The Sandinista Book Tour : Nicaraguan Vice President Finds Time to Pen--and Plug--a Novel

Times Staff Writer

For Sergio Ramirez, poet, author and vice president of Nicaragua’s revolutionary government, the mixing of art and politics is first and foremost a question of logistics.

Every day, between an early-morning jog and arrival at his Managua office, the Sandinista leader spends 2 1/2 hours at his personal computer tapping out novels. On an official visit here last week to meet with outgoing President Miguel de la Madrid and President-elect Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Ramirez squeezed in time to plug the latest fruit of this early-morning labor, a 450-page novel titled “Divine Punishment.”

“I divide my time between literature and politics,” Ramirez said in an interview before introducing the Mexican edition of his book at the Rufino Tamayo Museum. “I think I have managed to work in the two areas without allowing either one to prejudice the other.”


But if he had his druthers, Ramirez said, if war-torn Nicaragua were back on its feet, the Sandinista revolution stable and safe from attack, the vice president would leave his government post to dedicate himself full-time to literature and leading a workshop for young writers.

“If I had the opportunity,” he said, “I would only be a writer.”

His newest book is a fictionalized account of a high-society triple murder in the provincial city of Leon in 1933 and of Oliverio Castaneda, the handsome and charismatic lawyer convicted of the killings.

While some critics at home charge that Ramirez meant the story of murder and adultery to portray a pre-revolutionary elite as immoral, Ramirez says there was no political motive for writing the book.

“This is the story of an interesting individual, a character. If I weren’t vice president of Nicaragua, no one would pay any attention to the political elements of this. . . . I would have written this book even if I had never been a leader of the revolution,” he said.

Nicaragua’s political opposition, including its most prominent poet, Pablo Antonio Cuadra, has long accused the Sandinistas of making the arts subservient to the revolution, of confusing literature with propaganda.

Ramirez disagrees. He says the Sandinistas have never dictated what subject authors should address or what form their work should take. There is no “revolutionary recipe,” he said, pointing to his book, which borrows in style from traditional thrillers, soap operas and old-style newspaper serials.


Nonetheless, as in the rest of Latin America, authors and artists have great prestige in Nicaragua and have long served as a social conscience for the country. Nicaragua’s most famous poet, Ruben Dario, wrote protests against U.S. imperialism early this century. Like Ramirez, many Sandinista authors are directly involved in politics: Poet Ernesto Cardenal is the Sandinistas’ minister of Culture and President Daniel Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, is a recognized poet.

It also was a poet, Rigoberto Lopez, who in 1956 assassinated the dictator Gen. Anastasio Somoza Garcia, father of Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, whom the Sandinistas ousted in 1979. That assassination took place in the same hall in Leon where Oliverio Castaneda’s trial had been held before overflow crowds.

The Castaneda case was famous in Nicaragua in the 1930s and was nearly folklore by 1959 when Ramirez entered law school at the University of Leon, 25 years after his protagonist. In Leon, mothers commonly told the murder tale to their children, who often relived it in vivid nightmares. But Ramirez first learned the details of the Castaneda case in a criminal law class.

Charming Young Lawyer

The facts were the following: Castaneda, a native of Guatemala, moved to Leon, where he made a name for himself as a charming young lawyer and was said to have engaged in extramarital affairs with several local society women.

On Jan. 13, 1933, Castaneda’s wife died suddenly of unknown causes. He moved in with the well-to-do Gurdian family. That October, one of the daughters, with whom he reputedly was having an affair, also died suddenly. A week later, her father died.

Castaneda, who was known to have bought strychnine from a pharmacist to kill wild dogs, was arrested and charged with murder in the three deaths. His lengthy trial captured the imagination and emotions of Nicaragua, which split over the question of his guilt. Women and the poor particularly were convinced of his innocence.


Already drawn to literature and studying law only at his father’s insistence, Ramirez immediately saw the story’s potential for a novel. Politics and a popular insurrection intervened, however, and nearly 30 years passed before Ramirez completed the work. He obtained the record of Castaneda’s trial in 1980, a year after the Sandinista victory, and finally found time to take up the yarn in 1984, following his election as vice president. He finished in October, 1987, and “Divine Punishment” was published in Nicaragua and Spain last April.

Controversy Revived

Controversy erupted anew with the publication, including charges from critics who felt that it was insensitive of Ramirez to revive the painful case for members of the Gurdian family who are still alive. The book was serialized in the newspaper, forums were held and, once again, Nicaragua was divided over the Castaneda case.

Although no proof was presented, Castaneda was convicted of the crimes on circumstantial evidence and sentenced to die, but before his execution he was shot to death by jail guards, allegedly while trying to escape.

Over the years, Castaneda’s name has remained a household word in Leon and even the source of local humor. Before she died, his wife was rumored to have cried, “Olie, Olie, what have you given me?”--a line echoed by many in jest when feeling ill.

Agustin Prio, owner of the Casa Prio ice cream shop (who appears in the opening scene of the book), said in a telephone interview that elderly women who visit his nearly 100-year-old parlor still argue Castaneda’s innocence. Some people believe that the lawyer’s killing was political, he said, as Castaneda had been an outspoken opponent of the Guatemalan dictator at the time, Jorge Ubico. They said Ubico had his friend and fellow dictator, Somoza Garcia, kill Castaneda for him .

“I knew Castaneda. He had a personal magnetism, his gestures, his intelligence, his education,” the 75-year-old Prio recalled. “I couldn’t believe such an intelligent man could be involved with murder.”


In the end, Prio said, he was convinced of Castaneda’s guilt by “the eight days” separating the death of the two Gurdians.

Ramirez said he, too, became convinced of Castaneda’s guilt, although he does not take a position in “Divine Punishment.”

In Spain, the book has won critical acclaim. Mexican author Carlos Fuentes wrote in the Spanish newspaper El Pais that Ramirez has written “the great Central American novel” and compared the work to French author Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”

Ramirez said his Spanish publisher currently is negotiating the English-language rights with a U.S. publisher. Two books by Ramirez--a volume of short stories and a novel titled “To Bury Our Fathers”--are available in translation in the United States.

Mexican author Hector Aguilar Camin called the book a social mosaic that recreates the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie in the 1930s, with details such as Kelvinator refrigerators, Underwood typewriters and the 1932 Charles Laughton murder-suspense movie “Payment Deferred,” from whose Spanish title, “Castigo Divina,” Ramirez took the title of his novel.

“It is an extraordinary novel,” Aguilar Camin said in an interview. “What is surprising is that a politician of this level has written a book this good.”