Sunday, 17 February 2008

Revolutionary Léon with Dionysius

What a day! It started with Lovely Léon, a glowing sunrise, relatively lazy start and then a trip to the university pool for some lane swimming around the edges of a few young kids having their swimming lessons – just like Sheffield university pool on a Saturday morning. Taking a taxi to UCC costs 12C, an hour’s swimming (and no one will chuck you out) is 20C, or for people with a longer stay $20 pcm unlimited access. And walking back to the mercado central only takes about 10 to 20 minutes, enjoyable if it is not too hot.

This afternoon we spent with Dionysius, ex combatante and still a committed member of the FSLN and a great tutor into the big picture and local intricacies of la lucha (the struggle) in Léon. I have read a bit about the battles and remember the coverage and feeling an interest in the sandanistas and internacionalistas, the red and black flags, the sense of international grassroots commitment supporting this cause that I didn’t quite know what it was all about. If I am honest, I didn’t even know who was meant to be the goodie and who the baddie among the famous names [Somoza baddie dictator, Sandino goodie 1920s to 1930s, Sandanista goodie 1970s, depending on your point of view OF COURSE!]

Léon boasts the site of death of Somoza, killed at the party to celebrate his re-election by Roberto Lopez. Lopez was killed on the spot with at least 50 bullets. His body was taken away and never seen again. Many believe it was minced in a meat mincer and fed to the inmates of the notorious Carcel 21. The 21 prison, named for the year in which it was inaugurated and ‘home’ to thousands of political prisoners between then and its closure in 1979.

I had not realised that the years of struggle went on for so long. From the early US intervention in the 1920s and 30s, supporting the dictatorship and then the years upon years of tyranny, until the revolution came to a head after many insurgencies in the 1970s. It was followed by the Contra War, Reagan’s crowning glory in which the US government sold drugs to US children and weapons to Iran to raise the untraceable money to fund their counter-revolutionary actions in Nicaragua and rebuild the rightwing dictatorship. That came to an end as recently as 1988. [remember Ollie North?]

Dionysius showed us various sites and museums of the city. His commentary began from a book of faded copies of old photos, comparing how it looked in 1978-9 (the time of the 9 months non stop battle climax in Léon) and rather a generalist approach. It seems to me that gradually he realised we were really very interested and slowly more began to emerge. We had spent a fair amount of time in 21 Prison, with its folkloric mosaics and puppets, and the monochrome wall paintings of the various tortures affected there, before he responded to my question ‘were there prisoners who got out alive and are still alive?’: ‘Oh yes. I was in here twice. Once for 2 days, once for 7. They did ... to me.’ Fill the ... gaps with the following: hung me upside down from that mango tree with my head in the well.

5 of his family died in the struggles. If I had lived in Northern Ireland during the same period I would have more direct experience to relate to the struggle here. As it is, our lives have been so secure and comfortable that it is hard to imagine the courage and push that it takes to fight for so many years against a cruel government. In Léon perhaps it was helped by what Dionysius portrays as a kind of all in it together sense of the whole town being united against the guardia nacional, the national guard. I guess there must be an energy that comes from that sense of togetherness.

I asked if he had family and if so, did he talk about those times with his family, and also whether there were people these days who didn’t want to remember and wanted to look away from it all. He told me his children and all his family are very closely involved in politics still, so it part of their everyday conversation. But yes there are people who prefer not to remember. He said only 2 of the 9 top commandants from the 1970s are still involved in the FSLN, Ortega (current just recently elected president) and..???

He said that the sandanistas were not the only ones fighting Somoza and gave a pretty unreconstructed Marxist analysis of the layers of people opposed to Somoza, the rich, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. ‘The FSLN, the proletariat, we were the ones fighting and being wounded on the streets, many others got themselves rich after the victory, many of the bourgeoisie ‘fought’ from abroad, and just came over later to take a seat.’

We were interested in the nature of the actions and how they were organised and communicated, and in what daily life was like for people during the years of the struggle. Dionysius said that for much of the struggles the streets were normal between 6 am and 6 pm. People went to the market, went to work, etc. At 6pm the curfew began...and the guerrilla and guardia actions. ‘I was a different person, a different person. Yes I went out about my business in the day. I could pass people in the streets. At night I put on my mask. A different person.’
Each combatante had an organisation contact person. There was a secret code and tightly organised secret signals. They involved chalked signs on doors and lampposts, the classic dropped handkerchief, even, a system of communicating where to be and when, and where NOT to be if an action had to be called off. And the guardia... did they initiate actions too? ‘Oh sure. They would go to houses and get everyone out, kill people too.’

How many people were involved? About 300 combatantes and about 700 guardia. ‘But it was all of us, the whole town united together. We were 300 combatantes, but all the people supported us. There were thousands of weapons stashes, in among people’s homes.’

We saw churches razed by aerial rockets and tanks, another bell tower riddled with bullet holes: AHA, OF COURSE! The towers made excellent lookout spots for the FSLN.

We took in murals, the museum of the martyrs and heroes, a collection of c 300 photographs of the dead from Léon, from the 1950s to 1980s, mainly 1978-9. Dionysius pointed out his younger brother and his cousin.

A slightly weird call on the way is Ruben Dario’s house. It looks lovely. But we were already knackered... it is an intense tour and for us ran to nearly 4 hours rather than the projected 2, and that is with at least 2 places to go back to tomorrow! The Dario is a little relief after the prison, and good to read the international acclamations of this great poet, essayist, journalist, political ambassador and reformer of the Hispanic poetic tradition, and to see his clear neat attractive cursive handwriting. But we didn’t do it justice.

We ended the tour with the mural to the 4 students killed by the national guard in 1959 at a demonstration against a local massacre, and then a 3-wall mural showing the land since the conquest, the two US sponsored interventions, the revolution and a brighter future, and then sat below the memorial to the 9 senior commandants and talked about what has happened since the end of the Contra war. 16 years of elections and the Sandanistas only just recently elected for the first time. Dionysius’s take on it is that the country has been robbed of natural and financial resources, the infrastructure lamentably ignored and run down, the rich have ruled on behalf of the rich, education, health, agriculture, all have been privatised and that if the sandanistas are not able to win a second term shortly, then one further rightwing government should permanently secure Nicaragua’s plac e as one of the poorest countries in Central America and the whole world. He prefaced this with ‘Of course I have hope. The personal hope never fails. However, realistically, ...’ and then a detailed look at the last 16 years of government and social politics.

It was a privilege to spend the time with him and learn from him.

No comments:

Post a Comment