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Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Laguna de Apoyo Reading List I

Everyone needs a reading list. And if you are interested in Nicaragua, you will find many, many layers to the story of what makes this country the way it is. There is plenty to read to help you understand better the country "where lead floats and cork sinks". Here we present a reading list which, we think, provides a sound basis for the reality of Nicaragua. From fiction, to documentary, we cover several items available to read which introduce Nicaragua. This is the first of several parts, because, although Nicaragua is small and poor, it is rich in historical and literary heritage.

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Ephraim George Squier served as an envoy from the US government to Nicaragua in the nineteenth century. His task was to document the geography, society and culture of Nicaragua, which he resumed in a fine book. It is a shame that this was out of print and that hardback copies are rare and very expensive. This book discusses the pressure of the Roman Catholic Church on the local people to destroy all precolombian statues, and his efforts to save some of them from destruction (see the San Francisco Convent in Granada for some of the statues he saved). His activities in the region are a prologue to the transoceanic canal, later constructed in Panama. He wrote sympathetically of Nicaragua, giving ample descriptions of the people and land in this travelogue.

Among the ineludable realities of Nicaragua is the conquest of Latin America by the Spanish and Portuguese, an event which transformed a continent forever. Eduardo Galeano documents the subjugation of an entire race as serfs in a feudal system imposed by the colonizers, which in turn subjugates generation after generation of descendants in despotism. We need not look to Europe and Asia to find police states, massacres, state-sponsored terrorism, proxy wars, famines, and fascism, because they are all contained in the history of Latin America, and retold in this book. Galeano once said of himself, "I'm a writer obsessed with remembering, with remembering the past of America above all and above all that of Latin America, intimate land condemned to amnesia."
Using historical documents, Galeano recreates centuries of history from the perspective of the oppressed, presenting the impacts of wars, colonizations, and policies decided in Europe and in the capitals of these countries on the disenfranchised. The current reality of Nicaragua is immersed in the common history of Latin America, a story whose perspective of oppression is told best by Galeano.
In their first encounter, Hugo Chavez gave a copy of this book to Barak Obama.

Thomas Belt was an English mining engineer who worked in Nicaragua in the nineteenth century. His travels through the countryside, from gold mine to gold mine, provided him with opportunities to pursue his passion-tropical biology. He documented the mutualistic intereactions between Pseudomyrmex ants and the Bullthorn acacia which provides the ants with shelter and food. His incisive descriptions of nature are used in tropical biology texts. His observations of human nature were equally acute, and are told in an engaging style meant for the general reader. Many of his anecdotes on the landscapes and rural people, though more than a century old, ring true today. He struggles with the procrastination endemic to the culture, hails the affection and hospitality abundant among his experiences, and provides the reader detailed landscapes of towns, villages and countryside, in many ways still valid today.

No discussion of Nicaragua can omit the insurrection against the Somoza dynasty and subsequent revolutionary period. Two monumental, successful hostage events occurred during the insurrection, both of which liberated Sandinista guerrilla fighters from Nicaraguan prisons and heightened the image of the revolutionary movement. Gioconda Belli fictionalizes a hostage-taking event, creating a fiction that embeds the issues of political, social and gender liberation in a thrilling story. A young, apolitical woman from the middle class becomes a hostage-taking revolutionary commando in a series of events that seem at once improbable and very convincing. The story gives an excellent insider's view of Nicaraguan middle class society from a woman's perspective.

Omar Cabezas did not come from a prestigious or wealthy family, but he joined the Sandinistas as a teen. He tells his story in a self-effacing, relaxed prose, using Nicaraguan street language, of the formation of a university student leader into a guerrilla fighter: indecision and decision, glory and boredom, illness and banal humor. A well-told story from a more proletarian point of view, in contrast to most who chronicled the period.

Blood of Brothers gives a well-documented, balanced account of events throughout the insurrection and the Sandinista period. Stephen Kinzer combines an authoritative first-hand account of important events with documentary evidence to make a very readable chronicle of the period, told with the precision of a journalist at his best. He portrays skillfully many perspectives inside a divided country during a time of war.

Claribel Alegria tells the chilling story of the only modern head of state to be assassinated in exile-Anastasio Somoza. Argentine revolutionaries taking refuge in Nicaragua learn of his presence in Paraguay and undertake a suicide mission-to kill Somoza in the most controlled police state in the western hemisphere. It would make a great thriller novel, but it is real. A ruthless dictator meets a violent end, told by a great writer who was herself a victim and refugee from the Somoza dictatorship of Nicaragua.

No history would be fairly told without considering all sides. Anastasio Somoza Debayle tells his own story of the last years of his administration, blaming principally Jimmy Carter for removing support for him and allowing the "communist" Sandinista revolutionaries to take power in Nicaragua upon his departure.

The Nicaraguan Revolution was in large measure a transformation of the role of women in the Latin American society. Margaret Randall chronicled the stories of women as participants in the Nicaraguan society in a series of ethnographic sketches, treating women at several levels of Nicaraguan society, in their own voices. Her first book on the subject, Sandino's Daughters, is juxtaposed with Sandino's Daughters Revisited, in which she considers the lives of the same women post-Sandinista period of the 1990's.

A picture is truly worth a thousand words, when the photographer is Susan Meiselas. In this collection of photos, she captures the violence of the insurrection, the cruelty of the National Guard, the absurdity of the ruling class during a bloody war, the horror and sometimes, bravery of common people in the face of tragedy. In her pictures is the collective memory of a nation living a terrible, hopeful, and fateful period.

Julio Cortazar was an Argentine writer who sympathized greatly with the Sandinista Revolution. His chronicle, Nicaraguan Sketches, defends the process of the 1980's in a series of sketches discussing a wide variety of topics.

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