- Nicaragua and the Politics of Utopia: Development and Culture in the Modern State by Daniel Chávez
The quest for the ideal society has preoccupied philosophers, leaders, and artists for centuries. Five hundred years after the publication of Sir Thomas More's [End Page 356] Utopia, utopian discourse remains as salient as ever, as societies struggle to reinvent themselves within the context of domestic and geopolitical change. In Nicaragua and the Politics of Utopia David Chávez, Assistant Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies at the University of New Hampshire, investigates how Nicara-guan society reinvented itself at key junctures in history through the construction of narratives produced by the interactions between popular culture and political regime. Chávez's study utilizes significant archival research and draws upon political speeches, testimony, literature, film, and even photography to explore the creation of political narratives. In doing so, he contributes to our understanding of utopian discourse as both a social construction and a political tool.
Nicaragua's distinct periods of political development and its rich literary history offer ample opportunity to explore the construction of political and cultural identity across time. In his work, Chávez analyzes utopian discourse across three periods in Nicaraguan development: the Somoza era, the Sandinista revolution and government, and the post-Sandinista neoliberal era of Chamorro and Alemán. While any of one of these eras would have merited a book-length study, Chávez's work allows us to see a society continually redefining itself throughout the twentieth century. While I feel less qualified as a political scientist to comment on the construction of his analytical framework, it offered continuity across the three periods in what might have otherwise been an unwieldy study.
While few who know Nicaragua well are likely to think of the Somoza era as one of utopian discourse, Chávez's treatment of post-Sandino discourse and somocista aspirations of developmentalism is compelling. He begins his analysis with the withdrawal of US marines in 1933, a period of competing visions of utopia. The utopian, anti-imperialist ideal offered by Augusto Sandino ended with his assassination in 1934, only to resurface decades later. In the meantime, elites and the avant-garde literary movement expressed a preference for order and authority. The result was a sort of authoritarian vision of utopia which, as Chávez notes, was a stark contrast to the political ideals of avant-garde movements elsewhere. While many writers of the era soon became critics of the regime, Chávez clearly demonstrates how their works were appropriated by Anastasio Somoza García to promote his own agenda: a conservative utopia. This is particularly clear in Chavez's analysis of the works of Pablo Antonio Cuadra, whose Poemas nicaragu¨enses was so clearly appropriated by the regime in hopes of unifying the country. By the 1950s and 1960s, this law-and-order approach was met with increasing resistance—both in society and in the literary world. Poets like Cuadra had become regime critics, serving time in jail and even being exiled. Following Anastasio Somoza García's assassination in 1956 by poet Rigoberto López, the fac¸ade of developmentalist democracy faded away. Growing repression and disillusionment was met with a discourse of dissent under Luis Somoza and Anastasio Somoza Debayle. [End Page 357]
Given the relationships between revolutions and utopian discourse, it is unsurprising that the Sandinista era offers Chávez an abundance of material. In his analysis of the Sandinista utopia, Chávez draws upon the richness of Nicaragua's revolutionary literary renaissance. Perhaps none of the works of this period better suits Chávez's analysis than Ernesto Cardenal's Gospel in Solentiname, considered one of the key works of Nicaraguan liberation theology. Cardenal, who later served as minister of culture in the Sandinista government from 1979 to 1983, was a priest who founded a religious commune and artist colony in the Solentiname islands in the southern part of Lake Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua)—itself an experiment in utopia. Cardenal, a...