San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Museum Pays Homage to Sandinista Founder

MATAGALPA – As a young revolutionary wanted by dictator Anastasio Somoza in the early 1970s, Carlos Fonseca used to sneak into his Matagalpa home to see his mom, even though his block was crawling with Somoza’s National Guard. His next-door neighbor, Catalina Mendiola, was intrigued by his sneakiness.

“I don’t know how he didn’t get caught,” Mendiola recently told The Nica Times. Eventually, he did get caught. After being jailed several times, the original founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was gunned down by the National Guard in 1976.

They ended his life, but the guardsmen weren’t able to kill the Marxist thinker’s legacy, which became a martyr cause for the revolutionary movement that would topple the Somoza dictatorship three years later.

Today, the party he helped found is back in government and struggling with meager resources to convert his 200-year-old childhood home into a museum to honor the life of one of the 20th century’s most influential Latin American revolutionaries.

The museum has been structurally restored – the leaky roof and crumbling walls were repaired – and historians from the MatagalpaCoffeeMuseum are working to touch-up old photos and introduce multimedia into the museum in time for the anniversary of Fonseca’s death 32 years ago today, Nov. 7. The museum restoration project isn’t only a part of the Sandinistas’ efforts to restore the party’s legacy, but also this coffee town’s push to attract tourism.

Like most museums in Nicaragua, the Carlos Fonseca museum has scant resources and no trained curator. But also like most museums in Nicaragua, the best part is the people one meets once inside.

Mendiola, the former next-door neighbor and a childhood friend of Fonseca’s younger sister, Estela, who helps manage the museum, is one of the people who offers visitors snippets from Fonseca’s life.

“He was always at the top of his class,” she said.

Fonseca’s intellectual curiosity led him to study the writings of Nicaraguan rebel leader and anti-Imperialist Augusto C. Sandino, whose works and audacity fighting U.S. Marines in the early 1930s became the foundation of the revolutionary movement that later borrowed his name.

“Before Fonseca, the FSLN didn’t have a public life. They were qualified as terrorists,” said Alberto Castro, vice president of the FSLN in Matagalpa.

Born of Inequity

Fonseca was the illegitimate offspring of a Matagalpa aristocrat and a poor but beautiful 26-year-old cleaning lady. He was one of the five results of Augustina Fonseca’s five short-lived sexual encounters.

He despised his father, Fausto Amador, a Somoza accountant who left him and his four siblings to be raised by his single mother, who moved the family into part of her sister’s home. Their humble abode wasn’t far from where Fonseca’s father lived in a luxurious residence with his wife and children.

In a town where light-skinned coffee barons employed masses of poor indigenous or mestizo campesinos, Mendiola remembers that Fonseca as a teenager headed out into the streets to sell candy and newspapers with his mother. As a young man he went on to work as a librarian and a journalist for the daily La Prensa, along with fellow Matagalpa student leader Tomás Borges, where the two young journalists complained of low wages.

Incensed by the lack of opportunity for young men, Fonseca buried himself in Marxist literature.

“I sought in Marxism to satisfy to my malcontents,” Fonseca wrote.

The young bookworm became increasingly active politically, landing himself several stints in prison under the Somoza regime.

Inspired by Fidel Castro’s 1959 Cuban revolution, Borge and Fonseca, along with their revolutionary comrade Silvio Mayorga, forged a new organization in the 1960s called the National Liberation Front, named after the guerrilla army fighting French occupiers in Algeria.

Fonseca wanted to give the party a nationalist appeal, and so the group added “Sandinista” to his group’s name.

Of all the Latin American guerrilla movements inspired by Castro’s revolution, the Sandinistas were the only to come to power.

Fonseca helped found what New York Times journalist Stephen Kinzer, who chronicled parts of the insurgency, called “one of the most extraordinary revolutionary organizations of the 20th century.”

Starting in 1963 – almost a decade before the Sandinistas were unveiled to the rest of the world – the guerrillas led by Borge and Mayorga began the armed struggle to topple the Somoza regime. Fonseca used Cuba and other sympathizing countries as bases to train revolutionaries in guerrilla warfare.

After a decade of living in Cuba and touring leftist countries to draw support for his cause, Fonseca returned to the mountains of Nicaragua, only to be caught and killed by the National Guard less than a year later.

The revolutionary movement he started then split into three factions that disagreed over military and political strategies. It remained divided until Fidel Castro helped unite the factions prior to the final offensive.

Today, with President Daniel Ortega’s return to power, the former revolutionary movement is again divided, with a growing number of Sandinistas deserting the ranks of the FSLN to back the splinter Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS).

But the museum is trying to see to it that Fonseca’s legacy lives on beyond current day partisan politics.

In the Matagalpa museum, visitors can see some of Fonseca’s old belongings, including his typewriter. Dozens of original photos of Fonseca document his rise as a revolutionary leader and his eventual death.

A photo of Fonseca’s corpse is featured in one grim snapshot as it ran on the front page of the Somoza-owned newspaper Novedades alongside an article that referred to Fonseca only as a “subversive.”

Alberto Castro says there are plans to launch a Web site promoting the museum.

They also hope to purchase a television to play DVDs detailing Fonseca’s life and install a speaker to play his speeches.

Making the museum a tourist attraction is going to take some effort, says the museum’s 26-year-old curator, Ana Bell Laguna, a Sandinista faithful and former librarian at the Matagalpa municipal library, which is relatively rich with Fonseca literature.

“There aren’t many funds for the project, so we have to get people interested,” she said, “I have to make this place known internationally.”

Museum Hours

Located one block from the Parque Ruben Darío, the CarlosFonsecaMuseum is open 8 a.m. to noon, and 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.


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