Sergio Ramirez: “This Barbarity Puts Nicaragua in the Global Spotlight”

Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramirez on the Esta Semana program.

The author’s latest novel, Tongolele couldn’t dance, has been banned in Nicaragua. “They’re not penalizing a political leader, but a writer who says what he thinks. I’m a subversive writer.”

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – This past Thursday, September 9, writer Sergio Ramirez presented his new novel in Madrid, Spain. The book, Tongolele no sabía bailar [“Tongolele couldn’t dance”], is the third in a detective series featuring Nicaraguan inspector Dolores Morales. The book has been impounded by the Nicaraguan Customs Office. Meanwhile, the author is in exile, accused by the Ortega regime’s Public Prosecutor of a litany of crimes. There’s a warrant out for his arrest, and a search warrant for his home in Managua.

“I’m being accused as a writer, not as a political leader,” states Ramirez, who received the prestigious Miguel de Cervantes Prize for Literature in 2017. “I’m being accused because I write novels they consider subversive to the order they want to establish. That’s fine. I declare myself a subversive writer, because all writers are subversive.”

The writer admitted feeling overwhelmed by the global outpouring of solidarity for him as an individual and for his literary work. Condemnation of Ortega’s decision has echoed around the globe. He states: “If this barbarity has yielded any benefits, it’s that Nicaragua has been put in the global spotlight, thanks to this abuse.” 

In this conversation we held in San Jose, Costa Rica – broadcast on the online television news program Esta Semana – the former vice president (1985-1990) speaks of the harshness of this new exile. Nonetheless, he plans to continue his life as a writer, “without keeping quiet”. With his proverbial irony, Ramirez expressed his gratitude to the presidential couple for banning his newest book. According to the author, this decision offers him “the writer’s highest award”, which is to multiply the number of their readers.

A subversive writer  

On Wednesday [September 8] the Public Prosecutor’s office formally accused you of at least five different crimes, including inciting hatred and violence, conspiracy, undermining the national sovereignty, right up to money laundering. Where did so many crimes come from?

From a very poor imagination, out of mediocrity. These crimes were invented expressly to keep the elections from being held, and to arrest and throw in the dungeon both presidential candidates and political leaders. It’s certainly the first time these accusations are being leveled against someone for writing books, but the crimes themselves are the same. [The accusations against me] are no different from the charges levied against all the prisoners they’re holding in El Chipote [the Managua jail] or those who succeeded in fleeing.

When I offered my [original] declarations to the Prosecutor’s office, I was remembering that in 1977 Somoza’s Prosecutor accused me of very similar crimes, together with all the members of the Group of Twelve: terrorism, promoting violence, illicit association to commit crimes. I don’t see any difference between one set of accusations and the other.

When you responded to the original summons from the Public Prosecutor [June 1], and they interrogated you about your role in the Luisa Mercado Foundation, were you expecting an accusation, an arrest warrant and a search of your home?

No, because at that time they asked vague, foolish questions. The Luisa Mercado Foundation is the legal umbrella for the International Literary Festival called Centroamerica Cuenta, which enjoys great prestige in the world. Via a three-way coordination between the Violeta de Chamorro Foundation, the Garcia Marquez Foundation in Cartagena [Colombia], and ourselves, we organized a series of journalism workshops for Central American journalists, led by John Lee Anderson, for example, or Monica Gonzalez. Those were partially financed with resources from the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation. So, they’re penalizing Centroamerica Cuenta here.

You mentioned the accusation that the Somoza dictatorship filed against you in 1977, when you led the Group of Twelve. That group was one of the pillars for forging a national and international alliance against the Somoza dictatorship. Do conditions exist in today’s Nicaragua for consolidating national unity against the Ortega dictatorship, this time without arms, in a merely civic struggle?

That’s my aspiration, and something that should exist. I’m distanced now from the world of politics as such, from the political organizations, and I can only offer you an outside opinion, from my perspective as a writer and critic of the situation in Nicaragua. If anything has helped this unity, it’s Ortega, by imprisoning political leaders and presidential candidates. Previously as we all know, these had a lot of differences, and were standing on different ground.

Now, it gets my attention that Pedro Joaquin Chamorro from the Citizen’s for Liberty Party and Victor Hugo Tinoco from the former Sandinista Renewal Movement are sharing the same cell. I believe that the unity begins there, with human understanding. It seems to me that when all these prisoners leave jail – because they have to get out – they’re going to come out strengthened, and the unity for democracy in Nicaragua is going to come out stronger too.

The regime’s illegitimacy after January 10, 2022

What can we expect on November 8 [date of Nicaraguan general elections] or on January 10, when Ortega declares himself reelected and is inaugurated, following a vote without any real political competition?  Will the international community recognize his government, after denying the legitimacy of these elections?

That’s the big question. If the legitimacy of the elections isn’t recognized, the legitimacy of the resulting Government can’t be recognized. I think that calling this upcoming event an election is a semantic error. There won’t be any elections in Nicaragua. What we’ll see is a process of institutional violence that pushes aside the candidates and sends them to jail; that controls the voting, as if the Electoral Council were an arm of the police and can declare whoever they want the winner. Later, [Ortega and Murillo] are going to be inaugurated, and that’s when we’ll see whether the international community – the European Union, the United States, Latin America – will recognize this as a legitimate government, or if they’ll declare it an illegitimate government they have no reason to recognize.

And the national reaction? Today the country is under a police state. The day of the business leader was celebrated in silence this week, with three businessmen imprisoned. The Catholic Church is confronting a dramatic situation, not only for the pandemic, but also for the hate campaign that the regime has launched against them. Who will give this government any legitimacy?

Internally, I think, no one. The symbols of an open country we’ve known have been confiscated, like the newspaper La Prensa. They’ve legally shuttered it; it’s closed; it’s occupied by police. The radio stations are under threat. The directors of the country’s major radio stations are forced to be silent or to go into exile. Every day journalists flee Nicaragua. Media is being produced and directed from outside the country. If it weren’t for the existence of digital technology, the country would be completely cloistered off in silence, like 19th century Paraguay under Dr. Francia.  Francia ordered Paraguay to close itself off so nothing would be known of what was happening within. But that was before digital technology, so we have that advantage.

The international reaction from writers, from your readers, from some governments, and the solidarity expressed towards you as a persecuted writer has been unanimous. It has once more focused international attention on the Nicaraguan crisis, after this accumulation of political prisoners. What’s in play with this persecution?

The reaction has been overwhelming. I’ve felt so swamped that I can count over a hundred requests for interviews that I haven’t been able to attend to. It’s been physically impossible for me to even respond to those who want to speak with me. Every day I receive pronouncements of condemnation with signatures from all parts of the world, even countries that aren’t Spanish-speaking, such as France, Italy, Germany. I feel that if there’s any benefit to be had from this barbarity, it’s that Nicaragua is in the middle of this. It’s Nicaragua that’s been put in the global spotlight today, thanks to this abuse. Everyone understands that it’s not an abuse committed against a political leader, but against a writer, who’s being punished for saying what he thinks, for raising his voice; and because he writes books that aren’t to the liking of those holding power in Nicaragua. 

The Spanish newspaper El Pais said in an editorial that by accusing you, Ortega is condemning you to exile. Your alter ego, Inspector Morales, is in exile at the beginning of your latest novel Tongolele no sabia bailar [Tongolele couldn’t dance], and then decides to return to Nicaragua. How will you live out your exile? Do you have any personal or political deadline for returning to Nicaragua?

I was 35 when I was exiled under Somoza, and I was immersed in the struggle for a different Nicaragua. I returned to Nicaragua with the Somoza regime’s accusations of inciting terrorism still pending. Despite that, I opted to return and confront them, and Somoza didn’t dare put me in jail.

I was profoundly involved in that struggle, because I believed in it. Today, I’m no longer the same age – next year, I’ll turn 80. I need to assume my exile in a different way. Exile is very hard, especially when time has passed. The perspective of not returning to Nicaragua is tough for me, but I’m going to face it. I’m going to try and remake my life outside Nicaragua, until things change there, and come to terms with the fact that I can’t return.

My perspectives are open. My intention is to remain in Costa Rica, continue my life as a writer from here; to travel, as I always have, because of my literary and intellectual commitments, and try to readjust. But one thing for sure – without keeping quiet. When I was in Nicaragua, I always let my voice be heard, and of course I’m going to let my voice be heard from outside.

The novel the dictatorship has banned

Your new novel, Tongolele no sabia bailar, will be presented in Madrid on Thursday [September 9]. Yet in Nicaragua, the copies have been hijacked and sequestered in Customs. Why?

It’s a novel about contemporary life in Nicaragua and includes things that happened in April 2018. They’re the things that seemed most symbolic to me: the mattress factory that was burned down [in Managua]; the police assault on the Church of Divine Mercy; the kids murdered by snipers stationed on the roof of the national baseball stadium, donated by Taiwan. These occurrences aren’t the meat of the novel, but they’re part of the setting. In addition, the book describes a Nicaragua now governed by magical powers. So that surely caused the book to be banned and the shipment arriving by plane from Mexico to be stopped in Customs.

The most comical aspect of all is that they told the publishing company they needed a succinct description of the novel’s contents. The publishers then called me to say they’d never received a Customs request from any country for a description of a book coming in. The UNESCO Convention on Books, which the Nicaraguan government has endorsed, guarantees the free circulation of books. That makes this an international offense.

In other words, the novel set off the accusation against you, although the list of crimes makes no mention of Tongolele no sabia bailar, nor do they say they’re penalizing you for writing this novel.

They’re accusing me of the crime of hate. Since we live in an Orwellian state, they put their own interpretation on the word. But, anyway, banning the novel from entering the country is directly linked to my accusation. That’s why I insist that I’m being accused as a writer, not as a political leader. I’m being accused because I write books, because I write novels they consider subversive to the order they want to establish. Fine – I declare myself a subversive writer, because all writers are subversive.

The novel’s title comes from a character nicknamed “Tongolele”. How do you go about constructing a fictional repressive police commissioner? Are there sicarios like “Tongolele” on the streets of Managua, Bogota, Mexico City?

That character reflects the complexity of real life. Both Anastasio Prado (Tongolele) and protagonist Dolores Morales were involved in the guerrilla struggle [of the 70s]. Both fought to defeat Somoza, after which their roads began separating, until they ended up on opposite sides.

Inspector Morales views the phenomenon of growing family power that exists today in Nicaragua as alien to what he wanted for the country. Meanwhile, Inspector Anastasio Prado, alias “Tongolele”, sees supporting this regime as a natural part of his life, because he feels it’s still the same revolutionary power he’s been defending since he was in the guerrilla. Hence, their two worlds collide, and they end up as adversaries in the novel’s plot.

However, those who read the novel are going to discover that Inspector Dolores Morales, just like Tongolele, become tragic figures. They’re not black and white characters, they’re tragic characters, because they’re part of a drama where they find there aren’t only victims and perpetrators. At a given moment, those who are perpetrators fall victim to a power apparatus centered around just one person’s will.

Without giving away the end of the novel, my only hint is that there’s no happy ending for Tongolele. Is that meant as a coded message?

Yes. That’s why I told you, he’s a dramatic persona. Dramatic characters are constructed that way, like in a novel. They’re complex. Myself, the only thing I can guarantee the reader is that they’re not going to be disappointed reading the novel; they’ll be glued to the pages of the book with suspense and engagement. That’s my purpose in writing it, and that’s how it’s written. It wasn’t written as a manifesto against Daniel Ortega. Anyone looking for a diatribe against Daniel Ortega, or against his wife, the vice president, is going to be disillusioned with the book. The novel dramatizes Nicaragua, but also tempers it with the black humor the characters use to put some distance between the sweeping events and their own lives.

This is the third in a series involving Inspector Dolores Morales, who goes from being an anti-Somoza guerrilla fighter to a Police Official in the war against drugs. In the second volume (Ya nadie llora por mi), he’s left the Police and is working as a Private Investigator. Now, he appears as a kind of self-organized participant in the April Rebellion against the new dictatorship. Is there any glimmer of hope in Inspector Morales’ trajectory, after burying his revolutionary ideals?

In this third novel, Inspector Morales is already an old man. The prothesis for the leg he lost in combat on Nicaragua’s southern front 40 years ago is bothering him more and more. He’s suffering because of his lover’s illness. He’s in Honduras, because Tongolele, his adversary, ordered him expelled from the country, but then decides to return when he receives news that his lover’s cancer has worsened. That’s what moves him to secretly return to the country.

Upon returning, he confronts everything that’s happening in Nicaragua. The first thing he sees at dawn from his hiding place along the road to Dipilto, on the Nicaraguan side, are the illuminated metal trees that are being installed on top of a hill. That’s the new symbol of the country, and in the novel it’s the symbol that people rise up against. In real life, people rose up when the regime slashed the retirement pensions; however, I preferred to portray a rebellion triggered by the invasion of these “trees of life” into the country’s landscape.

Is that why the novel has been sequestered?

That’s one reason, or because it was read with a police mentality, rather than that of a sensitive reader.

Until this novel is released from Customs so it can reach Nicaraguan bookstores, can Nicaraguans get it from Amazon or in any other digital form?

Yes. It’s on Amazon, and some other platforms in digital format. I know a lot of people have downloaded it to read that way.

Being banned is the greatest favor you can do for a book, so Tongolele no sabia bailar is grateful for the prohibition. It creates a lot of curiosity among people who maybe weren’t originally thinking about reading the book. It makes them want to discover what this book says that caused it to be banned.

So, surely people from all walks of life are going to read it.

I hope so. A writer’s greatest award is to see the number of their readers multiplied, and I offer my thanks to Nicaragua’s presidential couple for granting me this opportunity.

Lea más desde Nicaragua aquí en Havana Times.