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Nicaragua: heartbeat of protest

Sergio Ramírez
20 July 2009

A heroine of the popular struggles that led to the overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship in Nicaragua ended a twelve-day hunger-strike in Managua on 16 June 2008. The conditions that gave rise to her extraordinary act of defiance persist. The eleven weeks that have since passed bring the country no closer to their reversal. But her protest has given birth to others on a far larger scale, and it will long outlast its moment.


Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His many books include El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006). He was named Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1993, and was awarded the Medalla Presidencial by the Chilean government to mark the centenary of Pablo Neruda's birth in 2004. In 2005 he was a member of the jury granting the Lettre Ulysses award for the art of reportage. His website is here

Also by Sergio Ramírez in openDemocracy:

"Nicaragua's hijacked democracy" (18 November 2005)

"After Herty Lewites: a crossroads for Nicaragua" (4 July 2006)

"Don't forget Nicaragua" (11 October 2006)

"Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

"Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

Comandante Dora María Téllez installed herself on 4 June in a hut on an empty piece of ground at the Ruben Dario roundabout, the most heavily trafficked place in Nicaragua's capital city. Dora Maria - famous for her part in the commando group that took the national palace on 21 August 1978 and for having led the insurgent forces which liberated the city of León in 1979 - fasted for twelve days in principled support of the same things she had earlier fought for with arms: democracy, public freedoms, and the rule of law.

There is one ostensible difference: her adversary is no longer Anastasio Somoza, buried after his 1980 assassination in a cemetery in Miami, but Daniel Ortega, her former comrade, president of the revolutionary government until 1990 and winner of a second mandate in 2006 (see "Daniel Ortega's second coming", 7 November 2006). A placard installed on the hunger-strike roundabout showed a photomontage in which Somoza and Ortega held each other's hands above their heads, both smiling; the placard's slogan read "Ortega and Somoza are the same thing".

Are there really similarities between Anastasio Somoza, who fled the country on 17 July 1979, when the guerrilla forces were already approaching Managua, and Daniel Ortega, who is now governing alongside his wife, Rosario Murillo? The facts speak for themselves.

Dora María Téllez's hunger-strike was primarily motivated by a politicised decision of the supposedly independent - but in fact Ortega-dominated - Consejo Electoral Supremo (supreme electoral council) to cancel the legality of her party, the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (Sandinista Renewal Movement / MRS). The MRS was founded in 1996 by dissidents from the old Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front / FSLN), which governed Nicaragua from 1979-90.

The council also applied the same sanction to another Nicaraguan party, the Conservative Party. This means that the municipal elections in November 2008 will have only two visible contestants: Ortega's own Sandinista Front and the Liberal Party (which belongs to the president's close ally and political hostage, Arnoldo Alemán; he has been sentenced in court to twenty years' imprisonment for money-laundering, and is the only convict on the American continent who has an entire country for his prison and who in addition leads a political party).

Alemán's deputies in the national assembly vote with Daniel Ortega's; together they compose a majority (see "Nicaragua's hijacked democracy", 18 November 2005). This political favour allows Ortega to dominate a host of state institutions: the assembly itself, the supreme court of justice and the whole judicial system, the comptroller-general and the CSE. His ambition is to exercise the same iron control over the army and the national police. He has already demonstrated his intentions in this regard by sacking the entire police high-command in an attempt to isolate its head, commissioner Aminta Granera, who enjoys the highest popularity ratings in the country.

Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo rule generally in secret. Very few citizens know anything of the president's whereabouts, even whether he is within or outside Nicaragua. The couple occasionally surface to speak from platforms profusely decorated with flowers, facing a captive audience whom they address in speeches lasting several hours (see Ivan Briscoe, "Never let me go: can Ortega reclaim Nicaragua?", 2 November 2006).

Ortega, in addition, prefers to rule outside institutions when they impede him. The credits from the Venezuelan oil account are not entered in the national budget as part of the state's resources, but are handled privately. Nicaragua's rulers wield a huge petty-cash box of hundreds of millions of dollars which is used unaccountably and indiscriminately to pay for Ortega's constant international travel, accompanied by a numerous retinue; for ferrying demonstrators to his public meetings; for decorating the stages from which he makes his interminable speeches; and for financing assistance-programmes that range from the construction of popular housing to giving pigs and paridas (cows that have recently given birth) to peasant families. Investigations by Nicaragua's remaining independent press have confirmed that the contractors for the houses being built under this scheme are government ministers and allies of Ortega.

The arbitrary concept

Nicaragua is among the poorest countries of the continent. The confused policies of Daniel Ortega's government since his election in November 2006 - in contrast to the fiery rhetoric of his speeches - have not moved the indexes of unemployment and marginalisation one millimetre; while inflation threatens to exceed 20% in 2008, the result above all of food-price rises which amount to more than 50% in the first eight months of the year. True, this is a worldwide phenomenon which hits the poor hardest in many countries; but Nicaragua is a privileged land in agricultural terms and could do much more to encourage food-production strategies. The plan announced on 26 August 2008 that will use the army in cooperation with the Instituto de Desarrollo Rural (Institute of Rural Development / IDR) is unlikely to bring the relief the people need.


Among openDemocracy's articles about central America and the Caribbean:

Victor Valle, "El Salvador's long walk to democracy" (26 May 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a war dispatch" (25 June 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, "Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)

Adam Isacson, "The Colombia - Venezuela - Ecuador tangle" (17 March 2008)

Jenny Pearce, "Colombia: who are the enemies of peace and democracy?" (9 April 2008)

Nira Wickramasinghe, "Aimé Césaire: poetry as weapon" (21 April 2008)

Amélie Gauthier, "Haiti: empty stomachs, stormy politics" (21 April 2008)

Antoni Kapcia, "Cuba after Fidel: stability, movement, reform" (22 May 2008)

The result of this neglect and disarray is to deepen Nicaragua's economic and social crisis. How does Ortega address this explosive situation? In one way only: with speeches that are ever more worn down by the leftist orthodoxies of the last century. At the same time he restricts both democratic participation and the opening of civic space - the precise measures against which Dora María Téllez - at the risk of her own life - launched her protest, just as she had in the past with a gun in her hand.

The horizon of what Daniel Ortega and his wife are doing from the summit of power that they illegally hold extends far beyond the present presidential period, which expires in 2012. Their intention is to secure indefinite re-election by changing the constitution. To this end they need to eliminate the challenge of rival political parties, to exercise absolute control of the state institutions, to secure the obedience of the judges and the judicial system, and to subordinate the national assembly (see "Tearing up the rules", Economist, 14 August 2008). In addition, they need to look for the precise moment to deliver the decisive blow to the army and the police and bring them, too, under control.

The distance travelled from nineteen years ago, moral as well as political, is immense. The establishment of the revolutionary government in the city of León on 18 July 1979 was made possible by the expulsion of the forces of Somoza's national guard by the guerrilla forces commanded by the then 22-year-old Dora María. This daring and already battle-hardened leader, a natural strategist, had won the loyalty and admiration of the young people - many of them just adolescents - around her. Her achievement in making León secure enabled the members of the governing council of the Sandinistas to land in the city after leaving neighbouring Costa Rica. Daniel Ortega, Rosario Murillo and Tomás Borge arrived on the first flight; Doña Violeta de Chamorro, Alfonso Robelo and myself on the second.

That petite and worried young woman always laughed at danger; her very youth meant that she never hesitated to take life-and-death decisions. Now, nineteen years on, she is in confrontation with Daniel Ortega, the man whose path to power she prepared. Moreover, she is fighting for the same things as before: liberty and democracy (see Néstor Martinez, "Dora María, nuestra posible Lula", El nuevo diario, 25 August 2008). In this she is joined by other emblematic figures of the revolution, such as the singer-songwriter Carlos Mejia Godoy.

Carlos Mejia Godoy's songs had long featured strongly in official government propaganda, for they evoke the true life and ideals of a revolution of which now only ruins are left. The continued use of his music by those at the heights of power as though the revolution he celebrated were intact - a sort of perverse simulation game - led him to make the brave decision to veto the use of his songs in this way. The reward was a storm of insults unleashed against him by the government-controlled media.

Carlos, who has been joined by his brother (and fellow singer-songwriter) Luis Enrique, explained his position: "In the dramatic context in which our people are living, threatened again with a family dictatorship, a sordid replica of the Somoza tyranny, I cannot allow my songs, which were inspired by the sacrifice and death of thousands of Nicaraguan brothers, to serve as the musical background to continue from those flower-decked platforms the most shameful tragicomedy of recent years." Carlos is clear that it is not a question of money, because his music is not for sale: he just wants it not to be used.

Ortega has ignored this, and the Mejia Godoys' songs have been declared liable to confiscation - as though they were a herd of cattle or a factory of dairy products. Comandante Tomás Borge, the former minister of the interior, even wrote: "It is my opinion that the legal formality, which might give rise to a demand supported by the Spanish society of authors, does not oblige us to give up works which, whether you like it or not, belong to the blood of the fallen who are so respected by hundreds of thousands of FSLN militants."

This arbitrary concept - that a work is not owned by its creator but by the people (and political party) who inspired the artist with their actions - might seem irrelevant and even inoffensive today; for this is a time when so many single and dominating parties which ruled in the name of a single system of thought have been toppled from their old thrones. But this is not everywhere true; it is not true in Nicaragua.

The impossible task

Rosario Murillo has (according to Time magazine) written that Carlos Mejia Godoy is nothing but "the instrument of the divine rhythm that reaches his body from a sacred and unknown place". There is no doubt about the meaning of her proclamation that "in life there are some things that do not personally belong to us, that have no master, that are not private property. The dead, for instance. Collective hope, collective creativity, collective grief, collective triumph."

The old weight of the collective is indeed on Nicaragua's shoulders. The demand made by total power creates a historic immobility that dries and shrivels everything under its gaze. This includes even not just the dead but the revolution itself, confiscated from its roots and - whatever Rosario Murillo says - privatised in favour of one family (see "Nicaragua: through the abyss", 3 September 2007).

Today, the roles are reversing in a dramatic manner in Nicaragua. All that remains of the revolutionary act - precisely what the Mejia Godoys illuminate in their songs - are the decayed sets, the ragged curtains, the moth-eaten stages. The dead who went to their deaths for that cause might awake today astonished by this new scene of power, which represents everything that is opposed to what the songs exalt.

What Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo and their cronies are trying to impose on those songs is the old collective stamp, whose inkwell too is long dry: "collective hope, collection creativity, collective grief, collective triumph" - the whole phantasmagoria flutters in pathetic contortions, its figures deprived of substance and of ethical sentiment. The heroic epic becomes transformed into a masque of grotesques; if it retains any integrity at all it is in the music of Carlos Mejia Godoy and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy.

Señora Murillo openly expresses the idea that the people, seen in abstract as a unanimous whole, is embodied in the totalising party: "Carlos's songs, in spite of himself, continue to belong to the Sandinista Front - the Sandinista Front that made the revolution and from that mythic struggle inspired and dictated them, the Sandinista Front that will also continue to revolutionise history."

These words offer more than sufficient reason for the arbitrary power to confiscate the creative patrimony of some artists in the name of a party to whom it gives the impossible role of master of history, and the even more impossible one of continuing to revolutionise it.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton

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