- Fire from the Mountain: The Making of a Sandinista by Omar Cabezas, translated by Kathleen Weaver
Cape, 233 pp, £9.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 224 02814 6
Like all revolutions, the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua is about the present and the future – idealistic dreams of a new society built on impatience and anger with the dark reality of today. Like all colonial revolutions, it is also about the past. There is a half-remembered sense of a past which has to be restored: a more glorious time which must have preceded the arrival of the occupying invaders, a past when the people had their own sovereignty, their own dignity, their own freedom to make mistakes. The very name ‘Sandinista’, from Augusto Sandino who in 1934 was murdered by the National Guard with the complicity of the then US Ambassador in Managua, invokes the restorationist content of a movement whose leaders were, without exception, too young to have known Sandino as anything but a legend. Yet it is this basic element which the power-brokers of the Reagan Administration cannot understand. The core of Sandinismo is not an ‘imported’ ideology, but its exact opposite: resistance to ‘exported’ foreign domination. Omar Cabezas’s vigorous, funny and self-deprecating account of his four-year odyssey in the mountains of northern Nicaragua as a young guerrilla volunteer expresses the spirit of Sandinismo more fully than any other available work in English.
For obvious historical reasons the shelves of English libraries are short of what might be called the literature of partisans. Occupation, and resistance to it, have not been part of our experience, as they have been part of almost every other people’s. Not for us direct knowledge of the real meaning of an ‘enemy within’, the drama and dilemmas of collaboration, of families divided, of fighting on one’s own soil, of civil war – the stuff of life for most Europeans only forty years ago, and a more recent or continuing reality for millions in the Third World.
As for revolution, its literature by and large has been for us the literature of the revolution betrayed, the revolution which devours its own children, or leads to the Gulag. It fits the scepticism of our culture, the sheltered nature of our middle-class traditions – as well, of course, as the political bent of those who decide what should be published or put out to translation. That other vein of the revolutionary experience – equally relevant, equally necessary to understand – the vein of enthusiasm, of camaraderie, of collective optimism is rarely tapped and made available to English readers. Perhaps the nearest literary expression – now slightly more in vogue – is the prison diary from South Africa. Here too we have the literature of optimism, of impressive courage in the face of grinding adversity, of faith kept alive in surroundings of despair, of individual refusal to accept submission, sustained by the knowledge that beyond the prison walls there is a movement which can be delayed, but not stopped.
Cabezas’s story has echoes of prison literature, though not the conventional confinement behind barred windows and stone walls. He went through the more subtle confinement of ‘underground’ life in the mountains for months on end – cold, permanently damp, hungry and afflicted with mountain leprosy and appendicitis. In brilliant detail he describes the loneliness at the mountain’s heart. The countryside green, which to most of us garden-cultivators is a colour of comfort and reassurance, becomes for the guerrilla a colour of sinister monotony:
When you’ve adapted and been transformed into a guerrilla, the hardest thing isn’t the nightmare of the trail, or the horrible things about the mountains; it’s not the torture of lack of food, or always having the enemy on your track; it’s not going around filthy and stinking, and being constantly wet. It’s the loneliness. Nothing is as rough as the loneliness ... Loneliness is starting to forget the sounds of cars, the longing at night for electric lights, the longing for colours, because the mountain dresses only in green and dark colours. Nature is green, but what about orange? There’s no dark blue, no baby blue, no purple, no lilac and none of those modern colours.
Yet Cabezas can also write of the mountain with passion, as of a woman. He describes its sounds, its habits, its moods, which have to be learnt. He writes, too, of the solidarity which kept him and his comrades going, and the ‘gruff affection’ which developed among them: ‘It was as if we had stored up all the affection that we couldn’t express to each other as we would to a child or a mother or a woman. It was all stored up, accumulated, until we had a well of tenderness, of affection within us. As if the lack of sugar had created a great inner sweetness, which made it possible for us to be touched to the quick, to make our hearts bleed for the injustices we saw.’
Cabezas joined the Sandinistas as one of the earliest recruits when he left school and became a law student at Leon University. After two years of student politics, he went underground to avoid arrest, and later moved with a small group into the mountains. His story is a voyage of discovery: a city student discovering the life of working-class Indians living in a poor suburb of Leon, where he starts up a Sandinista cell; a young man discovering his psychological and physical strength during the agonising first months in the mountains; and a Nicaraguan discovering the buried heritage of Sandino when he stumbles across Don Bacho and Don Leandro – veterans of Sandino’s campaigns, now elderly peasants whose memories of an earlier generation of agrarian revolt are still keen.
Cabezas’s autobiography is short on encounters with Somoza’s National Guard. This is not a war diary, and there are few exploits of combat. The Guard’s presence is felt as a perpetual threat and a challenge, but an invisible one: most of the guerrilla column’s work went into patient political organising. Cabezas tells us little about military history, but a great deal about the shifting moods of men on the march, sustained by a sense of mission and growing confidence as they see their message taking hold and linking up with the past. It allows Cabezas to survive everything with his spirit intact – including enforced separation from his girlfriend during the last months of her pregnancy and the first year of their child’s life, and the news that she has left him for another. Cabezas’s amazingly resilient spirit is evident not just in the story he tells, but in the vitality of his language. He can be honest about his doubts and fears, tender and lyrical about his dreams. As the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes puts it in his introduction, ‘there is something both Quixote and Crusoe in him, for he imagines a world and also builds it.’ Lucky is the revolutionary who survives to the moment of triumph, as Cabezas did. The knowledge that his side won, and did so relatively quickly, must have helped him to go back over the recent past with so little bitterness and so few second thoughts. It gives his memoirs a joie de vivre and energy which is unimaginable in comparable memoirs of the long-drawn-out Vietnamese and Angolan revolutions. But there is also a specifically romantic Latin American quality, a note first struck by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Now, six years after Somoza’s defeat, the revolution is under greater threat than ever. Mounting economic difficulties, largely provoked by the CIA’s war of attrition and sabotage, have turned it into an increasingly grim struggle for survival. But, so far, the Sandinistas have managed to keep a majority of the people on their side, as last year’s elections showed. One reason for this is the pragmatic, unconventional and resourceful quality of their policies. Another is their sensitivity to the peasants’ wishes: there is no Stalinist collectivisation in Nicaragua. A third is the nationalistic brio and David-versus-Goliath bravado of their resistance to the old enemy from the North. All three qualities shine from Cabezas’s book, a personal testimony which accurately mirrors the less articulate attitudes of many of his compatriots.