San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Protest Spawns Battle for Sandinista Images, Icons

MANAGUA – The anti-government protest movement that started quietly earlier this month with a hunger strike by legendary guerrilla leader Dora María Téllez has quickly grown into a larger movement that’s being waged not only on the streets of Nicaragua, but in the collective consciousness of those who identify as Sandinista.

Since the struggle started, Téllez and other leaders identified with the left-wing Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) have invoked the spirit and image of Gen. Augusto Sandino, thereby directly challenging the Ortega government’s sole claim to the revolutionary icon. The MRS has also revived old Sandinista slogans, such as “What Fear?” that were once used to rally support and courage to rebel against the Somoza dictatorship in the 1960 and ’70s.

Most recently, famous revolutionary folksinger Carlos Mejía Godoy sent a letter to first lady Rosario Murillo prohibiting the use of his popular revolutionary songs in official government events or on official Sandinista media outlets, Radio Ya and Multinoticias TV (NT, June 20).

In a country that lives in close contact with its ghosts of the past, the battle for the images, icons and historical memory has become extremely important as the protest movement gains steam.

The image of Sandino, said former Sandinista Vice President and intellectual Sergio Ramírez, “has lots of power, lots of strength.”

“Sandino, his name, his hat, the symbol of the MRS, has the power to convoke other people,” Ramírez told The Nica Times this week. “This is part of the struggle, to recover these symbols and give them democratic legitimacy once again.”

The government, too, has recognized the power of symbols and music. Tomás Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista Front and current Nicaraguan ambassador to Peru, wrote a letter from Lima last week saying Mejía’s decision to prohibit the government from using his music had caused the aging comandante “astonishment and pain.”

“We remember that these songs were inspired by the struggle and the Sandinista martyrs, and we remember that such an extraordinary production would not have been possible without the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front),” Borge, himself a poet and intellectual, wrote in his letter.

Borge said that after “reflecting with revolutionary responsibility” on the matter, he had come to the conclusion that the revolutionary songs of Mejía “belong to the blood of the fallen” Sandinistas, who today are represented by the FSLN.

Speaking in even loftier terms, Murillo said Mejía, as the author of his songs, “is just an instrument for the divine rhythm” that came out of him “from an unknown, sacred place.”

The first lady says she has fond memories of “Carlos Mejía, the symbol” of the left, but another perception of “the living Carlos, of today, who has lost his voice.”

Others, however, claim it is Ortega, Murillo and company who have lost their political bearings, not those Sandinistas who protest the government.

Last week, a group of international intellectuals and writers – including famed U.S. philosopher Noam Chomsky and awardwinning British author Salman Rushdie, two fervent defenders of the first Sandinista government – took out a full-page advertisement in the two leading Nicaraguan dailies to defend Téllez’s struggle against the Ortega government. The criticism from respected intellectual icons such as Chomsky, whose writings are often quoted by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, has been a further challenge to Ortega’s claim to the political left.

“The battle for images, and for historical memory, is extremely important,” Chomsky told The Nica Times this week in an e-mail.

“That’s why Ortega is so insistent on claiming ownership. He shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that – or a lot more.”


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