Rhetoric, slogans and metaphors of the revolutionary years
The Sandinista revolution abounded in rhetoric. Every month a new slogan, a new song, new metaphors. With 33 years behind us we can now begin to reflect on
the myths that enclosed, the manipulations that hid,
the dreams that expressed and the vacuum in which all developed.
This text, and exercise in memory, is just and introduction, an appetizer.
José Luis Rocha
No memoirs of the Sandinista revolution record any sudden attack led by Tomás Borge in the guerrilla campaign that brought down Somoza. And although the Sandinista Police was nominally under his authority, do any of its areas confess to having been molded by his hand or to being heirs to his legacy? No one remembers him as an audacious combatant or hard-working statesman. He wasn’t the Sandinista revolution’s Robespierre or—as one might have expected from a minister of the interior—its Fouché. He was its publicist, its radical fabler, its Marat, who as editor-in-chief of the newspaper L’Ami du people coined the expression “enemy of the people,” applied to anyone who didn’t share his ideas. Jean-Paul Marat was also the fiery orator who in July 1790 skewered the more conservative revolutionary leaders with the following attack: “Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed your freedom and happiness but a false humanity has restrained your arms and stopped your blows. If you don’t strike now, millions of your brothers will die, your enemies will triumph and your blood will flood the streets. They’ll slit your throats without mercy and disembowel your wives. And their bloody hands will rip out your children’s entrails to erase your love of liberty forever.”
The backdrop to Borge’s stage was neither the barricades nor the ministerial offices. Rather it was the tribune and the podium. Now that his head rolled on April 30 at the hand of the grim reaper—confirming his guillotining by the party apparatus long ago—the court painters are portraying him brandishing a microphone, not a rifle. He served the revolution no less with his artillery of words than with the indelible ink of bullets, although this truth sounds like a typical Borge justification from beyond the grave.
Metaphors like automatic machinegun fireAfter personally meeting the Sandinista revolution’s “tough man,” Peruvian Nobel laureate for literature Mario Vargas Llosa paid slightly obnoxious homage to Borge’s literary gifts in an article titled Tomás Borge y las metáforas: “While all Nicaraguans have a kind of natural addition to poetry and images—the percentage of good poets the country has produced is unrivaled in the continent… this has become so acute in Tomás Borge as to become a perversion…. Whether he is conversing or making speeches, metaphors fly from his mouth like automatic machinegun fire.”
Tomás Borge’s exuberant inventiveness produced such happy finds as the phrase las turbas divinas (divine mobs), with which he blessed the vandalism of primitive hordes who with clubs or fists squelched the dissidence of the “enemies of the people” in the eighties. Five or six hundred heads would have guaranteed our freedom and happiness.
If we substitute oligarchy for kings, Borge effectively paraphrased Marat: “We must temporarily organize a despotism of liberty to crush the despotism of kings.” The turbas were sanctified by their divine character and the divinity could defend itself—and not be crucified—thanks to its turbulent nature. This outlandish hybrid—fruit of the mating of two opposites, mob and divinity—recalls the rhetorical hybrid of Robespierre, when he verbalized the miscegenation of virtue and terror, celebrating that revolutionary government proceeds from two indissoluble principles: virtue, without which terror is deplorable, and terror, without which virtue is impotent.
Tomás Borge and his “Green Smile”Sentinels of the people’s joy was Borge’s titillating label for the members of the new Sandinista Police. His syrupy words leapt from his chest when he decreed that Nicaragua’s first women’s prison would be called “La Esperanza” (hope).
Owner of houses, farms and heaps of capital by the end of the eighties, Tomás Wigberto Borge Martínez also had to have his own NGO: in 1992, ever faithful to the scintillating word, he called his new children’s school La Fundación Civil La Verde Sonrisa (green smile)—some say he named it after the ill-fated Khadafy’s Green Book—but in 2009 he re-baptized it Fundación Cristiana La Verde Sonrisa, because by then it had become a “non-party, apolitical organization of social interest and will seek to contribute to the exegesis of the Christian religion and its historical insertion in Latin America, to this end incorporating the general academic syllabus of biblical teachings in order to analyze contemporary issues related to the family and society in general from a Christian perspective.”
In 2005, before accepting Christ, the foundation is said to have sold 3.5 hectares of its land for over 10 million córdobas (roughly $614,000) to investors who then constructed the Multicentro las Américas mall on it. But that booty wasn’t enough for his green charity works, which needed more liquidity. We Nicaraguans now contribute a million córdobas a year to the foundation through our taxes.
The rhetoric of songs:In Mónica Baltodano’s three-volume Memorias de la lucha sandinista (Memories of the Sandinista struggle), Borge describes the FSLN’s policy of contacting intellectuals like Carlos Mejía Godoy, another eminent metaphor addict, and encouraging them to join the FSLN.
Deep-flowing rivers of melodic images
The songs of Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy were a rhetorical gold mine from which the party apparatus extracted slogans, headlines, mottos, diatribes… For their part, the Mejía Godoy brothers also set combatants’ poems, fragments of discourses and slogans to music. The song Comandante Carlos Fonseca uses entire phrases from the book Borge wrote on the FSLN founder while in prison: Possessed by the god of fury and the demon of tenderness, my words escape the jail. And craving light, I name you, brother, in my hours of isolation.
The two-way dynamic is so intertwined that it’s impossible to know which came first, the slogan or the song, in such memorable achievements as Convirtiendo la oscurana en claridad (turning darkness into light), which condenses the aim of teaching people to read and write; Puño en alto, libro abierto (Fist raised, book open), the slogan of the literacy workers and sung to the revolutionary poet Leonel Rugama, who committed the atrocious crime of taking life seriously.
And there follows a torrent of melodic images inseparable from the revolutionary process: Arlen Siu, one of the revolution’s first female martyrs, transfigured into a sweet star in the canefield who buried the clean bright star of her heart in the hollow of her guitar; the guerrilla fighter who emerges in rivers, hills and meadows; the women of El Cuá immortalized as daughters of the mountain; the smile of the peasant María Venancia, who fought against Somoza in the northern mountains, which became a flag in our struggle; the blood of Camilo Ortega which keeps growing in the pitahayas and in children’s laughter; the FSLN portrayed as a dazzling but tender little ear of corn under the sun whose every kernel was a bullet to win peace; and Monimbó, obsidian heart, agave flower along the roadside, borne of history, pure call of the people, guerrilla drum.
Carlos Mejía Godoy’s religious formation made him a troubadour of a guerrilla Christ born in Palacagüina and led him to insert deep rivers of milk and honey into the FSLN’s anthem at the very time the FSLN was declaring itself Marxist-Leninist. The traditional priest-eating rhetoric, typical of the most famous revolutions—the French, Mexican, Soviet and Cuban ones—was swapped for an itch to Christianize the Sandinista revolution, sprinkling weapons with holy water and anointing guerrillas as if ordaining priests, because it was made by former seminar-attending, catechist-reciting student singers and guerrillas…
Posters: The propaganda’s graphic dimensionThe melodic images were accompanied by graphic art, whose slogans and captions often drank from the songs of the Mejía Godoy brothers with bold premeditation, because here there really were intellectual authors behind the crime: the FSLN created the Department of Agitation and Propaganda (DAP) and the National Secretariat of Propaganda and Political Education (SENAPEP), which eventually became—demoted or promoted?—a department of the same name (DEPEP), initially directed by National Directorate member Carlos Núñez Téllez.
Some of the country’s best pens were at the service of the FSLN’s agitprop. Gioconda Belli worked there, making a titanic effort to harvest pears from the elm that has always been Daniel Ortega’s speaking style, burnishing the opaque crystal until obtaining an acceptable image that made his laconic delivery pass for modesty, lack of a world vision for restraint and absence of rhetorical skills for wise conciseness and humble simplicity. The propaganda apparatus had to shore up Ortega, the least rhetorical of the comandantes, because in this land of poets, the stutterer was king.
The best and most complete collection of posters of the Sandinista revolution I know of is the one published by the Institute of History of Nicaragua and Central America titled La revolución es un libro y un hombre libre. Los afiches políticos de Nicaragua Libre 1979-1990 y el Movimiento de Solidaridad Internacional (The revolution is a book and a free man. The political posters of Free Nicaragua 1979-1990 and the International Solidarity Movement), an essential selection by Oscar Bujard and Ulrich Wirper. In its pages we can see that the posters took up the same motifs and sources as the songs. And the same muses. One of the most eye-catching posters reproduced a phrase of Tomás Borge: “Unity, the greatest homage to the martyrs.”
The posters extend the veneration of the Monimbó people: “Monimbó lives in each honorable Nicaraguan.” Another shows a police officer holding a baby: “The Sandinista national police together with the revolution’s future.” Then there was the unforgettable one by Iván Olivares, whose caption reads “Andrés [Castro Estrada, a Nicaraguan peasant soldier who distinguished himself in the 1856 battle of San Jacinto against William Walker’s soldiers of fortune], 125 years later, the enemy is the same.”
Each ministry had its own. The Social Welfare poster read: “Communal solutions to social problems.” Agrarian Reform: “This land is my land. No Yankee will take it away from me.” Labor: “In each worker, Carlos Fonseca Amador.” Health: “Today’s healthy children are the revolution’s future.” The Grassroots Health Campaigns: “Let’s clean today; let’s make a healthy future.” The Sandinista Defense Committees: “After 3 years of revolutionary vigilance, an anti-imperialist rampart” and “Defend the revolution; control Somocismo.” The Ministry of Economy’s poster had a utopian harangue: “Efficient production is one more victory of the revolution against imperialism.” Even the Sandinista Popular Army had its own, albeit somewhat macabre, posters: “Death to illiteracy” and “We will bury the enemy’s heart in the mountains.” While using what is now a politically incorrect word in its own name, the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries pioneered an indispensable proposal: “The city must also be designed for us.”
There was no lack of demagogy: “All arms to the people!” and “People, army, unity… guarantee of victory.” And of course there were some that seem unthinkable today: “I’m in love with a 4-year-old. The revolution is a girl with a big heart,” illustrated with a picture of a small girl.
“So much homeland in one heart”It was difficult to find a program, ministry or other entity that could compete with the National Literacy Crusade: “Turning darkness into light,” “In the land of Sandino we are teaching the worker and peasant to read,” “Our people are asking for help for their second liberation,” “We were victorious in the insurrection, we will be victorious in literacy,” and the classic “Fist raised, book open,” which, together with “Sandino and Fonseca are now teaching literacy. And you?” still echoes in my ears as a former young literacy brigade worker.
Those that associated revolution and nationalism were models of manipulation: “We will serve the homeland at any cost,” “Defend our homeland defending our revolution,” “The revolution saved the homeland,” “We are fighting for peace and national sovereignty,” “The homeland is being attacked, the patriots are rising up to defend it” and “By building the new homeland we are making the new woman,” which was a mechanistic simplification to a far from complete reality. In this string of patriotic posters, none stands out—for its innumerable copies and variations—as much as the one of a young woman breastfeeding a baby with a rifle slung over her shoulder: “Never was there so much homeland in one heart.”
Many posters flew to other lands, appealing to sensitive chords in the international Left: “No more Vietnam in Nicaragua,” which reproduced the photo of the diminutive soldier leading the beefy captured US mercenary Eugene Hasenfus out of the jungle by a slim cord. An eagle with the US flag stamped on it: “Wanted. Accusation: Enemy of humanity. Reward: peace, sovereignty and freedom.” In the Frankfurt book fair, a Coleman lantern announced “Books for a free Nicaragua.” And there was also the one that in its English, French and Spanish versions survived my whole adolescence on a wall in my room: “Bread with dignity for Nicaragua.”
Slogans: Short, new secular prayersThe posters contained slogans, but didn’t exhaust them. The slogan factory worked tirelessly. The one most chanted during the literacy crusade was In each literacy worker, Carlos Fonseca Amador! The Sandinista Youth members would often shout to the limits of their at-times pre-pubertal vocal chords: Only crystals crack/men die standing/and we Sandinistas/will be like Ché! My favorites, which belong more to the category of ideological publicity than slogan, encouraged saving electricity so its lucid calls haven’t perished with time: Maybe you can, but Nicaragua can’t. And the other: Click for Nicaragua!
The most unfortunate was the one that proclaimed the Atlantic Coast “An awakening giant,” both printed on a Ministry of Culture poster and sung by Luis Enrique Mejía Godoy. “And when have we been asleep?” justifiably chided a coast leader. The most humiliating and obligatory in all mass events was “National Directorate, order us!” It still surprises me that no comandante, minister or even mid-level cadre ever rebelled against such emulation of the cult of personality and unconditional submission, required in the kind of regimes that most parasitize the massified subject. Although today’s FSLN leaders may get nostalgic for those times and dream of hearing “Daniel Ortega, order us!”, they repress and invert that desire, albeit only rhetorically, in the new slogan of “People President!”
Every revolution creates quasi-religious paraphernalia, with its saints, martyrs, temples and creed, which could be a Constitution—the US one has such a rank—or a “belief,” such as the industrial revolution’s firm faith in technology and unlimited progress, while still today has innumerable followers and addicts. The revolutions in which ideology plays a determinant role—which is all of them, although to different degrees—make use of elements that have buttressed the religious institutionsfor centuries. In the case of the Christian religion, two thousand years of experience endorse practices in which short prayers, litanies, processions, hymns of devotion and sermons are the daily catechesis and best propagandistic apparatus. The Sandinista revolution was no exception. Its slogans were its short secular prayers, its packed demonstrations were its processions, its speeches in the plaza its sermons, and the FSLN anthem or hymn its party creed. The comandantes replaced the skullcap and chasuble with the olive green uniform and cap, a habit for secular monks.
Only finding this latent sacredness in what seemed to be mundane rituals helps me explain why the opprobrious National Directorate, ordene!—despite its ridiculing and subversive parody as Dirección Nacional, ordeñe! (milk us!)—never incited frontal opposition, but on the contrary was enormously accepted. The fact is that the slogan evoked submission to the celestial monarchy and helped generate a feeling of communion in the masses.
Revolutions rename the universeThere is another powerful element to stimulate the rhetorical pyrotechnics, the firecrackers of slogans, and the verbose and logorrheic avalanche of revolutions. Revolutionary leaders and their minions feel the same urge as Robinson Crusoe, a burning desire that, in the words of Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater, means that a new world, created by Crusoe, is born after the shipwreck: “Reborn in the perdition of his island, that blessed limbo of the Pacific, Robinson is in the semi-innocent and perfect position to reinvent everything. Unquestionably, his later creations seem very much like the world ordered by others that he left behind, but this time it is he and nobody other than he who puts the first stone on each civilized monument of his universe.”
The French revolution was an innovative Crusoe, before and after the bloody shipwreck of the reign of terror and its Thermidorian reaction. The Jacobins designed and imposed their own new calendar, the measure of a new time for new men. It was a secular and agricultural calendar, lacking in any religious or bucolic allusions. Three rhymed months corresponded to each season: autumn (Vendémiaire, Brumaire and Frimaire), winter (Nivôse, Pluviôse and Ventôse), spring (Germinal, Floréal and Prairial) and summer (Messidor, Thermidor and Fructidor).
That calendar remained in effect between 1792 and 1806, the year the self-appointed emperor Napoleon abolished it because he believed that the republicanism that inspired it had no place in the dynasty he was inaugurating. According to historian Norman Hampson: “The new calendar symbolized several aspects of revolutionary thought: replacing tradition with ‘reason,’ the cult of an idealized Nature, and the breach with Christianity.” The calendar was a very concrete step toward eliminating Christianity in daily life.
Nicaragua’s revolution triumphed on primidi (the first day of the French Republican calendar’s 10-day week) of the summer month of Thermidor. It was the day of Épeautre, wheat. From that day until its end, the revolutionary government renamed everything it could: streets, plazas, barrios, ports, stadiums, schools… and also time. Each year received its baptism: 1979: year of liberation, 1980: year of literacy, 1981: year of defense and production, 1982: year of unity in the face of aggression… Everyday objects were also renamed. If in the French revolution the Rousseau of clubs and Voltaire of diamonds replaced the old images in the card deck, the faces of Sandino, Rigoberto López Pérez, Carlos Fonseca and Germán Pomares supplanted those of the old founding fathers—Miguel Larreynaga and José Dolores Estrada—and Somoza on the bills and coins of the eighties.
The myth of the new manThe citizen of the French revolution and the comrade of the Soviet revolution had their equivalent in the compañero of the Sandinista revolution. The obligatory use of the familiar verb conjugation—imposed by decree in the French revolution—was mirrored in our case in the obligation to erase señor from our dictionary: I recall an instructor in the Sandinista Popular Militias once saying to us, “Don’t call me señor, that’s for the bourgeoisie.” And just as the teachers in the French educational system had to have their certificate of patriotism, the certificate of having participated in the coffee-picking brigades was the guarantee that its Nicaraguan bearer was making strenuous efforts to embody the “new man.”
The myth of the new man, that abstract being that Hungarian historian André Reszler explains came out of the organizing imagination of the utopian spirit, takes the place of the good savage, the first critique of corrupt civilizations: “The new man has a dual spiritual and political status. On the one hand he embodies the alternative of the Christian who abandons the ‘old’ way of living and assumes an entirely new mode of existence. On the other he gives a ‘humanist’ prolongation to the projects of utopian or revolutionary society, founded on the creativity of a patiently prepared revolutionary pedagogy. Integrated into the modern ideological discourse, the concept aims to be materialist and political. But it is also benefited by the hope of St. Paul’s message, which it secularizes, adapting it to the requirements of a social New Jerusalem.”
New rhetoric for the new man: new images, phrases, names and slogans, generators of that spiritual revolution advocated by Lukács. Without the new man, there is no new society, as Eric Hobsbawn stated. The myth of the new man is the ideological cornerstone of revolutions because it offers a break with the ancien régime and the inventing of a new tradition based on a nit-picking selection of old elements. The Sandinista revolution went searching in old kit bags for the rescuable and recyclable: Andrés Castro—the only people’s hero exalted in the struggle against the filibusterer William Walker; Camilo Zapata, the singer-songwriter from Chinandega—converted into national folklore; the primi¬tivist painting of Solentiname—ambassador of the national culture; etc. The propaganda, the slogans and the speeches were the creators of that new universe.
The rhetoric: Making reality Yet another element explains the profusion of revolutionary rhetoric: the capacity to perform and feel realized that such phases offer those who hold power.
with verbal pyrotechnics
Philosophers of language discovered some decades ago that the most common of mortals understand that phrases usually represent states of things, but that some phrases realize the situations they enunciate. They have a performative power. “I promise you I’ll be there…” is at one and the same time a sentence that enunciates a promise and brings that promise into being: it formulates what it is doing. The same thing happens with “I’m telling you that….”
In a different sense, precisely by being imbued with power, the political authority carries out what he promises. By ordering “Defend the revolution,” he reproduces the fiat luce of Genesis because that one phrase condenses a call to alert and a warning to be on guard. But he also brings it into being because there is no probatory or negating authority over the revolution. Who can demonstrate it’s not true if the leaders say, In each literacy worker, Carlos Fonseca Amador!?
In those years the power to bring things into being also came from the fact that they were the only power that could confer status. Only the supreme revolutionary power could decree that This is the people’s land, just as it now establishes that The people are President. The materiality of the sentence is the materiality of the deed. The unusual aspect of the word precedes, accompanies or replaces audacity in actions. But only in the world of the superstructure. Reality has an independence that escapes rhetorical power.
But politicians have always endeavored, by rhetorical hammer-blows, to shape reality. And as the granite-like reality is not very ductile, rhetorical politicians have always sold well: Demosthenes, Cicero, Marat, Danton, Saint-Just, Trotsky… The problem is that rhetoric without actions or with actions that contradict it or only clumsily and awkwardly bring it into being ends up reduced to a mere spectacle and manipulation. It remains at the level of pure rhetoric, the only reality deconstructionists recognize, according to Vargas Llosa: “Realism does not exist and never has existed, say the deconstructionists, for the simple reason that reality also does not exist for knowledge; it is nothing more than a tangle of discourses that instead of expressing it, hide or dissolve it in an elusive and inapprehensible fabric of contradictions and versions that relativize and negate each other. What, then, does exist? Discourses, the only reality apprehensible to the human conscience. Discourses that some remit to others, mediations of a life or a reality that can only come to us through those metaphors or rhetoric.”
There is empty rhetoric If rhetoric isn’t pure verbal pyrotechnics, it is plagued with myths, and one has to do a lot of digging in order to understand the nature of power and of revolutions. Georges Sorel, who wanted to discover the sensitive chords that will mobilize people, argued that myths impel the subversion of existing situations and that “ideologies have been nothing more than translations of those myths into abstract forms.”
and rhetoric plagued with myths
The slogans, posters, legends, mottos and metaphors harbor constellations of values that sustain or defeat political regimes, hidden in cryptic codes. These constellations are in the rhetorical recourses mentioned above. And it is in them that we must seek the explanation for why Gioconda Belli and Mónica Baltodano—who no one could ever accuse of bending to the dominion of a macho father or husband—have excused compañero Borge’s ideological, venal and skirt-chasing “weaknesses,”—those we know about and the many more they know about—to write such panegyrics in his memory: to the great man, to the dedicated revolutionary. They pardon him those trifles; slips that only crushed lives and reputations are nothing compared to the greatness of the revolutionary process.
But if the rhetoric is empty, saturated with insufferable and defective iterations, as is the case of the ingenuity-lacking propaganda of Daniel Ortega’s current regime, we have nothing for analysis other than an FSLN turned into a nest of inaccuracies. Rhetoric is formidable if it is good—and even more so if it’s bad. Marcus Tullius Cicero, who indeed knew what he was talking about, said it at an early age in his handbook on oratory titled De Inventíone, written when he was 21: “I have often and deeply resolved this question in my mind, whether fluency of language has been beneficial or injurious to men and to cities, with reference to the cultivation of the highest order of eloquence. For when I consider the disasters of our own republic, and when I call to mind also the ancient calamities of the most important states, I see that it is by no means the most insignificant portion of their distresses which has originated from the conduct of the most eloquent men.” The illustrious Tomás Borge to the podium.
José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Migrants (SJM) of Central America and a member of the envío editorial council.The Sandinista revolution abounded in rhetoric.