|Gioconda Belli en castellano, aqui|
Sex, lies and revolution
Gioconda Belli talks about leaving her marriage for Nicaragua's Sandinistas and a tumultuous life of love affairs, espionage and power struggles.
By Suzy Hansen
Dec. 10, 2002 | "I had exposed myself to bullets, death; I had smuggled weapons, given speeches, received awards, had children -- so many things, but a life without men, without love, was alien to me, I felt I had no existence unless a man's voice said my name and a man's love rendered my life worthwhile," writes Gioconda Belli in her memoir, "The Country Under My Skin." Clearly, Belli, a Nicaraguan Sandinista and award-winning, groundbreaking poet, is no wimp. At this point in the book, Belli has suffered terribly over an emotionally tormented love affair with a Sandinista guerilla named Modesto, whom she was working with at the Nicaraguan ministry of planning, and swears to change her ways. Still, how did a brave, brilliant rebel become submissive to and obsessed with her compañero?
In "The Country Under My Skin," Belli unravels these contradictions -- as she says, all too common among powerful women -- with characteristic candor and dignity. Her often joyous, surprisingly fluid memoir phases in and out of Belli's romantic and political life, the tumult of her love affairs sometimes coinciding with moments of upheaval in her homeland. Belli, a member of the upper class, joined the growing Sandinista movement in 1970 when she was just 20 years old, and four years later fled her stifling and unhappy six-year marriage.
After the rebels ousted Nicaragua's reigning Somoza regime in 1979, Belli went on to hold intermediary positions in the Sandinista government. At the height of the U.S.-funded Contra war in the early 1980s, Belli, then working in the media department at the Sandinista party headquarters, fell in love with Charlie Castaldi, an American reporter. Eventually, Belli and Castaldi married and moved to the United States, where Belli still lives six months of the year. She spends the other half of her life in Nicaragua. The author of "The Inhabited Woman" and other works of poetry and fiction, Belli spoke to Salon from Los Angeles.
You write about your intimate life and your life as a Sandinista. Why did you want your book to be a memoir of love and war?
The important thing about the memoir was to show how social upheaval also has an impact in the personal life. From the perspective of a woman, intimacy is not separate from the political. I thought it would be interesting to do a parallel between my own process of liberation and the liberation of the country. The rebellion was expressed in a revelation.
A Nicaraguan poet wrote the introduction to my poetry and he said, "A woman who reveals herself is a rebel." There is a streak of rebellion in me in that regard. I've also liked to defy these notions that women are spiritual beings. We are subjects of our own sexuality. We link our intimacies with whatever public role we play and give it the same level of importance, which is hard. Sexuality surrounds us like a dangerous aura. The same reverence that is given to the spirit is not given to the flesh. We have had a sexual revolution, but the sexual revolution only has made sex more pervasive. It hasn't granted the level of reverence and respect that it should have. We are so determined by our sexuality and our biology; we end up being this dangerous creature.
The privileged society from which you came did not approve of your poetry. But what I thought was interesting was how your mother took you aside when you got married and said you can and should do whatever you want for a man sexually.
I had a very good sexual education. My mother was very advanced in that regard. She conveyed to me the sense of reverence and wonder about my body and the powers of my sexuality not only to give life, but also to be a whole person and to enjoy pleasure. It was put to me as an almost holy act.
You got married when you were 18; your parents discouraged you from going to medical school. Had you already been awakened to what was going on in your country?
Yes, I grew up in a very difficult country, a very oppressive situation because of the Somoza dictatorship. My family was in opposition to Somoza; Somoza was a liberal and my family were conservatives. These were the two traditional parties in Nicaragua. Members of my family had participated in plots against Somoza, and in rallies against him. When I was young, I would see pictures in the paper of mothers holding their sons that had been killed by the National Guard. A student was killed near my house and that splash of blood was etched in my mind. But it was a constant sense of being defenseless -- a hopelessness that there was no civic alternative.
Even for the upper class?
Even for the upper class. Somoza allowed them to prosper economically until the 1972 earthquake. The earthquake altered that kind of equilibrium between the upper classes and Somoza. When that equilibrium was altered, the upper classes began to defy Somoza and to criticize him more openly. Also, the most important newspaper in Nicaragua, La Prensa, had a very critical stance against Somoza. The director was killed by Somoza, by the paid assassins. That was one of the sparks that began the insurrection in 1978.
How did ordinary Nicaraguans feel about the Sandinistas? How were they regarded?
In the beginning, it was a clandestine organization that sponsored armed struggle. So we admired them secretly because they were very brave. They would face off with the National Guard in very lopsided encounters. But we were afraid of them. We felt that it was a radical position. Then everything began to change when things got so bad with Somoza -- when the earthquake happened and all the international aid was stolen by his dictatorship. People were outraged. It got to the point where it felt like [we were acting out of] self-defense: A burglar comes into your house to rape you and take everything and you have to resort to self-defense. That was the point where things began to change and everybody began to support the Sandinistas in 1977.
Before that it was very risky to join the Sandinistas. But more people -- especially young people like me -- started to get involved.
What kind of people typically joined?
They were from all walks of life, really. The Nicaraguan struggle was not a class struggle. It was more like a struggle where people from all social classes participated because it was a struggle against tyranny that affected everybody. The participation from the upper classes began to be in bigger numbers later on. When I joined there were not many people from the upper class.
You were working at an ad agency and you say that ad agencies were refuges for bohemians, poets, revolutionaries. How old were you when you first met the man you call "the Poet," the one who eventually introduced you to Sandinistas?
I was 20.
Were you absolutely sure that you wanted to join? How strong were your political beliefs? Were you mostly swept up in these heroic people that you met?
People might think that I was a "vaginal recruit." A horrible term. I refuse to accept that. The fact that I talk about it in my book doesn't mean that my political stance was determined by the Poet, or by the people that I knew. I had it in me because I had lived through what I had lived. I was young but, at the time, I was already feeling that it wasn't right, that I wasn't just going to be a married woman and forget about the rest of the world around me and live in this bubble where the upper class lived. I already had my own thoughts and ideas. I had read a lot in my life.
I had met another man who was involved with the Sandinistas. The Poet didn't really recruit me; the man who recruited me was Camilo Ortega. But the feeling that I could transform my life and empower myself as a citizen and as a person was what allowed me to break from my marriage. A marriage where I was quite unhappy. It was a combination of things that led me to defy convention and have this affair with the Poet.
It was also the time of the sexual liberation. People were talking about open marriages. It was all those things combined. But never was my political stance determined by the men I was with. I had my own ideas. I liked the Poet because he opened doors for me not only in terms of getting to know the Nicaraguan history better but also everything that was going on in literature in Latin America.
It seems as if it was a very happy time in your life as well, a very joyous time. We all have these idealized images of bohemian life and it seems as if it really was wonderful. Was it?
Yes. It was joyful. I had spent years with a very sad man and [lived in] this very constrained and rigid society where I was not to have any kind of freedom except for what was set for me. And then I was a participant in a historic endeavor and of course it gave me a sense of purpose and meaning. It introduced me to a group of people who wanted to change the world, who were intellectually stimulating, who were very inspired by idealism. I was elated.
You had a daughter at the time and eventually four children. How did you reconcile that? You must have been torn.
I wasn't more torn than a lot of people who work. It's a woman's curse because children are still considered the responsibility of women, when they are not. They are the responsibility of society. They are the future men and women of the world. Women carry the burden of responsibility and we carry it very much alone. It's very unfair. So we are made to feel guilty about choosing any other avenues of self-fulfillment. It's a social trap, and a woman needs to think about the world her children are going to grow up in.
I was torn because I had all these traditional beliefs inside of me but alongside the traditional beliefs, I also had the other part of me that told me, "No, this is not right. I have to care about the world my children are going to live in."
And that was the attitude of most Sandinistas?
I had a conversation with Camilo and I said, "I have a daughter, I am afraid." He said, "Well you have to do it for your daughter because if you don't do it, your daughter is going to have to do it. If your parents had done it, you wouldn't have to be doing it." It's true. That settled the question for me.
I am convinced that the reason why my kids have become very fulfilled and achieving human beings is because I wasn't raising them alone. In the process of raising them, all those years of exile and everything, I had a lot of people around me that were good role models for them. They saw all these people who were nice to them. We had all these people who would stay in our house who also took care of them.
What exactly were you doing for the Sandinistas?
One of the things was driving clandestine operatives to Managua; they wouldn't drive, you had to bring them. I was a courier because at that time there was no fax, no e-mail, nothing. All the telephones were tapped. They would communicate through letters and the letters had to be delivered. I had access, because of the work I did, to information about the corruption of the dictatorship -- I handled a few accounts that had to do with businesses where Somoza was involved. I would extract documents.
I was involved in an operation in 1974 and I was able to go into different embassies and draw blueprints. For the people who were running things in the mountains, we had to get medicines and supplies, we had to prepare safe houses. I participated in a cultural group and we would go to the different barrios and have organized happenings where we would do public poetry readings and we would rally people and give them a consciousness-raising session. We would do it very quickly because the National Guard would come and we would have to run.
What did the National Guard and the Somoza government do in response as the Sandinista movement gained momentum?
They began the big wave of repression. For example, after 1974, when the Sandinistas did an operation in December, they began taking hundreds of people to jail and torturing them. They established a military tribunal to try and condemn all these people who were accused of being Sandinistas. I was tried by one of these tribunals. You didn't have any defense. [Belli went into exile.] They would keep people in solitary confinement. The people who were caught were tortured horribly. In the book, I tell the story of the man who was buried up to his head and left there for a week. Women were raped systematically, electric shock was applied, they kept them handcuffed to walls. It was a horrific dictatorship. They would take people in the countryside who were accused of collaborating with the Sandinistas on helicopter rides [and throw them] from helicopters.
How did you feel about the possibility of killing someone? You write about being chased in your car and gripping your gun.
It was self-defense. That's how I dealt with it. The National Guard had a model -- they didn't want to catch Sandinistas, they wanted to kill them. We knew that. The thing was to defend ourselves. If we were going to go, we were going to go causing a lot of casualties. That was the way the struggle was. But it was hard to deal with those things.
Also, we hated those guys, those soldiers. They were really brutal. In Nicaragua, the soldiers would control the streets dressed in combat helmets, even the police had combat helmets. They were killers.
How were women in the Sandinista movement treated?
During the struggle against Somoza, I felt that I was treated as an equal. My disillusionment came afterward not so much because of the way I was treated but because we had big aspirations for women. We wanted the situation for women to change more radically. But the situation for women in Nicaragua advanced because we were in important intermediate positions. We were able to fight the resistance with men. In Nicaragua now, we have had more women in high positions of power than any other country in Central American. Of course, we were fighting for total equality. At moments I would feel it was unfair that women would not be able to participate at the highest level of government.
It seems that at times you had two personas. You were a different person when you were with one of your lovers, Modesto. Did your personal life ever affect your political life?
My episode with Modesto was a demonstration of the contradictions that we women live with. On one hand, I was a woman who wanted to be very liberated and very self-affirming and sure of myself and struggle for women's rights. On the other hand, I fell in love with this guy. And I became this goo. It was a terrible moment in my life. I realized, my God, I was being stupid. And I was able to break that submissive relationship I developed with this guy. But it happens a lot. It happens to the most brilliant women. One of the reasons that I wanted to write about it was because I thought it was important to talk about it. It's this contradiction that we have. Our emotions, because we give them a lot of importance, sometimes override our reason.
You also write about your experiences meeting such powerful leaders as Fidel Castro.
I would find myself in situations where I would be feeling that these were compañeros, comrades who were supposed to treat me like a political person, somebody who was doing her job in a political movement. Then this other part of the equation would interfere and there would be sexual tension.
I thought these episodes were pretty fascinating -- how men react to power and what power makes them believe they can do. I cannot say that Fidel Castro put the moves on me. But it was a very strange situation; he was obviously flirting with me.
Didn't he say something like, "Where have they been hiding you?"
Yes, obviously something fishy was going on.
Some of the other Sandinistas did not react well when you started to date an American.
Yes, when I began to go out with Charlie the concern that was expressed to me was that he was an American journalist [for NPR] and we were at war with the United States and that was not the right thing to do because I knew a lot of secrets. At the time I was the executive secretary for the electoral commission. I had a lot of information. But I realized that other men did these kinds of things -- men who worked in the secret service of Nicaragua, who were dealing with information much more delicate than what I handled -- would go out with American journalists. Men were not supposed to lose their heads when they dropped their pants. But [women] were.
And so what did you do? Threaten to leave?
Yes, I said, "If you don't trust that I can keep my head then you better fire me." But they didn't fire me. Charlie got in trouble too, you know. [State Department official] Otto Reich sat him down at an editorial board meeting at NPR and accused him, saying that the Sandinistas were providing women for him and were paying him to spread Sandinista propaganda. They spread a whole campaign of rumors against Charlie and other journalists.
This has been in the news recently because of Otto Reich being assigned undersecretary of state for Latin America. They did worse things to Charlie than my people did to me in Nicaragua.
Do you blame the United States or the Ortega brothers for the eventual failure of the Sandinista movement?
I think there was responsibility on both sides. I do attribute more blame to the United States because it's a bigger country and it should have known better. Also it's a pattern that the United States has had in Latin America, a very misguided foreign policy that has caused a lot of pain and suffering to the people in Latin America. Every single project of social reform in Latin America has been attacked by the United States. Nicaragua is not the first case; it happened in Guatemala in 1954, in the Dominican Republic, with Allende in Chile, in Peru. Nicaragua was caught in this East-West confrontation. Nicaragua was a very tiny country trying to do social reform and trying to change things for the majority of the people. The United States went with all its might against this country and used very dirty and unlawful tactics -- covert war, setting fire to all of our oil reserves, putting out a CIA manual on how to kill Sandinistas, declaring Nicaragua a threat to the national security of the United States.
The United States claimed to believe that Nicaragua was this dangerous communist country. How would you characterize the political aspirations of the Sandinistas?
We wanted to do a very radical reform in Nicaragua, but we were not communists. I will say this until the last day of my life. We did not approve of the restrictions on individual freedom that were placed in other socialist bloc countries. We wanted to have freedom of the press, freedom of travel and religion. And we did. We had elections and turned power over to an opposing force in 1990. It was the first time ever in history in Nicaragua that a party had given power peacefully to another.
Obviously you did not support the new party, or that new president, Violeta Chamorro.
No. I'll just give you one figure. In 1990, in a list of 135 countries put out by the United Nations -- quality of life indicators -- Nicaragua was No. 85. Now, it's No. 127.
We have made a lot of democratic gains. In a way Sandinismo was the facilitator of democracy in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas have been the second largest political party. Sandinismo left an army that's not oppressive, that's professional and organized, and a sense of empowerment for the people. That for me is the legacy of Sandinismo.
But these governments that have come after have not cared about the situation of the people. The mortality rate for women is the second highest in Latin America. Nicaragua after 1980 was the poorest country in Latin America. Seventy percent of the people lived with less than a dollar a day.
But we were not communists. We did affect certain rich people because when you are going to redistribute wealth in a country, you have to ... and those were the people who began to accuse us of being communists.
And the Ortegas?
We began to have the Contra war, and in the situation of war -- you have begun to see that a little bit in the United States after Sept. 11 -- democracy and wars don't go together. When you get attacked, people who have authoritarian tendencies have a field day because you can justify every authoritarian behavior by saying that you are protecting the security of the people. The United States in a way facilitated authoritarian tendencies to emerge. We didn't have any democratic training. We had been in a dictatorship for 45 years. The United States was asking us to be more democratic than they are here.
Then what is it like for you now living in Los Angeles? Were people angry at you for moving to the United States?
I felt bad, but at the same time I felt I wanted to understand the United States better. Since 1986 I decided that I was a better writer than politician and that I should concentrate on my writing. It was a hard decision but it was part of the compromise of my relationship [with Charlie]. And I thought that the United States wasn't only the country that attacked Nicaragua but also the country that had produced Mark Twain and William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. I didn't have this feeling that the United States was a one-sided empire. And, of course, we all have to reckon with the United States.
And I live half of my life in Nicaragua. The way I have been able to reconcile my life here has been by keeping very close proximity with Nicaragua. That's why I call the book "The Country Under My Skin." I take it with me, I have it with me, I'm always current about what's going on. I write Op-Ed pieces all the time. I am an active participant in the political life of Nicaragua.
And your children?
My son lives in Nicaragua. My daughters live in the United States.
Do feel that you have created a better Nicaragua for them?
Yes. Just the fact that there's no repressive army, there's freedom, there's democratic possibilities. It's a different country. It's been a very interesting experience in terms of the growth of the country -- to grow into a democracy is very hard. We still have a lot of politicians who are trying to interfere in the process and manipulate it. But they're creating institutions to combat that.
What I have realized is that in history we are like a blip in time. To think that I would have seen all of my dreams come true would have been delusional. We have to do our share and hope that people will do their share when their time comes and to advance the wheel of history a little bit. It's our responsibility. I feel I played my part the best that I could. And I still have a part to play through the books that I write.
Suzy Hansen is an associate editor at Salon.
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El Poder de la Palabra
My country, right and wrong
Nicaragua's political history provides the background to Gioconda Belli's memoir, The Country Under My Skin
Saturday December 21, 2002
The Country Under My Skin
by Gioconda Belli
380pp, Bloomsbury, £18.99
For many of the journalists who covered the central American wars in the 1980s, Gioconda Belli was the Nicaraguan revolution at its most glamorous and enticing. A beautiful, sexy daughter of the upper middle classes, Belli had rebelled first against convention, by publishing poetry that was frank about female desire, then against the mores of her class by taking a lover while she was married. Finally she rebelled against the 40-year dictatorship of the Somoza clan (it had ruled Nicaragua since 1936) by signing up with the Sandinistas.
It was an irresistible combination. Belli has often written about her body as a metaphor for her country. This memoir describes in frank detail the degree to which she lived that metaphor. At every stage of her journey, there's a new passion. Her husband, married at 19 in her haste for adult life to begin - and with whom she had two daughters - quickly palled and was replaced in her affections, first by a poet who encouraged her to write and introduced her to bohemian Managua, then by a revolutionary who was killed by Somoza's National Guard. Belli's quests for both revolutionary triumph and the ultimately fulfilling love affair ran in tandem until finally the revolution failed and she found lasting happiness - in one of life's wry little jokes - with a US citizen, Charlie Castaldi. Judging from her description of the chauvinism of the Sandinista men, she made a wise choice.
Belli's is a life filled with more drama than most of us could manage over several lifetimes. She survived the devastating earthquake of 1972 that laid waste most of Managua. Before the Sandinista victory, she worked underground, using her day job in an advertising agency as a cover for collecting information and filing reports to the Sandinistas on prominent citizens. She worked as a courier, ferrying money and weapons to and fro. She had to flee into exile, was tried in absentia and sentenced to seven years in jail, then flew back to Managua the day after the fall of the dictatorship bearing the first edition of the new government's newspaper. Dressed in fatigues and army boots, she became a well-known figure in Managua, first running the TV station - a job she abandoned, to her regret, to serve her next but one lover, the legendary guerrilla leader Modesto, who had become minister of works. She toured the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc, she visited Libya, was crudely propositioned by Omar Torrijos, the dictator of Panama, and eyed up by Fidel Castro. When the relationship with Modesto ended she quit to set up a media operation. Finally, when the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election to Violeta Chamorro, Belli left for the US and a new life in Santa Monica.
It would be easy to satirise this account of a naive young woman for whom the passions for revolution and revolutionaries were so hopelessly confused. But Belli in many ways represented that aspect of the Sandinista revolution that attracted the sympathies of many who would not have signed up for the grim existing socialism of the USSR or even Fidel's tropical socialist dictatorship in Cuba. It was not her political sophistication - and certainly not her personal constancy - that made her so attractive. It was her idealism.
Given the choice between the passion for justice of people like Belli, and the greedy and ugly dictatorship the Sandinistas had overthrown, it would have been perverse to pick the dictatorship. The same was true, come the Reagan years, of the choice between the sleazy, CIA-funded Contra operation, with its drug-dealing and deception of the US Congress, its Oliver North and its Otto Reich (now recycled in the Bush administration), and the Sandinista efforts at social justice, soon to be wiped out by the new war with the United States.
Belli's own disillusionment with the Sandinistas, concealed at the time, is also frank in this account. The growing authoritarianism of the Ortega brothers, Humberto and Daniel (later accused by his stepdaughter of sexual abuse), the fact that the core leadership were committed Marxist-Leninists and the recklessness with which they both cultivated the socialist bloc and funnelled arms to the rebels in El Salvador made them an easy target for Ronald Reagan and brought their own revolution down in flames. They could certainly have been wiser. But it would probably have made no difference. They came to power when Jimmy Carter was US president and benefited from Carter's perception that US aid to Nicaragua could keep the Sandinistas out of the Soviet camp. It might have worked, had the next administration shared Carter's vision. But in Reagan they encountered an enemy as ideologically determined as Fidel and one who was not prepared to tolerate either support for El Salvador or anti-Yanqui posturing. Between the two millstones of the cold war, Nicaragua was ground to powder.
Belli's account of these years is personal, emotional and human; revealing, in its way, of life on the inside of the revolution. As such it makes compelling reading. There are, though, some omissions that I find surprising.
Of all the Sandinista inner leadership, Belli seems to retain some sympathy for Tomas Borge, who served as minister of the interior in the Sandinista government, a man she describes as sensitive and kind. Her biggest complaint against him is that Borge tried to end Belli's relationship with her American lover for security reasons.
There is no mention of another, more serious episode that some have laid at Borge's door - the bombing in 1984 of a press conference called by the rebel-turned-maverick-Contra, Eden Pastora, at La Penca in Costa Rica. Three journalists died and more than a dozen were wounded, including a British journalist, Susie Morgan. For years, several of the victims, including Morgan, investigated the outrage, convinced that it was a CIA plot. But in 1989, it was reported that the man who planted the bomb was a former Argentine guerrilla who had been living in Managua, part of a cell that was run out of Tomas Borge's ministry. Borge has always refused to comment.
It is impossible that Belli did not know about La Penca. But if the revelation that it was a Sandinista outrage and not a CIA one shocked her, she does not mention it.
Belli says little of Nicaragua today. Perhaps it is too painful. But despite their many failings, the Sandinistas did hand over power peacefully when they lost the 1990 election. And if some grabbed a few assets as they left, they looted far less than at least one of their successors. After Chamorro came President Arnoldo Aleman, whose personal wealth went up by 900% during his presidency, according to the Nicaraguan comptroller general's office. The poverty of most of the rest of Nicaragua is as shocking as ever. The US got what it wanted, though. When the first McDonald's was opened in the capital, the ceremony was attended by the president and blessed by the cardinal archbishop. Nicaragua had been made safe for democracy.
Isabel Hilton's most recent book is The Search for the Panchen Lama (Penguin).
A memoir of love, literature, revolution
Gioconda Belli's life as a Sandinista rebel
By Donna Seaman. Donna Seaman is the editor of the
anthology "In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness," an editor at Booklist and host
of the radio program "Open Books" on WLUW 88.7-FM in Chicago
February 2, 2003
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War
By Gioconda Belli, Translated from Spanish by Kristina Cordero with the author
Knopf, 380 pages, $25
Nicaraguan writer and revolutionary Gioconda Belli begins her many-faceted and utterly involving autobiography--a poetic, penetrating and revelatory tale of love and war, literature and politics--by describing in visceral detail just how it feels to fire an AK-47 rifle. After brashly grabbing her readers' attention, Belli segues to more nuanced feelings and experiences, circling back to the late 1960s and the beginning of her long search for true love and her high-risk life as a Sandinista. As the provocative title "The Country Under My Skin" suggests, hers is a memoir of inner and outer realities, of the intimate and the historic.
Of northern Italian descent, Belli grew up as a pampered, book-loving, well-behaved little princess of Managua, Nicaragua's capital. Educated in Spain and the U.S., she finds a niche in advertising, then, eager to have a home of her own, marries at 18. Romantic and trusting, Belli anticipates marital bliss, especially after her decorous mother tells her that although " `a woman should always behave like a lady, . . . [w]hen you're in bed with your husband, you can do whatever you want. Nothing is forbidden.' "
A born optimist, young Belli believes that "being a woman was an advantage" and explains that "perhaps that was why I considered myself free, master of my own domain. It had never crossed my mind that a man could think he had the right to stop me from being who I was." Clearly, Belli is in for some rude awakenings.
Her husband turns out to be melancholy and misanthropic, and he expects her to quit her job after the birth of their first daughter. But Belli not only returns to work, she falls in love with an ebullient co-worker she calls the Poet, a man who proves to be a catalyst for her awakening as a woman, a writer and a revolutionary.
Always sensitive to the suffering of those less fortunate than herself, Belli, an emerging poet and a politically cognizant activist, boldly joins the Sandinistas and promptly experiences a "sudden sense of relief--maybe it was joy. . . . It was as if the guilt of privilege had suddenly been lifted from my shoulders. I was no longer another transient observer, contemplating the misery from the comfort of my car. I was now one of the people fighting it."
Belli's upper-class elegance and poise, keen intelligence and growing renown as a gifted and sexually outspoken poet (she quickly racks up Latin America's most prestigious literary awards) make her an ideal covert courier, and her chronicling of her daring exploits conveying arms and ammunition, documents and cash, as well as escorting high-level militants are as thrilling as they are impressive. But her beauty and intrepidness also put her at great risk, and Belli tells some extremely creepy stories about the sexual presumption of such powerful men as Fidel Castro and Panama's Gen. Omar Torrijos.
As the Sandinista movement gains momentum, Belli's love life grows increasingly turbulent. She becomes passionately involved with Eduardo Contreras, a clandestine operative known as Marcos whose brutal assassination in November 1976 stands as a perfect example of the escalating ruthlessness and desperation of the besieged dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Belli notes that Contreras' contribution to the cause was "never sufficiently recognized," as is the case for most of her lost comrades, friends and loved ones. As the war grinds on, there are so many deaths, Belli writes, that she "couldn't process" them all:
"They ceased to be real for me. They became myth, offerings made to a voracious sun god that demanded blood before it would cast sunlight once again on our darkened nation."
Belli herself is under constant surveillance and is ultimately forced into exile, first in Mexico, then in Costa Rica. Nearly paralyzed with grief over being separated from her two young daughters, Belli nonetheless becomes a key public-relations official in the successful effort to secure crucial foreign support for the Sandinistas. She also finds herself writing great torrents of poetry, which come to her as though she is channeling a voice from beyond: "I simply allowed myself to be a celestial lightning rod."
But Belli's literary immersions are overshadowed by the demands of her political engagement, and the breadth and depth of her knowledge is obvious in her fresh and vivid analysis of Sandinista politics and strategies, and her shrewd assessment of various players, including the unscrupulous Ortega brothers, Daniel and Humberto.
Married once again, Belli nearly dies during her third pregnancy, an unnecessarily harrowing ordeal thanks to the shocking arrogance and misogyny of patronizing male doctors. She and her premature son survive, and she's able to return to Nicaragua in triumph after the Somoza family is driven from the country in 1979. She is ecstatic as she and her fellow Sandinistas are hailed as heroes in the streets of Managua, but their bittersweet sense of victory (35,000 people died in the insurrection, 100,000 were wounded, and 1 million were displaced) evaporates as they face the nearly overwhelming task of forming a new people's government on the smoking ruins of a tyrannical dynasty. Belli is put in charge of the country's two TV stations, but she is in abject love with one of the newly liberated nation's leaders and gives up her important and challenging post to work as his assistant, a decision she castigates herself for but that enables her to travel all over the country and witness first-hand the war's devastation.
Many Americans will have forgotten or never been aware of exactly what the Sandinistas stood for, or the role the U.S. played in derailing their humanitarian dreams. Belli's poignant and expert insider perspective is, therefore, clarifying and invaluable, whether she's considering the naivete of Nicaragua's inexperienced new leaders or the aggressive machinations of President Ronald Reagan and the CIA. With a galvanizing lucidity forged in long-brewing sorrow and anger, she recounts the Reagan administration's assault on a fledging government it incorrectly assumed was communist--and bombastically characterized as an "evil regime" that somehow posed a grave threat to the U.S.--from catastrophic bombing missions to support of the anti-Sandinista contras and the entire Iran-contra debacle.
Belli acknowledges the hubristic Sandinistas' mistakes, the results, she suggests, of their "long legacy of authoritarianism," but insists they should have been free to learn how to govern on their own terms instead of being bludgeoned by their superpower neighbor. Belli cites polls showing that most Americans opposed direct military action in Nicaragua, and she remembers the many prominent American writers, actors and musicians who went to her country to show solidarity. These recollections generate a frisson of deja vu as, 20 years later, well-known individuals are again speaking out against war and demonstrators around the world are taking to the streets to protest an American invasion of Iraq.
Looking back at her dauntless past and forward to, she hopes, a more peaceful future, Belli celebrates "the joy that comes from surrendering the `I' and embracing the `we,' " and she reminds readers that every social upheaval entails tremendous personal sacrifice and valor. Although her "whole life seemed like one long lesson in the ephemeral, fragile nature of human existence," Belli, a heroic woman warrior and fearlessly candid writer, declares that "there is nothing quixotic or romantic in wanting to change the world. It is possible. It is the age-old vocation of all humanity."
Lyrical, dramatic and incisive, Belli's soulful self-portrait and paean to her beautiful, beleaguered country is at once timely and timeless, tragic and life-affirming.
The New York Review of Books
Love in a Time of Revolution
by Gioconda Belli, translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero with the author
Knopf, 380 pp., $25.00
In the days after Sandinista revolutionaries seized power in Nicaragua in July 1979, jubilant guerrillas flooded into the capital to embrace long-lost friends. On a plane from Costa Rica, where she had been working as a Sandinista propagandist and arms smuggler, the poet Gioconda Belli landed with copies of the country's first revolutionary newspaper.
While she was arriving in Managua, so was her lover, the legendary guerrilla commander known as Modesto, who had been fighting in the northern mountains. They met at a place neither had ever imagined seeing: the fortified bunker from which Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the dictator they and their comrades had just overthrown, had tyrannized the country for years.
Sandinista leaders converged on that bunker to prove to themselves that they had really won, and in some cases to rip from the walls whatever relics they could find of the hated dictatorship. Gioconda Belli and Modesto, however, had another way to release their passion. They made love under a table in Somoza's conference room. This episode, a symbol of the delirious joy of those days, quickly passed into Nicaraguan legend.
Now, however, Belli tells us that not all was well between her and Modesto on that day. Her love for him was "raw, electrifying passion, blind madness." But he had suddenly become one of the country's supreme leaders, and was strangely distant. He told her he was a loner at heart, and that although they could remain a couple, they must live apart. She was furious, but soon forgave him and in a few minutes they were rolling among the chair legs.
Gioconda Belli has had a unique place in modern Nicaraguan history. She was the first woman in that country to write openly about the physical pleasures of sex and womanhood, scandalizing many Nicaraguans and delighting many others. She went on to rebel against other conventions, divorcing her melancholic husband, joining the Sandinista Front, becoming a highly visible official in the revolutionary government and finally quitting in frustration. At each phase of her life she took a new lover. For a time she epitomized the Sandinista Front in which the world wanted to believe: fresh, intelligent, decidedly anti-imperialist but still democratic in spirit. She now writes that during those days she was also tormented by guilt because late each night she came home to two young daughters who complained, "Mommy, you said that when we won the Revolution we would have more time to be together."
Belli has written the first literary memoir by a Sandinista woman. It tells two stories. One is about a rich girl in a poor country who was carried away by political and physical passion. The other is an account of what went on behind the public façade of the Sandinista regime. They merge easily. Belli's progress through her various love affairs mirrors Nicaragua's history during the same period.
Last year, not long after the Spanish-language version of Belli's book arrived at bookstores in Nicaragua, I visited one of the country's political patriarchs, the former foreign minister Emilio Álvarez Montalván, a conservative now in his eighties. He might seem an unlikely fan for such a book, but he told me he had just finished it and was much impressed. "No Nicaraguan has ever written like this," he marveled. "This book is a great contribution to our society. It's a very important step for us. Gioconda is helping us grow up."
In many ways Nicaraguans are like people in other poor or developing countries. They have failed to achieve prosperity, largely because of misrule, but that does not prevent them from being acutely aware of the political and cultural forces sweeping through the wider world. In Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s, this meant the rise of both revolutionary ideals and feminism. It did not turn out to be a happy combination, and it filled many Sandinista women with conflict and then with anger as they saw how little revolutionary leaders cared for them or their concerns. Belli came to realize that neither her lovers nor the Sandinista movement could live up to her fantasies.
The Belli family, descended from Italian immigrants, was rich enough to send young Gioconda to academies in Spain and the United States, but her parents discouraged her from attending medical school because they feared that by the time she finished she would be too old to find a husband. She wound up marrying the young man who took her to her debutante ball at the elegant Nejapa Country Club, and quickly had her first child. Over the next couple of years, as newspapers began carrying photos of the bullet-riddled bodies of Sandinista fighters, she felt increasingly stifled by her conventional life. She read the works of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan and moved on to Frantz Fanon and Eduardo Galeano. In many countries that might have led her to consciousness-raising sessions; in Nicaragua it meant making a truly dangerous choice.
If Belli's husband was the sort of man she might have been expected to marry after her sheltered childhood, her first lover, whom she calls "the Poet," epitomized the attraction of life among Nicaragua's bohemians, whom she describes with nostalgic enthusiasm:
They read voraciously and talked passionately about what was happening in the world—the Vietnam War, pop culture, the sexual revolution, the responsibilities of the intellectual elite, the 1968 rebellion. Their conversations were sprinkled with names like Sartre, Camus, Chomsky, Marx, and Giap, as well as topics like the literature of the "boom," Van Gogh's letters to Theo, Count Lautréamont's Chants de Maldoror, Japanese haiku, and Carlos Martínez Rivas, the favorite master of Nicaraguan poetry. They also drank like fish, smoked pot, tripped on acid, fell in love, and recounted their various agonies and ecstasies to one another. They were real hippies, filled with energy and boundless curiosity.
Encouraged by her lover, Belli wrote a series of poems about the emotions, and especially the physical sensations, that he had awakened in her. Two weeks after she wrote them, they were published in La Prensa Literaria, the country's leading cultural journal. They were headlined "A New Voice in Nicaraguan Poetry" and accompanied by a portrait that made her look mysterious and alluring. "Your poor husband," one of her aunts lamented the day after the poems were published. "How could you write—and publish —those poems? What on earth would make you write about menstruation? How awful. How embarrassing."
As the aunt had predicted, Belli's husband was not amused, and asked her to show him any further poems she wrote before publishing them. She indignantly refused. Later these poems and others were published in her first book, which bore the provocative title Sobre la grama (On the Grass). That was where some Nicaraguan men dreamed of being with her. She was an entirely new type, an uninhibited Nicaraguan woman who wrote openly about subjects no one had dared to touch before. "The woman who reveals herself is a rebel," the poet José Coronel Urtecho wrote in the book's introduction.
In the Nicaragua of those days, it was a short step from the literary and musical world Belli frequented to the deadly game of revolution. Aware of the dangers of clandestine life but disgusted by the corruption of the dictatorship, and eager for adventure, she joined the Sandinista underground. The pseudonym she chose reflected her dream of becoming both the primal female and the liberating revolutionary. She called herself Eva Salvatierra, Eve Who Saves the World.
While keeping her job in an advertising agency, Belli plunged into a new secret life. She served as a courier, stole whatever documents she could, and wrote profiles of business executives with special attention to their security arrangements. She also learned how to shoot and persuaded herself that she was ready to kill. One night when she and another woman in the underground believed their car was being followed in Managua, they took out their pistols and promised each other not to be taken alive. She had left the country-club world far behind.
Late in 1974, when she was in her mid-twenties, the Sandinistas gave Belli her first big assignment. They were planning an assault to take hostages in order to win the release of imprisoned comrades, and considered seizing an embassy. Belli had a good sense of design. She was assigned to visit various embassies on the pretense of meeting cultural attachés, and then to draw diagrams of their interiors. Several days before the assault she was advised to leave the country to avoid arrest.
Belli was already separated from her husband, but he was the ideal excuse for her trip. She called him to suggest that they travel to Europe together, possibly to attempt a reconciliation. They were in Rome when news came that the Sandinistas had struck, not at an embassy but at a private holiday party where the guests included Nicaragua's foreign minister, the mayor of Managua, and the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States, who was President Somoza's brother-in-law. For the three days that it took the hostage drama to play itself out, Belli pretended to everyone around her, including her husband, that she was just a carefree tourist. All the time, she writes, she was praying fervently for the safety of the raiders. One of them, the guerrilla leader Eduardo Contreras, was her new lover.
The raid was a huge success, leading to the release of several top Sandinista leaders and thereby setting the stage for insurrection. For Belli it exposed the contradictions of her double life. After returning to Nicaragua, she divorced her husband and threw herself more fully than ever into clandestine work. The police eventually picked up her trail, and she fled into exile before they could arrest her. A tribunal sentenced her in absentia to a seven-year prison term.
Everything is different in countries torn by revolution, even battles over custody. After Belli left Nicaragua, her husband claimed their daughters, on grounds of abandonment. But he had once given her a pistol, and in desperation she threatened that if he did not give up the girls, she would tell security police that he had armed a Sandinista guerrilla. That was enough to make him reconsider and send the daughters to join their mother.
In Mexico and Costa Rica, Belli became a valuable link between the Sandinistas and Latin American intellectuals. As she preached revolution she also suffered personal shocks. She heard of Contreras's death in a shootout and then, soon afterward, she met a French woman who turned out to have been having an affair with him at the same time Belli thought he was in love with her. She was crushed, and reacted by setting out to test her "womanly powers." "A desire to seduce, to conquer, that felt almost masculine in its determination, rose within me," she writes:
I learned what subtle seams to undo in order to render [men] pliable and docile. I decided to probe into the myths that declared my gender capable of provoking chaos, irrationality, wars, and universal cataclysms by biting into an apple or untying a sandal.
Belli had a third child while in Costa Rica. The father was a thoughtful, gentle Brazilian who had joined the Sandinista Front. Their baby nearly died after its birth in a badly run public hospital that they chose instead of a private clinic, which they could have afforded but considered bourgeois. They settled into what might have been a stable partnership if she had not met Modesto, who briefly visited Costa Rica while in command of the guerrilla war in the north. "Together, they were my perfect man," she laments. "Unfortunately, I didn't live in some tribe where a woman could have several husbands."
After the rebels took power, Belli became the first head of the Sandinista Television System. Her tenure there was marked by charges that she or someone else had tried to make a counterrevolutionary joke by showing The Great Dictator on television immediately after a speech by Fidel Castro. Over the next few years she held several posts, including one in which she helped direct Sandinista efforts to persuade the world that the election of 1984, shadowed by intimidation and war, was fair. She wore fatigues, carried a Makarov pistol inscribed with her name in Cyrillic letters, and was addressed as Comandante Belli.
In private she was much less self-possessed. She left her Brazilian companion to fling herself into her "maddening, all-encompassing love" for Modesto, who was now minister of planning and known by his real name, Henry Ruiz. "All my inner resolve had degenerated into a kind of gelatinous goo that moved only to accommodate Modesto," she recalls:
My actions were totally primitive, similar to the behavior of females in a pack of apes in the jungle. I wanted to be selected by the strongest male.... Reduced to a crumpled rag of my former self, I followed him around like a house pet, ready to do anything that would earn me a bit of his affection.
Belli remained one of the Sandinista's most effective spokeswomen. She traveled widely and attracted the attention of several revolutionary leaders, including Fidel Castro ("Where have the Sandinistas been hiding you?"); the Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos ("You can sleep here next to me. I won't touch you if you don't want me to. I promise"); and the future Rio de Janeiro governor Leonel Brizola (who spent most of a lunch they had with Felipe González "trying to play footsie with me under the table"). The one revolutionary who impressed her was General Vo Nguyen Giap, whose victory over American forces in Vietnam made him a deity in leftist circles. She was "especially aware of how he looked at me the same way he looked at everyone else." They met at festivities celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Algerian Revolution, and she reports that at one reception, Giap was approached by an American military officer who told him, "I'd like to shake your hand, General. I fought in Vietnam." Giap nodded but did not extend his hand. The colonel tried to talk to him several times, even breaking into Vietnamese, but Giap would not reply.
By the mid-1980s, Belli began to realize that love had "made me lose my mind." It was probably not a coincidence that around the same time, she began to doubt her Sandinista faith. The movement to which she had given a decade of her life was losing its moral legitimacy. Its leaders lived in confiscated mansions, repressed political dissidents, and made life miserable for the peasants in whose name they claimed to rule. As Belli began to see that she would never find happiness by submerging herself in unequal love affairs, she also broke with Sandinista orthodoxy.
Belli blames the Sandinista Front's downfall largely on Humberto and Daniel Ortega, the two brothers who dominated it. She found Humberto utterly cynical and without beliefs. Daniel was "a conniving, dark character" who flirted with her while his girlfriend, Rosario Murillo, sat and watched. She was appalled to see Murillo, whom she knew as strong and decisive, become "a faceless, sad little shadow" when Daniel Ortega was around. Finally she realized that she and other Sandinista women had done the same thing, "regressed to being cavewomen, totally beholden to our male partners."
As the Ortegas took over, monopolizing power, the Revolution slowly lost its steam, its spark, its positive energy, to be replaced by an unprincipled, manipulative, and populist mentality.... We were feeling more and more like spectators to a process that continued to live off its heroic, idealistic image even though, in practice, it was being gutted and turned into an amorphous, arbitrary mess.
Belli's memoir shows us a side of the Sandinista revolution we have not seen. It also introduces us to an astute veteran of two eternal wars, one between the sexes and one that pits the world's poor against its rich. But it is not really an insider's account of the Sandinista regime. No woman will ever be able to write such an account, because no woman was ever admitted to the Sandinista elite. Belli and other Sandinista women failed utterly in their attempt to penetrate the all-male core of revolutionary power.
Most of Nicaragua's revolutionary women ultimately broke with the top Sandinista leaders and supported futile attempts to wrest the movement from their control. Belli was among them. Her break, like much else in her life, was propelled in part by a love affair. She began seeing an American reporter for NPR, and when Tomás Borge, the powerful interior minister, told her to break off the relationship because the man might be a security risk, she dutifully agreed. But soon she realized how hypocritical the order was, since male Sandinistas often carried on affairs with Americans and no one cared. She changed her mind, defied Borge, and in the end proposed marriage to the journalist. He accepted. They settled in California, from which she travels regularly back to her homeland.
It is probably too much to expect male revolutionaries to behave differently from other men in their private relationships with women. Sandinista leaders, however, also degraded women as a matter of public policy. Women performed remarkable feats during the guerrilla uprising in the 1970s. Several were at least as qualified for leadership as the men who pushed them aside after the 1979 victory. Yet as this memoir makes clear, the nine men who made up the Sandinista National Directorate, including Belli's lover Henry Ruiz, never took these or any other women seriously. They used women as ornaments to decorate their regime. One by one, the women became tired of being used.
Belli did not support Violeta Chamorro, whose victory over Daniel Ortega in the 1990 presidential election put an end to the Sandinista era. On election night, though, she understood what had happened: "The people had rejected us." That might not have happened if Sandinista men had heeded the voices of Sandinista women. Because they did not, the country's most impressive women dropped out of the movement. Their loss of faith contributed to the collapse of Sandinista power. In the end, then, these women did help shape Nicaraguan history, albeit not as they had hoped. Few had a better time doing it than Gioconda Belli.
Passion, liberty, death: a song of Nicaragua
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War. By Gioconda Belli, Translated from the Spanish by Kristina Cordero, Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $25
November 10 2002
There are a few countries in the world that, through some seeming magic beyond our normal senses, are able to enchant us despite their utter misery and propensity to violence. For me -- and I suspect many others who have been there -- Nicaragua is such a place. Dirty, sweaty, seemingly cursed and wounded in many ways, this little land is at the same time physically stunning and inhabited by people with a strength of character, passion and humanity that washes over you like a wave, engulfs you and, for those unable to resist that seductive current, carries you away. I have spent some of the saddest times of my life in the mountains and steaming coasts of Nicaragua and some of the most beautiful.
Reading Gioconda Belli's affecting memoir, "The Country Under My Skin," brought all this back and more. In a way that is utterly Nicaraguan, she recounts a true tale of passion, poetry, insurrection, death and seeming liberation, followed by an ugly ending that is mediated by a personal coda that is both salving and humane. It is a hell of a story, recounting the fate of her country and her self, told with tenderness, honesty and humor.
Reading it also brought back just how mean and relentless the Cold War was. Nicaragua and the Sandinistas fell into the final chapter of that confrontation and were crushed by it. Nicaragua is struggling still to recover from the toll inflicted by decades of dictatorship, revolution and counterrevolution. But that is not the level at which Belli tells her story. This is a much more personal account of taking lovers and becoming an independent woman in a land of pure machismo -- after marrying as an innocent bourgeois virgin at 18 in the Nejapa Country Club. It is an account of having children and trying to be a mother while becoming a revolutionary and a poet, of forced exile, of mourning the loss of too many friends, of returning home only to find further struggle and disappointment. In this unexpected life, the final irony is that this Sandinista revolutionary poetess winds up living in Santa Monica married to an American. It feels like an odd but logical resolution to a life in which love ultimately proves deeper and stronger than politics.
Such frank humanity allows Belli to write tellingly of learning to fire a gun and hating it. There are many Mata Hari episodes as she secretly ferries senior Sandinista underground commanders around Managua in the '70s while Anastasio Somoza still ruled. Later she runs guns, carries secret documents and tens of thousands of dollars in cash and turns her exile home in Costa Rica into a Sandinista military training center and weapon depot while tending to her children in the back room. She rises in the Sandinista ranks and travels the world, meeting Cuban leader Fidel Castro, Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torrijos, Hanoi military commander Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap and waging politics in Algeria, Libya and the former East Germany and Soviet Union, among other destinations. Torrijos tries to force her to bed and fails miserably. She is tailed and nearly intercepted by Somoza's secret police, in the final encounter only narrowly escaping while holding her pistol in her lap, prepared to die shooting if captured. She falls hard for the head of the Sandinista underground, who sleeps with a pistol, hand grenade and his shoes on. And she mourns him achingly here as she looks at his bullet-riddled body on the front pages after the National Guard caught and killed him.
Through it all she insists that she is first and foremost a woman and a mother. She is compelling in recounting her sexual education and the difference between love and passion. Her accounts of womanhood, of giving birth and of motherhood are penetrating and unflinchingly honest. "Without renouncing my femininity, I think I have also managed to live like a man," she says convincingly. Her story of nearly dying while giving birth to a premature son in a dirty public hospital ward and being told that her baby boy was dead, only to find later that he was alive, is a tear jerker. "Life never surrenders," she writes, quoting a Vietnamese poem, expressing part of the essence that makes Nicaragua and Nicaraguans so affecting and such survivors of suffering that would break most of us.
Belli is also a pretty straight shooter on matters political. She is honestly self-critical on the failings of the Sandinistas that contributed to their downfall -- their naiveté, arrogance, extremism, corruption and the inability to find a working synthesis between revolutionary demands and democratic claims -- and in the end, she shows us how, pressured by the Contra war and United States hostility, they were caught in a Catch-22, forced to take harsh measures in order to survive, alienated from many Nicaraguans because of those measures. Their decline and fall were brutal and ugly and can still provoke bitter divisions. Belli argues that, without the confrontation with Washington, time might have tempered the Sandinistas' worst instincts and nurtured their better natures but the Cold War did not tolerate such dispensation. The Sandinistas were simply broken in its iron grip.
But history and human beings have a boundless capacity to surprise and recover in unexpected ways. As terrible as the cost was, the Sandinistas achieved significant gains that helped lay the foundations of a modern and more democratic Nicaragua. They ended a 40-year repressive regime and, after a cruel counterrevolutionary war that destroyed their popularity, they held free elections; when they lost, they respected the outcome and gave up unfettered power. They then passed control of the military peacefully from one commander to another. Despite deep rancor and anger, they largely refrained from abuse and bloodletting in the years that followed. Each of these steps was an unprecedented advance, allowing the Sandinistas to unexpectedly become midwives of a fragile Nicaraguan democracy. The test now is whether democracy and markets can address the overwhelming poverty and inequality that still ravage Nicaragua and many of its neighbors.
At a terrible cost to themselves and their revolution, the Sandinistas also unwaveringly supported their rebel comrades in El Salvador. Part of this was calculated realpolitik: the hope to have a brother revolutionary state as a neighbor. But part of it also was simple solidarity with another struggle against decades of military rule and injustice. In another irony of history, this Sandinista support gave the Salvadoran rebels the strength to force negotiations to end the war that, in their turn, also laid the foundations of a modern, democratic state in El Salvador. Again, revolution and war birthed something unexpected and better than the past had been: not perfect, not by any means, but a much better society than one ruled by colonels, death squads and coffee plantations.
Her decision to fight, to defy convention and become an independent woman makes up most and the best of Belli's book. Then, unpredictable and ornery as ever, this Sandinista militant falls in love with an American journalist and moves first to Washington and then to Santa Monica with him. They conceive and lose a child, then adopt a Nicaraguan girl. This journey, from revolution in Managua to middle-class domesticity in the country that so often has dominated Nicaragua, raises countless personal and political questions that, for once, Belli seems unable or unwilling fully to pose and answer. It may simply be too personal and difficult to write of these things, but I wish she had.
Not many people get the chance, or seek, to create history and change their world. Belli did, and "The Country Under My Skin" is a full telling of what that feels like. One could easily criticize this book and her for a kind of tropical romanticism and endless tumbling into bed and insurrection, for causing as much pain at times as she and her comrades sought to assuage. But it is too honestly told to deserve a simple ironic lashing. Belli writes that she and others like her "held a fervent belief in the inherent nobleness of the human species.... [W]e were never afraid to dream and we had little respect for cynicism.... A cause is not hopeless just because its objectives aren't reached in one's lifetime." Many of those she recalls here who believed these things died for them. Today in another, colder age, few seem ready to hold or express such sentiments. And maybe the world is not a better place as a result.
James LeMoyne, a former reporter for The New York Times, covered Nicaragua in the 1980s.
Friday, November 29, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Journey from Nicaraguan debutante to Sandinista guerrilla
By Erik Lundegaard
Special to The Seattle Times
In Gioconda Belli's Nicaraguan memoir, "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War" (Knopf, $25), the subheading for each chapter describes the action within the chapter in the fashion of 18th-century picaresque novels. "Of how I landed in the hospital and was informed that my son had died," reads one such subheading.
It's an indication that what Belli has written is essentially a picaresque: an episodic narrative in which a rogue (Belli herself) travels from place to place, and bed to bed, and winds up wiser for it.
How does one go from Nicaraguan debutante to Sandinista guerrilla? Belli was born into the upper crust of Nicaraguan society — but into a family that didn't support the U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza, and she was an obstinate child to boot. When the son of a family friend is killed by Somoza's National Guard, little Gioconda insists on information about the coffee-colored stain on the family's front steps. Why is it brown? she asks. Isn't blood red?
She marries young and foolishly — her husband doesn't have her zest for life — and soon she begins an affair with a man she simply calls "The Poet." Through him she becomes acquainted with Sandinista rebels and eventually joins the cause herself.
This is in 1970, and for the next nine years Belli makes contacts, organizes networks, runs guns and finally is forced into exile. Almost everyone she meets along the way seems to be a poet (she becomes one herself, winning the prestigious Casa de las Americas prize in 1978), and she gets involved in a string of heart-rending affairs with men that blur in the reader's mind: the Poet, Marcos, Jimmy, Sergio, Modesto. Each is described in grandiose terms. "Volcanoes, cataclysms had begun inside of me," she writes after the Poet awakens her body to its powers. "He drank my soul through my teeth," she writes after Marcos kisses her.
Her egotism, particularly as it relates to her body, can get out of hand. When pregnant with her second child she writes, "It felt as though the pregnancy belonged only to me — as if I alone was responsible for this creation."
When Marcos is killed close to the spot where the two of them had nearly been captured two years earlier, she philosophizes, "... perhaps that first time she [Death] spared him by chance, just because I was with him and it wasn't yet my turn."
No attempt is made to reconcile her contradictory emotions. Looking after her first child, she feels superior to the absentee mothers in the neighborhood. "The other babies in the park were cared for by nannies," she writes, "but I wanted my daughter all to myself."
In temporary exile in Spain, she feels superior to the mothers of Martorell. "After the life I had led during the past few years, I felt out of place among the docility of the women of Martorell, who spent their days in a bustle of activity, mopping the floors, preparing baby food ... " i.e., the activities she once took so much pride in. Whatever emotion she's currently feeling is apparently the correct one.
The memoir gets better after the revolution, when Belli is named director of Nicaragua's television stations, and the young Sandinistas visit several socialist countries, including Cuba, the former Soviet Union and Libya, where Belli is placed at a separate dining table because "according to the Koran, women don't have souls."
Soon after, the Reagan administration begins its anti-Sandinista policies. Remember the mining of Nicaragua's harbors? Remember Eugene Hosenfus? Because the reader has just witnessed the birth of this revolution, with bickering amateurs in charge of a weak, economically burdened country, U.S. policy here seems monstrously paranoid, if not monstrous.
"The Country Under My Skin" is part history, part feminist bildungsroman and part love letter to Nicaragua; but it could've used a storyteller less in love with flowery, melodramatic prose, and with herself.
Erik Lundegaard: .
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