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Prisoners, politics, and pensions: The Inescapable poetry of Nicaraguan migrants

By Kevin M. Anzzolin | Issue 23

"_N3A0782" by jorgemejia is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In her latest book, Naomi Klein evokes the idea of the doppelgänger in order to grasp the peculiarity of our contemporary political condition—a time when “millions of people have given themselves over to fantasy”. Ours is an era in which political views, rather than reality-based, are buttressed by disinformation, conspiracy theories, and algorithms. We are projecting parts of ourselves, but seeing double. Social media’s grand simulacra—populated by talking heads, clickbait, and hyper-edited video clips—breeds whole communities of distorted cyber selves. Against this dead internet we have collectively created, perhaps nothing is left of a veritable, digital public sphere.

This fantastical, doubled character of our ideological landscape is all too apparent in the case of Nicaragua, a country where both defenders of the present government (as well as those in opposition) point to a long-gone poet as an affective touchstone–a singular figure to structure nationalist feelings. Specifically, even as the Nicaraguan government under President Daniel Ortega severely cuts pensions, appropriates private properties, and expatriates a slew of political activists and ordinary citizens—the memory of famed poet Rubén Dario (1867-1916) continues to be celebrated by both Ortega’s apologists and his rivals. The two sides of Nicaraguan nationalism, riven by dramatically different political perspectives, appear—not unlike Klein’s ambitious model—as mirrored images of each other.

Tensions have run high among Nicaraguans since at least last February 9, 2023, when 222 political prisoners, all of whom had been incarcerated in Nicaragua, arrived at Dulles Airport outside of Washington, D.C. The men and women, now officially banished from Nicaragua, have been granted a work visa along with $300. All told, the situation of these individuals—among them activists, journalists, and nurses—has not been easy.

Their story—along with that of the man at the helm, Daniel Ortega—is long in the making. Having previously served as president from 1985 to 1990, Ortega has remained in power since his reascent to the presidency in 2007. Few would hesitate to characterise his tenure in office as an exercise in authoritarianism. 2016 saw the former Sandinista revolutionary win the post a third consecutive time, in an election widely reported to be rigged. In 2017, his wife, Rosario Murillo, assumed power as the country’s vice president. Protests shook the country in April 2018, after Ortega’s government called for sweeping cuts to pensions. Ultimately, the public demonstrations were violently suppressed and universally critiqued by the international community. A few months later, the city of Masaya, famed for its anti-Ortega sentiments, saw citizens fiercely clash with clandestine paramilitary forces tasked with suppressing resistance. Finally, 2021 saw yet another presidential win for the 77-year-old Ortega. Most characterised that election as an insult to democracy. Today, it is reported that migration from Nicaragua has reached levels not seen since the Cold War.

Among those who have forcibly exiled from Nicaragua and divested of citizenship are two famed writers: Gioconda Belli (b. 1948) and Sergio Ramírez (b. 1942). As Nicaraguans confront their nation’s tumultuous times from both within the country and from abroad, the place of poetry in political life has remained a constant concern. As Klein explains in her aforementioned book, in contemporary politics, tyrants and conspiracy theorists often have “the facts wrong but often get the feelings right.” Klein’s notion of political doppelgängers evokes much of Sigmund Freud’s concept of the uncanny, whereby opposing forces are remarkably similar yet dramatically different. In the case of Nicaragua’s history as well as its current quagmire, different and duelling versions of the country uncannily find a shared artistic genre: poetry.

In his 1987 travelogue detailing Daniel Ortega’s first rise to power alongside the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional), Salman Rushdie quotes the newly elected Sandinista rebel as stating, “in Nicaragua everybody is considered to be a poet until he proves to the contrary”. It would be difficult to argue with the dictator’s claim. Besides sustaining an autocracy, both Ortega and his wife, Murillo, laud their own literary pretensions. Their government has steadfastly kept alive the memory of famed Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario (1867-1916), whose work is universally lauded as having catalysed a renovation of Spanish verse. Perhaps what Ortega finds most attractive about Dario—one of Latin America’s most innovative, fiery, and politically engaged poets—was the writer’s notable anti-colonialist sentiments. Characteristic of Dario’s passion, iconoclasm, and faith in Latin America is his bitingly sarcastic takedown of United States’ imperialism, 1904’s A Roosevelt (To Roosevelt). Beside levelling a strident defence of Latin American ingenuity and spirituality, the poem excoriates the hubristic swagger of President Theodore Roosevelt, rough and ready dignitary carried away by the solipsistic arrogance of American exceptionalism. The dictator Ortega has celebrated Dario’s writings on US imperialism, while schools throughout Nicaragua feted the poet on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Of course, whether Dario’s resplendent poetry actually offers any novel ideas about Nicaragua’s current crisis is questionable at best. Nevertheless, that his memory and his words have been mobilised by adherents to diverse ideologies in a public game of political one-upmanship is unquestionable. Dario was, is, and will be Nicaragua’s perennial poet laureate—no matter what the year and no matter what political party finds itself on top. In Nicaragua, the image of Dario is doubled—he is his own doppelgänger, a perfect placeholder for an umpteenth number of failed revolutions.

Thus, when Ortega regained the presidency in 2007 (after having stepped down some 17 years earlier) oppositionists demanded that Hugo Chávez return the Rubén Dario manuscripts that Ortega had previously gifted the Venezuelan president. More recently, statues dedicated to Rubén Dario in Los Angeles and Miami have become sites of protest and community for exiled Nicaraguans. After Sergio Ramírez’s banishment in February, the writer invoked Dario as a philosophical North Star, while other voices referred to the 222 political prisoners as everyday but extraordinary “Rubén Darios.”

Dario’s photograph was even on full display when Ortega spoke on 9 February about the recent, forced exile of 222 political prisoners. Three days earlier, on 6 February, Nicaragua had paid homage to Dario on the 107th anniversary of the poet’s death. Of course, Ortega and Murillo—both self-proclaimed poets—have also been nettled for having kept Dario’s image so present in their heinous politics. In early 2021, Murillo took to the airwaves in Nicaragua, livid that unflattering, meme-ified photos of her—ironically captioned with a verse from Dario’s Sonatina (Sonata)—were circulating on social media. Dario certainly didn’t have Murillo in mind when he wrote in 1896: “The princess is sad. What ails her? / Sighs escape her strawberry lips.” Like other poet-rebels in Latin American history, Dario, too, is unfortunately more useful—and more weaponised—than actually read.

Karl Marx once wrote that a revolution “cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”. In the peculiar case of Nicaragua, however, both those who have been displaced as well as those who remain in power can’t seem to emerge from the shadow of a past, redoubled poet-hero.

Dr. Kevin M. Anzzolin, Lecturer of Spanish, arrived at Christopher Newport University, where he teaches a wide range of classes, in 2021. His book manuscript, Guardians of Discourse: Literature and Journalism in Porfirian Mexico, is slated to be published with the University of Nebraska Press in 2024. His work has been published in journals such as Letras Hispanas, Hispania, and Studies in Latin American Popular Culture. More information can be found here:


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