For the past three months, a dark cloud has descended over Nicaragua as hundreds of people have been murdered in an uprising against Daniel Ortega’s regime. It is a sad spectacle for those of us who remember 1979, the year Ortega and the Sandinistas gained power after a bloody revolution against the dictator Anastasio Somoza.
For many of us, the Sandinista Revolution was an event that happened in real time, unlike its Cuban counterpart of which we had no memory. In the early eighties, we saw the Cuban Revolution as history: its greatest hero, Che Guevara, had been assassinated in Bolivia in 1967 and had risen from the dead as a face on a beautiful black and red poster; and that face would soon go viral around the world on the best-selling t-shirt ever. As for Fidel Castro, his regime had lost much of its luster; especially after the Mariel boatlift was mythologized in the most negative terms in Brian De Palma’s epic film, Scarface (1983).
This is why in the eighties, it was Daniel Ortega who represented many of the values and ideals to which we aspired during our college years. We admired the Sandinistas who went out and tried to change for the better the lives of the people that in Mexico Mariano Azuela called “los de abajo,” that is, the downtrodden, poor peasants who we saw as the greatest victims of colonial and neo-colonial powers.
Leftist intellectuals from around the world offered their support to the Sandinistas. I particularly remember one of my favorite Argentine authors, Julio Cortázar, writing accolades on the revolutionary government’s grand efforts to bring literacy to the countryside population and open up worlds that had been negated to them by the dictatorship. I wonder what Cortázar would say if he were alive to witness the students being killed by Ortega’s government thugs, students who are the children and grandchildren of the Sandinista Revolution.
Something has gone terribly wrong in Nicaragua. The violence, the bloody scenes jump out at us from televisions, computers, tablets, cell phones, newspapers, magazines and slowly erase the noble images we had of the Sandinistas. It makes me wonder: when Daniel Ortega sees pictures of the killing and maiming of his people in the streets, does he remember the sadness and rage he felt when one of his young comrades was killed by Somoza’s men? Does he remember the enormous grief mothers felt when the Somoza death squads murdered the brave teenage boys and girls fighting for the Sandinista Revolution? Does Ortega look in the mirror and see his face morphing into Somoza’s hated face?
In 1980, my favorite group, The Clash, released one of its best records, a three disk album titled Sandinista, inspired by the Nicaraguan Revolution. I listened endlessly to the six sides of that album. One of my favorite tunes is a song called “Washington Bullets” where Joe Strummer sings about the long history of violent political repression in Latin America by dictators armed and backed by the United States. There are some poignant verses where he states: “A youth of fourteen got shot down there/Kokane guns of Jamdown town/The killing clowns, the blood money men/Are shooting those Washington bullets again[.]”
The awful, depressing, violent events of the last three months, the absurd political posturing of Ortega, have changed the meaning of these lyrics for me. Every time I hear the song and I sing along (badly, of course), I can’t help but to change the last two verses to say, ” The killing clowns, the blood money men/Are shooting those Ortega bullets again.”
Augusto Sandino, the father of the Sandinistas, must be crying in his grave as many courageous Nicaraguan men, women, teenage boys, and teenage girls, many of them who are students, again die fighting tyranny and join him in the underworld. Meanwhile, Daniel Ortega has rewritten his own legacy: History will remember him alongside the hated Somozas and Pinochets he so gallantly opposed as a rebellious youth.