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1. Augusto Cesar Guerra's dark eyes suddenly lose the cordial and pragmatic aspect they had sustained during the initial minutes of our conversation. His gaze then slowly shifts from my own eyes to the ceiling and, not being fixed on a specific point, it begins to drift, seemingly toward a region by far removed from the present place and time.
2. “So you want to know about the Revolution,” he utters as if from a distance, his appearance acquiring a thoughtful expression that unveils a man who, asked to recall unsettling events, is forced to evoke the pain caused by wounds healed long before.
3. Guerra then becomes silent, apparently overwhelmed by his memories, and I fix my stare upon him: I notice a bronzed complexion despite the recent Washington, D.C winter, which he's endured in its entirety; a thick body defied by a slim face, motionless beneath dark, black hair, cut somewhat short yet curling amply on the top of his head; a dense beard stemming from the sideburns that leaves uncovered only the top of his cheeks, which are made to protrude somewhat by the bones beneath the fairly darkened skin. As I stare at the man in front of me, I can't help but think of the mix of the races that, Centuries before, created the essence of our Continent: a blend between the European Southerners, already permanently touched by the Mediterranean sun, and a Civilization of candid primitives who welcomed their guests without knowing their own benevolence would cause the downfall of their gods and their ways. I then look around me, notice the frames hanging on the wall of El Tamarindo, an Adams Morgan Salvadorean restaurant, and, like Guerra, am taken elsewhere: I see immense Churches, modeled after those in Spain and towering from the center of a village “plaza” frequented by the short descendants of the great tribes; a fisherman in a canoe built out of rotting wood whose smile reveals a wise and ageless simplicity; the ancient designs carefully worked upon the fine cloth of a hammock; the rich fruits that are unique to our soil; the Caribbean's crystalline blue and emerald serenity; all visions that rekindle the element of a previous life that I suspect most of us who have migrated from the South are at some point forced to relinquish.
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4. Guerra, having pondered over my inquiry, emits an abysmal sigh whose origins remain obscure to me. As I perceive his eyes becoming involved in a search, the search for the past perhaps, his very presence suddenly appears to abandon the now. His silence is prolonged and my awareness is abruptly captured by voices, steps, silverware; the lunch-hour sounds of El Tamarindo.
5. “I beg your pardon,” he suddenly declares, disrupting the reign of background discord, “but thinking about the Revolution is difficult for me. It's something I've tried to avoid at all costs since I arrived here.”
6. The rapid tone of his speech invokes a certain ease of being and his accent, with its habitual neglecting of the S, reveals a trace of the uncomplicated spirit of the people who inhabit our coasts.
7. I ask why the thought of the Revolution is difficult to conjure, and he responds by saying that if it were to remain with him, it could well interfere with his fulfillment of certain daily obligations, such as the sustaining of a wife and two daughters.
8. “I'm a business man now,” he explains, “and I know firsthand what most are not aware of; I know what is important for them to ignore since ignoring it allows them to function.”
9. Confused, I inquire as to what exactly it is he means, and Guerra responds by stretching his robust arm, pointing his index finger toward the restaurant's window, and recommending I keep in mind “that the things that one so easily becomes accustomed to out there, and the many great opportunities most people have access to here... are in a certain way the result of things being carried out in other ways in other places.” He then pauses, allowing me some time to reflect on his explanation. “So my remedy,” he continues, “is quite simple: I prevent myself from thinking about it.”
10. Something about my expression apparently suggests to him that I still fail to comprehend his claim, for he hesitates for an instant before beginning to clarify himself once more.
11. “Listen,” he says, “if you want to understand the Revolution, you have to make yourself an idea about what Nicaragua was like much before that... when all was supposedly magnificent.”
12. “You mean the times of the Somozas,” I reply, attempting to sound intelligent as my mind, propelled by images conjured up by the reading of countless textbooks and novels on the subject, invokes General Anastasio “Tacho” Somoza Garcia, head of Nicaragua's National Guard, a creation of the United States when its marines occupied the country from 1909 to 1933. It pictures Somoza becoming President of Nicaragua in 1937 and holding on to power until 1956, the year of his assassination. It conceives of an ambitious imposer of a ruthless regime, a dictator allowed to govern by his close ties to the National Guard, to the landed aristocracy, and to the United States and its corporations. It envisions the ammasser of a grand fortune for himself and for his family, a politician skilled enough to bequeath the regime's reins to his elder son, Luis Somoza Debayle, following his death, something which in turn allows Anastasio the Second, nicknamed “Tachito,” to assume power after the passing of his brother in 1967. Furthermore, my mind imagines Somoza the Third, a West Point graduate and, like his father, head of the National Guard, bringing the full weight of a government that rules with an iron fist down on those who dare question its legitimacy. It sees Tachito, “self-seeking, ruthless, corrupt,” resisting land reform at all costs and exacting “large scale economic profits from the reconstruction of Managua after a devastating earthquake in 1972,” seven years before being overthrown and forced to seek exile in Miami. (Skidmore and Smith P. 335) My mind pictures, in short, the type of governance a family is bound to bring forth once it places itself at the head of what is commonly called a “banana republic.”
13. Guerra, however, replies by stating I “should think beyond that,” leaving me somewhat confounded. “You have to take into account Nicaragua's historic lack of independence,” he adds, “and our inherent stubbornness that may often sleep but never dies.”
14. “What do you mean?” I inquire.
15.“Well,” he responds, “most people are under the impression that the ancestors of the Nicaraguan people were Indians who simply bowed down and succumbed when the Spanish arrived with their mythical horses and resplendent armors; but this was the case with the Mayas in Mexico, our indigenous were descendants of tribes that lived independently and never formed part of a centralized Empire. What occurred in reality was that the native inhabitants of what is now called Nicaragua resisted Spanish colonization bravely. Many of them, for example, chose death by decapitation or torture over adopting Christianity; they preferred to die than to renounce their gods and their pride. Although they eventually relented before a superior military might, I believe the proud spirit of autonomy that pushed them to resist foreign rule remains in our blood despite Centuries of subjugation under the Spanish, who prohibited the Indians from looking into the eyes of a person of white skin, and later when Nicaragua came under the control of some others.”
16. Guerra's words gracefully unveil a man of knowledge, thus capturing my attention, and the noise of the swarming restaurant emanating in all directions gradually wanes.
17. “Nicaragua,” he begins once more, “has for Centuries been in one way or another ruled by outside powers, and this has been allowed because, ever since the time of the Spanish, there has been a small and powerful group at the top of our society that benefits from submission. Yet at the same time there has been resistance to outside rule, as when a native would sporadically thrust a spear into a Spaniard's chest, or, later, when the Liberal Creoles fought for independence from Spain, or after that when Santos Selaya refused to sell the rights for the construction of an interoceanic canal to the United States for a scant price at the beginning of last Century, something for which he paid, of course, with his overthrow. For the Nicaraguan people, however, the epitome of our sense of independence and our will for self rule is embodied by...”
18. “Augusto Cesar Sandino,” I interrupt, pronouncing the name of the hero whose ‘epic stirred the world.' (Galeano 110)
19. “Yes,” Guerra says, “Sandino was for many Nicaraguans a hero who symbolized the refusal to renounce our national pride.” His dark eyes become lit as he invokes his nation's honor.
20. “Selaya having been deposed,” he continues, “the nation was in physical and financial anarchy; the new Conservative President, a man by the name of Adolfo Diaz, declared himself unable to protect United States ‘interests' in 1909. The Marines invaded soon after that...”
21. An image gathered from books once again enters my head: this time it is that of United States President William H. Taft proclaiming that “the whole hemisphere will be ours..., by virtue of our superiority of race, in fact... it is already ours morally,” and that “the correct path of justice in US foreign policy ‘may well be made to include active intervention to secure for our merchandise and our capitalists opportunity for profitable investment,'” statements followed by the storming of twelve-thousand marines on Nicaraguan beaches. (Galeano 107)
22. “...what ultimately resulted,” Guerra continues, “was the handing of control over the banking and railroad systems to American banks as ‘security' for their investments; Nicaragua became a colony, so to speak, or what in more proper terminology at the time was deemed a ‘protectorate.' But, as I said before, there might have been those like Diaz and the Conservatives who were in favor of the situation, but there were many others who resisted out of a sense of patriotism, out of a sense of dignity, out of a sense of justice, and they were led by Augusto Cesar Sandino, who stood for what many Nicaraguans believed in by defending autonomy and demanding the end of the occupation.”
23. As Guerra pauses to take a sip from a glass of Tamarindo juice that has been standing in front of him untouched, I tell him I had been under the impression that Sandino had been a guerrilla leader.
24. “You have to remember,” he replies, “that the Conservative element of the country was extremely powerful at the time, particularly since the National Guard had recently been created and thousands of marines were still stationed in the country. Sandino, who was by no means poor or radical, except perhaps in his patriotism, was then driven to the northern mountains, and his cause was soon joined by hundreds of angered peasants who had been denied the right to land by the new government in its defense of the United Fruit Company and other large landowners. But Sandino's tenacity inspired even those who wanted an end to the fighting...”
25. Guerra's tone becomes enlivened by the thought of Sandino, and his words begin to invoke a “small and ragged army” battling “12,000 invaders and the National Guard” despite being armed mostly with “machetes, with sardine tins filled with stones employed as grenades, and with rifles stolen from the enemy.” (Galeano 110)
26. “...Eventually,” Guerra proceeds, “the marines were ordered out of Nicaragua, even after the failure of their ceaseless air raids to end the life of the opposition leader, and a cease-fire was then established. It was 1933, a year in which the Conservative leaders of the National Guard and Sandino's followers were battling for the right to determine Nicaragua's future following the US occupation. It was then when Sandino, not long after telling a friend he had the premonition that he wouldn't ‘live very long,' was summoned to the presidential palace in Managua for an official meeting. On his way to meet the President,” Guerra's voice suddenly becomes frigid, “Sandino was met by an ambush and assassinated along with two of his generals...”
27. An air of sobriety comes over Guerra's expression, he then pauses. “The man who ordered the execution,” he soon continues, “was one who had risen through the ranks of the National Guard during the occupation until finally becoming its leader... he was Anastasio Somoza.”
28. The manner in which he merely utters the name produces a chilling effect.
29. “With the assassination,” Guerra states coldly, “Somoza cleared the way in order to install himself in power before four years had gone by, but at the same time he created a martyr that would come back to haunt his youngest son.”
30. “What was it like,” I ask, “when Sandino was killed?”
31. “I was not born for another half-Century,” Guerra responds, “but my grandfather, who had never met Sandino yet had been deeply moved by his cause, woud later tell us that it was a day filled with grief. ‘Amid women's tears,' he said, ‘it felt as if a friend had passed.' Three years after the murder and one year before Somoza assumed the presidency, my father was born and named after the hero, as would be the case with me 20 years later.”
32. “So life was never the same in Nicaragua,” I suggest.
33. “No,” Guerra adds, “it all changed drastically; the nation had lived through the rule of foreign kings, that of dictators, Centuries of violence, an occupation by an invading army, but it had never seen anything like Somoza.”
34. When I ask what he means, he states that, after being established, the Somoza regime quickly moved in ways that benefited the National Guard, which he “nurtured and protected,” the oligarchy, who in return for the political support he offered in resisting the peasants' demand for land offered him and his family access to elite social circles, and the United States, which offered economic aid to Nicaragua as a reimbursement for the reestablishment of the type of agreement Sandino had struggled against and the protection of its “interests” in the country. “And this,” Guerra said, “was all done at the expense of ordinary Nicaraguans.”
35. “But you have to remember,” he adds, “not all members of the traditional aristocracy approved of Tacho Somoza and his methods... For instance, the family on whose estate my grandparents lived and worked on, the Lacayos, were a traditionally wealthy and even powerful household, and the head of the family, Dr. Haroldo Jose Lacayo, never approved of Somoza; he viewed him as vile, low, mercenary, due to his origins and to his role in the US-created National Guard. Now, Dr. Lacayo was a good and virtuous man; my grandparents held the utmost loyalty to him and his family. Against the opinion of most members of his class, he had even tacitly supported Sandino since he himself was a patriot and he opposed subjugation to the United States.”
36. “But Dr. Lacayo,” Guerra adds, “either underestimated Somoza's severity or thought himself immune to his rule due to his own prestige, for he often criticized the regime in public, especially after the selling of massive amounts of land to US companies at bargain prices.”
37. “One day, my grandfather later told me, Dr. Lacayo's only daughter, Dalila, an adolescent of already legendary beauty, disappeared for two days, she simply vanished. Upon her return on foot to the Lacayo estate, which was an immense cattle farm connected to a country road by unpaved passages, it was said that her face was bruised and upon it was an expression of rage. It was said she walked straight into her anxious father's arms and asked to speak to him in private. What they spoke about was never disclosed, but my grandfather and several others later saw the head of the Lacayos, quiet and calm as ever, searching for the shotgun he usually hunted birds with before setting out alone on one of the farm's vehicles, something which he rarely did...”
38. “Was she raped?” I ask, interrupting.
39. “After it became evident what kind of regime was in power,” Guerra replies, “rumors spread about her having been abducted and raped by the National Guard, but they were never confirmed; that day there had been a road block awaiting near the entrance of the Lacayo farm, and it was there where Dr. Lacayo's life was claimed by a spray of bullets from a First World War machine gun. He was among the first notorious victim of the National Guard. And Dalila,” he adds, “was so devastated and felt so guilty, that she went to stay with an aunt in Honduras only to never return to Nicaragua.”
40. Guerra allows silence to set in and his expression suddenly becomes reticent; his dark eyes once again seem to become lost in the past.
41. “Was that the type of thing that would occur constantly with Somoza in power?” I inquire, hoping to uphold the current of his narrative.
42. His dark eyes then become fixed on mine, and they tell me that despite the words it will be difficult for me to assimilate what they have seen.
43. “Well,” Guerra continues nonetheless, “there were always those who would pay with their life for the very suspicion that they opposed the regime. By many accounts I gather that it was not uncommon to find bodies rotting on the side of a country road, or hanging from a tree for that matter. What was not seen before Somoza, however, was the fear of a man shared by all social classes... It was a fear that had the potential to clash with one's own dignity when Somoza's sons came of age: it was said that when they placed their eyes on any woman, the father was faced with a choice: he could consent to bestow his daughter to them and their friends for one night, or refuse and have his widow consent the next day.”
44. I can't help but to smile following the anecdote, for I suppose Guerra is exaggerating, yet I soon realize he is describing actual life in Somoza's Nicaragua.
45. “I should tell you some more about the Lacayos, whose story is in any case tied to mine. Dr. Lacayo's three young sons, the eldest being eleven at the time of their father's murder, were protected at all costs from the stories circulating about the family; they were told that their father perished in a car accident, and that their sister was traveling through Europe but would soon return to the estate. It was feared by the mother's family that the noteworthy Lacayo pride would sooner or later surface in one of them and pit him against Somoza, something which would certainly result in his death. But, nonetheless, each of them, who grew up alongside my father, turned out to despise the regime. Yet they naturally could never express their views in public, for this was during the 40's and 50's, the height of Tacho's rule...”
46. Once more, my mind is brought to picture the eldest Somoza, sitting on a throne and “ruling Nicaragua for half a Century,” meanwhile “conferring upon himself the Cross of Valor, the Medal of Distinction, the Presidential Medal of merit.” (Galeano 111) I can see him organizing “various massacres and grand celebrations for which he dressed up his soldiers in sandals and helmets like Romans,” and becoming “the country's biggest coffee producer, with forty-six plantations” while “raising cattle on fifty-one additional haciendas.” (Galeano 11) Finally, I can imagine him succumbing in 1956, the year of Guerra's birth, before an assassins' bullets, emitting his last breath while being operated on by President Eisenhower's personal surgeon, who had been flown in to Managua in return for years of anticommunist loyalty.
47. “I was born in December, 1956,” Guerra continues, “Somoza already having been slain and with Nicaragua being governed by his elder son, Luis, who had not surprisingly been elected president. However, by 1963, with the people becoming tired of more than a quarter Century of Somoza rule, there was a need for the transfer of power, yet this took place only in order to save the system; the man chosen for the job was Rene Schick, a close collaborator of the Somoza family clandestinely referred to as “the puppet.”
48. “So Schick was being controlled by the Somozas?” I ask.
49. “Any uncertainty there might have been as to who was taking the political decisions was dissolved,” Guerra explains, “when Luis Somoza died of a heart attack in 1967 and Anastasio Jr., ‘Tachito,' secured control over the government. What followed,” he adds, “was the consolidation of a regime perhaps more brutal than that of ‘Tachito's' father.”
50. Guerra's tone becomes somewhat more firm. His words, I presume, are suddenly backed by the certainty of having lived what they describe as opposed to being uttered as mere repetition of others' accounts.
51. “So, the youngest Somoza employed greater cruelty than his father,” I insinuate.
52. “That is hard to say,” Guerra answers, “because the son faced an already organized opposition group, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, that coalescence of nationalists and leftist parties that had taken the national hero's name as their own in 1961, a decade and a half before taking to the mountains and adopting his battle tactics.”
53. “When I was growing up,” he continues, “the Sandinistas were gaining widespread popularity. It was then that, when one worked on the fields, one would often sing songs such as the Adelaida , which had not been sung since Sandino's time: ‘In Nicaragua, gentlemen, the mouse kills the cat,' it went. You could simply feel the forces of independence brewing in the air,” Guerra affirms, a sense of nostalgia suddenly beginning to permeate his words. “At the same time, however, the Somoza in power was as brutal as ever, ordering the National Guard to round up supposed Sandinistas by the dozens and delivering them to their families unrecognizable and in several pieces within plastic bags.”
54. I become sickened by the depiction, yet at the same time I realize that it is no different from other stories regarding Cold War Latin America; one eventually becomes accustomed to them, for lack of a better word.
55. “The violence, however,” Guerra says, “brought more people to the Sandinista camp. They eventually became a small and unsophisticated yet powerful army, strong enough to withstand the wrath of the National Guard.”
56. Guerra hesitates before continuing to speak once more, his eyes once again begin to dwell on the past.
57. “The Revolution came from one day to the next...” he begins remembering, “nobody really expected it, but on a morning of 1979 the news spread about Somoza having left the country, and I left to Managua along with my father and with Don Andres Lacayo, a boy my age who was the grandson of the man assassinated by the father of the deposed dictator. When we arrived to the capital, which was two hours away from the Lacayo estate, we saw people gathered in the streets, celebrating. In what later became known the Plaza of Independence, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista's leader, pronounced an impassioned speech proclaiming the end of a tyranny and the establishment of a government whose primary concern was the needs of the people... Thousands and thousands cheered and sang Revolutionary songs, it was an atmosphere unlike I had ever witnessed at twenty-three years of age.”
58. “What really struck me,” Guerra exclaims, “was the fact that those rejoicing at the end of the regime were not only the poor or the dispossessed; there were people of all social classes, such as Don Andres Lacayo, the youngest of an aristocratic family, celebrating next to my father and me, laborers at his family's estate. There was a sense that the future would offer Nicaragua great things. A sense that was heightened by the initial support of the Revolution offered by US President Jimmy Carter, who sent $75 million dollars in aid as a friendly gesture.”
59. “What was life like once the Sandinistas were in power?” I ask, absorbed in Guerra's story.
60. “Well,” he responds, “for us, there was barely time to think. Don Andres and his brothers got involved with the Sandinistas' social programs, which were the core of their government. Don Andres was put in charge of the nation's literacy campaign, and I went along, since all the workers of the Lacayo estate were given an education from an early age. It was a thrilling time; we were young and we believed that we were changing the world, that we were part of something truly great. We would leave at 5 in the morning and head to towns and villages all across the country, where we would teach “campesinos” of all ages to read and write. It was overwhelming to realize the degree of ignorance the people had been subjected to under Somoza; it made me thankful for my family having worked with the Lacayos.”
61. “I've read that literacy campaign were very successful,” I state, and am corroborated by Guerra who proudly informs me that Nicaragua was given awards by OXFAM and by the United Nations for the improvement of literacy and public health after the first three years of the Revolution.
62. “It was truly a great time,” Guerra affirms once again. “But the Revolution,” he adds, “as if it had been too good to be true, soon faced obstacles it would be unable to surmount.”
63. For the last time during our conversation, my mind invokes images, this time amassed from films and documentaries: it sees Ronald Reagan coming to power in the United States, denouncing the “Marxist Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua,” and declaring a trade embargo on the Central American nation; it pictures the subsequent establishment of a counterrevolutionary army in Honduras comprised of hundreds of ex-National Guard members or peasants taken from their villages, their arms paid for with US government dollars and their training provided by the CIA; it pictures the “Contras,” as they were called, crossing the border and inflicting damage on “soft targets” such as bridges and wheat harvests; it envisions the Sandinista response: the arming of farmers, both men and women, in order to defend the country's infrastructure, something that eventually cost the government half its budget and forced it to turn away from its social agenda; it sees, in short, a superpower going to great lengths to avoid the advancement of a people subjected to a Century of military occupation followed by a brutal tyranny. (Wexler)
64. “You probably know about the Revolution's outcome,” states Guerra, “a decade after its onset, the people of Nicaragua were forced to choose by means of election what they preferred: the Sandinistas and the wrath of the Contras and the embargo, or the government the US supported and the end to the war and the restrictions on trade. For me,” he continues, “it is preferable not to talk about that time; my father was killed while defending a school from the Contras.”
65. Guerra's expression begins to reveal a grief that, although possibly thought forgotten, was nonetheless simply concealed.
66. “I came to this country,” he continues, “with help from the Lacayos, and specifically to put everything behind.”
67. As I notice the pain which such memories revive in Guerra's eyes, I thank him for sharing his recollection of Nicaragua and the Revolution.
68. Before we depart, however, I ask him one last question:
69. “Do you hold any resentment against this country?”
70. He then replies without pondering:
71. “I do hold resentment. But not against the people. I understand that it is important for them to remain unaware of the horrors their government can commit abroad. That is the nature of the system, in a way it can't be avoided. The sustenance of the American way of life requires natural resources and cheap labor to exploit elsewhere. The system will go to any extent for these to be assured, for the sake of people's opportunities here.”
72. He walks resolutely toward the door, yet turns before reaching it, and takes some steps in the direction of the table where I still sit.
73. “Plato never said,” he utters firmly, “that the most just republic has a responsibility to act justly toward its neighbors.”
74. He then walks away, the years accumulated during his life unveiling themselves more than before, and he appears to have begun the struggle to forget what has just been invoked. Something about his eyes, however, suggests that perhaps the spirit of resistance Sandino inherited from Nicaragua's native inhabitants exists within Guerra himself, and that it will not allow him to complete his life without returning to his fatherland and battling for the cause of independence, even if it is a lost cause, once more.
Skidmore, Thomas and Smith, Peter. Modern Latin America . New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Galeano, Eduardo. Open Veins of Latin America : Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent . New York, NY: Monthly Review Press, 1997.