Humor and the Revolution : Sandinista Cartoonist Tests His Comrades’ Tolerance

The Washington Post

“What I want is to show people that good and evil live in the same place.”

This is Roger Sanchez musing about the editorial policy of the Comic Weekly, a tabloid he directs here, which, according to its masthead, is the Magazine of Humor, Marxism, Sex and Violence. And this is Sanchez musing about his nation:

“I’ve become an atheist in terms of our state and society,” he says from the back stoop of his small office, which was plunged into darkness in one of Managua’s frequent power outages. “I’ve started to understand that our revolution was made by Earthlings.”


Sanchez’s bona fides as a Nicaraguan revolutionary are very much in order: He’s a militant in the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the party that rose to power in a 1979 insurrection, and he’s the official cartoonist of Barricada, the party’s daily newspaper. But his editor’s credo seems to employ none of the leaden language of leftist orthodoxy, and it includes some plain heresy against Sandinista faith.

“I’m coming to believe that the revolution was not a clean break with everything in the world that came before,” he says. “We cut away some ties that were holding us back so we could walk a little straighter. But the same pedestrians are still doing the walking.

“The Sandinistas, they’re always the good guys, right? Everyone else is the bad guys, right? We used to despise anyone who wasn’t a Sandinista. But I tell you, I’m starting to see that you can be a revolutionary and be full of badness at the same time.

“That’s why I want to show that good and evil inhabit the same place,” Sanchez says. “That’s why the Comic Weekly has to be anarchist. We have to be the ideological street gang of this revolution.”

It’s a lot of philosophy for a 28-year-old cartoonist with barely three years’ experience at the Comic Weekly’s editorial helm. But this year, Sanchez has made good on his pledge to rattle accepted Sandinista political wisdom, to probe the outer edges of official tolerance. Censors have shut the magazine twice since March, and there have been public outcries to have Sanchez put out of business for good.

Many Nicaraguan journalists will tell you that Roger Sanchez--not the famous opposition daily La Prensa--is the real standard-bearer for free expression in this country.

Every day, La Prensa and Managua’s two pro-Sandinista newspapers bludgeon each other in print from different sides with the same clubs: half-baked reporting and full-blown rhetoric.

But Sanchez’s tools are new. He’s an insider defying The Revolution (Sandinistas capitalize their references to their Socialist experiment).

Impossibly, as the Marxist-led government grimly picks its way through the rubble of Nicaragua after six years of war with the Contra rebels and a decade of confrontation with Washington, Sanchez is asking the Sandinistas to take themselves less seriously. And he’s on a campaign to expose what he views as creeping hypocrisy in the Nicaraguans’ public treatment of their inner sexual politics.

“Roger is friends with God and the devil. His work is an immense provocation to the whole society,” Barricada editorial writer Sofia Montenegro observed. “That’s excellent.”

Prickly Comrade

Founded in the ‘50s, the Comic Weekly distinguished itself as an early critic of the Somoza dictatorship and made Nicaragua one of only a handful of Latin nations with its own humor review. In 1980, a year after Anastasio Somoza was ousted, the magazine came under Sandinista leadership. But, in that period of strict wartime censorship, the staff wasn’t sure what could be laughed at and the government wasn’t sure what couldn’t. At times, President Daniel Ortega himself had to pass the final judgment on a joke, Sanchez says.

By 1985, when he was brought in as director, Sanchez was, as he puts it, “the pretty boy” of the official press and the artist-laureate of the revolution, because of his biting Barricada cartoons.

Sanchez secured a promise from the government’s top political policeman, Interior Minister Tomas Borge, that the Comic Weekly would not be censored--or even submit its galleys for prior review, unlike virtually every other current affairs publication in Nicaragua.

“You just can’t censor humor,” Sanchez says. “Because humor has to be based on truth. If you base humor on falsehood, no one laughs.”

And so Sanchez embarked on what he calls his “journey to irreverence.” He compares it to an adolescent’s first date:

“First you touch her hand, and she doesn’t say anything. Then you touch her leg, and she doesn’t say anything. Then you try something else, and she clobbers you, so you have to stop.”

But he submits: “This was one girl who basically liked to be touched.”

Parodies Official Paper

One of Sanchez’s regular features is “Window,” a merciless parody of the cultural page of Barricada. “Window” is under the supervision of no less a figure than Rosario Murillo, companion of Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s de facto first lady. It offers a brand of deathless hortatory poetry that sometimes embarrasses even the most devoted Sandinistas.

Sanchez calls his section “Garage.”

Sanchez hammers away at Sandinista elitism, nailing party members who enjoy conspicuous perks while other Nicaraguans are suffering unprecedented wartime hardships. Another recent Comic Weekly caricature zinged Sandinista Health Minister Dora Maria Tellez, who carries a cigarette on her lip while campaigning against cancer.

Meanwhile, Sanchez’s handling of Nicaragua’s Roman Catholic leaders, many of whom are in conflict with the government, is outrageous by any standards; his pages are full of drawings of prelates in states of undress. Sale of the Comic Weekly is prohibited in many Nicaraguan parochial schools.

As for opposition political parties, Sanchez drew one Comic Weekly cover showing a rotund female posterior marked left on one side and right on the other, and a well-known opposition politician in one corner announcing, “We’re from the center. . . .”

One of Sanchez’s early official reprimands came when he started a sardonic sexual advice column and accompanied it with a tiny photograph of Omar Cabezas, one of the Sandinistas’ most gregarious comandantes. Sanchez got a phone call from Cabezas’ boss, Tomas Borge.

“It was an extremely long call,” Sanchez recalls with one of his gentle chuckles. “Five minutes.” As the only surviving founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, Borge is a movement giant. Sanchez removed the picture.

The Skin Angle

But other tiffs steeled Sanchez to the heat. By early this year, the Comic Weekly reached a record circulation of 40,000, selling briskly on street corners and school campuses. So Sanchez went for a new line of attack: nude photos.

There is no Playboy tradition in Nicaragua’s deeply Catholic society. Under Somoza, there was one tawdry movie theater in the capital, and picture magazines drifted in from the United States. Then, one of the revolution’s first decrees made it illegal to use the image of a woman’s body “as a commercial or sexual object.”

Behind the olive-green aesthetic, though, furious promiscuity erupted in Managua’s middle class during the Sandinistas’ first years. Just as it shattered the Somoza regime, the revolution undid many personal relations.

In addition, one school of Sandinista feminists was steeped in the Beauvoirian ideal, in which political and sexual liberation go hand in hand. With time, the terrible burdens of the Contra war settled the society down, but the idiosyncratic sexuality of the Sandinista revolution awaited expression.

On March 2, Sanchez published a dark photo lifted from a Swedish girlie magazine of a woman in underwear suggestively shaving her bikini line. He wrote a puerile caption: “An activist gets ready” for International Women’s Day.

Sanchez explained his acerbic reasoning: “The women in this country have as much machismo as I do. They’re feminists until they get a look from a man and then their feminism goes underground. They want to do in one commemorative day what they didn’t do all year.”

But scores of Nicaraguan women didn’t like the notion or the picture. Managua’s radios were flooded with phone calls from irate Sandinista women demanding the Comic Weekly be closed.

One of those callers was Rosario Murillo, with a discourse that probably could only have occurred in Sandinista Nicaragua. In her earthy voice, the first lady launched into a lusty defense of the proud exercise of female sensuality.

The Interior Ministry slapped down a five-week suspension, costing the Comic Weekly the equivalent of about $15,000 and leaving a permanent financial scar, Sanchez says. Sanchez and his staff ate crow in a letter on the editorial page of Barricada, apologizing for “promoting ‘political’ deformations.”

Past Point of Recall

But the debate was joined. To this day, sidewalk arguments can be heard in Managua over what exactly the model was doing in the offending photo (it was rather cloudy) and whether it was so naughty as to merit punishment for its publishers.

Moreover, Sanchez smoldered for the idle weeks and came back breathing fire. “Our revenge was that we returned with even more and better nudes than before,” he says.

A brunette who appeared in an August issue with an automatic rifle slung across bare cleavage was described in the caption as “a model militia.” That brought another two-week shutdown.

A poet, Gioconda Belli, wrote an editorial in Barricada questioning the shutdowns but observing that sexual equality would be better served if Sanchez would publish nude men as well. A traveling American friend paid a visit to Lambda Rising, a gay-oriented bookstore in Washington and returned to Managua with an armful of picture magazines so Sanchez could meet the challenge.

Better Use for the Paper

In October, a government functionary named Melania Vega wrote a column in the Nuevo Diario, the other pro-Sandinista daily, demanding the government either close the Comic Weekly for good or force it to stick to “a recreational approach.” Vega wrote of her certainty that the review’s racy pictures were “the product of sexual deviations” in its editors. She suggested that it would be better for the “people’s cultural development” if The Revolution would use the Comic Weekly’s newsprint to make children’s books.

Wasting no time, Sanchez found in his Washington magazine collection a full-face photo of a Michelangelian nude rapt in self-contemplation. In the space for the photographer’s credit, Sanchez printed the name Melania Vega.

Nothing Vega, an aspiring journalist, had ever written in her column in the Nuevo Diario had made her as famous as this appearance in Comic Weekly, Vega said in an interview. Convinced that her professional standing was stained, she made photocopies of the “body of the crime,” as she once referred to it, and went to a Latin American women’s congress taking place in Managua where Daniel Ortega was giving the keynote speech.

However, as the photocopies circulated, delighted giggling rippled across the conference hall. By the time Vega stepped forward to appeal for justice from Ortega, the president, too, had seen the evidence. He struggled to suppress his smiles. With that the rest of the gathering began to howl riotously. Even Vega doesn’t recount the story without a grin.

If anything, government officials now seem less inclined to close Sanchez down again. “There can’t really be any regulations for humor,” says Capt. Nelba Blandon, the Interior Ministry’s public relations officer who has a hand in many censorship decisions. “Roger is testing, measuring. Every issue is a new temperature reading.”