During the Granada, Spain poetry festival a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of listening to Svetlana Alexievich. Among her many wise words, she spoke of the interior prisons, mental ones, that the Soviet system created – prisons which gave rise to what she called “Homo Sovieticus”, the theme of one of her books. One who isn’t free can’t construct liberty, she asserted.
As a Nicaraguan, I feel I’m witnessing a criminal intent to create such prisons in my country.
Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, having demolished the public institutions and the rule of law; having ordered a massacre in 2018 that ended with 355 dead; having jailed the opposition leaders, cancelled political parties, and triggered a stampede of over 200,000 Nicaraguans who’ve left the country, now turn their cannons on culture.
From May 20 – 31, the country’s National Assembly, dominated by Ortega, cancelled the legal status of the Granada [Nicaragua] International Poetry Festival and that of the Nicaraguan Academy of Language, two first-class cultural institutions. They’re among the latest of over 400 non-profit organizations, NGOs and 12 universities that the regime has closed this year.
With the goal of blocking the donations that civil society organizations receive, Ortega designed legislation specifically aimed at repressing these groups. Ironically, many of them originally arose from the Sandinista ranks, in order to fill the vacuums in attention to poor and working-class sectors following the electoral defeat of the FSLN in 1990. The Ministry of the Interior, which previously regulated and received the annual reports of non-profit organizations and issued a certificate authorizing them to continue operations, ceased giving out such certificates following the 2018 protests.
In the last months of 2020, the Assembly passed a law ordering all non-profit organizations to submit to draconian regulations. If they received money from solidarity projects or donations – as happens with most of these organizations – they were now obligated to register as “foreign agents” and abstain from any political activity. Their members lost the right to occupy or aspire to public positions. The law subjected them to detailed and tedious bureaucratic controls, demanding data that was impossible to compile without a large staff. Boards of Directors and their members had to renounce the privacy of their data. The intention of this legislation was clear, in a regime that persecutes and accuses anyone they choose of money laundering or terrorism.
Even so, institutions such as the Granada Poetry Festival and the Academy of Language tried again and again to turn in their documents to the office in charge. Again and again, these were rejected, demanding more requirements. In other words, the government in their Machievellian manipulations, created the trap they’re now using to accuse the civic organizations of not fulfilling their obligations.
With the aim of cancelling any possible threat to their power, the regime has busied itself, above all, in eliminating institutions that promote the free flow of ideas within society and that bring together artists and intellectuals. In addition to the universities, they’ve shuttered think tanks, journalists’ associations, groups that encourage reading, that promote democracy and citizenship, and those that defend human and women’s rights.
The case of the Nicaraguan Academy of Language is especially notable and absurd. It’s an entity that has been legally constituted since 1928, an organization protected by a 1960 international treaty endorsed by Nicaragua, in which the Latin American governments participated in and supported the conformation of the Association of Latin American Language Academies.
Over the years, the Nicaraguan Academy has included some of the country’s most outstanding thinkers, language students and writers. Full-fledged members are also granted corresponding membership in the Real Academia Española, Madrid’s official Spanish Language Academy. Among the achievements of the Nicaraguan Academy of Language are many studies and dictionaries on the particularities of the Spanish used in Nicaragua, the incorporation of these concepts into dictionaries of the Real Academia Española, the preparation of young philologists and lexicographers through scholarships, and follow-up to everything that’s published regarding Ruben Dario. Their activities include monitoring Ruben Dario’s repertory; books and other publications specialized in making known Nicaragua’s culture and language; and a magazine called Lengua [“Tongue”], founded by Pablo Antonio Cuadra. The latter figure was one of Nicaragua’s great poets, as well as editor of the Literary Supplement previously published by the newspaper La Prensa, now confiscated by Ortega, who has also imprisoned its director, as well as two prominent members of its Board: Pedro Joaquin and Cristiana Chamorro.
Equally absurd is the cancellation of Granada’s International Poetry Festival. This festival has been held for eighteen years in the Nicaraguan city named after its Spanish counterpart, with the cumulative participation of over 1200 poets from different parts of the world. These poets would read their works in the local squares and atriums, before an avid and joyous public of thousands. The Festival not only fed the poetic tradition of a country whose national hero is Ruben Dario, but also offered the hotel and restaurant industry of the colonial city of Granada an economic boost, in terms of significant national and international tourism.
What designs led the government of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo to sanction these institutions? Why, by suspending their legal non-profit status, did they decide to make it impossible for them to open and possess bank accounts, sign contracts, payrolls and other functions, and to participate in projects involving international cooperation? There’s no logical answer. It’s the expression of a fearful and paranoid power who fears the existence of spaces for free expression that could feed the thoughts and broaden the horizons of their citizens. It’s a matter of impeding any forms of thought that aren’t part of their propaganda. With this attack on civil society and the most relevant cultural institutions, they hope to create those inner mental prisons that lead people to lose their sense of inborn freedom and to submit to the dictatorship.
Fortunately, the history of rebellion in Nicaragua still includes a recent past where a tyrant was defeated. We know that dictatorships can fall apart like a sandcastle when the tide rises. We’re buoyed by the solidarity of other Academies of the Language. We have the shadow of Ruben Dario in which to take shelter.
This article was originally published in Spanish by “Publico, Spain” and translated by Havana Times