The English translation of Sergio Ramírez's 1999 memoir allows the reader a fascinating entrée into the life and work of one of Central America's most compelling personages and leading writers. This excellent translation of the former revolutionary junta member and vice president of Nicaragua's 1998 book offers a fine introduction, filled with indispensable insights into the romance and tragedy of the revolution.
In his introduction to the first edition, Ramírez writes: ". . . the revolution transformed feelings within Nicaragua over an entire decade. It altered the way we perceived the world and the nation itself because it created a desire for identity. It changed values, individual behavior, social relations, family ties, and customs. It created a new ethics of solidarity and detachment from material things, a new everyday culture. It even changed language and ways of dressing" (p. 3). Pointing to the deepest meanings of the Sandinista revolution, this rich and evocative statement, however, is not well developed in the book. A different book would have been needed to fully flesh out its meaning, one involving research among the subaltern. Ramírez was a leader in a vanguard that he aptly analyzes as increasingly cut off from the grassroots. In a revealing moment, he recalls the visit in 1983 of Olaf Palme, the Swedish prime minister, shortly before his assassination. Upon his return to Stockholm, he wrote his hosts: "Be careful, you are losing touch with the people" (p. 31).
By 1983, Palme's prescient warning was probably too late. The book delineates a relatively rapid transition from what Ramírez describes as the "ethics of the catacombs"— that is, the spirit of deep solidarity, egalitarianism, and self-sacrifice of the insurrectionary period—to the enshrinement of the correct revolutionary line. As Ramírez writes, "With the revolution's triumph, being a good militant meant being willing to respect the code of conduct established by the dead. However, that code was then interpreted by the living under the party's authority. That was when holiness was turned into bureaucracy" (p. 29). Yet, there was no single direct route to the perversion of revolutionary ethics that would reach its tragic denouement in the infamous "piñata" of 1990, when the corrupt distribution of government spoils corroded the [End Page 403] Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). He evokes the national literacy campaign as an enduring revolutionary legacy.
From the first days of the revolution, Sergio Ramírez stood out as a different kind of leader, one who represented the promise that its social-democratic dimension would be respected, if not fulfilled. His critique of the revolution, to a certain extent, reflects a social-democratic sensibility. Precisely because he remained a democrat, one cannot fault him for sticking with the FSLN until he was removed from the party as a dissident in 1994, in scurrilous fashion. Yet, this reader did wish for a more probing analysis of the failure of the revolution.
Ramírez does make telling criticisms of the relationship between the FSLN and the government, in which the former attempted to control the latter; he also depicts the privilege of the party elite. Moreover, he recognizes the historic error of the FSLN bias against direct land distribution with permanent titles to individual peasants. Yet, he does not explore the land reform's successes (relatively rare) with cooperatives. Finally, he levels a blanket condemnation of the state control of the economy, astutely pointing out the political costs of expropriation. Yet, he never fully examines the broader significance of state control of enterprises. Were all forms of state control flawed, as it were, at birth? Or, were there viable alternatives to free-market private ownership?
Similarly, Ramírez omits discussion of the struggles for autonomy of the women's, community, union, and peasant organizations. Perhaps such critiques go beyond the possibilities of this genre, which combines memoir with political analysis. There are moments though when a more reflective analysis would have...