Contra hero to despot

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Stephen Kinzer's latest book is "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It." His 1991 book, "Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua," recounts his experience as the New York Times' bureau chief in Managua.

Abitter political-cultural confrontation that exploded in Nicaragua in late August could mark the final end of the passionate romance between the world’s leftist intellectuals and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

Ortega, you may recall, was the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front when it seized power after overthrowing the 40-year Somoza family dynasty. A dashing young revolutionary who electrified liberals and leftists around the world, Ortega served as Nicaragua’s president for most of the 1980s. He lost power in 1990, but after 16 years in opposition, he was elected president again in 2006.

For years -- in and out of government -- the Sandinista Front has been Ortega’s private fiefdom. Most of the other Sandinistas who riveted the world’s attention in the 1980s have broken with him, but he emerged with control over the party machinery, and he wields power like an old-fashioned Latin American caudillo.


Despite Ortega’s recent slide into authoritarian rule, and despite his glaring failure to address the urgent needs of an impoverished nation, the Sandinista cachet continues to give him an air of celebrity in some circles. His denunciations of American imperialism (issued even as he deals easily with the U.S. military and the International Monetary Fund) still warm the cockles of many hearts.

That has changed in recent days. On Aug. 22, in a crude act of political revenge, a Sandinista judge dredged up an old case that had been dismissed three years ago against Ernesto Cardenal, the 83-year-old poet who is one of Nicaragua’s most beloved figures. Intellectuals from around the world, including many with pro-Sandinista pedigree, have angrily protested what they see as a transparent effort by Ortega and the Sandinistas to humiliate and punish Cardenal.

During the wild days of revolutionary rule and Contra war in the 1980s, Cardenal -- a priest and liberation theologian as well as a poet -- served as Ortega’s minister of culture, and he did much to spread the Sandinista mystique around the world. The sin for which he is now being punished is that during a visit to Paraguay last month, he had the temerity to call Ortega a “thief” who runs “a monarchy made up of a few families in alliance with the old Somoza interests.”

Cardenal was in Paraguay to attend the inauguration of that country’s new left-leaning president, Fernando Lugo. He was given a warm official welcome. Ortega, in contrast, was forced to cancel his visit after Paraguayan feminists said they would dog him with protests over unresolved charges that he had sexually abused his stepdaughter.

This tempest recalls an episode in the early 1970s that led many U.S. and European leftists to rethink their infatuation with Fidel Castro. Castro placed the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla under house arrest as punishment for his writings, and police subjected him to harsh interrogations. His treatment led to a famous protest petition signed by figures who had previously expressed admiration for Castro, including Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Susan Sontag.

Last week, more than 60 Latin American writers and other cultural figures issued a protest calling the judge’s move against Cardenal “totally illegal.” It called him “the most recent victim of systematic persecution that is being directed against all who raise their voices to protest the lack of transparency, the authoritarian style, the unscrupulous behavior and the lack of ethics that Daniel Ortega has shown since his return to power.”


Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, a hero to generations of Latin American leftists, described the action against Cardenal as the work of “a deplorable regime.” Portuguese Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago said that if Ortega does not reverse last week’s court ruling, “we will know that his human and political merits have fallen to zero,” and added: “Once more a revolution has been betrayed from within.”

In the disputed case, a German citizen sued Cardenal for insulting him. All charges were dismissed in 2005. There’s been no explanation for why the case was suddenly revived, but as the novelist Sergio Ramirez, who was Ortega’s vice president in the 1980s, noted: “Nicaraguan judges depend on Daniel Ortega’s will.”

Cardenal has been ordered to pay a fine of more than $1,000. He has called the sentence “unjust and illegal” and says he will go to prison rather than pay.

That may not happen because, under Nicaraguan law, no one older than 80 may be sent to prison. Even so, this episode has probably removed the last aura of romance surrounding the Sandinista Front.