Utopias in Central America (part 2): The dreams and nightmares in literature
How do different Central American writers
evaluate the utopias their countries sought in the 1980s?
Screeds written by Guatemalans and Salvadorans
tend to range from dissatisfaction to revulsion,
from disappointment to cynicism.
Only in Nicaragua does the utopian dream still have meaning
in memoirs penned after the revolution’s electoral defeat
by two of its most universally recognized writers.
José Luis Rocha
Central America had more than its share of writers in the 1980s who dreamed about living in a country without injustices. A sacrificial war was the inescapable route their dreams led them to, but following tthat route left them perplexed, disappointed, even emigrated. Afterwards, they only wanted to scavenge a peaceful utopia from the blood-soaked land.
But that utopia seems as unattainable today as the previous one. It becomes more distant with the uncertainties of the new violence and the difficulties of living with the rules of the neoliberal game. Their disenchantment has been as painful as or even more so than that of the social analysts whose reflections we looked at last month in the first part of this article. In the region’s literature that came after the guerrilla struggles, only the assessment of two Nicaraguan writers leave us with a less bitter taste than that of their Salvadoran and Guatemalan colleagues, perhaps for having touched the dream.
Literature grounded in the land
In The way to Paradise, a novel written in 2003 by Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, one of his characters ponders intellectuals’ fictitious sufferings, asking what else could be expected of poets, even if they are also workers, as they are monstrous egotists, blind and deaf to the fate of others, narcissists enraptured with the sufferings they invented so they could sing about them.
This didn’t happen in Central America, where intellectuals have shown exquisite sensitivity in penetrating far deeper than the social scientists into the sufferings caused by the embodiment of utopias and their consequences.
Most of their recent production is known for its relatively bleak tone. The authors don’t waver in their diagnosis of utopian dreams. Intellectuals from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua, the three Central American countries with strong leftwing guerrilla movements, have shown how well-grounded, how connected to everyday disappointments they are.
A survivor, just about
The main character in the 2014 novel Camino de hormigas (Ant trail) by the Salvadoran Miguel Huezo Mixco introduced this telling expression in the first pages: “Utopia, my friend, does not die alone.”
Its logic is clear from previous lines: “I was attacked by waves of frustration and spent hours staring at my old computer’s screen, not typing, waiting for some revelation to emerge, tormented by the certainty that my resources were deadened….” Elsewhere he says, “I had the feeling I was drying up as I waited for the lights to change on the street corners.” This anxiety was accompanied by a physical decline: “I’ve lost hair and gained belly fat. Glaucoma is devouring the sight in my right eye… When I look in the mirror I see the image of a stranger.”
And although these maladies are not exceptional at maturity, Huezo Mixco inserts them in an extensive catalogue where the main character of his novel, a former guerrilla turned stable boy in the United States becoming a “distracted Hercules,” embodies the deplorable condition of the utopia for which he had previously fought. His life cycle coincides with the revolutionary one and he identifies his body’s decay with the downward spiral of life’s disappearing illusions, of the life that is no longer as it was and the erosion of dreams that gave inspiration to his life.
Later on he introduces an expression of precarious and perhaps ephemeral triumph: “Writing made me discern that there are two groups among the survivors of a war: those who were saved from dying and those who came back to life. I think that for now I’ve managed to sneak into the second group.” From a present where he’s barely surviving, he casts a disenchanted glance at the past: “In those days, life as a couple was so complicated. We thought of ourselves as new men and women, but we were normal ordinary people. Very few know that the courtships and pairings of revolutionary love, so lauded by the poets of that time, were often the result of pure passion, with falsity among its favorite tools.”
To be born again…and to die again
The post-revolutionary past is a dystopia and so is the present. In the 2018 novel Moronga by the Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya, one of two main characters, a writer named Erasmo Aragón, expresses the revolutionaries’ difficulties in inserting themselves into postwar El Salvador: “The long-awaited dream of return, the illusion of returning to El Salvador from Mexico after the end of the civil war, to contribute with a new kind of newspaper to the so-called ‘democratic transition,’ was an illusion that only served to ruin my blood pressure and, some years later, to make me leave the country with my tail between my legs, defeated, because the aforementioned newspaper soon went broke for lack of advertisers or readers to sustain it, because when people get used to eating shit it’s almost impossible to change their palate for another kind of sandwich, and the ‘democratic transition’ was even worse, because those who were formerly mortal enemies teamed up for looting and crime, so the country continued being the same sewer polluted with blood.”
Aragón—perhaps a literary portrayal of Castellanos Moya himself—experiences daily murders in the violent Salvadoran postwar era as a mutant who emerged from the debris of the utopias: the implementation of the mercantile, neoliberal one, and the decomposing entrails of the guerrilla one.
All this degeneration comes in part from the war. As Huezo Mixco’s character explains, “A bewildering map was spread out on the table at the end of the war. We weren’t going to demolish churches, or take over public buildings so as to fly red flags. We simply returned to the battle-hardened world we had helped create to pick up what we had and discover everything we didn’t have. It was like being born again… and dying again.” But no revolutionary utopia arose from this.
Guerrillas in the Empire
Part of Castellanos Moya’s Moronga is set in the United States. José Zeledón, his other leading character, is also a former guerrilla and a beneficiary of the US Temporary Protection Status, which immerses him in a universe of 190,000 other Salvadorans.
Unlike Huezo Mixco’s character, who weaves his narrative recalling his old adventures, Castellanos Moya’s strives to break connections with his past: he changes his identity, denies his links with the guerrillas and does everything he can to go unnoticed.
In both novels the lead characters’ construct is very significant: former guerrillas who migrate to the US. Anti-imperialism, formulated with batteries of arguments, was at the crux of the revolutionary utopia, which is why placing former guerrillas as refugees in the Empire is a way of announcing that they had given up or that the utopia was wrong. Erasmo Aragón, now a visiting professor in a US university, confesses that “I landed at the Ronald Reagan airport at noon on the second Sunday in June, despite having promised myself to never use an airport with the name of such a criminal and ignorant person, but we already know how principles weaken when it comes to money.”
José Zeledón makes an effort to resist, “I trained myself to act knowing who the enemy was. It was all very clear. There was a reason, a cause for using violence.” It’s the same principle the Guatemalan guerrilla leader and philosopher Mario Payeras expressed, “Violence is only justified when everyone resorts to it.” But Zeledón fails to convince his friend the Old Man, who wants to recruit him to work as a hitman: “‘It’s not my thing to kill for money, Old Man, even less for those people. They don’t click with me,’ he says, wiping his gums with his tongue. ‘What’s the difference?’ the Old Man replied.”
The Old Man rejects all mysticism in guerrilla violence. A few pages back, Zeledón lets us see that with this new creed, “If I were to go back into action, I’d have to see things differently, see them as they are, as just business.” This is, perhaps, a not very veiled allusion to the fact that the war ended up being a business for various FMLN leaders, to catapult their political careers or position themselves in the market with credentials.
Robocop: From elite troops to hitmen
In his earlier novel El arma en el hombre (The Weapon in the Man), written back in 2001, Castellanos Moya introduces us to a character from the other side, a former soldier who comes to peacetime with no life skills and dressed for war: “In the platoon they called me Robocop. I belonged to the Acahuapa battalion, the assault troops [a thinly veiled reference to Atlacatl, the real elite battalion], but when the war ended they demobilized me. It left me hanging: my only belongings were two AK-47 rifles, an M-16, a dozen magazines, eight fragmentation grenades, my 9 mm pistol and a check equivalent to three months of salary, my severance pay.”
The army’s cutbacks and its plans for the demobilized didn’t keep Robocop from feeling thrown by being excluded from the armed institution that had adopted him: “Despite the talks where the chiefs explained to us the importance of peace and presented us options for our future, I knew my life was about to change, as if I was suddenly going to be an orphan: the Armed Forces had been my father and the Acahuapa battalion my mother. I couldn’t imagine becoming a civilian overnight, an unemployed one at that.” The proposals weren’t convincing: “The chiefs said some of us would move to different units, that others of us could go into private security companies and that there was also the option of receiving ‘reinsertion courses’ to enable us to learn a trade to get a job.” His disappointment wasn’t just personal. The breakdown of his old world encompassed his collective ideal: “The police no longer belonged to the Armed Forces. A new body had been formed, infiltrated by the terrorists.”
Robocop pinned his hopes on remnants of the war: “Convinced there was no return to the barracks, I thought, Thank God I’d had the sense to accumulate the rifles and grenades, because they would now serve me to get ahead.”
With these supplies and contacts with former comrades, Robocop starts his career as a hitman, beginning with the murder of David Celis, a pseudonym Castellanos Moya used to allude to Francisco Velis, murdered by a former policeman on October 25, 1993, while an FMLN legislative candidate. Velis’ murder was one of a series of executions of former guerrilla commanders immediately after the signing of the peace accords in 1992.
Official and public opinion reactions to the murder confirmed for Robocop that there was a change of era: “Things had changed. A few years ago nobody would have said anything because a terrorist was liquidated, but now, with all this democracy baloney, guys like me were finding it increasingly hard to do our job.”
The wretched leftwing politicians
The new era isn’t a comfortable place for either the guerrilla fighter Zeledón, the soldier Robocop or even for intellectual Erasmo Aragón, all committed to one side or the other during the war.
Nor is it comfortable for Salvadorans who visited their country in the mid-1990s after living in Montreal for 18 years and issued a conclusive judgment about the direction of the old utopias, as, in Castellanos Moya’s even earlier short novel Revulsion: Thomas Bernhard in San Salvador, written in 1997. In it, the leading character Edgardo Vega vents his interminable verbal diarrhea to the author: “A tremendous revulsion, Moya, a truly tremendous revulsion is what this country is causing me. And I’ve only been here fifteen days, busy getting together the paperwork to sell my mother’s house. Fifteen days has been enough to confirm that nothing has happened here, nothing has changed: the civil war only served for a group of politicians to get what they want; the hundred thousand dead were little more than a macabre resource so some ambitious politicians could divvy up the shit cake.... I can assure you that I’ve never seen politicians as nasty as those from here, perhaps because of the hundred thousand dead bodies that each of them bears responsibility for, perhaps it’s the blood of those hundred thousand dead that makes them stink this particular way, perhaps the suffering of those hundred thousand dead permeated them in that specially nasty way.”
His disenchantment is focused on the FMLN, the promise of utopia and breeding ground for politicians in peacetime: “And the worst are those wretched leftwing politicians, Moya; those who were formerly guerrillas, who used to be called comandantes, revolt me the most. I never thought there were such despicable phonies, so vile; truly revolting people, who after sending so many people to their death, after having sacrificed so many naive people, after getting tired of repeating the stupidities they called their ideals, now behave like the most voracious rats, rats who changed their guerrilla military uniform for a suit and tie, rats who changed their harangues about justice for any crumb that falls from the table of the rich, the only thing these rats always wanted was to take over the State so as to plunder it, really disgusting rats, Moya, I feel sorry for all those morons who died because of these rats, those tens of thousands of morons who were killed by following the orders of these rats who are now only thinking of getting as much money as they can to resemble the rich they used to fight.”
Their desire to kill
can be seen in their eyes
Through the observation of journalist Erasmo Aragón’s observation in The Dream of My Return (2013), Castellanos Moya restates Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres-Rivas’ theory about the struggle’s lethalness claiming so many victims and about internal divisions. there were many groups and acronyms at that time, but they were united by the sectarianism of their fight.
The Left’s decline had already been anticipated in Castellanos Moya’s very first novel, La diaspora (2002), in which one of his characters says: “All of us from the Committee’s leadership left. Only those who say yes to everything stayed, you know, totally useless.” Another character highlights the criminal nature of the guerrilla leadership: “All those pieces of shit had been trained in [Comandante] Marcial’s school, although they now reject him. They’re natural-born criminals. I wouldn’t trust them if I were you. More than a few have to walk with an ice pick hidden under their jacket.”
In The Dream of My Return, Erasmo Aragón reaffirms the former guerrilla’s longing to kill, expediting his conversion into a hitman. He explains that Mister Rabbit was so incensed and ready to be his accomplice in executing Eva’s former lover because he wasn’t just any accomplice but someone who had liquidated several subjects during his long revolutionary militancy. That is why he was used to pulling the trigger without it raising his pulse rate.
Robocop and Mister Rabbit, previously separated by ideology, end up united by clinging to the only job they know, that of weapons, although they are only symptomatic of a widespread devotion visible in every corner of the city: everyone would like to be a soldier, everyone would be happy if they were a soldier, they would all be delighted to be a soldier so they could kill with impunity; their desire to kill can be seen in their eyes, in their way of walking, in the way they talk; everyone would want to be a soldier so they could kill; this means being a Salvadoran. To be a soldier is the best thing you can imagine.
In one of his essays, Castellanos Moya had already reflected on the violence that has marked El Salvador: “Authoritarianism and its aftereffects cut across family, school, company and different social manifestations. Hence, due to its complexity and scope, the process of demobilizing Salvadoran society is slow. The transition aims to demilitarize the state sphere and political society over the medium term. However, consolidating a democratic system requires that behavior patterns resulting from several decades of militarization be changed in all strata of the population.”
José Zeledón and Huezo Mixco’s Robocop are two sides of the same coin. This image comes alive and has greater application on realizing that, just as these two characters exchanged El Salvador for the United States, the Salvadoran currency ceased to be the colon and became the dollar, in an attempt to turn the page on the war and fully immerse itself in globalization.
José Zeledón and Robocop are products of the Cold War: antithetical but mutually solicited and united by drug trafficking and as hitmen. Like the former leftwing soldier in Amores perros (Life’s a Bitch), José Zeledón ends up as a paid hatchet man, openly breaking with Mario Payeras’ principle but, in line with the new spirit of the times and Moya’s theory in Revulsion, he ends by practicing violent acts “as just business.”
An unlivable utopia
Guatemala’s narrative has dealt extensively with the dreams of war and its aftereffects in the postwar era. Francisco Goldman is the only one among this country’s writers who explicitly recalls the agrarian character of the utopia, to which he adds the indigenous aspect.
He does so in The Long Night of White Chickens (1992) when he says that Moya liked to imagine a Guatemala that has evolved so much from the present darkness that one day some future President, a cultured man of the world, could choose to speak in the United Nations in Tz’utjil, his Mayan mother tongue and that of his people. And if Moya himself were to ever win supreme power, what a wide-ranging agrarian reform he would implement, of course returning, ipso facto, a lot of ancestral land to the indigenous peoples.
However, he next adds a phrase that shows the narrator’s skepticism of intellectuals who manufacture agrarian or indigenous utopias: perhaps a more just Guatemala, or a Guatemala that minimally expresses the interests of the majority, would be a nation that Moya, who wasn’t fond of country life or any kind of ethnic nationalism, would feel compelled to leave, even if only out of boredom, to move to Paris, finally with a clear conscience!
In sum: concretizing the utopia would have been unlivable for those who promoted it.
Signing the peace
accords was surrender
This contradiction between being a creator or an emissary of the utopia and genuinely believing in it reappears in the writings of Mario Roberto Morales, the Guatemalan narrator who shows more points of coincidence with the author of Revulsion, undoubtedly because both were active leftist militants in the 1980s.
Los que se fueron por la libre (Those who went of their own accord) is a testimonial book by Morales, published in 1998. It tells of his early disillusionment in Nicaragua under the Sandinista comandantes, when the revolutionary government’s State Security confined him in El Chipote prison for several months.
From his new role as a journalist, Morales confronts his disillusionment with his former URNG (Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity) comrades in arms: “In the written media I have managed to articulate the Left’s critical thinking as represented by the URNG, which I consider my personal, definitive triumph over the obscure comandantes who encouraged my torture in Nicaragua. I have stated that signing the peace accords constitutes surrender and that the terms of those accords betray the principles and ideals of the revolution they still say they represent…. I now affirm that the revolution, as we conceived it, died and the URNG commanders buried it with the peace accords.”
This conclusion is more painful because it’s accompanied by the memory of the comrades he was responsible for in the city and of when he was “starting to see dedication to militancy be born in their eyes.”
The siblicide of the guerrillas
Jinetes en el cielo (Riders in the Sky) is a novel of Mario Roberto Morales’ maturity, first published in 1998. Characters and institutions of Guatemala’s recent history parade through its pages with their names slyly disguised: Gaspar Ilom is Melchor, Rigoberta Menchú is Gumersinda Coyoy, Monsignor Juan Gerardi is Alberti, the priest Mario Orantes is Cifuentes, his dog Balú is Balón, Ríos Montt is Cuevas Ruiz and the Archbishopric of Guatemala’s Human Rights Office is the Archbishop’s Human Rights Defense Office.
The novel’s recurring theme is siblicide among the guerrillas, which Morales personally experienced, and he develops the theme in various situations and in comments by the protagonists: “His own comrades were going to shoot that little doctor. It’s not too clear if he was wounded when trying to save a comrade or his comrades shot him.” It was worse for women “because when men fight over a woman, the guerrilla policy is to get rid of her.”
A few pages later he offers the reasons for a mock execution with a statement in line with Torres-Rivas’ critiques: “That was for having reported that the war in Guatemala was being lost because the leadership ordered guerrilla columns to provoke the Army then retreat to the mountains leaving the civilian population defenseless and disarmed, exposing it to massacres.”
That theory is again made explicit, with greater similarity to the Torres-Rivas formulation, but also with greater condemnation: “That wasn’t a war; it was a series of massacres of defenseless people. And the guerrillas are as responsible for that death toll as the Army: the latter for having perpetrated it, and the former for having propitiated and enabled it. It suited everyone and they all benefitted from it. This misnomer of a war was a cowardly vileness. Most of the dead were indigenous civilians from the communities.”
Another core element is his reiterated assertion that the leaders never had illusions and never believed in the utopia they proclaimed: “Understand that the guerrillas here have always been a sham, of which the bases knew nothing and much less the idealists who died like flies.” This simulacrum continued after the war, when “the guerrillas accepted their part and promised to do nothing as a political party, and to weaken and sabotage any other attempt to reconstruct the Left.” In return, the commanders received a golden handshake and ceased to be an anti-oligarchical force.
Ghost riders in the sky
driving cattle to the cliff edge
Although not in name, this is the utopia that’s in the dock when Morales prosecutes those who constructed it: “It’s the intellectuals: journalists and NGO officials, who keep feeding humanity on lies, giving them trivialities with a big spoon. Those little friends of Brenda, like Óscar Ramírez, were the winners in a vale of tears where the only ones laughing were those who caused the grief.”
Those who believed in the revolutionary utopia are the ones who give Morales’ novel its title. Like Sisyphus, they fall again and again: “I saw riders in the sky again, driving cattle towards a cliff edge where they themselves were hurrying, sweating and with bloodshot eyes. That was repeated forever and, when it happened, the excitement of the moment was experienced as on the first occasion… the cattle and the riders disappeared into the darkness of the abyss but always more and more kept coming over the horizon.”
The utopia led many nowhere and left Guatemala ruled “by the Brotherhood, the Union and the networks of drug traffickers, smugglers, kidnappers and car thieves. This will be the peace that awaits us.”
The 21st-century panorama Morales paints for us is daunting: some members of the Left have become cynical NGO leaders who invent projects as a front to obtain vast sums of money while “they move the puppets’ strings from the soft shadow of their privileges.”
Remnant of the war:
Other Guatemalan narrators have dealt with utopias in other ways or have focused on different utopias, both more recent and more ancient. They share with Morales the description of a postwar Guatemala saturated with threats.
Los sordos (The Deaf) by Rodrigo Rey Rosa (2012) is a story in which he confronts two visions of the future: The Mayas’ ancestral vision and a kind of utopia where happiness is based on medication: the peasant versus the medical utopia, where psychological ailments are relieved by taking drugs. The action takes place at an undetermined time after the war in which Guatemala has become a country where the elites no longer feel comfortable. Kidnappings and murders are the order of the day: “As things are now,” says Igor with a sinister laugh, “almost nobody shoots any more if not to kill.”
Massive investment in security is imperative in that new country. One of the characters, a fired bodyguard turned extortionist, has his own explanation: “Guatemala was full of cowards, Chepe told himself as he drank a glass of water in the kitchen. That’s why courage became such a well-paid profession.” Robert Brenneman’s research published in Central American Studies (ECA) in 2018 showed that Guatemala had 39,840 private security agents in 2016 and ranked second—only surpassed by Hungary—among the countries where private security guards have the greatest demographic weight.
In that 21st-century Guatemala, today’s violence is intertwined with the remnants of the war: “In the third millennium, Guatemala finally exerted some influence on Mexican culture: the former Kabiles employed by the drug lords as personal guards had introduced the gigantic Northern neighbor to the practice of ritual decapitation as a method of intimidation.” According to Rey Rosa, the greatest remnant of the decline of the revolutionary utopia is a previously unthinkable absurdity: communist millionaires.
The utopia was consumed
in the Mayan past
The backdrop to the plot of Los sordos is an alleged kidnapping and the mysterious Lara Kubelka Experimental Neurological Hospital, built on the deep plateau with international donations, which arouses the suspicions of the indigenous people who live close by.
As the plot unfolds, the suspicion increases until it gets out of control. The Civilian Self-Defense Patrols are about to hold one of those lynchings that have proliferated so much in postwar Guatemala when the indigenous authorities intervene to apply Mayan justice, staging a ritual that is both novel and evocative of the past: “Nobody had seen anything like it on the shores of the lake, at least nobody remembered.… The great-grandparents had finally returned to walk again. They were Nahuales [Mayan shape-shifters] once more. With them came not only the memory of other times, the times of the annals, forgotten or repressed customs, but also authority—the Police itself, ‘always on the side of power although not always that of justice.’ By walking, they demonstrated that their time, their power source, had finally awakened.”
The Mayan authorities, followed by a crowd, break into where the lynching was about to take place, clear up the facts and impart justice. But the schism is evident between the supporters of technology versus those of the ancestors. Rey Rosa makes it clear that the hospital’s sponsor, although he lives in the geographical center of the Mayan world, isn’t comfortable and in his heart of hearts he despises the institution that saves his skin.
For their part, the local authorities express their ambivalent position regarding the medical utopia, making it clear that this alleged advance of civilization belongs to an already surpassed Mayan past: “We understand the nature of these practices you just mentioned, madam,” he begins to say, addressing Clara, “and it’s true that our ancestors deformed skulls to cure diseases and enhance qualities. We stopped doing that a long, long time ago. Our doctors only use certain words, some herbs. The grandparents say that the scalpel is a sign of impatience, of violence.”
With a delicate sense of sarcasm and contradiction, bearing in mind that Mayan customs are often attacked by racist hacks who label them as backward, Rey Rosa’s character establishes that the modern utopia was consumed in the Mayan past and, to finish sinking in the thrust, adds that it’s about a utopia surpassed in the present.
A time of great doubts
and small certainties
Nicaragua is a relatively atypical case in the treatment writers of literature have given to the revolutionary utopia, as also was the fate of its insurrectional movement: it overthrew a dynasty that had lasted more than forty years, established a centralized planning regime and surrendered power following electoral defeat.
In 1990, after the revolution’s defeat at the polls in February followed by the moral defeat of la piñata—the looting of state coffers and properties in the transition period between then and April to benefit the Sandinista govern¬ment’s high command, Eduardo Galeano, in an attempt to stave off disenchantment, wondered: “Does Sandinismo end with some leaders who have failed to live up to their own heroic deeds and ended up with cars and houses and other public assets? Surely Sandinismo is much more than those Sandinistas who had what it takes to lose lives in a war but have not been capable of losing things in times of peace.” That’s why he proclaims that we are in a “time of collapse and perplexity; a time of great doubts and small certainties.”
That time lasted for years and was what generated a review of the Sandinista revolution set in several documentary films: Nica Libre (1997) by Félix Zurita, Palabras Mágicas (para romper un encantamiento) / Magic Words (to break a spell) (2012) by Mercedes Moncada, Heiress of the Wind (2017) by Gloria Carrión, and Los amantes de San Fernando (2001) and Last Chapter: Goodbye Nicaragua (2010) by Peter Torbiörnsson.
It also generated memoirs that rescue or bury varied aspects of past utopias. Such is the one published in 1999 by Sergio Ramírez, who was Ortega’s Vice President between the elections the FSLN won in 1984 with 63% of the votes and the ones it lost after five more years of war with only 41.5%. He gave it the eloquent double-entendre title Adiós muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution (1999).
The “muchachos” were those who, when they stopped being revolutionaries, didn’t have enough ethical integrity to see them through what followed after the population failed to endorse them in the 1990 elections: That electoral defeat, wrote Ramírez, brought with it the collapse of the ethical principles that underpinned the revolution and generated disenchantment, skepticism and bitterness in the heart of many of these young people, who began to see themselves as the lost generation. The world changed at the end of the 1980s; the whole structure of their ideals caved in and the chimeras were dethroned.
Nicaragua’s revolutionary utopia perished in part because the international context no longer favored it, but also because, as an unrealizable dream, it suffered from that disconnect between reality and ideal with which Sánchez Vázquez reproached Quixotism: The revolution was a transformative force that overwhelmed everyone, filling spaces that had stayed vacant for centuries and creating an illusion of the future, the idea that everything, without exception, could be possible, achievable, with a total disregard for the past.
What matters is the ideal, not the results
The problem wasn’t only in Nicaragua’s past, in caudillismo
Although Sergio Ramírez perceives the ethical collapse as an effect of the electoral defeat, in one passage in his book he recognizes that the FSLN, as a whole, wasn’t ready to assume its role as an opposition party within a democratic system because it hadn’t been designed for that. Its top-down political style was inspired by Leninist manuals, the impositions of war and caudillismo.
It needs analyzing whether a top-down structure was a mere mechanical particularity that made the FSLN an unsuitable artifact for a democratic system or it was the breeding ground of abuses that corroded the ethic even before the electoral defeat. Almost two decades after Rámirez wrote Adios Muchachos, Luís Carrión, one of the nine coman-dantes of the FSLN’s historic National Directorate, confessed in a recent, frank and penetrating article for envío that from the start “a single-party logic was imposed” under which “we began to build not a national State but a Sandinista State. All institutions were under Sandinista control... and by that same logic we later imposed media censorship and repressed any attempt at opposition.”
For a time, the FSLN received massive popular support, whether because of or in spite of its authoritarianism, but it began eroding as the war left bodies and hunger in its trail.
Ramírez was quick to realize that the whole environment had changed starting in the late 1980s: the naive idea that all mothers would view their sons’ death in a war as a necessary sacrifice had been dissipating. Nonetheless, at Sandinista demonstrations, one of the most vocal slogans was: “Without young people willing to sacrifice themselves, there is no revolution.” That Quixotic ideal didn’t withstand the onslaught of Sancho Panza’s common sense, and in the end. Ramírez concludes, history didn’t change, as they thought it would.
He reminds us, however, that in a not very heroic end of century, the Sandinista revolution was the culmination of a time of rebelliousness and the triumph of a host of shared beliefs and feelings by a generation that abominated imperialism and had faith in socialism and national liberation movements. On the last page of his book, Ramírez gives the floor and the verdict to the orphaned daughter of a Sandinista militant: “The results aren’t important, what matters is the ideal; especially in this time without ideals.”
Pain for the loss
of a common purpose
With some nuances, Sergio Ramírez’s view coincides with that of other Nicaraguan writers.
In The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War, whose Spanish version, El país bajo mi piel, was published in 2001, writer Gioconda Belli, who as a militant member of the FSLN had worked more than a decade in its “agitation and propaganda” department, thoroughly analyzed the feeling that overwhelmed her when, two months after the FSLN left power, she changed her residence from Nicaragua, a country in revolution, to Washington DC, the heart of the country that had made war on that revolution: “I must say that when I imagined living in that neighborhood sheltered by enormous trees that inundated us with golden leaves in the fall I didn’t imagine the feeling of loss that came over me; that quiet neighborhood where the neighbors were like ghosts whose furtive shadows could scarcely be seen when they went out toor returned from their jobs. The solitude surrounding the people, the anonymity, were new experiences for me….. Perhaps that serious man reading the newspaper at the next table had been responsible for writing recommendations for a thousand and one ways the United States should conduct the covert war against the Nicaraguan Revolution, my Revolution.”
The utopia’s decline seems related to the loss of personal relationships. The country where people acted “as if all the paths were already marked out with each one sure of his course” wasn’t a suitable place for utopias.
The pedestrians in whose eyes she felt signs lit with warnings not to cross the boundaries that protected their intimacy caused Belli to further explore her exile: In big and anonymous cities people have no reference to a common history, or the path paved by family friendships inherited from generation to generation. She described that social dispersion, that absence of community, of collective meaning, as “an exile within another exile.” “I realized,” she wrote, “that in the United States one goes out into society as if going out into a hostile, highly competitive terrain.”
In this new setting, Belli felt in her personal experience what others analyze as a collective destiny of the Central American isthmus: “It was this exile, the exile from intimacy with others, the lack of a sense of belonging, of a common purpose, that was hardest for me.”
Utopia as a relay race
on an open road
As if inspired by the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Gioconda Belli also continues finding meaning in the utopian function and in the old revolutionary dreams: “Having lived my life up to this point I venture to state that there is nothing Quixotic or romantic about wanting to change the world. It is possible. It is what humanity has always dedicated itself to. I can’t conceive of a better life than one dedicated to effervescence, to illusions.... Our world, full of potential, is and will be the result of the effort we—its inhabitants—give to it. I now realize that what’s important isn’t that you yourself see all your dreams fulfilled, but that you stubbornly continue dreaming them.”
Finally her verdict, as if addressing militants of other leftist organizations who, like Castellanos Moya and Morales, renounced the utopia, now reject it and compare those who died for it to ghost riders in the sky hurrying into the void: “My dead, my deaths, were not in vain. This is a relay race on an open road. In the US, as in Nicaragua, I am the same Quixotic woman who learned in the battles of life that if the victories can be a mirage, so also can the defeats.”
What would we be if we didn’t dream?
Belli’s novel Waslala, published five years earlier, narrates the search for a utopian place entered via a space-time portal, prohibited to those without faith, as doubt interferes with its collective energy, making it inaccessible.
To get to Waslala you first have to go into a territory ruled by the brothers Damián and Antonio Espada (Daniel and his brother Humberto Ortega), who year after year are becoming more heartless, relentless and obstinate. Antonio Espada repudiates utopia: “Who except for poets would think up a Waslala? But the idea caught on. Why would people not want to believe in an enchanted place, without conflicts or contradictions? In a cursed country like this one, it’s an irresistible idea, except that it’s a lie. The only possible truth, the only certainty, is having power, being strong enough to impose the rules of the game, to be the main player.”
These words evoke those with which Humberto Ortega showed his pragmatism in Félix Zurita’s documentary Nica Libre the year after Belli finished Waslala. Retired General Ortega said, “So, there’s a hierarchy. Ten thousand people enter the stadium but there’s only room for 500 in the box. However much you love the people, you can’t seat them all in the box.” Only the powerful fit in there and get to direct the game.
In Waslala, the letter Engracia sends to Melisandra contains in a few lines the message subtly infused through the whole plot: “What would we humans be if we didn’t dream? In what flat, mediocre, cynical world would we live? Humanity has been built chasing dreams. But, as the world gets more complicated, we’re told that the era of dreams is over. We have dreamt enough now and it’s time for us to be practical and realize that dreams are dangerous. Yes they are, Melisandra. They’re both dangerous and necessary.
Engracia is posed as the antagonist of Antonio Espada and his pragmatism. But she can’t avoid the clash between everyday needs and ideals. Sergio Ramírez also recorded this clash between the ideal that everything, without exception, was possible, and the human sacrifices paid to realize the dreams.
Engracia comes to the same conclusion in the closing words of the book—and it radicalizes her: “Perhaps Waslala never becomes the ideal we set ourselves. It is very likely, but life has convinced me that the purpose of ideals is to keep aspiration alive, to set humans the challenge that greatness, the only salvation for our species, lies in the ability to imagine the impossible.”
When the utopia slips away
Waslala disappeared when the exercise of power wore out the poets who ruled it, inferring that the poets were there to dream Waslala, not to administer it, and that utopia is maintained by imagination, by the ability to give life to the fantasy that animates desires, aspirations and the best human potentialities. That’s why fantasy acquires as much value as reality.
The fantasy made Waslala work. And that dream attracted a multitude of visitors, thus ceasing to be a future prospect and becoming a present reality.
Ramírez was also aware of this flow of international solidarity when Nicaragua was at the epicenter of the revolutionary utopias: People from all over the world kept coming to Nicaragua to do everything, in a solidarity operation that can only be compared to the one aroused by the Republican cause during the years of the Spanish Civil War. For all of them Nicaragua was a rematch after the lost dreams in Chile, and even further off, an inheritance of the lost dreams of the Spanish Republic.
Drastic changes were taking place in the world outside of Waslala, i.e. in the international context in which the Sandinista revolution was unfolding, and also within the utopia itself. Belli writes that in the meetings, people began to question the purpose of maintaining a dream that nobody was looking for, nobody seemed interested in… and the ideal was discarded as unattainable. Fantasy fades when it ceases to feed dreams and inspire actions.
This is always one of the Achilles heels of utopias. They can be weakened or be shown that nothing is achievable when the objective
e conditions don’t favor them. But they only die when there are no subjectivities to create and disseminate them.
* * *
How did the women and men on the street subjectively experience and suffer the Central American utopias? What traces have been left in the people at street level of so many dreams dreamt and truncated?
To be continued…
José Luis Rocha is a researcher affiliated with the Institute for Research and Projection on Global and Local Dynamics of the Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala and with the “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University in El Salvador.
Note from the envío translation team: Only some of the books cited have been translated into English. When inaccessible to us, we either paraphrased the quotes or in some cases translated them ourselves. Our apologies to the original translators for any discrepancies.