My Dinner with Ernesto

On the 25th Anniversary of the Nicaraguan Revolution

By Michael Livingston

Ernesto Cardenal is a short white haired Catholic priest in his 80s, a recognized poet in his native Nicaragua, and an unrepentant revolutionary. He wears sandals and blue jeans, and sports a black beret that he bought in Spain. Twenty-five years ago, on July 19, 1979 to be precise, he was part of the revolution that overthrew the brutal U.S.-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Shortly thereafter, he became Minister of Culture in the Sandinista government. Because of a curious twist of fate, I spent almost five hours with him alone on Friday, April 16.

Cardenal still is a prolific poet, and he was brought to the college where I work in Minnesota to read his poetry and talk about politics. As it turned out, he needed a ride to Minneapolis and I was one of the few people available who were going that way. In addition to taking him to his hotel, I was asked to take him to dinner and to bookstores.

After checking into his hotel in Minneapolis, we went to Mayday books, a radical independent bookstore by the University of Minnesota. After almost an hour there (Father Ernesto bought 3 books by Chomsky and one on the current situation in Venezuela) we had Thai food, because he likes Asian food and doesn’t have a chance often to have any. He had a Heineken, I had a glass of red wine, and we both had spring rolls and pad thai noodles. And we talked and talked.

I was interested, more than anything else, in asking him about the Nicaraguan revolution—why it failed and what is its current status. I have my own opinions about this of course, having lived in Central America in the ’70s, having visited Nicaragua twice (once before the revolution in 1978 and once after, in 1984), and having spent over ten years (1980 to 1990) as an activist in the Central America Movement. But how could I pass up the chance to hear the opinions of someone who participated in the revolution?

Fr. Ernesto believes that, first and foremost, the U.S. destroyed the revolution through a combination of economic embargo, military attack using the U.S. sponsored Contras (Counterrevolutionaries), and political interference. The political interference included aid to opposition political parties and direct efforts to influence the Nicaraguan elections with campaign contributions and threats. The final threat, occurring before the U.S. backed opposition defeated the Sandinistas at the polls in 1990, was Bush’s (father, not son) statement, delivered four days before the elections, that if the Sandinistas won the U.S. would continue to back the Contra war.

The U.S., according to Cardenal, destroyed the gains of the revolution and led many, especially the young, to despair. But the revolution did not end with the electoral defeat. He feels it was killed by the betrayal of the Sandinista leadership. Some segments of the leadership, including Tomas Borges, President Daniel Ortega, and head of the Sandinista military Humberto Ortega, looted the government by transferring many assets (including state-owned businesses and land, cars, and equipment) into the hands of Sandinista officials and supporters. This looting became known as La Piñata. And it destroyed the party’s status with many Nicaraguans and led to a large-scale exodus of some the party’s long-time activists. Some formed a new political party around Sandinista vice president Sergio Ramirez. Fr. Ernesto was one of those.

The corruption of the Sandinistas (a term Fr. Ernesto used dozens of times) in turn came from the lack of democracy within the party and the vertical control of the mass organizations (such as unions) by the party leadership. As a consequence, according to Fr. Ernesto, the corruption of the apparatus extended down into the leadership of many of the mass organizations.

Former head of the Sandinista military Humberto Ortega is now a millionaire businessman living in Costa Rica. Daniel Ortega and Tomas Borges are still in control of the party, but have also amassed considerable personal wealth. The Sandinistas, with Ortega as their perennial presidential candidate, still gain significant votes in the elections and are now the permanent opposition party. The Sandinistas are living on their past. The revolution is over, according to Fr. Ernesto. Apathy is widespread and peasants, workers, and intellectuals are divided from one another and incapable of continuing the revolution. Many former revolutionaries, including Sergio Ramirez, have given up politics.

I asked Fr. Ernesto at one point if he had no hope, then, for revolution. “Hope?” he said. “I still have hope. But not for the immediate future. In Nicaragua there is no path, and there is no organization.”

One country that he did have hope for was Venezuela. He had recently returned from a visit there and had published an article on the situation in Venezuela. He felt that Venezuela was experiencing a social revolution, different from the Sandinista revolution but a revolution nevertheless. His fear was that the U.S. would try to invade after creating some sort of pretext, possibly related to terrorism or the war in neighboring Colombia.

We also talked a lot about the U.S. and the political situation here. (He was especially interested in Wisconsin cheese). I will always remember one of his points in particular: “A revolution in the U.S. will be a world revolution, because the U.S. is the center of the world and connected to all parts of the world. It will spread quickly south all the way to Argentina.”

The pad thai noodles were more than we could eat so I got a to-go box for mine. I dropped him at the hotel soon after and as he was getting out of the car he almost forgot his books. He walked with a brisk, steady step up to the hotel and through the glass door. Knowing that I would probably not see him ever again, I felt a tinge of sadness. And I also felt hope. So ended my dinner with Fr. Ernesto Cardenal.

April 19, 2004