The BBC Interviews Nicaraguan Author Sergio Ramirez

Sergio Ramirez. Photo: Getty Images

In an exclusive interview with BBC Mundo, Sergio Ramirez talks about the order for his arrest: “It was very difficult to imagine that the defeat of Somoza would give birth to another Somoza”.

HAVANA TIMES – Ramírez said that what sparked this situation was “the publication of my novel, Tongolele no sabía bailar, which portrays the events of 2018”.  He also said that the novel has been held up in Customs for days, adding, “under Somoza my books were never banned”.

By BBC Mundo

“The charges are laughable”.  That is how Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez reacted to the arrest order issued against him by Daniel Ortega’s government. 

The Nicaraguan attorney general’s office accuses Ramírez of “laundering money, property and assets; undermining national integrity, and provocation, proposition and conspiracy”.

The accusation against Ramírez comes almost three months after the government interrogated him about the alleged case of “money laundering” against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an NGO that provided technical support to journalists throughout the country and was directed by Cristiana Chamorro, a presidential candidate who has been arrested.

In an interview with BBC Mundo from exile, Ramírez tells how he received the news of the order against him, and what it is like to have to live outside his country again, as happened during Anastasio Somoza’s regime.

Ramírez won the Alfaguara Novel Prize in 1998, the “José Donoso” Ibero-American Literature Prize in 2011, and the 2017 Cervantes Prize. He was Ortega’s right-hand man in the 1980s, yet today he accuses him of leading a “dictatorship” like Somoza’s.

“In Nicaragua all the doors of democracy have closed,” says the writer. And although he holds that he has no plans to return to the political arena, Ramírez says firmly that he will continue to raise his voice.

In 2017, Ramirez was granted the Cervantes Award for Literature.. Photo – Getty Images

How are you doing at the moment?

Well, this is a very difficult time. You know that all uprooting is complicated.

When I left Nicaragua in June, I thought I was leaving for the moment, as the cloudy day cleared. Now I know that I cannot go back and then that is something that you must take on mentally.

I was in exile for a long time, under a similar accusation from the Somoza dictatorship, but at that time there was an armed struggle underway and the return of so many exiles depended upon the triumph of that armed struggle.

Not today. Today is a very different situation. In Nicaragua there is no armed struggle, nor do I hope there to be, and therefore exile becomes something indefinite. Very undefined.

Did you already feel that something like this was going to happen to you?

Okay, yes. There were two things. The prosecution called me at the end of May to testify in the manufactured case of money laundering against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro foundation, to prevent Cristiana Chamorro from being a presidential candidate. That was the whole reason.

Since the Luisa Mercado foundation [that Ramírez chairs] received funds from the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro foundation to set up journalism seminars, which we did with the Gabo Foundation, well I went to testify about that, but I felt that a first tie had been broken. The fact that they called me to appear as a witness on a mandatory basis was changing the nature of my security situation in the country. So, I left with that new realization.

But things got worse and worse. Cristiana was already under house arrest. The government took another presidential candidate, Arturo Cruz, into custody and the number of political leaders and candidates under arrest rose to 30. Carlos Fernando Chamorro [founder of the news publication El Confidencial] was forced into exile, the government took over the daily paper La Prensa by force, many other journalists went into self-imposed exile and a number of political leaders had to leave the country. As the climate got worse, I felt less and less safe.

However, the real trigger for this situation is the publication of my novel “Tongolele did not know how to dance”, which portrays the events of 2018, including the regime’s brutal repression.   These are all facts spelled out in the novel, so when the book made it to customs, it was stopped there and has been held up ever since. It was the first time in my life that a book of mine was banned in Nicaragua. Under Somoza my books were never banned.

As the situation worsened, my publisher and I could see what was happening.  We were in the midst of that when the order for my arrest came down.  For me, the two things are related.

In other words, the repression is against me, as an author, as a writer. Not as a political leader — which I am not.  In Nicaragua, literature, freedom of expression, and freedom of creation are all being repressed. It is the first time in many years that a novel has been banned in Latin America and its author is persecuted, a writer is persecuted.

A few months ago, the prosecution cited Ramirez as part of the alleged “money laundering” case against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, led by Cristiana Chamorro [in the image], an arrested presidential candidate. Getty Images
What did you feel the moment you found out about the order?

I thought about my family that is still in Nicaragua, about my sister, about my children, the search warrant for my house, I thought about my house that is there with some caretakers, I thought about my books. My library is there, there are more than 8,000 books. My home is books. I thought about all that. I thought of those military boots entering my house, breaking doors, because they enter with great violence every time they do a break-in, touching my books, rifling through my writings.

You had already been in exile. How are the two situations alike and how are they different?

As I was telling you, the last years of my (first) exile were in the context of a growing struggle against the Somoza dictatorship, the armed struggle accompanied by diplomatic and political fronts.  I had an ongoing relationship with the presidents of Mexico, Venezuela, and Panama and in the organization of the new government.

Today is different; today I am out of politics. I am exiled with my writing computer. I am an exiled writer. Before, I was a political leader of a revolution in exile as we prepared to enter Nicaragua, but today I am no longer in the political kitchen. I am in literary creation. It is from that perspective that I see exile. But also, I was 35 years old then. Now I am almost 80. That is an extremely important difference.

But perhaps you are aware that although you have withdrawn from political activity, you are still a political figure even though you may not want to be.

The fact that they order the arrest of a writer and the idea that if I were in Nicaragua I would be in jail right now seems to me to be what moves public opinion, more than if I were the leader of a political party.

The fact that the figure of a writer is being violated is moving. By violating a writer, his books are violated, his imaginary world, his world of literary creation, is violated. It seems to me that it is what has aroused the greatest alarm in the world.

This is not to say that there should be no alarm for the other political prisoners, but that is the crux of the political situation. They are imprisoned because Ortega did not want them as candidates.

I am not a prisoner; I am not threatened with prison for threatening those elections that no longer even exist. The order is jail – it is revenge for being a writer. A writer who is the complete opposite of the mediocrity of the regime they represent.

Sergio Ramírez accuses Daniel Ortega of leading a dictatorship in Nicaragua. Getty Images

What do you have to say regarding the charges against you?

The charges are laughable. They are attempting against peace, against our country’s very security, they are charges plucked from the magician’s hat.  This is a government that has been proclaiming hatred every day and it is not something against me personally – they are promoting hatred and have [recently] imprisoned more than 30 people. That is very typical of fascist regimes.

Do you trust the justice system in your country?

I cannot trust something that does not exist. What exists in Nicaragua are political operatives around the figure of the presidential couple. There are judges, police, prosecutors — all are political operators who are part of a repressive mechanism. So in Nicaragua, going to submit a document before a judge, requesting habeas corpus is completely useless, it is a fiction.

You say that in your country there is no justice and that you cannot wait for due process, but someone might think “well, if he has been called in, his duty is to present himself to the authorities”.

The ethical duty comes when there is an ethical parameter to respond to and if that ethical parameter does not exist, I do not feel obliged in any way.

What does it mean that these charges come from a person you were so close to?

I think that no longer has relevance. The fact that I was in government or had been vice president has no relevance to them or to me.

I am fighting a dictatorship and that is why Dora María Téllez [a key figure in the Sandinista Revolution] is imprisoned, and all the defenders of democracy in Nicaragua, because in Nicaragua those who are in jail are there because they chose democracy over dictatorship. There is a dictatorship in power and there is a democracy that others defend — in that sense we are totally identified. I feel totally identified with all those who are in prison whatever their ideological identity. This is not an ideological issue. It is a matter of simple choice between dictatorship and democracy.

Sergio Ramírez’s new novel, “Tongolele didn’t know how to dance,” portrays the repression exercised against the strong protests that broke out in Nicaragua in 2018

At some point in your life did you imagine that the revolution you were a part of would reach a point like this?

No, it would have been almost impossible to imagine that the overthrow of Somoza was going to engender another Somoza, that was not possible even in my wildest dreams.

At what point did you decide to part ways with Ortega and for what reason?

When the Sandinista Front refused to hold those who had improperly appropriated State assets in the “piñata” (1990) accountable and when the choice between overthrowing the government of Violeta Chamorro was through a coup or for that government to come to an end in a stable manner through democratic  elections. That was the choice: violence or institutionality. I chose institutionality and that meant the break in 1994.

You have said several times that you do not like the word “dissident”, that you do not like to consider yourself a dissident, what does that mean?

Dissidents emerge from closed parties and end up as traitors to orthodox ideologies, and what I have is the free choice to think or change my mind according to my own freedom, and to not abide by creeds or political catechisms that, when violated, result in betrayals or dissent.

Dora María Téllez, a key figure in the Sandinista Revolution, has been detained. Getty Images.

Ortega is compared to Somoza. What do you think? How similar are they?

They are two dictators at very different stages in the history of Nicaragua. But I think that dictators do not emerge from a particular personality, but from the method of wielding power.

The more power a person accumulates, the more abuses he commits and the more he wants to stay in power the abuses multiply even more. That is the identity between the two, the denial of democracy and the willingness to commit all the abuses that it considers necessary to stay in power.

Do you think a political solution is possible?

It has to be. The way out must be political, because a civil war is not going to happen, nor do I want it to happen again, it would be a new bloodshed that would again result in a triumphant leader seizing power forever. That has been the history of Nicaragua and that history must be broken at some point. I don’t know how or when. But at least I have faith that this moment must come.

Do you see any pathway to that exit?

Every regime ends up running out of steam. The more a regime concentrates its power, the more it weakens. It seems paradoxical, but it is true.

The more a regime closes off options, the more it concentrates power, the more abuses it commits, the less chance a country has to breathe, and the more it ends ups closing its own doors.

Could what is happening lead you to return to politics?

No. For me those doors are totally closed. I am forever and always a writer. It is from the world of writing that I define my task looking towards the future, to what may lie ahead. Intervention in active politics is not in my life perspective. Yes, speaking, criticizing, letting my voice be heard, in that sense I am participating as a citizen, which is political participation.

What plans do you have?

I will be going to Spain to present my novel and taking part in a long tour of several European countries with the Cervantes Institute. The literary world is what I have in front of me. Then we’ll see, I’ll see how I rebuild my life.

What would you like people to know about this situation and what you are going through?

That in Nicaragua all the doors of democracy are closed, the repression is increasing, the November elections are not really happening, and that the great responsibility of the world, of the governments, is whether or not they will recognize Daniel Ortega as president-elect of Nicaragua.

It would be an outrage to extend diplomatic recognition to a dictatorship that is using all possible, illegitimate, and abusive means to perpetuate itself in power, thus destroying the possibility of the people of Nicaragua to freely choose.

¿Do you have a message for Daniel Ortega?

No, nothing.


Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.