Shortly after the triumph of the Sandinista-led revolution 12 years ago, Nicaraguan artist Alejandro Canales began work on what was to become his most public--if not his most famous--painting.
Using the wall outside a cluster of government office buildings as his canvas, Canales produced a long, flowing mural depicting the Nicaraguan experience under foreign freebooters and domestic tyrants.
A decade later, after the ballot-box insurrection that ousted the Sandinistas in favor of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), Canales’ work has become part of a different kind of battle--a war of the artists. Working mostly at night, one anonymous group of “artists” covers Canales’ bright colors with whitewash. Then, in the morning, followers of the late Sandinista artist gather and try to restore the mural and its political symbolism.
The ongoing war of the artists aptly reflects a larger conflict in the way that Nicaragua’s two rival political factions look at the whole subject of culture. While the Sandinistas believe art and politics are inextricably linked, supporters of the UNO coalition argue that politicians should steer clear of art. And while the Sandinistas invested a great deal of time and energy searching for an authentic national culture, UNO has tried to paint over the past without offering a cultural program for the future.
“The government has no business with culture,” argues Pablo Antonio Cuadra, one of Latin America’s leading poets and a longtime associate of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. “The state hinders culture. It is better if freedom dominates.”
Not so, say supporters of the former government. Artistic expression must be nurtured and developed. This often requires support, if not direction, from the government.
“The Sandinista revolution allowed for a torrent of popular artistic creation, which historically we have never had,” said Carlos Mejia Godoy, Nicaragua’s best-known singer-songwriter. “We had a multiplication of dance groups and a proliferation of acting and poetry workshops. The national movement . . . led to a higher form of culture.”
UNO, says Mejia, has shown no desire to build upon those advances. Indeed, many government-sponsored programs begun under the Sandinistas have been allowed to expire, leading some to fear a return to the climate that existed under the Somoza dictatorship when, according to former Vice President Sergio Ramirez Mercado, “Miami kitsch” was the Nicaraguan cultural ideal.
“I try to visualize a specific cultural project that would show us the artistic plans of the new government. Sincerely, I still have not seen any ‘good intentions,’ ” Mejia said. “In contrast with the defense of the values of our new cultural heritage, the UNO government has . . . reflected a dark neo-fascism (such as) the destruction of the mural on the Avenida Bolivar.
“I have asked the government for help. I have asked for support. I can’t wait any longer.”
But while the cultural landscape has undeniably experienced a major transformation since Chamorro, the UNO standard-bearer, replaced Daniel Ortega as president more than a year ago, the change says more about the two governments’ political philosophies than it does about their artistic values.
Leaders of the UNO coalition are proponents of a free-market system, so in addition to selling off state-owned factories and farms, the new government has decided to stop teaching poetry as well. The Marxist-inclined Sandinistas, on the other hand, favored at least some state intervention in most sectors of society, from commerce to culture.
“For us, culture is everything. It’s a sense of love, a feeling of life,” explains Ernesto Cardenal, the minister of culture under the Sandinistas and one of the most widely read poets writing in Spanish today.
Not surprisingly, one of the first projects of the revolutionary government was the establishment of grass-roots cultural workshops, patterned after those that Cardenal, a Catholic priest, had taught in his parish on the Nicaraguan island of Solentiname. The casas de cultura, which numbered more than 70 at the height of their popularity, sprang up in community centers, army bases, schools and churches all over Nicaragua. One workshop was even held at a police station, causing a participant to remark, “Nicaragua must be the only country in the world where the police write poetry.”
But the program was controversial from the start. Some writers, such as Rosario Murillo, leader of the Sandinista Cultural Workers Union and former President Ortega’s common-law wife, contended that the workshops had imposed a single poetic language on young writers, stifling creativity. Others, such as Cuadra, said the workshops served more as a tool for political indoctrination than for cultural appreciation.
Cuadra, who accused the Sandinistas of pushing a “Stalinization” of Nicaraguan culture, said the workshops lowered artistic standards and led to a climate of conformity.
“The workshops function when there is freedom to write,” Cuadra said. “But when there are complicated political directions, it is fatal.
“I want to make a public criticism of Ernesto Cardenal: Why do students say to me, and why do professors tell students, that the poems do not work if they don’t have political messages?”
Cuadra, however, is no stranger to political poetry and the emotions it engenders. In a writing career that has spanned more than six decades, he has endured harassment and censorship from both the Somozas and the Sandinistas. In the 1920s, he was among the founders of a literary movement known as la Vanguardia, which transformed Nicaraguan poetry from the flowery verse and solemnity made popular by Ruben Dario to a style built around collage, free verse, conversational language and dialogue.
Politically, the Vanguardistas--who also included Jose Coronel Urtecho and Joaquin Pasos among their number--were influenced by European fascism and initially backed the U.S.-imposed government of strongman Anastasio Somoza. Cuadra was among the first to challenge that opinion, publishing a collection of poems in 1934 that was critical of the government and its relations with the United States. Three years later, he was jailed for his political beliefs.
But Cuadra was not the only poet to take a strong public stand against the dictatorship. Over the next 30 years, several writers of international renown--including Rigoberto Lopez Perez, Leonel Rugama, Edwin Castro, Fernando Gordillo and Ricardo Morales Aviles--lost their lives in the long struggle to overthrow the Somoza dynasty.
Although Cuadra, 79, was never imprisoned by the Sandinistas, as editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa he fought repeated battles against censorship of the paper’s news and editorials. But perhaps the most unexpected blow came when the government began to censor the poems in La Prensa’s literary supplement.
“It is a problem when the state interferes with the politics of literature,” Cuadra said. “When a young poet wants to make poetry and the government won’t accept it because it doesn’t have any politics, there are no opportunities for new poets.”
Yet, for Cardenal, and most other Sandinista artists, politics and art have become so interwoven that they are almost indistinguishable. In many ways, art came to define the government, and vice versa.
“The revolution was a cultural event, just as culture is a revolutionary event. In reality, culture and revolution were one thing,” says Cardenal who, in black beret, beard and white cotona, the traditional Nicaraguan peasant shirt, looks the part of both a revolutionary and a poet.
“We couldn’t have a revolution that was just for economic, social and political advances. We also had to have cultural advances.”
But for some, the advances came too quickly and with too many strings attached. Cuadra, a cousin of Cardenals and an early supporter of the revolution, joined the opposition shortly after the Sandinistas’ triumph.
Alan Bolt, a former director of the national theater and a clandestine Sandinista for more than a decade, fought repeatedly with the government before denouncing “the petit-bourgeois Marxists” and the “vertical structure” of their bureaucracy. At the heart of his displeasure was a familiar complaint: The government insisted on shaping art to a political agenda.
“I got tired of making plays about bad Contras and good revolutionaries,” he said.
So, Bolt took on the Sandinistas at their own game, writing a play that mocked the government’s authoritarianism. Although the play, “ Luna clara, luna oscura " (“Clear Moon, Dark Moon”) did not please the judges at the national theater festival where it was presented, it was the only one that received a standing ovation.
That was in 1987. But only now, following their stunning electoral defeat, have the Sandinistas initiated the kind of self-criticism Bolt tried to offer five years ago.
Giaconda Belli, a prominent Sandinista poet, has suggested that the party’s cultural programs should be a central part of that self-criticism and subsequent restructuring. As the “epic-hero feeling” of the revolution continues to fade, she believes Nicaraguans will have to define themselves. And a less rigid approach to popular culture may lead people to identify themselves with the party before the next national elections, scheduled for 1996.
“Everyone in Nicaragua,” Ortega once said, “is a poet until proven otherwise.” The most painful lesson for the Sandinistas, however, was that there turned out to be more than one kind of poetry.