’ll never be a great orator. I've learned to convey what I want to convey, and to speak in a coherent form, to say things correctly, without slipping into the vernacular. Learning public speaking has taken its toll; to read a speech is easy but to improvise there in the United Nations, facing Vernon Walters... It's not easy. I always believe that we have the advantage because of our political, moral and legal base, but that doesn't make my fear disappear.
My personal relationship with Vernon Walters has been normal. I speak with him when we run into each other; I don't have big problems with him. I would say that at a purely personal level I haven’t lived with the Nicaragua-United States tension always upon me. The war of aggression hasn’t been translated into aggressiveness toward me by the US representatives. When we’re discussing the war in the UN forum, there's certainly tension, but not outside that chamber. I’ve moved freely within the United States, universities and Catholic organizations have invited me to speak, and I've never had serious problems.
I used to believe that I knew and understood the United States. But I've reached the conclusion that I neither know nor understand it. It's a very difficult nation to understand. I’m now studying to try and understand the dynamic of that society, which is so very different from our own. It would seem that the United States is a group of countries within one nation. The differences between one part and another are enormous, but I find that the US "character" in general is capable of great generosity, although with a tremendous level of disinformation. The entire society seems bent on keeping people in the dark about important things, or making certain they don't get interested in the reality of what happens outside their own little world. Because of that, I really admire those North Americans who struggle for the civil rights of minorities, for disarmament, for an end to nuclear arms, for Central America. The conditions for those struggles are not easy in the United States.
I know the United States very little, and there’s still a great deal for me to understand. Because of this, I’m studying the history of the US and I want to study its literature. I’m not now going to enter a university. But I have to read, to read a lot, so I can get a better image of the United States, a better understanding of who the people are and what’s going on there.
I see differences, for example, when I look at women. Our Nicaraguan society is machista, that's clear. A Nicaraguan woman—like a Nicaraguan man—is lively and intelligent and has the ability to give and take. But historically, society has been much harder on us; we’ve had less opportunity. It's a centuries-long history, a millennium of exploitation, during which we've carried an image of ourselves that isn't real.
But since the men in our society, for so many reasons, have been irresponsible in paternity, women have had responsibility for their children's lives. This means that the real Nicaraguan woman isn’t the one who wants to cry in the face of her tragedy, the apathetic woman. That was clear in the struggle against the dictator. I said to Margaret Randall when she was writing about us, “Don't write about those whom we've made famous. Write about the women who hid the contact bombs in their skirts, and fooled the guards with their cunning.” The majority of Nicaraguan women participated like this, and that’s how we made the revolution, with women.
There’s machismo on the FSLN, of course. It would be illogical for there not to be. But in the Front women are always given the opportunity to participate. Clearly machismo goes beyond that opportunity. It’s a problem of education, and we’ve eradicated it neither in the years of struggle nor in the years of our revolution. We women have to struggle against it as well as the men. Because at times we’re more machista than they are and we educate our daughters differently from the way we educate our sons. It’s a very complicated problem.
We’re on the road: men still haven't overcome the fear that their woman will have their own lives, and they're still not inclined to accept what I call a "woman individual," who has responsibilities outside the home. On the other hand, women are no longer inclined to stay inside the four walls of their homes. That has meant that since the revolution there have been a lot of divorces, a lot of problems between couples.
Our machismo is very deeply rooted. But I don't believe that we have a sexist society. And that's what there is in the United States: a sexist society, one that discriminates on the basis of sex.
It has been very hard for me to adapt myself to the task of being a diplomatic representative in the United States. One thing I've found very difficult is protocol. I once said to Comandante Ortega that my work wouldn't be so difficult if I could wear blue jeans at the United Nations. But I most definitely cannot! It seems such a silly thing, right? But having to dress every day in “coat and tie” is hard on me. Every time I get to Nicaragua, I put on my jeans and sit out in my patio. Diplomacy would be different if we could dress as we please, wouldn't it?
I have no right to be wearyAt times I've wanted to do some writing. Not necessarily my own experiences, but some of the ideas I have about a mountain of subjects. About the subject of women, for example. But there's never time. We're always in such a tense situation because of the war that the only thing you can do is to try to figure out how to keep going forward, and hope that later... But now there doesn't seem to be time for anything else.
But it's necessary to remember. We have an obligation to recall all the things we’ve done and what this revolution has meant. If you forget that this is a history of collective struggle, where so many have already died, you can't keep moving forward; nor can you face up to the difficulties. Some criticize us, saying the Sandinistas have a death cult. But the dead are part of us, are our living force, those who accompany us and help us. Aren't Carlos Fonseca and Germán Pomares and so many others always with us? I think Christians can understand this very well.
If I wrote, of course, I would have to do it in prose. I think I'm the only Nicaraguan who’s never written a poem in her life. It gives me an enormous complex! I have a feeling for art, for literature, poetry, painting, music. But I'm not a poet in any way. If I set myself to write a poem? I would have to do it about love, because all poets always start there.
Our people would inspire me. The Nicaraguan people are my constant source of inspiration. When I feel weary or I impatient, I turn my mind to the “Sandino’s cubs” [the term for the young soldiers] in the mountains, to the mothers who have children mobilized in the army, to so many compañeros who have died, to everything that everybody does here, to that vital force this revolution has that keeps it moving forward, resisting, and I end up saying to myself: I have no right to be weary.
And I’ve been privileged. I was born where I was born, in this unique country. I met people who helped me grow. I had the opportunity of participating in the struggle against the dictator and now in reconstruction and the creation of a new society. What more could I ask?
I believe that there exists today no other reality like ours, no other reality in which, even with such serious limitations, each of us feels we have an obligation to society and tries to fulfill it with imagination and a sense of humor. If we don't know how, we'll figure out how! The spirit that exists here of overcoming problems, of defending the little we have in the face of such difficult conditions, that spirit of struggle that our people share, that generosity, that brother- and sister-hood, has given me pride in being Nicaraguan.