Notes on Culture in the New Nicaragua
Editor’s Note: This remarkable document, by Nicaraguan poet, essayist, historian and journalist Pablo Antonio Cuadra, was published in August in Vuelta, the distinguished Mexican journal of letters and culture edited by the world-famous poet, anthropologist and diplomat Octavio Paz. The translation from Spanish is by Mark Falcoff.
In Nicaragua today a dramatic struggle is going on between ideology and culture. The ideology of the Sandinista Front has lost its utopian aspect, and what remains in its place is somewhat elemental and gray: a Marxism-Leninism which crudely apes the wretched Soviet notions of man and society, retailed second-hand by Cuba, and which—retailed once more by our own social realities—amount to nothing more than a complete and total failure, sustainable only through the mechanism of totalitarian propaganda. This sounds strong—I know it—but is true nonetheless. From the point of view of culture, at least, our situation could not be worse. The reigning ideology, for its very survival, requires the negation of freedom and of the right to critical thought, elements which are, after all, indispensable for cultural work.
The ideology of the Sandinista Front has been presented to us, somewhat presumptuously, as the expression of “modernity”: its Marxism is an advance, so it is said, in all areas, while the Nicaraguan culture that preceded it is represented as a tradition of failure. The “progressive” pyrotechnics of Sandinismo rather stupidly deny history: everything new is good, everything previous to it is bad. It is certainly true that the democratic tradition in Nicaragua, which is a substantial part of our culture, has nothing to point to but defeats. On the other hand, the germinal aspect of our history resides in the fact that the near-totality of our civil wars and insurrections have represented frustrated efforts to achieve democracy.
All our dictators disguised themselves as paladins of democracy and began their governments by raising high its banners against the previous frustrated attempt. What we derive from our history is a tradition of democratic aspirations. There is nothing particularly “modern” about the effort to frustrate once more this secular desire of the Nicaraguan people by establishing instead some sort of new dictatorship, which offers what culture has always rejected, and presents in the guise of the new and the modern, what is, in fact, the definitive defeat of these historic efforts. What is tragic is that this failure is essential to Marxism-Leninism: it is the failure of Marx who proposed a system intended to achieve the complete freedom of man, and only managed—thanks to the work of Lenin—to generate the most oppressive and totalitarian power in history. That failure is the result of a dialectic that, to our misfortune, functioned with the same brutal logic in Nicaragua, where the real movement of history was a heroic libertarian revolution against Somoza, a movement that was derailed by Marxist-Leninist interference, and brought us back to our point of departure—from dictatorship to dictatorship—which is to say, a reinforcement of the state machinery left behind by Somoza. A sad compensation for the rivers of blood shed by the thousands of Nicaraguans who fell in the struggle for liberty!
But the paradox is even deeper and more cruel than that: within that movement, the entire literary and philosophical production of our intellectuals expressed the same libertarian goal. We knew very well, from our own cultural tradition, what a highly admired novelist—Gabriel Garcia Marquez—had said to us in a lapidary fashion: “When one reaches absolute power, one loses total contact with reality.” Absolute power, the “progressive” ideal of Marxism-Leninism, means not only placing the State in opposition to culture, but sealing it off from the basic realities of our society. It is for this reason that the entire Nicaraguan literary movement, which played a vital role in the gestation of the revolution against Somoza, never contemplated the emergence of a totalitarian state, or even the enlargement on apparatus which was already too powerful, much less redeem the poor with the Communist formula “dictatorship of the proletariat.”
For this reason “ideology” has had to impose itself slowly, operating, as it were, in various disguises, never calling things by their proper names, always denying and hiding behind false colors. Today the Sandinista leaders affirm and they do not affirm; another day they punish or insult those who call them Marxist-Leninists or Communists. For a long time the daily newspaper La Prensa was censored or operated under virtual siege conditions, because it persisted in documenting the totalitarian nature of certain acts or measures taken by the government. If we have learned anything in Nicaragua it is that Communism advances to the degree to which it can do so unobserved or unmarked. From the point of view of culture, this is a terrible, profoundly sterilizing attitude. Hypocrisy, false labels, can create slogans but not poems; propaganda but not life; there are no roots, there are no realities to nurture creative work, and this accounts for the fact that in six years of the revolutionary regime the literature production of Nicaragua has been astonishingly poor. This is all the more dramatic when we recall that it was the earlier effervescence of creative literary energy which first brought the Nicaraguan revolution to the attention of the world. Not only was that revolution betrayed on the political plane, but also on that of literature and art. The triumph of Sandinismo represents a crime against the spirit.
In November, 1979, when it was still possible to imagine that the Nicaraguan people were or could be united behind a single revolutionary project, we organized a symposium on “The Writer and the Revolution.” To preside over it we invited the Minister of Culture, Ernesto Cardenal, and the Argentine writer, Ernesto Cortazar. Seven Nicaraguan writers, representing the entire range of living generations, assembled before a numerous public made up of the intellectual, political, and university communities. Both Cortazar and the Minister of Culture ended by declaring themselves in favor of the absolute freedom of poetic creation, without any demands on the part of the state for political compatibility.
Those ideas, which were unanimously accepted by all who participated in the symposium, were the prelude to something truly original (and of course heretical for totalitarian ideologues). We thought it might be the single most important contribution of the Nicaraguan revolution to the world. I remember two Cuban poets, who had just arrived, expressing to me something more than their pleasure, their enthusiasm for those resolutions pertaining to creative liberty and intellectual independence. Inevitably, they suggested, such things eventually would influence developments in Cuba. Nonetheless, precisely the opposite occurred: two years later, in October, 1982, this commitment to freedom had been so completely abandoned that Ventana, the cultural supplement to the official daily Barricada, published on its first page the antique discourse of Fidel Castro, so reminiscent of Mussolini, entitled “Everything Within the Revolution; Nothing Against the Revolution,” the interpretation of which—made by political functionaries and police officials—have condemned a significant number of Cuban writers and artists to jail and exile.
Those empowered to outline the new official doctrine in cultural matters, or rather, to discard the first mask of freedom and to place over their faces another more severe (let us not forget that in Communist praxis all masks are ultimately designed to be discarded) were Commander Bayardo Arce, and novelist and Junta member Sergio Ramirez. The auditorium was packed by intellectuals from all corners of the country for the First Convention of Cultural Workers in February, 1980. In their speeches they began to reveal the Orwellian face of the supreme “commissary” whose job it is to define what revolutionary culture ought to be—what is permitted and what is not; which is to say, they proclaimed that by virtue of possessing power they were converted into supermen, individuals of extraordinary talent, and therefore qualified to send all of the intellectuals and artists of the country to a ramshackle schoolhouse, where they would be taught how they ought to be and how they ought to work; and they believed themselves competent as well to outline the parameters of future Nicaraguan culture. These were the first orders given to militarize our culture.
Arze expounded thus: “The artist ought to try to encounter the means to represent the values we inherited from the heroic career of General Sandino. We (referring here to the nine commanders; power, the revolution) should not like to see culture ever again assume the decadent forms it has taken in the past.” Hitler used the word “decadent” to exile an entire vanguard school of art. What would be decadent for the State-Become-Critic in Nicaragua?
Sergio Ramirez simply echoed the same ideas: “We never thought to admit the existence of a culture isolated from the revolutionary process”—words that reminded us of the words of Octavio Paz written in 1956:
There is no more pernicious, barbarous prejudice than to attribute powers to the state in the sphere of artistic creation. An artistic style is a living entity, a continuous process of invention. It can never be, imposed from without; born of the profoundest tendencies within a society, its direction is to a certain extent unpredictable, in much the same way as the eventual configuration of a tree’s branches. In contrast, official style is the very negation of creative spontaneity. Power immobilizes; it freezes with a single gesture—grandiose, terrible, theatrical, or finally simply monotonous—the variety which is life.
The negation of spontaneity in Nicaragua continued to be defined by Arce: “We want to retain artistic quality, but remember, please, that art is of no value if it is not understood by workers and peasants. We want a situation where every time someone paints a picture or writes a poem, publishes a book or arranges a song, that person asks himself, first, to what degree is it going to assist our people in the process of self-transformation….” Wouldn’t it be better, however, to educate people to understand art? What Arce asks for is precisely what Cortazar called “a hateful personalism.” Moreover, his definitions completely ignore the astronomical difference between the voluntary choice of, say, a poet to write some verses, and the imposition of the state which is, finally, the very essence of tyranny.
Sergio Ramirez continued the process of demolition: “Nicaraguan culture prior to June 19, 1979 was a failure,” he said. But Ramirez forgets that that very culture, with its edges badly charred by the drama of our struggle, was never an attempt to produce a full-dress result, but [was] rather the surviving fragments of a lengthy agony. Ramirez’s fatuous remark consigns, as it were, to the dust-heap of history an entire epoch in Nicaraguan history, whose leading figures include Ruben Dario, Alfonso Cortes, Azarias Pallais, Jose Coronel, Joaquin Pasos, Carlos Martinez Rivas, even Ernesto Cardenal himself. It puts the stamp of failure—much as one might put an entire library to the revolutionary torch—upon a national tradition of painting, architecture, music, and other “bourgeois” artifices such as the novel. If our tradition were less valuable than in fact it is, there would be even less reason to discard the lot in the name of something which has yet to come into existence. Ramirez, like all Marxists who pretend to use a “scientific” method to analyze the past, falls into the realm of fantasy whenever the time comes to describe the future. “Revolutionary culture, just because it is revolutionary, cannot fail to be authentic, and cannot fail to be a culture of quality,” Ramirez says in one speech, thus simply sweeping aside the entire history of a nation.
“Nicaraguan history begins with the Sandinista front.” Such is the slogan of the regime—an attitude that might be, in the context of political liberty, nothing more than a case of understandable exaggeration, the pretentious boasting of some inexperienced young people suddenly come upon political power for the first time. In this case, however, it represents a statist ideology that seeks to abolish every cultural manifestation which does is not fully coherent with it. The most dramatic and painful example was—and still is—the treatment of the Miskito Indians, an event which in all probability will have catastrophic consequences for our nationality. In this case, we are dealing with a cultural and historic problem which has been rendered virtually insolvable, pushed to the point of civil war, largely because those who sought to resolve it began by purposely denying the past.
At the time that the relationship between the Miskitos and the Sandinista Front began to break down (1981), I invited to the offices of La Prensa the representatives of Misurasata, the leaders of all of the political parties, and representing the FSLN and the government, the local authorities on the Atlantic coast. My purpose was to provoke a serious and sincere dialogue. The Miskito leaders explained their grievances, and in the process I learned something I had not previously known, namely, that they were asking for nothing that had not already been granted them in 1895 by legislative decree, at the time that the Mosquitia Reserve was formally incorporated into the Republic of Nicaragua. The conditions of that incorporation were: investment in the Atlantic Coast to encourage development; respect for local religion, language, and customs; the right of the Indian communities to elect their own authorities; respect for their communal forestlands, liberty for some of their political prisoners, etc. In spite of our efforts to persuade them to the contrary, the Sandinista comandantes insisted upon regarding these demands as “separatist”; in their view, the Miskitos were being manipulated by “imperialism,” and the only response to their requests was a hard and unyielding refusal. To make things worse, instead of dispatching their own people to the Atlantic Coast, they sent Cubans. That produced a massive uprising on the part of the people of Bluefields, followed by a chain of misunderstandings, violence, massive migration (into exile), repression, and other incidents that have done so much to damage the revolution’s image abroad.
But Sandinista ideology has failed not only because it begins by rejecting or ignoring our culture, but also because of its specific philosophic content. Marxist collectivism—in the same way, be it said, as capitalist individualism—is incompatible with self-governing, self-sufficient communities. Let us recall that in Nicaragua it was the Liberal dictator Jose Santos Zelaya who decreed the dissolution of collective property in land and the Indian communities in 1906. Thus the “socialist man” turns out to be not so very different from his capitalist antecedent; the difference resides in the fact that Communism is statist, but not communitarian.
We have betrayed the two underlying currents of our long-suffering Nicaraguan and Hispanic-American culture: calling ourselves enemies of imperialism, we mask from view a more fundamental loss of independence. Calling ourselves paladins of liberation, we have lost, in our conception of the state, the proper measure of man. We insist upon this double paradox, for from it springs practically all of the danger which the Sandinista Front is likely to inflict upon us, and will in fact inflict upon us, if nothing is done to counteract it—and soon.
In the official version, Sandinismo is defending the independence of our culture. But under this rubric, to reject one model only to choose another—apart from being a contradiction in terms—is even more dangerous. At least in the pre-revolutionary period we knew what it meant to surrender our sovereignty: now, however, we are not even permitted to call things by their proper names. In the days of Bolivar, after all, we often said that we did not fight for independence from Spain simply to fall under the tutelage of another colonial power. We said the same thing during the 1920s, when General Sandino was fighting the U.S. Marines. It seems to be the tragic destiny of tiny Nicaragua to represent the apex of Spanish-American conflict with the United States. But, in that conflict, our strength (and in the final analysis, our victory) will consist in the reaffirmation of our Hispanic-American personality and the strengthening of an independent culture. Our anti-imperialism is meant to obligate the United States to act as a democracy in its relations with other American nations. We do not want war; we do not want to be allies in a war—nor satellites of the other superpower, so that it can win its victories with proxy forces; what we want is a Spanish-American alliance, the dream of Bolivar, and also the dream of General Sandino. The purpose of that alliance would be to obligate the United States to behave towards our countries in a civilized manner, on a plane of equality and mutual respect. In this Fidel Castro has forfeited what might otherwise be his claim to continental leadership, since he legitimized the loss of his own country’s (and ultimately our) independence to the Soviet Union. In 1979 the entire world believed that the new Nicaraguan revolution would rectify this Cuban error and that it would offer—in bringing about social change—the proper response of an independent nation. To date this has not been the case. The land of Dario is no more independent now than it has ever been.
In the same fashion, our sister republics of Latin America believed and hoped—wrongly, as it turned out—that our revolution would be not merely the autumn, but the definitive death of the Patriarch. The fall of Somoza was, symbolically, the end of an entire epoch in history of Spanish-American culture: the elimination of that aberrant, monstrous form of power, which appeared and reappeared throughout our collective history, thus frustrating what should have been our truer, more noble purpose as independent nations.
In Arce’s speech cited above, he counseled thus: “The task of Nicaraguan intellectuals, whether they have or have not been committed thus far to the revolutionary process, is to take their stand: those who are already with us, to reaffirm their commitment still further, and for those who were not involved, to do so now, so as to participate in this transition which is of course cultural, but at the same time and fundamentally political, economic, and social.” In one fell swoop literature and art were converted into branches of the bureaucracy.
Slowly the pressures began to close in upon us. First came veiled threats. Then the purposeful exclusion of “uncooperative” writers and artists. Internal exile. A ban on the citation of books or articles by the non-aligned or the uncommitted. The Union of Cultural Workers began to threaten with sanctions those writers and artists who contributed to the literary supplement of La Prensa. It is painful to report that many young dissident poets have asked me, in my capacity as editor of that magazine, to publish their work under pen names—so as to avoid reprisals, and to be able to continue to work with some measure of tranquility. This is how more than one writer or poet will eventually enter the anthologies of our national literature—under an assumed name!
In the much-discussed (and properly controversial) “workshops” sponsored by the Ministry of Culture, they teach one not merely how to sing, but what verses. Sergio Ramirez has said as much in one of his speeches: “The workshops on popular poetry which have been organized in Nicaragua since July 19 , reflect the poetry of young combatants, a poetry often anonymous, spun of the experiences of daily life, of reality, which seems to me to be vastly more important than the poetry which is the product of elitist dilettantism, the poetry which after all, is all we have produced thus far as a nation. This phenomenon—how to break with that tradition—is something to which we should focus all of our energies.”
In truth, I wish that this enthusiastic critical judgment, made by Ramirez the politician, were the same as that made by Ramirez the writer. I shall only add that in a propaganda exercise for Sandinista Television, a young apprentice poet declared, “Before now I was in error: I went about writing love poems. In the workshop I have learned why my poetry was bad—it had no political message.” Perhaps that poor lad was destined, nonetheless, to be the author of some very great love poems. We shall never know. What is certain is that from here on, he will be scratching out forced, pedestrian (or derivative) verses, unless his own genius comes to his rescue, if in fact he is so fortunate.
It is precisely because I believe our revolution possessed magnificent roots and our culture ample reserves to produce a really original, Nicaraguan response to the challenge of history, that I have remained at La Prensa to resist a dictatorial ideology which is increasingly totalitarian. After all, what is at issue is the destiny of an entire people, At times I close my eyes and contemplate the via crucis of that newspaper since the triumph of the very revolution to which it contributed with 45 years of struggle—not to mention the blood of its martyred publisher, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, and the ashes of his enterprise, destroyed by the last dictator. What has been our fortune since then? Ceaseless pressures, threats to news agents and to reporters, death threats to some editors who have been forced into exile, mobs attacking our physical installations, jail sentences, violence, withdrawal of passports, tapped telephones, tampered correspondence, and—from official organs—insults and lies, employing a crude and obscene language never before heard in our country. Without any question, this kind of treatment does not announce the advent of a new man; instead, it repeats the barbarous practices which are unfortunately the warp and woof of Nicaraguan political history. Perhaps some sort of excuse could be made for it by calling it the characteristic conduct of a new militarism. What is intolerable, however, is the representation of censorship as some sort of culmination of a liberation movement; as the final “conquest” of that revolution which was, after all, ignited by the death of a newspaperman, of an intellectual whom even the hated regime felt obligated to officially proclaim “martyr to public liberties.” To escape the clutches of three Somozas merely to fall into the pit of censorship—really, for this there is no excuse! It amounts to crowning with fear the libertarian struggle of those who were not afraid to die.
Let us be clear: censorship is cowardice. On the part of the authorities it institutionalizes the abuse of power. It masks corruption. It is a school of torture: it teaches and accustoms one to the use of force against an idea, to submit thought to an alien “other.” But worst still, censorship destroys criticism, which is the essential ingredient of culture. The human condition, after all, is defined by the aspiration to always supersede oneself, which in turn requires, non-conformity. As the Spanish poet Antonio Machado has his character Juan de Mairena say, “Even if we could teach a chimpanzee everything we know, he still would be unable to replicate the human condition, since that requires an essential willingness to question one’s own nature, to desire to be other than what one is.” What makes it impossible for the chimpanzee to mount the final scale in the animal kingdom is a lack of criticism, the only recourse that makes possible human and cultural progress. As I have told my Sandinista friends and former friends until I am blue in the face: any revolution which denies the right to criticize is bound to wallow in stagnation and backwardness. But in Latin America, something even worse will happen—the chimpanzee will become a gorilla.
For a writer there is nothing more depressing than to receive an editorial or an article mutilated by censorship—I leave aside an act of intellectual thuggery far worse, which is tampering with a poem! Nonetheless, a poet like the American Lawrence Ferlenghetti—I admit, a man of surpassing naivete—was quite unmoved when I showed him mountains of censored manuscripts originally destined for La Prensa. They dealt with topics very far from the civil war or the particular themes proscribed by the Law of Emergency. Nonetheless, in due course his publishing house in San Francisco saw fit to bring out a piece of Sandinista propaganda entitled Seven Days in Nicaragua Libre, wherein Ferlenghetti, to counteract my complaints about censorship and also to wash his hands of the matter, asked Ernesto Cardenal, also a poet and Minister of Culture, for an official declaration on censorship. Among other lies, it affirms “With respect to censorship, I don’t believe there is a single important document by any of our leaders defending it. In fact, we don’t like it, and we don’t want it; we have imposed it only because we are at war… The newspaper La Prensa openly defends the enemy, the actions of the CIA, and employs all of the arguments of the Reagan administration… In any event, this censorship ended in May, 1984 when the electoral campaign began. Since then there has been no basis for attacking Nicaragua on this score, but of course they will find others.”
With respect to this letter I should merely like to point out that (1) for Cardenal, whose status as a priest seems not to inhibit him for misrepresenting facts, to demand democracy and liberty is to somehow provide Reagan and the CIA with arguments to attack our country; (2) Cardenal lies when he says that censorship was imposed by wartime conditions. Censorship was established in Nicaragua—for the radio as well as for newspapers—long before. I refer
Mr. Ferlenghetti to Decrees 511 and 512 of September, 1980; almost immediately thereafter, the Ministry of Defense began intermittently closing down my newspaper. In 1981 alone, between January and September, there were fourteen such incidents. (3) Censorship was not lifted in May. It was maintained before the electoral campaign, during it, and after it. It continues to this date. How it pains me to see an admired, even beloved poet—now drunk with power—repeating the same formulas and falsehoods as the Somoza dictatorship used to employ when it wanted to deceive its native Yankee “friends….”