“What is the purpose of revolutionary poetry?” Roque Dalton once asked, “To make poets, or to make revolution?” Dalton had already died by the time his answer arrived, in Managua, in 1979: poets make revolution, and the revolution makes poets.
The Sandinista revolution was a revolution of poets: Ernesto Cardenal, Mejía Godoy, Sergio Ramírez, Gioconda Belli, Rosario Murillo (yes, Rosario Murillo — currently the Vice President and First Lady of the country — was a poet)—the officiators of a great Nicaraguan Parnassus. Writers, journalists, songwriters… Even Daniel Ortega had his go at poetry, and more than just a few of his poems earned the recognition of respected writers, such as Salman Rushdie.
Ortega once confessed to Rushdie, who had taken a cultural tour of Nicaragua in 1986, that “every Nicaraguan is a poet until proven otherwise.”
The Sandinistas wrote one of the most poetic pages in the history of Central America: They toppled the dictator Anastazio Somoza, resisted the Contras and their financial backer, the United States, and spearheaded a collective and participatory project aimed at building a utopia. Of all the revolutionary movements inspired by those bearded Cubans, the Sandinista’s was the only one to succeed.
The revolution lasted barely a decade. As the comandantes gained more power, the people grew increasingly alienated from the revolutionary leadership. This alienation, coupled with the ambitions of certain men and the disorderliness of others, and in the context of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the grinding on of the Contra War, led to the Sandinistas’ electoral defeat in 1989. Before leaving office, Daniel Ortega divvied up among his friends and relatives the various mansions, beach ranches, and other properties confiscated during the revolution. This scandalous event—known as “la Piñata”—marked the death of the revolutionary project.
The Sandinista flag survived, and it has been monopolized by Ortega. Most of the writers and intellectuals who had nurtured the revolution eventually left the party, which had become little more than a shield for the commander and his wife, Rosario Murillo.
Since 1984, Ortega has been the Frente Sandinista’s only presidential candidate. He lost to liberals Violeta Barrios, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños. Under the government of Bolaños, when Nicaraguan courts tried and convicted Alemán for corruption, Ortega sided with the corrupt ex-president, fueling division among the liberals. This was how, in 2006, he regained the presidency.
Later, Ortega modified the Constitution to permit his reelection, then modified it again to allow for his indefinite reelection. He transformed the Frente Sandinista into the official party of the state, appointing judges, disqualifying rival officials, and assuming control over all three branches of government. He took great care not to let anyone overshadow him, so that even today, most Nicaraguans have no idea who has third command of the party, after the comandante and his wife.
He appointed his own children in charge of government investments and public relations, and, in a gesture worthy of an African dictator in an equally poor country, arranged for Italy’s Puccini Festival to come to Nicaragua so that his son Laureano, an aspiring opera singer, could shine on a big stage. This is what the Sandinista revolution has become.
So no one was surprised when Ortega, after eliminating his opponents by fiat, named his wife, Rosario Murillo, as his running mate. Murillo carries out most of the government tasks once managed by her now tired and sick husband. For the last few years, she has served as Ortega’s Chief of Staff and as the official spokesperson for the government. She has taken charge of most public administrative functions, and in her obsession for control, has gone so far as to assume certain municipal duties as well. Even her fiercest critics don’t deny her extraordinary capacity for work. And yet, until now, compañera Murillo’s official title had remained, simply, “la primera dama”—the First Lady.
Last week, when the presidential couple appeared before the Electoral Council to register as official candidates, Ortega said he had selected Murillo in an effort to reaffirm his commitment to keeping at least half of the country’s public administrative apparatus in the hands of women. “And to be consistent with this commitment there was talk of, well, who is going to assume the vice presidency? So there was no question that it had to be a woman, and who better to serve than the compañera whose work has already been put to the test, and who has done such an efficient, effective, and disciplined job, sacrificing so much—and without even a schedule!”
If Murillo becomes vice president, she will be the immediate successor to her husband. [She did, and has served as Nicaragua’s vice president since January, 2017]. If something were to happen to the 70-year-old comandante—who appears increasingly ill at each of his increasingly infrequent public appearances—his family will continue to control the apparatus of the state. The presidential couple now commands all three branches of government, as well as the Electoral Council, the police, and the army. A few weeks ago, the president refused access to international election observers, while the Supreme Court removed the leader of the Independent Liberal Party—Ortega’s biggest rival—and placed the party in the hands of the president’s allies. Now, the comandante is the only presidential candidate with any real chance of winning. And just to make sure, two weeks ago, the Sandinista-controlled Congress dismissed 28 opposition representatives.
The comandante learned certain lessons from the days of revolutionary rule. He forgot about utopia and poetry, pledging himself instead to unscrupulous politics. He made alliances with the enemy of the revolution, Cardinal Obando y Bravo, and with the region’s big business leaders (including El Salvador’s, who every day remind us that the FMLN is the enemy of democracy, and who also happen to have lucrative business interests in Nicaragua). Ortega made this alliance guided by a pragmatic principle: you make business deals (with me), you guide our morals (through my wife and me), and you leave me to manage the “politics”, by which he means: using the public machinery of government for the purpose of creating electoral propaganda, while smothering the institutions of state in Sandinista flags.
Today, Comandante Ortega rules over a regime that looks more like Somoza's than the utopia of the New Man promised by the revolution. He has destroyed the opposition, persecuted his critics, perverted the judicial system, expelled activists and foreign diplomats, and modified the Constitution at will. Thanks to the Venezuelana-funded programs of the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América (ALBA), which operate with little to no financial transparency, Ortega now controls a large part of the Nicaraguan economy. His accomplices—Central American businessmen—turn a blind eye to his familial excesses and authoritarian policies. Obando y Bravo, the former cardinal who now appears at all of Ortega’s public events, smiling and purple-faced, has been named the “national hero” of Nicaragua. National hero.
If Ortega wins the upcoming November elections—and everything indicates that he will—he will be poised to be in power for more consecutive years than the last of the Somozas, and having accumulated even more power than the former dictator. And, like the first of the Somoza rulers, Ortega hopes to see his power endure in the form of a family dynasty. [Ortega did win reelection in 2016, and has now served as president for 13 consecutive years. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last in the line of Somoza dictators, ruled the country for 12 years, from 1967 to 1979]. If the Somoza dynasty was installed and sponsored by the United States—in Washington, they attribute that famous saying to President Roosevelt’s quip about the elder Somoza (“He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard”)—then the Ortega family has depended on Venezuelan oil and Chinese and Russian investments. And these investments seem to always involve Ortega’s children.
In November, in addition to electing a president, Nicaraguans will cast their votes for mayors and members of congress. With the opposition eliminated, the Frente Sandinista will gain more control, in a one-party system disguised as democracy.
But wasn’t the revolution also a system of one-party rule? A system in which the Sandinista directorate dictated the very rules of the game? Where’s the difference? “For starters, the Cold War ended years ago,” the writer Gioconda Belli, who was also a revolutionary (and in whose house, in San José, Rosario Murillo lived when she met Ortega), told me recently. “But above all,” she said, “we were working on behalf of a dream. We believed that we were building a more just society, a new world. You can think that this was very romantic, but that’s what we believed. We were ready to sacrifice ourselves for an ideal. But those ideals are gone now. Daniel put an end to sandinismo. Now all we have is orteguismo.”
Rosario Murillo is no longer a poet. Not even when she plays the part and composes her terrible panegyrics in praise of demagogy and politics. At the beginning of this year, in a speech applauded by all of Nicaraguan officialdom, Murillo recited an ode to Sandino and Rubén Dario, memorable only for being very bad. A corny parade of jumbled clichés. The poet, it seems, died with the revolution. Orteguismo made her a bureaucrat.
There are no longer as many poets in Nicaragua as there were thirty years ago. If there were, they would know that sandinismo no longer has any poetry to it. Nor revolution. That today, it is just a business—one big family business.
On Tuesday of last week, the First Lady emerged smiling after officially registering her candidacy. Dressed in a flamingo-pink shawl, her neck wrapped in colorful, wood bead necklaces, Murillo took the microphone and addressed a few dozen young supporters, dressed uniformly in white T-shirts and jeans, who met the presidential couple’s every move with rounds of applause. She said some words: “Nicaraguan women are really tough, muy pencona, we’re fighters, we’re warriors, and as long as we have more and more women occupying positions of leadership—economic, social, political—we’ll continue to promote more women's leadership, because we know that we identify with women who succeed, and we all feel capable of success; we know that we can succeed too, and we are getting there… Now, let us also remember, for us women it’s very important that, on a day like today, when the Frente Sandinista runs a presidential and vice presidential ticket with a 50-50 split of men and women, that the Sandinistas’ popular revolution, the revolutionary struggle, is what guarantees that women’s leadership and power is recognized in Nicaragua.”
Then she put on a big smile, greeted the attendees one by one, and left holding the hand of her tired husband.
*This article was originally published in Spanish by El Faro on August 8, 2016.
*Translated by Max Granger