My questions about July 19 on the 35th anniversary of the revolution
I find myself, as the new July 19 anniversary celebration approaches,
reflecting on the significance of that transcendental feat in the nation’s history,
grappling with the disconcerting and unsettling questions and concerns
of a young person who didn’t participate in it.
William Grigsby Vergara
A new July 19 celebration. A few days earlier I sought out some young men and women from the Sandinista Youth organization, many of whom are my age (29), but the majority younger. They seem very happy with the activities “the Comandante and Compañera Rosario” are promoting for them. Echoing the presidential couple, they speak of this period as the “second stage of the Revolution.”
Who’s participating? These youth are highly organized and participate in many different groups. There’s the Nicaragua United youth group that’s helping those affected by the April 10 earthquake. There’s the Youth Movement to Save Bosawás that began in 2007, in which young people from a variety of universities have taken on the task of reforesting the areas particularly affected in Central America’s most important biosphere reserve. There’s also the Network of Youth for the Holy Spirit that gets together for different Catholic celebrations. Many young people are participating in the Youth Communicators Network, where they are trained in workshops on a variety of topics, among them violence prevention and promoting new roles that guarantee respect between men and women; at the Social Technology 2014 gathering they were taught to communicate through the social networks and set up blogs to exchange historical, cultural and social information. There are youth participating in the Granada Tourist Project that arranges visits to Lake Nicaragua, the Granada Isletas, Zapatera Island and the volcanoes on the Island of Ometepe. The young people in the Guardabarranco Movement promote recycling of tires and bottles, care of the environment and reforestation, work on food security with families in Chontales and teach other youth to sow and harvest in urban areas through a program called Healthy Country. I also found youth organizing a tribute to Comandante Germán Pomares Ordóñez, known by his nom de guerre “El Danto,” one of the Sandinista martyrs who made the revolution possible and fell shortly before the July 19 triumph.
Hearing about all these projects made me wonder who can participate—only those in the July 19 Sandinista Youth organization (JS-19) or who at least openly declare themselves supporters of the governing party? Or are these organizations open to others? I wondered why there has been no promotion of them among youth not of their political affiliation.
Why this violence? I also wondered why the JS-19 youth have been known to assault and bully other youth who think differently than they do. I remember what happened a year ago when dozens of young people who were supporting elderly protesters demanding their right to a pension were beaten, robbed and violently attacked by youth organized for this action by the JS-19.
In June 2013 the many-year struggle by the elderly poor for their pension rights received the support of hundreds of university youth in Managua along with other sectors of the population. The #OccupyINSS (Nicaraguan Social Security Institute) youth movement was organized through the social networks and quickly grew. In the early morning of June 22, Sandinista Youth wearing hoods violently attacked the Occupy youth and robbed them of identity cards, money, cell phones, cameras and vehicles.
I wondered why we see such violence between youth over defending the rights of these elderly people. Why the need for such extremes? All youth, whether Sandinista or not, should be united in defending the elderly, but this brought out polarization and a lot of violence. Did it have to do with built-up resentment between Sandinista young people and the “opposition” of middle-class youth who mostly complain about President Ortega’s administration?
I discussed this with my first, second and third-year graphic design students at the Central American University (UCA), a private Jesuit university in Nicaragua. They are between 17 and 20 years of age and are of the nineties generation. They aren’t very knowledgeable about what the JS-19 is or isn’t doing. Some consider them bums or fanatics, but one thing they all agree on is that they’re afraid of them. They associate them with violence, home-made mortars, machetes and mobs.
Better or worse than the eighties? I ask my students what they know about Nicaragua’s history of only a few years ago and they give ambiguous answers. They know there was a revolution but aren’t clear about what happened in the eighties. Some say it’s much better now because that’s what their parents say. And others say everything’s worse now because that’s what their parents say. Everything is better or worse due to the same cause but what is that cause?
It would be valid to say that today’s youth, independent of their political affiliation, are much more concerned about the environment than before. This is a symptom of social evolution. They’re more worried about climate change. They’re fabulously organized through social networks. They’re concerned about gender equality, which was not an issue for youth here before the nineties although today’s interest in this issue owes much to the feminist struggles of the eighties when many women opened up spaces, broke free, rebelled and found their place. This happened even though a great number of mothers gave their children to their country and it never gave them back.
Are we concerned about poverty? After the FSLN’s defeat and the end of the war in the eighties many nongovernmental organizations sprang up, as did new political parties, ideological currents and fronts of struggle. Civil society organizations resolved to inform, empower and enrich youth, promote gender equality, support the peasantry, create environmental consciousness and promote citizenship. They organized projects in which many youth born in the eighties and nineties now participate.
In that new context, the new generation of young people, independent of their ideology, learned to think and no longer live in a provincial bubble. They are more curious, have an innovative spirit, want to explore, be reborn, be informed. Today’s young people, particularly young women, are much more participative, better educated academically, with more leadership skills in a country that, despite everything, has made great advances amid social structures so full of fissures.
We young people, some of whom follow the FSLN and some who have their own ideology, all live in a country still submerged in poverty. This is what should concern us. But does it? We’re the new vanguard in a country in which our parents were the vanguard of the eighties. There’s still high illiteracy, many needs and still a large group of forgotten people. There are still many children and youth in the streets, still a majority of rural youth without drinkable water or electricity or even education. And this should concern us, independent of our beliefs, pamphlets or ideologies.
Should we celebrate? Most youth today don’t know what July 19, 1979—that historic public holiday celebrated every year—represents. Should we go to the plaza and celebrate it? And what plaza should we go to—the Plaza of Faith which is a prosthetic of the genuine Plaza of the Revolution?
July 19 isn’t just the date this country was freed from tyranny. It’s also the date youth were freed from their bonds. On that date Nicaraguan youth were more united than ever and young people were one fist, one slogan, one ideal.
Certainly, the Managua of today, where July 19 is celebrated every year, doesn’t much resemble the Managua of the eighties. Nor should we idealize the Managua of the revolutionary years.
None of Nicaragua is the same, but it’s still poor. Our country’s poverty is an historical problem. Those who taught literacy classes in the seventies saw boys and girls come to class without shoes. Those who were taught literacy in the eighties saw the same poverty. And those who teach it now still see poverty. If today’s poverty is the same or worse than yesterday’s, we Nicaraguans are doing something wrong. All of us, in whatever way and for whatever reason, are the cause and the consequences of a problem we inherited from our parents and grandparents. These girls and young women in the streets are the true wreckage of the revolution. The rest is rhetoric—the rhetoric of one government after another since the revolution ended in 1990, when no one was expecting it.
What should we celebrate today? And today? The FSLN government wants to make us live in a kind of eternal Merry Christmas. That’s what the abundance of little colored lights and ornaments that never go off in the capital’s traffic circles, the dozens of gigantic tin trees they call “trees of life,” each with thousands of tiny lights turned on every evening in those same traffic circles and along its main avenue down to the lake tell us. We live in a kind of forced fantasy, a constant celebration of Christmas without the turkey and dessert. And no one questions it, at least out loud, or asks who’s paying for all the electricity to light up these decorations that rise up like new landscape in our capital.
Sandino is now a statue—no longer a man or a martyr—just a plain, flat statue. His lit black silhouette shines even on the old Central Bank, a concrete survivor of the 1972 and 1979 earthquakes: the first one caused by tectonic plates and the second one by the Nicaraguan people.
Is that the earthquake we celebrate every year on July 19? Those who were the main actors during that period—our parents and grandparents—say that yes, we’re celebrating the triumph of the Popular Sandinista Revolution that overthrew more than 40 years of Somoza dictatorship. But today’s youth don’t even remember Somoza. To be able to remember the heroes one has to remember the villain. And today Somoza isn’t even a statue anymore; they were all pulled down. He’s just another name.
So what have we been seeing for years in the July 19 celebrations? We see the First Lady and the President of the Republic raising their arms while fireworks explode and a mass of young people dance to the beat of songs about love, peace and reconciliation. Are these young people aware of the past and do they really know why they are there? Who, for example, remembers who participated in the 1974 assault on the Chema Castillo house, whose remains today are one more pile of rubble opposite Zona Hippos, a fancy restaurant area in the Los Robles neighborhood? Who knows what happened in the National Palace in 1978 and who risked their lives in that daring action?
Where do we go cry for them? There’s no respect for history or the memory of that history. Where is there a monument in Nicaragua commemorating the thousands of victims who perished under the Somoza regime’s yoke? Where is there a place to remember the heroes and martyrs of a lost revolution, a place where we can read the names of those thousands of mere kids who went to the mountains to fight a war because it was their military duty? Where do we go to remember those many peasants who fought in the Resistance movement for what they thought was liberty and their rights? All of these are Nicaraguans. Nicaraguans against Nicaraguans—and this is the saddest part of our history. Where can we cry for them?
My mother lost cousins in the war but their names aren’t on any commemorative plaque. She has to content herself with remembering them in her own mind. The same is true for thousands of Nicaraguans whose relatives, friends and partners gave their lives for our country’s liberation.
Not only is the past not respected; the present isn’t respected either. We young Nicaraguans don’t read our own history. We’re globalized but we neglect our own history.
Have we been divided or do we divide ourselves? The nation’s middle class resents the upper class and doesn’t mix with the lower class. The lower class, which is the vast majority, resents the middle and upper class. The young people with the least economic resources are the most vulnerable to political manipulation, as has always been true. We don’t need to do a study to see how the historical figure of El Ché became a tattoo or a painted silhouette on a flag or a pamphlet. Some say he’s Argentinean, others that he’s Cuban and even some believe El Ché is Nicaraguan.
What do I remember? The July 19 celebration has become a messianic festival that no longer lets us see the historic actors. The real version of the revolution is something else. I remember those years in the eighties when I lived in the San Antonio neighborhood. Every July 19, my uncles came to the house and together we’d all go to the main square to celebrate. We were so very happy holding up the Nicaraguan flag and the red and black Sandinista flag, feeling a common cause and common pain. Now, like everyone, we’re divided. Families that hadn’t split with the revolution split with its collapse. The collective sense of failure was so great that each one went his or her individual way. Some became resentful and bitter, others abandoned the project and the majority became corrupted along the way.
My parents spoke to me about the revolution from the time the “blackbird” flew through the Nicaraguan sky while Reagan boycotted the socialist project in Central America. I was only a baby but I remember the shaking of the window panes of my house when that dreaded gringo spy plane passed overhead breaking the sound barrier. We were all scared shitless—my brothers, me, the whole neighborhood.
Those were difficult times. Even with the help from the socialist powers, increasingly smaller due to the Soviet Union’s deterioration, Nicaraguan hospitals faced serious difficulties caring for the war wounded. My father was one. He would go to Jinotega to help pick coffee in the war zones as a member of the Sandinista Army reserve troops. After that he was in the Atlantic Coast between 1985, the year I was born, and 1987. He worked in Karawala, the Ulwa indigenous people’s last existing community, and in Sandy Bay and La Barra when he developed a serious problem with his right leg. In Managua they told him they would have to amputate it, but he was able to travel to Cuba where they saved his leg. Not everyone was so lucky. Other combatants ended up amputees with bullets still lodged in their bodies or traumatized after battles with the Contra, their own Nicaraguan brothers. The draftees—affectionately called the “pups”—were the ones who suffered and died the most.
They were hard times. While the older boys were in the front lines of the war, we at home aged four or five played war with little Russian soldiers. There were revolvers and AK rifles in every home in all the neighborhoods. My uncle William had an AK in my grandmother’s house and my father kept his pistol in the bureau in his room. Weapons and olive green uniforms were common in families at the time.
There were few school buses and we had to travel like stacked sardines. The old Pegasos buses were as numerous on the streets as the IFAs, the Soviet troop transport trucks, and the LADAs, the Soviet look-alike to the Italian Fiat, although that’s not the same as saying there was much vehicle traffic back then. Walking was very common. At that time you could get around by foot in Managua. I went to preschool at the Camilo Ortega School and my father took me by bicycle. He developed thick calves and steel lungs making these trips. It’s not like now when if you go on bike they either steal it from you or run over you.
Were we all equal back then? In those years the parks were very used spaces. My brothers and I often went to my grandmother’s house and from there to the Piedrecitas park. I remember the four-wheeled roller skates and the statue of Indian chief Diriangen, chiseled by Edith Gron. To me it seemed imposing, formidable, indestructible, just like the Sandinista struggle.
It was a time when we children felt equal, although perhaps children who could go buy nice things at the “diplomats store” didn’t feel it. They were the comandantes’ children, who were sent out of the country for vacation and accompanied on the trip to school by bodyguards. One way or another they were beginning to lick the honey of power.
Managua was smaller and prettier then, with no commercial billboards cluttering up the view. On Sundays my mother took us to another park named for Luís Alfonso Velázquez, a nine-year-old student and Sandinista activist who was killed by the National Guard. We got on the swings and walked along the sidewalks, stopping at the small kiosks where they sold vanilla ice cream and little toy cartoon characters. Yes, we felt equal and we experienced social equality even though it didn’t really exist.
After 1990 this and all the other parks of my childhood were abandoned. The current government has now taken on the task of rehabilitating the Luís Alfonso Velásquez Park and many children have returned to the swings and to play basketball and enjoy the green spaces. I wonder if they know who Luis Alfonso Velázquez was. That boy and many other children like him are one of the reasons they celebrate July 19 very close to this park.
Celebrate without them? I also wonder how it’s possible to celebrate July 19 without the presence of the Mejía Godoy brothers who graced the insurrection era with their music. Or without poet Ernesto Cardenal or Jesuit priest and Literacy Crusade director Fernando Cardenal or writer and Vice President Sergio Ramírez and so many other intellectuals who separated themselves from the FSLN for ethical reasons years ago, even before it was again the governing party. I wonder if I’ll ever again see commanders Dora María Téllez, “Modesto” (Henry Ruiz), Hugo Torres, Luís Carrión, Víctor Tirado, Jaime Wheelock and even Humberto Ortega at the celebration of this historic date. I wonder if these names are even remotely familiar to those young people who go to the Plaza of Faith wearing their white T-shirts painted with pink letters and yellow suns. I wonder if they still sound familiar to the youth of my generation, those who studied with me in high school.
At the school there’s still a plaque the Blue Room with the names of all the students who died in the war to liberate the country from the dictatorship. Their names are there, immutable symbols of a history that has been buried, covered in dust like an old, boring book by anonymous authors.
It was in high school where they talked to us about the revolutionary process of the eighties. They also explained to us the transition to the world of the nineties, very different years. It was there that the Jesuits tried to inculcate us with Christian solidarity and love of one’s neighbor. But, most of us were already into other things.
Why are we divided now? We’re a generation that inherited a divided, individualistic Nicaragua, so different from the one I knew as a child. When I graduated from high school in 2001 most of the boys didn’t show any interest in the revolution. There was already a great degree of alienation among us. The country was different. We were passive witnesses of the corruption first in the Aleman era then in the Bolaños era. We lived through the neoliberal policies and saw the streets fill with more poverty, more hungry kids without faith, food, home or education. Just marginalized. Those street kids were and are the wreckage of the revolution. But they’re not the only ones; we all are—all of us who see it and don’t know what to do.
Although we young people today have our own struggles, causes and concerns, one can feel the apathy towards political causes by just looking at the universities’ supply of and demand for careers having nothing to do with the Humanities.
Nicaragua’s history is already an appendix of our culture. Many youth want urgently to leave this country because the future here isn’t exactly encouraging. Their intelligence isn’t recognized and there’s no culture of debate although the culture of hostile polarization is alive and well. This is another reason we’re divided. And why there was so much violence among youth on both sides on June 22 in the senior citizen’s struggle for the right to a pension.
Doesn’t it do harm to forget? The consequences of denying, forgetting, burying or even changing history are always serious. The consequences of not telling it the way it really was are even worse. One example is in Germany where the generation that followed those who lived through the Second World War didn’t know what the Nazis did.
At the end of that war a collective complex of denying the recent history arose in both homes and schools. To this wall of silence was added the Berlin wall that separated one group from the other during the entire Cold War. The German society that lived through the Holocaust and witnessed the genocide of the Jews felt ashamed of their own past. They decided to cover the eyes of the new generations until the wall fell in 1989. Even now Germany is struggling with the darkness of those past years. At a lesser level something like that is happening today in Nicaragua.
Vilma Núñez de Escorcia, the president of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, spoke recently in envío about “transitional justice,” a concept unknown in Nicaragua. This concept suggests that in those countries that have lived through a transition process from a dictatorship to a democracy or from an armed conflict to peace, justice must be fostered based on three fundamental aspects: learn the truth, establish justice and make reparations to the victims. This human rights defender gave an account that cut through the human rights violations committed in three very different major periods of our recent history: the years of the Somoza dictatorship, the revolution phase and the transition period of Violeta Chamorro’s government.
How much of the truth do we know? It’s essential to know the truth of what happened in those times. Do young people know the truth and if so, how much of it? Who knows more—those born in the eighties or those born in the nineties? If the version we’re getting today of what the revolution was about isn’t totally acceptable for the eighties generation for one reason or another, we can infer that the nineties generation knows even less. But this nineties generation is the offspring of the generation that got scholarships from the USSR in the eighties and also of the feminist generation that broke the mold in in those same years.
The nineties generation is also the offspring of the Resistance to the revolution, who aren’t even included in today’s official history. We have to include them because that war was one of Nicaraguans against Nicaraguans and who won wasn’t them, the contras, or the Sandinista Army, which strategically beat them, but the gringos who financed and strategized the whole thing. All we Nicaraguans won was a decimated country that couldn’t produce anything but the FSLN’s defeat at the polls. Today the government isn’t the same one but only an administration led by a wealthy family that promotes a cult of personality through its social communication media.
Only death and nothing else? Mercedes Moncada, who was 80 years old when the revolution triumphed that July 19, made a prize-winning documentary in which she reflects on what it was like for her to live in the Nicaragua of the eighties. One of the maxims of her “Magic words to break a spell” that has stayed with me is this: “Death stopped being heroic and productive; it’s just death and nothing more.”
It’s an idea that’s perfectly applicable to our present situation, in which the deaths from that war don’t even have a memorial—they just died and nothing more. There’s no place to cry for them, list them or remember them. Today the Left’s official discourse gets confused with that of the Right and some of those who had a leading role in the revolution are those who are betraying it today.
So what are we celebrating on July 19? Who are we celebrating? It was 35 years ago that the powerful and monolithic FSLN shattered the dictatorship into pieces and 24 years ago that the same FSLN was itself shattered. Despite this, some leaders stubbornly insist on presenting themselves as those keeping that project alive. And they celebrate it.
It’s a project that continues to be propelled by young people, but not by all of them; just those united in dividing others and separated from their own history without critical skills and without the right to decide, debate or think for themselves.
We other young people, who aren’t part of the new FSLN, also celebrate that anniversary but we do so with a feeling of indifference in some cases, of failure in others, or of pain for the betrayal. Perhaps someday those young people, all of us, may again become one single fist fighting for a better country, free and less unequal.
William Grigsby Vergara is a writer.