The Poet Versus Lady Macbeth
translated by Katherine Silver
Click here for the Spanish version
The relationship between writers and political power has never been simple, especially when the writer in question has participated, even temporarily, in the exercise of such power. The “honeymoon” between a writer’s critical mentality and the obedience that power demands can last only briefly, soon leading to a bitter divorce often shrouded in scandal. Those who wield power always reserve a special ill-will for those writers who once supported and applauded them, with whom they shared the sweet taste of power, and who subsequently become their fiercest critics; writers reserve their sharpest arrows for politicians they once believed in and who subsequently disappointed them. Both parties feel betrayed; a mutual and intense hatred ensues.
The relationship between Voltaire and Frederick the Great is a case in point. Latin American history offers several others. The most recent of these is taking place in the Nicaragua of the Sandinistas. According to the version told by the media, it is a conflict between President Daniel Ortega and the poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal; the relationship is colored, however, with Shakespearean overtones.
The case came to the attention of the international community toward the end of August 2008 when Cardenal attended Fernando Lugo’s inauguration as president of Paraguay. While there, he publicly denounced Ortega as a “thief” and said he had betrayed the revolution. Upon his return to Managua, Cardenal found, to his surprise, that a judge and strong Ortega supporter had dug up an old charge against him for defamation—which the courts had stayed in 2005—and sentenced the poet to a fine of $1,025. Cardenal said he preferred to go to jail, knowing that Nicaraguan law prohibits the imprisonment of anybody over 80 years old (the poet is 84). The judge then froze Cardenal’s bank accounts.
Up to this point it sounds like a typical case of an executive branch’s soliciting the help of the judicial branch to silence a voice of dissent, a pattern of behavior Ortega’s government has often used against ex-Sandinistas who have opposed his alliances with ex-Contras and his submission to the Catholic hierarchy. Cardenal was the minister of culture from the ascendancy of the Sandinista revolution in 1979 until just before the electoral defeat of the Sandanistas in 1990. Cardenal’s public break with Ortega occurred in October 1994 when Cardenal accused Ortega of having “sequestered” the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and of having perpetrated a “blatant theft” of the assets expropriated during the revolution.
In October 2001, when Ortega was again preparing to run for president, Cardenal issued a public statement—also signed by the writers Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli—accusing Ortega of having “sequestered” democracy in Nicaragua and calling for the people to vote against him. Ortega finally won the presidency in 2006. One year later, the poet claimed that Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, had orchestrated a conspiracy against him in order to sabotage the efforts underway to propose Cardenal as a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature. Then came the Paraguay scandal.
Cardenal’s ideas about dictatorship and democratic freedoms, however, remain equivocal, and could lead one to believe that his differences with Ortega take place on slippery terrain above—or below—the political arena. How else can one explain the poet’s repeated statements that Nicaragua is undergoing “increasing repression” under a “family dictatorship,” only to turn around and call himself “an admirer of the Cuban Revolution”? Is it not naive to even doubt that the Castro brothers’ regime—the continent’s family dictatorship par excellence—would have dealt with a dissident writer like Cardenal even more forcefully and decisively than Ortega?
A careful reading of the poet’s denunciations and, even more, the third volume of his memoirs, La revolución perdida (The Lost Revolution) (Editorial Trotta, Madrid, Spain, 2004), offers clues about the precise nature of the terrain on which he and Ortega clash. It is a furtive battlefield where “the lower passions hold sway,” as a hack journalist might say, and in which the president of the republic is merely the public face of Cardenal’s true enemy, and nemesis: the First Lady and poet (also), Rosario Murillo. “She’s the one who’s really running things in that country,” Cardenal admitted last February, after blaming the campaign against him on Murillo and revealing that Ortega is suffering from a “blood disease” (thought to be leukemia), which prevents him from exposing himself to the sun.
The conflict between Cardenal and Murillo dates back to 1979, when, in the wake of the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, Cardenal was named minister of culture despite Murillo’s ambitions to get that job. At the time, Cardenal’s prestige trumped Murillo’s ability to create a scandal. Notwithstanding, the wife of the Revolutionary Junta’s top honcho did become the director of the weekly cultural supplement, Ventana, published by Barricada, the official Sandinista newspaper. According to Cardenal’s memoir, Murillo now had the perfect perch from where she could take aim at the poet.
A new phase of the struggle between them began when the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers (ASTC) was established. By becoming the association’s general secretary, Murillo emerged victorious. The deathblow to Cardenal came in 1988, while he was in Japan on an official visit. The government announced the closure of the Ministry of Culture and the establishment, instead, of the Institute of Culture. It’s director? The First Lady.
Throughout this period, from 1979 to 1994, and in spite of numerous attacks against him, Cardenal remained loyal to Ortega. In April 1991, after the Sandinista’s electoral defeat, he wrote a prologue to a book by Sergio Ramírez (Confesión de amor[Confessions of Love], Ediciones Nicarao, Nicaragua, 1991), which includes the following panegyric to Daniel Ortega: “His face was imbued with resolve, combined with modesty, humility, and his identification with the humblest citizens of Nicaragua,” a text that surely now makes Ramírez and Cardenal blush if not cringe.
Even at this point, the story might have remained limited to a two-tiered confrontation between a dissident poet and a First Lady poet: a political confrontation, wherein Cardenal lashes out at the new face of the FSLN, allied with its old enemies (the Contras and the Catholic hierarchy); and a personal confrontation, wherein Cardenal leverages his international prestige to get even with Murillo for a long list of offenses against him, to which she responds by siccing the judiciary on him so they can nip at his heels.
But what marks this story as singular is Murillo’s character, her ambition and total lack of scruples. The poet married Ortega in 1979, in Costa Rica, a few months before the Sandinistas launched their offensive against Somoza. She already had two children from a previous marriage. The girl, Zoilamérica Narvaez, was eleven years old at the time; from that moment on, she alleges that her stepfather began to pursue her sexually. And four years later, he would consummate the abuse, turning her into a sexual victim for more than a decade. I met Zoilamérica in 1994 in Cape Town, South Africa, where we attended a conference one month before Nelson Mandela won the elections there. She was a pleasant woman, tall, thin, and handsome; I noted something in her manner that revealed a certain kind of fragility. Four years later, when she dared to publicly denounce the systematic rape the “modest and humble” Ortega had subjected her to, I understood that fragility, and the absent, glazed look in her eyes.
Rosario Murillo refuted her daughter’s accusations and defended her husband; from then on her control over the Sandinista movement was unstoppable. The Nicaraguan Autonomous Women’s Movement claims that Murillo cashed in her daughter’s integrity in exchange for the power she wields over Ortega, the party, and the government. She is the head of the Social Cabinet, the presidential spokesperson, and the real power behind the throne. There are rumors that she will be the Sandinista candidate in the 2011 presidential elections, inspired by Cristina Kirchner’s example in Argentina.
Public criticism of Cardenal grows proportionally to Murillo’s increase in power. There will, undoubtedly, be another round. How far will she be willing to go to silence all and any voices of dissent that get in her way? The confrontation between a writer and political power can be even more extreme when the one who wields that power is a poet capable of the basest malice. Therein lie the conditions for the drama to play itself out on the world stage.