Eric Hamovitch attended a round-table discussion held at Librairie Las Americas on Saturday as part of the Blue Metropolis festival.
For fans and followers of socialist revolutions in Latin America, the triumph of the Sandinista National Liberation Front in July 1979 came as a magnificent surprise. That Nicaragua should have a revolutionary government ahead of Colombia, with its longer-running conflict, or El Salvador, where events had taken on greater intensity, was not entirely expected. In part this resulted from a degree of loathsomeness so conspicuous in the collapsing right-wing dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza that even Somoza’s former U.S. backers were mostly glad to see him gone.
The Sandinista triumph came at a time when the authoritarian proclivities of the Cuban revolution had left some former supporters disenchanted. It was a spirit-raiser for the left, coming just a few years after Salvador Allende’s Chilean experiment in revolution through the ballot box had been so brutally crushed. But it also occurred just a year and a half before arch-cold warrior Ronald Reagan took office and began to unleash his bullying tactics in Central America, which included state support of terrorism.
Stephen Henighan, a Canadian writer and academic (University of Guelph) and no stranger to Blue Met audiences, expounded articulately at a session marking the 35th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution (well, almost the 36th, but who’s counting?). He was in Nicaragua only briefly during the Sandinistas’ initial time in government (1979 to 1990) but has been back many times since. He is the author, among other books, of Sandino’s Nation, portraying two writers who served in that government, Culture Minister Ernesto Cardenal and Vice-President Sergio Ramírez (both estranged from the Sandinista Front in its current form).
The Sandinista Revolution, Henighan noted, attracted its fair share of foreign enthusiasts and groupies. For some, Reagan’s involvement created a paradigm of evil versus good, almost in the image of the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s. But in contrast to Spain, foreign supporters did not enlist in military units (with some vanishingly rare exceptions). And the conflict in Nicaragua did not generate great literature. There was no Hemingway, Malraux or Orwell to write For Whom the Bell Tolls, L’Espoir or Homage to Catalonia. Yet Nicaragua does have enviable literary traditions of its own. It has produced some fine examples of testimonio (testimonial narrative). And there is an old joke that every Nicaraguan is a poet unless proven otherwise. Rubén Darío, a late 19th-century poet, achieved huge prominence in the Spanish-speaking world.
The world moves on, but some things seem immutable. Daniel Ortega was president of Nicaragua in the 1980s. A more cynical and corrupt Daniel Ortega is president of Nicaragua today. Once a bitter enemy of the Catholic hierarchy, Ortega now counts the archbishop among his allies, thanks in part to a stringent anti-abortion law and a willingness to dispense Catholic doctrine in public schools. Credible reports that Ortega had sexually abused a young stepdaughter created barely a ripple, for reasons that Henighan explained. (Among other things, Ortega’s children control most television broadcasting in Nicaragua.) One thing Ortega has got right is keeping the murder rate low, at least by Central American standards. No Mexican drug kingpin has established a base in Nicaragua. It was made clear they would be killed if they did. And the Nicaraguan police, though poorly paid, have the reputation of being the least corruptible in any Latin American country other than Chile.
Eric Hamovitch is a Montreal writer and translator with a keen interest in foreign affairs. He served as a correspondent in Central America during the 1980s.
– photo: MRS Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, Flickr Creative Commons