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 world. 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- REPORT ON THE AMERICAS 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 world. 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 solutions." 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- ing. "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- lic." 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. REPORT ON THE AMERICAS i 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 confront." 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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