Nicaragua (Spring/Summer 2019)


Editor’s Letter: Nicaragua, Nicaraguita

Someone called out my name in the crowded lobby of Managua’s InterContinental Hotel. I screamed. There was Henry, the young Christian activist from Colombia who left to fight the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Four different people had told me Henry, now known by his war alias as Luis Alfredo, had been killed. We ran toward each other through the crowd of diplomats, journalists, dignitaries, government officials and solidarity workers. We hugged.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution.

It was two or three days after the July 19, 1979, revolution that tumbled the dictator when I encountered Henry. Another young Colombian had indeed been killed on the southern front in the final days of battle. It is easy to forget from the safe stance of the years and years gone by this devastating war had taken the lives of 50,000 people in this small Central American country.

Nicaragua was starting all over again. Indeed, the first government body called itself the Junta of National Reconstruction. Much had to be done. It was a time of dreams, of teaching poetry and art and simple literacy, of building homes and constructing windmills and experimenting with farm techniques. It was a time of loss and a time of hope. It is all too easy to forget those first heady months when it seemed as if an inventive government of political pluralism, non-aligned foreign policy and a mixed economy could become reality. As our dearly departed former DRCLAS Visiting Scholar Edelberto Torres-Rivas once observed, Central American revolutions were at once inevitable and illusory.

Some of the authors in this ReVista issue look back on their experiences in the early revolution and reflect in the context of today, when again Nicaragua is governed by an authoritarian hand and human rights abuses are well documented. Anthony Quainton, former U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua reflects on Managua and Washington in the early Sandinista Revolution.  Historian Jeffrey L. Gould in his article “Ambivalent Memories” tells us of his experience as a graduate student doing his thesis in Nicaragua’s coffee country. Journalist Stephen Kinzer, author of Blood of Brothers, recounts how Nicaraguans who were bitter enemies in their civil war encountered each other recently at a conference he organized at Brown University. Gil Callaway, a U.S. Foreign Service officer stationed in Managua during the Sandinista period, ponders on the lessons of experiencing situations that are gray, rather than black or white, in the context of today’s so-called Troika of Tyranny. Political Scientist Salvador Martí i Puig traces his encounters with the Nicaraguan solidarity movement and examines the root of the current crisis.

These writers and academics and diplomats think back to the beginning of the revolution. I myself ponder that afternoon in the hotel lobby when death suddenly turned into life. I sometimes imagine that in the background Carlos Mejía Godoy’s song “Nicaragua, Nicaraguita” was playing…sweet Nicaragua, now that you are free, I love you even more. Of course, the song wasn’t playing. As a journalist, I found myself constantly fighting to be fair, not to be carried away by my hopes and illusions and, at the same time, to resist the early rumblings that the revolution was just a Communist takeover.

I have to admit—and being an editor gives me some leeway to express my opinions—when I hear Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, I sometimes cry. Because Nicaragua is not free now. Because the country is still the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere. And it is still polarized.

Journalist Lorne Matalon in his beautiful photo essay, “Nicaragua: Images of Division,” shows us the polarization and the fear in Nicaragua today. In a video that starts off about pension reform protests, historian Mateo Jarquín tells us about the spiraling situation of human rights abuses. José Idíaquez, S.J., president of Nicaragua’s Jesuit Central American University, discusses the role of the university in the face of repression.

Nicaragua, Nicaraguita, I ended up living in Managua for four years as a journalist. Yet it’s not all politics. Nicaragua’s biodiversity, its abundant nature, its white-sand beaches (even journalists go to the beach), its mountains and forests are simply extraordinary. Olga Martha Montiel and Warren Douglas Stevens tell us about botanical studies in Nicaragua from a more scientific point of view that I have expressed here, but don’t ignore the fact that the country has at least 7,900 species of plants.

The only thing Nicaragua may have more of than plants is poets. So, for this special spotlight, we’ve created a section about poetry, including some poems by young(ish) Nicaraguan poets.  Carlos M-Castro gives us an overview of Nicaraguan poetry, as well as a sampling of his poems. Gema Santamaría tells us in her article (with some of her poetry in both English and Spanish), “Today as yesterday, Nicaraguans have turned to poetry in order to articulate their aspirations and desires for a free Nicaragua.” Carlos F. Grigsby examines why Nicaragua’s greatest poet, Rubén Darío, is not well-known in the English language (speaking of Rubén Darío, two of his unpublished poems were found at Harvard.) Ernesto Cardenal, called by M-Castro “Nicaragua’s greatest living poet,” reflects on the community poetry created in the island of Solentiname.

If this editor’s letter sounds familiar to you, dear reader, it’s because a version of it was sent out as a newsletter for the July 19, 2019, anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution. To subscribe to the biweekly newsletter, just go to ReVista’s home page,, and fill out the short form on the lower left hand corner or just send me an e-mail at

As many of you know, ReVista is—temporarily or permanently—now only online. We’ve added special features like student views and videos. One of the biggest changes is that we are rolling out issues as “spotlights” over the semester before they emerge as full issues. Nicaragua is the first to use this system, and we hope you like it!

Thanks for being there, dear readers, and I hope you will let me know your opinions and observations.

fsd June C. Erlick

Table of Contents

Anthony Quainton: Managua and Washington in the Early Sandinista Revolution

Jeffrey L. Gould: Ambivalent Memories

Gil Callaway: Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba - a "Troika of Tyranny"?

Stephen Kinzer: Blood of Brothers Redux

José Idiáquez, S.J.: The University and the Nicaraguan Crisis (English), Un análisis de coyuntura nicaragüense desde la perspectiva universitaria (Español)

Kai M. Thaler and Eric S. Mosinger: Repression and Resilience in Nicaragua

Salvador Martí i Puig: Nicaragua: The Roots of the Current Crisis (English), Nicaragua: algo más que una crisis coyuntural (Spanish)

Lorne Matalon: Nicaragua: Images of Division

Liz Llorente: Press Freedom Under Siege in Nicaragua Today

Ted Macdonald and Julie WetterslevAccompanying a Search for Self-Determination

Olga Martha Montiel and Warren Douglas Stevens: Botanical Studies in Nicaragua

Ernesto Cardenal: Solentiname Reflected (English), Miradas de Solentiname (Español)

Carlos M-Castro: Aquí Nicaragua, cambio... (Español), Here Nicaragua, change... (English), 3,2,1... poemas

Gema Santamaría: Nicaragua, Land of Poets (English), Nicaragua, tierra de poetas (Español), Poetry (English), Poesía (Español)

Carlos F. Grigsby: The Afterlife of Rubén Darío in English (English), La suerte de Rubén Darío en el inglés (Español)

Alba F. Aragón: The Artistry of the Güegüence (English), Por los caminos del güegüence (Español)

Marc S. Rodriguez: A Review of Global Latin(o) Americanos: Transoceanic Diasporas and Regional Migrations

Omar H. Ali: A Review of Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction

Looking Back at the Sandinista Revolution

A soldier in the Sandinista army. Photo by Scott Wallace.

Managua and Washington in the Early Sandinista Revolution

By Anthony Quainton


Photo by Anita Baca.


When I returned to the United States after an event-filled two plus years as the United States Ambassador to Nicaragua some 37 years ago, the Sandinista humor magazine the Semana Comica featured a full-page cartoon entitled “El Regreso,” (the Return), showing me being spanked by Ronald Reagan in the admiring presence of Henry Kissinger and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

I was not exactly the poster boy for the Reagan administration’s policy.

I had arrived in Managua on the 15th of March 1982, on the first day of the “secret” war against the Sandinistas. While I was in the air from Miami to Managua, Daniel Ortega declared a state of emergency because that morning a CIA-sponsored operation had led to the blowing up of bridges connecting Honduras and Nicaragua.

It was all downhill from there. I had been briefed about President Reagan’s “finding” on Nicaragua which led to increasingly aggressive actions against the Sandinistas. These measures were explained to me and to the Congress as disincentives for further Sandinista support for the FMLN in El Salvador and as a way to hold the government to its original pledge of a mixed economy, multi-party democracy and a non-aligned foreign policy.

By the time I arrived all of these commitments seemed in the White House to have been abandoned by the revolutionary junta in Managua. In fact, the President’s advisors had a different agenda in mind: regime change, but this was not immediately apparent either to me or to my bosses in the State Department.

The current Trump administration has once again focused its attention on Nicaragua and the Sandinista “comandante,” Daniel Ortega, who for the last decade has once again been President of Nicaragua and who once again is in the cross hairs of U.S. Central America policy.

In 2019—as in 1982—we are faced with many of the same dilemmas. Is regime change a viable strategy for U.S. foreign policy? How are we to assess the successes and shortcomings of a regime which proclaims lofty ideals yet often resorts to repressive practices? And finally how does the legacy of history constrain what we can do to create a better future for countries which proclaim themselves revolutionary, but end up impoverishing the citizens they claim to have saved?

Once again the United States is engaged in trying to bring about regime change. Once again the desired U.S. outcome is shrouded in ambiguity and uncertainty. Once again the glass is half empty for some, half full for others.

Portrait of a Contra. Photo by Scott Wallace.

Nicaragua today was breathlessly dubbed the junior member of the Troika of Tyranny by National Security Advisor John Bolton late last year. As in the 1980s Nicaragua is again linked with Cuba in the eyes of the U.S. government, only to be joined in recent months by the Bolivarian Revolution of Hugo Chávez and Nicolas Maduro. 

When I arrived in Nicaragua in 1982, I was somewhat of a neophyte to revolution. As a graduate student at Oxford, I had explored and written a thesis on the unsuccessful French efforts to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution. However that remote academic expertise was not known to my contemporaries either in Washington or Managua and it did not occur to me that it might be relevant.

The Soviets decided that I was a committed Cold Warrior because of my previous position as coordinator of counterterrorism in the Carter Administration. They assumed that I was an experienced and committed regime-changer, or so , at least
Pravda charged and many in the Sandinista movement believed. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. I was a rather naïve 48-year-old foreign Service Officer, with extensive experience in the Indian Sub-continent and virtually no knowledge of Latin American history, culture or politics.

U.S. policy then, as in some ways now, oscillates between two strategies: negotiation and pressure. In Nicaragua the latter ultimately won out. At the same time as we were organizing the counter-revolutionary “contra” effort in Honduras and Costa Rica, we were presenting a rather prickly olive branch to the Sandinistas offering to live with the revolution if it upheld its pluralist promises and halted the export of the revolution. At the same time that we were urging the Contadora powers to continue their efforts for a region-wide negotiated settlement, we were ratcheting up pressure, eliminating Nicaragua’s sugar quota, terminating all aid except to the private sector and steadily increasing direct pressure by blowing up the oil pipeline into Managua’s refinery, mining Nicaragua’s ports and developing an effective contra fighting effort. It was against this background that my “Mission Impossible” played out.

The United States throughout that period was obsessed by the Cold War and its implications. The Administration accepted the assumptions of the domino theory which had led us so far astray in Vietnam and Southeast Asia. The Administration was convinced that if the communists established a base in Central America, they would push relentlessly north towards Mexico and south to the Panama Canal. If that were to happen, U.S. security would be gravely threatened.

The Administration also suffered from a malady which still infects our Latin American foreign policy: backyard syndrome. Today no one seriously thinks communism is on the march northward until even San Antonio might be at risk. But we still regard the Caribbean and Central America as our backyard where certain behaviors by local governments are inadmissible. The current Administration’s focus on the Troika of Tyranny (Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua) is evidence of that fact. That approach has been true at least since 1905 when Theodore Roosevelt announced his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine asserting a right for the United States to intervene in cases of “chronic wrongdoing” and to act as an international police power.

Diplomacy is the art of managing ambiguity and complexity to achieve outcomes favorable to one’s national interest. Ambiguity there was aplenty in the early 80’s in Nicaragua. At the heart of that ambiguity was not only the young Daniel Ortega, one of the ruling triumvirate and the nominal head of state, who came from a bourgeois family and was educated by Jesuits at the Central American University.


A preacher works with the Contra. Photo by Scott Wallace.

It was also Tomás Borge, the seasoned revolutionary and founder of the FSLN. Hundreds of foreign visitors came to see him. From the United States, they included senators and congressmen, business leaders, missionaries and concerned citizens. All were fascinated by this rotund cigar-smoking Minister of the Interior. All had heard of his ruthless suppression of enemies and his reliance on Cuban and East German apparatchiks. Few, however, were prepared for his personal charm or his official office decorated with a wall of crucifixes, or saw his inner office where besides the drinks trolley and the bottles of Chivas Regal Scotch were two books: the Bible and the Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism.

Indeed, the whole question of the relationship between religion and the revolution was one which bedeviled the Administration’s efforts to roll back communist advances in Central America. Hardly a week went by during my tenure without the visit of a delegation of American religious leaders. They were priests and nuns, pastors and rabbis, lay men and women. Even the occasional bishop. Most believed that the revolution had done some good, by overturning past oppressive social and political structures, educating the masses through the literacy campaign, and extending the benefits of health care to marginalized villagers and urban dwellers. One such delegation arrived in the first week of my stay. After I tried to explain the objectives of President Reagan’s policies, they asked me if they could pray. I was a neophyte at office-praying and, with a little hesitation, agreed. There I was alone in my office with a deeply religious peace delegation, holding hands and solemnly praying that the Reagan Administration would see the errors of its ways.

Most groups were polite and respectful, listened to my presentation even when they disagreed. But a member of one such group from the film industry in Hollywood, angrily told his companions that if there were ever to be Nuremberg trials after the current crisis had ended, the U.S. ambassador would surely be one of the guilty. A mission which was difficult enough at the political and diplomatic level became even more difficult at the emotional and moral level. Needless to say, one does not like to be denounced as a war criminal. My staff hated the moral intensity of both the supporters and opponents of the regime, even when they shared some of the criticisms of U.S. policy or of the Sandinista regime.

If it was Mission Impossible for the U.S. Ambassador, it was also Mission Impossible for the Catholic Church. There were several priests in high positions in the government, including the Foreign Minister Miguel D’Escoto and the two Cardenal brothers in the Culture and Education ministries. Liberation theology was very much in vogue and the writings of the Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez were much admired. However, there were also many Catholics who saw the revolutionaries as deeply hostile to the Church and to its doctrines. These views were reinforced by the bizarre incident in which the Archbishop Obando’s Secretary, Father Bismarck Carballo. was photographed by Sandinista Television fleeing naked from the home of a woman parishioner after an alleged romantic tryst and, of course, by the treatment of the Pope who was shouted down at the papal mass in Managua. The papal nuncio, then as now, found himself in a keying mediating position trying to bridge the wide gap between Christians in and outside the Revolution.


Sandinista coffee harvesters. Photo by Scott Wallace.


Against this background getting the story right was one of the central responsibilities of the Embassy. We believed that Washington could not possibly get its policy right without accurate and informed analysis of the situation on the ground. This was a particular challenge for the Embassy in Managua. To those in Washington and beyond who were suspicious of the Sandinistas, our reporting was often thought to be biased. At one point B’nai Brith, the Anti-Defamation League, went to the New York Times to complain that the Embassy had not reported on systematic anti-Semitism in Sandinista Nicaragua. The story appeared on the front page of the Times, and the Department immediately became concerned that perhaps we actually had covered up a serious problem. We carried out an immediate investigation and concluded that the Sandinistas were anti-Zionist (They did not recognize the State of Israel and had allowed the Palestinians to open an office in Managua) but no one we could find, even the Sandinistas’ most rabid opponents, believed there was or ever had been any anti-Semitism. Elliot Abrams, then the Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, descended on the Embassy to check for himself whether the Embassy’s reporting and analysis were correct. He remained skeptical of our reporting.

Subsequently, I was summoned to the White House where a senior White House official complained to me that we were reporting too much good news from Managua. Urging me to help the president defend his policies, she told me in no uncertain terms that I should increase my reporting of bad news. I replied that we would report all the news, both good and bad, but that we would not skew our reporting one way or the other. Needless to say, this did not satisfy the White House.

The truth is that we did assiduously report on Sandinista violations of human rights, on their attacks on press and political freedoms, on their harassment of certain parts of the private sector and on their generally intolerant attitude to opposition political parties. We also tried to report faithfully on those aspects of Sandinista policy that seemed to be offering positive benefits to the people of Nicaragua: the literacy campaign, the health reforms, the barrio-level self-government. For those who believed that nothing good could come out of the Revolution, these reports were seen as fuzzy-headed and misguided attempts to undermine the Reagan Administration’s strategy in Central America. It was virtually impossible in that atmosphere to get the story right. The Mission’s reporting was scrutinized for signs of feeble-minded sympathy with the Revolution and a lack of enthusiasm for U.S. policy. My public appearances were scrutinized for signs that I had or had not walked out when public speeches condemned the United States and its support for the contras. Critics wondered whether I did or didn’t I stand when the Sandinista hymn was played and the crowd solemnly referred to the Yankee as the enemy of mankind. Some wondered why I did not protest the endless series of cartoons in El Nuevo Diario, Barricada and La Semana Comica depicting me as a dim-witted accomplice to the CIA’s violations of international law and Nicaragua’s territorial sovereignty. Mission Impossible indeed it was.

It was, of course equally difficult to satisfy the critics of the Administration’s policy. They saw our sanctions as impoverishing the Nicaraguan people and our support for contras incursions and attacks as violations of international law. They could not understand why we did not recognize the youthful and idealistic enthusiasm of the Sandinista for what it was in their eyes: well-intentioned, idealistic and morally powerful. They saw us as blinded by anti-communist prejudice. As a result, week by week they came and called on me. They protested and held demonstrations outside the embassy to denounce U.S. policy. They organized candlelight vigils on the border calling for peace.

The impossibility of the Embassy’s position, or rather of my position, became apparent when the Kissinger commission arrived in Managua in October of 1983. Charged by the President with recommending policies for resolving the Central American crisis, the Commission contained some of the biggest names in American politics including Lane Kirkland, the president of the AFL-C IO; Henry Cisneros, the mayor of San Antonio; Senators Dominici and Bentsen and Congressmen Barnes and Kemp, plus academics such as Jeanne Kirkpatrick from Georgetown and Carlos Diaz-Alejandro from Yale.

The day the Commission spent in Managua was a visit fraught with challenges which exposed the many ambiguities of the situation. My own presentation to the commission on the morning of its arrival argued that a negotiated deal with the Sandinista regime might be achieved at least with respect to its direct support of the revolutionaries in El Salvador and maintenance of a relatively open society and our own acceptance of the Sandinista regime itself. The commission was in no mood to hear that message. John Silber, the president of Boston University, pointedly challenged me to explain how my views were consistent with those of the White House. The Commission was more impressed by Enrique Bolanos’ presentation on the abuses of the Sandinista regime and his handing round of the first day cover of a recent Nicaraguan postage stamp commemorating the hundredth anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. That for the Commission was proof that the communists were in control. I did not have the wit to point out that the Sandinistas had also issued a series of George Washington stamps.
The Commission had made up its mind before it arrived. They were sure that they were up against a Marxist Leninist regime in the process of consolidating itself into a state on the Soviet/Cuban model. The Commission’s experiences , particularly the brilliantly detailed intelligence briefing by the head of Sandinist intelligence, only confirmed their view of Cuban penetration and control. Their final meeting with Daniel Ortega was a disaster, following an equally unsatisfactory meeting with Foreign Minister D’Escoto in which each side accused the other of lying.

A soldier in the Sandinista army. Photo by Scott Wallace.

Comandante Ortega lectured the Commission for forty minutes on the tragic history of U.S. policy over the previous 125 years, from William Walker’s takeover in the 1850’s, through the Marines’ arrival in 1909, 1912 and beyond, the death of Sandino and the support of the Somozas. The Commission was in no mood to be lectured about the evils of the past. They simply walked out with no dialogue having taken place. They had had enough and what might have been an opportunity for dialogue ended in acrimony and deepened distrust.

Reading its report 35 years later I am struck by the sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the underlying social and economic issues that Central American countries confronted. Were it not for its preoccupation with the Cold War dimension of the crisis, the report was remarkably balanced. To be sure, it stressed the threats to regional stability from a Marxist Sandinista regime and its Cuban and Russian backers, but it also went to great lengths to stress the need for a major long term commitment of the United States to the social and economic development of the region. It deplored past U.S. association with regimes such as that of Anastasio Somoza and recognized that if the United States really wanted stability, it would have to be a major supplier of economic and commercial assistance to the region with a minimum five-year horizon. Had those themes been picked up and had sustained aid to Central America been agreed to, some of the problems we are now encountering might have been avoided or at least ameliorated. Unfortunately when the Sandinistas were eventually voted out of power in 1990, the United States largely lost interest in the region. We are reaping the whirlwind of that neglect in the refugee and gang crises we are now facing.

There is not much use in crying over spilt milk. Opportunities to create a more stable Central America existed four decades ago. They were lost. Both sides could not see beyond their ideologies. Neither could escape from its history. The Sandinistas believed that they were a vanguard party and that history had entrusted them a revolutionary mission.

We saw that mission as a fundamental rejection of and threat to our western liberal values. They could not escape from the troubled history of Yankee intervention. We could not escape from Vietnam and the experiences of the Cold War. Bridging the historical, ideological and emotional divide between us was more than I or my colleagues could do. Try as we could, the Mission was always impossible.


Anthony Quainton is Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University in Washington DC in the School of International Service. Quainton spent 38 years as a member of the United Stated Foreign Service including posts in Nicaragua, Peru, Kuwait and the Central African Republic. He also served as Director General of the Foreign Service, Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security and Coordinator of the Office for Combating Terrorism. He retired from the Foreign Service in 1997 and subsequently was President and CEO of the National Policy Association from 1998 to 2003.


This article was adapted from the keynote address Ambassador Quainton delivered on May 2 to the conference on Nicaragua at Brown University, “Nicaragua 1979-2019: the Sandinista Revolution,” organized by Stephen Kinzer.

Ambivalent Memories

A Reflection on Nicaragua

By Jeffrey L. Gould

On July 20, 1979, the dawn after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, I had the good fortune to arrive in Managua as an assistant for a Dutch TV crew. As for anyone who lived through those days, the experience overwhelmed my senses—the palpable collective joy tempered by the immense pain suffered by so many. I’ll never forget one moment. I was behind the Teatro Ruben Dario trying to interview a woman who was hovering over the corpse of her son—I felt awful doing it but the Dutch tv guys insisted—she was crying but her brother put his arm on her shoulder and said, “Componéte; Necesitamos que el mundo conozca nuestra historia….get hold of yourself, the world needs to know our story.”

When I started graduate school three years later, I remembered what the woman’s brother had said and decided to try to help out with the process of recovering Nicaraguan history. I returned in May 1983 to research the history of sugar workers at the San Antonio Sugar Mill. Although fully sympathetic with the revolution, I brought some intellectual and political baggage along with me: my prior life experiences shaped my understandings.

During my adolescence I had been an anti war activist and in 1971 I had worked in a communications collective in Turin, Italy, tied to the labor movement. Later, I spent several years working as a labor organizer in the United States. In the light of those activist years, the work of Paul Mattick, an obscure German council communist thinker seemed compelling to me. He argued that Leninism was the appropriate ideology of third world revolution precisely because it served as the ideology of groups whose goals could only be the development of a nationally-directed capitalist society. They inevitably became authoritarian, as was Leninism at its core, because the vanguard party needs to lead workers and peasants on an exploitative path to capital accumulation under state or mixed control. In other words, regardless of its intentions, all the Frente Sandinista could accomplish was to create conditions in which such capital accumulation would avoid the excesses of primitive accumulation elsewhere. The possibilities of a truly popular and democratic social (not to say socialist) revolution were virtually nil.

So that’s the ideological baggage I brought with me. Shortly after I arrived, I remember attending a Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDS) meeting in a working-class Managua neighborhood. The young Sandinista leading the meeting would end each discussion point with a smile and a shout: “Direccion Nacional Ordene!”—The National Directorate Orders it so!

I wanted to believe that the smile was ironic and that in her own way she was saying, “hey, we are building a community here around community needs and that’s what this revolution is about.” I didn’t want Mattick to be proven right. Now, looking back and reading a long letter I wrote in August 1983 I to my graduate advisor, I realize how my preconceived theoretical notions nearly collapsed under the weight of my daily experience of revolutionary society. Writing about playing basketball in Luis Alfonso Velasquez Park, named after the nine-year-old martyr, I observed, “the newly-planted trees are growing; someday soon this will be among the most beautiful people’s parks in the world. Children (including my daughter) play well into the evening; they shout and scream but their parents relax. Soldiers from the nearby cuartel mix amicably, naturally …” Another day, talking to a Sandinista army lieutenant, who shared a small home with 19 extended family members, he commented, “This is a revolution against privilege.” The next day talking to a campesino, he remarked, “Look, to be a campesino will never be easy. You get up at dawn and you work hard. The sun’s not going to get any cooler. But now we have land and the campesinos who work on the state farm only work five hours and then they work on their own plots. Before it was only the rich who farmed the land and we who worked it. They gave the orders. We obeyed. Today its our turn to speak and that’s why they are so pissed off.”

So my prior ideological baggage began to come apart at the seams—only to reassemble itself over the next years of research in Chinandega as my own ambivalences intensified as I witnessed problematic and sometimes painful scenes like when a woman was taken off of a bus and had her beans confiscated because she wasn’t selling to ENABAS (a state distribution agency). Of course, that policy did not last long but its afterlife did. Indeed, a refrain I remember “no nos dejan trabajar”—they don’t let us work— found its discursive justification in such practices, however short-lived.

On countless bus rides from Chichigalpa to Chinandega or to Rancherías, I witnessed people loudly complaining about all sorts of sins of the Sandinistas including the lack of freedom. And they complained without trepidation in front of soldiers or police officers who happened to be seated near them. Those complaints that gave the lie to Reaganite propaganda about totalitarianism, nonetheless did reflect genuine anger and resentment against the draft and other authoritarian tendencies of the revolution—such as the new, top-down defense orientation of the CDS—that were only made less digestible by the constant reminders that basic necessities were not available.

The cumulative effect of these coercive strains of the revolution produced ambivalence even among Sandinista supporters. When I asked someone if he or she was going to the demonstration, the response, “hay que ir, no? —We have to go, don’t we?” might have been a strong affirmative statement a few years earlier but by 1985-86 the tone was more ambivalent. Only a serious study of the revolutionary process could directly ascertain how debilitating that ambivalence was within the FSLN.

That ambivalence compounded another problem: Sandinista militants worked themselves to the point of exhaustion—and then they had to go to yet another meeting. They worked so hard both because of the Contra and the imperialist threat but also because so many other people—students, workers, peasants and others—were increasingly less inclined to contribute their share outside of their jobs. They were the folks whose ambivalence began to show.

This process of distancing through militant exhaustion and popular ambivalence only got worse. I can only assume the higher you got within the FSLN, the more opaque this problem was. But surely its symbolic apotheosis was the pre-electoral triumphalist reading of 1990, especially the half million strong demonstration in Managua. I’m not suggesting that the study of ambivalence is a scientifically verifiable— especially attempting to access the exhaustion/ambivalence phenomenon in the past— but I do think it is worth the effort.

Curiously both Charles R. Hale and I independently in the 1980s used a version of Gramsci’s concept of contradictory consciousness in order to understand the thought and action of Nicaraguan subalterns. It certainly didn’t occur to me to use this concept to grapple with ambivalence problem I sketched above. For us, contradictory consciousness suggested that people maintained two separate but relatively coherent discourses. For example, a San Antonio Sugar Mill worker had a sense of respect and dependence on the company and at the same time a sense of class solidarity with other workers. The question of ambivalence is related to contradictory consciousness, but it is not exactly the same since the former involves more contradictory feelings about the same moment or thought, expressed in ambivalent words.

My own ambivalence towards the revolutionary process—with the process, but not with the Sandinistas—certainly conditioned my own research. Primarily, I wished to contribute by critiquing fundamental problems of historical interpretation that conditioned contemporary revolutionary ideology. And here, I was guilty of a ridiculous amount of hubris, but in my defense I needed some mystique to survive in the miserably hot cotton country of Chinandega. My own attitude towards Leninism pushed me to search for autonomous forms of organization—a hypersensitivity that perhaps overvalued autonomous peasant organization but I don’t think I ever lost sight of the continual reassertion of subaltern dependency on elites of varying ideologies.

My research during the 1980s suggested a fundamental problem for the Sandinistas or for any other project of national transformation. I observed how local campesinos and nationally-oriented actors often shared vocabularies but inflected them with different resonances and meanings. These desencuentros or misunderstandings were at times unconscious and at times part of a search for common ground with authorities. These shared vocabularies were often quite effective in periods of mobilization. During the 1950s and 1960s campesinos in Chinandega and León mobilized and came to understand the world in terms of prevailing notions of private property and necessity, necesidad, terms that were not immediately threatening to authorities.

They inflected these elite and religious concepts with new meanings that allowed them to understand their own struggles that went beyond everyday survival. As they struggled through and against the institutions dominated by Somoza— Somocismo—, they developed broader collective understanding of those terms that allowed them to enter into dialogue with the Liberation Theology-influenced wing of the Sandinista movement during the 1970s.

By the late 1980s, however, the very multivocality of terms led to descencuentros: linguistic misunderstandings that reflected and conditioned the failed encounter between the FSLN and the Chinandegan campesino activists. The expressions that that had solidified the prior alliance, such as "Land to the Campesinos" or “people’s property” led to serious breakdowns in communication and alliances. The Chinandeganos who had fought alongside the Sandinistas after ten years silently broke with them, angered that their goals embodied in their own histories were simply not taken seriously. State cotton farms could not represent the "people's land" for which they had fought so valiantly. Ironically, following the electoral defeat of 1990, for a brief period the notion of “people’s land” and “people’s property” acquired new meanings more akin to those of the prerevolutionary Chinandeganos, as organized rural workers and peasants pushed hard to privatize the state farms in favor of the workers.

In reflecting back on the period, it strikes me that the revolutionary imaginary, the utopian egalitarian vision announced in the euphoria of 1979 that I could still catch glimpses of in 1983 did not have a formal expression on any political agenda. But could such a vision have been incorporated into the FSLN's program? The FSLN would have been obliged to tolerate the more or less autonomous labor and peasant movements that were unleashed in 1979. Similarly, the leadership would have had to accept the yearnings of grassroots militants for the individual or cooperative appropriation of the fruits of proletarian and peasant labor along with the egalitarian spirit that resisted all forms of coercion. Indeed, the role of the revolutionary state might have been to enforce laws that protected citizens and their property against such popular excesses, but not to thwart the movements themselves. Had the Frente opted to stimulate rather than control the grassroots movements, it might also have swept early elections before Reagan could unleash the Contra War.

If the exigencies of the world market and imperial domination placed rigid, objective limits on any revolutionary experiment, this counterfactual imagining, has the advantage of allowing us to dialogue with the interesting reflections of Guatemalan sociologist Edelberto Torres Rivas who has argued that the Central American revolutions were at once inevitable and illusory, precisely because non-revolutionary forces could not overthrow the Somoza regime (and the entrenched oligarchies elsewhere) and because the revolutionary goals were impossible to attain (echoes of Paul Mattick). And yet throughout Central America, just off the main highways of the revolution, one could make out a different story. In OPEN 3, a few days after the triumph, a 16- or 17-year-old muchacho, as the Sandinistas called the boy fighters, gun in hand, stood in front of an enraged crowd ready to execute four Somocista orejas (informers] who cowered behind the boy. He didn’t shoot.. Instead, he shouted, “Look, compañeros, we are creating a new Nicaragua and we need a new type of revolution—a humanist revolution.” “(Miren compañeros: estamos creando una nueva Nicaragua y necesitamos un nuevo tipo de revolución – una revolución humanista.”)

I still wonder was that really just youthful rhetoric lost in the idiot winds of history or did it announce a path ultimately not taken … but one that still lays beneath the accumulated toxic sediment of decades of imperial domination, authoritarian politics, and neoliberal policies.


Jeffrey L. Gould is Rudy Professor of History at Indiana University at Bloomington. He was a 2016-17 Fellow at Harvard’s Charles Warren Center. He has also made three documentaries about Central America, Scars of Memory: El Salvador, 1932, La Palabra en el Bosque and Port Triumph [distributed by IU Press]. His most recent book, Solidarity Under Siege: The Salvadoran Labor Movement, 1970-1990 was just published by Cambridge University Press.

Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba – a “Troika of Tyranny”?

By Gil Callaway

President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton recently applied this label to these three countries, while asserting that “it’s our hemisphere”.

As a U.S. diplomat for more than 30 years, I had the opportunity to serve in Venezuela and Nicaragua, and to closely follow events in Cuba.

The following observations on these countries are strictly my own and, despite not having been in any of the three since the mid-1980s, they reflect my continuing interest in Latin America.

Fifty years ago I was in Venezuela on my first diplomatic assignment as a young Foreign Service Officer; thirty five years ago I was a senior diplomat in our embassy in Managua; and during my tour in Nicaragua I made my only visit to Cuba.

Venezuela in the late 1960s was thriving economically and politically. Creole Petroleum (now Exxon-Mobil) was pumping petro-dollars into the country and the presidency passed peacefully from one political party to a rival in a free and fair election. A small, largely ignored, group of Cuban-backed rebels posed little threat to the emerging democracy.

My job in Venezuela was called “Youth Affairs Officer” and I established contacts with politically active students ranging from right to left. Some of the conclusions drawn in my 1963 Master’s thesis about young political activists in Latin America were brought to mind during my Foreign Service assignments in both Venezuela and Nicaragua. Venezuela, which in 2019 appears to approaching Nicaragua in economic straits, was a completely different country when I visited as a student in 1962 and was assigned to our embassy in 1966. As noted above, while relatively prosperous, there were still wide gaps between the “haves and have nots.” As I think about those days, I’m reminded of a motorcycle trip by an affluent Argentine youth throughout the continent who, observing such sites as the ramshackle “ranchitos” in Caracas, evolved into the revolutionary “Che” Guevara, still a god for many leftists everywhere. Perhaps such observations motivated many of activist students in Venezuela to lean left, to call themselves socialists or Marxists. They didn’t necessarily see the Soviet Union (USSR) as an ideal model (especially after the Soviet suppression of the “Prague Spring” in 1968), but some waxed enthusiastic about their studies in Moscow or Budapest.  They saw the United States as dominating the Venezuela economy and working against, or indifferent to, the interests of the “masses”. My interactions with the anti-U.S. leftists led me to request a posting to a Communist country to provide me first-hand experience in rebutting claims of the superiority of Marxist socialist regimes over Western capitalism.

The poster of “Honor al Che” was plastered on the walls of the Central University by one of the more radical youth groups, MIR (Revolutionary Leftist Movement).

Despite these attitudes, I was proud to have established relations (I hesitate to say friendships) across the political spectrum and even managed to convince a group of rival youth leaders to accept a U.S. government-sponsored three-week tour of the United States.

The question of how and why Venezuela finds itself today linked to Nicaragua (and Cuba), despite the very different histories of these countries, prompts many responses but more questions. One key is democratic leaders lapsing into self-indulgent corruption, failing to apply the benefits of natural resources (after a peaceful nationalization of petroleum companies) to the needs of the people, and setting the stage for a charismatic populist promising fundamental reforms and repeating Bolivar’s quote that the United States is “destined to plague America with misery on behalf of freedom.”

Anticipating a next assignment in Moscow, I was instead sent to Zagreb, Croatia, then part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. As I was to learn a few years later in Moscow, and Stalin had learned after World War II, Tito’s Communism was not what the Soviets had in mind for their “satellites”.  After my tour in Yugoslavia (where I saw Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks generally working together – an illusion destroyed in the 1990s as the country disintegrated into civil war), I was first assigned to Washington as Yugoslav desk officer, and then to Moscow as our embassy’s Press Attache/Information Officer. Two years in Brezhnev’s USSR only enhanced my respect for Tito’s brand of Communism in Yugoslavia.  Tito’s concept (only partially successful economically and politically) was to allow limited private ownership of small farms and businesses, alongside large agricultural collectives and inefficient state-run enterprises in such industries as steel. We were also able to travel relatively freely in Yugoslavia, unlike the strict travel restrictions imposed on foreign diplomats in the USSR. (When the Sandinistas confiscated some Somoza and other properties, and restricted travel in certain areas, their opponents were free to label them “Communists.”

As a reward for the “hardship” of the USSR, my next assignment was a year of graduate studies at the Johns Hopkins University Center in Bologna, Italy, where I wrote a study analyzing the efforts of the United States and the Soviet Union to influence the Communist Party of Italy (PCI). My argument was that U.S. policy toward the PCI was fundamentally influenced by our relations with the USSR. When Cold War tensions eased a bit, the U.S. government became less critical of the PCI (much like our current accusations of Russian/Cuban involvement in Venezuela and Nicaragua now that US-Russian relations are turning sour). After Bologna I was assigned to Rome as Press Attache/Information Officer, with the same title but little resemblance to the job I held in Moscow.

After four years in Rome came the unwelcome news of my next title: Counselor for Public Affairs at our embassy in Managua, Nicaragua. Vainly arguing that I was not in agreement with the Reagan Administration’s policy toward that country, I was told that the combination of my Latin American and Soviet experiences made me the ideal candidate – so “suck it up.”

Nicaragua in the mid 1980s was engaged in a violent struggle between the newly triumphant Cuban-backed Sandinistas and the US-backed “Contras” seeking a counter revolution. Although I had been in Managua as a student in 1962, and knew there had been a disastrous earthquake in 1972, I was not prepared for the sight I witnessed upon arriving in 1982. Block after block of devastation reminding me of walking the streets of ancient Pompeii.  

My two years in Nicaragua were an eye-opener on how countries and their leaders can create their own distorted images of “others.” President Reagan was convinced that the Sandinistas posed a military threat to the US and he eventually authorized military support for groups of “Contras” dedicated to overthrowing the Sandinista regime. Hard-line Sandinistas were convinced that the United States was implacable in opposing their regime and they turned to Cuba for military and economic support.

Like Bolton’s recent reference to “our hemisphere,” the Monroe Doctrine was certainly alive during the Reagan Administration, as were the President’s views on the “evil empire” of the USSR. A few examples of the paranoia on both sides would have to include the refusal of former UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick to come to Nicaragua because she feared she would be assassinated, the President’s statement that the Sandinistas were “just two days’ driving time from Texas,” or Assistant Secretary of State Elliot Abrams (currently a special envoy for Venezuela) calling the Sandinista regime “a Soviet government armed to the teeth.”  

The Sandinistas could also be irrational in their fears and actions, such as their harassment of the Nicaraguan employees of our embassy, their belief that after the U.S. intervention in Grenada in 1983 they would be the next victim, and the orchestrated interruption of the mass during the Pope’s 1983 visit. Their assumption was that Nicaraguans working for the U.S. government meant betraying the revolution; that after years (1910s – 1930s) of a U.S. military presence in the country the United States might well return to overthrow a regime which was named after a rebel leader (Sandino) who fought against U.S. Marines; and that asking the Pope to intervene against the U.S.-backed counter-revolutionary “Contras” was a justifiable tactic. The arguments against their assumptions included the fact that no Nicaraguans in our embassy had access to any sensitive information; our ambassador was able to persuade one of the Comandantes that calling off a potentially violent demonstration at the embassy after Grenada would lessen prospects of direct U.S. intervention; and that challenging the Pope in a deeply Catholic country was a grave mistake. While true that “liberation theology” was much in evidence in the country, most of the populace followed the conservative Archbishop (later Cardinal) Miguel Obando y Bravo.

“No to Intervention in Central America” showing USA helicopters dropping bombs on Nicaraguan villages.

Many in the US Embassy in Managua attempted to convince both sides that the situation was more grey than black or white. We advocated moderation on both sides. The Sandinistas were divided, as any nine-member group trying to run a country would be. For example, there was censorship of the opposition media, but it was allowed to exist, and I was even able to convince the Sandinista media to interview US officials (without redactions).  The Sandinistas were indeed propagandizing the educational system, but we also managed to convince some lower level officials in the Ministry of Education (as well as a close confidant of President Daniel Ortega with whom I met regularly) to support the reestablishment of a Fulbright exchange program. Regrettably, higher levels in both the United States and Nicaragua refused to see the mutual advantages in such exchanges.

The inability to see shades of grey in Sandinista Nicaragua was evident among many in the constant flow of visitors. We briefed presidential study commissions, cabinet officials, congressional delegations, religious groups, journalists, etc. Some were serious in trying to assess a controversial regime but many, in my cynical view, fell into two categories: the “IWTs” or “I Was There” and now know the truth; and the “ITTs” or “I Told Them” how they should behave. Probably the most difficult were the pro-Sandinista religious groups who routinely told embassy officers that we were going to hell. Our attempt at a measured response was to suggest that they go home and exercise their right to vote, something the Sandinistas were still debating.

Cuba in the mid-1980s, whose revolution against Batista preceded Nicaragua’s revolution against the Somoza dictatorship by some 20 years, was interested in fostering another anti-American Marxist regime in the area. Citing my previous Foreign Service assignments, I was able to convince US and Nicaraguan (and Cuban) officials to allow me to visit Cuba in 1983.  I think the US wanted confirmation that Nicaragua was well along the road to Castroism if not Leninism, while the Sandinistas hoped I would confirm the uniqueness of their regime. The report I produced was, as indicated above, a shade of grey and probably not satisfactory to either government. The Cuba I visited more than 20 years after the overthrow of Batista did not approach the repression I witnessed in the USSR, and the Sandinistas were far behind the Cubans in imposing their ideology.

Subsequent events over the years have deepened my conviction that Cuba also deserves a measure of grey. Shortly after my visit, which to my knowledge was without problems, I was alerted to a Cuban government TV program with a video clip of my arrival in Havana with the caption “Another CIA spy arrives!” Then after my retirement from the Foreign Service I was asked to work on a State Department study on the future of US-Cuban relations during the George W. Bush administration. After submitting my initial draft stating that in my opinion the US would probably have to reconcile ourselves to dealing with the Castros, my services were no longer needed. Even more recently in U.S.-Cuban relations is the issue of intensive sound waves supposedly aimed at American (and other) diplomats in Havana. I am reminded of the issue in Moscow in the 1970s of Soviet microwaves aimed at our embassy building. My immediate suspicion (with no proof) was that some Russians were not interested in seeing improved US-Cuban relations and persuaded some hard-line anti-US Cubans to harass the US mission. Who knows?

The fact that in the 1980s Nicaragua was seeking advice and arms from Cuba was disturbing, but I felt there were still opportunities for the United States to influence the evolution of the Sandinistas, aside from the pressure of the “Contras.” As the military situation worsened, the Sandinistas finally agreed to hold freely observed elections. Both Americans and Nicaraguans believed the Sandinistas would win, but expectations were upset when a united opposition won in 1990. The new president, the widow of a journalist assassinated under Somoza, was clearly opposed to the Sandinistas but also against the violence of the “Contras”. Unfortunately, after winning the election the opposition splintered and failed to deliver on many promises of a better future for the country. After steadily working, both overtly and covertly, to gain control of the legislature, former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega was reelected in 2006.

Again unfortunately, in my estimation Ortega has morphed from a revolutionary guerrilla to a corrupt authoritarian who connived to have his wife elected Vice President. The unfortunate citizens of Nicaragua are once again seeking change while the current US Administration is once again linking Nicaragua to Cuba, and now to Venezuela as well. The leaders of the countries are labeled the “three stooges of socialism”. Clearly, neither Ortega, Maduro or the successor to the Castro brothers, Diaz-Canel, are serving the best interests of their citizens. All three are employing anti-American rhetoric to rally their supporters, just as Trump, Pompeo and Bolton are trying to frighten the American public and win support for regime change in this so-called “triangle of tyrrany.”

Under the previous U.S. Administration efforts were made to fashion a more nuanced policy toward Latin America, as I had argued in my rejected draft on the future of U.S.-Cuban relations. Now U.S. governmentefforts again seem to be focused on erasing the grey, lumping all three countries in the darkest tones. Soft power and diplomacy seem subordinated to increasingly hostile pronouncements and simplistic slogans from all sides.


Gil Callaway is a retired Senior Foreign Service Officer who does occasional contract work with USAID, volunteers with an international educational exchange organization, and is a Research Guidance Volunteer at the Library of Congress.

The Current Crisis

Marcha Juntos Somos un Volcán. Managua 12 de julio 2018 #SOSNicaragua. Photo by Jorge Mejia

Blood of Brothers Redux

Examining Central America’s Past

By Stephen Kinzer

Tension and long-suppressed anger mingled with shared pain when Nicaraguans who were bitter enemies in the civil war of the 1980s faced each other for the first time in the spring of 2019.  Their encounter, at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, was to mark the 40th anniversary of the Sandinistas’ rise to power in 1979. A few members of the nine-man Sandinista National Directorate that ruled Nicaragua after the revolution exchanged memories and accusations with leaders of the U.S.-backed contra force that sought to overthrow them.


Sergio Ramirez, who was vice-president of the Sandinista government from 1985-1990, lamented that he and his comrades had succumbed to “Leninist conceptions of power.”  He called the Sandinista project “a sincere illusion” and concluded: “A capital sin of the Nicaraguan revolution was to place ideology above realistic possibilities.”

At one of the conference’s first sessions, a Miskito Indian leader accused Sandinistas of trying to destroy his people.  In reply, a former Sandinista leader confessed that he and his comrades had failed to understand the indigenous people’s “separate history, values, culture, aspirations and relationship to nature and the earth.”

The former contra commander Luis Fley, known during his fighting days as Comandante Jhonson, said he had joined the contras because Sandinista farm policies made it difficult for him to survive and because Sandinista security forces were arresting or killing other farmers in the region.  Listening silently were Jaime Wheelock, who as minister of agriculture in the 1980s designed those farm policies, and Luis Carron, who as deputy minister of the interior helped command those security forces.

"This is process of determining the truth of what happened will take generations,” Fley said as the conference ended.

Nicaraguans have hardly begun the process of recovering historical memory of the bloody 1980s.  Other Central American countries are also making first efforts. In Guatemala, a museum in the ravaged town of Rabinal, where one-fifth of the population was wiped out in army massacres, poignantly documents the slaughter and memorializes the victims.  Perhaps the region’s most notable effort to tell popular history unfolds at the Museo de la Palabra y la Imagen in El Salvador, which not only seeks to examine the past but also to give Salvadorans the tools they need to combat structures of injustice that produce violence.  The encounter among Sandinistas, contras and those who witnessed their war in Nicaragua was part of this incipient effort to examine Central America’s past in order to learn lessons for the future.

Photo by Scott Wallace

The Watson Institute is preparing a series of videos to document this uniquely informative conference (which will also be posted on ReVista).  The full proceedings are to be published in both English and Spanish—including speeches that emphasized the need to face difficult historical truths.

"It is significant that the events of Nicaragua in the last 40 years occupy the attention of the academic world,” asserted former contra leader Donald Castillo.  He said this process is valuable “not only because rigorous analysis leads to the truth of the facts,” but also because it could help Central Americans to “avoid reproducing the heartbreaking story of death, misfortune and suffering.”

Stephen Kinzer teaches journalism and international affairs at Brown University. He is a Senior Fellow in International Affairs there.  From 1983 to 1989, Kinzer was the New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua.  He is the author of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua and Bitter Fruit, co-authored with Stephen Schlesinger. Both books were republished by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies and distributed by Harvard University Press.

See also: Nicaragua, Culture

The University and the Nicaraguan Crisis

By José Idiáquez, S.J.

University youth were the first to rise up in April in Nicaragua. Then other young people followed en masse, followed by the rest of the population. The young students woke up an entire country.  “They are students; they are not delinquents!” became the first slogan that swept through the streets.

Two events immediately before the April rebellion awoke the conscience of Nicaragua’s millennial youth. In March, Vice-President Rosario Murillo declared that social media were harmful and that laws would be passed to regulate them. And at the beginning of April, a wide swath of the biological Indio-Maíz on the Costa Rican border in southeast Nicaragua began to be ravaged by uncontrollable fires. The country’s young environmental activists demonstrated at the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in Managua, demanding decisive and urgent action by the government, which never materialized.  

On April 16, 2018, President Daniel Ortega gave the green light to reform of the social security system—in bankruptcy because of government mismanagement—and which, among other measures, reduced the pensions of Nicaragua’s senior citizens.  

Photo by Jorge Mejia

On April 18, members of the Sandinista Youth, the government’s “shock forces,” and masked  men on motorcycles repressed protests against the social security reform with extreme violence—excessive force that was becoming the norm. The difference on this occasion was that the following day, April 19, more youth took to the streets to protest in León, Managua, Masaya and throughout the country. They were youth defending their grandparents, the senior citizens who would see their pensions slashed. Students from several Nicaraguan universities took to the streets. And others, who were not university students, began to join their ranks.  

The generalized rejection of the regime’s attacks, injustices and abuses had been accumulating for more than a decade.  It finally exploded. It was an awakening, an “insurrection of conscience.”

The government’s disproportionate repression swelled in the country’s main cities and many rural towns.  “Vamos con todo”—no holds barred— was the order Murillo gave April 19 to the country’s political secretaries.  It was the authorization to use any means, as criminal as they might be, to stifle the rebellion.

In Nicaragua, to kill university students is to kill the dreams of poor families. To have a son or daughter in the university is the most sought-after illusion of the country’s poor. To achieve this, they save, they borrow; they make a supreme effort. This fact is fundamental to understand the repudiation of the general public when the regime shot against university students. “We let them get away with everything, but they had never touched our kids,” read a sign held by a woman protester in one of the first Managua marches. Her poster was aimed at President Daniel Ortega. All the regime-controlled institutions, the generalized corruption, all the government abuses could be overlooked, but not killing kids, not shooting at university students.  


The Impact of the Repression on the Universities

The universities in Nicaragua suffered the direct impact of the repression against the students. Their campuses were attacked by police and paramilitary forces determined to end the student protests at any cost.  Students had holed up on university grounds, defending their universities as spaces of struggle.

The Central American University was not taken over by students, but nevertheless was attacked in front of its gates. It had become a refuge for some of those attacked in the Mother’s Day march, in which 21 people were assassinated over the course of some two hours.  In the following days, bullets were found that had hit various parts of the campus. As a result of the hostile environment against the university and its students, our campus was closed for reasons of security. Academic activities were suspended, resuming at year’s end—but only in online classrooms.

The situation did not make us relinquish our role as educators in the UCA. The impact of “no holds barred” was not the one the repressive government desired. On the contrary, the successes of April reinforced the commitment we have with our educational model and with our mission as a university.  

While in the state universities, many students have been expelled or their records expunged because of participation in the protests, in the UCA, students count on freedom of expression and opinion.  While state university students are silenced because of fear of retaliation, within the UCA campus, students feel secure despite the fact that our university is surrounded by 100-150 police and paramilitary who besiege and intimidate our students and workers every day.  


The Reaffirmation of Our Commitment as a University

In the polis —city-states—of the Greeks, social-cultural, economic and political factors modelled the way humans live together. The University, lodged within the city, is a political reality precisely because it models the way citizens should live within the city and the nation. As an educational institution, the UCA, along with the network of Jesuit Universities of Latin America, employs its human and technical resources so that the majorities excluded from the globalized world, and from our Nicaragua, overcome this exclusion and transform their lives. We seek that the university community and our students are in contact with the poorest Nicaraguans, with our less favored fellow citizens.

The University must guarantee good academic formation. This means excellent formation, the practical wisdom of knowledge, contents, research abilities and skills that will be useful to students in the challenges waiting for them in professional life. But if this academic quality does not take into account those who cause human suffering, if it does not take into account all that causes suffering in the human condition, the university will not be responding to the educational project Ignacio de Loyola and the first Jesuits  designed for us.

The inequality of opportunities in education for all sectors of the population is possibly the key to the backwardness we experience today in Latin America. The same could be said about Nicaragua. We are in the situation we are because of the negation of equality in educational opportunities.

Looking at education budgets and, even more importantly, observing the culture expressed in the classroom through values, symbols and discourse, the schools and the University appear as spaces that perpetuate social stratification based on discrimination between social classes, between ethnic groups, and between men and women. Authors like Henry show that this perpetuation operates in favor of the system of inequity, He demonstrates “the economic utility of producing large groups of students who see themselves as failures and go on without complaint to the lowest positions in the structures of bureaucratic and industrial work.”  

Authentic human development in Nicaragua is one that recognizes and respects cultural, historic and gender diversity as fundamental values with which to construct a better society. Authentic human development also does not disregard the value of the environment and recognizes and respects the social, productive and ethnic richness found in every corner of Nicaragua’s geography.  

A university education cannot be reduced to transmitting skills. It demands the identification of our students with values they must assume: a critical spirit, a willingness to dialogue, curiosity to read and research, discipline, rejection of sectarian attitudes; collaboration with others; tolerance; respect for differences; acceptance of other forms of religious beliefs and political sympathies, a sense of commitment.   

These values seem outdated in today’s ephemeral culture, described by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman: “Whatever is good for you today can be reclassified tomorrow as your poison. Apparently firm commitments and solemnly signed agreements may be overturned overnight. And promises—or most of them—seem to be made solely to be betrayed and broken.”

The UCA must be present in the marginalized countryside, in the urban shantytowns, supporting the cooperatives, training fisherfolk, accompanying migrants and their families, struggling aside the great number of women heads of households who are trying to achieve a better life for their families, attending to the psychological needs of those who cannot afford private therapy, helping the poor to obtain titles to their land, contributing to the defense of the environment. When our students are enmeshed in all these realities, their research cannot be pure statistics, numbers, variables, tables and charts.

Photo by Jorge Mejia

What Should We Keep on Doing?

In the role our students played in the April rebellion, we see the fruits of our educational work. We are filled with satisfaction to hear our students formulate their protests, denounce injustices and propose solutions.

But our work goes on. We still have much to do in our role of University.  From its daily academic tasks, our University seeks the power of truth to keep giving our support to the transformations Nicaragua so badly needs. We need to provide a space in which a diversity of beliefs and thoughts can coexist; we believe that advocating and respecting that diversity empowers our daily teaching mission, our research and our tasks of social projection.

A university cannot be neutral; it cannot remain on the sidelines in the face of painful reality. We want to construct a community based on fertile dialogue, asking ourselves always and freely for what we work and for whom we work.  Our Jesuit brother Ignacio Ellacuría declared in his last speech just ten days before he was assassinated at the Central American University in El Salvador:

It is often said that the university should be impartial. We do not agree. The university should strive to be free and objective, but objectivity and freedom may demand taking sides. We are freely on the side of the popular majority, because they are unjustly oppressed and because the truth of the situation lies within them both positively and negatively.

Finally, what is the principle challenge of a university faced with human suffering?  A university makes sense only when human suffering can enter through its gates and windows because we do not share our classrooms with robots. We should sensitize students to human suffering in each and every subject matter so that they understand that this suffering is part of the academic challenge. If we do not achieve this ethical commitment to feel the pain of others, we are not constructing an academic institution; we are not doing research and we are not projecting socially as a university.  

The situation of death and uncertainty experienced in the world today demands that our work in teaching and research has as its final goal our support of this struggle to prevent the suffering of the just and to guarantee the search for truth.


José Idiáquez, S.J., known as “Padre Chepe,” is the president of the Central American University in Managua. He received the  LASA/Oxfam America Martin Diskin Memorial Lectureship Award in May 2019.

Un análisis de coyuntura nicaragüense desde la perspectiva universitaria

Por José Idiáquez, S.J.

La juventud universitaria fue la primera que despertó en abril en Nicaragua. La siguió la juventud en general. A la juventud la siguió la mayoría de la población. Fueron jóvenes estudiantes quienes despertaron a un país. “¡Eran estudiantes, no eran delincuentes!” fue la primera consigna que se coreó en las calles.  

Los antecedentes inmediatos a la rebelión de abril fueron dos: ambos ligados a la conciencia de la juventud millennial de Nicaragua. En marzo, la vicepresidenta, Rosario Murillo, anunció que las redes sociales eran nocivas y que se dictarían leyes para regularlas. Y a inicios de abril, una amplia extensión de la reserva biológica Indio-Maíz, al sureste de Nicaragua, fronteriza con Costa Rica, empezó a ser consumida por un incendio incontrolable. La juventud ambientalista del país se manifestó en la UCA exigiendo del gobierno respuestas más decididas y urgentes, que nunca llegaron.

Cuando lo que llegó fue un diluvio, que sofocó el incendio, el 16 de abril Ortega dio luz verde a una reforma a la seguridad social -en bancarrota por malos manejos del gobierno-, que entre otras medidas reducía las pensiones de las personas de la tercera edad.

Photo by Jorge Mejia

El 18 de abril las protestas por la reforma a la seguridad social fueron reprimidas con extrema violencia, como ya era habitual, por “fuerzas de choque” del gobierno, miembros de la Juventud Sandinista y “motorizados”. Lo diferente en esta ocasión fue que al día siguiente, 19 de abril, hubo más jóvenes protestando en León, Managua, Masaya y otros puntos del país. Eran jóvenes defendiendo a sus abuelos y abuelas, a los ancianos que verían reducidas sus pensiones. Estudiantes de varias universidades del país protestaban en las calles. Y comenzaba a unírseles la población.

Ese día se hizo visible el rechazo generalizado de gran parte de la población nicaragüense ante los agravios, injusticias y abusos del régimen. El rechazo se había ido acumulando a lo largo de una década. Y por fin estalló. Fue un despertar, una “insurrección de la conciencia”.

La respuesta del gobierno ante las protestas, que no pararon de crecer desde ese día en las principales ciudades del país, y en buena parte de municipios más rurales, fue una represión desproporcionada. “Vamos con todo” fue la orden que dio Murillo el 19 de abril a los secretarios políticos de todo el país. “Todo” significaba cualquier medio, por criminal que fuera, con tal de sofocar la rebelión.

En Nicaragua matar universitarios significa matar el sueño de las familias pobres. Tener un hijo o una hija universitaria es la ilusión más acariciada por los pobres. Para lograrlo ahorran, se empeñan, se esfuerzan. Esto es fundamental para entender el repudio que provocó que el régimen disparara contra universitarios. “Todo te dejamos pasar, pero jamás hubieras tocado a nuestros chavalos” decía una cartulina que llevaba en sus manos una mujer en la primera marcha que hubo en Managua. Desde ese cartón le hablaba a Daniel Ortega. Todo -las instituciones controladas, los fraudes electorales, la corrupción generalizada-, todo se lo dejaron pasar, pero no que matara a los chavalos, a los jóvenes universitarios.  

¿Qué impacto tuvo la represión en las universidades?

Las universidades de Nicaragua sufrieron el impacto directo de la represión contra los estudiantes. Sus campus fueron atacados por fuerzas policiales y paramilitares interesadas en reprimir las protestas estudiantiles al costo que fuera. El objetivo era retirar de los campus a los estudiantes que se habían atrincherado en los mismos, defendiendo sus universidades como espacios de lucha.

La Universidad Centroamericana no fue tomada por estudiantes pero sí recibió un ataque a su portón principal y fue refugio de la población atacada en la marcha del día de las madres, en la que aproximadamente dos horas fueron asesinadas 21 personas. En días posteriores fueron encontradas balas que habían impactado en distintas áreas del campus.

Como resultado del ambiente hostil que reinaba en contra, sobre todo, de los universitarios, nuestro campus fue cerrado por motivos de seguridad. Las actividades académicas fueron interrumpidas y luego retomadas al final del año solamente en modalidad virtual.

En la UCA, la situación vivida no nos hizo desistir de nuestra labor educativa. El impacto del “vamos con todo” no ha sido el deseado por el gobierno represor. Al contrario, los sucesos de abril refuerzan el compromiso que tenemos con nuestro modelo educativo y nuestra misión universitaria.

Actualmente, mientras en las universidades estatales muchos estudiantes han sido expulsados o sus expedientes borrados por haber participado en las protestas, en la UCA la población estudiantil sabe que existe libertad de expresión y libertad de opinión. Mientras los estudiantes de las universidades estatales callan por miedo a represalias, dentro del campus de la UCA, los estudiantes se sienten seguros a pesar de que todos los días nuestra universidad está rodeada por alrededor de 100 a 150 policías y paramilitares que asedian e intimidan a nuestros estudiantes y trabajadores.

Photo by Jorge Mejia

¿Cuál es el compromiso que la crisis ha reafirmado en nosotros?

En la polis de los griegos se expresaron los factores socio-culturales, económicos y políticos que modelan la convivencia humana. La Universidad, inserta en la ciudad, es por eso una realidad política. Como institución educativa, la UCA, en sintonía con la Red de Universidades Jesuitas de América Latina (AUSJAL), emplea sus recursos humanos y técnicos para que las mayorías excluidas de este mundo globalizado, y de nuestra Nicaragua, superen la exclusión y transformen sus vidas. Buscamos que toda la comunidad universitaria y nuestros estudiantes estén en contacto directo con los y las nicaragüenses más empobrecidas, con nuestros compatriotas menos favorecidos.

La Universidad debe garantizar una buena preparación académica. Eso significa una excelente formación, un bagaje de conocimientos, de contenidos, de habilidades investigativas y de destrezas que sean útiles a nuestros estudiantes en los desafíos que les esperan en su vida profesional. Pero si esa calidad académica no tiene en cuenta a quienes causan el sufrimiento humano, si no tiene en cuenta todo lo que ocasiona sufrimiento a la condición humana, no estará respondiendo al proyecto educativo que Ignacio de Loyola y los primeros jesuitas nos trazaron.

La negación de una igualdad de oportunidades en educación para todos los sectores de la población es posiblemente la clave de los rezagos que tenemos hoy en América Latina. Lo mismo se puede decir de Nicaragua. Estamos como estamos por esa desigualdad de oportunidades educativas.

Cuando se investigan los presupuestos destinados a la educación y, aún más importante, cuando observamos la cultura que se expresa en las aulas a través de valores, símbolos y discursos, la escuela y la Universidad aparecen como espacios en que se perpetúa la estratificación social basada en la discriminación entre clases sociales, entre etnias, entre hombres y mujeres. Autores como Henry señalan que esa perpetuación es funcional al sistema de inequidad. Hace ver él “la utilidad económica de producir grandes grupos de alumnos que se vean a sí mismos como fracasados y pasen sin quejarse a las posiciones más bajas en las estructuras del trabajo burocrático e industrial”.

Un auténtico desarrollo humano es el que reconoce y respeta la diversidad cultural, histórica y de género como valores fundamentales para construir una sociedad mejor. Un auténtico desarrollo humano no olvida el valor del medioambiente y reconoce y respeta la riqueza social, productiva y étnica de todos los rincones de la geografía nicaragüense.

La educación universitaria no puede reducirse a transmitir competencias técnicas. Exige identificar a nuestros estudiantes con valores que deben asumir: espíritu crítico, disposición al diálogo, curiosidad por investigar y por leer, disciplina, rechazo a actitudes sectarias, colaboración con los demás, tolerancia, respeto a las diferencias, aceptación de las diversas creencias religiosas y simpatías políticas, sentido del compromiso…

Estos valores parecen pasados de moda en la actual cultura, donde todo es efímero. Así describe esta cultura de hoy Zygmunt Bauman: “Cualquier cosa que hoy es buena para ti puede reclasificarse como tu veneno. Compromisos aparentemente firmes y acuerdos solemnemente firmados pueden derrumbarse de la noche a la mañana. Y las promesas, o la mayoría de ellas, parecen hechas solamente para ser traicionadas y rotas”.

La UCA está obligada a estar presente en el campo marginado, en las zonas urbanas empobrecidas, apoyando a las cooperativas, capacitando a los pescadores, acompañando a los migrantes y a sus familias, luchando a la par de tantas mujeres que sacan adelante a sus familias, atendiendo sicológicamente a quienes no tienen posibilidad de pagar un servicio privado, colaborando en la legalización de las propiedades de los más pobres, contribuyendo a la defensa del medioambiente… Cuando nuestros estudiantes se encuentren con todas estas realidades, sus investigaciones ya no serán puros datos estadísticos, números, variables, tablas y cuadros.

¿Qué seguiremos haciendo?

En el papel que nuestros estudiantes asumieron en la rebelión de abril vemos los frutos de nuestro trabajo educativo. Nos llena de satisfacción escuchar a nuestros estudiantes formular sus protestas, denunciar injusticias y proponer soluciones.

Pero nuestro trabajo sigue. Desde la Universidad tenemos aún mucho por hacer. Desde el quehacer académico, nuestra Universidad busca el poder que tiene la verdad para así seguir dando nuestro aporte a las transformaciones que necesita Nicaragua. Y como lo que caracteriza a la Universidad y al mundo universitario es ser el espacio en donde convive la diversidad de credos y de pensamientos, creemos que es acoger y respetar toda esa diversidad la que va a potenciar nuestro quehacer docente, nuestras investigaciones y todas nuestras tareas de proyección social.    

Una Universidad no puede ser neutral, no puede permanecer impasible ante la dolorosa realidad. Queremos construir una comunidad en diálogo fecundo, preguntándonos siempre con libertad para qué trabajamos y al servicio de quiénes trabajamos. Bien lo sabía nuestro hermano Ignacio Ellacuría. En su último discurso, pronunciado diez días antes de ser asesinado en el campus de la Universidad Centroamericana de El Salvador, afirmaba:   

Suele decirse que la Universidad debe de ser imparcial. Nosotros creemos que no. La Universidad debe pretender ser libre y objetiva, pero la objetividad y la libertad pueden exigir ser parciales. Y nosotros somos libremente parciales a favor de las mayorías populares, porque son injustamente oprimidas y porque en ellas, negativa y positivamente, está la verdad de la realidad.

Finalmente, ¿cuál es el principal reto de una universidad de cara al sufrimiento humano? Una universidad tiene sentido siempre y cuando por sus portones y por sus ventanas entre el sufrimiento humano pues no compartimos nuestras aulas con robots. Debemos sensibilizar a nuestros estudiantes, en cualquiera de sus materias, para que comprendan que el sufrimiento humano es parte del desafío académico. Si no logramos ese compromiso ético de sentir como propio el dolor ajeno, no estamos haciendo academia, no estamos haciendo investigación y no nos estamos proyectando socialmente como universidad.

La situación de muerte e incertidumbre que se vive en el mundo exige que nuestro trabajo en la docencia y la investigación tenga como fin último dar nuestro aporte en esa lucha por evitar el sufrimiento del justo y asegurar la búsqueda de la verdad.


José Idiáquez, S.J., conocido como “Padre Chepe,” es rector de la Universidad Centroamericana en Managua. Recibió el Premio LASA/Oxfam America Martin Diskin Memorial Lectureship en mayo 2019.

Repression and Resilience in Nicaragua

How Daniel Ortega Weathered 2018 Storm… and What Comes Next

By Kai M. Thaler and Eric S. Mosinger

On July 19, supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega celebrated the 40th anniversary of the popular uprising that toppled the Somoza family dictatorship and swept Ortega’s Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) into power. For the majority of the country, however, it was a somber occasion. It was a chance to recognize again that, almost exactly fifteen months after the beginning of protests that marked the most serious challenge yet to Ortega’s rule, he remains entrenched in power, while thousands of his opponents are in exile, have been jailed, or live under threats, and hundreds of protesters were killed. How has Ortega managed to hold onto power, after, in April and May 2018, it seemed as if his eleven-year grip on the country might finally end?


Repression to Overwhelm Resistance

Police patrolling in Jinotepe. Photo by Voice of America

Ortega’s willingness to use repression against protesters and opposition figures in the media and civil society meant that he felt no need to make concessions, relying instead on force to keep power. The uprising began after state-linked thugs attacked initial protests—including by elderly pensioners— against Ortega’s proposed social security austerity measures. As images of bloodied protesters spread on Nicaraguan social media, hundreds of thousands more took to the streets around the country in protests that caught Ortega, analysts and most Nicaraguans by surprise. The government of Ortega had been associated with stability obtained through pacts and backroom deals, and steady but not brutal controls over society. After early vacillation, however, Ortega found his footing, and his firepower, ordering the use of deadly force by police and sending Juventud Sandinista turbas or mobs to loot businesses and create chaos. The next step was devolving control over violence, turning the Sandinista Youth, FSLN supporters and, allegedly, former police and even active-duty soldiers into paramilitaries.  State-linked paramilitary forces then terrorized communities, attacked protests and operated in cooperation with police, often using police and military-grade weapons.

In June and July 2018, the regime unleashed its full force. Police and paramilitaries destroyed barricades, brutally overran Managua’s universities and barrios, and suppressed uprisings in Masaya, Jinotepe, El Crucero and other strongholds of popular resistance. While in some cases armed protesters shot back at government forces, the vast majority of protesters were unarmed or defended their positions with only rocks and traditional morteros against the lethal police and paramilitary arsenal. The government steadily regained control of the streets, crushing the hopes of much of the opposition.

Alongside overt repression, the government unleashed an ongoing campaign to defund, shutter and attack independent media outlets and civil society organizations, to arrest known protesters and organizers, and to monitor the Nicaraguan refugee population in Costa Rica and elsewhere, using networks of government supporters who emigrated for economic reasons in more peaceful times. The discovery on July 27, 2019 of an improvised explosive device at the Costa Rican television station where Confidencial journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro has been broadcasting his Esta Semana program in exile, is a further reminder that Nicaraguans abroad, no matter how prominent, are not safe.

Protest in Costa Rica for those killed and imprisoned. Photo by Voice of America


Taking Advantage of the International Environment

In a climate of generalized international indifference to human rights concerns, Ortega’s vicious strategy made sense. He and other dictators saw what happened when Muammar Gaddafi, an Ortega ally, lost power, while Bashar al-Assad retained control in Syria after killing hundreds of thousands and using chemical weapons. Likewise, Ortega could see that his ally in Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, remained in power despite using repression and overseeing a world-historic economic collapse. Given the close relationships Ortega had cultivated with UN Security Council members Russia and China, the only real worry was Donald Trump’s fickle whim, but Trump’s attention was turned more toward Venezuela and Iran.

Repression was not Ortega’s only tool, however. He did engage in negotiations with the emerging civic alliance of student protestors, business leaders, civil society members and the Catholic Church, but government representatives did not negotiate in good faith. Negotiations frustrated opposition leaders as they tried to maintain momentum in the streets, in the face of police and paramilitary violence that Ortega increased and decreased strategically, depending on the state of the talks and in response to international opinion and fluctuating international pressure. Participating in dialogues helped keep up the façade for the international community that Ortega was willing to potentially compromise—even as he and his allied propagandists, at home and abroad, were painting the diverse coalition of protesters as right-wing, US-backed imperialists attempting to execute a coup. The government’s stop-and-start tactics in the negotiations also took a toll on opposition unity, as fractures developed, for instance, between student leaders and the business community over the latter’s unwillingness to call a sustained national strike.

Ortega and Murillo together. Photo by Voice of America

Likewise, an amnesty law passed on June 8, 2019, serves the Ortega regime’s strategy to demobilize the opposition. The law supposedly offered amnesty to “all those who took part in the events beginning on April 18, 2018,” applying to protesters, police and paramilitaries alike. The government has since released at least a hundred political prisoners, but only on the condition that they do not participate in any further protests, which have continued to be outlawed. The amnesty passed in the FSLN-dominated National Assembly without any opposition input, and has been criticized by United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet and the Organization of American States for trying to protect government forces from accountability for human rights violations. Cases against protesters have been suspended, not fully withdrawn, and the government continues to monitor and detain opponents.

Rather than reconciling government and opposition, the amnesty law has abetted Nicaragua’s transformation into a police state. As one of the released political prisoners told the British newspaper the Guardian (June 11, 2019), he was “happy to have escaped that hell” but also “sad and worried because the country is more locked up than when we became prisoners.”


The Remaining Regime Supporters

Who, then, continues to support Ortega? Most crucially, the security forces. Though opposition resilience and international pressure can help, scholars of civil resistance movements point to defections among the government, and especially the security forces, as necessary for regime change campaigns to succeed.

Security forces need to either defect or acquiesce for peaceful protestors to succeed. While the Nicaraguan military mostly stayed in its barracks, it never openly intervened, even when challenged to fulfill its constitutional duties to disarm the paramilitaries. Instead, soldiers sat back and let police and paramilitaries take on the campaign of repression. This may have initially been a ploy to maintain the image of depoliticized professionalism the military had forged after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections. The military, however, has lost its prestige for non-Ortega supporters, many of whom suspect the military has been arming police and paramilitaries, and even participating in repression out of uniform.

Taking cover under police fire in Masaya, Nicaragua. Photo by Voice of America

The police and paramilitaries have been Ortega’s shock troops, and they are now irrevocably compromised and tied to the regime’s fate. The police’s turn toward internal repression, rather than combatting crime, has undone one of the strongest remaining legacies of the revolution: public trust in police, which contributed to Nicaragua success in avoiding the large-scale organized crime and gang violence that have plagued its northern neighbors. Now, with police concentrating on tracking government opponents and stopping protests, the door is open for greater infiltration by transnational organized crime syndicates. This is especially the case in remote areas of the Caribbean coast, where the government was already turning a blind eye to illegal and frequently violent invasion of indigenous lands.

Beyond the security forces, however, Ortega retains a significant core of organized support, likely between 20 and 30% of the population. While he may have lost control of the revolutionary legacy, with many Nicaraguans now equating him with the dictator he once helped defeat, Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, still have the FSLN party apparatus firmly under their thumbs. The party has strong networks throughout the country, both for surveillance and patronage distribution, with government jobs and welfare programs provided through the party, rather than the state apparatus. In a very poor country, many families depend on state and party largesse, and social programs do breed much genuine support for Ortega. Unfortunately, the amount spent on these public goods and services pales in comparison to the revenues and assets reaped by Ortega, the FSLN and their associates.

Government employees at this juncture either genuinely support Ortega or fear the consequences of open opposition and so remain compliant. Some regime supporters may have vacillated in the initial weeks of the protests, thinking Ortega might fall, and then snapped back into line as government control was reestablished.

Given the opposition’s fractures, pro-government citizens remain the largest unified bloc in Nicaraguan politics. Even in a free and fair election, the various opposition factions would need to find a strong unity candidate to beat Ortega, in a system that does not require majority support to win in the first round.


Where does Nicaragua go from here?

Ortega’s latest ploy is to walk away from negotiations after announcing that elections will be held as scheduled in 2021, rather than moved up to 2020. Any electoral reforms Ortega proposes or announces would not be credible to the opposition or outside observers given his history of corrupting the electoral commission and manipulating results. Without independent international organization and monitoring of elections, it seems extremely unlikely that legitimate elections will be held in 2021.

Vigil for victims in Managua, Nicaragua. Photo by Voice of America

Ortega hopes to wait out his opponents, betting that repression will sap them of their spirit and that the business community will ultimately care more about profits than political change. International sanctions have hurt the regime economically, but there is little risk of any forceful outside intervention, and the attention of the United States and European powers is generally directed elsewhere. Finally, even though Nicaragua appears to be on the precipice of a severe economic crisis, Ortega will take heart that his friend Nicolás Maduro has weathered far worse.

The fight against the Somoza dictatorship took years, with each side’s fortunes waxing and waning. The opposition today has already come closer in a manner of months to toppling the Ortega regime than the armed Sandinistas did during their first decade of battling the Somoza regime. Ortega may wait, but the majority of Nicaraguans who oppose him will remember the violent repression he ordered last year. As an opposition slogan declares, it is “prohibido olvidar”—forbidden to forget—the people whom police and paramilitaries killed, tortured, and chased into exile. Nicaraguans will not go back to complacency, and the longer Ortega keeps outlawing protests, arresting dissidents and refusing to negotiate his exit from office, the more he risks an even larger eruption in the streets when the next cycle of mass protests begins.


Kai M. Thaler is Assistant Professor of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the author of the 2017 article “Nicaragua: A Return to Caudillismo” in the Journal of Democracy.He received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in 2018, as well as a Certificate in Latin American Studies from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. Eric S. Mosinger is the Robert A. Oden Jr. Postdoctoral Fellow for Innovation in the Liberal Arts at Carleton College and is working on a book manuscript examining leadership and fragmentation in the revolutionary FSLN and other rebel groups.

Nicaragua: The Roots of the Current Crisis

Por Salvador Martí i Puig

Photos by Lorne Matalon

When I was a political science student at the Autonomous University of Barcelona in the late 80’s, I encountered the Sandinista solidarity movement.  On finishing my studies, those connections led me to spend some time in Nicaragua. Two professors in Barcelona put me in contact with the then-dean of the Law School at the Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León (UNAN-León), and she suggested I teach some seminars in exchange for room and board. I liked the idea a lot.  I wanted to experience first-hand the revolution that had so surprised the world and gained its affections.

Ex-guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva is proud to have been a part of the 1979 Sandinista revolution. The sign he made prior to a demonstration reads, 'No more dictatorship, Ortega resign.' Silva's son, Carlos Humberto Silva Rodríguez, has been jailed on what one human rights worker said are fabricated charges of vandalism.

But what actually happened, however, is that I arrived in a Nicaragua where the revolution no longer existed. The Sandinistas had lost the February 25, 1990, elections.  I ended up in a country that was halfway to reconciliation, demobilization and economic ruin. Exiles from Miami had returned home, eager for revenge, and the Sandinistas had a lot to deal with. Some of these Sandinistas tried to look for answers about why the revolution had fallen out of favor and regard among Nicaragua’s populace. Another group passed the days endlessly accusing other Sandinista factions of committing errors over the course of a decade. In the middle of all these squabbles, a certain number of Sandinistas—a minority, but very visible—took advantage of the chaos to make themselves rich. I think it was the worst moment—and the worst country—for a student to embark on his virgin, epic and romantic journey.  I don’t mean to suggest that this first experience was not interesting, because it left me with profound lessons about human nature and developing societies. 

Is it possible that this experience influenced the way in which, ever since that time, I have evaluated Latin American politics in general and Nicaraguan politics in particular? Perhaps because of this experience, I have been more concerned with identifying historic “continuities,” rather than abrupt “changes.”

This inclination to analyze the continuities in Nicaraguan politics, rather than its ruptures, is relevant, especially because in a little more than a century, Nicaragua has experienced North American occupation, a liberal oligarchical regime, a repressive family dictatorship, a revolutionary regime with socialist inclinations, a liberal democracy and since 2007 (with the return of Daniel Ortega to power) a hybrid regime that has combined democratic institutions with authoritarian elections, and, since 2018, has transformed into yet another tyranny.

Nicaragua’s current crisis surprises many people who only think of Nicarauga in terms of the 1979 insurrectional victory and the 1990 electoral defeat of the Sandinista Revolution. Precisely, and in spite of their differences, the two episodes in 1979 and 1990 were exceptions to the rule.  The revolution was unique because of its multiple leadership (of nine comandantes) that condemned and did away with strongman rule and the cult of personality. Moreover, the FSLN abandoned Leninist dogma and put pluralism into practice, offering the possibility of ceding the government to whoever won in fair and competitive elections, as happened in 1990 with the victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Las heridas de Silva Grijalva en su pierna derecha fueron producto de balas de goma disparadas por paramilitares a favor del gobierno, según Grijalva y otros que lo acompañaban.

But this exceptionality soon disappeared and the patrimonial and despotic logic of politics once again began to flourish. On one hand, the FSLN failed in its attempt to democratize itself and rapidly became fiercely controlled by por Daniel Ortega. The liberal democracy inaugurated in 1997 diminished with the arrival of a corrupt president, Arnoldo Alemán, who made a pact with Ortega in 2000 to take control of the country’s institutions. Nicaraguan politics reverted to old patterns. The political culture based on concentration of power and cooptation (or expulsion) of the opposition resulted in the dismantling of balance of powers and the rise of impunity.

Since 2007, with Daniel Ortega’s return to power, the elements of continuity with the Somoza regime reappeared with the vastly increased concentration of public and private resources in the hands of relatives and close allies. This continuity also manifested itself in the tight reins on the administration of the state, including the Army and the Police, allegedly independent agencies, the electoral machinery and the judicial system. The only thing which distinguished Ortega from Somoza was that the former only used violence on rare occasions. That difference disappeared April 18, 2018, when prote4sts broke out against Ortega, setting off fierce repression from the government. According to statistics provided by the Nicaraguan Human Rights Association (ANPDH) in April 2019, the toll is already 561 dead, 4, 578 injured, and more than 1,300 personas imprisoned, and some 60,000 in exile (exact numbers vary among human rights observers).

Not only did Ortega usurp the FSLN and its symbols as his own patrimony, he concentrated the power of the State in his figure (and that of his wife) and rejected any criticism; he has undemocratized the country, This means that the regime has had the capacity to expel the opposition from institutions, to take legal status away from inconvenient political parties and to create puppet electoral formations to weave political complicities to present an appearance of plurality.  In this sense, the crisis of governing that the country is experiencing today cannot be resolved by resurrecting old political parties or by the ad hoc creation of new political formations. A worthy way out from the crisis means far-ranging political and institutional changes, because one thing is the fact  that the regime is widely rejected and another is to be able to compete in elections against the FSLN with guarantees.

In Masaya, government opponents vandalized the public prosecutor's office after state security forces attacked the neighborhood.

The regeneration of an active Nicaraguan political life isn’t just about organizing new elections; a long road lies ahead.  The process of undemocratization that has been carried out over the last decade has not only broken down the electoral administration but has also greatly weakened all political party and associative activities. Thus, any solution to the current situation takes place outside the framework of fossilized institutions and parties.

Negotiation outside institutional frameworks has also been a constant in Nicaragua’s history. Changes of substance in Nicaraguan politics have almost always been the result of negotiations outside of the context of institutions (seeing that these institutions have generally been corrupted by the regime in power). Two opposing sides face off after a “damned stalemate.” The most recent examples  of this type of negotiation are the agreements reached at the end of the 80’s (in the framework of the  Esquipulas Peace Agreement) between the Sandinista government and the Contra; the negotiations established in 1990 between President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro and the FSLN in 1990 to draw up the Protocol of Transition of the Executive Power and more recently “The Governability Agreement” in 2000 (more commonly known as “the Pact”) between Alemán and Ortega, which set of the erosion of Nicaragua’s incipient democratic system.  

Because of this history, many believed that May 16, 2018, a dialogue was going to begin that would be similar to the first session of the National Dialogue, in which members of the government, university sectors, unions, civil society and employer stakeholders came together with the mediation of the Nicaraguan Bishops Conference. That dialogue failed because the government did not put an end to the repression and showed absolutely no interest in furthering a democratizing agenda. Ortega put the blame for the dialogue’s failure on the Catholic Church, a criticism that was not casual because the church represented the only institution present throughout the entire country that was grounded in voice and authority.  Ten months later, a “new” dialogue was proposed, but with fewer players and with very limited expectations. The interlocutors were, on one hand, the government, and on the other, the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy, with the Vatican as mediator. The difficulty of this new dialogue was, however, the existence of political prisoners and exiles, as well as the continued repression of the opposition.  This second dialogue was indefinitely suspended on April 23, 2019, and nobody knows if there will be a third dialogue. 

Today the question is how to get out of the crisis in a peaceful way that will be accepted by the different players in the framework of a very unequal and changing correlation of forces. In possible (and futuristic) negotiations, there are several “red lines” that cannot be crossed for each of the players, and at times they are not compatible. For Ortega, these could be economic, political and legal guarantees for himself and his clan, that is, that his family fortune would not be expropriated, that he could conserve a share of power in the institutions of a hypothetical “new regime” and that he would not be tried in the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. On the other side, the most combative of the social movements, the Articulation of Social Movements and the Organizations of Civil Society, have indicated that it is absolutely necessary to promote policies of justice, truth and reparation for the victims and to ask for Ortega’s immediate departure. The Civil Alliance for Justice and Democracy adopts a position between these two stances, calling for institutional reform that sets up an electoral calendar with a new electoral law and the presence of international observers; an agenda of human rights that includes the liberation of political prisoners and the annulment of trials of those arrested for protesting against the regime, disarmament of paramilitary groups, end to the repression, freedom of the press and the free return of exiles with international human rights organizations as garantors of these steps, and an agenda of economic development to combat the recession. 

Nevertheless, to return to the negotiations table is difficult because the opposition is not  structured; social movement leaders don’t dare show up; there are no effective opposition parties, nor is there freedom of assembly or press with which to debate. , In this sense, the representation is imperfect and those who sit at the negotiating table—the Civic Alliance—do not have their own force, but depend on international actors and the capacity to get people out onto the streets. The great unknown at this time is the position of the Army, which although it has been closely allied with Ortega, has its own economic and institutional interests to defend, as well as its very prestige beyond the permanence of the current president and power.  

At any rate, at the time of writing this text in mid-June, 2019, there are no signs peace will be achieved in the foreseeable future, although there are some signs of easing of tensions such as the liberation of 56 prisoners June 11. Ortega’s discourse is focused on calling out his adversaries, of denouncing that he has been the victim of a “soft coup” and of urging his loyalists to resist.  In this sense the motto from the seat of power is clear and forceful: “Daniel is staying.”

Thus, the actual crisis has demonstrated continuities in the exercise of the political culture of power in Nicaragua, the concentration of resources in the hands of a strongman. the use of force at critical moments and the incapacity of the institutions to resolve conflicts. The fruits of these continuities are political violence and impunity, reappearning once again in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, It is difficult to think that this crisis could last forever. It is hard to imagine Ortega in power forever through the use of forcé. In this sense the French priest, politician and diplomat Charles Maurice de Tayllerdand warned us a couple of centuries ago, “You can do everything with bayonets except sit on them.” 


Salvador Martí i Puig, is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Girona (UdG) and a research associate at  CIDOB-Barcelona. He has written on Latin American politics in general, particularly about Central America and Mexico. He has been an invited professor and researcher in universities in Latin America, Europe and the United States.

Nicaragua: algo más que una crisis coyuntural

Por Salvador Martí i Puig

Fotos por Lorne Matalon

Cuándo era estudiante de Ciencia Política en la Universidad Autónoma de Barcelona, a finales de los años 80, entré en contacto con el movimiento de solidaridad con la Revolución Sandinista y por ello, al finalizar la licenciatura pensé en la posibilidad de hacer una estancia en Nicaragua. Dos profesores de Barcelona me pusieron en contacto con la entonces decana de la Facultad de Derecho de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua en León (UNAN-León) quien me propuso impartir unos seminarios a cambio de alojamiento y comida. Me pareció una excelente idea. Quería vivir en directo una experiencia revolucionaria que asombró y enamoró a medio mundo. 

La cuestión, sin embargo, es que al llegar a Nicaragua ya no había revolución: los sandinistas habían perdido las elecciones celebradas el 25 de febrero de 1990. Así pues, llegué a un país a medio camino entre la reconciliación, la reconstrucción, la desmovilización y la ruina. El exilio de Miami había vuelto al país con ansias de revancha y los sandinistas estaban muy atareados. Una parte de ellos se preguntaba por qué la revolución había perdido el favor y la estima del pueblo; y otra parte se peleaba acusándose mutuamente de todos los errores cometidos a lo largo de una década. En medio de estas peleas unos cuantos dirigentes sandinistas—que eran una minoría, pero muy visible—aprovechaban el desconcierto para enriquecerse. Creo que era el peor momento—y el peor país—para que un estudiante hiciese un viaje iniciático, épico y romántico. Con esta introducción no quiero señalar que mi primera experiencia en Nicaragua no fuera interesante, pues de ella extraje un aprendizaje profundo de la naturaleza humana y de las sociedades en desarrollo.

Ex-guerrillero Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva está orgulloso de haber formado parte de la Revolución Sandinista 1979. El aviso que hizo antes de una demostración dice, “No mas dictadura, Ortega renuncia.” El hijo de Silva, Carlos Humberto Silva Rodríguez, ha sido encarcelado por lo que un trabajador de derechos humanos llama cargos falsos de vandalismo.

Es posible que esta experiencia influyera la forma en que, desde entonces, he analizado la política en América Latina en general y la de Nicaragua en particular. Quizás por ello me ha preocupado más identificar las “continuidades” históricas que los “cambios” abruptos.

Esta inquietud—la de analizar las continuidades de la política nicaragüense más allá de las rupturas—es relevante, ya que en poco más de un siglo Nicaragua ha experimentado la ocupación norteamericana, un régimen liberal oligárquico, una represiva dictadura familiar, un régimen revolucionario de corte socialista, una democracia liberal y, desde 2007 (con la vuelta de Daniel Ortega al poder) un régimen híbrido que ha combinado instituciones democráticas con elecciones autoritarias y que, a partir de abril de 2018, se ha convertido en una otra tiranía.

La crisis en que está inmersa actualmente Nicaragua sorprende a muchas personas cuya única referencia del país fue la victoria insurreccional (en 1979) y la derrota electoral (en 1990) de la Revolución Sandinista. Precisamente, y a pesar de sus diferencias, los dos episodios acontecidos en 1979 y 1990 fueron excepcionales. La Revolución fue única por su liderazgo múltiple (de nueve comandantes) que condenaba y descartaba el caudillismo y el culto a la personalidad. Además, el FSLN abandonó el dogma leninista y puso en práctica el pluralismo, ofreciendo incluso la posibilidad de que accediera al gobierno la formación que ganara en unas elecciones libres y competitivas, tal como sucedió en 1990 con la victoria de Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Pero al poco tiempo esta excepcionalidad se desvaneció y reapareció la lógica patrimonial y despótica en la vida política. Por un lado, el FSLN fracasó en el intento de democratizarse y rápidamente fue férreamente controlado por Daniel Ortega. También la democracia liberal que se inauguró en 1990 mutó en 1997 con la llegada al poder de un presidente corrupto, Arnoldo Alemán, que no tuvo reparos en pactar en el año 2000 con Ortega para apropiarse de las instituciones del país. Entonces la política nicaragüense volvió a encauzarse a través de los patrones tradicionales y reapareció una cultura política basada en la concentración del poder, en la cooptación (o expulsión) de la oposición, en el desmantelamiento de contrapesos institucionales y en la impunidad.

Las heridas de Silva Grijalva en su pierna derecha fueron producto de balas de goma disparadas por paramilitares a favor del gobierno, según Grijalva y otros que lo acompañaban.

Desde 2007, con la vuelta al poder de Daniel Ortega, reaparecieron aún con más fuerza elementos de continuidad con el somocismo al concentrar una gran cantidad de recursos públicos y privados entre sus familiares y allegados, y al controlar todos los resortes de la administración del Estado, incluyendo el Ejército y la Policía, las agencias supuestamente independientes, la maquinaria electoral y el poder judicial. La única cosa que parecía distinguir a Ortega de Somoza era que el primero sólo utilizaba excepcionalmente la violencia. Como es sabido esta diferencia desapareció a partir del 18 de abril de 2018, cuando estallaron protestas en su contra y se desató desde el gobierno una feroz represión. El balance de ésta, según datos ofrecidos por la Asociación Nicaragüense Pro Derechos Humanos en abril de 2019 (ANPDH), ya es de 561 muertos, 4.578 heridos, más de 1.300 personas sin libertad y unos 60.000 exiliados.

Pero Ortega no sólo ha patrimonializado el FSLN y sus símbolos, ha concentrado el poder del Estado en su figura (y el de su esposa), y ha rechazado cualquier crítica; sino que también ha des-democratizado el país. Esto significa que el régimen ha tenido la capacidad de expulsar a la oposición de las instituciones, despojar a los partidos incómodos de personería jurídica y crear formaciones electorales títeres para tejer complicidades políticas con apariencia de pluralidad. En este sentido la crisis de gobernanza que hoy vive el país no se puede solucionar sólo resucitando los viejos partidos tradicionales, ni creando ad hoc nuevas formaciones políticas. Una “salida” digna de la crisis significa cambios políticos e institucionales de gran alcance, pues una cosa es el rechazo popular al régimen y otra muy diferente poder competir electoralmente contra el FSLN con garantías.

Pero la regeneración de la vida política nicaragüense no pasa sólo por organizar unas nuevas elecciones. Para que se reactive la vida partidaria y las formaciones compitan en comicios democráticos es preciso un largo camino. El proceso de des-democratización llevado a cabo a lo largo de la última década no sólo ha desbaratado la administración electoral, si no que ha descompuesto toda la vida asociativa y partidaria. Precisamente por ello cualquier solución pasa por una negociación fuera del marco de unas instituciones y formaciones esclerotizadas.

Esta vía—la negociación fuera del marco institucional—también ha sido un elemento permanente en la historia del país. Es más, casi siempre los cambios sustantivos que se han dado en la política nicaragüense han sido el resultado de negociaciones fuera de las instituciones (previamente vaciadas de representatividad por el régimen en curso) entre actores enfrentados que se reconocen como interlocutores fruto de un “empate maldito”. Los ejemplos más recientes de este tipo de negociaciones son los pactos de fines de la década de los ochenta (en el marco de los Acuerdos de Esquipulas) entre el gobierno sandinista y la Contra; las negociaciones establecidas entre el ejecutivo de Violeta Barrios de Chamorro y el FSLN en 1990 para la confección del Protocolo de Transición del Poder Ejecutivo; y más reciente el “Acuerdo de Gobernabilidad (más conocido como “El Pacto”) entre Alemán y Ortega con el que se empezó a erosionar el sistema democrático el año 2000.

Por ello muchas personas creyeron que el día 16 de mayo de 2018 iba a iniciarse una dinámica negociadora de la misma naturaleza cuándo se inauguró la primera sesión de la Mesa del Diálogo Nacional, donde fueron convocados miembros del gobierno, sectores universitarios, sindicatos, patronal y organizaciones civiles, con la mediación de la Conferencia Episcopal de Nicaragua. Pero el Diálogo fracasó porque el gobierno no puso fin a la represión y por su nula voluntad de avanzar en una agenda democratizadora, sin embargo, Ortega culpó a la Iglesia Católica. La crítica a la Iglesia Católica no fue casual, pues ésta se ha convertido en la única institución que está presente en todo el territorio del país, y que está sólidamente vertebrada, con voz y autoridad. Diez meses después se propuso un “nuevo” Diálogo, pero con menos interlocutores y con unas expectativas más limitadas. Los interlocutores eran, por un lado, el gobierno y, por otro la Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia, bajo la mediación de la Santa Sede. La dificultad de este nuevo Diálogo fue, sin embargo, la existencia de presos políticos y exiliados, y la continua represión que sufría la oposición. Este segundo Diálogo se suspendió de forma indefinida el 23 de abril de 2019 y aún nadie sabe si habrá un tercero.

Hoy la cuestión es cómo salir de la crisis de forma pacífica y aceptada por los diversos actores en un marco de correlación de fuerzas muy desigual y cambiante. En las posibles (y futuribles) negociaciones hay diversas “líneas rojas” para cada uno de los actores, que a veces no son compatibles. Para Ortega éstas pueden ser garantías económicas, políticas y jurídicas para su persona y su entorno, es decir, que no se expropie su fortuna familiar, que pueda conservar cuotas de poder en las instituciones de un hipotético “nuevo régimen” y que no sea juzgado en la Corte Penal Internacional por los crímenes de lesa humanidad. Por otra parte, el sector más combativo de los movimientos sociales, la Articulación de Movimientos Sociales y Organizaciones de la Sociedad Civil, señala que es imprescindible impulsar políticas de justicia, verdad y reparación de las víctimas y pide la salida inmediata de Ortega. A medio camino está la agenda de la Alianza Cívica por la Justicia y la Democracia que tiene tres ejes centrales: una agenda de reforma institucional que suponga un calendario electoral con una nueva ley electoral y la presencia de observación internacional; una agenda de derechos humanos que suponga la liberación de presos políticos, la nulidad de los procesos por las protestas contra el régimen, el desarme de los paramilitares, el fin de la represión, la libertad de prensa y el retorno de los exiliados y de las organizaciones internacionales de derechos humanos como garantes de los pasos a seguir; y una agenda de desarrollo económico para hacer  frente la recesión.

Las heridas de Silva Grijalva en su pierna derecha fueron producto de balas de goma disparadas por paramilitares a favor del gobierno, según Grijalva y otros que lo acompañaban.

Sin embargo, retomar el proceso negociador es difícil porque la oposición no está vertebrada, los líderes de los movimientos sociales no se atreven a comparecer, no hay partidos opositores efectivos, y tampoco hay libertad de reunión ni de expresión para debatir. En este sentido la interlocución es imperfecta y los únicos que se sientan en la mesa -la Alianza Cívica- no tiene fuerza social propia, si no que depende de actores internacionales y de la capacidad de movilización de la calle. La gran incógnita, hasta la fecha, es la posición del ejército, ya que si bien está muy vinculado a Ortega, también tiene fuertes intereses económicos, institucionales y de prestigio más allá de la permanencia del actual Presidente en el poder.

De todas formas, a la hora de escribir este texto (junio de 2019) no hay indicios de una pronta pacificación, a pesar de que hay signos de distensión—como la liberación de 56 presos el día 11 de junio.  El discurso de Ortega se centra en denostar a los adversarios, en denunciar que ha sido víctima de un “golpe de estado blando” y en la llamada a sus fieles a la resistencia. En este sentido la consigna desde el poder es clara y contundente: “Daniel se queda”.

De todo ello sólo podemos afirmar que la crisis actual ha vuelto a mostrar algunas continuidades en el ejercicio y en la cultura política del poder en Nicaragua, a saber, la concentración de recursos en manos de un caudillo, el uso de la fuerza en momentos críticos y la incapacidad de las instituciones para resolver conflictos. Fruto de estas “continuidades” la violencia política y la impunidad han reaparecido en el país. Con todo, es difícil pensar que esta crisis pueda eternizarse. Cuesta imaginar que Ortega se mantenga ad infinitum en el poder sólo por la fuerza. En este sentido, el sacerdote, político y diplomático francés Charles Maurice de Tayllerdand ya advirtió hace un par de siglos que "Con las bayonetas, todo es posible. Menos sentarse encima”.



Salvador Martí i Puig, profesor de Ciencia Política de la Universidad de Girona (UdG) e investigador asociado del CIDOB-Barcelona. Ha investigado y escrito sobre política latinoamericana en general y, en especial, sobre Centroamérica y México. Ha sido profesor e investigador invitado en Universidades de América Latina, Europa y Estados Unidos. 

Nicaragua: Images of Division

A Photo Essay by Lorne Matalon

A woman points to bullet holes inside Jesús de la Divina Misericordia church in Managua. Witnesses said the gunfire was unleashed by pro-gov't paramilitaries and police against students taking shelter there.


Elsa Valle Montenegro, 19, was inside a friend's home following an anti-government demonstration in Managua when police burst in. Members of Consejos del Poder Ciudadano, a system of neighborhood government informants, saw Valle enter the home after taking part in a march. Valle was one of six university students arrested near Universidad Politécnica de Nicaragua (Upoli) June 14, 2018, accused of illegal possession of weapons.


Relatives of jailed political dissidents line up to pass food to their imprisoned loved ones. Since April 2018, hundreds of people have been jailed for taking part in unarmed anti-gov't protests. In September 2018, the gov't criminalized public protest. Inmates say they receive rotten, often inedible food.

Valle said police officers threatened to kill her as they drove her to the infamous El Chipote prison. Human rights workers and former inmates allege that torture there is routine. Valle said she was brought into a room of machine-gun toting men. She said they ordered her to admit that students had received arms to fight the Ortega government.


Rafael Morales stands in front of his home hours after he and neighbors alleged Nicaraguan police burned it down. The motive for the attack is unclear as Morales said he is a Sandinista gov't supporter.

"I couldn't say that because it's not true," she recounted to ReVista. Valle suffered three months of psychological terror in prison until she was released without explanation. Twelve days before her release on September 27, Valle's father, Carlos, was jailed. He had been campaigning for his daughter's freedom. Her family continues to face harassment by state agents.


Ex-guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva is proud to have been a part of the 1979 Sandinista revolution that toppled US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The sign he made prior to a demonstration reads, 'No more dictatorship, Ortega resign.' Silva's son, Carlos Humberto Silva Rodríguez, has been jailed on what one human rights worker said are fabricated charges of vandalism.

Nicaragua today is under siege by its own government. Since April 2018, at least 318 people have been killed. Hundreds of young people have been jailed. They represent a new generation of political prisoners in Nicaragua.


Silva Grijalva's wounds on his right leg were inflicted by rubber bullets that he and others who were with him alleged were fired by pro-gov't paramilitaries.

Human rights workers in Managua said the chaos triggered at least 30,000 people to leave the country between April and November 2018. "Nicaragua's future is leaving," lamented Carlos Tünnermann Bernheim, a former ambassador to Washington. "To be young and a student is a crime in the eyes of the Ortega government," he said.


Elsa Valle Montenegro was jailed for three months after she was seen carrying a banner into a friend's house following a demonstration. The sign held by a sympathizer reads, 'Less political prisoners and more politicians in jail.'

Student opposition to plans to reduce social security ignited simmering discontent with corruption and repression in April 2018. University students were branded as terroristas and golpistas, the same term used to vilify anyone who demonstrates or speaks out against the regime. On multiple occasions, unarmed protesters have been attacked by stun grenades, tear gas and bullets fired by Nicaraguan police and their paramilitary allies.  


In Masaya, gov't opponents vandalized the public prosecutor's office after state security forces attacked the neighborhood.


"It's state terrorism," said Braulio Abarca, a lawyer at the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, known as CENIDH, in Managua. Weeks after speaking with ReVista, CENIDH's legal status was revoked. Eight other non-governmental organizations (NGOs) were also stripped of their legal status. CENIDH had been chronicling alleged abuses by police and paramilitaries since violence began in April 2018, including the disappearances of 89 people. "We are living in fear," said Abarca. CENIDH is continuing its work at a clandestine location.


Uriel Amador said he had to defend his land from armed, gov't-sanctioned takeovers. Amador succeeded but takeovers elsewhere continued. The lands belong to gov't opponents though Amador said he is apolitical.


The ground crew prepares home plate for the start of the Liga Germán Pomares Ordoñez championship series at Estadio Nacional Dennis Martinez in Managua. Only a handful of spectators are in the 15,000 seat stadium. Paramilitaries are accused of shooting and killing people from the stadium's top deck. Fans are boycotting the stadium.



Former guerrilla Carlos Humberto Silva Grijalva was jailed by the Somoza dictatorship.

He said he remains a proud but jaded Sandinista. He said Sandinismo has been replaced by Orteguismo. "What we have today in Nicaragua has no relationship whatsoever to what we fought to create," Silva said.


This pro-Ortega graffiti suggests that President Daniel Ortega not leave office before the scheduled 2021 election. Many sectors within Nicaragua are urging Ortega call early elections which he has so far refused to do. Pointing to U.S. sanctions as purported evidence, Ortega has claimed the U.S. is responsible for the civil unrest and violence. However, June 2018 CID/Gallup poll suggested 70 per cent of Nicaraguans age 16 years and older want Ortega to resign.

Lorne Matalon is a contributor to Marketplace, NPR and CBC Radio. His series on energy development in Mexico received a national Edward R Murrow Award for Investigative Reporting in 2016. In 2017, Matalon was the Energy Journalism Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin.

Press Freedom Under Siege in Nicaragua Today

By Liz Llorente

Marcha Juntos Somos un Volcán. Managua 12 de julio 2018 #SOSNicaragua. Photo by Jorge Mejia

Nicaraguans of all walks of life used to fill the reception area of 100% Noticias daily, waiting to speak with the independent news channel’s journalists about how they were being harassed by the police, paramilitary and other government-linked entities.

Since December, the building has been devoid of journalists. Armed police guard the former 100% Noticias headquarters in Managua, and the channel’s leading journalists are in exile. The black-and-red party flag of the Sandinista National Liberation Front now hangs prominently in front of the building.

“They have not returned to us what they have stolen,” said Lucia Pineda, the news director of 100% Noticias, who has been in Costa Rica since she was freed from prison in June. “The Ortega dictatorship is trying to silence us. Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas have converted into the very thing they once fought against when they mounted the revolution against Somoza.”

Pineda and Miguel Mora, the owners of 100% Noticias, were imprisoned six months, accused of terrorism and “fomenting hate and violence.”  They were arrested in December, after defying repeated warnings by the government to stop reporting news critical of the Ortega government. In an increasingly common scenario, police stormed the 100% Noticias offices, arresting Mora, Pineda and others. Mora and Pineda were taken to the notorious El Chipote detention center, described by human rights groups as a torture chamber.

Attacks on the press are at their worst point since the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Ortega has criminalized journalism. Reporting that puts a spotlight on the shortcomings of government policies is tantamount to treason in the eyes of the authoritarian-leaning Ortega administration. Dozens of journalists have been arrested, most of them charged with incitive and terroristic activity.

To be sure, Ortega began laying the groundwork for the denouement of the press freedom that Violeta Barrios de Chamorro actively supported soon after he returned to power in 2007.

“There was significant media capture by the Ortega government,” said Natalie Southwick, the South and Central America Program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. “Most of the major television news outlets came to be owned by the government. There was significant control over what they were allowed to report on. There were a few independent news outlets, but even the journalists who worked for them knew where the lines were drawn and how far they could go in their reporting.”

Then came the student-led protests in April 2018, against the Ortega administration’s planned cuts to social security programs. Government security and paramilitary forces clashed with the protesters, succeeding only in prompting the spread of demonstrations on other campuses over the following days, and more protests nationwide for weeks afterward.

The journalists covering the protests became a threat, and a target of the police and paramilitary.

“The regime went full-throttle, using the police, paramilitary, the courts, whatever it could, to repress journalism,” said Pineda, “to silence and attack whomever defied it.”

“They demanded to know why I and my colleagues were reporting the complaints that people who came to our newsroom every day, wanting to tell us about abuse by government officials or supporters of the government, told us,” Pineda said. “They were angry that we were reporting the discontent with the Sandinista government.”

When protests first began last year, she said, “the government sent Sandinista youths after the protesters, they injured the protesters and the journalists, pro-government forces, the paramilitary, stole news cameras, journalists’ cell phones. There was mayhem and violence.”

The government had cable providers cut the signal that was used by independent television stations. They raided the offices and homes of independent journalists.

Journalist Ángel Gahona was killed on April 21, 2018 while covering the unrest following the university protests. Two young men were arrested and charged in his murder, but released during an amnesty this year. Gahona’s family maintains that the two men were scapegoats.

The Chamorro Foundation says the Nicaraguan government has violated press freedom more than 1,000 times since April, 2018. At least 80 journalists have fled the country, with most of them living in exile in Costa Rica. The exiles include Nicaragua’s most prominent journalist, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, editor of El Confidencial, which police raided in December.

“In the face of extreme threats, I’ve had to take the painful decision to go into exile,” Chamorro, who is the son of former President Violeta Chamorro, said in a weekly show he is broadcasting from San Jose. He vowed to “continue to investigate and denounce crimes, corruption and impunity and to document the terminal crisis of this dictatorship.”

Univision correspondent Tifani Roberts, a Nicaraguan-American who has covered Nicaragua since 1985, has been in numerous dangerous situations in various countries while doing her job, but said that seldom has she felt her safety as threatened as it is now by agents of the state.

“There’s hate against journalists by the police in uniform,” Roberts said. “They use foul language against us, they’ll do anything they can to try to stop us, it’s become personal for them.”

“If the police in uniform feel the license to do this to the press, you can just imagine how hostile and violent the paramilitary are, with the impunity they have of the masks they wear.”

Police shot her with rubber bullets when she was covering a protest at a university, leaving her in pain for more than a week, she said. A mob went after her and her cameraman on another day when she was covering a Sandinista event, hurling orange traffic cones at them.

Roberts has documented more than 200 threats from Ortega supporters directed at her through social media since last summer, when she began tracking them.

“They call me an assassin,” she said, “they say ‘You deserve whatever is coming to you,’ and ‘We’re going to rape you.’”

Mora and Pineda spent some time in solitary confinement. Guards denied them their eyeglasses. For a time, Pineda and her cellmates— political prisoners—had no access to a working toilet and were forced to defecate in their hands, she said.

“It was hard, humiliating, dehumanizing,” Pineda said.

“I would ask myself ‘Why am I in jail?’” Pineda said. “’I have committed no crime. I am in jail for the simple act of informing people, for doing my job.’”

Southwick of CPJ said that repression of press freedom in Nicaragua rivals that of Cuba and Venezuela.

“It’s very comparable, in many ways, to Venezuela,” Southwick said of the sweeping censorship, “but it took the better part of a decade in Venezuela. What really struck us as we were covering the crackdown in Nicaragua was the speed—it took place in Nicaragua in the course of just one year.”

The long-time advanced structure of state censorship in Nicaragua provided the springboard for the all-out silencing of the press.

“It was subtle enough until last year so that not everyone outside Nicaragua was aware of it,” Southwick said. “The protests last year drew it out.”

“Reporting, particularly investigative reporting, is viewed as a direct threat to a government that wants to control the narrative, to be the single source of information,” she said.

Like Chamorro, many exiled Nicaraguan journalists are continuing their coverage of the Ortega administration, setting up makeshift newsrooms in living rooms and other shared spaces in Costa Rica.

“The Nicaraguan regime wants to destroy independent journalists, but it’s backfiring,” Pineda said. “Journalists in exile are reinventing themselves with new platforms. If anything, our voices have multiplied. We are finding one another, getting together, brainstorming on new ways to cover Nicaragua.”


Elizabeth Llorente is a journalist whose work has appeared in numerous national and state newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times and Forbes. She was a contributor to the book Authentic Voices: The Best Reporting on Race and Ethnicity and writes regularly about Cuba and Venezuela.

Indigenous Rights, Food Security and Biodiversity

Río Bocay, moist forest on limestone.

Accompanying a Search for Self-Determination

Mayagna Awas Tingni and Indigenous Land Rights in Nicaragua

By Ted Macdonald and Julie Wetterslev

Photos courtesy of Ted Macdonald and Julie Wetterslev


In August 2001, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights pronounced a landmark decision on indigenous peoples´ rights in the case Mayagna (Sumo) Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua. The case brought about international and national recognition of indigenous land rights and sparked a wide-ranging process of demarcation and titling of lands as indigenous property on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast. But while the Mayagna community in Awas Tingni eventually received a collective property title on 181,249 acres (73,349 hectares) of land in 2008, this land title has not prevented their continuous loss of control over the lands and resources.


The small indigenous Mayagna community of Awas Tingni in the interior forest of Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast made legal history in the 1990s when they faced an incursion by an international lumber company. The community mapped its land claims and brought a case - first before national courts and then before the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

In the Inter-American Court, the community won a “territorial” rights claim based on its cultural and historical land use patterns. The decision not only supported Awas Tingni, it also expanded the concept of “property” in Latin America to include indigenous territories traditionally used for hunting and fishing as well as agriculture and residence. Since then the decision has influenced numerous related cases in the indigenous jurisprudence developed by the highest human rights tribunal in the Americas. 

Yet, despite the court’s support, the Mayagna community’s ability to realize its rights has been stifled by delays in titling, settler incursions, and deficient responses from authorities. Consequently, non-indigenous colonists have poured across permeable borders, settled, argued, and sometimes even sold off parts of Awas Tingni’s territory. While land and resource rights have been recognized and adjudicated, both government and other actors have continued to argue that the people in Awas Tingni have “too much land” and that “it’s not really theirs.” Representatives from Awas Tingni disagree. Such differences are common, and most would see them as simple state opposition to minorities’ rights. But perhaps it’s also a cultural misunderstanding.

After traveling and talking to local people, we — anthropologist Ted Macdonald and Ph.D. researcher Julie Wetterslev — review and contextualize the current conflicts over land in Awas Tingni and the North Caribbean region. Along with human rights lawyer James Anaya who became the lead counsellor for the Mayagna community before the IACtHR, Ted Macdonald was an official observer during the peace negotiations in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Macdonald later assisted the Mayagna community in mapping its claims in the 1990s. Here he details the cultural perceptions grounding Awas Tingni’s “traditional use and occupancy,” that were accepted under international law. Then the story shifts to compliance. After traveling about and talking more recently with residents, Julie Wetterslev discusses the problems brought on by the Nicaraguan government’s compliance delays, by issues that arose through the titling process and by colonists’ invasions. We suggest the need to respect community rights and recommend dialogue and public participation in realizing such rights. We tell the story about how the lands were accepted as indigenous property and show what that has meant, by highlighting the differences between the situation in the Awas Tingni community fifteen years ago and now.


Indigenous Land Claims on Nicaragua’s Culturally Distinct Caribbean Coast

In Nicaragua, indigeneity has often been linked to the Caribbean Coast peoples, while the Mestizo culture dominant on the Pacific Coast has been promoted as the Nicaraguan culture per se. To illustrate, in 1979 Sandinista rebels toppled the government of General Anastasio Somoza, ending one of Latin America’s longest standing and most corrupt dictatorships. Much of the world was delighted. But shortly thereafter, right-wing groups known as the contras began violent political opposition, supported by the U.S. Reagan administration. Though most of their attention was directed towards the densely populated western uplands, combat also affected the eastern forested woodlands occupied mainly by indigenous peoples, who lived in relative autonomy. Confusion and conflict developed as indigenous leaders sought to retain a degree of autonomy and land rights, while the Sandinista government worked towards broad national political and economic control.

1984-- MISURASATA indigenous organization leadership beginning land use and regional autonomy dialogue with Sandinista government .

Leading Sandinistas were mostly from the Pacific Coast, and by their own account they didn´t know much about the groups on the Caribbean Coast and their languages, forms of life and land use systems. When indigenous groups resisted land policies promoted by the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), the Sandinistas began treating and fighting them as if they were contras. In October 1984, however, formal peace discussions began in Nicaragua, and continued in Colombia and Mexico. Eventually, by the late 1980s, the Sandinista government was ready to recognize that indigenous interests were not simple political opposition. The peace negotiations led to the 1987 constitution which created coastal autonomous regions and recognized not only the distinctive nature and organization of the Caribbean coastal communities, but also their rights to communal land and natural resources. However, like so many such formal laws and agreements with indigenous peoples anywhere, compliance and consultation were often absent—and so was genuine understanding and acceptance of cultural differences, particularly when these took the shape of land claims. Awas Tingni is an excellent example of this, both then and now.


What’s Our Property?   Mapping Indigenous Territory (Ted Macdonald)

In March 1995, four Mayagna men and I paddled and poled up and down the Wawa River from Awas Tingni to reach the former settlement of Tuburús. Along the way we visited, discussed and marked with a GPS device the sites which the Mayagna regarded as culturally and historically important. We were preparing a territorial study and a related map, as background for community land titling, fleshing out part of a government agreement signed following the dispute below.

In 1992, a joint Nicaraguan-Dominican lumber venture, MADENSA, obtained a concession from the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA) to log hardwoods in a 106,255 acres (43,000 hectares) area across the river from Awas Tingni, ignoring constitutional recognition of indigenous organizations and rights to land and natural resources. By contrast to Nicaragua’s northern Caribbean coastline, with savannah lands inhabited largely by the indigenous Miskitu, the lands inhabited by the Mayagna lay in the forested interior, isolated and sparsely occupied.  Faced with concessions granted on the lands they occupied and used, community leaders sought assistance.

With support from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and indigenous-rights lawyers James Anaya and Todd Crider, residents negotiated a fair and mutually acceptable agreement for sustainable forest management and equitable distribution of profits and signed the agreement in May 1994. As part of this process, Awas Tingni leaders then sought formal title to their lands to avoid future disputes. Anaya asked me to help document, ethnographically and geographically, how Awas Tingni residents defined and justified their borders.

Having lived with forest-dwelling indigenous peoples in the Ecuadorian Amazon, I had seen how they defined territory and dealt with outsiders, not simply as a means to confront extractive industries, but rather to secure, culturally and spiritually, their access to fish and game, define community, and deal with movement across borders.

Sketch map, prepared by Awas Tingni community leaders (Figure 1)

After walking in from the closest road to Awas Tingni (a two-hour walk at the time), I was met with a warm greeting and lively conversation. We reviewed the sketch map prepared earlier by Awas Tingni leaders (see figure 1). Since this map had no directional indicators, scale, or lines of latitude and longitude, we used a tool that was new and rare at that time, a hand-held Magellan GPS device, to provide accuracy. Villagers quickly understood the link to satellite signals. Though limited to elementary education, they watched the night skies regularly and had already differentiated the glimmer of steady stars, fast-moving planes, and slower satellites which beaconed the GPS signals. 

To see how the GPS recorded movement, a large and curious group walked with me from the school to the church and the flagpole, taking waypoints with the GPS. When I suggested that we then simply walk the sketch map’s perimeter, marked by a broken line, they politely informed me that it was too far to walk and that there were no paths. The perimeter had been determined by their collective mind and by strategic locations like river junctions. The size of the area was not clear, but subsequent mapping showed that the territory would be approximately 280 square miles…hardly a walking space. 

How then should we map? Initial conversations led to relatively little useful detail, except to point out the symbols for hills, rivers and houses they had marked. House symbols of course included the cluster of homes along the Awas Tingni creek, but also a smaller grouping upriver, Tuburús, close to the designated boundary. Residents explained that most of the village had lived there until 1945, when a measles epidemic hit, and the local Moravian Pastor had recommended that they move to unoccupied lands downriver. Most did, but a few kin families remained in Tuburús and others retained seasonal residences. So, to get a sense of territorial limits, community leaders Charlie McClean and Jaime Castillo suggested that we head upstream for a few days. From then on, simple conversations led to an outpouring of ethnographic information and clear explanations of how land and resources had been claimed and secured.

Before departure, we did our final walk around the village with the GPS.  For some reason, the device stopped. Then a teenage boy, William Simón, tapped me on the shoulder and told me that I had forgotten to press the proper password. Having watched and easily learned, he then asked if he and his good friend, Vicente Salomón, could accompany us. We agreed, and they were both easily trained to use the device.

Traveling up the Rio Wawa

The following morning, a bit of history emerged as we descended the riverbank. Two AK-47s (assault weapons) were sitting in the dugout canoes. Charlie and Jaime explained that they were leftovers from the 1980s conflict. At the time Charlie had stayed in Awas Tingni, but Jaime had crossed the Rio Coco to join the insurrection planned from Honduras. Despite their different affinities during the war, they said that the community was now stitched back together, and the weapons were simply for hunting. 

They had also decided to travel lightly, gathering garden food, hunting, and fishing along the Wawa River. As we poled upriver, we passed numerous garden plots, easily visible with domesticated plants. Then William landed the canoes, jumped off, picked up plantains and palm fruit from an abandoned house site, and then stayed for a while to clear scrub growth from around the house and garden. This occurred time and again, with a different person leaving the canoe each time. They explained that the sites had been secondary settlements occupied earlier by relatives of the person who stepped off to gather and clean up. They did similar visits during hunting and fishing trips. Each spot was, they explained, marked by a coconut palm, and functioned as a traditional family plot and a gravesite, from which relatives could gather food and, out of respect, clean up the adjacent land. Each location was therefore marked by the GPS as the sacred site it was.

Awas Tingni Moravian church. Photo by Julie Wetterslev

As we paddled, Charlie asked if, in the Amazonian forest, there were any hills like those marked on their map. I told them that there were, and that the hills were important. Forest spirits resided inside. Enthusiastically, they replied that it was the same in their forests. Then they quietly explained that, though they were members of the Protestant Moravian Church, many of the elders still maintained close spiritual ties with the forest spirits, called asangpas muigeni, who, along with some founding ancestors, lived inside the hills. These ties were essential, because the spirits were the masters of the surrounding fish and game. Close and respectful relations between community elders and the spirits determined access to such resources. Each of the neighboring communities, they explained, had similar relations with spirits in nearby hills. Community territories and boundaries were thus defined as coterminous with the domains of each area’s forest spirits. Neighboring Mayagna could enter, hunt, and fish with local permission. But that was not the case, they said, with a disrespectful Miskitu family, who had recently settled on the northern bank of the Wawa. We saw this family gardening on a large plot they had cleared, also cutting down a coconut palm on a gravesite. Further upriver on a high bluff away from the river there were seven to ten Miskitu houses in a cluster referred to as La Esperanza, whose residents were said to be logging nearby.  

After arriving in Tuburús, we spent two days visiting relatives of community members and observing agricultural patterns along the adjacent and fertile flood plain. Fourteen house sites, some permanently occupied, others secondary settlements, were nestled near hills, forest spirits and game. In the evenings, residents detailed earlier encounters with asangpas muigeni, who provided access to game but discouraged excessive killing, thus maintaining environmental balances. Returning to Awas Tingni, we measured local garden plots and visited several elders who reviewed their spirit relations in similar ways. They added that younger men also had similar relations, regardless of the arrival and influence of the Moravian Church.

The Awas Tingni territorial survey team, later self-named “Los Elefantes”

The team, now referring to themselves as Los Elefantes, apparently drawing on imagery from earlier WWF contacts, said that they would like to gather more waypoints before my next visit. So, I decided to leave the GPS and spare batteries with the two boys. They hesitated, explaining that, as community members, they were expected to share things—and that people would undoubtedly ask for the GPS batteries for their radios. I suggested that they simply explain they were holding the batteries for an “outsider” and could not distribute his property. They smiled with agreement. I then gave the boys a notebook to enter and identify any waypoints they gathered. 

Upon returning a few weeks later, the Elefantes told me that, through a large community hunting and fishing trip, they had visited many grave sites and traveled inland to the sacred hills, marking and defining them with more than 150 waypoints. Illustrating their relations with the spirits, they added that, while climbing the high hill, Kiamak, the GPS malfunctioned and would not turn on until they descended. Since they had not asked that hill’s asangpas muigeni’s permission, they felt that he must have paralyzed the device. The spirits were clearly real to them.

Then we obtained a detailed map from the regional government and proceeded to mark the waypoints, note their significance and understand the space in a cartographic sense. After more meetings with the elders, the work seemed to be done. 

Awas Tingni territory… land use and spiritually defined territory . Sketch map converted to computer-generated GIS map. (Map 2)

Back in Cambridge, technicians transferred the data to a computer-based GIS map (see map 2), which distinguished territorial sectors according to household clusters and adjacent subsistence garden plots, marking prime agricultural sectors along the river, highlighting the many grave sites and spirit-hill-determined hunting and fishing areas. The territory was, thus, laid out and its logic was detailed in an accompanying ethnographic study. It appeared that the job was done. 

But, on returning to Awas Tingni with the maps, a driver headed in the direction of the village explained that, on the way, he had to drop off some food to a friend who was working alongside the road. There, quite surprisingly, his friend and several other laborers were laying down a cement platform that was, they said, to become a storage area for timber to be logged by a Korean timber company. Even more surprising, hardly anyone in Awas Tingni knew any more details about this. Upon returning to the United States, I phoned James Anaya. Equally concerned and uncertain, he quickly scheduled a trip to Nicaragua. He and Nicaraguan lawyer Maria Luisa Acosta soon learned that, even as the earlier MADENSA negotiations were underway, a Korean lumber project named Sol del Caribe, S.A (SOLCARSA) was talking with MARENA about an even larger (15, 500 acres /63,000 hectares) logging concession in the heart of Awas Tingni territory (see the map, figure 3). This time, however, the government was unwilling to negotiate, arguing simply that Awas Tingni was claiming too much. The lead attorney, Anaya, took the claim to the regional Court of Appeals of Matagalpa, which rejected the claim. The same occurred at the higher Nicaraguan Supreme Court. Meanwhile, hunters from Tingni noted workers marking trees on their land.

Awas Tingni territory including SOLCARSA concession; overlaying sacred sites with logging schedule (Figure 3)

Having exhausted all local legal remedies, on October 2, 1995, the community submitted a claim to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in Washington, D.C., which accepted it. Since the Commission can neither sanction nor fine, they sought mutual negotiations, and a “friendly settlement.” At that time, Anaya writes, the map and ethnographic report shifted from a simple basis for discussion on land titling to the key argument in a contentious legal proceeding. So, in Cambridge and anticipating challenges, the report was updated with two sorts of historical research: written sources (linguistic and political history) from libraries and regional archaeology was added in collaboration with Harvard Professor William Fash, one of the foremost Mesoamerican archaeologists. No contradictory accounts or competitive land claims were found. In addition, given that the entire local history would have to be constructed through oral accounts, a Harvard Social Studies student (and later Stanford Law School scholar), Brian Shillinglaw, prepared a research paper on the history and legitimacy of oral history, to make sure there was no claims of “hearsay evidence.”

Government officials and community members then met, but came to no agreement. On March 13, 1996, the government, though having read the ethnographic report and the maps, neglected the Commission’s petition to halt logging, and signed an agreement with SOLCARSA, saying that while overlap existed, Awas Tingni claimed “too much” land. Even after SOLCARSA’s concession was nullified by MARENA, the official government attitude at Commission meetings did not change. In March 1998, the Commission delivered a confidential report, stating that Nicaragua had indeed violated Awas Tingni’s human rights. Since Awas Tingni did not have a secure right to their land, Nicaragua was in violation of the American Convention on Human Rights, the Commission found. The government gave no clear reply. So, the Commission sent the case up to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in San José, Costa Rica.

Before the judges heard the case, it appeared that MARENA was working to turn the neighboring Miskitu communities against Awas Tingni’s claims. Some tensions built. Maria Luisa Acosta from the legal team, and Armstrong Wiggins, a Miskitu member of the Washington-based Indian Law Resource Center, visited the communities and got most of them to sign an amicus curiae that supported Awas Tingni. The government, citing its own state-defined land criteria, quickly responded that the territory was too large and claimed that the Awas Tingni community had only arrived in the mid-1940s. But, during the trial the Commission drew heavily on the ethnographic and historical research and the international conventions on indigenous peoples´ rights. After two and one-half days in the Court (November 16-18, 2000), the hearings ended. During the final summary comments,  Nicaragua’s lead attorney Eduardo Castillo asked how it was possible that such a poorly educated community could map their lands with such a technically sophisticated device. I replied by showing him how easy it was to operate, and then one of the lead Commission lawyers stood up and argued that Castillo’s pejorative attitude reflected some of the underlying inter-ethnic sentiments responsible for the case.

About a year later, the court formally judged that Nicaragua had not done what the American Convention on Human Rights and the Nicaraguan constitution agreed to. On August 31, 2001, the Court wrote that it had accepted Awas Tingni’s view of property and thus significantly widened the definition of property in the American Convention of Human Rights. Importantly, the Court also ordered Nicaragua to title all other lands claimed by indigenous communities in Nicaragua.

In brief, Awas Tingni won. Cultural territorial understanding was accepted. The Court gave the Nicaraguan state fifteen months to title the land. But not until seven years later, on December 13, 2008, did the Awas Tingni community receive the title. Meanwhile, many problems arose, as Julie Wetterslev now details.


The Titling Process: Drawing Borders and Turning Land into Property (Julie Wetterslev) 

Following the judgement of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) in 2001, and after extensive mobilization of human rights advocates and civil society, government officials and World Bank technicians undertook the task of demarcating the Awas Tingni territory and all other indigenous and afro-descendent territories on the Caribbean Coast. In consultation with the concerned communities, they strived to forge “a new understanding of property that would correspond better to the worldview of the coastal peoples.” These reflections fed into a legislative process and, two years after the IACtHR judgement had been pronounced, the Nicaraguan legislature adopted a comprehensive law (Law no. 445, Law of Communal Property Regimes of the Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Communities of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua and the Rivers Coco, Indio and Maíz, 2003). This law prescribes five phases in the process of recognition and formalization of indigenous property rights: demarcation, conflict resolution, marking, titling and title clearance.

Law no. 445 also led to the institutionalization of the demarcation and titling process through the creation of two commissions: The National Demarcation and Titling Commission (CONADETI), and the Inter-Sectorial Commission for Demarcation and Titling (CIDT). The Awas Tingni community submitted their titling request to the CIDT in November 2003, the first request to be made under the new law.

Anthropologists, cartographers and government officials worked with many coastal communities to map the lands in detail, in cooperation with community members and in accordance with traditional beliefs and convictions. Detailed maps of the territories claimed by the different communities laid the ground for demarcation, a process in which the limits between territories were defined and marked with cement cairns (boundary stones). This whole process was by no means uncomplicated, as it required neighboring communities, often with permeable and unstable borders between them, to establish more defined territorial lines.

The demarcation and titling process in Awas Tingni was complicated by the overlapping claims to the land made by three neighboring Miskito communities; Francia Sirpi, Santa Clara and La Esperanza (collectively known as Tasba Raya). After a longer dispute settlement process, the Demarcation Commission resolved the problem that concerned over 100,000 acres (41,000 hectares) of land, by granting nearly 50,000 of those acres (20,000 hectares) to the Awas Tingni community and letting the three Miskito communities divide the remaining 50,000 acres equally between them.

During the dispute settlement stage, the shifting governments in Nicaragua were often accused by indigenous communities and indigenous rights organizations of using the inter-communal conflicts as a pretext for not titling the lands as indigenous territories. Developmentalist nation-states often resist losing control over such resource rich the lands.  

The end of the Awas Tingni dispute settlement coincided with the Sandinistas’ return to power in Nicaragua in 2007. On the Caribbean Coast, the FSLN had made an electoral alliance with the indigenist YATAMA party, and this provided a new stimulus to the titling process. In December 2008, seven years after the IACtHR judgment, the Nicaraguan state conveyed to Levito Jhonatan McLean, as representative of the Awas Tingni Community, a title to ownership of 181,360 acres (73,394 hectares) of land. The territory was named AMASAU—Awas Tingni Mayagnina Sauni Umani (the land of the Mayagna people in Awas Tingni).

In 2009, an Awas Tingni community delegation travelled to San José, Costa Rica, to confirm in an audience before the Inter-American Court that their lands had been titled. The IACtHR then commended Nicaragua for complying fully with its judgement. By 2017, a total of 23 indigenous and afro-descendent territories were titled on the Caribbean Coast, covering 33% of Nicaraguan territory and 54.7% of the lands on the Caribbean Coast. Formally, things were looking good.

Figure 4 – Map of the lands titled as indigenous and afro-descendent territories in Nicaragua (2017). The light blue territory no. 2 is AMASAU (Awas Tingni Mayagnina Sauni Umani). Source: Williamson et. al: Pueblos Originarios y Afrodescendientes de Nicaragua – Etnografía, Ecosistemas Naturales y Areas Protegídas (2017).

However, despite the land titling, human rights defenders and indigenous leaders have consistently complained about the lack of saneamiento or title clearance…i.e., the process of determining and resolving the legal status of non-indigenous third parties in a given territory. This rang particularly true when I visited Awas Tingni.


Lack of Title Clearance and Accelerated Colonization

In October 2017, I travelled up the Wawa River with leaders from the Mayagna community to visit some of the settlers in the AMASAU territory. I was doing fieldwork related to my Ph.D. thesis about the titling of lands as indigenous territories in Awas Tingni, and the Mayagna leaders had suggested that we travel upriver. Awas Tingni had become my main case study, because of the many references made to the case in indigenous jurisprudence and in academic literature about indigenous land rights, and because of the relative lack of academic writing on developments in the territory post-titling. The leaders had invited me to come on a patrol of the territory with them to better understand the state of affairs.

During the first few miles, we passed other canoes with people fishing in laid-back postures. We greeted them and other members of the community who were working on the riverbanks in small clearings between tall ceiba and ciboa trees.

A bit further upriver, beyond the immediate surroundings of the Awas Tingni village, the ambience became noticeably tense. As motorboats passed us, no greetings were exchanged. Alfons Simmons, the Secretary of the indigenous territorial government and Danelia Pedro Salomón, the representative of Awas Tingni before the Mayagna Nation, explained to me that those in these boats were settlers. From then on, they started pointing to clearings on the riverbank that had not been done by the Mayagna, thus illustrating a main cause of disputes.

The territorial government in Awas Tingni has documented that the clear majority of the AMASAU territory is now occupied by non-Mayagna settlers from other regions of Nicaragua. In 2008, when the lands were titled, only around forty outsider settler families were present in the territory. In 2012, when the community leaders did a large survey in the territory in cooperation with the Spanish development agency AECID, a Colombian human rights organization and various Nicaraguan state agencies, they found 412 settler families.

Rio Wawa. Photo by Julie Wetterslev

By 2019, the indigenous territorial government estimates the presence of more than 1,000 settler families in their legally recognised and titled territory. As the Mayagna families in Awas Tingni only number around 200 families, they have been gradually outnumbered, and they are now literally surrounded by settlers. Today, the settlers are estimated to control around 90% of the lands that were titled in favor of the Mayagna community.

The Mayagna leaders often patrolled their territory,  carrying weapons because, as they say, the settlers are armed—and you never know what they might do. On our trip we visited only those settlers that the Mayagna leaders have a relatively friendly relationship with. Other parts of the territory have even become almost “off-limit” for the Mayagna, due to security concerns, making it difficult for them to regularly monitor the situation in the entire territory. As they said to me, almost hopefully, “Perhaps you can come back another time, and we can bring the army.”


Emerging Land Rights and Use within the Territory

The Mayagna explained that the onset illegal sale of land and the arrival of settlers in the area coincided closely with the award of the collective land title in Awas Tingni. About two weeks after Awas Tingni received its collective title in December 2008, an ex-combatant (YATAMA) collective who resided in the south of the territory (and were then the only non-Mayagna third parties present in the territory) sold about 30,000 acres (12,000 hectares) of the land to a French timber company named MAPINICSA S. A. in an illegal land deal made on January 1, 2009. MAPINICSA had obtained the funds for their acquisition and investments through the World Bank and the IFC (International Finance Corporation) that were conducting a project to support forestry development in the North Caribbean Region following Hurricane Felix.

Even before the sale of land was deemed illegal and before Awas Tingni leaders had begun negotiations with the company about their presence in the territory, the MAPINICSA project had constructed a road in the southern part of the territory to transport timber. This road soon became a point of entry for other settlers who have since arrived in a steady stream, sometimes by foot, sometimes with vehicles, and often with a herd of cattle. Once one settler family has arrived, they often tell other families in their homeland about the abundance and availability of lands around Awas Tingni. This way a network of settlements has evolved.

The settlers in the AMASAU territory are not a uniform group. Many are families of scarce resources, who enter the territory in search of a better life. However, some third parties are non-residents with greater economic capacities or ties to wealthier individuals, who simply invest economically in the land and employ less wealthy peasant families to protect their investments.

The families that we visited on this trip were humble peasants, but they nevertheless cleared more terrain than the Mayagna do on their smaller family fincas with slash-and-burn agriculture. In the lands occupied by the settlers, numerous black tree stumps lie like dots in the open green fields, with paths leading to houses that are larger than the simpler Mayagna stilt houses. Inside the settlers’ houses, we saw containers with chemical fertilizers and piles of dried corn on the earth stamped floor, destined to feed cattle.

The arrival of the settlers and their subsequent transformation of the land and eco-system has seriously hampered Mayagna possibilities in Awas Tingni to hunt and fish. The rate of deforestation has escalated rapidly as settlers clear forest for pasture and grain planting. Game such as wild boar and monkeys disappear when the forest is cut down and the river is affected by chemicals and the faecal waste of humans and cattle that run into the water.


As we visited the settlers, the Mayagna leaders asked me to convey one of their major concerns…stop clearing forest along the river banks. It increases the risk of the river overflowing its banks during the rainy season, which can result in mud slides that worsen the effects of natural disasters such as Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and Hurricane Felix in 2007. Also, by cutting down trees on the riverbank, the natural filtration system is damaged and the water in the river is polluted. In brief, the biosphere is changing, perhaps for the worse.

The change is not accidental. While the land title was meant to provide security and stability for indigenous communities, conflicts over the land and its resources have in fact intensified both in AMASAU and in other territories on the North Caribbean Coast in the years following the titling of the land. Around forty members of regional indigenous communities have been killed in conflicts between settlers and communities in recent years—and land conflicts are particularly acute in the territories adjacent to Awas Tingni.  In AMASAU itself, an especially painful event took place in 2012, when armed settlers killed a community member in Tuburús, which the Mayagna still consider to be their ancestral first settlement. The incident caused the re-location of the Tuburús community to the village of Awas Tingni and the Mayagnas’ abandonment of these ancestral lands. In other areas, the presence of armed settlers has made it too dangerous for the Mayagna to cultivate and harvest their lands.

The massive arrival of settlers is thus challenging the ancestral, and quite manageable, family-based property system within the communal territory. The Mayagna work the land and grow food on family fincas. These plots of land as "theirs," despite lack of formal registration. They and their children, in the past and in generations to come, -have communally- accepted usufruct rights to work their land and live off it. These traditional community tenure patterns did not cause problems in the past. As the land was abundant, community members traditionally cleared a small plot in the forest, using old and environmentally sound slash-and-burn horticulture in a rotational system. Plots for this agricultural land use pattern were earlier understood as family-land. Others respected this through community-based (unwritten) usufruct rights. However, with the arrival of the settlers, land is becoming scarce due to crowding and extensive clearing. And it is becoming a commodity, not simply a passion. Consequently, internal conflicts within the Mayagna community have arisen, in addition to obvious disputes with outsiders encroaching on Mayagna land use systems.

On our visits to the settlers upriver, the Mayagna leaders also asked me to politely request that the settlers demonstrate their “titles” to the land. Many did. These “title documents” were often simple handwritten agreements, with variable prices for the land and either real or falsified signatures or stamps from some community authorities.

Other community authorities in Awas Tingni have denounced the illegal selling and buying of community plots of land, filing more than 200 accusations with the police and through claims before the courts. Official response has been limited. Although the government formed an Inter-Institutional Commission lead by the General Prosecutor to investigate these illegal sales.  Although state authorities participated in the large survey in AMASAU in 2012, national and regional government responses to the accelerated colonization of the Northern Caribbean region is considered by communities and human rights organizations to be deficient. In fact, some claim that the government actually supports settler communities. For example they allow funds from the Ministry of Education to reach schools in the new settler communities and provide settler communities, as well as indigenous communities, with zinc plates for their roofs and vaccination programs.

The mestizo settlers in the territory buy their unofficial titles to land through a range of different contacts, including municipal and regional officials - and sometimes members of the Mayagna community are also involved in illegal deals. The engagement of some community members in this “title-trafficking” and the engagement of others in the “indigenous human rights discourse” is creating internal tension and disagreement over the meaning of the communal property title and the related norms regarding “indigenous territorial governance.” Often, it appears that the same community member or leader will employ different sets of norms and values in different situations, based on their particular interests.

Community leaders suggested to me that the cultural survival of the Mayagna is now more acutely endangered than before the international legal process began – because the settlers most often represent the Spanish-speaking, Catholic, mestizo culture dominant in Nicaragua on the national level. Nevertheless, it seemed clear to me that neither the divisions within the community regarding how to govern the territory, nor the behaviour of individuals, nor the concepts of private property are so dichotomized to agree with such historically and socially constructed “ethno-racial” categories such as “mestizos” and “indigenous”. Beyond the conflicts, there is so much regular interaction and cooperation between members of the Mayagna community and many of the newcomers in the territory that the cultures and groups are blending.

But, it’s a bit lop-sided. In a meeting of the indigenous territorial government in Awas Tingni, community members explained that some of the settlers attempt to lure the members and leaders of the community with both material and immaterial goods. Sometimes permissions to buy land and settle have been exchanged with weapons for hunting, with a motorcycle, a truck, or fertilizer for crops. Sometimes the settlers offer the Mayagna work on their farms, and sometimes permissions to settle can facilitate sexual relationships or intermarriage between settlers and Mayagna.

Adding to the imbalance, problems over some land sales and invasions result from a lack of response by police and military to the formal complaints made by the Mayagna. Community members have requested compensation from those settlers already present and unlikely to leave, simply to meet immediate and reasonable economic needs such buying school uniforms for their children or paying transportation costs for marketing their produce. In addition, when, unofficially or illegally, land is sold or exchanged for material goods, payments are incredibly low compared to other regions. The Mayagna community members who have sold parts of their were perhaps expecting the state to help them secure better exchanges or evict the settlers.

However, state officials have instead used the illegal conduct of some community members to delegitimize the claims of the entire Mayagna collective and brush off the protests by the leaders. And every time that the “sale of lands” occurs and is mentioned in the region, new land actions appear to  become more normalized rather than negotiable. As Jadder Mendoza Lewis from the NGO FADCANIC remarked: “For each time that community leaders and members talk about ‘the land of this or that settler,’ it becomes the norm and the truth.”

Human rights organizations and academic research concerning Awas Tingni and other indigenous communities since the titling of their lands have emphasized the lack of  protection and guarantees by appropriate state authorities, the lack of coordination between institutions, and the lack of financial resources to ensure title clearance and prevent indigenous dispossession. While such government inaction is clearly a factor, a broader explanation for land titling problems may lie in new and alternative view of land in the region. While both the 1987 Autonomy statute (Law no. 445), and the 2001 Court decision defined indigenous territories as inalienable, indivisible and communal.  Individual land use and actions such as the purchase and sale of land were not addressed. Territorial lands were understood to be part of a “collective dominion” aimed to “protect future generations and communitarian indigenous forms of life.”

However, the idea of land as private property seems to have gained prominence after titling.  One possible reason for this is that demarcation and titling brought geographers and state officials to relatively unfamiliar areas. This led to the increased registration of  riches contained within these lands…e.g., minerals and valuable timber. Consideration of earlier experiences with MADENSA and SOLCARSA may have instigated some indigenous groups, as well as other actors, to conceive of the land in increasingly economic and market-oriented terms. This does not mean that the land has lost its historical, spiritual, and communal significance for all community members in Awas Tingni. However, the increased commercialization of lands after the titling process has increased the tendency for some to consider land as an economic asset, bringing into friction and sometimes into conflict the different views about what land, title and property relations actually imply .  These distinct cultural, legal, and historical differences now need to be negotiated.

For example, Law no. 445 prescribes that non-indigenous third parties within the territories must respect the norms and regulations of the indigenous community. So, if settlers do not wish to leave the territory, they should perhaps pay rent to the indigenous territorial government. While this opens a range of more or less formal negotiations between the indigenous communities and incoming settlers and investors, it also limits the community because they could not simply evict the settlers, which some would advocate as the best solution. The Mayagna would probably lack the power to force relocation, and some may be shifting preferences.  

Larry Salomón Pedro, a  young lawyer  from Awas Tingni, who is the appointed legal advisor to the community, explained to me that, in their new situation, the Mayagna in Awas Tingni have developed a range of norms and regulations for territorial management. They stipulate that poorer mestizo peasants who have come to the territory in search of basic subsistence can be allowed to stay, so long as they agree to accept and respect the norms and rules elaborated by the leadership of the community (e.g. with respect to forestry, agricultural activities and resource exploitation). If settlers and investors are not willing to respect the culture and decisions of the community, however, they should leave the territory. The Awas Tingni community continues to request assistance from state institutions and regional authorities in upholding their communal autonomy and exercising authority, since the titling process has not yet allowed them to consolidate and enjoy their communal property and land use rights.

In sum, since our early visits in the 1990s, the situation in the lands around Awas Tingni has changed in many ways, and in sometimes opposite directions. As the recent visits to the territory demonstrate, there is now a big gap between the legal recognition of territorial property and the practical realization of related rights, due largely to current socio-economic and demographic developments on the lands. And, while the titling process has indirectly accelerated the settlement of outsiders in the land, complete autonomy in a changing world is unlikely under any circumstances.

The Mayagna hesitantly accept some of the demographic changes that have followed their successful international claims to ancestral lands. They can and will make room for some outsiders. But from a spiritual and environmental perspective, they have not abandoned the beliefs, concerns or respect for long term and balanced land use. Many will agree with them, including the asangpas muigeni still remaining in the hills and hoping to protect the surrounding fish and animals. Furthermore, the Nicaraguan state owes a historical debt to the Mayagna nation. Their lands should not be levelled through industrial interest, investment or corrupt sales beyond the control of the indigenous territorial government. The current situation could, once again, draw in international human rights. But certainly and perhaps more efficiently, the situation invites serious dialogue between government officials and community leaders. The Awas Tingni community should be the protagonists in decisions concerning the regulation of their territory, but they may once again require experience,  assistance and support from legal and academic actors and national and international organisations, in order to maintain a degree of communal autonomy and self-determination that they have fought so hard for over so many years.     


Ted Macdonald is a Lecturer in Social Studies and Faculty Affiliate at DRCLAS, Harvard University. He has worked directly on Latin American indigenous rights issues and cases since 1980. Currently and in collaboration with Kichwa Indian community leaders, he is preparing an ethnographic history of territorial rights and self-determination in the Ecuadorian Amazon.


Julie Wetterslev is a Ph.D. researcher in Law at the European University Institute in Florence. She has worked with social issues and human rights in Latin America for fifteen years, and is currently researching the titling of lands as indigenous territories on Nicaragua's Caribbean Coast.

Acompañando una búsqueda hacia la autodeterminación

Mayagna Awas Tingni y los derechos de tierras indígenas en Nicaragua

Por Ted Macdonald y Julie Wetterslev


En agosto de 2001, la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos dictó una decisión histórica sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas en el caso Mayangna (Sumo) Awas Tingni v. Nicaragua. El caso provocó el reconocimiento nacional e internacional de los derechos de tierras indígenas y desencadenó un amplio proceso de demarcación y titulación de tierras como propiedad indígena en la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua. Aunque la comunidad Mayangna en Awas Tingni finalmente recibió un título de propiedad colectiva sobre 73,349 hectáreas de tierra en 2008, este título de tierra no ha impedido la pérdida continua de su control sobre las tierras y los recursos.


La pequeña comunidad Mayangna de Awas Tingni en el bosque interior de la costa caribe de Nicaragua marcó la historia legal en la década de los 1990 cuando se enfrentó a la incursión de una empresa internacional maderera. La comunidad delimitó sus reclamos territoriales y presentó el caso: primero ante los tribunales nacionales, y después frente a la Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH).

En la CIDH, la comunidad ganó la demanda de derechos "territoriales" basada en sus patrones culturales e históricos del uso de la tierra. La decisión no solo respaldó a la comunidad de Awas Tingni, sino que también amplió el concepto de "propiedad" en América Latina para incluir a los territorios indígenas tradicionalmente utilizados para la caza y la pesca, así como la agricultura y la residencia. Desde entonces, la decisión ha influido en numerosos casos relacionados en la jurisprudencia indígena desarrollada por el tribunal de derechos humanos más alto de las Américas.  

Sin embargo, a pesar del apoyo del tribunal, la capacidad de la comunidad Mayangna para hacer realidad sus derechos se ha visto sofocada por retrasos en la titulación, incursiones de colonos y respuestas deficientes de las autoridades. En consecuencia, los colonos no indígenas han penetrado el territorio a través de fronteras permeables, asentándose, reclamando e incluso comerciando grandes partes del territorio de Awas Tingni. 

Si bien los derechos de tierra y recursos han sido reconocidos y adjudicados, tanto el gobierno como otros actores continúan argumentando que la gente de Awas Tingni tiene "demasiada tierra" y que "no les pertenece". Los representantes de Awas Tingni rechazan estos argumentos. Diferencias como estas son comunes, y la mayoría de la población podría percibirlas como un simple caso de oposición estatal ante los derechos de las minorías. Pero tal vez esto también se trate de un malentendido cultural. 

Después de viajar e interactuar con la gente local, nosotros — Ted Macdonald, antropólogo, y Julie Wetterslev, investigadora de tesis doctoral en derecho —contextualizamos los conflictos actuales sobre la tierra en Awas Tingni y la región del Caribe Norte. Junto con el abogado de derechos humanos James Anaya, quien se convirtió en el consejero principal de la comunidad Mayangna ante la CIDH, Ted Macdonald fue un observador oficial durante las negociaciones de paz en Nicaragua en la década de los 80. Posteriormente, Macdonald colaboró con la comunidad Mayangna en el mapeo de sus reclamos en la década de los años 90. Aquí detalló las percepciones culturales que fundamentan el "uso y ocupación tradicional" de Awas Tingni, que fueron aceptadas por el derecho internacional. A continuación, la narrativa se concentra en el cumplimiento de esta sentencia. Después de su reciente viaje y conversación con los residentes de esta área, Julie Wetterslev analiza los problemas provocados por los retrasos en el cumplimiento por el gobierno y las instituciones de Nicaragua, en las dificultades que surgieron a través del proceso de titulación, y en los resultados de la invasión de colonos o terceros mestizos. Sugerimos la necesidad de respetar los derechos de la comunidad y recomendamos el diálogo y la participación pública en el ejercicio de esos derechos. 

Nosotros contamos la historia de la aceptación de las tierras como propiedad indígena y mostramos lo que eso ha significado, al resaltar las diferencias entre la situación actual en la comunidad Awas Tingni con la de hace quince años.


Reclamos territoriales indígenas sobre la costa caribe de Nicaragua

En Nicaragua, la indigeneidad se ha vinculado a menudo a la Costa Caribe, mientras que la cultura mestiza que predomina en la costa del Pacífico ha sido promovida como la cultura nicaragüense per se. De forma ilustrativa, en 1979 los rebeldes Sandinistas derrocaron al gobierno del general Anastasio Somoza, poniendo fin a una de las dictaduras más largas y corruptas de América Latina. Gran parte del mundo aplaudió estos hechos. Pero poco después, los grupos de derecha llamados los Contras comenzaron una oposición política violenta, apoyada por el gobierno del expresidente estadounidense Ronald Reagan. Aunque la mayor parte de su atención estaba dirigida hacia las tierras altas y densamente pobladas del occidente, el combate también afectó a los densos bosques orientales habitados principalmente por pueblos indígenas que vivían en relativa autonomía. La confusión y el conflicto creció a medida que los líderes indígenas buscaban conservar un grado de autonomía y derechos a la tierra, mientras que el gobierno Sandinista trabajaba para conservar el control político y económico en todo el territorio nacional.

Los líderes Sandinistas eran en su mayoría de la costa pacífica, y en sus propias palabras no sabían mucho sobre los grupos en la costa caribe ni de sus idiomas, formas de vida, o sistemas de uso de la tierra. Cuando los grupos indígenas se resistieron a las políticas de tierras promovidas por el Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), los Sandinistas comenzaron a tratarlos como contrarrevolucionarios y luchar contra ellos. Sin embargo, en octubre de 1984 dieron comienzo las discusiones formales de paz en Nicaragua, y continuaron en Colombia y México. Finalmente, a finales de la década de 1980, el gobierno Sandinista estaba dispuesto a reconocer que los intereses indígenas no eran una simple oposición política. Las negociaciones de paz condujeron a la constitución de 1987 que creó regiones autónomas costeñas y reconoció tanto la naturaleza distintiva y la organización de las comunidades costeñas del Caribe, como sus derechos comunales a la tierra y los recursos naturales. Sin embargo, como otras leyes y acuerdos formales que se han hecho con los pueblos indígenas, éstos se vieron afectados por el incumplimiento y la falta de observancia, además de la falta de verdadera apreciación y aceptación de las diferencias culturales, particularmente cuando se trata de reclamos territoriales. Awas Tingni es un excelente ejemplo de este fenómeno, tanto en aquel entonces como ahora.


¿Cuál es nuestra propiedad?   Mapeando el territorio indígena (Ted Macdonald)

En marzo de 1995, cuatro hombres Mayangna y yo remamos en el río Wawa desde Awas Tingni para llegar al antiguo asentamiento de Tuburús. En el camino visitamos, discutimos y marcamos con un dispositivo GPS los sitios que los Mayangna consideraban importantes cultural e históricamente. Estábamos preparando un estudio territorial y un mapa relacionado, como antecedentes para la titulación de tierras comunitarias, llevando a cabo parte de un acuerdo gubernamental firmado después de la disputa que se narra a continuación.

En 1992, una empresa maderera nicaragüense-dominicana, MADENSA, obtuvo una concesión del Ministerio de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (MARENA) para registrar maderas duras en una superficie de 43.000 hectáreas al otro lado del río de Awas Tingni, ignorando el reconocimiento constitucional de las organizaciones indígenas y sus derechos a la tierra y los recursos naturales. En contraste con la costa norte del Caribe de Nicaragua, sabanas pobladas en gran parte por los indígenas Miskitu, las tierras pobladas por los Mayangnas estaban en el interior boscoso, aisladas y escasamente habitadas.  Enfrentándose a concesiones otorgadas dentro de las tierras que habitaban y trabajaban, los líderes comunitarios buscaron ayuda. 

Con el apoyo del Fondo Mundial para la Naturaleza (WWF) y los abogados de derechos indígenas James Anaya y Todd Crider, los residentes negociaron un acuerdo más justo y mutuamente aceptable para la gestión forestal sostenible y la distribución equitativa de los beneficios, que se firmó en mayo de 1994. Como parte de este proceso, los líderes de Awas Tingni buscaron la titulación formal de sus tierras para evitar disputas futuras. Anaya me pidió que ayudara a documentar, etnográfica y geográficamente, cómo los residentes de Awas Tingni definieron y justificaron sus fronteras.

Después de haber vivido con pueblos indígenas en la Amazonía ecuatoriana, había visto cómo delimitaban el territorio y trataban con los forasteros, parcialmente como un medio para enfrentar las industrias extractivas, pero principalmente para defender de forma cultural y espiritual su acceso a pescar y cazar, definir su comunidad y lidiar con el movimiento a través de las fronteras.

Después de caminar desde la carretera más cercana a Awas Tingni (un tramo de dos horas en ese entonces), unos aldeanos me recibieron con un saludo cálido y conversación cordial. Revisamos el bosquejo preparado anteriormente por los líderes de Awas Tingni (véase la figura 1). Dado que este mapa no tenía indicadores direccionales, escala o líneas de latitud y longitud, utilizamos una herramienta que era novedosa en ese momento, un dispositivo GPS Magellan portátil, para proporcionar precisión. Los comunitarios entendieron rápidamente el enlace a las señales satelitales. Aunque muchos solo habían recibido una educación primaria, observaban los cielos nocturnos regularmente y ya habían diferenciado el destello de estrellas constantes, los aviones en rápido movimiento y los satélites más lentos que emitían las señales GPS.  

Para ver cómo el GPS registraba el movimiento, un grupo grande y curioso caminó conmigo desde la escuela hasta la iglesia y la asta de la bandera, tomando puntos de referencia con el GPS. Cuando sugerí que simplemente camináramos por el perímetro del mapa de bocetos, marcado por una línea rota, me informaron cortésmente que estaba demasiado lejos para caminar y que no había sendero. El perímetro había sido determinado por su mente colectiva y por lugares estratégicos como los cruces fluviales. La extensión de la zona no estaba clara, pero el mapeo posterior mostró que el territorio era de aproximadamente 280 millas cuadradas, difícilmente un perímetro a deambular. 

Entonces, ¿Cómo deberíamos mapear? Las conversaciones iniciales condujeron a pocos detalles útiles, entre ellos, señalar los símbolos de colinas, ríos y casas. Los símbolos de vivienda, por supuesto, incluían el grupo de casas a lo largo del arroyo Awas Tingni, pero también una agrupación más pequeña río arriba cerca del límite designado llamado Tuburús. Los residentes explicaron que la mayor parte de la comunidad había vivido allí hasta 1945, cuando ocurrió una epidemia de sarampión, y el pastor Moravo local había recomendado que se trasladaran a tierras desocupadas río abajo. La mayoría lo hizo, pero algunas familias arraigadas permanecieron en Tuburús mientras que otros retuvieron residencias estacionales. Así que, para tener una idea de los límites territoriales, los líderes comunitarios Charlie McClean y Jaime Castillo sugirieron que nos dirigiéramos río arriba por unos días. A partir de entonces, simples conversaciones condujeron a un gran flujo de información etnográfica y explicaciones claras de cómo la tierra y los recursos habían sido reclamados y asegurados.

Antes de la salida, hicimos nuestro último paseo por el pueblo con el GPS.  Por alguna razón, el dispositivo se detuvo. Entonces, un adolescente llamado William Simón, tocó mi hombro para alertarme que había olvidado presionar la contraseña adecuada. Habiendo observado y aprendido con facilidad, nos preguntó si él y su buen amigo, Vicente Salomón, podían acompañarnos. Estuvimos de acuerdo, y ambos fueron entrenados fácilmente para usar el dispositivo. 

A la mañana siguiente, un poco de historia surgió mientras descendíamos a la orilla del río. Dos AK-47 (armas de asalto) estaban recostadas en unas canoas. Charlie y Jaime explicaron que eran sobras del conflicto de la década de los años 80. En ese momento Charlie se había quedado en Awas Tingni, pero Jaime había cruzado el Río Coco para unirse a la rebelión planeada desde Honduras. A pesar de sus diferentes afinidades durante la guerra, dijeron que actualmente la comunidad estaba unida de nuevo, y las armas eran simplemente para cazar.

También habían decidido viajar con pocas provisiones, recogiendo comida en el jardín, cazando y pescando a lo largo del río Wawa. A medida que remábamos río arriba, pasamos numerosas parcelas de jardín, con plantas domésticas a la vista. William estacionó las canoas, saltó, recogió plátanos y fruta de palma de una casa abandonada, y luego dedicó un tiempo para detener el crecimiento de matorrales en los alrededores de la casa y el jardín. Esto ocurrió en varias instancias, con personas diferentes bajando de la canoa cada vez. Me explicaron que los sitios habían sido asentamientos secundarios ocupados anteriormente por familiares de la persona que se bajaba de la canoa para limpiar. Hicieron visitas similares durante los viajes de caza y pesca. Cada lugar, me explicaron, estaba marcado por una palma de coco, y funcionaba como una parcela familiar tradicional y una tumba, de la que los parientes podían recoger alimentos y, por respeto, limpiar la tierra adyacente. Por lo tanto, cada ubicación estaba marcada por el GPS como el sitio sagrado que era.

Mientras remábamos, Charlie preguntó si en el bosque amazónico había colinas como las que ilustraba el mapa. Les dije que las había, y que las colinas eran importantes. Los espíritus del bosque residían dentro. Con entusiasmo, respondieron que así ocurría también en sus bosques. Luego me explicaron en voz baja que, aunque eran miembros de la Iglesia protestante de Moravia, muchos de los ancianos todavía mantenían estrechos lazos espirituales con los espíritus del bosque, llamados Asangpas Muigeni, quienes, junto con algunos antepasados fundadores, vivían dentro de las colinas. Estos lazos eran esenciales porque los espíritus eran los maestros de los peces y la caza circundantes. Las relaciones cercanas y respetuosas entre los ancianos de la comunidad y los espíritus determinaron el acceso a esos recursos. Explicaron que cada una de las comunidades vecinas tenía relaciones similares con los espíritus en las colinas cercanas. Así, los territorios y límites comunitarios coincidían con los dominios de los espíritus forestales de cada zona. Los vecinos Mayangna podían entrar, cazar y pescar con permiso local. Pero ese no fue el caso, dijeron, con una familia Miskitu irrespetuosa, que se había establecido recientemente en la orilla norte del Wawa. Vimos a una familia arreglando el jardín de una gran parcela que habían despejado y cortando una palma de coco en una tumba. Río arriba, en un acantilado alto lejos del río habían de siete a diez casas Miskitu en un grupo conocido como La Esperanza, de cuyos residentes se decía que estaban talando cerca.

Después de llegar a Tuburús, pasamos dos días visitando a familiares de miembros de la comunidad y observando los patrones agrícolas a lo largo de la orilla fértil colindante. Catorce viviendas, algunas ocupadas permanentemente, otras, asentamientos secundarios, estaban enclavadas cerca de las colinas, los espíritus del bosque, y las presas de caza. Por las noches, los residentes detallaban los encuentros anteriores con los Asangpas Muigeni, quienes proporcionan acceso a la caza, pero desalientan la matanza excesiva, manteniendo así equilibrios ambientales. Volviendo a Awas Tingni, medimos las parcelas de jardín locales y visitamos a varios ancianos que interpretaron sus relaciones espirituales de maneras similares. Nos contaron que los hombres más jóvenes también tenían relaciones similares, independientemente de la llegada y la influencia de la Iglesia de Moravia.

El equipo, ahora refiriéndose a sí mismos como Los Elefantes, inspirados en las imágenes de contactos anteriores con la WWF, dijo que le gustaría reunir más puntos de referencia antes de mi próxima visita. Así que decidí dejar el GPS y las baterías de repuesto con los dos chicos. Los dos chicos dudaron mi decisión; me explicaron que, como miembros de la comunidad, se esperaba que compartieran las cosas, y que los demás sin duda pedirían las baterías GPS para sus radios. Sugerí que simplemente explicaran que estaban guardando las baterías de un forastero y no podían distribuir su propiedad, ambos sonrieron en acuerdo. Les di a los chicos un cuaderno para que apunten cualquier punto intermedio que identificaran.  

A mi regreso unas semanas más tarde, los Elefantes me dijeron que a lo largo de un gran viaje comunitario de caza y pesca habían visitado muchas tumbas y viajado tierra adentro a las colinas sagradas, marcándolas y definiéndolas con más de 150 puntos de referencia. Ilustrando sus relaciones con los espíritus, añadieron que mientras subían una colina alta llamada Kimak, el GPS se averió, permaneciendo apagado hasta su descenso. Como no habían pedido el permiso del Asangpas Muigeni de esa colina,  pensaron que él debía haber paralizado el dispositivo. Los espíritus eran claramente reales para ellos. 

Acto seguido, obtuvimos un mapa detallado del gobierno regional y procedimos a marcar los puntos de referencia, anotar su significado y entender el espacio en un sentido cartográfico. Después de otras reuniones con los ancianos, el trabajo parecía estar completo.

De vuelta en Cambridge, Estados Unidos, los técnicos transfirieron los datos a un mapa SIG (Sistema de información geográfico) basado en computadora (véase el mapa 2), que delimitaba los sectores territoriales según los grupos domésticos y las parcelas de jardín de subsistencia adyacentes, marcando sectores agrícolas de primera calidad a lo largo del río, destacando muchas de las tumbas y zonas de caza y pesca determinadas por las colinas habitadas por espíritus. De esta manera se estableció el territorio, y su lógica se detalló en un estudio etnográfico adjunto. Aparentemente habíamos terminado el trabajo.  

Pero, durante el regreso a Awas Tingni con los mapas finales, un conductor en ruta al pueblo me explicó que tenía que dejarle algo de comer a un amigo que estaba trabajando junto a la carretera. Allí, sorprendentemente, su amigo y varios otros obreros estaban colocando una plataforma de cemento que se convertiría, dijeron, en un área de almacenamiento para que la madera fuera registrada por una empresa maderera coreana. Aún más sorprendente, casi nadie en Awas Tingni sabía más detalles sobre este asunto. Al regresar a los Estados Unidos, llamé a James Anaya. En preocupación e intriga, Anaya rápidamente programó un viaje a Nicaragua. Él y la abogada nicaragüense María Luisa Acosta se enteraron que a pesar de las negociaciones anteriores de MADENSA en marcha, un proyecto maderero coreano llamado Sol del Caribe, S.A (SOLCARSA) estaba hablando con MARENA sobre una concesión de tala aún mayor (15,500 acres /6 3.000 hectáreas) en el corazón del territorio de Awas Tingni (ver el mapa, figura 3). No obstante, el gobierno no estaba dispuesto a negociar en esta ocasión, argumentando que Awas Tingni estaba exigiendo demasiado. Anaya, el abogado principal, llevó la demanda ante el Tribunal Regional de Apelaciones de Matagalpa, donde se rechazó la demanda. Lo mismo ocurrió en la Corte Suprema de Nicaragua. Mientras tanto, los cazadores de Tingni observaban a los trabajadores marcando árboles en sus tierras. 

Después de haber agotado todos los recursos legales locales, el 2 de octubre de 1995, la comunidad presentó una demanda a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos en Washington, D.C., quien aceptó. Dado que la Comisión no puede sancionar ni multar, buscaron negociaciones mutuas y un "acuerdo amistoso". En ese momento, escribe Anaya, el mapa y el informe etnográfico pasó de una base simple para la discusión sobre la titulación de la tierra, a un elemento clave de un procedimiento legal contencioso. Así, en Cambridge y previendo los posibles desafíos emergentes, el informe se actualizó con dos tipos de investigación histórica: fuentes escritas (historia lingüística y política) de bibliotecas, y arqueología regional. Esta última se añadió en colaboración con el profesor de Harvard, William William Fash, uno de los más reconocidos arqueólogos mesoamericanos. No se encontraron documentos contradictorios ni reclamaciones de tierras en conflicto. Además, dado que la totalidad de la historia local tendría que ser reconstruida a través del relato oral, Brian Shillinglaw (entonces estudiante de Estudios Sociales de Harvard y posteriormente académico de la Escuela de Derecho de Stanford) preparó un documento de investigación sobre los antecedentes y la legitimidad de la historia oral para evitar cuestionamiento alguno de que la evidencia se basaba en “opinión”.

Los funcionarios de gobierno y los miembros de la comunidad se reunieron, pero no se efectuó ningún acuerdo. El 13 de marzo de 1996, a pesar de leer el informe etnográfico y los mapas, el gobierno descartó la petición de la Comisión, y firmó un acuerdo con SOLCARSA, alegando qué, aunque se extendia la concesion sobre parte del territorio, Awas Tingni reclamaba "demasiado tierra”. Incluso después de anularse la concesión de SOLCARSA por MARENA, la actitud oficial del gobierno en las reuniones de la Comisión no cambió. En marzo de 1998, la Comisión presentó un informe confidencial en el que afirmaba que Nicaragua había violado efectivamente los derechos humanos de Awas Tingni. Según la Comisión, debido a que Awas Tingni no tenía derecho seguro a sus tierras, Nicaragua estaba violando la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos. El gobierno no dio una respuesta clara. Por ende, la Comisión envió el caso a la CIDH en San José, Costa Rica.

Antes de que efectuara la audiencia con los jueces, parecía que MARENA se disponía en tornar a las comunidades vecinas de Miskitu en contra las exigencias de Awas Tingni. Las tensiones aumentaron. María Luisa Acosta, del equipo legal, y Armstrong Wiggins, miembro Miskitu del Indian Law Resource Center, con sede en Washington, visitaron las comunidades y lograron que la mayoría de ellas firmaran un amicus curiae que apoyaba a Awas Tingni. El gobierno, citando sus propios criterios de tierra definidos por el estado, rápidamente respondió que el territorio era demasiado grande y afirmó que la comunidad Awas Tingni lo habitaba solo desde la década de 1940. No obstante, durante el juicio la Comisión se fundamentó con tenacidad en la investigación etnográfica e histórica y las convenciones internacionales sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas. Después de dos días y medio en la corte (16-18 de noviembre de 2000), las audiencias terminaron. Durante los comentarios de cierre, el abogado principal de Nicaragua, Eduardo Castillo, preguntó cómo era posible que una comunidad con escasos recursos educativos mapeara sus tierras con un dispositivo de operación tan sofisticada. Contesté mostrándole lo fácil que era utilizar, y luego uno de los principales abogados de la Comisión se puso de pie y argumentó que la actitud peyorativa de Castillo reflejaba algunos de los sentimientos interétnicos subyacentes responsables de este caso. 

Aproximadamente un año después, el tribunal juzgó formalmente que Nicaragua no había efectuado los cambios acorde a la Convención Americana sobre Derechos Humanos y la constitución de Nicaragua. El 31 de agosto de 2001, la Corte escribió que había aceptado la opinión de Awas Tingni sobre la propiedad y, por lo tanto, había ampliado significativamente la definición de propiedad en la Convención Americana de Derechos Humanos. Es importante destacar que la Corte también ordenó a Nicaragua que titulara todas las demás tierras reclamadas por las comunidades indígenas del país. 

En resumen, Awas Tingni ganó. La interpretación cultural de un territorio fue aceptada. La Corte dio al estado de Nicaragua quince meses para titular la tierra. Pero no fue sino hasta siete años después, el 13 de diciembre de 2008, que la comunidad Awas Tingni recibió el título. Este periodo contó con varios percances, como Julie Wetterslev detalla a continuación.


El proceso de titulación: Trazando límites y haciendo propiedad de la tierra (Julie Wetterslev)

Tras la sentencia en 2001 de la CIDH, y después de una movilización extensa de defensores de los derechos humanos y la sociedad civil, funcionarios gubernamentales y técnicos del Banco Mundial emprendieron en delimitar el territorio Awas Tingni y todos los demás territorios indígenas y afrodescendientes de la Costa Caribe. En consulta con las comunidades interesadas, se esforzaron por forjar "una nueva comprensión de la propiedad que correspondiera mejor a la cosmovisión de los pueblos costeños". Estas reflexiones se incorporaron en un proceso legislativo. Así, dos años después de que se dictara la sentencia del CIDH, la legislatura nicaragüense adoptó una ley integral (Ley No. 445, Ley del Régimen de Propiedad Comunal de los Pueblos Indígenas y Comunidades Étnicas de las Regiones Autónomas de la Costa Atlántica de Nicaragua y los Ríos Bocay, Coco, Indio y Maíz, 2003). Esta ley prescribe cinco fases en el proceso de reconocimiento y formalización de los derechos de propiedad indígena: demarcación, resolución de conflictos, demarcación, titulación y saneamiento.

La Ley No. 445 también condujo a la institucionalización del proceso de demarcación y titulación mediante la creación de dos comisiones: la Comisión Nacional de Demarcación y Titulación (CONADETI), y la Comisión Intersectorial de Demarcación y Titulación (CIDT). La comunidad Awas Tingni presentó su solicitud de titulación al CIDT en noviembre de 2003, la primera solicitud que se hizo en virtud de la nueva ley. 

Antropólogos, cartógrafos y funcionarios gubernamentales trabajaron con muchas comunidades costeñas para mapear las tierras a detalle, en cooperación con los miembros de las comunidades y de acuerdo con las creencias y convicciones tradicionales. Mapas detallados de los territorios reclamados por las diferentes comunidades sentaron las bases para la demarcación, un proceso en el que los límites entre los territorios fueron definidos y marcados con mojones de cemento (piedras limitantes). Todo este proceso no era sencillo en absoluto, ya que requería que las comunidades vecinas, a menudo con fronteras permeables e inestables entre ellas, establecieran líneas territoriales más definidas.

El proceso de demarcación y titulación en Awas Tingni se complicó por las reivindicaciones superpuestas a la tierra hechas por tres comunidades Miskito vecinas: Francia Sirpi, Santa Clara, y La Esperanza (conocida colectivamente como Tasba Raya). Después de un proceso más extenso de solución de disputas, la Comisión de Demarcación resolvió el problema que afectaba a más de 41.000 hectáreas de tierra, concediendo casi 20.000 de esos hectáreas a la comunidad Awas Tingni, y dividiendo por igual las 50.000 hectáreas restantes entre las tres comunidades Miskitu.

Durante la etapa de solución de disputas, los distintos gobiernos en poder en Nicaragua fueron acusados a menudo por las comunidades indígenas y las organizaciones en protección de los derechos de los indígenas de utilizar los conflictos intercomunitarios como pretexto para abstenerse de titular las tierras como territorios. A menudo, los estados desarrollistas se resisten a perder el dominio sobre tierras abundantes de recursos.

La solución a las controversias sobre Awas Tingni coincidió con el regreso de los Sandinistas al poder en Nicaragua en 2007. En la Costa Caribe, el FSLN había hecho una alianza electoral con el partido indigenista YATAMA, proporcionando un nuevo estímulo al proceso de titulación. En diciembre de 2008, siete años después de la sentencia del CIDH, el estado nicaragüense transmitió a Levito Jhonatan McLean, como representante de la Comunidad Awas Tingni, un título de propiedad de 73.394 hectáreas de tierra. El territorio fue llamado AMASAU—Awas Tingni Mayagnina Sauni Umani (la tierra del pueblo Mayagna en Awas Tingni).

En 2009, una delegación de la comunidad Awas Tingni viajó a San José, Costa Rica, para confirmar en una audiencia ante la Corte Interamericana que sus tierras habían sido tituladas. La CIDH elogió a Nicaragua por cumplir plenamente con su sentencia. Hacia 2017, un total de 23 territorios indígenas y afrodescendientes fueron titulados en la Costa Caribe, cubriendo el 33% del territorio de Nicaragua y 54.7% de las tierras de la Costa Caribe. Formalmente, las cosas se veían bien. 

Sin embargo, a pesar de la titulación de la tierra, los defensores de derechos humanos y los líderes indígenas se han quejado reiteradamente de la falta de saneamiento, es decir, el proceso de determinar y resolver la situación jurídica de terceros no indígenas en un territorio determinado. Esto fue evidente cuando visité Awas Tingni.


Falta de saneamiento y la colonización acelerada

En octubre de 2017, viajé por el río Wawa con líderes de la comunidad Mayangna para visitar a algunos de los colonos en el territorio de AMASAU. Estaba realizando trabajo de campo para mi tesis doctoral sobre la titulación de territorios indígenas en Awas Tingni, y los líderes Mayangna sugirieron que viajaramos río arriba. Awas Tingni se había convertido en mi caso de estudio principal, debido a las abundantes referencias al caso en la jurisprudencia indígena y en la literatura académica sobre los derechos a la tierra indígena, y debido a la relativa falta de escritura académica sobre la evolución del territorio posterior a la titulación. Los líderes me habían invitado a patrullar el territorio con ellos para entender mejor la situación.

Durante los primeros kilómetros, pasamos otras canoas con gente pescando de manera relajada. Los saludamos a ellos y a otros miembros de la comunidad que trabajaban a la orilla del río en pequeños claros entre los árboles altos de ceiba y cahoba.

Un poco más río arriba, más allá de los alrededores inmediatos de la aldea de Awas Tingni, el ambiente se volvió notablemente tenso. A medida que nos pasaban las lanchas, ya no se intercambiaban saludos. Alfons Simmons, secretario del gobierno territorial indígena y Danelia Pedro Salomón, representante de Awas Tingni ante la Nación Mayangna, me explicó que los de estos barcos eran colonos. A partir de entonces, comenzaron a señalar claros en la orilla del río que no habían sido hechos por los Mayangna, ilustrando así una causa principal de las disputas.

El gobierno territorial de Awas Tingni ha documentado que la evidente mayoría del territorio de AMASAU está ocupado actualmente por colonos de otras regiones de Nicaragua. En 2008, cuando las tierras fueron tituladas, sólo unas cuarenta familias de colonos extranjeros estaban presentes en el territorio. En 2012, cuando los líderes comunitarios hicieron una gran encuesta en el territorio en cooperación con la agencia española de desarrollo AECID, una organización colombiana de derechos humanos, y varias agencias estatales de Nicaragua, encontraron un total de 412 familias de colonos.

Hacia 2019, el gobierno territorial indígena estima la presencia de más de 1.000 familias de colonos en su territorio legalmente reconocido y titulado. Como las familias Mayangna de Awas Tingni sólo aproximan un total de 200, la población local ha sido gradualmente superada en número, y ahora está literalmente rodeada de colonos. Hoy en día, se estima que los colonos controlan alrededor del 90% de las tierras que fueron tituladas a favor de la comunidad Mayangna.

Los líderes Mayangna patrullan su territorio a menudo, portando armas porque, como dicen, los colonos están armados, y nunca se sabe lo que podrían hacer. En nuestro viaje visitamos sólo aquellos colonos con los que los líderes Mayangna tienen una relación relativamente amistosa. Otras partes del territorio incluso se han convertido en casi zonas impenetrables para los Mayangna, debido a problemas de seguridad, lo que les dificulta monitorear la situación del territorio. A mí me dijeron, casi con esperanza, "Tal vez puedas volver en otro momento, y podamos traer al ejército."


Derechos y uso de tierras emergentes dentro del territorio

Los Mayangna me explicaron que el inicio de las ventas ilegales de tierras y la llegada de los colonos a la zona coincidían estrechamente con la adjudicación del título de tierra colectiva en Awas Tingni. Unas dos semanas después de que Awas Tingni recibiera su título colectivo en una ceremonia en diciembre de 2008, un colectivo de excombatientes (YATAMA) que residían en el sur del territorio (en ese entonces, los único no Mayangnas presentes en el territorio) vendieron alrededor de 12.000 hectáreas de la tierra a una empresa maderera francesa llamada MAPINICSA S.A.  en un acuerdo ilegal de tierras hecho el 1 de enero de 2009. MAPINICSA había obtenido los fondos para su adquisición e inversiones a través del Banco Mundial y la IFC (International Finance Corporation) que estaban llevando a cabo un proyecto de apoyo a la silvicultura en la Región del Caribe Norte tras la destrucción del huracán Félix. 

Incluso antes de que la venta de tierras se considerara ilegal, y antes de que los líderes de Awas Tingni hubieran iniciado negociaciones con la empresa sobre su presencia en el territorio, el proyecto MAPINICSA había construido una carretera en la parte sur del territorio para transportar madera. Esta carretera pronto se convirtió en un punto de entrada para otros colonos que desde entonces han llegado en un flujo constante, a veces a pie, a veces con vehículos y a menudo con un rebaño de ganado. Una vez que una familia de colonos ha llegado, a menudo les cuentan a otras familias en su tierra natal acerca de la abundancia y disponibilidad de tierras alrededor de Awas Tingni. De esta manera ha evolucionado una red de asentamientos.

Los colonos en el territorio de AMASAU no son un grupo uniforme. Muchas son familias de escasos recursos, que entran en el territorio en busca de una vida mejor. Sin embargo, algunos de los terceros no residen ahí, sino que simplemente invierten económicamente en la tierra y emplean a familias campesinas menos ricas para proteger sus inversiones. Estos tienen grandes capacidades económicas, o mantienen vínculos con personas más adineradas.

Las familias que visitamos en este viaje eran campesinos humildes; sin embargo, han despejado más terreno que los Mayangna en sus pequeñas fincas familiares con agricultura de tala y quema. En las tierras ocupadas por los colonos, numerosos tocones de árboles se encuentran como puntos negros en los campos verdes abiertos, con caminos que conducen a casas que son más grandes que las simples casas de zancos de los Mayangna. Dentro de las casas de los colonos, vimos recipientes con fertilizantes químicos y montones de maíz seco en el suelo de la tierra, destinado a alimentar al ganado.

La llegada de los colonos y la consecuente alteración de la tierra y el ecosistema ha obstaculizado seriamente las posibilidades de los Mayangna en Awas Tingni para cazar y pescar. La tasa de deforestación se ha intensificado rápidamente a medida que los colonos despejan los bosques para el pasturaje y la plantación de granos. Presas como el jabalí y los monos desaparecen cuando el bosque es talado y el río se ve afectado por los productos químicos y los residuos fecales de humanos y ganado que se desplazan hacia los ríos con las lluvias.

Al visitar a los colonos, los líderes Mayangna me pidieron que transmitiera a ellos una de sus preocupaciones principales ... que se dejara de despejar el bosque a lo largo de las orillas del río. Esta práctica aumenta el riesgo de que el río desborde sus orillas durante la temporada de lluvias, lo que puede dar lugar a deslizamientos de lodo, empeorando los efectos de desastres naturales como el Huracán Mitch de 1998 y el Huracán Félix de 2007. Además, al talar árboles a la orilla del río, el sistema de filtración natural se daña y el agua del río se contamina. También la retención de agua de los árboles es una protección de que los ríos no se sequen. 

El cambio de la biosfera no es accidental. Si bien la titulación de la tierra estaba destinada a proporcionar seguridad y estabilidad a las comunidades indígenas, los conflictos sobre la tierra y sus recursos se han intensificado tanto en AMASAU como en otros territorios de la Costa Norte del Caribe en los años después de su efectuación. Aproximadamente cuarenta miembros de comunidades indígenas en la región han muerto en conflictos entre colonos y comunidades en los últimos años, y los conflictos de tierras son particularmente agudos en los territorios adyacentes a Awas Tingni. En la propia AMASAU, un acontecimiento especialmente doloroso tuvo lugar en 2012, cuando colonos armados mataron a un miembro de la comunidad en Tuburús, considerado el lugar de asentamiento ancestral de los Mayangna. El incidente provocó la reubicación de la comunidad Tuburús a la aldea de Awas Tingni y el abandono de estas tierras ancestrales por parte de los Mayangna. En otras zonas, la presencia de colonos armados ha hecho que sea demasiado peligroso para los Mayangna cultivar y cosechar sus tierras. 

Por lo tanto, la llegada masiva de colonos está amenazando el sistema ancestral y sustentable de propiedad, basado en la familia dentro del territorio comunal. Los Mayangna trabajan la tierra y cultivan alimentos en las fincas familiares. Ellos consideran suyas estas parcelas, a pesar de la falta de registro formal. Tanto sus hijos como ellos, en el pasado y en las generaciones venideras, tienen el acuerdo comunitario del derecho de usufructos para trabajar su tierra y vivir de ella. Estos patrones tradicionales de tenencia comunitaria no causaron problemas en el pasado. Debido a que la tierra era abundante, los miembros de la comunidad tradicionalmente despejaban una pequeña parcela en el bosque, poniendo en práctica una versión ambientalmente razonable de tala y quema en rotación. Las parcelas para este patrón de uso agrícola se entendían anteriormente como tierra familiar. Otros respetaban esto a través de derechos de usufructo basados en comunidad (no escritos). Sin embargo, con la llegada de los colonos, la tierra escasea por la aglomeración y la tala, convirtiéndose así en un preciado recurso, y no solo una pasión. En consecuencia, han surgido conflictos internos dentro de la comunidad Mayangna, además de las disputas más obvias con forasteros que invaden el sistema de uso de la tierra de Mayangna. 

En nuestras visitas a los colonos río arriba, los líderes Mayangna también me pidieron educadamente que los colonos demostraran sus "títulos" o “avales” a la tierra. Muchos lo hicieron. Estos "documentos de aval" eran a menudo simples acuerdos escritos a mano con precios variables para la tierra y sellos o firmas, ya sean reales o falsificados, de algunas autoridades comunitarias.

Otras autoridades de la comunidad en Awas Tingni han denunciado la venta ilegal y la compra de parcelas comunitarias de tierra, presentando más de 200 acusaciones ante la policía y las cortes. Las respuestas oficiales han sido limitadas. Aunque el gobierno formó una Comisión Interinstitucional liderada por la fiscal general para investigar la venta ilegal, y aunque las autoridades estatales participaron en la gran encuesta realizada en AMASAU en 2012, las respuestas por parte de gobiernos nacionales regionales frente a la colonización acelerada de la región del Caribe Norte son considerada deficiente por las comunidades y los órganos de derechos humanos. De hecho, algunos afirman que el gobierno brinde apoya a las comunidades de colonos. Por ejemplo, permitiendo que fondos del Ministerio de Educación lleguen a las escuelas de las nuevas comunidades de colonos y proporcionando placas de zinc para sus viviendas y programas de vacunación a las comunidades colonas, así como a las comunidades indígenas.

Los colonos mestizos en el territorio compran sus títulos de tierra no oficiales a través de una gama de diferentes contactos, incluyendo funcionarios municipales y regionales - y a veces los miembros de la comunidad Mayangna también se involucran en estas negociaciones ilegales. La participación de algunos miembros de la comunidad en este "tráfico de títulos y avales" y la participación de otros en el "discurso a favor de los derechos humanos indígenas" está creando tensión interna y desacuerdo sobre el significado de los títulos de la propiedad comunal y las normas relacionadas con la "gobernanza territorial indígena." A menudo, parece que el mismo miembro de la comunidad o el líder emplea diferentes conjuntos de normas y valores en diferentes situaciones, dependiendo de sus intereses particulares.

Los líderes de la comunidad comentaron que actualmente la supervivencia de la cultura Mayangna está más gravemente amenazada que antes de que comenzara el proceso legal internacional, debido a que los colonos más a menudo representan a la población mestiza hispanohablante y católica que domina en Nicaragua a nivel nacional. Sin embargo, me pareció claro que ni las divisiones dentro de la comunidad con respecto a cómo gobernar el territorio, ni el comportamiento de los individuos, ni los conceptos de propiedad privada se encuentran siempre lo suficientemente separados como para respaldar divisiones en categorías “etno-raciales”, histórica y socialmente fundamentadas como “mestizos” e “indígenas”. Más allá de los conflictos, existe tanta y tan frecuente interacción y cooperación entre los miembros de la comunidad Mayangna y los recién llegados al territorio que las culturas y los grupos se están mezclando.

Sin embargo, es una situación desbalanceada. En una reunión del gobierno territorial indígena en Awas Tingni, los miembros de la comunidad explicaron que algunos de los colonos intentan convencer a los miembros y líderes de la comunidad con bienes materiales e inmateriales. A veces los permisos para comprar tierra y asentarse se han intercambiado por armas para la caza, una motocicleta, un camión o fertilizante para cultivos. A veces los colonos ofrecen trabajo en sus granjas a los Mayangna, y a veces los permisos para establecerse pueden facilitar las relaciones sexuales o el matrimonio entre los colonos y Mayangna.

Aumentando a la inequidad, ciertos conflictos por ventas de tierras e invasiones son el resultado de la falta de respuesta de parte de la policía y el ejercito militar a los reclamos formales por parte de los Mayangna. Los miembros de la comunidad les han solicitado compensación a los colonos presentes con bajas probabilidades de desalojo, simplemente para cumplir con las necesidades económicas inmediatas y razonables, como comprar uniformes escolares para sus hijos o costear los costos de transporte para la comercialización de sus bienes. Además, cuando la tierra se vende o se intercambia ilegal o extra-oficialmente por bienes materiales, el monto pagado es increíblemente inferior al pagado en otras regiones. Los miembros de la comunidad Mayangna que han vendido partes de sus tierras, tal vez lo hicieron con la esperanza de que el estado los fuese a ayudar a lograr mejores intercambios o a desalojar a los colonos.

En vez, los funcionarios estatales han utilizado la conducta ilegal de algunos miembros de la comunidad para deslegitimar las afirmaciones de todo el colectivo Mayangna y eliminar las protestas de los líderes. Y cada vez que la "venta de tierras" ocurre y se menciona en la región, las nuevas acciones sobre la tierra parecen normalizarse en vez de ser más negociables. Como comentó Jadder Mendoza Lewis, de la ONG FADCANIC: "Cada vez que los líderes y miembros de la comunidad hablan de 'la tierra de este o aquel colono', se convierte en la norma y la verdad.”

Las organizaciones de derechos humanos y la investigación académica sobre Awas Tingni y otras comunidades indígenas desde la titulación de la tierra han hecho hincapié en la falta de protección y garantías por parte de las autoridades apropiadas, la falta de coordinación entre las instituciones, y la falta de recursos financieros para asegurar la autorización de títulos y evitar el despojo de los indígenas. A pesar de que la inacción gubernamental sea un factor claro, otra explicación más completa detrás de los problemas de titulación de tierras puede yacer en el nuevo y alternativo entendimiento de la tierra en la región. A pesar de que tanto el Estatuto de Autonomía de 1987, la Ley No. 445 y la Decisión del Tribunal CIDH de 2001 definieron los territorios indígenas como inalienables, indivisibles y comunales, y que el uso individual de la tierra y acciones como la compra y venta de tierras no fueron previstos ni abordados.  Se entendió que los territorios formaban parte de un "dominio colectivo" destinado a "proteger a las generaciones futuras y formas de vida indígena comunitaria."

Sin embargo, la idea de la tierra como propiedad privada parece haber ganado protagonismo después de la titulación. Una posible razón de esto es que la demarcación y titulación llevó a geógrafos y funcionarios estatales a regiones relativamente desconocidas. Esto llevó al aumento del registro de las riquezas contenidas en estas tierras, por ejemplo, minerales y madera valiosa. La consideración de experiencias anteriores con MADENSA y SOLCARSA puede haber instigado a algunos grupos indígenas, así como a otros actores, a concebir la tierra en términos cada vez más económicos y orientados al mercado. Esto no significa que la tierra haya perdido su significado histórico, espiritual y comunal para todos los miembros de la comunidad en Awas Tingni. Sin embargo, el aumento de la comercialización de tierras después del proceso de titulación ha aumentado la tendencia de algunos a considerar la tierra como un activo económico, poniendo en contraste, y a veces en conflicto, las verdaderas implicaciones de los diferentes puntos de vista sobre el significado de la tierra, los títulos, y las relaciones de propiedad. Ahora estas diferencias culturales, legales, e históricas necesitan ser negociadas. 

Por ejemplo, la Ley No. 445 establece que los terceros no indígenas dentro de los territorios deben respetar las normas y reglamentos de la comunidad indígena. Por lo tanto, si los colonos no desean abandonar el territorio, tal vez deberían pagar el alquiler al gobierno territorial indígena. Mientras que esto da cabida a un rango de negociaciones de formalidad indeterminada entre las comunidades indígenas y los colonos e inversores entrantes, también limita a la comunidad porque no es posible simplemente desalojar a los colonos, una propuesta que algunos promulgan como la mejor solución. Es probable que los Mayangna carezcan de la fuerza suficiente para forzar su relocalización, y puede que algunos estén cambiando de parecer al respecto.

Larry Salomón Pedro, un joven abogado de Awas Tingni, quien es el asesor legal designado para la comunidad, me explicó que en su nueva situación los Mayangna en Awas Tingni han desarrollado una serie de normas y reglamentos para la gestión territorial. Ellos proponen que a los campesinos mestizos más pobres que han llegado al territorio en busca de sustento básico se les puede permitir su estadía, siempre y cuando acepten y respeten las leyes y normas elaboradas por los líderes de la comunidad (por ejemplo, con respecto a la silvicultura, las actividades agrícolas y la explotación de los recursos). Sin embargo, si los colonos y los inversores no están dispuestos a respetar la cultura y las decisiones de la comunidad, deben abandonar el territorio. La comunidad Awas Tingni persiste en su solicitud de asistencia hacia instituciones estatales y las autoridades regionales en la defensa de su autonomía comunal y el ejercicio de su autoridad, ya que el proceso de titulación no le ha permitido consolidarse y disfrutar de su propiedad comunal y sus derechos de uso de la tierra.

En resumen, desde nuestras primeras visitas en la década de 1990, la situación en las tierras alrededor de Awas Tingni ha cambiado de muchas maneras, y a veces en direcciones opuestas. Como demuestran las visitas recientes al territorio, actualmente existe una gran brecha entre el reconocimiento legal de la propiedad territorial y el ejercicio real de los derechos relacionados, principalmente debido a la evolución socioeconómica y demográfica actual en las tierras. Y, mientras pueda que el proceso de titulación ha acelerado indirectamente asentamiento de forasteros en la tierra, la autonomía total en un mundo dinámico parece poco probable bajo cualquier circunstancia.

Los Mayangna aceptan con vacilación algunos de los cambios demográficos que han seguido sus exitosos reclamos internacionales sobre tierras ancestrales. Tienen la posibilidad y disposición de hacer espacio para algunos forasteros. Pero desde una perspectiva espiritual y ambiental, no han abandonado sus creencias, preocupaciones, o respeto por el uso equilibrado y a largo plazo de la tierra. Muchos estarán de acuerdo con ellos, incluyendo los Asangpas Muigeni que aún permanecen en las colinas y con la esperanza de proteger a los peces y animales circundantes. Además, el Estado de Nicaragua les debe una deuda histórica a la nación Mayangna. Sus tierras no deberían ser manejadas con intereses industriales, de inversión, o mediante ventas corruptas más allá del control del gobierno territorial indígena. La situación actual podría involucrar de nuevo a derechos humanos internacionales. Pero con seguridad y, tal vez de manera más eficiente, la situación invita al diálogo serio entre funcionarios gubernamentales y líderes comunitarios. La comunidad Awas Tingni debe protagonizar las decisiones relativas a la regulación de su territorio, pero quizás requieran una vez más de la experiencia, asistencia y apoyo de actores jurídicos, académicos, y las organizaciones internacionales con el fin de mantener el grado de autonomía comunitaria y la autodeterminación por la que han luchado arduamente durante tantos años. 


Botanical Studies in Nicaragua

An Ongoing Journey of 50-Plus Years

By Olga Martha Montiel and Warren Douglas Stevens


The mountainous areas of northern Nicaragua finally felt safe enough to roam around after more than forty years of war. What we—two biologists—found was a treasure of unknown and rich plant diversity and beauty where the plants had not been seriously explored for decades.

In 2010, when we first drove into the area in our 2009 Toyota Hilux, we found vast local forests mostly composed of pines and oaks on granite mountains and seemed so well preserved that we immediately wanted to survey it.

The region’s flora and fauna were preserved by the wars that the country endured between the 1960s and the 1990s, serving first as a refuge for the Sandinista movement fighting the Somoza dictatorship and later, after the Sandinistas were in government, sheltering the Contra guerrillas trying to overpower the Sandinistas.

Pine forest on middle slopes of Cerro Mogotón.

Río Achuapa in Nueva Segovia.


Now, during the past decade, we’ve conducted several expeditions to the region, including the exploration of Cerro Mogotón on the Honduran border, the highest mountain in Nicaragua (7,000-feet, about the height of Mt. Hesperus in Alaska). To reach the peak we planned a three-day trip, and, together with Nicaraguan colleagues, advanced on foot towards the summit on a steep and sometimes hazardous trail. Because of the rough terrain and the strong winds and torrential rains, camping was a challenge, but finally we managed to find a not-so-bad spot and to set up a camp to spend the night. The following day, as we reached the highpoint of Mogotón, we came to realize that the upper part of the trail had been mined during the war, and although the government had conducted de-mining operations, the danger still persisted and the only way to work there was by staying within a few meters from the trail.

Cloud forest on upper slopes of Cerro Mogotón.

Along trail to summit of Cerro Mogotón.

Along trail near summit of Cerro Mogotón, with sign warning of mine fields.


However, despite the difficulties, we were rewarded with encountering a wealth of interesting plants, some of which we had never seen before in any other part of Nicaragua. Among the many discoveries, we found unusual blueberries, cherries, and wild avocado relatives that are food for the resplendent quetzals.

Flowers of Vaccinium poasanum, a tropical blueberry.

Fruits of Vaccinium poasanum.

A wild avocado, Persea americana.


The adventure of exploring Nicaragua and studying its plants began for one of us (WDS) on January 26, 1969, when, as a first-year graduate student at Michigan State University, I collected my first plant specimens on the beach in Masachapa. The trip back to the pensión beside the TicaBus station in old (pre-earthquake) Managua was in the bed of a pickup truck, and the most important lesson of the day was that Nicaraguans are among the friendliest people in the world.

Flashing forward eight years, as I finished up my graduate studies, I was hired by the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, Missouri, to write a compilation of the plants of Nicaragua. Plant biologist and philanthropist Boris Krukoff had provided funding to Peter Raven, then Director of the Missouri Botanical Garden, to start a project to study the plant diversity of Nicaragua. Krukoff, who had fought with the White Russian Army, eventually making his way to New York where he became wealthy working with Merck in plant exploration, had realized that the plants of Nicaragua were the least known in Central America.

Thus, in July 1977, I returned to Nicaragua, where I developed a long-lasting partnership with the government, notably with Jaime Incer, who both as a public and private person has dedicated his life to conservation in Nicaragua, and with a few academic institutions that survived the political turmoil. I began the project with the goals of conducting a floristic inventory, establishing an herbarium to safeguard the specimens collected, training a cadre of Nicaraguan botanists and publishing a Spanish-language manual of the plants.

The first botanical collections in Nicaragua were made by Mexican physician José Mociño in 1795, although only drawings and no actual specimens survive. The oldest extant specimens were gathered by botanists on the English expedition “Voyage of the Sulphur” in April 1837. After that, a series of European and later North American botanists gradually brought the number of collections to around 20,000, representing about 1,000 plant species.

This was the situation in 1977, when the project that we named “Flora de Nicaragua” began. To date, through our efforts and those of an excellent group of dedicated Nicaraguan botanists, the country has a total of about 160,000 collections of plants, representing about 7,900 different species. Nicaragua probably still qualifies as the least-well botanically inventoried country in Central America but the situation has dramatically improved.

Inventorying Nicaragua during a time of war was complex and quite dangerous at times. The regions that were safe were better surveyed, but war zones were pretty much off limits. Thus, when the Flora de Nicaragua books were published in 2001 and 2009, they described only 6,479 of the 7,900 plant species we know to exist in the country today. Large swaths of land, in particular in the north and on the Atlantic slopes, remained under-explored. In the early 1980s, when it was still possible to travel in these regions, we were able to conduct a few expeditions that allowed us to document some of the flora, but also illustrate cultural aspects of a region that later was devastated by conflicts. Along the most isolated areas of the Bocay and Waspuk rivers we found not only interesting plants, but also isolated people (Mayagna) unaccustomed to outsiders. In Pearl Lagoon, there were thriving populations of Garifunas and Miskitos, and we located the southernmost pine savanna, and therefore the southernmost native pines in the New World. In Rama Key, we met a few generations of the Rama people who lived on a 55-acre island in the Bay of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast.

Río Bocay, moist forest on limestone.

Man in house on Corn Island, in the Caribbean.

Pine savanna near Pearl Lagoon, this population of Pinus caribaea represents the southernmost extension of native pines.
Inundated pine savanna near Pearl Lagoon, with small islands of the palm Acoelorraphe.
Old woman and children on Rama Key.


These investigations resulted in a three-volume Flora de Nicaragua (2001) and a subsequent volume on ferns (2009) simultaneously published on-line and steadily updated since then. All native species in the on-line version [] have an estimated conservation assessment, distribution maps and graphic elevation ranges and phenology. About half of the species are illustrated with photographs. In the preface to the Flora, Peter Raven, one of the world’s most famous plant biologists and conservationists of our times, wrote: “Nicaraguan plants are a priceless part of the heritage of all Nicaraguans, and the Missouri Botanical Garden presents these books as a gift to the people of Nicaragua, so that they will use the knowledge contained in them in such a way as to enhance the lives of generations as yet unborn.”

The Flora project began before the era of personal computing, and the data compilation was started on 3X5 cards, migrated through a variety of hardware and software and eventually became part of TROPICOS, the Garden’s massive plant database available on the web. Many European herbaria were combed through for historical records of Nicaraguan collections. Thus, the database of Nicaraguan collections represents the great majority of all collections ever made in the country. Using printed maps in the early days and later GIS devices, we have been able to geo-reference most of the collections, and this data has become an important tool, available on-line to all interested parties, for further studies of Nicaraguan plant diversity and for the overall understanding of the vegetation. Additionally, this data can be mapped to pinpoint regions rich on plant species and to understand what areas of the country are repositories of the most rare or threatened plants. All in all, the data can guide subsequent field work to continue the process of refining the plant information of Nicaragua, and can also serve as a basic and reliable source for saving rare plants, finding wild relatives to domesticated plants, and other projects. These additional tools have made exploration more efficient and about 1,400 species have been added to the known diversity since the publication of the Flora. A map,produced from the current data, shows where plants have been collected.

Map of plant collections in Nicaragua.


Nicaragua is not immune to the effects of global climate change. Rising sea levels, shifting rainfall patterns and temperature variation will have predictable and unpredictable consequences for many aspects of life, including agriculture, water availability and human diseases. Although perhaps trivial on a grand scale, the flora of the country will also change. During the last ice age, the vegetation of North and Central America shifted southward in a colder world. Some kinds of plants successfully migrated southward through Central America and spread along the Andes in South America. The migration of many other temperate plants, however, was blocked by the lack of high mountains in the southern half of Nicaragua, the so-called “San Juan Depression,” and reached no further than northern Nicaragua.

Bonellia nitida, a rare tree restricted to dry mountain forests in Central America.

Bidens oerstediana, an annual tickseed species only found on basalt lava flows in Nicaragua and adjacent Guanacaste, Costa Rica.
Robinsonella erasmi-sosae, a rare dry mountain forest tree found only two localities in northern Nicaragua and in adjacent Honduras.


As the world warmed after the last ice age, the temperate plants migrated back northward but many relicts remain in northern Nicaragua. The most conspicuous of these relicts are pines, which reach their southern limit in Nicaragua but dominate much of the vegetation in the northern mountains. These many temperate relics, including members of the blueberry family, beech family, walnuts, oaks and sweet gum, cumulatively form a significant component of the vegetation. These plants were already in a climatically precarious situation, surviving in the most temperate refuges, and rising temperatures will only accelerate their march northward, and thus their disappearance from the flora. In the southeast of the country, with the vegetation dominated by wet forest immigrants from the Amazonian flora, the more significant issue is probably precipitation. The total rainfall there is currently about half of that recorded in colonial times, although it is not clear how climate change will affect future precipitation. It does seem to be clear that hurricane frequency and strength is increasing and over time that will alter the landscape, if perhaps not the floristic diversity. We estimate that perhaps 30-40 plant species are extinct in Nicaragua, not seen in the country for over 100 years despite repeated searches, but the number of extinct plants will surely begin growing rapidly.

Conservation in under-developed tropical countries is always a challenge. A first step in conservation may be inventory— based on the logic that you cannot begin to protect, nor evaluate your progress, until you know what you have. Another approach is landscape conservation in which diversity in certain patches of land is generally protected as a unit. A variety of protected areas, public and private, large and small, have been designated in Nicaragua. Of the government-administered areas, probably only Volcán Mombacho (cloud forest) and Volcán Masaya (dry forest) can be considered success stories, in large part because both are important tourist destinations that provide the financial incentive for protection.

The two large Biosphere Reserves on the Atlantic side, Bosawas and Río San Juan, lacking this incentive, are being rapidly lost to the agricultural frontier, first through the extraction of timber and then through the conversion of reserve land to cattle pastures and subsistence farming. We have dedicated ourselves to the inventory approach, first by scientifically documenting plant diversity and then evaluating the risks to the individual species survival. Nicaragua, in the center of Mesoamerica, is very much a bridge between the plant assemblages of North and South America. One out of every four plants, largely in the north, have affinities with North America and one out of every five have affinities with South America. However, more than one out of every three plants do not resemble those in either North or South America, and the rest are found only in Mesoamerica. About one percent of the plants of Nicaragua are endemic, found nowhere else, but about ten percent more are found in adjacent Honduras and/or Costa Rica. Obviously, we focus on these endemic and narrowly distributed plants because they are likely to be the most endangered. Perhaps not surprisingly, the most endangered plants are not well represented in the currently protected areas.

Nicaragua now has an up-to-date inventory, the Flora, three active herbaria and a dedicated and capable group of botanists. Our efforts to increase the scientific knowledge of plant diversity in Nicaragua have paid off, but the most important contribution is helping to build a cadre of local and committed biologists, who in turn are training the next generations. After all, it is the next generations of Nicaraguans who are the hope for conservation. We will continue our work in collaboration with them and with the local institutions and botanists, and hope for the best.

Children in Matagalpa.

Olga Martha Montiel is Vice President for Conservation and Sustainable Development and Director of the Latin American Research Program at the Missouri Botanical Garden. She is an editor of the Flora de Nicaragua and together with Warren Douglas Stevens continue to work on plant conservation in Nicaragua.

Warren Douglas Stevens is a Curator at Missouri Botanical Garden and an editor of the Flora de Nicaragua. Besides studying the Central American flora and working on plant conservation in Nicaragua, he also is a specialist on milkweeds (Asclepiadoideae).

A Tale of Two Food Sovereignties

By Wendy Godek

I first learned of food sovereignty while I was completing my graduate work in Global Affairs at Rutgers University. I had developed an interest in agrarian and food movements, and particularly an agrarian movement of banana workers seeking justice after being exposed to the pesticide, Nemagon, in Nicaragua. The study of the movement piqued my interest and I ended up going to Nicaragua over the summer in 2005 to do some volunteer work with the Asociación de Trabajadores del Campo(ATC), a historic Nicaraguan mass organization created by the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) in the years prior to the 1979 insurrection. It was during these months of engaging with the ATC in Nicaragua that I was introduced to the concept of food sovereignty. Put simply, food sovereignty is the right of peoples to define their own food and agriculture systems and their right to culturally appropriate, sustainably produced food. It is a strategy for achieving food security and realizing the human right to food by challenging the dominant corporate food system. The ATC is a founding member of the transnational peasant network, La Vía Campesina (LVC), the organization credited with introducing food sovereignty to the international community at the World Food Summit in 1996.

Several years after I first learned of food sovereignty, when I was preparing to write my doctoral dissertation proposal, I found out that Nicaragua had passed a national law recognizing food sovereignty, Law 693, the Law of Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security, in 2009. Thus, Nicaragua had become one of a handful of countries (mostly in Latin America) that had institutionalized food sovereignty in national policy. I decided to examine the law in my doctoral research, namely the process of formulating and negotiating the law to identify the factors that influenced its adoption and the outcomes of this process. In addition to documenting the process of making the law, the study also sought to explore the different meanings and interpretations of food sovereignty among vested actors, as well as the history of food sovereignty in Nicaragua.

When I arrived in Nicaragua in 2011 to start my fieldwork, my perspective was largely informed by the contacts I made through my colleagues at the ATC and others I had met while networking with the transnational food sovereignty movement. One of the assumptions I had going into the research was that Nicaraguan members of the LVC, like the ATC, had played a strong role in the law. And they did, and in fact they were central to the process and largely credited with getting the law passed. However, there were other stories I did not expect to encounter. Among them was the controversy over how the law defines food sovereignty. More specifically, the law includes two distinct definitions of food sovereignty. The first of these appears in Article 2 and defines food sovereignty as:

The right of the people to define their own policies and sustainable strategies for the production, distribution, and consumption of food that guarantees the right to food for the entire population based on small and medium production, respecting their own cultures and the diversity of peasant practices, fishing and indigenous modes of agricultural production, commercialization and management of rural areas, in which women play a central role. Food sovereignty guarantees food and nutritional security.

The second appears in Article 9 and defines food sovereignty as the following:

Without detriment to what is defined in Article 2, number 1 of the present law, food sovereignty in the right of the State to define its own policies and sustainable strategies for the production, transformation, distribution, and consumption of food that guarantees the right to food for the entire population with preference for the valorization and consumption of national products without prejudice to the exercise of the right to free enterprise and trade.

Both definitions are considerably different. The first defines food sovereignty in the spirit of the transnational food sovereignty movement’s approach to food sovereignty, which has evolved from the framework introduced by LVC in 1996. In contrast, the second definition emphasizes the political authority and autonomy of the state (basically state sovereignty)—instead of the people—to decide food policies, whilst making room for the interests of larger enterprise, namely in term of industrialized production and free trade. Thus, these two definitions reflect different ideological views among key actors in the food security policy field and leave the concept of food sovereignty unclear in the law. So what happened?

Responding to this question of how these two definitions made it into the law requires stepping back into the history of the law, and to get there we need to look at the origins of food sovereignty and the food sovereignty movement in Nicaragua.

Food sovereignty’s conceptual roots in Nicaragua can be traced back to the Sandinista-led Revolution in the 1980s. Food security was a priority during the Revolution, initially because of the food insecurity problem that the Sandinistas inherited at the onset of the Revolution, later exacerbated by the Contra War and the U.S. economic embargo. Through two key policies—agrarian reform and the Programa Alimentario Nacional, a national food program—Nicaragua aimed to deepen food security through self-sufficient production and a network of distribution centers. This represented the first time any Central American government committed itself to achieving the Right to Food.


Against this backdrop, the formative ideas for food sovereignty were being developed in Nicaragua and elsewhere. Nicaraguan peasant organizations and farmers contributed to this process through exchanges withinternacionalistaswho came to Nicaragua and visits through international farmer exchanges in the 1980. Ideas resulting from these exchanges influenced the way the nascent LVC understood the concept of food sovereignty, with the ATC and the Union Nacional de Agricultores y Ganaderos(UNAG; another of the revolutionary mass organizations created by the FSLN during the Nicaraguan Revolution) both deeply involved in LVC’s founding.

When LVC introduced food sovereignty in 1996, they situated it as a solution to growing food insecurity resulting from the growth of neoliberalism and market-based approaches to economic development and their increasingly problematic and often devastating impacts on the rural sector, especially small and medium-sized farmers, landless food producers, fisherfolk, and indigenous peoples. In addition to proposing deep political and economic restructuring, food sovereignty advocates for land reform, local democratic control over food and agricultural systems, and ecological transformation through the adoption of agroecology as the basis of production. In the years after the 1996 World Food Summit, LVC and the burgeoning transnational food sovereignty movement further developed the concept of food sovereignty. Nicaraguan CSOs began learning about food sovereignty through their participation in international food sovereignty meetings in the early 2000s. The movement deepened substantially when a broad group of civil society, farmer, and peasant organizations formed the Grupo de Interés por la Soberanía y Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional (GISSAN)in 2004. GISSAN immediately began to push for policy reforms, drafting a national food and nutritional sovereignty and security law (Law 693) that was introduced to the National Assembly in late 2005. It stayed dormant given the lack of political opportunity for such policies in the neoliberal Bolaños government, but this changed with the re-election of the former revolutionary commander and ex-president, Daniel Ortega, in late 2006.

GISSAN protest in front of the National Assembly. Source: Eduardo Vallecillo.

Ortega’s administration had a strong interest in addressing food insecurity. Upon taking office in early 2007, he created the Consejo Nacional de Seguridad y Soberania Alimentariaand appointed as its head Orlando Nuñez, a loyal Sandinista militant who had worked for the Revolutionary government. Later that year, Ortega introduced the cornerstone program of the government’s social policy, Hambre Cero, which included the Bono Productivo Alimentario(BPA) aimed at reducing poverty in rural areas and enhancing food security by fostering family-level crop and animal production for personal consumption and sale of excess. Hambre Cero was the government’s key program for fostering national food sovereignty, and Orlando Nuñez was the architect behind the program and was made its director later in 2007. The BPA was implemented at the local level by the Comités de Poder Cuidadano (CPCs), which were part of a new political apparatus implemented by presidential decree to promote participatory, direct democracy.

The renewed interest in food security coupled with increasing regional initiatives for food sovereignty created political opportunity for GISSAN’s food sovereignty bill. In 2007, the bill was introduced to the floor of National Assembly for debate. After approving the first four articles, the debate stalled and was ultimately suspended over controversial provisions to promote food sovereignty, namely restrictions on food aid containing genetically modified organisms and preferential treatment for small and medium producers. Representing the interests of their private sector constituents, the right-wing Partido Liberal Constitucional(PLC)objected to these provisions and attacked the definition of food sovereignty presented in Article 2 of the law. A lengthy negotiation process ensued between various stakeholders: the government, the private sector, GISSAN, peasant organizations and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), brought on as a technical adviser by the government. Ultimately, controversial elements were removed, a second definition of food sovereignty was added (see Article 9 above), and a multi-scale system of governance was created consisting of municipal, departmental, and national institutions for policymaking on food and nutritional sovereignty and security. In June of 2009, the law was approved by the National Assembly. While generally heralded, it was also criticized by organizations such as GISSAN for not going far enough to institutionalize fundamental food sovereignty principles.

Front and back cover of a book used to raise awareness about Law 693. Source: The Author's Collection

The two definitions of food sovereignty in the law point to the broader lack of agreement among food policy actors in Nicaragua over what food sovereignty means. At first glance, this appeared to be more of a conflict between civil society members of the food sovereignty movement and the private sector. However, as I would discover later, the state was the far more curious actor in this scenario—mainly because the Ortega government had from the onset adopted food sovereignty into its food security approach, but simultaneously made clear its interest in cooperating and collaborating with the private sector. In fact, key FSLN leaders were part-owners of large agribusinesses. Ultimately, this had significant implications for how food sovereignty was put into practice.

Following Law 693’s approval, GISSAN, peasant organizations, the FAO and other stakeholders went to work to implement the law. One of the first actions taken by these groups was to begin establishing the Comités Municipales de Soberania y Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional(COMUSSANs), local policy-making and coordination bodies comprised of state institutions, civil society groups, and local government officials, to foster food and nutritional sovereignty and security as mandated by the law. The COMUSSANs were charged with local policymaking and coordination. GISSAN member organizations also began pushing for local policies to rescue elements of food sovereignty that had not made it into the national law such as municipal ordinances banning genetically modified organisms from municipal territories.

At the national level, however, there was strong concern at the time of my fieldwork in 2011-2013 that the government was doing little to implement the law. Few of the national-level institutions had been formed, and the few that were formed met infrequently and irregularly. In the 2012-2016 National Human Development Plan, the government reiterated the centrality of Hambre Ceroto its food security approach. The Food Strategy and Food and Nutritional Sovereignty and Security Policy presented in the plan underscored the top-down approach of the state, as reflected in the definition presented in Article 9 of the law, while still calling for the creation of the multi-tiered SSAN governance institutions. Food sovereignty, according to the policy, is equated with family and national food self-sufficiency and achieved by expanding production through the development of a “family, community, cooperative, and associative economy,” essentially the goal of Hambre Cero.

This echoes important aspects of the food security strategy implemented by the FSLN during the Revolution, and while aspects of the approach resonate with the food sovereignty movement’s interpretation of food sovereignty, the fundamental right of people to define their own food system policies and practices is overlooked. Rather, several contradictions are revealed: on the one hand, while attempting to implement a system of direct participatory democracy, bottom-up by nature, the system put in place by the Ortega government of the local level CPCs implementing the state policies for SSAN evidence a top-down approach that was later found to have clientelist attributes. On the other hand, while professing its intention to implement Law 693, the government displayed little political will to implement the pluralist and inclusive policy-making spaces created by Law 693 in practice. The FSLN-dominated CPCs, later replaced by the Gabinetes de Familia, Comunidad y Vida, and other state actors were found to drive policy in some established COMUSSANs, pushing the national agenda of the Ortega regime instead of nurturing the voices in the municipalities to formulate policies from below. Civil society participation in these spaces grew increasingly smaller in parallel with the narrowing of civil society mobilization in general as the Ortega government continued concentrating its power.

The ATC, the organization that first introduced me to food sovereignty and the national expression of LVC, is still organizing around food sovereignty in Nicaragua, even amidst the deep, on-going socio-political crisis that has characterized the Nicaraguan landscape for nearly 18 months. Against this backdrop, food security is and will continue to be an important issue, especially in light of the deteriorating state of the economy. In solidarity with the Ortega government, they have denounced the alleged right-wing “coup” to overthrow the government last April 2018 and continue to work towards building the solidarity economy with the government to ensure food security and food sovereignty, the latter understood by the Ortega regime as food self-sufficiency. Given their historical allegiances to the FSLN, their position on the current crisis is unsurprising. However, it places the ATC, as the national expression of LVC, in an intriguing and contradictory position: how to promote food sovereignty in the spirit of LVC as the right of people to define their own food and agriculture systems—which fundamentally demands democracy, while maintaining loyalty to an increasingly undemocratic regime.


Wendy Godek is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Roger Williams University, where she is also a member of the Latin American and Latino Studies faculty and affiliated with the Public Health program. Prior to joining RWU, she lived and worked in Nicaragua for nearly seven years doing agricultural and rural development work. Her areas of research include food and agriculture politics and policy, sustainable rural development, gender, and social justice movements.


The author would like to thank Katharina Schiller for her thoughtful comments on an earlier draft of this piece.

Read more about food in our Food in the Americas issue.

Focus on Culture

Solentiname Reflected

By Ernesto Cardenal 

Photos by the youth of Solentiname under the guidance of Tiago Genoveze


Jeffrys Mariana Aguilar Varela


I became a priest in order to found a small contemplative community on an island in the archipelago of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua. In the twelve and a half years that we maintained our small community in Solentiname we received a great many visitors, from Nicaragua and abroad. Sometimes there were so many that we regretted not to be able to host any more; then, in the distance, we would see others arriving at our small dock with their luggage and backpacks. There were even times when they arrived in Solentiname without even passing through the capital of Managua: traveling to Costa Rica and entering Lake Nicaragua via the Rio San Juan.


There are also a great number of people (besides myself) who have written about Solentiname. And as I have said many times: Solentiname has been made into a sort of myth. Our accomplishments there and the experiences that took place there were not as important as they have often been portrayed. It was all actually quite modest.


Jader Jose Hernandez Jimenez


The book The Gospel According to Solentiname –-composed of commentaries on the Gospel made by campesinos  together with me, and also with many visitors’ participation–-is what has most contributed to Solentiname’s recognition throughout the world. Some of the commentaries were so good that I decided to capture them on a tape recorder and publish them later in a book. The book has gone through a great many editions and has been translated into many languages, including Japanese, Filipino and Korean. Commenting on the Gospel collectively, the way it was done in Solentiname, was later replicated in other places, especially in Protestant parishes in the United States (where once I was invited to teach this practice to a community). It was a Spanish priest who visited us in Solentiname who taught me how he did it in a poor neighborhood in Managua, and he had learned it from a Panamanian priest who had learned the practice from a priest from Chicago.


One cannot deny the importance of some of Solentiname’s other successes, but they were mostly consequences of others’ efforts rather than my own. The primitivist paintings of Solentiname’s campesinos  began when the painter Róger Pérez de la Rocha and I gave paper and colored pencils to a peasant, then canvas, paintbrushes and oil paint, and he created the first paintings. That is the origin of the great quantity of Solentiname’s painters, whose works have become famous and influential throughout all of Nicaragua.   


The handicrafts made from balsa wood, which have also contributed to Solentiname’s fame, began with a 13-year-old campesino  boy named Eufredito, a son of a day laborer who occasionally worked alongside his father as a day laborer himself. Eufredito began carving miniature figures into the soft and light balsa wood using a Gillete razor blade, after having seen some of my wooden sculptures. The figures he made were influenced by mine, which are modern stylistically, though his were naïve, primitive and very charming. I offered him money for each sculpture he made; seeing this, other campesinos  began bringing me their own balsa wood figures (fish, herons, armadillos, squirrels, turtles), which I paid for as well. That’s how the famed handicraft that has become so abundant in Solentiname began; and it too has borne its influence in other parts of Nicaragua.


Joel Eduardo Carrillo Romero


Solentiname has also produced great campesino  poetry, which has been published in several places and translated to other languages. The emergence of this poetry was purely coincidental. Upon visiting Solentiname, the Costa Rican writer Mayra Jiménez realized that the campesinos  were not familiar with my poetry. I had never presented it to them because I thought they would not understand it, and most of them were not even aware that I was a poet (and even the word “poet” would not mean very much to them). Mayra Jiménez had already taught poetry workshops to children and decided to organize a workshop for the local campesinos  with the objective of presenting some of my poetry, as well as poetry written by some other Nicaraguan authors, and even of stimulating them to create their own poems. She fulfilled the objectives of her workshop and, most importantly, ignited the production of Solentiname’s own campesino poetry.


I have often referred to these four achievements as “miracles” because they happened unexpectedly, without my ever having planned them at all. Now we may talk about a fifth miracle: the photography made by the children of Solentiname; which is also something I have had no participation in. “Solentiname Reflected” has a very singular story: a 23-year-old Brazilian studying in the United States decided to go to Solentiname and distribute cameras to the campesino  children so that they could make their own pictures.


Maria de los Angeles Requenez


He knew practically nothing about Solentiname before his journey. Dissatisfied with his overly comfortable life at Boston University, he yearned for an adventure, something that could give his life more meaning. It was at this moment that he was moved by a documentary he had seen called Born into Brothels, which related the story of a photographer who moved to Calcutta to document the prostitutes of the red-light district; as she worked, she built friendships among the prostitutes’ children and began teaching them photography. The children’s pictures were exhibited and well received. Upon watching the film, Tiago, the young photographer, felt as though he had found the direction he had so eagerly been seeking: teach photography workshops to children who had never before touched a camera.


It was also during this time that he recalled an essay he had written in one of his literature classes in which he analyzed my poem “Apocalypse” as well as Julio Cortázar’s short story “Apocalypse at Solentiname”. Cortázar’s short story caught his attention because of its connection with photography and with Solentiname, and that’s when he discovered that I was one of the story’s characters. Before that moment, however, he had never read about me; and he had never heard of Solentiname. He also did not know a thing about Nicaragua, though, over time, he began to learn about the revolution, liberation theology and Solentiname. According to him, he had never imagined that my poem and that short story would take him to Solentiname. Later, however, as he learned more about the islands, he decided that was where he wanted to initiate his project. He made some contacts on the Internet and, three months later, arrived on our dock with his cameras.


The cameras, donated by friends and acquaintances, were used and a bit outdated, but in perfect working order. A $1,000 donation made by a friend from New York allowed for the purchase of several new cameras as well. Tiago agrees with me that this experiment was about democratizing art and technology. “Besides teaching some basic concepts and principles,” he says, “all I had to do was put the cameras in their hands.”


Juan Daniel Altamirano Madrigal


The children reacted with great enthusiasm and curiosity. For the vast majority of them, it was the first time they had touched a camera. Up until then, cameras had been something only foreigners and tourists used.


To Tiago’s surprise, despite the islands’ excessive humidity and tropical climate, despite the daily use of the cameras and the children’s manner of handling them—running, jumping and playing everywhere they went, only one camera was damaged over the year-long experiment, and it was not due to the operator’s carelessness. When Tiago arrived, several people predicted that the cameras would not last long because the kids would either break them or steal them. Neither thing happened. In spite of their boisterous nature, the kids took care of the cameras as if they actually belonged to them.


Tiago taught them how to use the cameras’ basic functions and gave them 45 minutes to take pictures. He observed that upon receiving the cameras everyone did the same thing: they stepped outside and began inspecting the world around them as though they had never seen it before--and all because they now had a camera in their hands. “I was deeply impressed by this,” he says, “and I took it as proof that despite our familiarity with our environment, we must study it in order to photograph it, which can lead us to an elevated state of observation that allows us to see things that were invisible to us before the camera was in our grasp.”


These pictures have, according to Tiago, a singular documentary and artistic value. They compose a collective panorama of the archipelago as seen from within. The children with cameras in hand were like mirrors of their own reality, in which reality there are surely few mirrors, often small and stowed away, within the poor houses. The kids were itinerant mirrors, says Tiago. They took pictures everywhere they went and showed them to everyone who happened to be nearby.


Another value of these pictures—also according to Tiagois the sheer multiplicity of perspectives and representation of diverse realities of local life, resulting in a demystification of Solentiname. “These pictures,” he tells me, “reveal the everyday Solentiname as it is now, which is very different from what can be read about it in books and from the Solentiname that you founded. For the first time we are able to see Solentiname’s real protagonists as portrayed by themselves.”



Carlos Ignacio Baez Hernandez


Tiago would organize photographic critique sessions once a month or every two months. The purpose was to look through a selection of recent pictures and talk about them in order to sharpen the participants’ senses. At first, the children had difficulty in expressing themselves. Ultimately, after prolonged silences, somebody would dare say that a picture was pretty or ugly, but they couldn’t say why.


The children were also receiving reading classes where books were not only read but also discussed in groups; writing exercises were assigned as well. Tiago taught the photography workshops as a follow-up activity, and one could only participate if one had attended the preceding reading workshop, which motivated the children to attend both.


The kids’ enthusiasm and participation in the project revealed their love for photography. They walked about happily with their cameras, taking pictures of everything in their paths, reviewing them on the screens, and then showing the images to their parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors and friends.


On certain workshops he would say that he only wanted to see portraits, or landscapes, or that the kids should try to get as close to their subjects as possible; but most of the time he would give them the liberty to photograph whatever they wanted. And that is how some of the most interesting pictures were made. The children had to return the cameras as soon as sessions were over, though sometimes they kept their cameras for a whole day in order to experiment with night photography.


Freddy Bayardo Mejia Madrigal


This was not about training the kids to be professional photographers. What Tiago wanted was for the children to have fun with a new manner of self-expression. He says that the children’s pictures changed his relationship with photography. Their images made him look at his own work in a different light. While the kids shot in a completely spontaneous manner, Tiago photographed according to the instructions received throughout his formal education. By immersing himself in his studies he had forgotten about the beauty of photographing spontaneously, without rules or esthetic principles.


Tiago—whom I met just as he was finishing his projectalso reflects upon how a few works of art led him to a practically forgotten corner of the planet, completely changing his life as well as influencing the lives of the residents of Solentiname. There’s an important lesson for him here: we must keep ourselves sensitive to the changes that any artistic medium can instigate within us. Art should not only be appreciated esthetically or intellectually; it should lead us to action, to work for the benefit of others.


Enmanuel Antonio Mendoza Obando


This is what has led him to share his project with others in the book, “Solentiname Reflected.” Who knows, he says, if the book will also help to determine a future reader’s path.


For me, this has been the fifth miracle of Solentiname.




For more information about this project, view the Miradas de Solentiname website, or download the ebook here


Ernesto Cardenal  (1925) is a Nicaraguan priest, poet, and sculptor who founded his contemplative community in Solentiname in 1966. His work has been translated to more than 20 languages. He was Culture Minister of Nicaragua from 1979-1987.  This article was translated by Tiago Genoveze, revised by Dennis Costa, and adapted by June Carolyn Erlick.


Miradas de Solentiname: Fotografías y Reflexiones

Por Ernesto Cardenal 

Con fotos de la juventud de Solentiname bajo la dirección de Tiago Genovese


Jeffrys Mariana Aguilar Varela


Yo me hice sacerdote para fundar una pequeña comunidad contemplativa en una isla del archipiélago de Solentiname en el Lago de Nicaragua. En los doce años y medio que tuvimos nuestra pequeña comunidad en Solentiname fueron muchísimos los visitantes que llegaron, de Nicaragua y el extranjero. Tantos que a veces nos afligíamos porque ya no podíamos hospedar más, y veíamos desde lejos que arrimaban otros a nuestro pequeño muelle con maletas o mochilas. Hubo casos en que llegaban a Solentiname sin pasar por la capital Managua: viajando a Costa Rica y entrando por el Río San Juan al Lago de Nicaragua.


También son muchos los que (además de mí) han escrito sobre Solentiname. Y, como yo he dicho muchas veces: se ha hecho de Solentiname una especie de mito. La experiencia que allí hubo y lo que allí realizamos no tiene la importancia que muchas veces se le ha dado. Fue en realidad algo muy modesto.


Lo que ha hecho más conocido Solentiname en el mundo es el libro El Evangelio en Solentiname, comentarios del Evangelio hechos por los campesinos junto conmigo, y también con la participación de muchos visitantes. Los comentarios eran a veces tan buenos que yo decidí recogerlos en grabadora y después publicarlos en libro. Este libro ha tenido muchas ediciones y ha sido traducido en muchas lenguas, aun el japonés, el filipino, el coreano. El comentar el Evangelio colectivamente como se hizo en Solentiname se ha repetido después en otras partes, sobre todo en parroquias protestantes en Estados Unidos (adonde fui invitado una vez para que enseñara a hacerlo a una comunidad). Fue un sacerdote español que nos visitó en Solentiname el que me enseñó a mí a hacerlo, como él lo practicaba en un barrio pobre en Managua, y lo había aprendido de un sacerdote panameño que a su vez lo había aprendido de un sacerdote de Chicago.


Jader Jose Hernandez Jimenez


No se puede negar la importancia de otros logros de Solentiname, pero fueron debidos no tanto a mí sino más bien a otros. La pintura primitiva de los campesinos de Solentiname se inició cuando el pintor Róger Pérez de la Rocha y yo dimos a un campesino papel y lápices de colores, y después telas y pinceles y óleos, y éste pintó los primeros cuadros. De ahí procede la gran cantidad de pintores que ha habido en Solentiname, cuya pintura se ha hecho célebre y ha influido en todo Nicaragua.


La artesanía de madera de balso que también ha hecho famoso a Solentiname la originó un niño campesino de 13 años, Eufredito. Hijo de un jornalero, y él mismo a veces también jornalero junto con su padre, viendo las esculturas en madera que yo hacía, se puso a labrar con una cuchilla Gillet pequeñas figuritas en madera de balso, que es muy suave y liviana. Sus figuras estaban influidas por las mías, que son estilizaciones modernas; aunque las de él eran ingenuas y primitivas, y con mucha gracia. Yo le ofrecí dinero por cada escultura que hacía, y viendo eso otros campesinos empezaron a llevarme figuras hechas por ellos también en madera de balso (pescados, garzas, armadillos, ardillas, tortugas) las que yo también pagaba; y así se generó la famosa artesanía, ahora muy abundante en Solentiname, y que también ha influido en otras partes de Nicaragua.


Solentiname también produjo una muy buena poesía campesina, que se ha publicado en otras partes y se ha traducido a otros idiomas. La aparición de esa poesía se debió a pura casualidad. La escritora costarricense Mayra Jiménez que nos visitó en Solentiname, se dio cuenta que los campesinos de allí no conocían mi poesía. Yo no se las había dado a conocer porque pensaba que no la comprenderían, y la gran mayoría de ellos ni siquiera sabían que yo era poeta (y aun la palabra poeta no tendría para ellos mucho significado). Mayra Jiménez había hecho ya antes algunos talleres de  poesía para niños, y resolvió hacer en este lugar uno para los campesinos, con el objeto de que conocieran mi poesía y la de algunos otros poetas nicaragüenses, y que además pudieran empezar a escribir poesía ellos mismos. Todo esto se logró en su taller, y lo más importante es que se produjo la poesía campesina de Solentiname.


Joel Eduardo Carrillo Romero


Varias veces me he referido a estos cuatro logros llamándoles “milagros”, porque se habían producido sorpresivamente, y sin que yo los hubiera en lo absoluto planificado. Ahora se puede hablar de un quinto milagro: el de la fotografía de los niños y las niñas de Solentiname; que es también algo en lo que yo no he tenido ninguna participación.


Miradas de Solentinametiene una historia muy singular. Resultó que un joven fotógrafo brasileño de 23 años, que estaba estudiando en Estados Unidos, decidió ir a Solentiname y dar cámaras fotográficas a los niños campesinos para que tomaran sus propias fotografías.


Anteriormente él no había sabido nada de Solentiname. Estaba insatisfecho de su vida de mucho confort en la Universidad de Boston. Deseaba, en vez de ella, emprender alguna aventura, algo que le diera más sentido a su vida. Entonces le impactó un documental llamado Born into Brothels(“Los niños del barrio rojo”) que trataba de cómo una fotógrafa había ido a Calcuta a fotografiar las prostitutas de la Zona Roja, y mientras lo realizaba empezó a hacerse amiga de los niños de ellas, y les dio cámaras para que aprendieran como un oficio la fotografía. Las fotos de los niños fueron expuestas y gustaron mucho. Todo esto estaba relatado en el documental, y el joven fotógrafo Tiago sintió encontrar en él el rumbo que afanosamente había andado buscando: hacer talleres de fotografía con niños y niñas que jamás hubieran tocado una cámara.


En esos días se acordó de un ensayo que había escrito para su clase de literatura, en el que analizaba mi poema Apocalipsis y el cuento de Julio Cortázar Apocalipsis en Solentiname. En el cuento de Cortázar le había llamado la atención su relación con la fotografía y con Solentiname, y allí descubrió que yo era uno de los personajes del cuento. Pero anteriormente él no había leído nada sobre mí. Ni nunca había oído hablar de Solentiname. Tampoco sabía nada de Nicaragua, aunque poco a poco fue sabiendo algo sobre la revolución, sobre la teología de la liberación y sobre Solentiname. Jamás pensó, dice él, que ese poema mío y ese cuento lo iban a llevar a Solentiname. Después se fue informando más y resolvió realizar allí su proyecto. Tuvo un contacto en Internet, y tres meses después estaba desembarcando con sus cámaras en nuestro muelle.


Maria de los Angeles Requenez


Las cámaras viejas donadas por amigos y conocidos ya se encontraban un poco anticuadas pero aún funcionaban perfectamente. Otras cámaras habían sido compradas por él mediante una donación de mil dólares que le hizo un amigo de Nueva York. Tiago está de acuerdo conmigo en que este experimento como una democratización del arte y la tecnología. Y dice él: “Fuera de enseñarles algunos conceptos y preceptos básicos, la única cosa que tuve que hacer fue poner las cámaras en sus manos”.


Los niños y niñas reaccionaron con gran entusiasmo y curiosidad. Para la gran mayoría de ellos era la primera vez que tocaban una cámara. Hasta entonces las cámaras fotográficas eran algo que sólo los extranjeros y los turistas podían manejar.


Para Tiago es sorprendente el que a pesar de la excesiva humedad de las islas, en aquel clima tropical, del uso diario de las cámaras y la manera en que los chavalos las llevaran por todos lados, corriendo, brincando y jugando, sólo una cámara se dañó en todo el año en que se hizo el experimento, y no fue por culpa del operador. Cuando él llegó no faltaron quienes vaticinaran que las cámaras no durarían mucho tiempo, porque los chavalos [niños] las iban a descomponer o las robarían. Ninguna de las dos cosas sucedió. A pesar de la manera bulliciosa de fotografiar cuidaron de las cámaras como si en realidad les pertenecieran.


Él les enseñó las funciones más básicas de la cámara, y les dio 45 minutos para que fotografiaran. Observó que al momento de recibir las cámaras todos hacían lo mismo: salieron afuera y se pusieron a inspeccionar el mundo a su alrededor como si por el hecho de tener una cámara lo miraran por primera vez. “Esto me impresionó muchísimo” –dice—“y lo vi como prueba de que a pesar de nuestra familiaridad con lo que nos rodea, para fotografiarlo necesitamos estudiarlo, y esto nos puede llevar a un estado elevado de observación que nos hace ver cosas que nos eran invisibles antes de tener una cámara en nuestras manos”.


Juan Daniel Altamirano Madrigal


Estas fotos tienen un valor documental y artístico único según Tiago. Constituyen una visión colectiva del archipiélago realizada desde dentro. Los niños con sus cámaras fueron como espejos de su propia realidad, en la que por cierto hay pocos espejos, a menudo pequeñitos, arrinconados en sus pobres casas. Los chavalos fueron espejos ambulantes, dice  Tiago. Dondequiera que iban sacaban fotos y se las mostraban a todos los que estaban a su alrededor.


Otro valor de estas imágenes, también me dice él, es el de la multiplicidad de sus miradas, presentando las diversas realidades de su vida, y de esta manera desmitificando Solentiname. “Estas fotos” –me dice— “revelan el Solentiname cotidiano de hoy, muy distinto del que se lee en los libros y del Solentiname que usted fundó. Por primera vez vemos los protagonistas del Solentiname real retratados por ellos mismos”.


Una vez por mes o cada dos meses Tiago organizaba una sesión de crítica sobre las fotos. El objeto era ver una selección de fotos recientemente hechas y hablar sobre ellas para agudizar su percepción. Al principio los niños tenían mucha dificultad en expresarse. A lo sumo, después de muchos silencios alguien se atrevía a decir de una foto que estaba bonita o fea. Pero no podía decir por qué.


Carlos Ignacio Baez Hernandez


Los niños estaban teniendo unas clases de lecturas en grupos, donde además de leer libros los discutían después de leídos, y también tenían ejercicios de escritura. Tiago les hacía el taller de fotografía a continuación. Ningún niño podía participar en ellos si no había asistido antes al taller de  lectura, para que los niños asistieran a él.


Los niños participaban con gran entusiasmo en el proyecto porque les encantaba fotografiar. Salían felices con cámaras en sus manos, tomando fotos a todo lo que encontraban, y mirando las fotos en las pantallas de sus cámaras, y después mostrando las imágenes a sus padres, abuelos, primos, vecinos y amigos.


En los talleres a veces les decía que quería sólo fotos de rostros, o que acercaran lo más posible la cámara al objeto, o que quería sólo paisajes. Pero la mayoría de las veces los dejaba en libertad de fotografiar lo que quisieran. Y muchas de las fotos más curiosas fueron estas. Los niños debían regresar las cámaras en cuanto terminaba la sesión, pero a veces les permitía que tuvieran la cámara por 24 horas para que experimentaran con fotos nocturnas.


No se trataba de capacitar a los niños para que fueran fotógrafos profesionales. Lo que él quería era que se divirtieran con una nueva forma de expresión. Él dice que las fotos de los niños y las niñas cambiaron su relación con la fotografía. Esas fotos le hicieron ver las suyas bajo otra luz. Mientras los niños fotografiaban de forma completamente espontánea, él lo hacía según las enseñanzas que había recibido. 


Freddy Bayardo Mejia Madrigal


También me dice Tiago, a quien yo llegué a conocer hasta que estaba terminado su proyecto, que el hecho de que unas obras de arte lo llevaran a un rincón prácticamente olvidado del mundo, y que con ello cambiara su vida y también influyera en la de los solentinameños, es para él una lección muy importante. La lección de que hay que ser sensibles a los cambios que cualquier medio artístico puede provocar en nosotros. Que el arte no se debe apreciar solamente en forma estética e intelectual, sino que también nos debe llevar a la acción, y a hacer obras en beneficio de los demás.


Esto es lo que ha llevado a él a compartir su proyecto con otras personas en el libro Miradas de Solentiname. Quién sabe, dice él, si este libro servirá también para determinar el rumbo de la vida de uno de sus futuros lectores.

Para mí ha sido el quinto milagro de Solentiname.


Enmanuel Antonio Mendoza Obando



Para más información sobre este proyecto, ver el sitio web de Miradas de Solentiname, o descargar el ebook



Ernesto Cardenal(1925) es un poeta, sacerdote y escultor nicaragüense que fundó su comunidad contemplativa en Solentiname en 1966. Su obra ha sido traducida a más de veinte idiomas. Fue Ministro de Cultura en Nicaragua desde 1979 a 1987.



Aquí Nicaragua, cambio...

 (Poesía: situación actual; breve reporte)

Por Carlos M-Castro

Fotos por la juventud de Solentiname, guiada por Tiago Genoveze

Ernesto Cardenal es el mayor de los poetas nicaragüenses vivos. Nacido en 1925, y todavía activo (en 2018 publicó un extenso poema como libro), ninguno de sus paisanos supera su longevidad creativa, y habrá quien incluso lo considere, a despecho de su colega Fernando Silva (1927-2016), el más nicaragüense de los nicaragüenses, y aun el más vivo de los vivos. Entre todos, Cardenal es quien sin duda ejerce mayor influencia en el idioma compartido por más de quinientos millones de personas. Luego de él, aunque quisiéramos evitar escalafones estilo podio olímpico, podríamos tal vez nombrar a Gioconda Belli (1948).

Photo by Carlos Ignacio Baez Hernandez

«Influencia en el idioma». Tamaña hipérbole. Pero veamos de reojo el río que arrastra nuestros días: el mercado y su oráculo doméstico, Google. Una de las editoriales más prestigiosas de poesía en español es Visor, que distribuye sus libros a ambos lados del Atlántico. En su catálogo encontramos a cinco de los nicaragüenses vivos: Cardenal y Belli, con 6 libros cada cual, y Francisco de Asís Fernández (1945), Daisy Zamora (1950) y Carlos Fonseca Grigsby (1988), con uno cada uno; aunque si nos asomamos a las webs de algunas de las librerías más icónicas de México —uno de los países que más importan libros desde España, hogar de Visor—, solamente encontramos a Cardenal y Belli en todas ellas (El Sótano, Gandhi, Péndulo, Porrúa), mientras que Zamora, con ese libro (La violenta espuma, 2017), únicamente está en Gandhi y Péndulo; Fernández, con títulos de otras editoriales (mexicana, La Otra: Luna mojada, 2015, y española, Alfar: La traición de los sueños, 2015, en PDF) está solo en El Sótano; Fonseca Grigsby, por su lado, no está, con su único libro publicado hasta ahora (Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender, 2008), ni en la biblioteca nacional.

Y si escribimos «poeta nicaragüense» en el celebérrimo buscador, es probable que el algoritmo nos devuelva, encabezando los resultados, un panel con fotografías y nombres (tipo cromos coleccionables) que incluirá entre los primeros a Cardenal y Belli, junto con otros ya físicamente desaparecidos como Rubén Darío (1867-1916) o Claribel Alegría (1924-2018), Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002) o Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998). No podremos, además, dejar de notar seguramente un rostro asociado hoy menos con las letras que con aquello que, decían antaño, las hace entrar: el de la actual vicepresidenta de Nicaragua, Rosario Murillo (1951), de quien no encontraremos ningún libro en librería alguna, a no ser de viejo: dejó de publicar poesía en 1990, cuando se dice que mandó destruir el tiraje completo de Como los ángeles —si bien durante la campaña electoral de su marido que dirigió con éxito, en 2005-2006, colgó casi todos sus poemarios, inéditos incluidos, en un sitio web proselitista—.


Tal vez nos tentaría, llegados a este punto, la idea de establecer alguna relación entre la media docena de poetas nicaragüenses vivos antes nombrados. Más que estéticamente, aunque también —pudiendo de algún modo salvar a Fonseca Grigsby—, se vinculan todos ellos —y aquí sí claramente salvo el último— por haber combatido al poder (político) nicaragüense y haberlo tomado luego o compartido colegiadamente, unos más, otros poco menos. Esta simbiosis Literatura/Poder, Política/Estética, será como la c en la conocidísima fórmula de Einstein que resume la obsolescencia de referentes absolutos durante la era en que —todavía hoy— pervivimos, y que asimismo evidencia cómo la masa puede transformarse en Energía. La constante, pues, en el sistema que más o menos, disculpando simpleza o simplificación, representan nuestros —todavía hoy— protagonistas. Sistema que antes de su asalto colectivo funcionaba, desde lo literario, más o menos igual, pero con un matiz algo significativo: para los poetas hegemónicos predecesores, entre quienes es fácil colocar al ya referido Cuadra junto con quien por mucho tiempo fue considerado maestro antonomástico entre los letrados nicaragüenses, José Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994), no era necesario tomar el poder si podían ejercer lo que llaman el soft power, y su invariante era entonces algo más como Literatura/Nación (o quizá Nación/Literatura) y aprendieron a convivir con la política (y operar en ella) de una forma —digamos— subrepticia, como quien no quisiera la cosa.

Y la cosa, justamente, la cosa pública: la república o su posibilidad —además de comprobables consanguinidades—, es lo que, por intentar influenciar o conducir el destino del país, ha mantenido estrechamente vinculados a los poetas nicaragüenses durante casi un siglo: «El Siglo de la Poesía en Nicaragua», como propone otro miembro de la estirpe, Julio Valle-Castillo (1952), que así titula su antología-enciclopedia (tres volúmenes: unas dos mil páginas) de lo que se ha dado en llamar poesía nicaragüense, cuya definición propuesta por Coronel Urtecho y Cuadra —quienes inventaron, digamos, el constructo— es ligeramente ampliada en cuanto a sus orígenes, recuperando para su historia a los modernistas, a quienes coloca en los orígenes de este «fenómeno, tan individual como colectivo, excepcional en la lengua común de España y América», con lo que disminuye la carga que para aquellos debía ser llevada por Darío: la fundación de la literatura nacional (léase poesía nicaragüense), y con ella —y he aquí uno de los mitos modernos o modernizantes más arraigados, cortesía del XX y sus poetas—, la fundación de la nación («Nicaragua: tierra de poetas», etcétera).

Photo by Jader Jose Hernandez Jimenez


Porque la Historia, incluso de la Literatura, se apura a recordarnos en su «canon abierto» de la «última poesía en español» Remedios Sánchez García, «la escriben siempre los vencedores». Y, añade: «también hay vencedores y vencidos en poesía». Su trabajo, publicado por Visor en 2015 y elaborado bajo una inquietante idea democratizadora de la antigua autoridad a partir de la cual doscientos investigadores de un centenar de universidades del ámbito occidental literalmente votaron para elegir a «los poetas más relevantes de la lengua española nacidos después de 1970», incluye una muestra de la obra de cuarenta autores nacionales de una catorcena de países entre los que solamente uno es nicaragüense: Francisco Ruiz Udiel (1977-2010).

El canon abierto, más allá de toda polémica, transparenta algunos de los mecanismos que llevan (o no) a un poeta a perdurar. La poesía, al fin, hecha ya poema, es un acto social o nada. Murillo, por ejemplo, vive quizá una de sus horas altas por aquello de que no existe publicidad mala; pero, aunque muestras de su obra aparezcan en casi todas las antologías referenciales de la poesía nicaragüense, es la única de los ya citados que Daniel Rodríguez Moya omite en La poesía del siglo XX en Nicaragua, que Visor publicó en 2010 en su colección La Estafeta del Viento América, donde, dos años después, Ángel Esteban y Ana Gallego Cuiñas antologarían, bajo el título Juego de manos, la «poesía hispanoamericana de mitad del siglo XX», que incluye a tres nicaragüenses: Cardenal, Belli y Martínez Rivas. 

Este último, cuyo vigésimo aniversario luctuoso pasó desapercibido en junio de 2018 seguramente por la situación hipercrítica de Nicaragua (con Murillo justamente de coprotagonista, Belli como actriz de un reparto acostumbrado a los primeros planos y Cardenal haciendo puntuales cameos), es un consolidado poeta canónico de la tradición nicaragüense, aunque su obra circule relativamente mal. Falta ver si otros, fallecidos más recientemente, como Vidaluz Meneses (1944-2016) o Edwin Yllescas Salinas (1941-2016), Carlos Rigby (1945-2017) o Ana Ilce Gómez (1944-2017), gozarán de igual salud al paso de los años.

Si vemos los libros de texto de Lengua y Literatura editados por el Ministerio de Educación de Nicaragua para las escuelas públicas, notaremos la recurrencia de poetas como Darío, Cuadra o Coronel Urtecho, junto con otros como Azarías H. Pallais (1884-1954), Joaquín Pasos (1914-1947) o Salomón de la Selva (1893-1959), y es apenas en el libro del último grado donde leemos un poema de La insurrección solitaria, libro icónico de Martínez Rivas publicado en 1953, junto con otro de Cardenal y uno más de Belli. Aparte de estos dos, y una poeta mucho más joven, Andira Watson (1977), cuyo nombre se cambia por «Indira» y que aparece con un breve poema citado de pasada en el libro de octavo grado, ningún otro poeta vivo está en las páginas de instrucción pública, aunque debemos señalar que Gómez no había fallecido cuando su poema «Ángel de expulsión» fue incluido junto con el de Belli, «Y Dios me hizo mujer», en la unidad sobre «voces femeninas».

Y es que, a falta de industria editorial, un sistema de certámenes literarios consolidado, e incluso recepción académica o casi cualquier otro tipo de crítica de los pocos poemarios publicados anualmente en Nicaragua (en 2016, último año del que se disponen datos, se registraron 153 títulos, en todas las materias, ante la agencia ISBN), han surgido modos alternativos de construcción del canon poético —que debe reactualizarse constantemente— y de incorporación de nuevos autores al campo literario. A principios de siglo todavía circulaban cada sábado sendos suplementos consagrados a las letras con los dos diarios más grandes: La Prensa Literaria, fundado por Cuadra y cuya edición asumió luego —mientras duró— Marta Leonor González (1973), y El Nuevo Amanecer Cultural, dirigido primero por Luis Rocha Urtecho (1942) y luego —mientras duró— por Erick Aguirre Aragón (1961), ambos miembros de número (con Fernández y Valle-Castillo) de la Academia Nicaragüense de la Lengua, que Cuadra dirigió.

Photo by Stephanny Rachell Carbonero Rosales

Hoy los espacios de circulación de poesía, además del libro (con la desventaja de que cada vez menos editoriales locales publican poesía y la mayoría cobran el «servicio» a los autores), se limitan a un par de revistas impresas de escasa circulación (quizá la única con un alcance relativamente amplio sea El hilo azul, fundada en 2010 y dirigida por Sergio Ramírez [1942], con Ruiz Udiel como su primer jefe de redacción) o virtuales (las más destacables serían 400 Elefantes, que administran González y Juan Sobalvarro (1966) desde 1997 luego de tres años publicándola impresa; Carátula, que dirige desde 2004 el mismo Ramírez y editó también Ruiz Udiel; Álastor, dirigida por Berman Bans [1976] y fundada en Managua en 2016 con Víctor Ruiz [1982] y Yader Velásquez [1992], o Ágrafos, fundada en Washington, D.C. por Roberto Carlos Pérez [1976] y Mario Ramos [1977] en 2017). Luego quedarían blogs y redes sociales, cuyo alcance y nivel de validación es difícil de medir, pero que representan posibilidades interesantes de socialización directa.

Desde 2005 se realizaba también el Festival Internacional de Poesía de Granada, dirigido por Fernández y que organizaba cada año lecturas públicas de poetas de varias nacionalidades y lenguas, espacio de no poca importancia para el tráfico de ideas y contactos (la edición de 2016, por ejemplo, dedicada a Ernesto Mejía Sánchez [1923-1985], propició, por el encuentro casi fortuito entre Juana de los Ángeles Mejía, hija del poeta, y Marco Antonio Campos, la edición de Recolección a mediodía por parte de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México); pero, debido a la situación en Nicaragua, este 2019 no se realizó y habrá que ver si se reactiva cuando (¡¿cuándo?!) el país resuelva sus problemas políticos.

Hay una tradición poética y un modo de entender la poesía —su función, sus límites, su lenguaje— encarnados en patriarcas como Cardenal y que se han mantenido más o menos intactos desde los días hegemónicos de Cuadra y Coronel Urtecho. Un posible agotamiento del modelo, sin embargo, puede intuirse en, por ejemplo, la falta de reactualización del canon, tradicionalmente ejecutada, en parte, con antologías editadas por poetas nicaragüenses a medida que se integran al campo literario —el más reciente fue Héctor Avellán (1973), que en 2012 compiló Nicaragua: el más alto canto, partiendo de Darío y acabando en Fonseca Grigsby—, o en la distancia que la mayoría de quienes tienen cuarenta años o menos (nacidos a partir de 1979) han mantenido, al menos hasta ahora, hacia la acción política directa, los activismos sociales o la burocracia estatal. Pero es en los textos donde hay que buscar las perturbaciones. Algunos poemas de estos autores novoseculares, que pudieron haber sido bisnietos o tataranietos del más vivo de los poetas nicaragüenses vivos, pueden leerse en una reciente muestra compilada por quien tras el siguiente punto le dirá a usted, persona atenta, cambio y fuera.

Bakú, Azerbaiyán
Junio, 2019
Carlos M-Castro es un autor y editor que enseña español como lengua extranjera en Bakú, Azerbaiyán, donde temporalmente reside desde 2016. Su sitio web es

Here Nicaragua, change...

(Poetry: the current situation; a brief report)

By Carlos M-Castro

Photos by the youth of Solentiname under the guidance of Tiago Genoveze

Ernesto Cardenal is the greatest of Nicaragua’s living poets. Born in 1925, and still active (in 2018, he published a long poem as a book), none of his fellow countrymen and women can match his creative longevity, and indeed there are those who would consider him, to the disappointment of his colleague Fernando Silva (1927-2016), the most Nicaraguan of Nicaraguans and even the most lively of the living. Above all, Cardenal is the Nicaraguan who has most influenced the language shared by 500 million people.  Perhaps, after him, although we wish to avoid Olympic-style rankings, we could name Gioconda Belli (1948).

“Influence on the language.” That’s a huge hyperbole. But we see that fact quickly in the river that sweeps our days: the market and its domestic oracle, Google. The world’s most prestigious publishing houses of poetry in Spanish is Visor, which distributes its books on both sides of the Atlantic.  In its catalogue,  we find five living Nicaraguan poets: Cardenal and Belli, with six books each, and Francisco de Asís Fernández (1945), Daisy Zamora (1950) and Carlos Fonseca Grigsby (1988), with one each; although if we check out the websites of the most iconic Mexican bookstores—one of the countries that most imports books from Spain, where Visor is located—we only find Cardenal and Belli in all of them (El Sótano, Gandhi, Péndulo, Porrúa), while Zamora with La violenta espuma, 2017 is only found in Gandhi and Péndulo; Fernández, with titles published elsewhere (Mexico, La Otra: Luna mojada, 2015, and Spain, Alfar: La traición de los sueños, 2015, in PDF) is only found in El Sótano; Fonseca Grigsby’s only published work Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender, 2008 can’t be found, not even in the National Library.

And if we type in “Nicaraguan poet” into the search engine, the algorithm will most likely feature as its top result a panel with photographs and names (collectible trading card-style), that includes Cardenal and Belli first, followed by physically deceased poets such as Rubén Darío (1867-1916) or Claribel Alegría (1924-2018), Pablo Antonio Cuadra (1912-2002) or Carlos Martínez Rivas (1924-1998). Moreover, we surely cannot refrain from noting a face today associated more with politics than poetry—the current Nicaraguan vice-president, Rosario Murillo (1951). Absolutely no book of hers can be found, unless perhaps in a secondhand bookstore, since she stopped publishing poetry in 1990, when it is said that she ordered the entire print run of Como los ángeles to be destroyed —even if during the successful 2005-2006 presidential campaign, she posted almost all of her poetry, even unedited verses, on a campaign website.

Perhaps we would be tempted by the idea of establishing some relationship among the half a dozen living poets previously named.  More than aesthetically, but also for that reason—with the possible exception of Fonseca Grigsby—they are clearly connected (Fonseca Grigsby is again not included)—for having struggled against Nicaraguan (political) power and for later having taken part in the very system they struggled against (or shared it in a collegiate manner) , some more than others. This symbiosis Literature/Power, Politics/Aesthetics, would be like the “c” in Einstein’s well-known formula that sums up the obsolescence of absolute points of reference during the era in which—and still today—we survive, and how evidence mounts that the mass can transform itself into energy. The constant, thus, in the system that more or less, begging pardon for simplicity or oversimplification, represents our—still today—protagonists. A system that before its collective assault, functioned from the literary point of view more or less the same, but with a somewhat significant nuance: for the hegemonic poets that were their predecessors, among whom it is easy to place the previously mentioned Cuadra, as well as José Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994), who for a long time was sonsidered the dean of poets in Nicaragua, it was not necessary to take power if one could practice what is called soft power, and its invariant was then something more like Literature/Nation (or perhaps Nation/Literature). They learned to co-exist with politics (or to work within the political system) in a way that was—let us say— surreptitious, appearing completely uninteresting in the thing.

And precisely “the thing,” the public thing: the republic or its possibity—in addition to provable blood relations—is what, because of trying to influence or lead the fate of the country, has tightly linked Nicaraguan poets to each other for almost a century. “The Century of Poetry in Nicaragua,” as proposed by another member of the poetic ilk, Julio Valle-Castillo (1952), who thus entitles his three-volume anthology-encyclopedia, totaling some 2,000 pages. Nicaraguan poetry, whose definition was proposed by Coronel Urtecho and Cuadra —who invented, let’s say, the construct— is slightly amplified in regards to its origins, reclaiming the modernists as part of its history and placing them squarely as the foundation of this “phenomenon, both individual and collective, exceptional in the common language of Spain and America,” and this statement eases the burden borne by Darío: the foundation of the national literature (understood as Nicaraguan poetry), and with it, one of the most deeply rooted modern or modernizing myths, courtesy of the 20th century and its poets, the founding of the nation—“Nicaragua: land of poets.”

Because history, and indeed literature, as Remedios Sánches García of the University of Granada notes, “is always written by the winners.” And she adds, “There are also winners and losers in poetry.” Her work is an “open model” of the “latest poetry in Spanish,” published by Visor in 2015, elaborated under the worrisome democratizing idea of the old authority in which two hundred researchers from a hundred universities in the West literally voted to elect “the most relevant poets in the Spanish language since the 1970s.” She includes a sampling of forty national authors from fourteen countries, of which only one is Nicaraguan: Francisco Ruiz Udiel (1977-2010).

El Canon Abierto (The Open Canon), beyond its polemic nature, brings to light some of the mechanisms that make a poet last (or not).  Poetry, after all, is a social act or nothing. Murillo, for example, perhaps is experiencing a high point because no publicity is bad publicity; but, although selections of her work appear in almost all of the reference anthologies of Nicaraguan poetry, she is the only one of the referenced poets that  Daniel Rodríguez Moya leaves out in La poesía del siglo XX en Nicaragua (Twentieth-Century Nicaraguan Poetry), which Visor published in 2010 in its collection La Estafeta del Viento América, where, two years later, Ángel Esteban and Ana Gallego Cuiñas created an anthology, entitled Juego de manos, “Mid-20th-Century Hispano-American poetry,” which includes three Nicaraguans: Cardenal, Belli and Martínez Rivas.

The 20th anniversary of Martínez Rivas’ death passed without notice in June 2018 surely because of the hypercritical situation in Nicaragua (with Murillo precisely as co-protagonist, and Belli as a supporting actress used to playing the principal role and Cardenal making cameo appearances from time to time). Martínez Rivas is a consolidated canonic poet in the Nicaraguan tradition, although his poetry is not widely circulated. It remains to be seen if others, more recently deceased, like Vidaluz Meneses (1944-2016) or Edwin Yllescas Salinas (1941-2016), Carlos Rigby (1945-2017) or Ana Ilce Gómez (1944-2017) will maintain their reputations as years go by.

If we look at the textbooks on language and literature edited by the Nicaragua Education Ministry for the public schools, we will note the frequent references to Darío, Cuadra or Coronel Urtecho, together with others like Azarías H. Pallais (1884-1954), Joaquín Pasos (1914-1947) or Salomón de la Selva (1893-1959), and it is only in a book for students in their last year in which we read the poem from La insurrección solitaria, Martínez Rivas’ iconic book, published in 1953, together with a poem by Cardenal and another by Belli. Aside from these two, and a much younger poet, Andira Watson (1977), whose name is mistakenly spelled “Indira” in an eighth-grade textbook, where a short poem of hers is published, no other living poet appears in these pages of public instruction. We ought to point out, however, in making this assertion that Gómez was still alive when his poem “Ángel de expulsión” was included alongside that of Belli, “Y Dios me hizo mujer” in the section on “feminine voices.”

Because of the absence of a publishing industry, a consolidated system of literary contests, and even academic reception or almost any type of other criticism of the few poetry books published annually in Nicaragua (in 2016, the last year for which statistics are available, there were 153 new titles, on every subject, with a registered ISBN), alternative ways of constructing a poetic canon have arisen‑which must be constantly updated with the incorporation of new authors in the literary field. At the beginning of the century, there were still literary supplements every Saturday in the country’s two largest newspapers: La Prensa Literaria, founded by Cuadra and then edited by Marta Leonor González (1973) until its demise, and El Nuevo Amanecer Cultural, edited first by Luis Rocha Urtecho (1942) and later by Erick Aguirre Aragón (1961) until its demise, both numerary members (with Fernández and Valle-Castillo) of the Nicaraguan Academy of the Language, headed by Cuadra.

Today the spaces for circulation of poetry, as well as poetry books (which have the obvious disadvantage that fewer and fewer local publishing houses publish poetry and most of them charge authors a fee to get published), is limited to a couple of magazines with little circulation (perhaps the only one with a decent-sized circulation is El hilo azul, founded in 2010 and directed by Sergio Ramírez [1942], with Ruiz Udiel as its first editor) or online publications (the most notable are 400 Elefantes, run by González and Juan Sobalvarro (1966) since 1997 after three years as a print magazine; Carátula, which Ramírez has directed since 2004 and Ruiz Udiel has also edited Álastor, run by Berman Bans [1976] and founded in Managua in 2016 with Víctor Ruiz [1982] and Yader Velásquez [1992], or Ágrafos, established in Washington, D.C. by Roberto Carlos Pérez [1976] and Mario Ramos [1977] in 2017). Then there are blogs and social media. Although their reach and validation are difficult to determine, they represent interesting possibilities of reaching a wide audience directly.  

Since 2005, the annual International Poetry Festival of Granada, directed by Fernández, organizes public readings by poets from different nations writing in different languages. The festival provides a significant space for the traffic of ideas and for networking (in 2016, for example, the festival, in honor of Ernesto Mejía Sánchez [1923-1985], led to the almost chance meeting between Juana de los Ángeles Mejía, the poet’s daughter, and Marco Antonio Campos, editor of the Mexican edition of Recolección a mediodía by Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México). However, because of the political crisis in Nicaragua, the festival did  not take place in 2019, and it remains to be seen if will be resumed if (when????) the country resolves its political problems.  

Here there is a poetic tradition and a way of understanding poetry—its purpose, its limits and its language—exemplified by patriarchs such as Cardenal—and which has been maintained more or less intact since the hegemonic days of Cuadra and Coronel Urtecho. One can sense, however, a possible exhaustion of this model in the lack of bringing the canon up to date, traditionally executed, in part with anthologies edited by Nicaraguan poets as they form part of the literary landscape. The most recent was that of Héctor Avellán (1973), who in 2012 compiled Nicaragua: el más alto canto, beginning with Darío and ending with Fonseca Grigsby—, or in the distance with which the majority of those who are forty or under have maintained, at least until now, from direct political action, social activism or the state bureaucracy. But it is in the texts that one needs to look for disruptions. Some poems of these neo-secular authors, who could be the great-grandchildren or the great-great grandchildren of the living Nicaraguan poets, can be read in this recent sampling by he, who making the final point, will tell you, attentive reader, over and out.


Bakú, Azerbaiyán

Junio, 2019



Carlos M-Castro is an author and editor who teaches Spanish as a second language in Bakú, Azerbaijan, where he temporarily has resided since 2016. His website is

3, 2, 1... poemas

Por Carlos M-Castro


Manual para sobrevivientes

No quiero un panegírico leído por Ernesto, Sergio o Claribel

ni un mausoleo en la Colina de los Ilustres Hombres.

Que no maquillen mi pellejo

ni disfracen mi esqueleto y su cubierta de un Gran Señor que nunca fui.

Prohibidos los videos y las fotos que después circularán por Internet

o serán salvapantallas, tapiz del Escritorio,

imagen destacada de perfil en red social.


Nadie publique un reportaje, una noticia, un obituario.

Alejen a la prensa de la fosforescencia de mi profundo oscuro sueño.

Golpeen todo rostro cuyos ojos enrojezcan

ante el primer ardor de mi chorreante témpano

y humillen a cuanta mujer aparezca

queriendo, enlutada, acaparar la propiedad privada del Dolor.


Desnudo amordazado dando vueltas frente al fuego,

aguarden su ración de carne asada los presentes;

trituren lo que sobre, hagan moronga

y coman hasta hartarse de mis restos.


Si al rato van al baño a descargarse,

no olviden con las hojas limpiarse de mis libros.


Jamás se les ocurra de todo lo que dije o escribí

copiar ni media frase en las paredes.

Olvídense de dioses y de héroes.

En estos tiempos los monumentos hieden.


Conviene reajustarse los grilletes.






Ya no me importan tu arrogancia, rancia

estrategia de tragedia ni media

cubriéndote la pierna tierna mientras

la otra trota de vista en vista lista


para herir, rugir y huir de mi dura,

en mis idos, a mi profetizante

mano sin guante, oídos, dentadura;

pues, ves, tus dedos los enredos hacen


por diversión para ambos bobos (bosques

que caben en gestos toscos, costumbres

de hacha, charadas). Enredos y locos


como los nuestros y como nosotros

yo como. Comé comamos comámonos

que no me importan tus dudas, ¡juguemos!







Verdades que se empozan bajo el agua

En una transparencia sin lenguaje,

donde el lenguaje mismo es más bien la trans-

parencia, algoritmo indiscernible

fluye como la sangre a un corazón

cuyo latir responde

al ritmo de expansión del Universo.

Podríamos pensar que en esa danza,

ejecutada no como espectáculo,

hay un mensaje oculto

que debe ser hallado

para reconciliarnos con el Todo.


Ausentes los contornos de los nombres,

a fosas abisales descendemos

buscando así la propia imagen; vamos

cayendo pájaros en la pupila

hacia una altura aleteo inaudible

donde el nido de nuestro nido, imagen

recurrente de un sueño colectivo,

acuna nuestra ruina,

nuestro ataúd y nuestro entierro y nuestra

herida y el arma que la ocasiona

y la mano que la blande, su fuerza

y sus motivos. Una ceguera entonces

alerda nuestro vuelo

y apenas salpicados regresamos

a la falsa firmeza de la tierra.


Oímos en sordina,

mientras tanto, los gritos de la sed

y sus pisadas; oímos territorios

que rugen al llamarse unos a otros.

Oímos colisiones, minerales

bestias en duelo genesiacas: bordes

que, cérvidas cornadas, van y vuelven,

geodésico ritual,

sobre su propio alud mudando formas.

Mientras sus elementos se reordenan.


De un mecanismo abstracto los engranes,

cuando no somos más que una molécula

sumergida sin rumbo

y al azar enlazada,

giran indiferentes al trayecto

que describe su estela o a la sombra

imposible de sus mutuos mordiscos;

giran pues los engranes

y el eco de su música se instala,

espíritu común, número áureo

enfrentado a su inverso, en cada acorde,

nota, compás, silencio, disonancia.

Sabemos que el ascenso es hundimiento,

pero seguimos yéndonos sin pausa,

embebidos, al fin, unos en otros.




Carlos M-Castro es un autor y editor que enseña español como lengua extranjera en Bakú, Azerbaiyán, donde temporalmente reside desde 2016. Su sitio web es

Nicaragua, Land of Poets

By Gema Santamaría

To my mom, Yelbita Balmaceda Vivas

(06.24.1950 – 01.28.2019)


On July 19, 2019, Nicaragua commemorates the 40th anniversary of what is considered to be one of the last and greatest social revolutions of Latin America’s 20th century: the Sandinista Revolution (1979-1990). In accordance with the tradition inaugurated by the great Nicaraguan poet Ruben Darío (1867-1916), during the months leading up to the uprising and during the years that followed the revolutionary triumph, Nicaraguans turned to poetry to celebrate the end of the Somoza dynasty and what they envisioned would be a new era of social, cultural and political transformations. Poetry acquired a popular and social character, and poets of both sexes composed and read collectively verses that spoke of a new patria libre in which men and women could exercise their rights as citizens within a truly sovereign and egalitarian country.

Photo by Jeyner Josue Sequeira Martinez, youth of Solentiname under the direction of Tiago Genoveze

The story of the Sandinista Revolution’s demise is well known. A civil war divided the country, and a U.S.-sponsored counter-revolution, together with a debilitated governing elite, contributed to undermine the promises and possibilities of social and political change. Nicaragua’s truncated transition to democracy, together with a series of structural adjustments during the 1990s, gave rise to a period marked by economic inequality, corruption, weak institutions and political divisions. Just as in its neighbouring countries, Nicaragua entered a period of profound democratic disenchantment.

The return of former Sandinista president Daniel Ortega to the presidency in 2007 benefited from, and contributed to, this democratic disenchantment. A populist who uses both coercion and co-optation to maintain his power, Daniel Ortega continues to utilize his former anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist rhetoric but has now become a firm promoter and beneficiary of the neoliberal policies that have had a huge impact on the lower and middle sectors of society. He has furthermore dismantled the country’s already weakened democratic institutions in a steady and dramatic manner. In April 2018, a series of protests that quickly spiralled into more radical and revolutionary demands were brutally repressed by both state and paramilitary forces. Ortega’s use of brute force against students and young people left a deep mark in the Nicaraguan people, including former and current Sandinistas. In spite of an incipient process of dialogue between opposition forces and Ortega’s government, social activists, journalists and other public figures continue to be harassed, supressed and forced to exile.

Today, as yesterday, Nicaraguans have turned to poetry in order to articulate their aspirations and desires for a free Nicaragua. Political dissent might be provisionally silenced, but poetry will continue to speak the words of hope and change our country so badly needs.

Photo courtesy of Gema Santamaría


Gema Santamaría is Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Loyola University, Chicago. Her research focuses on questions of violence, justice and the rule of law in Latin America. She was born in 1979, the year of the revolution, in Managua, Nicaragua. She is the author of Piel de Poesía (Managua-México, 400 Elefantes-Opción, 2002), Antídoto para una mujer trágica (México, Mezcalero Brothers, 2007) and Transversa (México, Proyecto Literal, 2009). Her work has been translated to English, Portuguese, French, and German.  She edited, together with poets Lauri García Dueñas and Jocelyn Pantoja, the poetry anthology Apresurada cicatriz: instantáneas de poesía centroamericana (México, Proyecto Literal, 2013). She is a member of the Nicaraguan Association for Women Writers (ANIDE).

Nicaragua, tierra de poetas

Por Gema Santamaría

A mi mamá, Yelbita Balmaceda Vivas

(06.24.1950 – 01.28.2019)


Este 19 de julio de 2019 se conmemora el cuarenta aniversario de la que es considerada una de las últimas y más importantes revoluciones sociales del siglo XX latinoamericano: la Revolución Sandinista de Nicaragua (1979-1990). Siguiendo la tradición inaugurada por el gran poeta nicaragüense Rubén Darío (1867-1916), durante los meses previos al estallido de la revolución y los años que le siguieron al triunfo, los y las nicaragüenses se volcaron a la poesía para celebrar el fin de la dinastía Somoza y el inicio de lo que ellos anhelaban sería una nueva era de transformaciones sociales, culturales, y políticas. La poesía adquirió un tono popular y social, y poetas de ambos sexos crearon y leyeron colectivamente versos que hablaban de una nueva patria libre en la que mujeres y hombres pudieran ejercer sus derechos como ciudadanos dentro de un país verdaderamente soberano e igualitario.

Photo by Jeyner Josue Sequeira Martinez, youth of Solentiname under the direction of Tiago Genoveze

La historia del declive de la Revolución Sandinista es bien conocido. Una guerra civil que dividió al país, junto con una contra-revolución apoyada por Estados Unidos y una élite gobernante débil, contribuyeron a mermar las promesas y posibilidades de un cambio social y político en el país. La transición incompleta de Nicaragua hacia la democracia, junto con una serie de ajustes estructurales durante los 1990, dieron lugar a un periodo marcado por la desigualdad económica, corrupción, debilidad institucional y profundas divisiones políticas. Al igual que sus países vecinos, Nicaragua entró en un periodo caracterizado por un profundo desencanto democrático.

El regreso del ex presidente sandinista Daniel Ortega al poder en 2007 se nutrió y ha contribuido a dicho desencanto democrático. Un populista que hace uso de la coerción y la cooptación para mantenerse en el poder, Daniel Ortega continúa utilizando su anterior retórica anti-imperialista y anti-capitalista mientras en la práctica se ha convertido en un firme promotor y beneficiario de las políticas neoliberales que han perjudicado a los sectores medios y populares de la sociedad. Ortega ha además desmantelado las ya de por sí débiles instituciones democráticas del país de una manera dramática. En abril de 2018, una serie de protestas que se convirtieron rápidamente en demandas más radicales y revolucionarias fueron reprimidas brutalmente tanto por fuerzas estatales como para-militares.  El uso de la fuerza por parte de Ortega en contra de estudiantes y jóvenes causó una fuerte y negativa impresión entre los nicaragüenses, incluidos aquellos que se identificaban y continúan identificándose con el sandinismo. A pesar de un incipiente proceso de diálogo entre las fuerzas de oposición y el gobierno de Ortega, activistas sociales, periodistas, y otras figuras públicas continúan siendo acosados, reprimidos y forzados al exilio.

Hoy, como ayer, los nicaragüenses se han volcado a la poesía en aras de articular sus aspiraciones y deseos por una Nicaragua libre. La disidencia política podrá ser silenciada provisionalmente, pero la poesía continuará pronunciando las palabras de esperanza y cambio que el país tanto necesita. 

Photo courtesy of Gema Santamaría


Gema Santamaría es Profesora Asistente de Historia de América Latina en Loyola University, Chicago. Su investigación se centra en temas de violencia, justicia, y estado de derecho en América Latina. Nació en 1979, el año de la revolución, en Managua, Nicaragua. Es la autora de Piel de Poesía (Managua-México, 400 Elefantes-Opción, 2002), Antídoto para una mujer trágica (México, Mezcalero Brothers, 2007) y Transversa (México, Proyecto Literal, 2009). Su poesía ha sido publicado al inglés, portugués, francés y alemán. Es editora, junto con las poetas Luari García Dueñas y Jocelyn Pantoja, de la antología de poesía Apresurada cicatriz: instantáneas de poesía centroamericana (México, Proyecto Literal, 2013). Es integrante de la Asociación Nicaraguense de Escritoras (ANIDE).


Por Gema Santamaría

Después del fulgor

Nicaragua, engañaron a tus hijos

o quizás tú misma los engañaste.

Te sentías abundante y satisfecha en tu élite extranjera

en la blancura de tu clase dominante.



sobre el espejo “shaineado” de las botas del imperio

reclinaste tu orgullo

y abandonaste la razón.


La bota del yanqui no es más que la bota de tu hermano recién pulida,

los dientes blanquísimos del office boy que aún sueña con ser terrateniente.


Nicaragua, te veo en las gallinas moribundas comiéndose las entrañas

en los caminos polvorientos del subdesarrollo;

en el 19 de julio alcoholizada, contoneándote, moviendo tu sexo

frente a la tarima humeante donde trafican hielo seco y luces fluorescentes.


Nicaragua, eres la pretensión de tus hijos vueltos de Miami,

la rabia de los que se quedaron atrás,

el desasosiego de aquellos que viajan a tierra tica

sintiéndose ciudadanos de segunda en un país de tercer mundo.


Nica, dónde quedaron tus flores,

dónde quedó tu sonrisa pinolera y tu insolencia,

dónde el glamour revolucionario de antaño que mantenía

los corazones calientes de europeos y americanos;

dónde tu fulgor, tu atrevido y desenfadado repertorio de imperativos:

vení, oíme, volvé, tené, mirame…


Hoy te reinventas en una elite propia pero igual de extractiva, explotadora;

una élite que habla tu idioma,

que va vestida de verde olivo,

de verde esmeralda,

hedionda de verde.


Nicaragua, te veo convertirte en un basural,

tu gente tiene los ojos cristalinos de rabia,

miran con la mirada inquieta del que desea venganza.

Por eso tomas frente al espejo la pócima revolucionaria del ayer,

por la reacción de hoy

por el olvido de hoy

por la promesa escurridiza de lo que nunca fue.


Nicaragua, te veo en la muerte sin dientes y sin banderas

en el estómago firme y curvo de los animales de tu reino

en tus niños traficando su calor por los sueños de dólares del extranjero.


Te veo en tu tierra quemada,

en tu religión de vírgenes monumentales echas de piedra a las que nunca les saldrán lágrimas,

en tus apagones

en tu canal de cuentos chinos

en tus  prejuicios y tus ciclos de venganza

en tu sentido del humor y tus hamacas

en tus niños apilados detrás de la silueta cada vez más sombría de Sandino.


Nicaragua, tu capitalismo humeante se parece al nuestro,

al de todos los latinoamericanos,

esperando en las orillas de los ríos secos que los barcos humeantes

nos empujen al otro lado,

del otro lado,

donde el sueño color verde se hunde al fondo de un mar incandescente.



Carta escrita a los 30 años

-Mi madre dice que nací en mitad de la guerra.-


En la ciudad y en la montaña se abría fuego

con el arma más fuerte:

la de un pueblo que grita patria o muerte

con la garganta repleta y el corazón afilado


-Ayer nacimos pequeños. Hoy seremos gigantes-


El cielo reventaba. Los niños lo sabían desde hace ya tiempo:

ese tronar rabioso no era de fiesta,

era el seco temblor del miedo

el picante olor de la pólvora.


-Nicaragua libre, Nicaragua-


Nací en mitad de la sangre,

en los pasillos celestes de aquel hospital roto.

Heridos, heridos en la carne

heridos, nunca muertos en el pecho.


-"Cristo ya nació," cantaban en misa-


Y el campo se teñía de flores rojas

y la ciudad se colgaba pintas rebeldes

pero hermanas y hermanos, la guerra no acaba

ay, ay, esto apenas comienza.


-Y el invierno llovía cálido sobre Managua-


Mi madre le rezó a la santa italiana

la joven de la fe abierta en llagas,

mientras paría, mientras lloraba

afuera la guerra, afuera la guerra, santa


-"La flor más linda," te cantaban, Nicaragua-


Toda revolución se apaga.

30 años después y hermanos, hermanas,

se comen el hambre, el hastío, la rabia.


Mi madre dice que nací en mitad de la guerra

pero es que esa guerra, aún no se acaba.


Noche en Managua, tras la muerte de los gallos

Esta noche tiene la garganta enrojecida.

Ha gritado y está enferma.

Duerme al fondo de un cuarto blanco e iluminado sobre el piso.


Es un gran cerdo rosado.


Contra la esquina, se lamenta.

Perdió la lucidez y tiene todas las uñas rotas.

Está mareada

Está borracha.


Esta noche no tiene una cama donde orinar sus miedos.

Por eso se arrastra sobre los techos enmohecidos.

Se alimenta del musgo y del vapor que dejan los niños,

al dormir, en las ventanas.


Se han muerto los gallos que ponen fin a su delirio.

Solo los grillos crepitan en el jardín eterno de las horas.


Está sola con su boca ratonera

está tensa

está brava y es caliente.


Nosotros dormimos en la mancha gris

que es su garganta.


Nos creemos soñadores.

Aún no hemos probado el filo.

Ni siquiera intuimos sus navajas.


By Gema Santamaría


Nicaragua, they tricked your children

or perhaps you tricked them yourself.

You felt content and abundant in your foreign elite,

in the whiteness of your ruling class.



on the shiny mirror of the empire's boots

you lay down your pride

and abandoned reason.


The Yankee's boot is nothing but your brother’s new polished boots,

the bright white teeth of the office boy who still dreams of being a landowner. 


Nicaragua, I see you in the dying fowl eating their own entrails,

 on the dusty roads of underdevelopment;

on the 19th of July drunk,

 swinging your hips, moving your sex

in front of the smoking platform where they sell dry ice and fluorescent lights. 


Nicaragua, you are the pretentiousness of your children returned from Miami,

the rage of those who stayed behind,

the restlessness of those who travel to Tica land,

 feeling themselves second class citizens in a third world country. 


Nica, where are your flowers,

where is your pinolero smile and your insolence,

where the revolutionary glamor of yesteryear that kept

the hearts of Europeans and Americans alike warm;

where your glow, your bold and lightsome repertoire of imperatives:

vení, oíme, volvé, tené, mirame... 


Today you reinvent yourself in an elite of your own,

equally extractive, exploitative;

an elite that speaks your language,

dressed in olive green,

in emerald green,

in rotten green. 


Nicaragua, I see you turning into a huge landfill,

your people have the crystalline eyes of rage,

the restless eyes of those seeking revenge.

That is why you stand before the mirror and drink the revolutionary potion of yesterday,

because of  today's reaction

because of today's oblivion

because of the slippery promise of that which never was. 


Nicaragua, I see you in the teethless and flagless death,

in the firm and curved stomach of the animals of your kingdom,

 in your children trafficking their warm in exchange of the dollar dreams of the foreigner. 


I see you in your scorched earth,

in your religion of monumental virgins cast of stone whose tears will never cry;

in your blackouts,

 in your channel of Chinese tales,

 in your prejudices and your cycles of revenge,

in your sense of humor and your hammocks,

in your children piled behind the ever more grim silhouette of Sandino. 


Nicaragua, your smoky capitalism looks like ours,

like that of all Latin Americans,

waiting on the dry rivers banks that the steaming boats push us

to the other side,

into the other side,

where the dream green color sinks into the bottom of an incandescent sea.



Letter written at the age of thirty

-My mother says I was born in the midst of the war-


In the city and in the mountain,

fire opened up with the strongest of weapons:

that of a people that shouts patria or death

with a full throat

with a sharpened heart.


- Yesterday we were born small. Today we will be giants-


The sky broke. The children had known it for a long time:

that raging thunder was not the sound of fiesta,

it was the dry tremor of fear,

the spicy smell of gunpowder.


-Nicaragua free, Nicaragua-


I was born in the middle of the blood,

in the sky-blue corridors of that broken hospital.

Wounded, wounded in the flesh

wounded, never dead in the heart.


- "Christ has been born," they sang in mass-


And the fields dyed with red flowers

 and the city painted with signs of rebellion

but sisters and brothers, the war does not end

Oh, oh, this is just beginning.


-And the winter poured its warm rain over Managua-


My mother prayed to the Italian saint,

to the young woman whose faith opened her flesh,

while giving birth, while crying out

end the war, end the war, saint.


"The most beautiful flower," they sang to you, Nicaragua-


Every revolution ends.

30 years later and brothers, sisters,

 they eat their hunger, boredom, rage.


 My mother says that I was born in the midst of the war

but this war, has not ended.



Night in Managua, after the death of the roosters

Tonight’s throat is reddened.

She has shouted and is sick.

She sleeps on the floor, at the end of a white and illuminated room.


She is a fat pink swine.


Against the corner, she laments.

She has lost her lucidity and all her nails are broken.


She is dizzy

She is drunk.


This night does not have a bed where to urinate her fears.

That is why she crawls over the moldy roofs.

She feeds off the widows’ moss and steam left behind by children,

while sleeping.


The roosters that put an end to her delirium have died.

Only the crickets crack in the hours’ eternal garden.


She is alone with her mouse hole-mouth

she is tense

she is upset and hot.


We sleep in the gray stain

of her throat.


We dream of being dreamers.

We have not tried her edge.

We do not know her knives.

The Afterlife of Rubén Darío in English

By Carlos F. Grigsby

Photos by the youth of Solentiname under the guidance of Tiago Genoveze (except photo of Rubén Darío)

Argentine writer Enrique Anderson Imbert (1910–2000)—who, incidentally, in 1965 became the first Victor S. Thomas Professor of Hispanic Literature at Harvard—once wrote that the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío divides the history of Spanish-language literature in two: there is Spanish before and after Darío.

Rubén Darío in 1914, Photo by Biblioteca Nacional de Chile

Born in the small town of Metapa (today Ciudad Darío), Rubén Darío (1867–1916) is widely considered one of the most influential writers in the history of the Spanish language. While the value of his work was, for decades, a matter of dispute (often critiqued for being escapist and pretentious), it is now unanimously regarded as a turning point in the history of Hispanic literature. Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, among others, have all recognized their debt to Darío. And yet, he remains widely unknown in the English-speaking world.

Photo by Selena del Carmen Baez Hernandez

World Literature, as a rubric conceived in English, is riddled with such small ironies. What we often find in English-language anthologies of literatures from around the world does not always correspond to what those literatures say about themselves in their own languages. Admittedly, the specific irony of Darío’s obscurity in English is what prompted the subject of my Ph.D. thesis, which I’m due to finish in the next couple of months. Over the past three years, I have spent long afternoons poring over 19th- and 20th-century books looking for an answer to the question of why and how a poet of such enormous importance in one language is almost completely unknown in another. My initial hypothesis was simple enough: it’s because of the translations. Darío is extremely difficult to translate. His Spanish is so melodious that his best-known poems have a mnemonic quality to them thanks to their rhythm and rhyme. Most of the translations of his work into English, however, are either scholarly word-for-word renderings or translations into literalist free verse. When that’s not the case, translators have indeed found a way of rendering his poems into rhyme, but usually at the expense of almost everything else in the poems. The aversion I felt upon reading those translations for the first time is what led me to my hypothesis mentioned above, which turned out to be simplistic.

About a year or so into my Ph.D., after having read as much as I could about or by Darío, I moved on to reading about translation. I realized that other Spanish-language poets (such as Neruda or Lorca) had often been poorly translated as well, and yet were relatively well-known to Anglophone readers of poetry. It soon became clear that the translation of literature is only superficially about language; cultural and historical differences between literary cultures bear on it more heavily. To answer the question of Darío’s obscurity one must look at the history of Spanish American literature and its translation to English.

The so-called Boom of Spanish American literature in English came to prominence in the 1960s and found its culmination in Gregory Rabassa’s translation of García Márquez’s Cien años de soledad (1967), rendered in English as One Hundred Years of Solitude (1970). Darío, however, lived long before those auspicious decades. If we were to draw a chronology for the changing landscape of Latin American translations into English before the “Boom,” the picture would be one of dearth. Prior to 1890, the Argentinean writer Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s Facundo was the only book-length Spanish American work of literary prose translated into English. Before the 1930s, the decade in which the influential Harriet de Onís started translating from the Spanish and the Portuguese, very few Latin American works were translated into English at all. It was not until the outbreak of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that readers’ attention toward the region resulted in a flurry of translations.

Photo by Esteven Moises Aguilar Sequeira

Despite these circumstances, Darío did not have to wait until the 1960s to be translated into English. The first book-length translation—albeit more a booklet than a book—was Salomón de la Selva and Thomas Walsh’s Eleven Poems (1916), published by the Hispanic Society of America the year of Darío’s death. Six years later, the translator Charles McMichael published his own renderings as Prosas profanas and other poems (1922), which was also more a booklet than a book (nine poems in total). Despite the title, McMichael included a small selection of poems taken not only from Prosas profanas, one of Darío’s most influential books, but also from Azul… (1888) and El canto errante (1907). These translated poems were metrically uneven and idiomatically gauche, and when read against the backdrop of other works from the period such as Ezra Pound’s Cathay (1915) or T.S. Eliot The Waste Land (1922), at a time when Modernism was bursting onto the scene, they must have come across—to a readership who knew close to nothing about Spanish America—as an antiquated curiosity. Nevertheless, given Darío's celebrity status in the Spanish-speaking world of the time, in addition to the tour he partially carried out around the United States by invitation of the Hispanic Society, the publication of these booklets close to the time of his death should be unsurprising. However, what is surprising is the extent to which they failed to produce any significant interest in his writing, as another book-length translation would not be published until 1965.

That year, translator Lysander Kemp—also the translator of Mexican writers Octavio Paz and Juan Rulfo—published Selected Poems of Rubén Darío (1965) through University of Texas Press. The “Boom” of Spanish American literature in translation had finally found its way to Darío, albeit through its less popular channel: university presses. Free verse had now been consolidated as the conventional poetic idiom and translated works were often read on their own as literature proper. Both these changes in the literary culture of the United States can be seen in Kemp’s edition and should be unsurprising given their context. What is surprising, by contrast, is the extent to which this translation failed to produce any further interest in Darío’s writing, since another book-length translation would not be published until 2001, almost forty years afterwards.

Why was there no significant interest in one of Spanish America’s major poets once a new translation was released fifty years after his death? Without its rhythm and its rhymes, there’s an air of outdatedness to Darío’s late 19th-century style in English, even in Kemp’s more idiomatic translation, which must have been off-putting for readers who viewed Spanish American writers through a modernist lens. Also, the narrow academic audiences to which Kemp’s edition was restricted would have only highlighted the distance between Darío’s writing and the expectations of post-war Anglo-American readers. There was also an expectation of exoticism when it came to works from Latin America—which came about with the success of magical realism and without a doubt continues to this day. If we consider the Parisian setting and the motifs that abound in Darío’s poetry—fountains, swans, Greek myths, to name a few—it is easy to see how the Nicaraguan would not have met those expectations.

Photo by German Jose Obando

As mentioned above, it would take almost another forty years for the next publication of a book-length translation of Darío in English, when scholars Will Derusha and Alberto Acereda published their renderings of an ample selection of his poems under the title Selected Poems of Rubén Darío: A Bilingual Anthology (2001). Then, during the first decade of the 2000s, we saw a sudden increase in translations: a year later Stanley Appelbaum published Stories and Poems/Cuentos y Poesías: A Dual-Language Book (2002); then Derusha and Acereda published their translation of Darío’s Cantos de vida y esperanza, rendered as Songs of Life and Hope (2004); finally, Penguin Classics published a selection of the Nicaraguan’s writing as Rubén Darío: Selected Writings (2006). Among the reasons for this sudden burst of translations, two in particular seem beyond doubt: the growth of the academic book market as a global market that includes both Spanish American Literature and Translation Studies, as scholarly fields developed in their own right, led to the involvement of more academics as translators of Darío; on the other hand, the growth of the Hispanic community in the United States, as well as the consolidation of Latinx and Chicano literature, means that public figures such as Ilan Stavans—who in his introduction to the Penguin edition comments on the possibility of hearing Darío in English as one of his long-held dreams as a Latino immigrant—are nowadays capable of mustering enough credibility and prestige so that publishers believe in the existence of a readership for authors such as Darío.

Nevertheless, though we now have more translations of Darío, the situation has not improved as much as one would expect. Three out of four of these translations are, like their predecessors, intended mainly for academic readers—namely students of Spanish—for whom translations of Darío, though of questionable quality, already existed. While this is certainly positive for the continued study of Darío’s writing, it means that these translations cannot actually be read as poems in their own right. In other words, Anglophone readers of poetry still do not have a Darío in English that could give them some idea of the literary quality of the Nicaraguan’s poems. On the other hand, the one translation intended for a wider audience, which was published by Penguin, has been heavily criticized since its release. In an article published in The Nation in 2006, the Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale, Roberto González Echevarría, pointed out several basic errors in the anthology and called one of the translations therein “appalling.” The edition indeed seems to have been rushed; and the co-translators of Darío’s poetry for the edition, Greg Simon and Steven White, often misinterpret Darío, fudge the register and the tone of the poems, and fill the lines with gratuitous padding to complete their rhymes. As I mentioned above, translating Darío is extremely difficult, not only because of the historical distance that separates us from him, but also because his work is based on a renewal and expansion of the expressive possibilities of Spanish through rhythm and rhyme. If a translator into English wants to produce a rendering that has a similar effect on their reader as the Spanish originals, they have to manage to say something similar to what Darío is saying in Spanish, while also creating a translation that can seduce its reader through its rhythm while showcasing original and inventive rhymes.

Photo by Xochilt America Carbonero Rosales

However, there’s reason to be optimistic. One of the foolhardy outcomes of my Ph.D. is to produce a new translation of Darío, applying what I have gleaned from both the accomplishments and shortcomings of previous translators. Adam Feinstein, a biographer of Pablo Neruda, is also working on rhymed translations of Darío. And the Latinx poet and translator Francisco Aragón’s forthcoming book After Rubén (2020) will include several versions of Rubén Darío. Perhaps the time for Darío to break into English is finally here.


Carlos F. Grigsby (Managua, Nicaragua, 1988) is a poet, scholar, and translator. He is currently completing a doctorate in Spanish American literature and Literary Translation at the University of Oxford. He won the Premio Fundación Loewe Creación Joven 2007 for the collection Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender (Visor, 2008).

La suerte de Rubén Darío en el inglés

Por Carlos F. Grigsby

Fotos por la juventud de Solentiname, guiada por Tiago Genoveze (excepto aquella de Rubén Darío)

El escritor argentino Enrique Anderson Imbert (1910–2000) —quien fue el primer docente en obtener el profesorado Victor S. Thomas en Literatura Hispánica en la Universidad de Harvard— escribió que Rubén Darío divide a la historia de la literatura en español en un antes y un después. Oriundo de la pequeña ciudad de Metapa (hoy Ciudad Darío), Rubén Darío (1867–1916) es considerado uno de los escritores más influyentes en la historia de la literatura hispanoamericana. Si el valor de su obra fue durante décadas razón de disputa (se le imputaba ser escapista y preciosista), hoy se le considera unánimemente un parteaguas. Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez, Federico García Lorca, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, César Vallejo, entre otros, han reconocido su deuda con Darío. Y, sin embargo, su obra permanece a oscuras en el mundo anglófono.


La World Literature, en tanto que rubro ideado en inglés, abunda en ironías semejantes. Lo que a menudo encontramos en antologías hechas en inglés de literaturas de diversas partes del mundo no siempre corresponde con lo que aquellas literaturas dicen de sí mismas en sus propias lenguas. En mi caso, la específica ironía del desconocimiento de Darío en lengua inglesa es lo que me dio el tema de mi tesis de doctorado, cuya escritura debo concluir en el próximo par de meses. A lo largo de los últimos tres años, he pasado largas tardes sondeando libros de los siglos XIX y XX, en búsqueda de una respuesta a la pregunta de cómo y por qué un poeta de tan enorme importancia en una lengua puede ser casi completamente desconocido en otra. Mi hipótesis inicial era sencilla: tienen que ser las traducciones. Es un desafío traducir a Darío. Su lenguaje es tan melódico que sus poemas más conocidos adquieren una cualidad mnemónica gracias a su ritmo y a sus rimas. No obstante, la mayoría de las traducciones al inglés han sido vertidas, o bien de forma académica y palabra por palabra, o bien de forma literal y en verso libre. Cuando ése no ha sido el caso, algunos traductores han sido exitosos al verter sus rimas, pero usualmente a expensas de casi todo lo demás en los poemas. La inicial aversión visceral que sentí al leer esas traducciones al inglés es lo que me llevó a mi hipótesis mencionada anteriormente, que resultó ser simplista.


Después de un año de mi doctorado, una vez leído cuanto pude de lo escrito por o sobre Darío, empecé a leer sobre traducción. Me di cuenta de que otros poetas en español (como Neruda o Lorca) también habían sido traducidos de forma deficiente al inglés, y que a pesar de ello eran conocidos por lectores anglófonos de poesía. Caí en cuenta de que la traducción literaria es apenas un asunto lingüístico; las diferencias históricas y culturales entre culturas literarias pesan más. Para poder responder a la pregunta sobre la oscuridad de Darío, hace faltar ir a la historia de la literatura hispanoamericana y su traducción al inglés.

El llamado ‘boom’ de la literatura hispanoamericana en inglés empezó a descollar en los años 60 y alcanzó su cumbre en 1970 con la traducción al inglés de Cien años de soledad (1967), llevada a cabo por el traductor Gregory Rabassa. Darío, sin embargo, vivió mucho antes de esas décadas dadivosas. Si uno trazara una cronología del paisaje cambiante de las traducciones al inglés de la literatura latinoamericana antes del ‘boom’, se encontraría ante un páramo. Antes de 1890, el Facundo de Sarmiento era la única obra de literatura hispanoamericana traducida al inglés. Y antes de la década de 1930, cuando la influyente Harriet de Onís empezó a traducir del portugués y español, muy pocas obras latinoamericanas eran traducidas al inglés del todo. No fue sino hasta que estalló la revolución cubana en 1959 que los lectores empezaron a interesarse en la región, dando como resultado una lluvia de traducciones.


A pesar de estas circunstancias, Darío no tendría que esperar hasta los años 60 para que se le tradujera al inglés. La primera traducción en formato de libro —aunque más un folleto que un libro— fue Eleven Poems (1916) traducido por Salomón de la Selva y Thomas Walsh, y publicado por la Hispanic Society of America el año de la muerte de Darío. Seis años después, el traductor Charles McMichael publicaría sus propias versiones bajo el título Prosas profanas and other poems (1922), también más folleto que libro (nueve poemas en total). A pesar del título, McMichael incluyó una pequeña selección de poemas tomados no solo de Prosas profanas (1898), sino de Azul… (1888) y El canto errante (1907). Estas traducciones resultaron ser métricamente desiguales y de idioma trastabillado, de manera que cuando serían leídas junto al Cathay (1915) de Ezra Pound o The Waste Land (1922) de T.S. Eliot, en los años en que el modernism estaba en auge, debieron parecer —a aquellos lectores que no sabían nada o casi nada sobre Hispanoamérica—una curiosidad algo rara y anticuada. No obstante, dada la celebridad de Darío en el mundo hispano de la época, además de la gira que parcialmente realizó a lo ancho de Estados Unidos por invitación de la Hispanic Society, la publicación de estos folletos no debería sorprendernos. Lo que sí es sorprendente es su fracaso en producir algún interés en la escritura del nicaragüense, ya que otro libro de traducción no sería publicado sino hasta 1965.

Ese año, el traductor Lysander Kemp —también traductor de Octavio Paz y Juan Rulfo— publicó Selected Poems of Rubén Darío (1965) a través de la imprenta de la Universidad de Texas. El ‘boom’ de la literatura hispanoamericana en traducción finalmente había llegado a Darío, aunque fuera por su vía menos difundida: las imprentas universitarias. El verso libre ya se había impuesto como el idioma poético convencional y las obras traducidas ahora se leían como obras literarias en sí mismas. Estos dos cambios en la cultura literaria de E.E.U.U. pueden encontrarse en el libro de Kemp, y no deberían sorprendernos. Lo que sí es sorprendente, en cambio, es el fracaso de esta traducción en producir mayor interés en la escritura de Darío, dado que otro libro de traducción no sería publicado sino hasta el 2001, casi 40 años después. 

¿Por qué no hubo un interés renovado en uno de los mayores poetas del idioma, una vez que se dispone de una nueva traducción cincuenta años después de su muerte? Desprovisto de su ritmo y sus rimas, el estilo finisecular de Darío suena anticuado en inglés, incluso en la versión más idiomática de Kemp, algo que debió haber desencantado a lectores que leían la literatura hispanoamericana a través del prisma del modernism. Además, el estrecho público académico al que la edición estaba destinada solo podía subrayar la distancia entre la escritura de Darío y las expectativas literarias de los lectores angloamericanos de posguerra. Había también una expectativa de exotismo cuando se trataba de obras latinoamericanas —que surgió con el éxito del realismo mágico y que continúa, sin lugar a duda, hasta el día de hoy. Si consideramos el ambiente parisino de sus escritos, así como los motivos que abundan en ellos —las fuentes, los cisnes, los mitos griegos, entre otros— resulta fácil ver cómo la obra del nicaragüense no hubiera encajado con esas expectativas.


Como mencioné arriba, faltarían casi 40 años para la siguiente publicación de un libro de traducción de Darío al inglés, cuando los académicos Will Derusha y Alberto Acereda publicaron sus versiones de una amplia selección de poemas bajo el título Selected Poems of Rubén Darío: A Bilingual Anthology (2001). Luego, durante la primera década de los 2000, las traducciones repentinamente se multiplicaron: un año después Stanley Appelbaum publicó Stories and Poems/Cuentos y Poesías: A Dual-Language Book (2002); después Derusha y Acereda publicaron su traducción de Cantos de vida y esperanza, traducido como Songs of Life and Hope (2004); finalmente, Penguin Classics publicó una selección de la obra del nicaragüense llamada Rubén Darío: Selected Writings (2006). Entre las razones por este súbito despuntar de traducciones, dos parecen estar fuera de duda: el crecimiento del mercado editorial académico como un mercado global que incluye tanto a la Literatura Hispanoamericana como a los Estudios de Traducción, en tanto que disciplinas plenamente desarrolladas, llevó al involucramiento de más académicos como traductores de Darío; por otro lado, el crecimiento de la comunidad latina en los Estados Unidos, así como la consolidación de la literatura latinx y chicana, implica que figuras públicas como Illan Stavans —quien en su introducción a la edición de Penguin habla de la posibilidad de oír a Darío en inglés como uno de sus entrañados sueños como inmigrante— son hoy por hoy capaces de acumular suficiente credibilidad y prestigio como para que las editoriales crean en la existencia de un público para autores como Darío.


Sin embargo, aunque haya más traducciones de Darío, la situación no ha mejorado tanto como uno esperaría. Tres de las cuatro traducciones son, como sus antecesores, pensadas principalmente para lectores académicos —es decir, estudiantes de español— para los cuales más de una traducción de Darío, aunque fuera de calidad controvertida, ya existía. Si por un lado esto es algo positivo para el continuo estudio de la obra dariana, por otro implica que estas nuevas traducciones no pueden ser leídas como poemas en sí mismos. Es decir, los lectores anglófonos aún no tienen un Darío en inglés que pueda darles una idea de la calidad literaria de los escritos del nicaragüense. A su vez, la única traducción que estaba pensada para un público más amplio, que es la publicada por Penguin, ha sido duramente criticada desde que su publicación. En un artículo publicado en The Nation en el 2006, el profesor de literatura hispánica y comparada de la Universidad de Yale, Roberto González Echevarría, señalaba varios errores básicos en la antología y llamaba a una de las traducciones incluidas ‘appalling’ (desastrosa). La edición ciertamente parece haber sido terminada con apuro; y los cotraductores de la sección de poesía para la edición, Greg Simon y Steven White, a menudo malinterpretan a Darío, distorsionan el tono así como el registro de los poemas y llenan los versos de ripios para poder completar las rimas. Como dije antes, traducir a Darío es un desafío, no solo por la distancia histórica que nos separa de sus escritos, sino porque su obra está basada en una renovación y expansión de las posibilidades expresivas del español a través del ritmo y la rima. Si un traductor al inglés quiere producir una traducción que tenga un efecto similar al del original, debe ser capaz de decir algo parecido a lo que dice Darío en español, a la vez que produce un texto que seduzca al lector a través del ritmo y le ofrezca rimas tan sonoras como originales.

A pesar de ello, hay razones para ser optimistas. La parte más temeraria de mi tesis doctoral incluye la producción de una nueva traducción de Darío, en la que aplique lo que he logrado espigar de los aciertos y los fallos de previos traductores. Adam Feinstein, biógrafo de Neruda, también está trabajando en traducciones rimadas de Darío. Y el próximo libro del poeta y traductor latino estadounidense Francisco Aragón, After Rubén (2020), incluirá varias versiones de Darío, como lo indica su título. A lo mejor ya le llegó la hora a Darío en inglés.


Carlos F. Grigsby (Managua, Nicaragua, 1988) es poeta, crítico y traductor. Actualmente realiza un doctorado en literatura hispanoamericana y traducción en la Universidad de Oxford. Ha ganado el Premio Fundación Loewe Creación Joven 2007 por la colección Una oscuridad brillando en la claridad que la claridad no logra comprender (Visor, 2008)

The artistry of the Güegüence


Por Alba F. Aragón

Fotos cortesía de Irene López


El Güegüence has accompanied me for years, first as the colorful childhood memory of a folklore presentation I saw in Nicaragua in the 1980s, before I left the country, and then, years later, as one of my preferred research topics as I pursued my doctorate in Romance Languages and Literatures at Harvard University.

I imagine that on a subconscious level I wanted to connect the world of the freezing Boston winters with the world I carried inside of me. I’ve also realized that in my literary investigations, I gravitate toward historical texts because they seem surrounded by an atmosphere of calm and distance that allows me the illusion of control over my subject. The focus on history also gives me the privilege of drawing from the texts more freely than I could with contemporary ones, which seem to be in constant movement, awaiting the latest interpretations and the random trajectory of the new. I have used the word “illusion” precisely because I am well aware that the past is also subject to changes, to new interpretations and unforeseen reincarnations.

Thus, just a few months ago, I was surprised to see photos in the news showing young men in Monimbó, Nicaragua, defending barricades against the government, some wearing the mesh masks typical of folkloric dances like El Güegüence. The images took me back to Susan Meiselas’ iconic photograph from 1978 showing three guerrillas preparing to launch homemade grenades with their faces concealed by folkloric masks, in the same indigenous barrio of Masaya. I have always been moved by the eloquence of that photo, by the feeling that in spite of the masks, the men portrayed are making strong eye contact with the viewer, their bodies boasting of their youthful strength and calling upon the spectator to participate in the violence of the insurrection.I find the Meiselas image simultaneously beautiful and terrifying. What is beautiful for me about the photo is probably inseparable from my admiration of the ideals of those men and women who risked their lives for a free and just Nicaragua at the end of the 1970s, which coincided with the first years of my life, years in which the word “revolution” would have sounded like a euphoric future to the adults around me, who at that time were young people themselves. It is a hard irony that today those masks, destined for a popular festival, should be on the streets once again in a new scenario of repression and rebellion. But it is not just chance that these evocative masks should reappear in this current situation, because El Güegüence is a cultural resource of everlasting value for Nicaraguans.

Susan Meiselas, “Youths practice throwing contact bombs, Monimbo, Nicaragua” (1978). ©Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Used with the author’s permission.

La comedia del Güegüence or Macho Ratón is a drama whose author is unknown and which possibly dates to the mid-17th century. Considered “the key work of [Nicaraguan] national identity” (Jorge Eduardo Arellano) and “a masterpiece of indigenous American picaresque” (Carlos Mántica), El Güegüence includes dances, music and lines written in a mix of Spanish and náhuat, the lingua franca of the peoples of the Meso-American region of the Nicaraguan Pacific Coast. The work tells of the comings-and-goings of a traveling merchant, a mestizo (mixed race man) by the name of Güegüence, through a province of Nicaragua. The governor, who represents the colonial authorities, seeks to levy taxes on him, but Güegüence takes advantage of misunderstandings, double meanings, and dances to confuse the governor and persuade him to give his daughter in marriage to his son in exchange for Güegüence’s supposed (and nonexistent) riches. El Güegüence dances have been kept alive as a popular tradition in the feast of San Sebastián in Diriamba, in the Pacific Coast of Nicaragua, and are also represented by folkloric dance groups in civic functions and cultural events both at home and abroad. In 2005, UNESCO proclaimed El Güegüence A Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

In my inquiries into El Güegüence up until now, I have focused on literary rather than performative aspects; I have sought to discover its origins and expand critical dialogue about the work. In a past issue of ReVista, I shared some of my thoughts on the subject. I’m pleased to have the opportunity here to delve a bit more into three aspects that seem particularly interesting to me: the authorship of the work; how it represents mestizaje (racial mixing), and the possible ways to interpret its message of protest or of social critique.

With respect to the first theme, much has been speculated about the possible author; to me, it seems more suggestive to think that there was not one single and autonomous author, but an authorship coming from multiple actors and media. According to Professor Raúl Marrero- Fente of the University of Minnesota, the concept of authorship in the colonial era did not presuppose total control or textual authority over what was written, as suggested by the very etymology of the word, which comes from the Latin verbs agere (to act), augere (to grow), auieo (to unite) and from the Greek noun autentim (authority). This implies that the text precedes the writer and that the author acts on something already existing, developing it, making connections, and, in any case, receiving their authority from tradition (or from God, in the case of a religious text). Because of this, I think that the observation of Nicaraguan expert Jorge Eduardo Arellano is absolutely correct when he says that El Güegüence “did not have … someone who wrote it from beginning to end, without any antecedent, conceiving it as original and completely their own.”

Moreover, if we consider the editorial history of El Güegüence, it becomes even more clear that there is no direct line from the pen of a single author. To begin with, the work was transcribed (compiled from the oral tradition) in the mid-19th century by Nicaraguan linguist Juan Eligio de la Rocha. Two of de la Rocha’s manuscripts were obtained and combined by the U.S. linguist Carl Hermann Berendt in 1874. The U.S. archaeologist Daniel Garrison Brinton translated the text compiled by Berendt into English and published it in 1883. El Güegüence came to us in Spanish through the Nicaraguan jurist Emilio Álvarez Lejarza, who in 1942 transcribed and partially translated the text compiled by Berendt. Later, in 1968, Nicaraguan linguist Carlos Mántica—another important scholar on the subject—translated to Spanish Brinton’s English version and study of the play.

With just a glance at its editorial beginnings, it is clear to see what an adventurous path the Güegüence has traveled, and what riches it carries along! In a way, all of the scholars mentioned above have served as authors in the colonial sense—acting on something that already exists, developing it, making connections, basing their work on tradition. If we wish to view the process through a modern lens, we only have to think about Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges’ suggestive idea that translation is not a simple transference from one language to another, but the transformation of one text into another. In this sense, I find it fascinating that today a text so closely associated with Nicaraguan national identity (which for many is synonymous with its “essence”) is the product of so many transformations. The fact that the work comes to us by way of the United States suggests yet another interesting dimension: the way that power relationships are not only reflected in the work’s plot, but also in its editorial history. El Güegüence is not only about Spanish colonization; it comes to us as a result of exchanges between actors such as Berendt, situated in the epicenter of Anglo-Saxon colonialist discourse, a forerunner of the field of anthropology in the 19th century, and the mestizo subjects which that discourse attempted to define, catalog, and master. It is precisely these subjects who, from the “margins” of the Central American scholarly environment, take El Güegüence from the archives of U.S. universities to articulate the work’s significance to their own identity and culture.

The evolution of El Güegüence as a performative event adds yet another level of richness and complexity to the process of authorship. The efforts of artists such as the folklore expert Irene López with her book El Gran pícaro: una recreación basada en la historia de El Güegüense, introduces new elements to its interpretation, imagining original performative aspects that were never collected and traditions eroded by time. Professor E.J. Westlake, who studies the current cultural and political significance of El Güegüence at the hands of different cultural agents, considers López to be the work’s “interpreter and guardian” because of her successfully balancing the work in terms of art, scholarship, and tradition.

Another aspect of the work I find particularly interesting is its representation of mestizaje (racial mixing). Generally, it is understood that the protagonist of El Güegüence is a mestizo, and that the wedding of his son and the governor’s daughter is an alliance of indigenous and Spanish, that is, an allegory for mestizaje. This interpretation fits well with the deeply embedded vision of Nicaraguan culture as mestizo. The historian Jeffrey L. Gould has called this idea, which arose in the 19th century, “the myth of mestizo Nicaragua,” because it suggests a seamless union between the indigenous and the Spanish and presupposes the eradication or non-existence of indigenous communities such as the Atlantic Coast Miskitos, who as a matter of fact share the country with its mestizo majority. Together with this observation is the fact that at the time of the composition of El Güegüence in the mid-17th century, the process of mestizaje was still happening. I think it is interesting to think of Güegüence as a character prior to mestizaje (or outside the pact it represents). After all, in colonial society, a wide range of social groups coexisted at different levels of exclusion from, assimilation to, and resistance towards the power of Spaniards and criollos (Latin American-born descendants of Spaniards). Among them was the ladino or the Spanish-speaking indigenous person, who, according to Francisco Rodríguez Cascante of the University of Costa Rica, was considered by criollo society as “astute and canny, capable of seeing the exploitation of indigenous people and convincing them to use means of resistance…a rootless subject [who] alters the established order and perpetuates chaos.” Although this commentary refers directly to the representation of the ladino in the Guatemalan chronicle Recordación florida, written from 1680 to 1699, I see echoes of this social type in El Güegüence. The chaos that the ladino could sow involved convincing indigenous people to move somewhere else to avoid taxation. Likewise, Güegüence is a wandering character avoiding tax payments. He not only speaks Spanish, but he rebels against the power relations codified in the use of the language. When the Alguacil Mayor—a kind of High Sheriff—charges him money in exchange for teaching him the necessarily grand terms needed to address the governor, Güegüence sarcastically responds, “Friend Captain Chief Alguacil, I have given my money for nothing, if these are to be my words; and shall I not bargain for a book in Spanish, to read these prayers out of when I come before [Governor] Tastuanes?” (Brinton, 29) However, Güegüence ably uses Spanish, evoking nonexistent riches—gold that he doesn’t really have—to take advantage of the governor. I find his ambivalent attitude, this apparent contempt towards language despite having an acute awareness of its utility (an attitude captured visually so well by the movement of dancing bodies), to be a more fascinating representation of how Güegüence undermines the powerful than the idea of mestizaje, because mestizaje brings with it a pact that ultimately does not alter the status quo. This is not to say that El Güegüence does not refer to mestizaje, nor to deny that it is made up of both indigenous and Spanish elements. It is more a matter of thinking of mestizaje as a conflictive process and to imagine attributes that the protagonist could have embodied for prior audiences.

Another fascinating aspect of the social order referred to in the work is that, according to scholars, the authorities represented were probably not members of Spanish high society, but descendants of indigenous nobility holding some high administrative positions. If we add this to the fact that patron saint festivities was not an atmosphere shared by the Spanish elite, then El Güegüence essentially appears to be “a call to introspection, to self-criticism” (Arellano). After all, no one escapes being made fun of in El Güegüence. The basic problem presented is the province’s administrative disorder, summed up from the beginning by the governor’s command: “My son, Captain Chief Alguacil, suspend in the quarters of the leading men the music, dances, songs, ballets and such things, and bring that good-for-nothing Güegüence…” (Brinton, 11). As the action continues, this command becomes a formula that all the characters repeat at different points, as if it were a condition for advancing the plot, which depends precisely on mocking the command. Everyone mouths it without fulfilling it, while both the authorities and their subjects dance and make pacts so they can continue on with their fun, theft and favor- granting. If this pact is an allegory for mestizaje, then mestizaje is the object of criticism. If Güegüence mocks the governor by making him believe that he possesses riches that warrant giving his son the hand of the governor’s daughter in marriage, the protagonist himself is the subject of mockery. Again and again, each time he opens his mouth, his stepson Don Ambrosio insults him and denounces him with phrases like: “That’s what you deserve, Güegüence, you old humbug” (Brinton, 11). Güegüence’s questionable character is continually denounced from inside the work itself. Thus, if Güegüence is a “prototype” of national character, he can only be so in a satirical key. Personally, I’m inclined to think that it is the irreverent spirit of the work as a whole that touches us Nicaraguans to the core, since laughter and mockery are escape valves to which we tend to resort to in the most trying circumstances. El Güegüence continues on because of its fluid nature, its capacity for adaptation, laughter and movement. In that sense, it is a work for all time.

Alba F. Aragón is Assistant Professor at Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts, where she teaches Spanish language as well as Latin American and U.S. Latino literature. She was born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua in the eighties. She received her Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures from Harvard University in 2012. Her research primarily explores the significance of fashion and the dressed body in 19th- and 20-century Latin American literature and culture. She has also translated Central American women’s poetry for literary anthologies.



She wishes to express her gratitude to Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Irene López and E.J. Westlake for their generous attention to her questions and for providing valuable research materials.


Para leer este articulo en español, oprime aqui.

Por los caminos del Güegüence

Por Alba F. Aragón

Fotos cortesía de Irene López

El Güegüence me ha acompañado por años, primero como el colorido recuerdo infantil de una presentación que vi en la Nicaragua que dejé atrás en los años ochenta, y más tarde como uno de mis temas de investigación preferidos en mis años de estudios doctorales en Harvard. Supongo que buscaba conectar el mundo de los inviernos bostonianos con el mundo que llevaba adentro. Además me he dado cuenta que, en mis indagaciones literarias, gravito hacia textos históricos porque me parecen estar rodeados de una atmósfera de quietud y distancia, porque me permiten la ilusión de control sobre mi objeto de estudio y el lujo de abstraer más libremente que los textos contemporáneos, que parecen estar en constante movimiento, pendientes de la atención de todos y del azaroso trayecto de lo nuevo. He dicho ilusión precisamente porque estoy consciente de que el pasado también está sujeto a cambios, a nuevas interpretaciones y a reencarnaciones imprevistas.

Así fue que hace algunos meses me sorprendió ver en las noticias fotos de jóvenes en Monimbó defendiendo barricadas, algunos con las máscaras de cedazo típicas de bailes folclóricos como el Güegüence, imágenes que me remontaron a la ya icónica fotografía de Susan Meiselas. Siempre me ha impresionado la elocuencia de esa fotografía, la sensación de que a pesar de las máscaras, los hombres retratados están haciendo un fuerte contacto visual con el espectador y de que en la postura de sus manos, sus brazos y sus cuerpos, alardean de su fuerza juvenil, incitando al espectador a participar de la violencia de la insurrección. Encuentro la imagen bella y terrible a la vez; posiblemente lo que tenga de bella para mí sea inseparable de mi admiración por los ideales de las personas que apostaron la vida por una Nicaragua libre y justa en aquellos fines de los setenta, que fueron los primeros años de mi vida, tiempos en que la palabra “revolución” habría sonado a futuro y euforia para mis mayores, que en ese momento no eran sino jóvenes. Es una dura ironía que hoy vuelvan a salir a la calle esas máscaras, destinadas al festejo popular, en un nuevo escenario de represión y rebeldía. Pero no es casualidad de que esas máscaras evocadoras aparezcan en esta coyuntura, porque el Güegüence es un recurso cultural de valor perenne para los nicaragüenses.

Susan Meiselas, “Youths practice throwing contact bombs, Monimbo, Nicaragua” (1978). ©Susan Meiselas/Magnum Photos. Used with the author’s permission.

La comedia del Güegüence o Macho Ratón es un drama de autor desconocido que posiblemente data de mediados del siglo XVII. Calificada como la “obra clave de la identidad nacional” (Jorge Eduardo Arellano) y “obra maestra de la picaresca indoamericana” (Carlos Mántica), el Güegüence incluye bailes, música y parlamentos en una mezcla de castellano y náhuat, variación local de la lingua franca de los pueblos de la región mesoamericana del Pacífico nicaragüense. La obra trata del paso de un mercader ambulante, un mestizo llamado Güegüence, por una provincia de Nicaragua. El gobernador, representante del orden colonial, pretende cobrarle impuestos, pero el mercader se vale de equívocos, dobles sentidos y bailes para confundirlo y persuadirlo de otorgarle esposa a su hijo a cambio de sus supuestas (e inexistentes) riquezas. Los bailes de el Güegüence perduran como tradición popular en la fiesta de San Sebastián en Diriamba, y también son representados por grupos de danza folclórica en funciones cívicas y eventos culturales dentro y fuera del país. En 2005, UNESCO la proclamó Obra Maestra del Patrimonio Oral e Inmaterial de la Humanidad.

En mis indagaciones sobre el Güegüence hasta el momento me he enfocado en aspectos literarios más que en sus representaciones; he buscado conocer sus orígenes y ampliar el diálogo crítico en torno a la obra. Compartí unas breves reflexiones al respecto en un número anterior de ReVista; me place tener la oportunidad de explayarme un poco más sobre tres aspectos que me parecen particularmente interesantes: la autoría de la obra, cómo representa el mestizaje, y las posibles formas de interpretar su mensaje de protesta o crítica social. Con respecto al primer tema, mucho se ha especulado sobre el posible autor; a mí me ha parecido más sugestivo pensar no en un autor único y autónomo, sino en una autoría proveniente de múltiples actores y medios.

Según Raúl Marrero-Fente en Al margen de la tradición, la idea de autor en la época colonial no presuponía un dominio o autoridad textual sobre lo escrito, tal como sugiere la etimología de la palabra, que proviene de los vocablos latinos agere (actuar), augere (crecer), auieo (unir) y el sustantivo griego autentim (autoridad). Lo anterior implica que el texto precede al que escribe y que éste actúa sobre algo ya existente, desarrollándolo, haciendo conexiones, y en todo caso, recibiendo su autoridad de la tradición (o de Dios, en el caso de un texto religioso). Por eso me ha parecido acertada la afirmación del experto nicaragüense Jorge Eduardo Arellano de que un aspecto fundamental de el Güegüence es que “no tuvo … alguien que lo haya redactado desde el principio hasta el fin, sin antecedente alguno, concibiéndolo como original y completamente suyo”.

Si además consideramos la historia editorial de el Güegüence, queda aún más claro que no existe una línea directa a la pluma de un autor único. Para empezar, la obra fue transcrita (recopilada de la tradición oral) a mediados del siglo XIX por el lingüista nicaragüense Juan Eligio de la Rocha. Dos manuscritos de de la Rocha fueron obtenidos y combinados por el lingüista estadounidense Karl Hermann Berendt en 1874. El arqueólogo estadounidense Daniel Garrison Brinton tradujo el texto compuesto por Berendt al inglés y lo público en 1883. El Güegüence llega a nosotros en castellano a través del nicaragüense Emilio Álvarez Lejarza, quien transcribió y tradujo parcialmente el texto recogido por Berendt (1942). Posteriormente, el nicaragüense Carlos Mántica—otro de sus principales estudiosos—tradujo el estudio y los parlamentos publicados en inglés por Brinton (1968).

Con sólo ver sus comienzos a grandes rasgos, ¡qué camino venturoso el del Güegüence, y cuánta riqueza arrastra! De algún modo, todos los estudiosos mencionados han servido como autores en el sentido colonial—actuando sobre algo ya existente, desarrollándolo, haciendo conexiones, apoyándose en la tradición. Si quisiéramos ver el proceso con óptica moderna, sólo hay que pensar en la sugestiva idea de Jorge Luis Borges de que la traducción no es una simple transferencia de un idioma a otro, sino una transformación de un texto en otro. En este sentido, me parece fascinante que un texto que hoy esté asociado con la identidad nacional (que para muchos es sinónimo de una “esencia”) sea el producto de tantas transformaciones. Por otro lado, el que la obra haya pasado por los Estados Unidos sugiere otra dimensión interesante, y es que el tema de las relaciones de poder no sólo se ve reflejado en la trama de la obra, sino también en su historia editorial. El Güegüence no sólo trata de la colonización española; llega a nosotros como resultado de una serie de intercambios entre actores como Berendt, situados en el mero centro del discurso colonialista anglosajón del cual surge la disciplina de la antropología en el siglo XIX, y los sujetos mestizos que dicho discurso intentaba fijar, catalogar, y dominar, quienes desde el “margen” del ámbito letrado centroamericano sacan el Güegüence de los archivos de universidades estadounidenses para articularse a sí mismos y el aporte de la obra a la cultura propia.

La evolución de el Güegüence como fenómeno escénico le añade otro nivel de riqueza y complejidad al proceso de su autoría. La labor de artistas como la folclorista Irene López con su obra El Gran pícaro: una recreación basada en la historia de El Güegüense, introduce nuevos elementos a la representación, imaginando aspectos escénicos originales que nunca fueron recopilados y tradiciones erosionadas por el tiempo. La profesora E.J. Westlake, quien estudia los significados culturales y políticos actuales del Güegüence a manos de distintos agentes culturales, considera a López “intérprete y guardiana” por su labor creativa que logra armonizar aspectos imaginativos, tradicionales y académicos.

Otro aspecto de la obra en el que me ha interesado ahondar es en su representación del mestizaje. Por lo general, se entiende al protagonista del Güegüence como un mestizo, y a la boda entre su hijo y la hija del Gobernador como una alianza entre indígenas y españoles—es decir, como una alegoría del mestizaje. Esta interpretación encaja con una idea profundamente arraigada de la cultura nicaragüense como una cultura mestiza. El historiador Jeffrey L. Gould ha llamado a esta idea, surgida en el siglo XIX, “el mito de la Nicaragua mestiza,” porque sugiere una unión sin fisuras de lo indígena a lo hispano y supone la erradicación o inexistencia de comunidades indígenas como los miskitos, que de hecho comparten el país con la mayoría mestiza. Uniendo esta observación al hecho de que en la época de composición del Güegüence (mediados del siglo XVII), el mestizaje no era un hecho definido y acabado, me parece interesante pensar en el Güegüence como un personaje anterior al mestizaje (o exterior al pacto que representa). Después de todo, en la sociedad colonial convivía una gama de grupos sociales en distintos niveles de asimilación, exclusión y resistencia en relación al poder de los peninsulares y criollos. Entre ellos estaba el ladino o indígena que hablaba español, el cual, según Francisco Rodríguez Cascante, era considerado por la sociedad criolla como “el astuto y avisado capaz de hacerle ver al indígena su explotación y de convencerlo para que asuma medidas de resistencia …. un sujeto desarraigado [que] altera el orden y propaga el caos”. Aunque este comentario se refiere a la representación del ladino en la crónica guatemalteca Recordación florida, escrita de 1680-1699, considero que hay ecos de este tipo social en El Güegüence. El caos que podía propagar el ladino era el de convencer a los indios de trasladarse a otro lugar para no tener que pagar tributo. De modo similar, el Güegüence es un personaje itinerante que evade el pago de impuestos. No sólo habla español, sino que se rebela contra las relaciones de poder codificadas en su uso. Cuando el Alguacil Mayor le cobra por mostrarle las grandilocuencias adecuadas para dirigirse al Gobernador, el Güegüence responde con sorna: “Amigo Capitán Alguacil Mayor, de balde le he pagado. ¡Si este ha de ser mi lenguaje, acaso fuera mejor conseguirme un libro de romance y me baste, hombre!” Sin embargo, el Güegüence usa el español hábilmente, evocando riquezas inexistentes – oro que realmente no posee – para sacar provecho del Gobernador. Esta actitud ante el lenguaje, de aparente desprecio y a la vez conciencia de su utilidad, de ambivalencia, tan bien captada visualmente por el desplazamiento de los cuerpos en la danza, me parece más fascinante como metáfora de la rebeldía ante el poder que la idea del mestizaje, porque el mestizaje conlleva un pacto que finalmente no altera el status quo. Esto no es decir que el Güegüence no pueda aludir al mestizaje, ni negar que esté constituido por elementos indígenas y españoles; es más bien pensar en el mestizaje como un proceso conflictivo e imaginar los atributos que el protagonista pueda haber encarnado para públicos pasados.

Otro aspecto interesante del cuadro social aludido en la obra es que, según sus estudiosos, las autoridades representadas probablemente no fueran miembros de una alta sociedad española, sino descendientes de nobleza indígena con altos puestos administrativos. Si agregamos a esto el hecho de que la fiesta patronal no era un ámbito compartido por un alto estrato español, entonces el Güegüence parece ser, esencialmente, “una llamada a la introspección, a la autocrítica” (Arellano). Después de todo, nadie se escapa de la sorna en El Güegüence. El problema fundamental que presenta es el desorden administrativo de la provincia, resumido por el mandato del Gobernador desde el comienzo: “Caballero, Capitán Alguacil Mayor, suspéndame en el campamento de los Señores Principales la música, bailes, cantos, robos y favores y suspéndame también a ese idiota Güegüence…” En el transcurso de la acción, esta orden se convierte en una fórmula que todos los personajes repiten en distintos momentos, como si fuera una condición para que avance la trama. El avance de la trama consiste, precisamente, en la burla de esa orden, que circula en boca de todos los personajes sin respetarse, mientras que tanto súbditos como autoridades bailan y pactan para seguir con sus diversiones, robos y favores. Si este pacto alegoriza el mestizaje, entonces el mestizaje es objeto de crítica. Por otra parte, si bien el Güegüence burla al Gobernador al hacerle creer que posee riquezas que ameritan la mano de su hija en matrimonio, el protagonista también es objeto de burla. Una y otra vez, y en toda ocasión de hablar, su hijastro Don Ambrosio lo insulta y denuncia con frases como: “Así lo mereces, Güegüence embustero.” El carácter cuestionable del Güegüence es denunciado desde adentro de la obra continuamente. De modo que si el Güegüence es un “prototipo” del carácter nacional, sólo puede serlo en clave satírica. En lo personal, me inclino a pensar que es el espíritu irreverente de la obra en su totalidad lo que toca una fibra de los nicaragüenses, pues la risa y la burla son válvulas de escape a las que solemos acudir en las más agobiantes circunstancias. El Güegüence perdura por su carácter proteico, por su capacidad de adaptación, risa, y movimiento. En este sentido, es una obra para todos los tiempos.



Alba F. Aragón es Profesora Asistente en Bridgewater State University, Massachusetts, donde enseña español, literatura latinoamericana, y literatura hispana de los Estados Unidos. Nació y se crió en Managua, Nicaragua, en los años ochenta. Recibió su doctorado en Lenguas y Literaturas Romances de la Universidad de Harvard en 2012. Su investigación se centra en los significados de la moda y la vestimenta en la literatura y cultura latinoamericanas del siglo XIX y XX. También ha traducido al inglés poesía de escritoras nicaragüenses y hondureñas para antologías literarias.



La autora desea expresar su gratitud a Jorge Eduardo Arellano, Irene López y E.J. Westlake por su colaboración y generosa atención a sus consultas.


To read this article in English, click here.

Book Talk

Global Latin(o) Americanos: Transoceanic Diasporas and Regional Migrations

Latin American Mobilities
A Review by Marc S. Rodriguez


Global Latin(o) Americanos: Transoceanic Diasporas and Regional Migrations
By Mark Overmyer-Velázquez and Enrique Sepúlveda
Oxford University Press, 2018, 322 pages


Global Latin(o) Americanos : Transoceanic Diasporas and Regional Migrations engages ongoing debates about mobility and migration from a unique “Latin(o)” perspective which integrates new interdisciplinary work on inter-Latin American migration and broader diaspora studies in a field often focused on the migration of Latin Americans to the United States.

While the dominant flow of people in the Western Hemisphere has historically been the movement between Mexico and the United States, this book demonstrates that the regional and transnational migration of peoples within Latin America and elsewhere is much more diverse even if in raw terms the main flow is still of Mexicans to the United States. We know a lot less about regional migration within and between Latin American nations than we should. We know, and I say this as a historian, much less about how, say for example, Mexicans migrate from rural areas to Mexican cities, and within Mexico prior to migration to the United States or how regional Latin American migration flows operate within nations. The same can be said about migrations between Latin American countries as well as within and from the Caribbean. Authors Overmyer-Velázquez and Sepúlveda provide a series of case studies about these migrations that give greater detail to these internal and transhemispheric flows of Latin American people.

This two-part study offers a collection of country-specific case studies from a number of disciplinary perspectives tracking the flows between Latin American countries in the Western Hemisphere and global migration flows of Latin Americans to places as far removed as Israel and Japan. Readers are guided through a variety of chapters that while varied in quality and decipherability portray the complex mobility of Latin American peoples regionally, hemispherically and globally. We are shown how long-term circuits of migration flows existed between Peru and Chile as well as Bolivia and Argentina and the varying degrees to which migrants were allowed space for participation in civic life or were restricted to an outsider status.

The same is also true for the long-term migration circuits that linked Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Costa Rica, as well as Mexico and Guatemala as well as the degree to which Latin American countries sought to restrict immigration and migration and regulate the status of migrants within their territorial boundaries. We see these nations seeking to maintain national borders and limit the integration of migrants in important ways that are quite similar to the immigration regimes of Western Europe and the United States. The state, in this context, is rather similar in the way that legal structures evolved in the 20th century to establish boundaries between the emerging and solidifying borders between nation states.

In its second section, the authors consider the mobility of Latin Americans outside of the Western Hemisphere to places like Spain as well as nations not often thought of when considering the movement of Latin American peoples. This diverse collection of country- specific articles provides readers with examples of how the flow of Latin American people operates within global circuits of migration. Bringing this Latin American global diaspora into greater focus is a key contribution of this volume. Here we also see the comparative regulation of immigration within the Latin American context. For those who have limited understanding of border regulation, this volume, sometimes unintentionally, places the immigration system of Latin America and other nations in a comparative space where the reader can see that all nations regulate their borders, define the boundaries of citizenship, and maintain a sense of culture or seek to do so in Japan, Israel, and Canada.

Even in the Canadian case, which has a powerful language minority in Quebec that has preserved a French linguistic and cultural focus we see the limits of Multiculturalism. This volume, while not focused on the United States is written, apparently, for a readership versed in U.S. Latinx history. When reading this volume, I was struck not so much by how much U.S. immigration law is an outlier but rather shares many of the contours of immigration law across the Western hemisphere and the world and has, at times, been far more welcoming of immigrants than many other places. The endeavor of considering immigration law within global comparative context seems a worthy project, especially after reading a volume that provides so much country- specific and comparative information on immigration regulation within a variety of hemispheric and global contexts. 

In some ways, the study’s impact is confused by the title and the efforts of the editors to expand the meaning of Latino beyond the confines of U.S. Latinx studies. While it is interesting to consider the idea of a pan Latino identity outside the United States, Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey in his introduction subtly questions the very notion of a pan-Latino identity outside the boundaries of the United States. Pan-Latinx or “Latin” identities were evident in the United States in the 1960s among Puerto Rican and Mexican American led social movements for civil rights as those movements often attracted Latin American college students and workers to the cause and in some cities like Chicago, New York and Milwaukee there was an embrace of a Pan-Latin (and later Latinx) political identity as Puerto Ricans and Mexican Americans struggled for rights as citizens and later as migrants.

However, the idea that Latinx is an identity that can be broken free of its roots within social movements that sought to remedy multi-generational discrimination for those Latinos living in the United States requires leaps of faith and inquiry Massey, does not make. The press should be scolded for failing to properly complete copy editing of this volume which in several chapters had editors and author comments included in the main body of paragraphs.  So, setting aside the idea of a global Latinx identity, set free from its historical context and the struggles of U.S. Latinx minority people, what remains is an important collection that provides the reader with useful country studies that deepen our understanding of the history of migration, or mobility of Latin American peoples within the hemisphere and globally. This is an important contribution.



Marc S. Rodriguez is Editor of the Pacific Historical Review, and Professor of History at Portland State University. His most recent book, Rethinking the Chicano Movement, is a synthetic study of the Chicano civil rights movement.

See also: Book Talk

Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction

Afro-Latin America: Black Agency and Nation-Building
A Review by Omar H. Ali


Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction. Edited by Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews (Cambridge University Press, 2018, 641 pages)


In the ongoing process of exploring, making and re-making the modern world, some stake flags, others publish books—both being political constructions and assertions as part of larger institutional projects. Such is the case with Alejandro de la Fuente and George Reid Andrews’ edited volume Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction. With contributions from nearly two dozen historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnomusicologists and literary scholars, largely based in the United States but shaped by scholars from Latin America, the thick volume brilliantly, if densely, offers a synthesis of much of the research in the humanities and social sciences from the past century on Africans and their descendants in Latin America and the ways in which they have been imagined. The book grows out of the most recent efforts to institutionalize Afro-Latin American Studies as a field of its own.

Of the nearly eleven million enslaved Africans who were forcibly taken to the shores of the Americas between the 16th and mid-19th centuries, almost two-thirds were taken to colonies under the control of Spain and Portugal. The other third were taken to British, French, and Dutch colonies in the region. Brazil received the largest number of Africans in the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans were brought there, and elsewhere, to work on plantations, in the mines, and to build the cities that became the new metropolises of the Americas. The system of violence lasted three and a half centuries and it was not until 1888 that slavery was abolished in Brazil—the last country in the Americas to do so. By then the former Portuguese colony had received nearly forty percent of all the enslaved men, women, and children taken out of the western side of sub-Saharan Africa, mostly from West Central Africa, but also from the Bight of Benin and the Bight of Biafra, followed by the Gold Coast and Senegambia.

As De la Fuente and Andrews explain, Brazil would become “home to the second largest Afrodescendant population in the world, exceeded in size only by Nigeria.” While most of the enslaved people taken to Brazil came from the Atlantic side of Africa, the majority coming from Angola, upwards of 700,000 people were also taken from Mozambique on the Indian Ocean side of the continent. The massive forced migration had lasting consequences in both Africa and in the Americas (destruction, disruption, and dislocation of societies, that is, beyond the suffering and sheer loss of humanity) and in the formation of the societies and nations in the Americas. The editors of the volume note that “Close to a million Africans arrived in Cuba during the nineteenth century and over two million in Brazil, a process that helps explain the profound influence that African-based cultural practices have exercised in the formation of national cultures in those two countries” [emphasis added] (p.1). But how and to what extent did African-descended peoples and their ‘African-based cultural practices’ form the national cultures of Latin America?

Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction takes readers through the histories, research and scholarly debates regarding the lives and impact of African-descended peoples in Brazil, Cuba, followed by Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Argentina, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, among nearly two dozen other nations in Latin America today. Brazil and Cuba, however, figure most prominently in the edited volume. The scholarship of Raimundo Nina Rodriques in Brazil and Fernando Ortiz in Cuba at the beginning of the 20th century serve as a launching point. Theirs, however, is from the perspective of uncovering the “black ‘pathologies’ of Afro-Latin American religious life, criminality, and family structure” (p. 4).

The editors describe the development of Afro-Latin American Studies since the turn of the 20th century as such: “The scientific racists had seen black people as hapless victims of their genetic inferiority. The proponents of racial democracy did not completely escape the heritage of scientific racism, assuming that blacks and mulattoes would progress in Latin American societies only to the degree that they were able to whiten themselves, either genetically or culturally. The Marxist-influenced writers of the 1950s and 1960s ... forcefully rejected any hint of racism but viewed Afro-Latin America and its inhabitants as being very much at the mercy of the needs and ‘imperatives’ of capitalist development” (p. 12). Over the course of the 20th century, and into the 21st, scholars took different approaches based on their own sets of assumptions—from the studies by scientific racists to those that propounded the notion of ‘racial democracies,’ to those who focused on capitalist exploitation, to still others who searched (and continue to search) and give expression to the voices of Africans and their descendants in the Americas, placing emphasis on black agency, in all its forms. As the volume demonstrates, the scholarship encompasses a range of disciplinary lenses, including music, literature, art, politics, religion, environmental studies and law—with sub-topics that are manifold, as they are nuanced, revealing multiple historiographical threads that create the tapestry that is Afro-Latin American Studies.

The volume’s publication marks a historic moment—a watershed in the historiography of the field. As De la Fuente and Andrews explain, “it was not until quite recently that the scholarship on race, inequality, and racial stratification in Latin America has grown enough to sustain and constitute a field of study” (pp. 1-2). The ground shifted in the last thirty years, they note, with ‘race’ seen as more central in understanding Latin America. “This shift occurred partly in response to the realization, articulated by postcolonial scholars, that race is central to historic and contemporary processes of coloniality” (p. 2).

To be sure, the field of Afro-Latin American Studies was relatively late in developing because of institutional forms of racism—university-supported research across the Americas that reflected the racist views of their scholars, and of their time. For much of the 20th century, black people were effectively denied their historical agency in favor of dominant colonial and post-colonial narratives that minimized the totality of their economic, cultural and social contributions in the making of American societies. This included black slave labor that extracted the natural resources of the land that produced the wealth of the Iberian empires, black military contributions that forged national independence across Latin America, and the technical skills, languages, religious practices, worldviews and arts Africans brought from various parts of West, West Central, and Southeastern Africa which were mixed and re-mixed—created and re-created—by their descendants with indigenous Americans and Europeans forming (and continue to form) the Americas.

Just as one cannot begin to understand the history of the British colonies in North America and the United States without at least a basic understanding of African and African American history, one cannot understand the history of Latin America without understanding African and Afro-Latin American history. In these ways, the edited volume enriches evermore. That is, it also helps to enrich African American history by offering a broader and more expansive view of the Black Atlantic world. American, African American and Latin American studies all benefit from Afro-Latin American Studies.

Afro-Latin American Studies—like black studies generally—is an outgrowth of black political struggle, even as it documents and analyzes aspects of this very struggle. Afro-Latinos (Afro-Latinx people) and their allies pressed for changes in their nation’s academies starting in the 1970s to include the study of African-descended peoples into their research projects and teaching just as African Americans and their allies in the United States helped to create African American Studies (initially Afro-American Studies, then Black Studies, and now African and African Diaspora Studies) as an extension of the Black Power movement in the late 1960s. Black political struggle (not only making outright demands, but creating intellectual and artistic products that challenged traditional racist views of black people and their histories) was therefore a driving force in the institutionalization of Black Studies in the United States, as it would be in Latin America. One early attempt to connect African American and Afro-Latin American experiences and histories was the establishment of the Department of Black and Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College in New York City in 1969. A more recent example in Latin America is the Grupo de Estudios Afrocolombianos as part of the Centro de Estudios Sociales at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá.

Both African American Studies and Latin American Studies (the latter began as one of a number of area studies as part of Cold War state-funded political imperatives) largely would develop on their own before Afro-Latin American Studies emerged as a field, or perhaps, more accurately, as an overlapping subfield of African and African Diaspora Studies. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the fact that the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, which editor De la Fuente directs, is part of Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. Similarly, the Afro-Latino Studies undergraduate certificate at Florida International University is offered through that university’s African and African Diaspora Program. Panning out, the emergence of Afro-South Asian studies is taking place in the wake of Afro-Latin American Studies having become established, ever expanding our understanding of the global impact and influence of Africans and their descendants across much of the world. (See the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digital exhibit The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World.)

In their illuminating opening chapter, “The Making of a Field,” De la Fuente and Andrews define Afro-Latin American Studies “first, as the study of people of African ancestry in Latin America, and second, as the study of the larger societies in which those people live.” (p. 1) Interestingly, their definition of Latin American Studies lacks the very black agency in the creation of Latin America and the “societies in which those people live” that the many chapters of the book (including their own) demonstrate. Perhaps the editors felt the need to define the field in a way that distances the very subjects in the creation of the field—that is, in the modernist tradition of the natural and social sciences creating a sense of objectivity, when as the development of all fields of study over time reveal the subjectivity of scholars (the assumptions shaping the questions they ask, to the data they seek, to the interpretations they make, to the findings and conclusions they present). To be sure, Afro-Latin American Studies, like all studies, is an iterative process that reflects the societies of its scholars.

The chapters written by the scholars in the edited volume are not only summaries of the research and the development of that research in their respective areas of work but often provide key insights. For instance, Peter Wade’s chapter on “Afro-Indigenous Interactions, Relations, and Comparisons,” takes readers through the ways in which African-descended and indigenous peoples were pit against each other early in the colonial process. It also offers the deep irony that “recent processes of political mobilization and multiculturalist reform actually tend to reinstate the divide [between indigenous and Afrodescended people]” (p. 94). Other chapters reveal methodological changes and innovations in the study of black people across the Americas. Frank Guridy and Juliet Hooker’s chapter “Currents in Afro-Latin American Political and Social Thought,” which focuses on black political agency, reveals the richness in sources that include black newspapers, poetry and song lyrics. In these ways, the fifteen chapters, including a final chapter by Jennifer Jones that looks at Afro-Latinos (Latinxers) and Black and Latino Studies in the United States, comprise a rich and layered edited book that synthesizes as much as it stimulates new ways of thinking of Latin America, the history and the people that have made/continue to make and re-make its societies.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Afro-Latin American Studies would ever come into being, let alone come of age. It did not develop out of an impulse to better appreciate the contributions of Africans and their descendants in Latin America. As the editors make plain, the origins of the field derive from racist views of Africans and their descendants—inherent black inferiority—in Latin America as part of the scientific racism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was the starting point. It would take three generations of scholars, in tandem with social and political movements across the Americas, for the ‘shift’ towards what might be recognized today as an appreciation of the economic, social, cultural, political and religious contributions of Africans and their descendants in Latin America in the making of their respective geographical areas (organized and bounded as nations) in the broader Atlantic world.

The extent to which Afro-Latin American Studies is able to impact and shape the study of the wider Diaspora is a practical question, not resolved by a single book—even one as comprehensive as this one—but through the multiple activities of using this book among many other books and specialized studies and the networking and sharing that goes on online, at conferences, symposia, public lectures, classrooms, coffee shops, while commuting, at the library, at home, on the street and other venues. In this way, the volume is part of a much larger project, both a reflection of the ‘coming of age’ of Afro-Latin American Studies and part of its creation.

There are two things I have learned in teaching about the global African Diaspora: the first is to make seemingly distant histories, geographies and cultures more familiar to students by providing broad strokes and demonstrating similarities between people and societies, such as shared musical forms (as in the use of the single-stringed bow called the malunga in India, and played in parts of East Africa, which is very similar to the berimbau in Brazil); the second is to explore histories, geographies, and cultures using as vivid examples as possible, centering on biographies to explain broader themes (whether that is the West African Bijago maroon leader Benkos Biohó in New Granada, or more recently the Garifuna cultural ambassador Nodia Mena of Honduras in North Carolina).

Having used Afro-Latin American Studies: An Introduction in the classroom, I can say that it pushes the non-Latin Americanists. While the book requires a priming in Atlantic history, it ultimately helps to make familiar the seemingly distant, doing so through multiple disciplinary lenses—but not readily. In other words, the book presupposes a degree of historical and cultural knowledge of Latin America and the experiences of Africans and their descendants in order to follow the historiographical threads.

Regarding future editions of the book, I offer four suggestions to make it even more inviting and accessible—and of greater pedagogical value, I believe. Firstly, the volume would benefit by including a preface that concisely lays out the broader history of indigenous peoples in the Americas, Iberian colonization in the wake of the Reconquista, the rise of the transatlantic slave trade with a particular focus on West and West Central Africa, and Latin America since independence. Doing this will help orient readers less familiar with the history of the Atlantic world.

Secondly, it would be of great pedagogical value to include perhaps six to eight excerpts (less than a page in length each) from primary sources (colonial and early republican Iberian sources, as well as more contemporary sources from Latin America) in both English and in the original languages (primarily Spanish and Portuguese).

Thirdly, I believe it would help all readers to include a timeline with major historical events, including events in the historiographical development of Afro-Latin American Studies. This would provide a chronological framework to guide readers newer to the field (or having had little exposure)—that is for the relatively uninitiated reader who wants to be challenged and stretched.

And, fourthly, it would be very helpful to include at least two maps, one of the Atlantic world and a second more detailed map of Latin America. These additions would make this truly an introduction and synthesis of the scholarship, helping to bolster the field ever-further by inviting non-specialists and non-sub-specialists (someone who studies Afro-Latin American politics say, but not art history or ethnomusicology in the region) to delve into the particular scholarly debates and help reconsider their own fields and sub-fields within the global African Diaspora.

De la Fuente and Andrews have nevertheless made their goal in editing the book plain: “It is precisely because the field has grown so much, both thematically and in terms of disciplinary approaches, that we felt the need to assess its current state, recent achievements, and possible future directions. That is the purpose of the chapters in this volume” (p. 11). Does the book achieve this? Yes. But for me, there is another question: How inviting is this ‘Introduction’ to non-specialists? I believe it could be more inviting, starting with its title, which could have simply been “Afro-Latin American Studies.” The additional “An Introduction” makes it seem as if it is far more basic. But it is not. It is a sophisticated look at—and powerful tool—in helping to establish the field. The edited volume is a staking of a flag, the field of Afro Latin American Studies.

Read more about Afro-Latin America here.

Omar H. Ali is dean of Lloyd International Honors College and a professor of African Diaspora history at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Selected as the Carnegie Foundation North Carolina Professor of the Year, he previously served as a DRCLAS Library Scholar

See also: Book Talk