Back to the streets - Page 7

The Mission and the revolution, as lived and told by Roberto Vargas

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Poet, teacher, activist, and revolutionary Roberto Vargas helped build the Mission Cultural Center

Though Murguía says the actual military war on the ground was largely a stalemate between the Sandinistas and the Somozas' National Guard, the Sandinistas were at last able to triumph through international pressure, strategic military victories, and a general strike. Somoza fled in July of 1979, and the Sandinistas entered Managua victorious on July 19 of the same year. Cardenal's poem "Lights" describes the city as seen from a plane that brought the elder poet into a Managua free from the Somoza family's rule for the first time in 43 years. In Managua, street graffiti declared, El triunfo de la revolución el triunfo de la poesía.

Vargas and Murguía, however, did not enter Managua with the victorious army. The Southern Front did not go to Managua, and Vargas had recently been sent back to the U.S., to coordinate a simultaneous take over of the Nicaraguan consulates in major U.S. cities from coast to coast to coincide with the victory in Managua.

Vargas' work for Nicaragua did not end with victory. The Mission High kid now found himself serving in the new revolutionary government as cultural attaché to the United States. "I was jailed in the takeover of the DC consulate," Vargas says, laughing, "but then I came back several months later to serve there!"

The voluble poet grows uncharacteristically silent when I ask him what it felt like to actually win the war.

"To win?," he asks, pronouncing the word as if he was hearing it for the very first time. "Well ... it's like taking off a huge load, man. Like taking mountains off your back." He is silent for a bit and then adds, "But what do you win? You win the right to continue the struggle."

"To win was to reach the objective of getting rid of the Somoza family once and for all," Vargas says. "But it was not really a win/lose situation." Indeed, the Sandinistas inherited a country in ruins and in debt, with an estimated 50,000 war dead, and 600,000 homeless. Nicaragua's left-wing powers would become an obsession for the Reagan Administration, who for the next ten years offered heavy financial assistance and training to the Contras, a coalition of pro-Somoza and anti-Sandinista guerrillas who fought to overthrow the revolutionary government. The U.S. strangled Nicaragua's economy with a trade embargo like it employed against Cuba. In reality, for the Sandinistas, the war literally never ended.

"Somoza bombed everything in Nicaragua before he left the country. Reagan was spending — what? — $100 million a year annually against us at that time?" says Vargas. "They spent so much for a decade to destroy our little country."

Nonetheless, poetry remained in the forefront of the Nicaraguan revolution. Cardenal was named Ministry of Culture, and he instituted poetry workshops across Nicaragua as part of a highly successful literacy campaign that raised literacy from just 12 percent to over 50 percent in the first 6 months of the revolutionary government. Soon, poetry was being written and taught in the tiniest villages and in the fields.

"We tried," Vargas says bluntly. "We were doing very important land reform, incredible stuff for the economy. But it was dangerous to be a good example. We had the potential, but we had to hold off this enormous power [of the U.S.] for decades. Ultimately, we had to step back so they would not destroy Nicaragua."

In 1990, Nicaraguan voters, weary of war and economic misery, chose to elect FSLN President Daniel Ortega's U.S.-backed opponent, Violetta Chamorro, in the presidential election. "We lost the elections," says Vargas. "But we had to allow them to demonstrate that we were not like Cuba or other revolutions. We lost beautiful young men and women to get that liberty."

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