Commentary Magazine

The Jaguar Smile, by Salman Rushdie

Revolutionary Tourism

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey.
by Salman Rushdie.
Viking. 171 pp. $12.95.

The Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 must surely go down as one of the best-marketed efforts of its kind in history. When the dictator Anastasio Somoza fled the country on July 17, after an explicit U.S. decision to withdraw support from his family’s forty-six-year-old regime, domestic and international opinion anointed a small—about 500-member—Marxist-Leninist grouping, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), as the principal legitimate political force in the country. Only five years earlier, the Sandinistas had been regarded as a minor terrorist fringe element, founded by a graduate of Moscow’s Patrice Lumumba University, Carlos Fonseca, and peopled by cadres trained in Cuba, the Eastern bloc, and sundry PLO training camps. There had been no question about the ideology and motivation of the Sandinistas, nor was there any doubt as to their obscurity.

One reason for the great change in the status of the Sandinistas was, needless to say, the obduracy and corrupt brutality of the Somoza dictatorship. But another critical factor was a decision by the Sandinistas to change their political tactics and their image. As outlined in the General Political-Military Platform of the FSLN, published in 1977, that change involved a tactical alliance with elements of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie, various other “progressive” social elements, including sectors of the Roman Catholic Church, and international groups that could aid in isolating the Somoza regime. The new Sandinista program was backed by Fidel Castro, who gathered bickering Sandinista leaders in Havana in 1978 to demand their unity behind the program in return for his support. Castro’s role might well have gone considerably further than that. The platform that he endorsed, associated with the tercerista faction of the FSLN headed by Daniel Ortega, currently Nicaragua’s President, and Humberto Ortega, currently head of the Sandinista army, was not terribly dissimilar to the strategy that had brought Castro himself to power in 1959.

What was important, though, was the profoundly political nature of the change in Sandinista posture. It recognized that the way to defeat Somoza militarily was to isolate him politically, and that the road to that goal led through a policy of deliberate deception. The Nicaraguan revolution was to have a “revolutionary-democratic” phase, in which other elements of national society would play an active role, but in which the FSLN would never give up its vanguard role. Anyone who wittingly or unwittingly subordinated himself to that political arrangement would be welcomed into the broad anti-Somoza coalition. Anyone who did not would, by definition, be “counterrevolutionary,” and would be dealt with accordingly in due course.

In a sense, there was nothing new about the Sandinista scheme for political-military success. It adhered to the familiar Leninist doctrinal necessity of extreme tactical pragmatism in the formation of revolutionary alliances, coupled with equally extreme strategic-ideological rigor in deciding how long, and under what circumstances, they would last. In Nicaragua, that necessity was summed up in a single, otherwise impenetrable sentence attributed to Humberto Ortega: “Sandinism is Marxism-Leninism, and Marxism-Leninism is Sandinism.”

Since 1979, the political and economic direction of Nicaragua has proceeded as it might in any country locked within the paradigm of those principles: the national economy is in worse tatters than ever; the scope of civil liberties has dramatically shrunk; tens of thousands of Nicaraguan citizens, including much of the professional middle class, has fled the country. More striking still, foreign powers, represented by Soviet, Cuban, and other Eastern-bloc advisers, have a greater say in the running of Nicaragua than at any previous time in the country’s history, including during the notorious U.S. Marine intervention of the 1920’s. Yet that is never how the Sandinista revolution has appeared to the outside world. By and large, the exact role of the FSLN leadership in these disasters has probably received less scrutiny than would be received by any other government in the hemisphere. Why?

The ready answer remains, of course, the United States. On the one hand, undeniable U.S. hostility toward Nicaragua’s new ruling class is, according to that class, the continuing excuse for every Sandinista domestic failing. On the other hand, that excuse is readily accepted, not only by members of the international left-wing intellectual community, but also by a significant fraction of the U.S. Congress. The debate over the internal significance of Nicaragua’s political evolution thus takes on the structure of one of the great morality plays of 20th-century Western discourse: Revolution Betrayed vs. Revolution Besieged.



Salman Rushdie’s own distinguished stature may be the most interesting thing about his mildly qualified apology for the Sandinista regime. Rushdie, who was born in Bombay in 1947 and now lives in London, won England’s Booker Prize in 1981 for his novel Midnight’s Children, a dazzlingly satiric look at the bewildering edifice of independent India. He now has a fast-developing reputation as an English-speaking “Third World” novelist that may soon approach that of V.S. Naipaul. Rushdie’s politics, though, are vastly different. Broadly speaking, they might be described as a free-form amalgam of anti-colonialism, criticism of the U.S. and its foreign policies, opposition to the alleged depredations of multinational corporations, and advocacy of the ill-defined South against the industrial North in the global debate over international development—in short, a mess of intellectual pottage common to the left wing of the British Labor party. Where Nicaragua is concerned, Rushdie is candid about his bias. As a sponsor of the pro-Sandinista Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign in London, he wrote his slim meditation after a whirlwind tour of the country sponsored by the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers,

What is most remarkable about Rushdie’s book is its breathlessness, little different, in its way, from that of an American undergraduate arriving for the Nicaraguan coffee-picking season. Rushdie adds his own Third World twist to that naiveté: “In my first hours in the [Managua] city streets, I saw a number of sights that were familiar to eyes trained in India and Pakistan: the capital’s few buses . . . were crammed to bursting-point with people, who hung off them in a very subcontinental way.” As they do, subcontinentally, in almost every major Latin American city. But to Rushdie, the point is of a metaphysical Third World solidarity. “It was perhaps also true that those of us who did not have our origins in the countries of the mighty West, or North, had something in common . . . some awareness of the view from underneath, and of how it felt to be there, on the bottom, looking up at the descending heel.”

Much of Rushdie’s book consists of admiring conversations with Nicaragua’s various comandantes and other leaders, saying much the same things that they have said for years. Nicaragua’s Vice President, Sergio Ramírez, defends Sandinista agricultural policy with the assertion that “Nobody who stayed in Nicaragua to work his land had it confiscated.” Members of the country’s Superior Council of Private Enterprise who remain in Nicaragua might disagree, but it would appear that Rushdie never talked much to them. Nicaragua’s mercurial Foreign Minister, Miguel D’Escoto (whose father once served as a Somoza Foreign Minister), tells Rushdie that “I’ve never said it before, but now I think the Americans will come. The invasion will happen.” In fact, D’Escoto has been warning shrilly of a still-to-arrive U.S. invasion of Nicaragua since 1980. Rushdie passes on several personal slanders uttered by Nicaraguan President Ortega against the country’s highly respected Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo (among them is the assertion that Obando y Bravo, who opposed the Somoza dictatorship, was on the dictator’s payroll). The author jibs occasionally at Nicaragua’s censorship policies (he is, one imagines, a member of PEN), but muses, “Maybe, in the end, it came down to this . . . : were these dictators in the making? I answered myself: no. Emphatically, no.”



In essence, Rushdie’s book reproduces the canned tour that the Sandinistas are known to give to virtually any sympathetic dignitary who hits town, with additional brief space allotted to a few regime opponents such as Violeta Chamorro, a member of Nicaragua’s original governing junta who has emphatically broken with the Sandinistas. It is difficult to imagine any author taking a similar tour of, say, Chile, and reproducing it so uncritically.

Why has Rushdie written such a book, which can only raise serious questions about his intelligence, judgment, and sincerity as an autonomous witness? He provides his own answer. “For the first time in my life, I realized with surprise, I had come across a government I could support, not faute de mieux, but because I wanted its efforts . . . to succeed.”

Not because they had succeeded, but because he wanted them to. With that statement, Rushdie joins hands with the many who felt in the 1930’s that the Soviet Union, for all its imperfections, had to be supported against the threat of “imperialist aggression.” If Sandinista strategy in Nicaragua owes much to the tactical ideas of Lenin, there is little new, either, in the ethical rationalizations of many Sandinista supporters.



About the Author

George Russell is the executive editor of Fox New Channel.

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