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Students carry candles during a protest demanding Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo to step down, in Managua on April 27, 2018.(Photo: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images))Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images
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The Nicaraguan Rebellion and its Jews and Indians

The 19th of April Student Movement, with its political antecedents in converso history, looks to bring down the last incarnation of Daniel Ortega’s Sandinistas

Paul Berman
May 04, 2018
Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images
Students carry candles during a protest demanding Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo to step down, in Managua on April 27, 2018.(Photo: Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images))Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images

The rebellion in Nicaragua right now (continuous demonstrations beginning mid-April, as many as 63 deaths by the time I am writing) represents something new, and something old, and something older still, unto ancient times; and the simultaneity of multiple eras is a Nicaraguan specialty, haunting, deep, strange, and moving. The something new is a student rebellion in a pure version, without any leadership or prompting from Nicaragua’s political parties and the conspiring politicians of the adult world. This is the 19th of April Student Movement, whose name marks the day, two weeks ago, on which a large number of student protesters were killed by police and by government mobs, in alliance with the police.

The 19th of April Student Movement is not, of course, the first student protest ever to stir in Nicaragua. Back in the 1960s, a student movement got underway at the University of León, which erupted into a militant protest in 1969, which helped build the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, which in those days was trying to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship. The 19th of April Student Movement of our own moment is much bigger, though, perhaps because there are many more students now. The movement appears to be more popular. It is, then, something new, and it is bound to generate something newer yet in the future, even if, for the moment, it is impossible to guess what that might be. Will it be the insurrectionary overthrow of the Sandinistas, now that Nicaragua’s dictators are Sandinistas, instead of Somocistas? Will it be the overthrow, in particular, of Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president, and his calculating wife, Rosario Murillo, the mediocre poet, who is thought to wield much of the power, with her husband in shaky health?

Then again, the rebellion represents something old and traditional. Nicaraguans understand this merely by gazing at one of the rebellion’s centers, which is the city of Masaya and its barrio, or district, Monimbó. Masaya is not the biggest of the Nicaraguan cities, which is Managua; and it is not the most learned, which is León, traditionally the university town; and it is not the most picturesque, which is Granada. Masaya is a humbler place, a center of artisan industries, of shoemaking and furniture-making and hammock-making. But Masaya is also the historic center of Nicaraguan rebelliousness, quite as if, in addition to specializing in ladies’ high heels, the town specializes in well-made insurrections. No other town in the Western hemisphere has generated so many mass uprisings as Masaya, Nicaragua. It is a world capital of rebellion, and it has been rebelling right now.

And then, as I say, something older still may be lurking behind these events, which is a matter of deep historical memory, or half-memory, or a half-memory of half-memories. This, too, is a feature of Masaya and its barrio Monimbó. Columbus discovered Nicaragua on his fourth voyage, in 1502, and Masaya, the volcano town, became one of the early places of Spanish settlement, by the 1530s or thereabouts. And who were those earliest conquistadors and the Spanish settlers who came next?

Nicaragua is one of the world’s most literary countries, with every big town able to boast of its bevy of distinguished writers from across the generations. And, among the writers with a family history in Masaya, one of the greatest was the poet José Coronel Urtecho, who sometimes wondered about his Spanish ancestors. Coronel Urtecho was not entirely sure who those ancestors were, and yet, one day, while watching an artist paint his portrait, he was struck by how, at a certain moment in the artist’s conjuring of his face, his features took on qualities that reminded him of Jewish grocers he had seen in New York. He inquired into the possibility of Jewish roots when he was in Spain. And ultimately he came to believe that, indeed, he was descended from the particular Coronel family of Spain whose founder was no one less than Abraham Seneor, an advisor to Queen Isabella. Don Abraham was a banker. And he was a grand rabbi. He was a friend of Isaac Abravanel. Only, at the age of 80 in the fateful year 1492, instead of following Isaac Abravanel nobly into exile, Don Abraham converted to Catholicism, and he led the rest of his family to do likewise, under their new and Catholic name, Coronel. The Catholic Coronels produced famous writers, of whom the greatest was Mary of Jesus of Ágreda, O. I. C. (Order of the Immaculate Conception), in the 17th century—Mary of Jesus, the author of The Mystical City of God, who, without leaving her convent in Spain, was transported by angels to the Indian districts of what is now Texas and New Mexico. The literary talent and mystical abilities of the Coronels of Spain ought to count, I would think, as evidence in favor of Coronel Urtecho’s belief that he was their Nicaraguan descendant.

But did something Jewish linger in Masaya in the centuries that followed, apart from Coronel Urtecho’s contemplation of his possible ancestors? Not one hint of marrano culture appeared in the town. Of this I am convinced because, during the many visits that I paid to Masaya a few decades ago, I struck up a warm friendship with still another distinguished poet from the town, Mario Cajina-Vega, who, like Coronel Urtecho, is long gone now; and Cajina-Vega was a local expert on the question of Jewish origins. He knew everything about Coronel, and about Coronel’s nephew, Ernesto Cardenal, the poet and priest from Granada, whose converso antecedents Cajina-Vega enjoyed pointing out. If there had been an additional Jewish or converso or marrano element in Masaya, Cajina-Vega would have known about it.

Even so, the tiny elements that did exist managed to play a role in the rebelliousness that is naturally Masaya’s. In 1977, the Somoza dictatorship was still firmly in power, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front was a collection of three squabbling factions that were trying to unite, with a little encouragement from Fidel Castro. One of those factions was the Terceristas, or Insurrectionalists, under the leadership of the young Daniel Ortega, who wanted to provoke a popular uprising right away by attacking Somoza’s Guardia Nacional in the cities and towns. In October 1977, the Insurrectionalists went into action. One of the Insurrectionalist units had been recruited from Father Cardenal’s Catholic community on the island of Solentiname in Lake Nicaragua, and they launched an attack on the Guardia at a town called San Carlos. The Guardia beat them off. The Insurrectionalists fled to Coronel Urtecho’s finca, where they hid.

A different unit, under the command of Daniel Ortega’s younger brother, Camilo, launched an attack in Masaya, at the Guardia quarters at Parque Central. But everything went wrong. Camilo Ortega got separated from his comrades, which meant that he survived. But nine Sandinistas were killed, and among them was the military leader of the attack, comandante Israel Lewites R., whose name is memorialized today in bronze at Parque Central. Even if his mother was Catholic, Israel Lewites was the Sandinista Front’s great Jewish martyr. His failure appeared to be total, his and the unit’s. And yet, in the long run, the Insurrectionalist attack may have been a success, in some degree. A few months after their deaths, in the early weeks of 1978, the insurrection they had hoped to spark did, at last, break out. This was a massive uprising in the city of Masaya, which produced its own share of tragedy—Camilo Ortega was killed in the course of it—but proved ultimately to be a maximum success.

It was successful because it drew on something older still than memories of early Spaniards and conversos and Jews and their descendants. The Spanish Conquest did not, after all, entirely eliminate the Indians of Nicaragua. In the 16th century, when the Spaniards established Masaya, the old Chorotega population, instead of disappearing, made a home in the barrio Monimbó. The people in Monimbó very quickly lost their old religion and its human sacrifices, in favor of Catholicism (though arguably the Catholic festivals in Masaya, which can get pretty wild, reflect a Chorotega heritage), and eventually they lost their original language, in favor of Spanish (though a few words survive). And yet, they retained a few aspects of their ancient autonomy and political tradition. A couple of barrio officials—the “mayors of the rod”—embodied this in a ghostly way, with their municipal role reduced to a single power and duty: the obligation to beat a bongo drum twice a year to summon the people to sweep the streets and the cemeteries. In the early weeks of 1978, though, when the fighting got underway against the Guardia Nacional, Monimbó’s mayors of the rod chose to interpret their powers in a broader way, and they beat the bongo drum to summon the people to war.

This was an event without precedent in some 400 years. The entire community participated: the artisans, the young boys, the marimba players, who performed in the streets. Naturally the Guardia succeeded in putting the insurrection down, but it took a month to do so, which showed that, in the end, Somoza and the Guardia and their airplanes and helicopters were not all-powerful. In Nicaragua, everyone understood that, in some fashion, the barrio Monimbó embodies the soul of the country. Or, as Cajina-Vega wrote in the pages of Nicaragua’s heroic newspaper, La Prensa, in the course of the uprising, “Monimbó is Nicaragua.” Those three words became a revolutionary slogan.

And the Indians of Monimbó—what were their own memories and observations? They were complicated. I know this because, some years after the uprising, one of the mayors of the rod from that time, retired by then, received me in his very humble home, and he shared with me his recollections of the event. He showed me a medallion that the pope had given him, which was a cheap-looking but precious piece of stamped tin; and showed me a baked-clay statue of an Indian god that his nephew had dug up from a grave, which was ornamented with a medallion of the Virgin Mary; and showed me his official rod. It looked like a walking cane, with a crucifix on top. But chiefly he showed me his notebooks from his years as mayor of the rod, and very generously he allowed me to copy them. They contained random notes, which were evidently his speeches to the people of Monimbó and other matters. His notes recalled Monimbó’s resistance in the 1850s to the dreadful American filibuster, William Walker, who set fire to Masaya. The notes recalled medieval Spain and the war of the Christians against the Moors, by which he meant Monimbó’s war against the Somoza dictatorship and the Guardia Nacional. And the notes contained poems that he had sent to the pope, describing the struggle. In one of the poems, the mayor of the rod explained to the pope that he had spoken to God and the Virgin Mary.

He wrote: “A rose bush was born in my soil and its perfume reached to the sky where nobody knew, only the angels of the celestial mansion. God heard us in every moment, more in the most difficult moments….” Somoza and the Guardia sent planes and helicopters to drop barrel bombs on the barrio and set it afire. But the Mother of God intervened. Blue and white are the colors of the flag of Nicaragua, but they were also the colors of the divine mantle. “A blue and white mantle formed in the firmament. It was the mantle of the Immaculate Mother of God, and it extinguished the barrels of fire, which was a testimony of faith … and to save the valiant and fecund Indian in his libertarian struggle with prayer and heart.”

The barrio Monimbó was saved, in sum, by a divine miracle. Such was the mayor of the rod’s interpretation. Somoza and the Guardia Nacional, then—what chance did they have, at war not only with the valiant Indian but with God? The fighting in Monimbó led to one uprising after another in Masaya, until, after a year and a half, a new insurrection finally broke out on a national scale, and the Somoza dictatorship was overthrown. Daniel Ortega and his comrades and allies became the new revolutionary government, and Masaya and its Indian barrio were deemed to be “the cradle of the revolution.” That was in 1979.

Only, in Masaya, as it happened, and especially in the barrio Monimbó, not everyone regarded the new Sandinista government with joy. The Sandinista leaders fell into a dispute with the Catholic Church, and the popular instinct in Masaya was to side with the Church. By 1982, Sandinista relations with the Church took one downward turn too many, and Monimbó rose up yet again in insurrection, this time against the Sandinistas. If I may quote the mayor of the rod’s notebooks: “Today the liberation of Nicaragua is achieved. We will not let Communism enter. No communism. No communism.” There was gunfire from the Monimbó church steeple. The insurrection was smaller that time, and it was put down by soldiers in tanks. Still another insurrection, or near-insurrection, broke out in the barrio in 1988, again in opposition to the Sandinistas. It came to nothing. And yet, no one ever seems to win in the long run by putting down uprisings in Monimbó. Two years after the 1988 near-insurrection, the Sandinista leaders were pushed into holding a national election, which was not to their liking. They were outvoted in the “cradle of the revolution,” which surprised them, and they were outvoted nationally, and they had no alternative but to step down from power. Some of the Sandinistas were halfway glad to be defeated, too—glad for the opportunity to rethink their project and tally up their errors and straighten out a few of their ideas. Most of the intellectuals from the heroic years of struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and the 1979 revolution took their leave of Ortega and the official Sandinistas.

Ortega and his loyalists remained more or less unrepentant, though, and, by maneuvering cleverly, they managed to return to power in 2006. And they have stayed in power ever since, unshakeable, stubborn, gradually restoring the dictatorship they had wielded in the 1980s, except without the Soviet-style economic ideas that had been their undoing, the first time around. And today, in the spring of 2018, the rebellion against them, which has a center in the city of Masaya, turns out to have a center of the center in the barrio Monimbó, which has risen up yet again, not so violently as in 1978, but not exactly in a sweet-tempered pacifist spirit, either. Do you want to see what an uprising in Monimbó looks like? You can see it here, courtesy of La Prensa. And here. It is an amazing sight. It is a citizen uprising, which is also an Indian uprising. It is a call for democracy and human rights, which is also an outbreak of the ancient. I am sure that it is a religious event, though not much has been written about this. It is the soul of Nicaragua, which is also, from a certain standpoint, the soul of our Western hemisphere, Indian and European and everything else, the present, the future, the past, and the ancient past, the sacred and the secular, all mixed together in a turmoil of tear gas and cobble-stone barricades and vast aspirations.

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.