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.
November 21, 2002