Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 336 | Julio 2009



Ten Photos that Shook the Eighties

We could have chosen 19, or 30 or 80. But definitely no less than 10. And here they are: 10 shots of 10 moments in the Sandinista revolution that went down in history and persist in our memory. It’s our homage to the revolution we participated in and contributed to.

José Luis Rocha

Could any other historic event have divided Nicaraguan public opinion as much as the Sandinista revolution? The ideological and biographical bifurcations—which it both caused and was determined by—remain incrusted in the skin, nerves and liver of those who experienced them with feverish enthusiasm or suffered them as tragic fate. There are no halftones for the Sandinista revolution—or perhaps any revolution. The most famous metaphors presented it either as the “dark night” or the “dawn that ceased being a temptation.” That 1979 watershed unleashed a wave of international migration and split the perceptions of what was happening into the two colors of the Sandinista flag: the red of the socialist project and the black of the dark night.

Some associate Sandinismo with corpses, long lines, rationing, political repression, academic mediocrity, financial anarchy, economic collapse, the “big crunch” of private enterprise, totalitarianism and servile submission to the Soviet bloc. Others associate it with deep-flowing rivers of milk and honey, heroic young people martyred for a just cause, equitable distribution, healthy but deficient state oversight, expansion of social services, worthy students given scholarships to socialist countries, highly skilled medical treatment in Germany and Cuba, people’s power, reduction of illiteracy and the struggle of a small but astute David against a raging, pitiless, imperial Goliath.

There’s still no analysis, but there
are scenes and possible reflection

Very few search out an analytical between the two visions, with their kaleidoscopic thousands of combinations and permutations. Will any such analysis ever be possible between the best of times and the worst of times, the period of wisdom and of foolishness, of faith and incredulity, of light and darkness, of the spring of hope and the winter of discontent? Have we put enough distance between then and now to coldly analyze and ponder long-term effects? Unequal interests tint the perspectives of many events with ambiguity. Many speak of the legacy of Sandinismo and make an effort to amass evidence of the persistent changes, but trip over discouraging elements such as the fact that the revolutionary government didn’t change so much as a comma of the Labor Code that Somoza pushed through in 1944. They also come up against the transformations of the nineties: Hurricane “Violeta” [Chamorro, President between 1990 and 1997] served the new and old suits with a big spatula under the procedural and ideological cover of privatization, market fundamentalism and a gamut of values that made the old sacred words “solidarity,” “self-determination,” “anti-imperialism” and “class struggle” sound hackneyed. And she did it with the blessing of many members of the Sandinista upper echelons who made sure they had their plate at the ready.

Rather than gather fragments of a legacy in need of clarification, I prefer to remind myself that history isn’t as linear and evolutionary as we would like, but is made up of infinite bits that combine the trivial with the sublime, as the Spanish poet José María Valverde was able to grasp from a Nicaraguan patron saint’s festival he participated in during the eighties in San Carlos:

Behind the tall dancing figures went ox-drawn
carts with signs; and one, “Better than nothing,”
gave me the metaphysic of the revolution.

With an appetizer of 10 snapshots instead of a heavy meal of analysis and fragments of a legacy, I offer a recounting of certain events and some reflections that aim to reproduce something of the period’s indefinable flavor, a bit of the authenticity of that revolution, without hiding the fact that Sandinista Nicaragua also included an increasingly anti-Sandinista Nicaragua. The chosen shots and reflections only show some events—made up of many forgotten details and only a few remembrances—that serve as milestones along the route we made and followed, but that in any event brought us here, to what and where we are now.

No photo expresses more synthetically the breaking of the barrier of historical time more than the destruction of the equestrian monument of himself erected by General Anastasio Somoza García in 1954. It was placed at the entrance to the National Stadium, which was named Somoza Stadium, and stood opposite the neighborhood called Colonia Somoza. Somoza together with Somoza on top of Somoza in front of Somoza opposite Somoza under Somoza before Somoza. Somoza and more Somoza.

Everything in Nicaragua had taken on some sort of Somoza identity in 43 years of family dynasty. And every day passersby shot the statue innocuous darts of looks dripping with hatred. But it seemed as unmovable as the regime it symbolized. Many had decided to coexist with both. And thus the country had become populated with “toads” and “mosquitoes.” The mosquitoes simulated a dissidence that played the regime’s game, injecting it with an insipid legitimacy, while the toads informed on genuine dissidents.

Everything was rebaptized

Sergio Ramírez described Somoza’s charger as enormous and spirited, with flaring nostrils and copious mane. The elegantly mounted dictator grasped the reins the way he grasped those of the country, always on a short leash, never allowing it to run free. But Ramirez also commented that when the people pulled down that equestrian statue on July 19, 1979, both rider and horse proved to be hollow.

Few guessed the fragility of either the statue or the regime. Perhaps Ernesto Cardenal had more than a sense of that when he prophesied its destruction in one of his best-aimed epigrams, “Somoza Unveils the Statue of Somoza in Somoza Stadium,” in which he skillfully feigns an unusually lucid speech by the dictator:

It’s not that I believe the people raised this statue to me
because I know better than you that I ordered it myself.
Nor that I have any illusions about passing with it into posterity because I know the people one day will tear it down.
Nor that I wish to erect to myself in life
the monument you’ll not erect to me in death:
I put up this statue just because I know you’ll hate it.

The 1972 earthquake did no more than break one of the horse’s legs, but the people disjointed both horse and rider that fine day, castrating the former with a blowtorch. They threw the tyrant out and began to crush the fragments of the Ancien Régime. And out of the primitive chaos, everything began to be renamed, as in the French revolution, which for better and for worse is the mother and teacher of modernity’s revolutions. All the places named after Somoza were exorcised by re-baptizing them in Sandino’s name. The guerrillas, who made up the new army that replaced the hated National Guard, were re-dubbed “compas,” the affectionate diminutive for compañeros, as people felt they could stand and chat with them with no apprehension. Among many other transformations, the stodgy official daily newspaper Novedades (or No-verdades—no truths—as we used to call it) was replaced by the FSLN’s dynamic Barricada (or Barri-KGB, as some would later call it). The old “chanchera” (pigsty), our name for the National Assembly, with its cohort of toad and mosquito legislators, was replaced by a Council of State, where for the first time in history grassroots organizations, which had been fiercely persecuted by Somoza, and other civil society organizations had a seat alongside political parties. The properties of the Somoza family and its allies were turned into the Area of People’s Property. The starch-crisp state protocols were replaced by a relaxed spontaneous camaraderie, the coat and tails of top functionaries by the olive drab uniform for comandantes and guayaberas for everybody else. And an autocratic government was replaced by a collegial one.

After visiting the new Nicaragua in revolution, José María Valverde wrote the following in profound admiration:

I had never seen the face of the poor
radiating with hope,
in struggles after the deaths;
I hadn’t heard them conquer a language
uncertainly, testing high vocabularies
of new entities, decisions, ideas…

Now everything is otherwise

Like the statue that was pulled down, “la magnífica,” the Somocista Liberal membership card that guaranteed benefits and provided safe conduct past the National Guard’s sharp fangs, was cut to smithereens. And with it went the fetid waters of bribes, nepotism, servility and calumnies in which the teeming toads and mosquitoes bred. Also swept away were Nicaragua’s corrupt version of justices of peace, the regime’s rural lieutenants, who executed their own improvised laws and were granted the right to do as they pleased.

Gone were the “ears,” the hidden living tape recorders of untiring espionage. Gone was the Infantry Basic Training School (EEBI), where the elite National Guard troops were trained under the direct command of “El Chigüín,” [The Kid], the third-generation Anastasio, future heir of the Somoza family farm known as Nicaragua. Gone were the nacatamales and rum popsicles used to buy votes, pay demonstrators and sedate the “pobretariat.” Gone were Nicolasa Sevilla and her repressive mercenary mobs at all opposition demonstrations, presented as spontaneous explosions of popular fury. At the dawn of the revolution well-known Nicaraguan poet José Coronel Urtecho wrote a poem he titled “No volverá el pasado,” the past will not return:

The past will not return
Now everything is otherwise
It is all another way
Not even what was is now as it was
And nothing of what is will be like it was
It is already different
It is another era
The statue cast a long shadow

Did all that past truly end? Pulling down a statue wasn’t really enough to liquidate it. We could infer that, like Orwell’s pig in Animal Farm, the Sandinista leaders now imitate and even try to exceed the artifices, greed, ill-will and malevolence of their old masters.

The return of paid demonstrators, of public officials whose jobs are threatened if they don’t show up at the plaza to applaud the leader at each pause in his soporific, stereotyped speeches; the recruitment of mobs, using unemployed youths from the poor barrios to act as a cheap repressive army and the wholesale distribution of FSLN membership cards (the new magnífica) are tending to divide the country again between shit-eaters and eaters of shit, according to the expressive political typology coined by poet Luis Rocha en 1971: “we who—for the moment—have no other alternative than to do it—and those who, having an alternative, do so with great gusto.”

There are facts to show us that the statue’s shadow indeed stretched very long. But there’s also always that photo: the line stretched taut by the tow truck, the expectant crowd with arms raised in jubilation, the monument’s base saturated with spray-painted “FSLN” and “Patria libre o morir,” the flowery shirts of young people who are now in their sixties, steed and rider tilted in the air a second before crashing to the ground. That epic moment is there forever to remind us of everything we wanted to break with.

Here I didn’t choose a glorifying photo. It isn’t that shot of the thousands of victorious volunteer brigade members entering Managua after five months struggling against ignorance, “converting darkness into light.” Or even of Managua’s plaza full to overflowing with brigadistas, people newly literate and their families celebrating the end of the Literacy Crusade. It’s the photo of an ample room with ill-fitting wood strip walls, an image caught by a couple of Italian photographers with the special force and atmosphere of black & white. The shot is taken from one end, showing a space that’s empty save an untidy pile of clothes, three notebooks, a helmet and two young men at a blackboard. One of them is in profile and the other, his back to the camera, has written Managua, Rosa and mamá.

The one writing is wearing rubber boots, having just come from work. He could be a cowboy or a field hand trying out his first letters. The other is watching. He’s dressed more like someone from the city, but his face is chiseled by the sun and lashed by the tall weeds. The rubber boots and wood floor on stilts suggest rain and muddy roads. Perhaps there are puddles and the pertinacious mosquitoes bred there feast on the two men during class. But it goes on, frozen on film so we can remember the cultural insurrection, with its barricades of notebooks and blackboards, as Carlos Mejía Godoy sang in the Popular Literacy Army (EPA) anthem, and with its massive encounter between countryside and city, between poor and comfortably well-off.

Profound metamorphoses

There’s abundant data on the heroic feat of the Literacy Crusade. The 1971 census showed 42% illiteracy, but in 1979 it was discovered to be 51%, meaning that 722,431 people didn’t know how to read or write or do even basic math operations. There were over 100,000 brigadistas in the EPA, 60,000 of whom went out into the mountains to teach, as the photograph shows. The National Literacy Crusade became an intensive five-month course: from March 23 to August 23, 1980, which was record time for reducing illiteracy from 51% to 12.9%. The path bristled with obstacles. There were 59 deaths, as well as threats and pressure to get the brigadistas to go back home. It was feared that everything would fall apart. The figures are no more than an opaque, distant reflection of the multi-hued, emotion-laden transformations. To speak of literacy is to speak of so many lives transformed by the power of the word, of so many lives “literaturized.” It’s to speak of the break with the rural-urban divide and of biographical trajectories that underwent unanticipated shifts. Some of the newly literate ended up doing graduate studies and embarking on very successful professional careers. The sense transmitted by the written word created profound metamorphoses, even in those who apparently didn’t change their life style. The collective transformation was greater than the sum of its individual changes. How much of the fact that the social distances aren’t as lacerating in Nicaragua as in its Central American neighbors do we owe to the Literacy Crusade?

Education is no longer a priority

For all that, the past again cast its long shadow. In the past two decades illiteracy expanded once more as education ceased being a public policy priority. Even this government, which claims to be “the second stage of the revolution,” invests no more than 3.7% of the gross domestic product in education, when UNESCO recommends 7%. There’s a deficit of 20,000 classrooms and 54% of the schools can’t provide their students potable water.

According to pedagogy expert Josefina Vijil, at least US$54 million would have to be invested in infrastructure just to build enough classrooms, not including desk chairs. Half of the secondary teachers are what is known in Nicaragua as “empirical,” which means they’ve never received any teacher training. What are the results of all this?

* There are first grade classrooms with children ranging from 6 to 12 years old.
* Nearly 40% of the overall student body is older than the normal age for the grade they are in.
* 21 of every 100 children drop out of first grade.
* Barely 35 of every 100 children have access to the first preschool level.
* According to official Education Ministry figures, 500,000 children aren’t enrolled in school.
* Only half of those who start elementary school actually finish it, either because they drop out or fail.
* There are only 17,000 technical education students in the entire country.

The Literacy Crusade won Nicaragua UNESCO’s Nadiezhda Krupskaya prize. Was it deserved? These two anonymous peasants in the photo assure us it was. They remain frozen in a dimension of Nicaragua that now seems utopian. They remain to remind us that yes, we could, and that the life of tens of thousands of Nicaraguans was forever transformed.

This shot shows two men and two women on a coffee plantation. Four Danes with baskets, members of the internationalist brigades that visited Nicaragua each year to learn about the revolution and help pick coffee. They came from Scandinavia’s cold lands to work more humbly than they had ever done in their lives. These weren’t the cheles (light-skinned foreigners) in fancy pick-up trucks that abound now; they had mud up to their knees and calluses on their hands. Leonardo Barreto caught the moment. Perhaps they’re engaged in an after-dinner conversation, having just hungrily devoured a plate of cooked red beans and a “long play” (the huge tortilla typical of haciendas).

Where are they all now? Are they directors of some international agency specializing in the environment? Or brainy academics authoring sophisticated disquisitions on rural development? Do they hold posts in the Danish government, trying to still prioritize funds to Nicaragua, a country so spoiled by international cooperation?

Multi-millions in solidarity, including from Bulgaria

“Solidarity is the tenderness of the people,” wrote Pablo Neruda. Nicaragua received a lot of tenderness in a variety of forms. It received cooperants from both the German Democratic and Federal Republics; divided Germany joined in its embrace of Nicaragua. Tiny Sweden donated a total of US$300 million (at 1985 prices) between 1979 and 1993, most of it in the eighties. In the first years of the revolution the Soviet Union and its allies provided the Sandinista government between US$500 and $600 million in goods, not counting weapons or munitions. Some calculate the foreign cooperation Nicaragua received between 1980 and 1987 at US$5.5 billion, of which $2 billion came from the USSR, again excluding military aid, and a similar amount from the countries of the now-extinct Council for Mutual Economic Aid (Comecon), above all Cuba, the GDR and Bulgaria.

Of all the allies of the Sandinista revolution and perhaps of all internationalists, the Bulgarians were the most noted and commented on in the eighties and currently the most forgotten. They were the ones who tried to build a deep-water port on the southern Caribbean coast that would have been the largest in Central America had Hurricane Joan not scattered its gigantic concrete breakwater jacks; who commercialized Nicaraguan tobacco in international markets and developed copper, lead and zinc mines; and who built a factory for bottled fruit drinks made of pure mango, papaya and guava pulp called “Freskitos.” Trade between Nicaragua and Bulgaria reached $65 million annually. Nicaraguan supermarkets and home-front shops offered a wide gamut of Bulgarian canned and bottled goods, from tomato paste—the famous Perla brand—to strawberries, raspberries, prunes and figs, and even “gerbers,” the generic name given to all pureed baby food in the absence of the famous Gerber Products Co. of Fremont, Michigan. All those who did their military service enjoyed the omnipresent and delicious cans of Bulgarian “gardener’s chicken.”

Not all solidarity merchandise was received euphorically, however, even by the most pro-government palates. The gigantic Czech toothbrushes were almost too big for equine dentures and some packaged goods seemed to contain apocryphal contents. At times the objections were unjust and highly ideologized, such as the rejection of black beans and others—a lot like favas—from Cuba, which were commonly attributed with causing persistent, unconcealable flatulence. And the Soviet Ladas did not escape scorn.

How will we ever thank them?

More important than the products was the living donation, the internationalists, who on occasion donated even their life. Many Latin American countries contributed to this living donation, including Argentines, Chileans, Uruguayans and others, finding a hope here that lightened their step. “If Nicaragua won, Uruguay will win,” they said, sang and dreamed, inserting the name of their own country. The now prestigious Argentine intellectual Carlos Vilas was here for most of the decade. Nicaraguan-born poet Claribel Alegría also came with her American writer husband Bob Flakoll—and stayed. And how could we ever forget the hundreds of Cuban doctors and teachers who spent up to the entire decade and more here, working in remote and dangerous areas their Nicaraguan counterparts were loath to go to?

One of the internationalists who gave their life for the revolution was Benjamin Linder, who was 24 when he came to Nicaragua after graduating from the University of Washington as a mechanical engineer in 1983. He left his home in Oregon to work first in Managua and then in El Cuá, one of the towns most affected by the war. Linder and two Nicaraguans—Sergio Hernández and Pablo Rosales—were ambushed and killed by the contras while working on the construction of a hydroelectric mini-dam in the outskirts of San José de Bocay. First hit by a grenade, Linder was then shot in the head at point-blank range.

Even after his death, Linder—who in his spare time was a brilliant unicycle-riding clown who made many children and adults laugh—rendered an enormous service to Nicaragua. His death was front-page news around the world and that, combined with tireless speaking tours by his family, generated rejection of US financing for the counterrevolution. While they were at it, his parents and siblings also raised significant funds to continue his work providing hydro-electricity in the Cuá-Bocay area. Wherever they are now, may our gratitude reach all those like Linder who gave their time, ideas, youth, health and even life for our country.

Now they are insulted and belittled

Today’s “second stage of the revolution” rejects internationalists. Sweden’s very progressive pro-Nicaragua ambassador, Eva Zetterberg, was publicly insulted by top Ortega government officials. Former European Union Ambassador Francesca Mosca, who held a cautiously critical position, had to endure histrionic diatribes against European colonialism and a rhetorical rejection of the “crumbs” donated by Europe’s governments. On a flatter plane, many internationalists left from the eighties have been insulted, threatened and belittled. But they persist. Like the cheles in the photograph, they’re still here, showing that the hand that gives also receives and that two hands can shake as brothers and sisters.

This is the shot of a hall with 11 Nicaraguan artists, some standing, others seated, all friends and comrades: José Coronel Urtecho, Daisy Zamora, Luis Rocha, Ernesto Cardenal, Armando Morales, Carlos Mejía Godoy, Vidaluz Meneses, Sergio Ramírez, Ernesto Mejía Sánchez, Lisandro Chávez Alfaro and Carlos Martínez Rivas. Save the painter Armando Morales and singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía, all are writers, including poets, essayists and novelists, and some who try their hand at several disciplines. One of them, Ernesto Cardenal, even dabbles very successfully in sculpture. Four have since died. All were artist inventors of the revolution.

A cultural hurricane

Revolutions aren’t made only with bullets, but even their bullets have a soul, to paraphrase, Nicaraguan poet Salomón de la Selva. The only revolution that exists is the one we can read and sing about and observe through the creations of these and many other alchemists of word, color and melody. What would the revolution be without No volverá el pasado and Paneles de infierno by Coronel Urtecho? Without Guitarra Armada, the Misa Campesina Nicaragüense, the Canto Épico al FSLN and the melodies with which the Mejía Godoy brothers accompanied the Literacy Crusade? Or without the Virgen pájara María, in Norma Elena Gadea’s exquisite voice? Or the Pensamiento Vivo de Sandino collected by Sergio Ramírez? The revolution got Carlos Martínez Rivas down from his ivory tower and pulled from him the splendid Proposición teológica a un prelado de parte de un feligrés.

The revolution was a cultural hurricane. The fact that the new Ministry of Culture, official headquarters of Nicaraguan culture, set itself up in the former intimate redoubt of power—Somoza’s own house—was one of the revolution’s stronger symbols. Under Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal’s direction, it madly promoted Nicaraguan primitivist painting, which achieved world renown, as well as poetry workshops in which soldiers, peasants and even prison inmates learned to write exteriorizing poems. Quite a contradiction: military and police poets!

His ministry also rescued Rubén Darío’s Prosas políticas to reach beyond the image—cultivated by Darío himself—of “an artist installed in evasion, uprootedness and apolitical-ness.” Darío the anti-imperialist and Liberal diplomat, disentangled by Julio Valle-Castillo, was an encouraging revelation. The anniversaries of this distinguished poet were celebrated with a kind of carnival of poetry attended by Nicaragua’s best litterateurs, accompanied by many other Latin American writers and poets, and some from even farther latitudes.

World-famous poets, novelists and essayists came in droves to the Nicaragua of the eighties: Graham Greene, Gabriel García Márquez, Paulo Freire, Eliseo Diego, Fina García Marruz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Julio Cortázar, Mario Benedetti, Margaret Randall, Augusto Monterroso, Luis Cardoza y Aragón, Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Francisco Umbral, Allen Ginsberg, Evgeni Evtushenko, Jean Ziegler, Eduardo Galeano and many, many more.

Illustrious singers also came: Joan Báez, Amparo Ochoa, Aníbal Sampayo, Silvio Rodríguez, Alí Primera, Mercedes Sosa, Joan Manuel Serrat and Daniel Viglietti, whose A desalambrar sung in Managua in 1983 can be seen and heard on YouTube. Peter, Paul and Mary even reunited to give a concert in Managua. All freely and enthusiastically gave their concerts, their voices and their time, as did Chilean filmmaker Miguel Litín to film the life of Sandino and present his enlightening documentaries on Allende’s Chile and its fall.

Artists didn’t appear just on the stages of the then very affordable Rubén Darío theater and popular movie houses. We could go to the Roberto Huembes Market to hear the stories of Fernando Silva, the verses of Michelle Najlis and the songs of Mercedes Sosa among baskets of avocados, buckets of tripe stew and boxes overflowing with handicrafts. Paraphrasing Joyce, we could say that their creations accompanied us to the places most hostile to art.

We can’t forget that humor was also a forceful ideological trench. La Semana Cómica received skillful but understandably anonymous contributions from the country’s most rapier pens, including that of Róger Sánchez, a cartoonist worthy of the world’s finest anthologies. From its pages he poked satiric fun at “the reactionaries” of the moment, a generic term that included writers, journalists, politicians, business leaders, presumed CIA agents and diplomats adverse to the revolution. It isn’t rash to assume that some known writers achieved their literary peak in that humorous weekly.

In spite of you...

The confrontation between the Ministry of Culture and the Sandinista Cultural Workers’ Association (ASTC) echoed the confrontation between their two institutional heads—Ernesto Cardenal and Rosario (“Chayo”) Murillo and tinted with bile the cultural production of and relations among no few artists. Murillo could never fulfill her aspirations to be the great diva of culture, even when she finally managed to close down the Ministry of Culture when the state was streamlined for economic reasons in the late eighties. She calculated that doing so would clear the way for the ASTC’s cultural monopoly, but only days later the FSLN’s electoral defeat shot down her strategy, among other far more important things.

But these small quarrels didn’t wither anything; to the contrary they fertilized the luxuriance of the cultural output. They sparked a frenzied competition between “Chayistas” and “Cardenalistas” to publish new titles in Managua’s Nueva Nicaragua and Vanguardia publishing houses and the Ministry of Culture’s editions. Nicaraguans became privileged possessors of books and could read texts persecuted in other parts of the world. As Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuœciñski recalls, in those Cold War times “one could bring in a suitcase full of cocaine as long as it was concealed under a book. The cocaine didn’t awaken even a little interest in the customs officials who, to a man, pounced on the book.”

A real invented revolution

Today, Ortega’s repressive inclinations have again made books, news, songs and political cartoons an object of persecution with the rise in their status in the ranking of political and social protagonism. For his unmuzzled criticism of the FSLN-PLC pact and the corruption in the Sandinista upper echelons, poet Ernesto Cardenal’s bank accounts were frozen and an already-tried libel and slander suit of spurious foundations was resurrected. Sergio Ramírez’s foreword to an edition of Carlos Martínez Rivas’ poetry was blocked.

Journalist-investigators Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Sofía Montenegro were subjected to a hailstorm of slander by the regime’s least scrupulous or ethical hack writers, while the written and audiovisual files of CINCO, the research NGO they head, were seized, together with the CPUs of all their computers. Many artists have been the object of small and cowardly acts of sabotage and intimidation: their vehicle tires inflated to the point of deformation, anonymous written or phoned threats, break-ins... Far from being cowed into submission, Carlos Mejía Godoy said at the end of an opposition street demonstration: “I ask God to give me life to see this dictatorship fall as well.”

Such cruelty only ensures that poets and storytellers will also contribute to the next revolution, following the example of Edwin Castro (Sr.), Ernesto Castillo Salaverri, Arlen Siu, Leonel Rugama and Rigoberto López Pérez himself—who assassinated the first Somoza—all of whom died for the cause. They helped invent the revolution. Who can now mark the boundaries between the invented revolution and the real one? The Sandinista revolution of the eighties was a real invented revolution, with the danger that at times there was a lot more rhetoric than reality. In the pages of Nuevo Amanecer Cultural we got a weekly glimpse of the revolution being invented, which was frequently more diaphanous, and, as we can now see, more permanent than the revolution of the street, the trenches and the state bureaucracy. There it remains, like the group in the photo and Sergio Ramírez’s imperishable contribution in rescuing the figure of Sandino. “No one writes a text like Un muchacho de Niquinohomo any more,” commented a German historian friend recently. Perhaps he’s right. Or maybe he’ll soon be proven wrong.

Karol Wojtyla, a.k.a. Juan Pablo II, visited Nicaragua in 1983. At the airport, the entire Sandinista Cabinet lined up to shake his hand while the mobile stairway was still being rolled into place for him. When it was his turn, Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, a Trappist monk, genuflected and reached to kiss the pope’s ring. A Barricada photographer caught the unexpected moment: the pope wagging a threatening finger at the poet-priest-minister instead of extending his hand, Cardenal’s Güegüense smile and the red and black flags waving in the background, all under the inclement March sun. Heinrich Böll later wrote:

And I have a photo of you
When you kneeled
Before Karol Wojtyla’s threatening finger
You, wicked revolutionary
And you still call yourself
Priest and Catholic
You, wicked man!
I don’t know
If you lot can still smile
Under Reagan’s menacing fist
I don’t know
If you lot
With the few pennies of your poverty
Can keep persevering with
The monstrous energy of misery
Against the stupidity of wealth

A cardinalate thanks to the revolution

By then Nicaragua’s Catholic hierarchy had closed ranks against the good, the bad and the ugly of the Sandinista revolution. It gave no quarter. The three priests who held ministerial portfolios were an affront to the Episcopal Conference’s political position. With them in the Cabinet, there was no way the world would believe the Sandinistas wanted to do away with faith and imitate the anti-clericalism of the French, Soviet and Cuban revolutions.

Then-Archbishop of Managua Miguel Obando y Bravo has the revolution to thank for his cardinalate. In that decade Central America had three archbishops who by their virtue and learning were hundreds of times more eligible than that opportunist Salesian ladino. Próspero Penados in Guatemala, Marcos Gregorio McGrath in Panama and Arturo Rivera y Damas in El Salvador were the competition. McGrath’s noteworthy participation in Vatican Council II and Rivera y Damas’ political preeminence made them unarguably worthy of the cardinal’s purple. Could there have been a better way for the Vatican’s pontifical court to give a slap in the face to the military repression drowning the Salvadoran people in blood than to distinguish the successor to the martyred Monsignor Romero with such an appointment? Obviously not. But that repression didn’t bother it nearly as much as the restless specter of communism that had leapt from Eastern Europe first to the largest island of the Antilles and then to the very center of the American continent. The Polish pope saw in Obando a colleague of misfortune, persecuted by the Communist pincers. He chose him, adopted him, laying the groundwork for one of the isthmus’ most Borgia-esque corrupt religious careers.

Between Christianity and the revolution...

The Nicaraguan bishops bombarded the Vatican with hysterical SOSs, inflaming Wojtyla’s head, which didn’t need much tinder to throw off anti-communist sparks. It was in that mood that he came to Nicaragua: already worked up about a bellicose, totalitarian, atheist, Marxist government. The pope’s visit was an excellent move in US President Ronald Reagan’s anti-communist chess game. Mothers of revolutionary martyrs came to the plaza where the pope was giving an open-air Mass and inadvertently turned it into a ferocious confrontation: the mothers begged for a prayer for their recently-slain sons and the pope, confused by their stubborn insistence, which was preventing him from continuing with the Eucharist, magisterially raised his same menacing forefinger and repeatedly stage-growled “Silencio!”
The poet Julio Valle-Castillo offered this version of the events:

I saw an alter without a Wafer surrounded by men
with rochets, stoles, maniples and albs
(an open-air Eucharist?)
deaf to a crowd that was letting out screams
of childbirth and milling around with banners and placards,
with flags of blue, red and black,
yellow and white.
Then I saw Karol Wojtyla (John Paul II)
address the multitude, clad in a tiara
and chasuble of fire, raising that beautiful authoritarian voice
with his arm like a hatchet poised to clip the head
and fling the body to the ground.
And I saw and heard Karol Wojtyla erect against the setting sun,
continuing to speak to no one.

That was but one of many episodes in which Christian Sandinistas and the anti-Sandinista hierarchy clashed. It would take many photos and rolls of celluloid to display all the encounters and mis-encounters between Christianity and the revolution. The list would have to include the images of the photo stories in the circumspect, enthusiastic and also critical magazine El Tayacán, a formidable popular education tool conceived, written, illustrated and distributed by revolutionary Christians.

It would have to include the photos of so many priests who risked everything for the revolutionary project: among them the Claretians Teófilo Cabestrero and Maximino Cerezo;, the Josephine Gabriel Rodríguez; the Dominicans of Monseñor Lezcano—in whose parish Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto (a Maryknoll priest) held his fast for peace; José Arias Caldera, the monsignor of the poor; the legendary Father Toñito Castro, Larreynaga’s parish priest; and the Jesuits Arnaldo Zenteno and Joe Mulligan, with their still-continuing work in the Christian Base Communities, which is expanding into unexpected areas with stewpots of soy and attention to street workers. Teófilo Cabestrero’s books about Christians in the revolution—poet and former seminarian Leonel Rugama, the three priests in high government posts and the martyred couple Felipe and Mery Barreda—nourished the revolutionary dreams of many adolescents. Cabestrero’s friend and congregation mate, Bishop Pedro Casaldáliga, also a poet, visited Nicaragua several times and railed against the revolution’s enemies: “They will become putrid / recounting their dollars of death.”

Even virgins appeared

What’s missing here is a photo of Sergio Michelini’s murals in the Riguero barrio church of former Franciscan Uriel Molina, who was the priest of that parish at the time and founder of the Centro Antonio Valdivieso, in whose auditoriums—genuine university premises if ever there were any—innumerable sacred cows and bulls of Latin American and world theology offered their dissertations: Elsa Támez, Giulio Girardi, Pablo Richard, Pedro Casaldáliga, Enrique Dussel and many more. Lacking also are Christian notables like Teódulo Báez Cabezas, alias Triangle Face, whose incisive articles against the Catholic hierarchy marked a path followed neither briefly nor lazily by the courageous Jesuit Luis Medrano. Cardinal Obando y Bravo ended up blocking many like him from exercising priestly ministries.

This section also needs more photos of the conflict. One would have to search the journalistic archives of the period for the oft-photographed “sweating Virgin.” The Church, with Marianologue Obando obstinately in the lead, pressed for confirmation of the miracle, calculating that a magical spectacle—a miracle—would prove a Mandrakian blow against the government. Unfortunately for them, it turned out to be the novelesque creation of a couple of tricksters—worthy mates of Lazarillo de Tormes and other birds of that feather—who soaked a gesso image of the Virgin Mary then froze it overnight so it would exude a liquid of questionable composition the next day under Managua’s powerful noonday sun. Alongside that belongs a photo of the Virgin of Cuapa, who won her sighter, Bernardo de Cuapa, the desired priestly stole, and, like other appearances of the virgin, warned us against the danger of communism. We can’t include a photo of the tree where she posed, since it was chipped away at by the devout until nothing was left.

The collection would be incomplete without the footage of Father Bismarck Carballo, spokesperson for the archiepiscopal curia, running naked before the TV cameras while a fake cuckolded husband gave chase after expelling him from the bed where Nicaragua’s own Father Amaro couldn’t consummate his crime because it was all a State Security sting to reveal his customary extracurricular activities and thus strike a blow against the Catholic hierarchy’s reputation. It was a crass error that backfired. Accompanying that shot we need the one of Father Peña, caught in fraganti with his hands almost on the weapons a fake counterrevolutionary militant purchased for him. Another State Security trick, this time right on the money.

And of course we have to pull out a shot of Monsignor Pablo Antonio Vega, whose lethargically stupid comment was immortalized in the verses of Carlos Martínez Rivas, which begin by comparing him to one of the drunks in the famous Velásquez canvas. When in December 1982 the then-bishop of Juigalpa was asked to comment on the death of 75 children when the contras shot down an army helicopter evacuating them from the war zone of San Andrés de Bocay, he unthinkingly avoided the “trap” by saying, “It’s worse to kill the soul than the body.” It was so unlike Sancho, because Don Quixote’s faithful shield bearer always used healthy common sense when he intentionally missed the point.

The other messianic kingdom

If the Lord moves in mysterious ways, Satan’s must be even more tortuous, unpredictable and unfathomable. The eighties was the era of a genuine fusion—and ideological elaboration—of Christianity and revolution. Liberation theology was respected, publicized and adopted by even the most agnostic and atheist Latin American revolutionary leaders. Various Sandinista comandantes confessed to having been catechized in that theology by “progressive” priests or lay religious workers. Today the pro-Ortega upper echelon has foresworn that theological current to embrace a religious mud pie that combines conservative Catholic prayers and biblical citations with evangelical rites in miracle sessions; esoteric cults; superstitions about mantras, colors and flowers, to which magical powers are attributed; and adherence to the Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba—accused of swindles and pedophilia.

The presidential couple’s fervent desire to win over the Catholic hierarchy led it to champion the criminalization of therapeutic abortion. Now Ortega and Murillo feel anointed and commissioned to execute a special mission, whether we presumed beneficiaries like it or not. Possessed by a psychedelic messianism, they placed kitsch statues of the Virgin on the traffic circles; hired relatives of unemployed banana workers poisoned by Nemagon to live under tarps on those same traffic circles and breathe vehicle exhaust while “praying against hate” for eight months—then didn’t pay them; and are encouraging a socialist millenarianism. Did Karol Wojtyla’s finger signal the course of history?

It’s January 1984. A handful of peasants are formally lined up to receive their property titles in Palacagüina. All are looking at the camera. The first one catches the viewer’s eye because he’s tall, proudly sporting a wide-brimmed hat and an equally wide grin. The second is wearing military camouflage. Has he perhaps come from doing his military service? Did his platoon chief give him temporary leave? The fourth looks perplexed. Like many others, he finds it hard to believe that the plot he’s cultivated is now his. The fifth is wearing a baseball cap, t-shirt and jeans. Judging by his clothes, he’s very urbanized. Behind them is a banner with tiny letters hard to make out. It might say If the hands are ours, what they’re giving us is ours, or maybe This land is ours; it doesn’t belong to he who has more. There are many such photos of the granting of titles by an agrarian reform that benefited more than 112,000 families with over two million hectares of land.

Reluctantly and only under pressure

The agrarian reform was in part made reluctantly. In the first years the Sandinista government did all it could to retain a large part of the land in state agricultural businesses within the Area of People’s Property, equivalent to the Soviet sovjozes, the huge farms belonging to the state, which possessed the land, materials and income and gave each worker a salary. The people were granted nominal, rhetorical ownership within a bureaucratic capitalism disguised as socialism. In Nicaragua the Coronels, Wheelocks and others went from administering their own farms—or working as Pellas family lackeys—to administering almost half the country’s agricultural exploitation. And all with the benefit of permanently submissive workers. What was the point of unions in a country where the people “owned” over 80% of the enterprises? Guilds and unions didn’t disappear, but their function was diverted from defending working-class rights—salaries, social security, protection against on-the-job accidents—to the tasks of the revolution, with whose interests they had to identify against wind, tide, common sense and the yielding of their daily bread. The counterrevolution was the work of a duet: the US government provided the dollars and the Sandinista government generated its social base through negligent policies, state monopoly, mistakes and repression.

Under a lot of pressure, the government began granting titles to people who already were de facto owners—the many squatters who were links in the agro-export chain—and to Sandinista cooperatives, in this case equivalent to the Soviet Union’s koljozes: collective exploitation conglomerates. The state provided seeds and materials in exchange for part of the harvest. The rest was distributed among the koljozianos. In Nicaragua the system was less transparent since it worked through bank credits, donated inputs, pardoning of debts and state commercialization, but the result was the same.

With time, the guilds exercised pressure to speed up the distribution of land. The National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG)—at that time with belligerent autonomy, which it lost over time, becoming a spineless appendage of the FSLN—accelerated the granting of land and argued in favor of mini and meso holdings as more efficient economic units than the huge hacienda. That thorny and controversial issue pitted the Planning Ministry against the Agriculture and Agrarian Reform Ministry in a bitter debate in which the latter, ironically, fervently favored the large operations. The agrarian reform ended up taking on even greater proportions for military reasons: titles were given out to peasants so they would serve as a retaining wall against the advance of the contra squadrons and as an R&R zone for Sandinista soldiers. That land cost very dear. Many paid for it with their life, because they were a recurring target of ambushes, sabotage and anti-personnel mines.

Against all resistance

A full 75% of all beneficiaries received their land in the second half of the eighties, so the agrarian reform was very slow. But it left its mark.

Between 1979 and 1981 around 1.12 million hectares of land (20% of the cultivated area) were confiscated from the Somoza family and top military and civilian officials of the regime. These properties, where thousands of agricultural laborers had worked, became the initial nucleus of the state sector in agricultural production.

In 1979, 36% of the 5.6 million hectares being agriculturally exploited was in properties greater than 350 hectares. Small farms of under 35 hectares only represented 17.5% of the exploited land. In 1988, two years before the FSLN’s electoral defeat, 48% of those 5.6 million hectares had become part of the reformed sector, the private sector had shrunk to under 3 million hectares and large holdings of over 350 hectares had been reduced to only 6.4% of the total. Despite the resistance of large hacienda owners and Stalinist Sovietophiles, the agrarian reform ended up dominant. That’s why that first man in the line of individual land recipients will always be smiling out of that photograph, perhaps sensing how much scheming had gone into that Copernican shift.

Years of agrarian counter-reform

But another shift was waiting just around the corner of the decade. The privatizations of the nineties, the compensations to those whose properties had been confiscated and the encouraging of a land market fed by bank embargos of cooperative members and individual beneficiaries unable to pay their loans or produce because the new private banks refused them financing all dealt the reformed sector a death blow.

The best farms of the agrarian reform fell into ruin and were snatched up at bargain prices. It was a banquet in which Sandinista leaders served themselves with a soup ladle, proud of their new role as businesspeople. A healthily malicious Trotskyist analysis would say that they had intentionally left the door open to this possibility by never recording the agrarian reform titles in the civil registry and letting the Damocles sword of future claims and disputes produce a feeling of uncertainty among many beneficiaries that induced them to sell.

Many haciendas, tractors, pulping machines and thousands of head of cattle also went directly to top state officials as part of the Sandinista “piñata” of 1990. At the start of that decade it was common to hear Nicaraguans complain about those who made out big time in such deals, usually with their fatalistic bitterness concealed beneath a brilliant capacity for word games: “‘Whose ganado (cattle) are those?,’ they ask me. ‘Those aren’t ganado (earned),’ I tell them, ‘they’re stolen.’” Hopefully that hatted land recipient in the photo or his descendents will flash their roguish smile again when the tortilla is given another turn someday.

This isn’t a photo. It’s a collage. There’s room here for a thousand in motley disarray. A queue of people standing eight hours in front of a store to get a carboy of gas or a chicken. A torn page from El País, which came to be appreciated as the best toilet paper for its relative softness. The clandestine slaughter of a cow to distribute meat behind the back of the omnipresent National Food Supply Enterprise (ENABAS). A gigantic tomato juice factory that never worked. An eight-year-old boy and his mother, arrested for taking a sack of beans to sell at the Oriental Market, again skirting ENABAS. A malted milk you could cut like cheese. A dollar tip that could feed the waiter’s family for over a week when traded for thousands of córdobas on the parallel market. A sign that cleverly charges: “Coca Cola is imperialism’s waste water.” A group of laborers in interminable meetings, putting up posters, evaluating elections, receiving military instruction, teaching literacy (or being taught)… and every once in a while cultivating the land or making cheese.

The economy was the revolution’s Achilles’ heel. If US imperialism won the war on any single field, it was in the supermarkets and house-front shops, not the mountains or international forums, where it suffered resounding defeats. Erosion from the war, disorganization and the “historic vacations” taken by the proletariat, relaxing labor discipline to the max, combined to ensure the economy foundered.

Fiscal deficit, surplus legitimacy

ENABAS bought up 80% of the saleable production and exercised a price tyranny that favored the city to the detriment of the countryside. And the interminable lines did away with what little attention Nicaraguan culture gave to punctuality.

But not everything was negative. Many ills had good consequences, confirming that old saw that every cloud has a silver lining. The war imperiously brought about the greater incorporation of women into the labor market: studies by the Association of Agricultural Workers (ATC) show that in 1988 women represented more than 70% of the labor force in the tobacco harvest, over 80% in the coffee harvest and 60% in the cotton harvest. Labor shortages in the harvests opened the door to another new labor genre: volunteer pickers, who, given their lack of expertise and frenzied struggle to become the day’s “vanguard” pickers, had a disastrous effect on the coffee bushes. State finances fell increasingly into the red but that same endless bankruptcy triggered barter strategies for services that emphasized collective construction and consciousness of the common good: the clean-up campaigns on “red and black Sundays,” the popular health brigades and the adult educators all increased the supply of public services without worsening the fiscal deficit. The state was gravely short on liquidity but had a surplus of legitimacy with which to ask for the voluntary contribution of services that unquestionably represented a significant portion of the total gross domestic product but never showed up on the books.

Images of those times

Unfortunately, not even all that good will could stave off the chaos and shortages. Nicaragua wasn’t all a happy scene of solidarity and social service trade-offs. It was increasingly a nation-state in serious need of economic stability, a trade balance in the black, a solvent balance of payments and much, much more. Runaway inflation collapsed the financial system given that a one-year credit to buy a tractor was worth the cost of a pig by due date. The currency oscillations are reflected on the front page of El Nuevo Diario, which was priced at 2 córdobas in 1983, 3 córdobas in 1984, 5 córdobas in 1985, 30 córdobas in 1986, 500 córdobas in 1987, 20 córdobas in August 1988 (after the currency change), 80 córdobas only two months later, 2,000 córdobas in 1989 and 10,000, 500,000 and up to a million córdobas over the course of 1990. Before the revolution the price of a pineapple was half a córdoba. In February 1988 it was fetching 20,000.

Epidoses of McDonald’s

To finish this collage of the economy in the eighties, we have to take a look at the images offered by Forrest D. Colburn, a visiting professor at the Central American Institute of Economics (INCAE) and latest in that tradition of travelers who made such acute descriptions of Nicaragua in the 19th century. In My Car in Managua, Colburn described how “the government intermittently offers some basic foodstuffs through neighborhood defense committees. Quantities are limited, but prices are low. Also, government bureaucracy and enterprises sometimes offer something for nothing, or next to nothing. Workers at the huge Chiltepe dairy farm, for example, get a free liter of milk daily…. The nationalization of the country’s largest supermarkets made them an ideal instrument for the government to ‘help the people with people’s prices.’”

Colburn goes on to add that “Shelves were stripped bare, not only to fill cupboards, but also for re-sale elsewhere…. What the supermarkets really excel in, though, is imported goods, which appear and disappear. For a time there were tins of tasty Soviet sardines. But there were also cans of strange meats and sausages from somewhere in Eastern Europe. These cans remained on the shelves until the bourgeoisie discovered they made excellent pet food. Other goods that have intermittently appeared on the shelves range from Cuban rum to Canadian hamburger relish, to Italian jam, to Chinese chocolate bars…. There may be no cheese in the store, but there will be an aisle’s worth of cheese graters.”

Heretical need produced the most unexpected mixes in the Commercial Center Managua: “[From the IMELSA store] you can buy the magazine STP [Socialismo, Teoría y Práctica], and leaf through it while you enjoy coconut ice cream at Pops.” The site turned to most was the Oriental Market, the largest of the country’s market places: “Here you can find everything,” wrote Colburn, “even, I was once told, ‘a nuclear-powered helicopter.’” At that time the vendors in the Oriental Market were dubbed “the apron bourgeoisie,” for the fortunes in devalued córdobas that went into their apron pockets in alliance with small-scale contraband traders known as buhoneros, who brought in the scarcest goods, skirting the customs controls.

At the other extreme was the Diplotienda, run by the government to bring in hard currency from the diplomatic corps and others on foreign salaries, although some of its most frequent customers were Sandinista comandantes and high government officials. While their speeches extolled the humble women who wore no make-up and went around in t-shirts with revolutionary slogans, they sent their own women to deck themselves out with Chemise Lacost, Ray-Bans, Reeboks, Max Factor and Revlon. What revolution did they see from atop the stage in the plaza and in the Diplo’s display windows? How must the masses of believers chorusing “National Directorate, give us the order!” have looked through shiny new Ray-Bans”?

As Colburn points out, “For payment in dollars, the Diplo offers what cannot be found even in the inner recesses of the Mercado Oriental: Whirlpool refrigerators, Hoover vacuum cleaners, Mother Goose coloring books, Christian Dior perfume, Old El Paso Hot Taco Sauce and Fab Full Strength Detergent. The only product from Nicaragua is coffee; the only good from the SovietUnion is Stolichnaya vodka.”

The tastiest episodes came with the forced Nicara-guanization of McDonalds, a genuine avant la lettre glocalization. The McDonalds headquarters and its franchise in Managua began to have problems as soon as the revolution triumphed, when the Managua branch found it impossible to meet the quality standards of the transna¬tionally homogeneous fast food company. A first letter warned the franchise holders that they couldn’t sell cheeseburgers that didn’t contain cheese. It was a feat for the proprietors of McDonalds in Managua to keep their establishment operating in the midst of a scarcity of hard cash that put an end to the importation of pickles and “official” McDonalds wrappers bearing Ronald McDonald’s stupid face. Getting national goods was also a nightmare; the management had to be exceedingly creative to hoard the most reasonable substitutes and stick them in the hamburgers: unyielding white cheese instead of melted yellow cheese, cabbage instead of lettuce, pitahaya drink instead of Coca Cola and fried cassava instead of French fries.

The last straw in this heresy was the use of Soviet wrapping paper. McDonald’s of Managua finally had to change its name to Donald’s to prevent the problems with McDonald’s HQ from getting out of hand. But its hamburgers continued to be sought after because Sandy’s, its close rival in quality, was selling hamburgers without meat.

Now we have lots of some things
at the cost of many things lost

In the new post-revolutionary era we lack what abounded before and have more than enough of what was scarce or non-existent back then. We have labor-displacing technology, weapons without utopia, bread without dignity, the American dream without revolutionary vigil, self-help books for manufactured needs, dissent without courage, consensus without fraternity, Coca Cola without health, Toyotas without direction, McDonalds with no connection to the local market, bullets without soul... together with protests without proposals and proposals without protests, as Xabier Gorostiaga would have put it... But that’s a whole other collage.

Eugene Hasenfus was captured by a short, skinny peasant wearing military fatigues who walks straight and confident through the jungle leading the tall, stout, clumsy US mercenary by the end of a long thin cord with which Hasenfus’ hands are tied in front of him. The young recruit has more hair than meat and his uniform hangs off him. Around his neck is a rosary his mother may have given him as a protective amulet. Hasenfus seems submerged in brooding thoughts. This photo was taken by Carlos Durán and pub¬lished huge on the front page of the October 8, 1986, issue of Barricada. The meager soldier seems no more epic than a young boy returning home dragging a well-bound garrobo, while Hasenfus appears to be putting up no greater fight than that poor and diminutive relative of an iguana would under the circumstances. Did the soldier realize he would go down in collective history? Hasenfus, a soldier in Vietnam until 1972, had surely seen danger. Was he thinking of all the other crew members killed when the helicopter he was traveling in was shot down or was he imagining what awaited him at the hands of the Sandinista “red menace”? The Salvadoran air force had given him a document identifying him as a military adviser and he must have felt like a member of the Mission Impossible team. His job was to push supplies for the contras out of the helicopter.

There was no truce for Nicaragua. The anti-Sandinista war followed virtually upon the heels of the anti-Somocista insurrection. The embryo of the new war was the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard who had escaped to neighboring countries, while the new government of national reconstruction treated those it captured with a mercy highly unusual in the annals of revolutionary victories. “Implacable in combat, generous in victory,” went the oft-repeated slogan. The “contras” also included anti-Somocista groups who turned against the FSLN vanguard, the first of which to appear were the MILPAS (Popular Anti-Sandinista Militias). But the largest group was the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN), formed by National Guardsman that the CIA contacted and held in abeyance until Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter in the White House in January 1981 and soon approved the first $19 million to finance the war against the revolutionary government. In 1987, with no little prodding by the CIA, which was going crazy trying to finance and train all the disparate and competitive counterrevolutionary groups, all those that had survived came under the Nicaraguan Resistance umbrella.

It was also a war of metaphors: Sandino’s Cachorros (pups) vs. the Paladins of Liberty: the “muchachos” of the Sandinista Military Service vs. the “muchachos” of the Contra. Some 150,000 youths in arms in a country of little over 2.5 million inhabitants. One of them, the one in the photo, serenely leads his booty.

The intervention that never came

In the terrain of diplomacy, propaganda and international legislation, the FSLN and its different allies chalked up many tactical and strategic goals. The Los Angeles Times reported that the former Somocista Guardsmen and Cuban exiles had illegal military training camps in the states of California and Florida, where they were receiving direct advice from the CIA and Vietnam war veterans. CBS revealed how Reagan obtained additional funds from drug trafficking to equip the contras. The Palmerola military base in Honduras was even denounced by Honduran state officials.

For the US government, the whole decade was a failure in preparing domestic and world public opinion for direct military intervention. To the good fortune of Little Red&Black Riding Hood, the big bad imperialist wolf had a raft of diligent internal enemies. Solidarity internationalists played a praiseworthy role in avoiding intervention and transmitting truthful information to counter the Reagan administration’s deceitful propaganda. They pulled apart the Kissinger Report, a veritable tissue of lies, and supported Nicaragua’s diplomatic maneuvers. The pseudonyms of the counterrevolutionary top dogs unquestionably made their work easier. Who expected kindly treatment or “liberation” from men who chose to be known as Jackal, Suicide, Panther or Coral (the poisonous snake)?

Where the war was lost

Following arduous negotiations, the International Court of Justice at The Hague condemned the placing of mines near Nicaraguan ports and admitted a suit against the United States for aggression filed by the Sandinista government in 1984. It finally found in Nicaragua’s favor in June 1986, sentencing the US government to pay the damages caused by its policy of state terrorism, which of course it refused to do.

But inside Nicaragua the Sandinista government’s legitimacy was peeling away. Military expenses were overwhelming the state’s finances. The state was the largest employer in the country, but by 1988 its generous hand was almost empty; a compacting of government institutions threw thousands of public employees into the street, deeply disillusioning them about the revolutionary project.

It’s hard to be a militant when you can’t put bread on the family table. Thousands of mothers were unhappy with anguished about, or even openly hostile to the forced military recruitment. How long was the bloodbath decimating the youth going to last? The Patriotic Military Service (the fancy name for the 2-year draft) and volunteer popular militias were swallowing up a whole new generation. State Security—effective in some respects and repressive in many others—had aborted innumerable acts of sabotage, but also perpetrated abuses and threatened to morph into the image and semblance of the KGB and the Stasi. Its inclination to conspire with impunity eroded the political pluralism promised as one of the pillars of the revolution.

On the other side of the street, the war included shameful episodes that some would like to flush down the toilet of historical amnesia. Forces of the armed counterrevolution killed six children in El Jícaro, Nueva Segovia, verily as Arturo Cruz, father of the current Ortega government’s first ambassador in Washington, was, believe it or not, defining the contras as “our esteemed fellow citizens who chose the way of war.”

So much loss not grieved over
and a utopia cast aside

This is where we have come from. These fragments don’t explain everything, but they do explain a lot of what we are: people with a fierce desire to survive with dignity, a bunch of opportunists, a utopia put to rest. A survey taken in the eighties by the Central American University revealed that 27% of the Nicaraguans polled had relatives who had died or been wounded in the revolution or the counterrevolution. And the deaths on both sides in the war of the eighties almost exactly matched the civilians and fighters who died in the insurrectionary struggle just preceding it. This gives us an idea of the losses not grieved over, the traumas poorly dealt with, the men seething with violence.

The bottom line of opportunism is the image of army chief General Humberto Ortega Saavedra and civilian contra leader Adolfo Calero Portocarrero chatting elbow to elbow as they swizzle their whiskey in the Mexican Embassy. Two strategists, now thrown together by the fortunes that they made on different sides of the thin red & black line. Silver-haired Adolfo Calero, the man who leaped from managing Coca Cola in Nicaragua to the more lucrative post of managing a war. And his counterpart Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother, who at the end of the war said that in peace not everyone could “be in the box seats” reserved for the most select. Both men abandoned the soldiers who risked their skin and enriched their respective chief without knowing it, small pieces in their deadly match who ended up lost on the gaming field after invisible powers changed the rules of the game, the bottom line and even the players.

The hundreds of war wounded rescued our dignity. As did other anonymous and not so anonymous heroes, like that lanky little peasant soldier without handcuffs or bazooka, only his rifle and a thin cord, leading the well-fed, robust Hasenfus to the fragile display window of history.

Hurricane Joan’s winds and rain razed 500 square kilometers of Nicaragua’s rain forest in October 1988, killing 148 people and leaving 80,000 residents of the southern Caribbean coast homeless.

The inland city of El Rama sits atop a rise right where two other rivers flow into the Caribbean-bound Río Escondido. As a result of the hurricane the Escondido swelled 15 meters over its normal height, leaving parts of El Rama under six meters of water. The photo taken by Bill Gentile shows just a few sheet metal roofs and a lot of palm trees sticking out of a thick, Dijon mustard colored liquid that has submerged the rest of El Rama, with the Catholic Church steeple surveying the disaster. Not a single boat is in the water; no one is trying to rescue their belongings, there’s no sign of life. With Salomonic foresight and studied precision, the army’s civil defense force had evacuated the entire city in time. The eighties may have been a decade of economic chaos and scarcity of means, but there was also an extensive organizational network that was very effective for certain tasks.

The Pacific: A disaster for the Atlantic

The southern Caribbean port city of Bluefields was also devastated by Joan. Over the past 130 years, this city and its surroundings have been hit by 13 tropical storms or hurricanes—four of the latter in the last three decades. In 1971 it was Irene, in 1988 Joan, in 1996 César and in 2007 it got the tail end of Felix.

Bluefields, which this year celebrated the 200th anniversary of its founding, was virtually leveled by Joan’s winds. They destroyed 98% of the houses and other buildings—6,000 in total, most of them wooden structures—and left 71,000 people homeless. The prevention efforts avoided greater damages—there were only 18 deaths in 12 hours of winds that reached 260 kilometers per hour. Bluefields residents who experienced the 1972 Managua earthquake described Joan as being like 20 earthquakes combined. True enough, on the morning of October 23, after the hurricane had passed, the Creole city could have been mistaken for Managua on December 24, 1972, in its post-hurricane devastation.

Why associate the Caribbean Coast with a disaster in this album of the eighties? There were also disasters in the Pacific: in May 1982 flooding collapsed the northwestern city of Chinandega, leaving 75 dead, 60,000 homeless, a hospital flooded and $150 million in material losses. But there has always been a radical difference in the state’s attitude toward the two sides of the country, at least ever since it occurred to President José Santos Zelaya in 1894 to “reincorporate” the Mosquitia, that former Miskitu kingdom previously protected by the British, with its very different legislation and cultures and which was never incorporated. The Pacific has lived with its back to the Caribbean side of the country, save when it’s busy exploiting the region’s abundant fishing, mining and forestry resources or contaminating its land and water.

The Pacific has been the greatest disaster the Caribbean has had to contend with, and the Sandinista administration was no exception. It routinely sent doctors, military police and other public officials to the coast as punishment for bad behavior. “The Coast” was Nicaragua’s Siberia. In place of tundra and freezing temperatures, it offered swamps, mosquitoes and a population understandably fearful of the “Spanish,” the name they still use for the upstarts from the Pacific. What made that experience of banishment most distressing were the prejudices about the Caribbean cultures that the “Spaniards” delighted in. In endless anecdotes, jokes and horror stories, coast people were painted as witches, brutes, descendants of African cannibals or opportunist aborigines, people who sopposedly loved to change their name at a whim, adopting the most eccentric options: Alka-Seltzer, General Electric and other brand names, names of cities or institutional acronyms.

A delayed autonomy

The poor treatment of the native coast people in the first years of the revolution was a predictable and seldom mitigated constant. The supposedly flattering slogan “The Coast is an awakening giant” couldn’t have been more unfortunate. “When have we been asleep?” they acridly shot back. The armed movements Misura and Misurasata, which represented a split in the original indigenous social organization Misurasata created in October 1979, were born of the historic and freshly reignited ill will. They reunited in 1987 under the name Yatama and two years later came in out of the cold to become a civilian organization again, just in time for the 1990 elections.

One good day in July 1984 Monsignor Salvador Schaeffler, the US-born bishop of the Atlantic Coast, disappeared without a trace, together with the entire Miskitu village of Francia Sirpi, which he had been visiting. The official media accused the counterrevolution of having kidnapped him, but to the surprise of many Sandinistas and even their adversaries, the bishop turned up days later in Honduras, accompanied by some 300 residents of the village. Their declarations left us and the US journalists—who miraculously seemed to know just where he would be crossing the border—aghast. It was all later discovered to have been a manipulation of the villagers by Misura, with apparent US involvement.

As early as that same year, the government began to make efforts to correct its mistakes. The pinnacle of those efforts was the Autonomy Statute, approved in 1987 after several years of work, which was accompanied by FSLN founder Tomás Borge’s formal apology to the coast people and by a series of small peace agreements with breakaway groups of Miskitu fighters that brought relative peace to the beleaguered coast before the Pacific. Some locals recognized the efforts and were willing to give the government another chance, while many felt the autonomy law was nothing more than a skin-deep pacification effort that would later be reversed.

But with the FSLN voted out in 1990, they lost the chance to find out what it would have done from government once the war was over. Under President Chamorro things reverted back to the status quo ante: the people were forgotten and their resources plundered again, but now there was a new autonomous government, by turns inexperienced, belligerent, creative, self-serving and corrupt. Then in 2007, Hurricane Felix cut a devastating swath through the northern Caribbean, testing the relationship between the new Sandinista government and the victims. Both were losers. The government didn’t put the inoperative National Disaster Prevention, Mitigation and Attention System at the service of the region in any effective way, but it did join forces with eternal Misurasata/Yatama leader Brooklyn Rivera to use the disaster as an excuse to postpone last year’s municipal elections in the affected municipalities, porviding more time to orchestrate a blow against increasingly dissident local political forces.

With her camera always ready to record memorable moments, Susan Meiselas captured the instant at which the muralist put the finishing touches to his work. The wall is over three meters high and is crowned by enormous barbs that seem part of the image of a gigantic guerrilla wearing a beret, his face covered by a half red/half black kerchief, and brandishing a semi-automatic rifle, perhaps one of those AK-47s that abounded in the eighties.

It was one of the first murals. Perhaps it’s too soon for an AK. Maybe it’s that rifle shooting out new dawns in the song by Carlos Mejía Godoy and Tomás Borge to FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca Amador. But we’d like to believe it is because the guerrilla is enveloped in an orange and white atmosphere that seems to break from the darkness.

Alemán erases memory

This is just one of the graphic pamphlets plastered across Managua’s walls during the eighties. They told the story. They were plastic sociology, a visual catechism, so we wouldn’t forget, so that even though no one lived like saints any more, we would remember that some had. A walk through Managua guaranteed a cultural bath. There were collective and individual murals, murals by amateurs and murals by virtuosos. All spoke of what had happened and was still happening.

Managua, Central America’s ugliest capital, had become an immense picture gallery. Until 1990, that is, when Arnoldo Alemán was indirectly elected the new mayor of Managua and became the Savonarola of all that art, ordering all the murals to be obliterated under a layer of black paint. The black of forgetfulness. In a very brief film that narrates the shift from a state planning system to a market system, a fade to black swallows up the moving memories of that history. Alemán wanted to erase memory—selected memory—to install oblivion, selected oblivion. Looking back at what has happened over the past 18 years, we can infer that Alemán wanted to do away with the best of the revolution, then ended up climbing into bed with the worst.

The dazzling murals of Leonel Serrato, Hilda Vogl, Julie Aguirre, Manuel García and Alejandro Canales, among others, were buried in black. Today Managua’s walls contain ghosts struggling to emerge. The murals were archives available to any public. They were the secular altarpieces of the revolution, a splendid contribution to the collective memory. Each wall was a trench of ideological struggle that made pertinent the questions of French philosopher Paul Ricoeur: What is remembered? To whom does the memory belong?

What was it we dreamed?

To recover memory, there are now walls in Managua painted with the slogan “Come back, Rigoberto!” The struggle goes on. We mustn’t let them snatch memory away from us and must continue asking: Did the revolution exist? What was it that existed? What was it we dreamed? Who holds the scale to measure what was real and what was dreamed? Memory is also made up of dreams and nightmares. We can’t separate what we are from what we dream and what we remember fondly (or what we detest). We learn as much from Daisy Zamora’s beautiful poem in a mural in San Francisco:

When we return to our old land
Which we never knew
And chat about all those things
That have never happened
We will walk holding hands with children
Who have never existed
We will listen to their voices and live
That life we’ve spoken so much about
And have never lived.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Services for Migrants of Central America (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial council

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