Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Pleasures of Reading, Viewing, and Listening in 2011, part 6: Rebecca Ore

Reading Nicaragua
by Rebecca Ore

I’ve been living in Jinotega, Nicaragua, since the end of July 2010, and have been an official resident since December 21 or so of the same year. When I first came here, it reminded me, sociologically, of the Appalachians, with a range of people in a number of communities all being seen as the locals, a backdrop against which the people who discovered the place, often meaning the scenery more than the people, did various things that couldn’t be done where they came from.

This impression hasn’t changed. Nicaragua has been seen as a great opportunity for the Anglo Saxons since Thomas Belt wrote The Naturalist in Nicaragua. Where I live now, he described:
Jinotega is pleasantly situated, and has many advantages over other Nicaraguan towns. The climate is temperate and moderately dry, the land very fertile. Pine trees on the surrounding ranges furnish fuel and light. Pasture is abundant; for two miles below the town the valley opens out into wide "campos" covered with grass, on which a large number of horses, cattle, and mules are reared. (Thomas Belt. The Naturalist in Nicaragua (Kindle Locations 2992-2995)).
The wide campos and the village of Apanas are now under a reservoir for hydroelectric power generations.
Belt disliked mestizo culture and preferred the indigenous:
Probably nowhere but in tropical America can it be said that the introduction of European civilisation has caused a retrogression; and that those communities are the happiest and the best-governed who retain most of their old customs and habits. (Kindle Locations 3435-3436).
I’ve had discussions with a Nicaraguan acquaintance over the survival of the indigenous culture or not. He claims that without the language, the person isn’t Indian. I get the very strong impression that a lot of indigenous ways of being with people still survive.

The one really alarming note in Belt’s book is his belief that Nicaragua will be finally taken over by Anglo-Saxon colonists, even though he notes that most Europeans and North Americans who have settled there ended up living Nicaraguan lives.
There is one form of colonisation that will be successful, and that is the gradual moving down southward of the people of the United States. When the destiny of Mexico is fulfilled, with one stride the Anglo-American will bound to the Isthmus of Panama, and Central America will be filled with cattle estates, and with coffee, sugar, indigo, cotton, and cacao plantations. Railways will then keep up a healthful and continuous intercourse with the enterprising North, and the sluggard and the sensual will not be able to stand before the competition of the vigorous and virtuous. Nor will the Anglo-American long be stayed by the Isthmus in his progress southward. Unless some such catastrophe happens as a few years ago threatened to cover North America with standing armies as in Europe, which God forbid, not many centuries will roll over before the English language will be spoken from the frozen soil of the far north to Tierra del Fuego in the south. (Kindle Locations 4585-4592).
This attitude seems to linger on, not so directly spoken, in some of expatriate plans in the current day.

Bill Drake’s Cultural Dimensions of Expatriate Life in Nicaragua is a generic ex-pat book fleshed out with some actually decent advice on living in Nicaragua, but those parts are rather Managua-centric and US embassy personnel-centric. The section on culture shock is probably useful (I suspect people more firmly integrated into their home cultures than I was will have more problems). He says learning the local language, being in immersion classes, will help there. Other advice: Make local friends and don't spend too much time with expatriates who aren't integrated into the local culture.

Drake describes a subset of expatriates who spend their time together in bars and restaurants complaining about the locals, assuming that none of the local speak the language when national intelligence agencies often have agents working in such places. The net forums have created a similar venue with even greater chance of Nicaraguan intelligence checking to see what the gringos are bitching about now.

Drake contrasts high context cultures with low context ones. High context cultures are the ones known for circumlocutions, not saying things directly, not wanting to disappoint people to their faces in matter of invitations and saying instead things like "we'll try to make it," which Drake suggests is a Nicaraguan way of saying no. (He also says that individuals have differences and benevolent stereotypes are as annoying as negative ones). I recently had a discussion with Nicaraguan friends over a visit a visiting friend and I were going to make to their finca, and my friend said that she really hadn’t been able to follow all the conversation. Southerners won’t have any problems – they do politeness as a weapon, just tone it down a bit and Nicaragua will seem as straightforward as you should want.

One of the major things that happened here was The Revolution, July 1979. From the United States, it looks more clear-cut than it looks in Nicaragua. An acquaintance, who fought for the FSLN, whose father and grandfather were opposed to Somoza, said the main thing to keep in mind was that everyone was very scared.

Three books are among the best non-specialist, non-resident introduction to the revolution and Contra War era: Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation, by Kenneth E. Morris; The Jaguar Smile, by Salman Rushdie, and Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle (Fifth Edition), by Thomas W. Walker and Christine J. Wade.

Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s Struggle for Liberation is the most recent book, published in 2010. Since then, Ortega has been re-elected President to considerable concern from the exiled Nicaraguan and Cuban community in Miami, with over 60% of the vote.

While there's some overlap with the latest edition of Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle, this focuses on Daniel Ortega and includes more details on various accusations against him, including the child molestation charges, than I've seen elsewhere. The writer is grudgingly sympathetic to Ortega, so if that would be unacceptable, start with Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Morris writes: "It is simply a mistake to underestimate Daniel Ortega's political savvy."

Morris’s account reminds me of Lyndon Johnson, another consummate politician who could only be kept in check by his own moral principles, which worked brilliantly for Civil Rights (Kennedy kept Civil Rights around as a house pet and would have probably never gotten anything passed) and disastrously for Vietnam (I doubt that Kennedy would have behaved any better, despite the myths of Camelot). Both Ortega and Johnson appear to have embarrassed the traditional liberal classes by the roughness that never left either.

Although Salman Rushdie pointed out that many of the Sandinistas he met had the same class origins as the Guardia, Ortega was lower-middle class. Many of the upper class Sandinistas broke with him.

Besides Ortega, the book looks closely at the personal histories of some of the other Nicaraguan revolutionary leaders: Sandino, and, in greater detail, Fonseca and the other Ortega brothers. They were almost all lower middle class men: "Also, contrary to Marx, it would seem that the lower middle class is more prone to revolutionary enthusiasm than the working class, because it has a stake in the system yet feels vulnerable."

Both Ortega and Tomas Borge were the products of private Catholic high schools, with Ortega's family having trouble paying the fees from time to time. Ortega began his political actions in his teens and when he sat for his high school graduation exams, National Guard was waiting for him. His school gave Ortega temporary asylum, an undocumented deal was cut, and he was able to graduate and even attend university briefly.

Unlike the common US left assumption that Ortega only returned to the Catholic Church to get its support in 2006, this book keeps in focus Ortega's lifelong connection to Catholicism. Also, unlike the other books I've read, Morris discusses the early bank robberies the FSLN used to support itself ("We're the FSLN and we're robbing this bank to overthrow Somoza" seems to have been what the muchachos said) and Ortega's ambush killing of a National Guardsman who had brutalized prisoners. Ortega's conviction for one of the bank robberies sent him to prison, where some of the guards were FSLN sympathizers and made sure that the political prisoners had access to radios and reading material. Prison bred the strongest alliances of Ortega's life: the only political prisoners serving with Ortega to survive the revolution, Jacinto Suarez and Lenin Cerna, remained loyal to him for life, as did Tomas Borge, who also survived both prison and the revolution. As Morris puts it, "Those who defected from the Front, usually in ideological huffs, tended to not have endured long term incarcerations."

This is another book strongly pointing out that the FSLN economic plans always included a private sector and that the Soviet Union was not an unqualified supporter of that part during the 1980s.

Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle points to Soviet-era documents that show the Soviet Union wasn't as involved or expecting as much as the Reagan and other supporters of the Contras claimed. I won’t review it in detail.

Rushdie’s The Jaguar Smile said that conservative estimates of the CIA's budget against Nicaragua in 1986-87 were around $400 million, with $300 million going to influence Nicaragua's neighbors, "...you had a grand total of $800 million being spent on dirty tricks and destabilization, to bring to heel a country of under three million people….In the five years of the war, the Nicaraguan economy had suffered an estimated $2 billion-worth of damage."

Rushdie visited Nicaragua at a time when many felt a US invasion was inevitable. The Contras were failing to keep troops. According to Rushdie’s contacts, the Sandinista government pardoned any campesino who'd joined or was pressed into the Contras and who wanted to quit. The FSLN was passing out AK-47s to campesinos; Rushdie said that he couldn't imagine El Salvador passing out weapons to their peasants. The majority of people did not support the contras in most of Nicaragua (the current November 6 vote probably reflects the distribution of Contra supporting areas fairly closely: a cattle farming area went for the best of the two other parties and Jinotega voted for Ortega with a smaller majority than the other departments).

I live here now and I’ve seen more politically frightened people in South Carolina during the 1950s. A writer for the Herald Tribune accused Nicaragua of repression that was not as conspicuous or as bloody as other parts of Central America, but which was more insidious and systematic. Rushdie brought this up. "Then he (Ramirez) lost his temper, 'You see,' he cried, 'if we do not murder and torture people as they do in Salvador, it just proves that we are so fiendishly subtle."

What Rushdie saw was a mixed economy. He had negative impressions of Ernesto Cardenal, the poet who claimed Nicaragua was the first country to nationalize poetry (Rushdie quotes in his forward a person in the audience quipping, "Second," meaning the Soviet Union. He heard Gioconda Belli reading and began a correspondence with her that he mentions in his foreword, that she'd left Nicaragua, though at this time, Belli is back in Managua, at least half the year (she’s one of the country club Sandinistas, frankly, meow).

Rushdie found himself at odds with his hosts over the issue of freedom of the press and over what he felt was an uncritical acceptance of all things Cuban, particularly on Cardenal's part. The Sandinistas closed La Prensa after the US Congress voted further funding to the Contras. La Prensa took money from the CIA (most agree on that one though the Chamorro family denies it) and the FSLN government, in what Rushdie saw as a tit for tat, shut down La Prensa. He found the idea of poets closing down a press appalling. The excuse was that "Everyone censors the press in wartime." Rushdie said, simply, of the excuse, "It wouldn't do."

(La Prensa is what you’d expect if you gave a teenaged US libertarian enough money to run a newspaper. An Australian paper gave a more responsible account of a 5,000 person march in Managua protesting the recent election; and when La Prensa’s workers went on strike after the article came out, this was said to be an example of FSLN intimidation. Gray area, but Somoza or his friends shot Joachim Chamorro for his attacks on the Somoza regime. One is under the impression that nothing makes Family Chamorro happy).

Rushdie saw an imperfect state, but believed that it was better than it was bad. "And imperfection, even the deep flaw of censorship, did not constitute a justification for being crushed by a super-power's military and economic force." He remembered debates with Mario Vargas Llosa, who had insisted that the democratic process was the only way to break the cycle of revolution and dictatorship in Latin America. Vargas Llosa supported the right in his native country of Peru and did not support what he felt was happening in Nicaragua.

Rushdie's fame as a fiction writer allowed him access to people who would not be as available to other visitors. He did his homework and was an acute observer, though sometimes less than candid about everything he saw. His Preface to the 1997 edition corrects some of these omissions, and brings the story forward ten years. He said of the Sandinistas as they left office, "Now, in their fall, they had behaved, once again simultaneously, like true democrats and also like true Latin American oligarchs."

I liked seeing this period of Nicaraguan history through the eyes of someone who wasn't from one of the dominant world cultures. Rushdie's worth reading, even if one doesn't agree with all his initial conclusions and does understand that land confiscation wasn't just from those who'd fled Nicaragua.

Roger N. Lancaster’s Life is Hard: Machismo, Danger, and the Intimacy of Power in Nicaragua isn’t a good book to start with, but is an excellent account of what it was like to live in Nicaragua at the end of the Contra War, to be in the Managua barrios when people were stressed by inflation, the draft, and the constant fear of US invasion. The book also discusses gender and gay issues, but the section on how the barrio reacted to the vote for Violetta Chamorro (as though in mourning), and the details of life in Managua barrios, how people coped, makes this one a good book for anyone wanting to know more about how life worked in Managua at that time.

Two movies – one the street vendor selling movies insisted that I buy: Sandino and the other one a loan from some young Nicaraguans when they returned my copy of Sandino: Pancho Villa. Both together bring back an era when people first began trying to throw off US domination. Both men were murdered.

Some people argue that Ortega and his faction of the FSLN are dictators – at worst, at least now, it might be a soft authoritarian regime, but given all the complaints about him, it is not a suppressed country. The local FSLN supporters looked more prosperous and better fed than the PRI (best of the two other parties) supporters. Politics here is played hardball – the country is in some ways better off than I imagined, but those who fail to be significantly prosperous don’t that much of a comfortable middle class to fall back to yet.

Rebecca Ore's fiction burst upon the world in 1988 with the publication of her celebrated Becoming Alien trilogy, the first two novels of which were nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award. Since then she’s published a great deal of short fiction and numerous novels, including Gaia’s Toys, Time’s ChildOutlaw School, Slow Funeral, the short fiction collection, Alien Bootlegger, and from Aqueduct Press, Alien Bootlegger and Centuries Ago and Very Fast, a collection of linked short stories that was a finalist for both the Philip K. Dick and the Lambda Awards. Aqueduct Press will be releasing her new novel, Time and Robbery this spring.

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