NICARAGUAN CULTURE Unleashing Creativity

September 25, 2007

"Under the dictatorship two kinds
of culture existed in our country. On
the one hand, a mimetic culture,
based on imported ideologies and con-
cepts of value and beauty. A culture
which because of its subservient char- acter,
was one of profound medioc- rity. It was this medocrity which the
Somocista elite attempted to impose on the people of Nicaragua.
"On the other hand, and counter- posed to it, was the authentic, indi-
genous culture of the people, which in
the era of colonialism and particularly under Somocism, tenaciously resisted
official condescension, and during
times of crisis, outright repression. It
is this resistance which paved the way for the very important role culture
played in the last years of the struggle. And it is with the victory in 1979, that
the culture of our people is vindicated
and accorded the value and dignity it
so long lacked. I would say it is this new attitude and atmosphere which is
greatly responsible for the unleashing
of creativity we have witnessed in the last five years." The poet Rosario Murillo, secretary
general of the Association of San-
dinista Cultural Workers, made these
comments last December, as we
began an interview in her Managua
office about the state of culture and
the arts in revolutionary Nicaragua.
Something akin to a cultural renais-
sance has been taking place in
Nicaragua since 1979, and despite
chronic obstacles imposed by the con-
tra war, it has become one of the San-
dinista revolution's most moving accomplishments. Perhaps no other
aspect of this original revolution more
Kent Johnson, who taught in
Nicaragua's literacy program in 1980
and 1983; is active in Artists' Call in
Milwaukee. He has compiled and
translated an anthology of poems
from Nicaraguan Poetry Workshops,
forthcoming on West End Press.
clearly exemplifies the popular, grass-
roots character of the Sandinista pro- cess and at the same time, more effec-
tively refutes President Reagan's charges that the Nicaraguan people
live in the darkness of a "totalitarian
dungeon." Yet the phenomenon re-
mains little known outside the coun-
try's borders.
The creative upsurge is not con-
fined within the walls of museums,
concert halls or theaters. In fact, the
country's major art museum, innova-
tively installed for lack of space in the
earthquake ruins of the Gran Hotel,
practically has no walls. Nicaraguans
call it a "cultural insurrection," and
the phenomenon is quite literally ev-
erywhere: a national network of
Poetry Workshops (Talleres de
Poesia) has been perhaps, the most
interesting and massive grassroots
writing program ever conducted any- where. Thousands of people-many
who just learned to read and write-- have joined workshops in poor neigh-
borhoods, rural cooperatives and
police and army barracks. Many have
had their writing published, either in
local or national publications. One of
the main outlets for their work is
Poesia Libre, literary magazine of the
Ministry of Culture, which publishes
the new working-class poets alongside famous writers from around the
A nationwide network of People's
Cultural Centers (Centros Populares
de Cultura) offers dance, painting and
ceramic courses in nearly every city
and rural town. In more isolated
areas, the cultural centers attempt to
reach people through Cultural
Brigades (Brigadas de Cultura) com-
posed of volunteer amateur artists
who live among the campesinos for a
few days at a time, sharing their skills
and where possible, attempting to es-
tablish ongoing cultural projects.
World Capital of Mural Art
Having sought the advice of inter-
national artists, notably from Italy and
Mexico, a dynamic muralist move- ment is progressively transforming the
cities of Nicaragua into multi-colored, open-air galleries. The new National
School of Art has established a Mural
Studies department which may well
make Nicaragua the "world capital"
of mural art in much the same way
that Mexico was earlier this century.
The Nicaraguan Film Institute (In-
cine) has already produced a number
of prize-winning documentaries and
films on a shoe-string budget. The
country's first feature-length film, Al-
cino and the Condor, received world acclaim and a 1983 Oscar nomination.
One of Incine's special projects is
Mobile Cinema (Cine Movil), a fleet
of trucks equipped with generator-run projectors that travel to remote areas where movie theaters or television do not exist.
Responding to the increasing de-
mand for reading material brought on
by the adult education program, a
number of new publishing houses
have sprung up. They range from
presses run by the unions and Cultural
Centers to the state-owned Editorial
Nueva Nicaragua, which in the past six
years has produced dozens of books
of poetry and fiction from around the
Among the most astounding de-
velopments is the nationwide theater
movement, with hundreds of small
"companies" and thousands of work-
ing-class and campesino participants,
that has made plays in city streets and
war-zone villages as common as a
summer softball game in a U.S. park.
Role of Artist Debated
Most of these activities are directly
related to the organizing efforts of the
country's two major cultural institu-
tions: the Ministry of Culture and the
Association of Sandinista Cultural
Workers (ASTC). The ministry, under the direction of Latin America's most famous living poet, Father Er-
nesto Cardenal, carries out a multi- tude of programs, including coordina-
tion of the network of People's Cul- tural Centers; the administration of national art, music and dance schools;
a mobile library system; and promo- tion of the work of the nation's arti-
sans, a group comprising over 15% of
8the labor force.
The ASTC in turn, functions as an
umbrella organization for various pro-
fessional "guilds," representing such
diverse groups as writers, circus art- ists
and photographers. While pro-
moting the interests of these cultural
workers, the ASTC-through study
groups, exhibits and direct action-is
attempting to clarify the role of the
professional artist in a revolutionary
society. Continuing the rich tradition
of the activist artist in Nicaragua, over
100 ASTC "cultural brigades" have
done month-long stints at the front,
literally dodging bullets to share their
talents with the soldiers.
What Nicaraguans commonly refer
to as the "democratization of culture,"
has two essential and related compo-
nents. First, is an effort to "massify"
(masificar) culture and make the pleas-
ures of the arts available to the coun-
try's urban and rural poor. The 1980
literacy campaign, which brought
basic reading and writing skills to hun-
dreds of thousands of people, was an
indispensable first step in that effort. Second, is a reaffirmation of Nica- ragua's creative traditions-indigenous
motifs; traditional crafts; religious fes-
tivals; dance and music folklore; and
"primitive" painting. Analagous to
the great revival of Black culture in
the Cuban revolution, there is a par-
ticular emphasis on promoting the
folk traditions of the Atlantic Coast, a
special victim of the denigration of
non-white culture that developed dur-
ing the fifty years of U.S. domination.
In reasserting national values, the
interaction of culture and revolution
deeply and naturally influences artis- tic practice. Such a dialectic is
perhaps inevitable in a country under- going profound social change and en-
gaged in a major military struggle for survival. But while political subjects inform much of the new art, a number
of recent discussions in the Nicara- guan press suggest that most leading cultural workers agree that revolution-
ary art should provoke critical reflec-
tion and not offer smug ideological
answers. This is especially obvious in
the theater movement, where skits and
plays by the more prominent groups
tend to deal with specific problems
and contradictions in the new society.
A play I saw in Matagalpa, for ex-
Outdoor theater: common as a softball game in a U.S. park, Diriamba
ample, openly took up the problem of
machismo, focusing on a man who in
public is an active supporter of the
revolution, but physically abuses his
wife at home. The play ended without
the contradiction being resolved and
for that reason perhaps, had a more
powerful impact on the spectators. As
Alan Bolt, Nicaragua's most promi- nent playwright and director of the
National Theater Workshop (Taller
Nacional de Teatro) has said, "Our
theater is a theater of questions, not
Pluralistic Cultural Attitudes
The discussion among Nicaraguan
artists about the role of culture in a
revolutionary society has spilled over
into the U.S. and Latin American
press.* Some critics have confused
the prevalence of political themes in
contemporary art with an attempt by the Sandinista government to establish
a "state line" for aesthetic produc-
tion. The Sandinista government "has rigidly defined
what has artistic ment
*See, for example, Chris Hedges, "Revo- lution Art--Sandinistas want culture to be a tool of the state," The Dallas Morning News, May 6, 1985 and Richard Elman, "Fighting the Darkness," The Nation, March 30, 1985.
and what does not," wrote The Dallas
Morning News correspondent from
Managua. "Those who abide by the
government guidelines receive sala-
ries from the state, scholarships to
study in Cuba and the Soviet Union
and ample access to tools and train-
"Those who do not abide by the
guidelines are often unable to find em-
ployment and can rarely publish in-
side Nicaragua. Their work is almost
never presented to the general pub-
Writing in the Costa Rican weekly,
Rumbo Centroamericano, opposition
leader Fabio Gadea Mantilla echoed
the theme. This cultural "force is di-
rected only toward one current of
thought. Its purpose is purely politi-
cal" and its result not "cultured men,
but fanatics."
Pablo Antonio Cuadra, at 72 one of
Nicaragua's leading poets, edits both
the opposition daily La Prensa and its
weekly supplement, La Prensa
Literaria.** "We are against the idea
**Cuadra also edits the prestigious literary journal, El Pez y la Serpiente, which has
published without restriction since 1979 and has been a forum for anti-Marxist writ-
ers throughout Latin America.
SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 1985 9currents as well.*
"World Capital of Mural Art," a park in Central Managua
that the Sandinistas want to impose, that culture
and literature are to serve
the revolution," he told the Los
Angeles Times in July.
More specifically, critics have as-
serted that La Prensa Literaria is cen-
sored and its access to printing paper
restricted. Cuadra, a cousin of Er-
nesto Cardenal, charges that governm-
ment censors forced him last spring to remove two poems
criticizing military
conscription. In a telephone conversa-
tion I had with him in August, Car-
denal explained that because of severe
shortages, La Prensa Literaria, as
well as the literary supplements of the
two pro-Sandinista newspapers, were limited to eight pages until paper re-
strictions were lifted last March.
"It is well known that because we
are living under conditions of war,
news articles, mainly those pertaining
to matters of defense and the
economy, come under review and are
sometimes censored," said Cardenal,
commenting on the accusations. "But
poetry and other literary material is
another matter, and La Prensa
Literaria, as one can readily verify,
publishes whatever it pleases-in-
cluding large amounts of poetry that
attack the revolution in the most exor-
bitant terms." The record reveals that ample free-
dom has existed since 1979, in form
as well as in content, for artists to de-
fine their creative vision. Some observ-
ers cite the many artists and writers in
government and the FSLN leadership
as a contributing factor, among them
Father Ernesto Cardenal; President Daniel Ortega; Vice President Sergio
Ramirez; Rosario Murillo, who is also
an FSLN delegate in the General As-
sembly; Comandante Omar Cabezas,
political secretary in the Interior Ministry; the poet Gioconda Belli, who does propaganda work for the
FSLN; Minister of the Interior Tombs
Borge; Daisy Zamora, a poet who was
vice-minister of culture and is now
director of publishing for a research institute; the abstract painter Armando Morales, who is Nicaragua's ambas-
sador to UNICEF, and Agriculture Minister Jaime Wheelock. But pluralistic cultural attitudes are
also rooted in the origins of the FSLN
as an independent Marxist organiza-
tion, consciously breaking with the
traditions of Stalinism and influenced
not only by the Cuban revolution, but by Antonio Gramsci and "new Left"
Ernesto Cardenal, Minister of Culture
Socialist Realism Rejected
Debates among artists on the ques- tion of "socialist realism" have been
quite public. A harsh exchange raged
in the pages of Barricada and Nuevo
Diario over three months in 1982. A
small group of artists attacked "aes-
theticism" and advocated a turn to-
ward an art "reflecting the interests of the proletariat," while a much larger
group of pro-revolution cultural work-
ers, upheld the option of artists to
freely explore subjects not directly in-
formed by political themes. The
FSLN itself intervened in the debate
by expressing its unqualified support
for the latter position in an editorial in
the party's newspaper, Barricada.
Ernesto Cardenal made this posi- tion quite clear during an interview in
Managua last December when I asked
him about the possibility of artistic
freedom becoming sacrificed to the needs of consolidating a revolution:
"The leadership of this (revolution-
ary) process knows that it is senseless
to force aesthetic and political norms on artists. Why? Because it kills art
and stunts the human spirit. . . . Free- dom of artistic creativity is a funda- mental principle of our revolution.
We could almost say it is a dogma, al-
though the term "dogma" might not
be such an apppealing one! But in all
the arts here, stylistic experimentation
as well as thematic plurality is a mat-
ter of record."
Despite the absence of legal con- straints, the contra war sharply de-
fines the limits of real freedom for
Nicaraguan artists. Hundreds of cul-
tural workers are occupied in the ur-
gent tasks of defense. Funds are
necessarily diverted to the war, creat-
ing extreme shortages in basic cultural
resources and significantly inhibiting
the development of existing pro-
grams. Managua's large, modern
Ruben Dario Theater, for example,
has been closed for over two years be-
cause money is unavailable to repair the air conditioning.
Julio Valle-Castillo, a poet who di-
rects the Ministry of Culture's litera-
* See "Nicaragua: Sovereignty and Non-
Alignment," Report on the Americas,
May-June 1985.
10ture department, told me that delega-
tions from different cultural centers
arrive unannounced every week with
modest requests for materials like
guitar strings, a cassette recorder or a
few tubes of oil paints. More often
than not, they leave empty-handed.
"Our situation is a difficult one,"
said Roberto Marenco, director of the
Cultural Centers of Masaya and
Masatepe, expressing the frustration
many grassroots organizers feel. "We
are understaffed and undersupplied
S. . as your government intends, the
disruption of normal life makes
people get frustrated and depressed.
Our cultural work can help counter
these feelings, not just in a politically
instructive way, but also as simple
spiritual and emotional relief. But
while the war increases the people's
demands for cultural outlets, it se-
verely restricts our work. This is a
problem which the material solidarity
of artists in other countries can help us
Fearing a U.S. invasion, the
Nicaraguan government has expended
much money and effort in cataloguing
and hiding many of the nation's most
treasured paintings, sculptures, manu-
scripts and ceramics in safe-houses
and underground shelters. Thus,
thousands of art works meant to be en-
joyed in peace and deepen people's
experience of life are boxed away
against the threat of destruction. As
the cultural re-birth of the last six
years has been one of this poverty-
stricken country's most beautiful
accomplishments, perhaps this sad
fact stands as one of the clearest con-
firmations of the injustice and irra-
tionality of U.S. government policy.
Rosario Murillo offered the follow-
ing thoughts as our conversation drew
to an end that afternoon: "And if war
should come, how many tens of
thousands of young North American
lives would be lost? How many
Nicaraguan lives? How much of our
natural environment destroyed? How
many paintings never painted, poems
never written, songs never sung? We
want to be a land of creativity and joy,
not a barren place engulfed by death
and war.

Tags: Nicaragua, Sandinistas, Culture, art, Ernesto Cardenal

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