Sergio Ramírez: "I do not know of a single novel that has brought about a revolution": A Conversation with Tulio Hernández
Author Sergio Ramírez was invited to Bogotá by the mayor in the first week of March 2018. He still seemed to glow in the light of the Cervantes Prize, announced at the end of 2017. He keeps a full calendar.
He presented his most recent novel, Nadie llora por mí [Nobody cries for me]. He spoke about poetry, narrative, and politics throughout the city. He ended his talk at the Universidad de Los Andes in a classroom brimming with students eager to learn the secrets of his literary creations.
In the 1970s, Ramírez was a key player in the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution. In the eighties, he served as Vice President of Nicaragua. Later, in the nineties, he became disenchanted and bid farewell to the political process. In 1999, in the closing moments of the twentieth century, he published a book, Adiós, muchachos [Goodbye, boys], where he left his personal political creed in writing. Though he has distanced himself from political activism, he closely follows current events in Latin America.
Before returning to Managua he agreed to have a conversation about Nicaragua and Venezuela, a country that he knows well. The comparisons between the so-called socialism of the twenty-first century and the hybrid regime presided over by Daniel Ortega were inevitable.
Tulio Hernández: In 2019, it will have been twenty years since Adiós Muchachos, your autobiography of the Sandinista Revolution. Personal memories begin an enthusiastic narrative that ends with a confession of disillusion. In the end, you conclude that the Sandinistas did not achieve a socialist revolution, but that they bestowed democracy upon Nicaragua. That result wasn't in the original plans. Two decades later, do you stand by that statement?
Sergio Ramírez: No. Absolutely not. Sandinismo never managed to become a truly socialist revolution and the democratic experiment stalled. What I understood in 1999 as an achievement of Sandinismo–democracy–was quickly lost because Daniel Ortega and his followers decided to prevent any sort of transition of power. Without change, there is no democracy. Thus, I can no longer stand by what I said.
If you think like Ortega–that change means risk, that the right should never, ever win, even though it does win–then we are in a vicious circle. To say that the people make a mistake when they don't vote for us is pure arrogance, because the common man, the voter, is in tune with the fluctuations of democracy.
T.H.: How did Ortega and his followers manage that abduction?
S.R.: After the war with the contras, in the nineties, Violeta Chamorro comes to power. Later, Anoldo Alemán wins, from a right wing with roots in Somoza's government. In the next elections, Enrique Bolaño wins; he's a conservative, but an honest man. That's when Ortega realized that every time he runs in a presidential election he'll never manage to win more than 35% of the votes.
Ortega and his men had overtaken the party and scared away the leaders of the democratic left that he had rebaptized the National Sandinista Liberation Front. Even though he had been defeated three times, he continues running as a candidate in the 2006 election, even though his fellow party member Herty Lewites, mayor of Managua, crushes him in popularity, 34% to a diminished 9%.
By then, Ortega had already become an egocentric caudillo in the classic sense. A caudillo who maintains unnatural political alliances with the darkest parts of the right wing and that, furthermore, believes in the myth of Hugo Chávez as a revolutionary hero.
Until 2006, elections in Nicaragua had been fairly transparent. From that moment on, Ortega came to an agreement with Alemán to reform the Constitution and leave behind the reforms that we had pushed through ourselves to restrict reelection and ensure that whoever reached the presidency did so with a true majority.
So began a counter reformation with the sole purpose of lowering the percentage necessary to win in the first round and be reelected as many times one might wish.
That's how he took power forever, or at least for a very long time. Alemán had been a very corrupt leader whose final destination was prison. So they negotiated. Ortega controls the Supreme Tribunal that prevents Alemán from going to prison and Alemán pays him with the votes that Ortega needs to push through the constitutional counter reformation. From then on, Ortega stops losing. He overpowers institutions, including the Supreme Electoral Council, with a simple strategy: never go back to losing elections! For these reasons, we can say today that the revolution brought democracy to Nicaragua and that Ortega beat it back.
T.H.: That's more or less the same story as Nicolás Maduro.
S.R.: Effectively, yes. It is the teaching that Maduro inherits. While Chávez was alive, there was an enormous electoral advantage, that is true, but there were elections and the votes were counted in a reasonably transparent way. That was why the opposition won the 2007 referendum, denying Chávez the chance to change the Constitution in his image. And Chávez accepted defeat.
Maduro's regime also allowed the clean counting of votes in the legislative elections of 2015, which allowed for the sweeping victory of the opposition. That was when the window closed. From that moment on, copying from the lesson of Ortega, Muduro decides to never lose another election and we already know what happened next.
The results of the 2015 elections go unrecognized, substituted for those of the Parliament elect, and transferred to the Supreme Court; the call for elections is delayed and later, this year, they are held in a turbulent, unconstitutional manner. The National Constituent Assembly, a body unconstitutionally convoked, stands in for electoral arbitration and a new, definitively undemocratic model is born.
Authoritarianism ends in dictatorship.
T.H.: But that operation, that of a de facto government, takes place without the raucousness of a coup d’état. For a long time–above all, while Chávez was still alive–the regime keeps on a democratic mask, with hidden aspirations of controlling every shred of power like a dictator. That creates ambiguity in the international image and in internal politics. Some opposition figures believe that it is a dictatorship that doesn't have the votes to carry on, others believe that it does. For that reason, strategies diverge and divide the opposition. I understand the same to be true of Nicaragua. What do you think? Are the respective regimes of Ortega and Maduro dictatorships, or not?
S.R.: That's a question they usually ask me when I'm abroad. Two ideas come to mind. First, it is difficult for me to say that it is a dictatorship. The dictatorship that the people of Nicaragua remember is Somoza's bloody rule: above all, that of the last years, when young people were killed just for being young people and when they dynamited entire cities and thousands of people were in prison. It wasn't just the repression of liberty; it was a bloody and relentless persecution. That is not exactly what is going on today.
However, when we look closely, it is evident that we have two governments before us that have suppressed civil liberties and control the media; that pursue, jail, assault, and exile opposition figures. In Venezuela, they even count the votes for the National Assembly and then laugh them off. They don't respect them.
Authoritarianism always ends in dictatorship. It does not lead to democracy. I believe that there is no way back for Nicaragua and Venezuela. Maduro and Chavismo have reached the same point as Ortega: never lose another election! If you have all power under your control, if you repress the protests and the marches, if you detain and expell the leaders, you oblige them to leave the country terrorized. If you turn the Supreme Court into a substitute for Parliament, all powers are at your disposition. What would you call that? If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then there is nothing more to be said.
In this process of building a de facto government, things have happened in just the opposite order from what people think. Ortega never learned from Chávez's victories, because Ortega has never been charismatic. He was an easily beaten candidate. Maduro has copied Ortega's model. He isn't charismatic either, and he decided not to go back to losing.
In both countries, the electoral system was perverted. In Nicaragua it was placed in the hands of a gangster named Roberto Rivas, a delinquent wanted by international bodies. He is so bad that, to protect him, Ortega has had to remove him from power.
T.H. We have a desolate outlook for the Latin American left right now. Ortega and Maduro have become tyrants. Lula, Rousseff and Kirchner are trapped in webs of corruption. Evo Morales is trying to reelect himself despite what the laws of his own country say. Correa tried the same thing and failed. It would appear that the political projects of Latin America that are the self-proclaimed legitimate messengers of the forgotten man lead to totalitarianism or irresponsible populism, destroying institutional democracy and national economies.
S.R.: I wouldn't put all of those projects into the same basket. Practically none of them was a real part of so-called twenty-first century socialism. Lula, for example, was something else. His government was successful in terms of redistribution of wealth; he lifted millions out of extreme poverty and expanded the middle class. That same middle class ended up throwing the Worker's Party out of power, precisely because it is more politically active and demands more welfare provisions.
But the Brazilian right is disgraceful. The removal of Dilma Rousseff was an extremely manipulated and politicized move. One must recognize that the PT became a part of the institutionalism that marked the decisions against it.
Corruption is a different matter. It is a sort of Latin American pandemic that ensnares right and left alike. Colombia and Mexico, with right wing governments, are a clear example of a situation that is spilling over. It's almost a tradition that no one can escape from. I do not believe that Lula is the great example of the corrupt Latin American, as are the Chavista henchmen.
TH.: Where would you place Kirchnerism?
S.R.: Kirchnerism doesn't fit into that box either. It is part of something much older. We must place it in the long history of Peronism, not in twenty-first century socialism. Somehow, one of Chavez's teachers in Perón. But Peronism comes first. It is a phenomenon that is repeated again and again in Argentina. It is a sort of populism with roots in the soul of the country; a populism that always returns; an alternative that is always alive even if we don't care for it.
T.H.: And Evo Morales?
S.R. Evo is also something else. He fell into the disgraceful temptation of staying in power, of denying change. It is true. But I also cannot compare him with Maduro. Evo achieved something very important by reclaiming Bolivian sovereignty over the natural resources of the country. He increased wages with state fiscal reforms. He was a needed national revindication.
There are elements of his government that I do not share, such as exaggerated indigenismo. But Evo knew how to understand the radical opposition-business leaders and today, they cooperate with him and with his government. He learned to negotiate. He has not caused an economic crisis like the one we see in Venezuela.
His obvious error, however, is his attempt to be reelected. He calls a plebiscite and loses. Later, he ensures that the Supreme Courts offers up an interpretation that holds that not allowing him to be reelected would violate his rights. Daniel Ortega made the same interpretation! If the Constitution says that there is no reelection and the Supreme Court says that there is, then I need to go back to law school to understand that interpretation.
Unfortunately for the democrats, the first to make that move was Oscar Arias in Costa Rica. Bad example. Down that road they all went; first Ortega, then Morales and Correa.
T.H.: So can we say that the obsession with staying in power is a leftist vice?
S.R.: No, not at all. This is not a monopoly of the left, it is a Latin American vice that we carry with us from the 19th century and that is shared by soldiers and civilians alike. Juan Vicente Gómez governed for thirty continuous years in Venezuela and Chávez had already reached fifteen when he died. The Somozas governed Nicaragua for half a century, but Ortega has already been in power longer than Tachito, the last of the bunch. Even Uribe managed to reelect himself in a country without that tradition.
That is why in Latin America, while presidency is the law, it is necessary to reduce the maximum number of chances at reelection. In Europe, it is a different matter. Reelection is less damaging because there is a parliamentary system. The leaders of the Spanish or Austrian governments are barely subjected to a vote to censure and they have to resign because power is in the hands of parliament.
The theme of obsession over unlimited power unique to our region is considered very well by Alejo Carpentier in El Siglo de las luces [The century of lights]. It is a dialectic about the history made by military dictatorships, but also about revolutionaries, and how they became tyrants when they cling to the notion that commanding cannot be a temporary action but must be unlimited, until death. The idea of immortality obscures the vision of the most upright among us. Even Bolívar fell into the temptation. That is why caudillos prefer to be anointed by a divine hand, rather than being duly elected by their citizens with an end date to their rule.
In his novels, Alejo Carpentier drops us into the disconcerting obsession that comes as a result of living in a an old, rural, anachronistic world of slaves and masters ambitious for a modern reality. His work forces us to confront the legal fiction that always fails under the weight of a caudillo in mourning, or dressed in epaulettes.
T.H.: Let's go back. Per your argument, the international phenomenon of twenty-first century socialism has only existed in Venezuela?
S.R.: Twenty-first century socialism hasn't worked. In fact, right now, in 2018, the only ones close to Maduro are arguably Ortega, Castro, and Morales. Cuban communism and Raúl Castro come from a different mold. Cuban communism corresponds to the Soviet model of the twentieth century. They supported Chávez so they could get free oil and keep their failed model alive.
Ortega isn't a Chavista either. He doesn't go after private interests. He governs with the businessmen, who are currently enjoying one of their wealthiest moments in the nation's recent history.
Now, without a doubt, the most effective blow against twenty-first century socialism has been dealt by Lenin Moreno in Ecuador. He has used the Constitution to prevent the same names from staying in power. There is no more transparent way of disarming authoritarianism than by personal example. That was Lenin Morena's move. He sacrificed himself for a vote to end reelection; neither he nor any other governor or mayor from his party can be reelected. When someone says, "Here there shall not be reelection, including of myself," he becomes absolutely believable.
T.H.: I want to return to twenty-first century socialism. Did it only exist in Venezuela because that was the only place where war was waged against private interests?
S.R.: That's an important component. Ortega arrived late with his advice to Maduro about not seeing private enterprise as an enemy. But the message did reach Evo Morales on time. Evo ended up reaching an understanding with private business interests.
In Nicaragua, all of the laws that affect finance are passed with the advice of the business council. Everything passes through their hands, including the collective contracts. It is a co-government or corporate government. And it is understandable. If an authoritarian government guarantees them economic benefits, I can't blame them, because businessmen seek out an adequate investment climate and stability for their business. Chavismo was not a model to imitate for everyone who put on their twenty-first century socialism hats. There is enormous internal diversity. Even Correa always distanced himself and resisted Chávez's pressure to get rid of the dollar as a national currency.
Chávez thought he could build a great exportable political project because he had all the resources in the world to lift up a state economy, forgetting that this was a road to failure, as already demonstrated in the twentieth century. Now that model stands alone. The meetings of ALBA are like a wake.
They don't want to recognize the elephant in the room.
T.H.: Let's go again to your persona and literature. In Venezuela, the red government does not publicly recognize the merits of anyone who does not unconditionally support it. For example, when Uslar (winner of the Príncipe de Asturias prize) and Adriano González León (winner of the Seix Barral prize) died in the midst of the Latin American Boom, the government did not seem to take notice. How did Ortega's hierarchy take the news that you won the Cervantes Prize, and that you were the first Nicaraguan to win it?
S.R.: In Nicaragua, the exact same thing happens. The Prize was happily received among the common people, readers and non-readers alike, because it is considered an honor for the country. In the newspaper La Prensa, it was an eight-column story on the first page. The same was true of other independent media. I received an overwhelming number of messages on social media.
The government, however, was as silent as the grave. Not a single word. The answer was silence, as though nothing had happened. When discussing the same question, one journalist said to me, "It was like ignoring the elephant in the room." She didn't say it for me as much as she did for the magnitude of the prize in a country as tiny as Nicaragua.
T.H.: In Nicaragua, at least from a literary perspective, there are several elephants: Ernesto Cardenal, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Ramírez. How does an authoritarian government handle the highly uncomfortable presence of three internationally known dissidents that just won't go away?
S.R.: Both governments, Venezuela and Nicaragua, have the same mentality: "if you're not with us, you're against us." For them, the three of us are traitors. The worst part is that Ortega is not a Sandinista anymore, while I still am. I believe in Sandino as a worthy example of the country that we ought to be: the country of Rubén Darío. Ortega's philosophy is something else entirely. The distance between Sandino and Ortega is, more or less, the same distance that exists between Bolívar and Maduro. I am both a Sandinista and a Bolivarian. They've kidnapped those terms. They are captive words. In their voices, Sandinismo and Bolvarianism are an aberration. They stole for their tribes what were once common sentiments shared by entire nations.
T.H.: Eugenio Montejo, our great Venezuelan poet, who spoke little of politics, insisted that they first move that totalitarians make is to dilute language. Do you agree?
S.R.: Very true. Exaggerated rhetoric, the chief characteristic of these populists, is a perversion of language. The words are emptied of all meaning; they lose transparency when they do not say what they are meant to say. When the same words and phrases come to mean the opposite of what they were intended to mean, we are faced with a profound dilution and perversion of language. Language itself is betrayed. The beautiful words that used to awaken revolutionary ideals are still the same words, but they don't mean the same thing, and they fall away into the abyss.
Literature has approached these themes very well. Balzac, in The Human Comedy, describes the otherworldly metamorphosis of revolutionaries that rise against oppression in the name of liberty and end up becoming the same or worse than their foes once they obtain power. The old freedom fighters of the French Revolution become a prosperous bourgeoise with the immense wealth that they wrested from others by force of arms. It is as if ideals could only subsist in times of struggle. Perverted by the exercise of power (which has its own rules), they begin their fatal about face, turning back the clock and turning the oppressed into oppressors.
The exact same thing happens with language. It ceases to be a tool of political enlightenment and serves the benighted ends of the new dominion.
T.H.: You have often spoken about the loss of political illusions. In your engagements, on this trip to Bogotá, you have insisted again and again upon the uselessness of literature when it comes to changing society. Literature, you have said, does not change the world. Does that stance number among your lost illusions?
S.R.: No. The truth is that never, even when I was young, have I believed that literature can change the world, to make people join a determined cause or cast a vote. Literature basically serves to generate pleasure. I do not know of a single novel that has brought about a revolution. It is not by happenstance that during the eight years I was in political office I stopped writing. I was not going to put my literary creations at the government's service. I didn't.
T.H.: In your case, the author silenced the politician. Do you miss political activism?
S.R.: I don't miss it. The truth is, I never wanted to be a career politician. I was enjoying a writing fellowship in Berlin when I felt the duty to return to Nicaragua to overthrow a cruel dictatorship that stood in the way of the life my country deserved.
Everything seemed primed for the overthrow and I joined the cause. I returned with my family to Nicaragua. At that time, I believed that revolution meant that one had to leave everything behind. That is not the case for politics, but revolution is something different for me. It was my turn to take responsibility and I did so willingly. But that's it. When the revolution reached its end and we lost the election of 1990 and the problems arose in the Sandinista Front, I returned to literature because that is where I had come from. My revolutionary illusions came to an end, as did my life as a politician, so that I could dedicate all of my remaining time to writing. Now, at my age, I don't have any doubts about what I am: a writer.
T.H.: But from what you have told me today, Nicaragua needs another revolution, to overthrow another tyranny that stands in the way of the life your country deserves.
S.R.: I believe it is a question of age. Revolutions belong to the young; ideas belong to those who have the strength to change reality. We ought to look to generational renovation. I want to be an author. Obviously, a writer isn't someone who is locked away somewhere in some room, and even less so is that true in my case. I go to the window every day to see what is going on and I give my opinion about it publicly.
T.H.: How does the degradation of those who once aspired to dreams of justice for their countries only to end up being as corrupt and authoritarian as their old foes look from your window?
S.R.: There has been an ethical collapse, which is connected with the lack of solidarity with others; there is negativity about opening one's self to the pain of others, and that has a great deal to do with honor, and with the lack of intellectual education. The philosophy of easy money and get-rich-quick has triumphed and is taking everything with it, multiplying the corruption of Central America hand in hand with drug trafficking. Political corruption is grave; once elected, politicians begin to rob as though the state were their booty. This is a generalization about all of Latin America: a sort of impunity that those who reach the heights of government believe that power allows for every sort of personal abuse.
Leaders do not watch themselves. They begin to abuse power over small things, like "I can't go to the theatre because it's dangerous, so I'll have one built in my house." The consequence is that the leaders become further and further removed from the common people, living in an artificial world. That takes a lot of money and since you're not a businessman, you pilfer it from the State coffers as though it were your own personal bank account.
T.H.: To finish up, do you believe that there is still a space for the left in Latin America? Is there still hope?
S.R.: Yes, of course, I believe there is. One example is Uruguay, another is Chile; both countries have had leftist democratic governments, and both are beyond reproach. Why? In Chile and Uruguay there were terrible military dictatorships. Nevertheless, in those countries, they had solid institutions beforehand, and when the dictators disappeared the institutions reemerged. Democratic governments are strong when institutions are strong. They favor the transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor, not through cronyism but by profoundly improving quality education, so that it reaches the majority of the population; they do so with public health systems and universal healthcare; with social security that supports the elderly and allows them to live with dignity at the end of their lives; they attack structural poverty by means other than handing out money, and that is my ideal, democratic society governed form the left. If you say that the left exists to make people hungry and repress them, then I will ask you what sort of "left" we are talking about.
For me, as someone coming from the left, it has an ethical and humanist foundation. Without strong institutions and without a humanist ethic (and therefore a pluralist one), the left is perverted. What has happened in Latin America is that the people who have taken over these projects, as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, are little-educated. They have no solid political education; they even read Marxism out of simplified manuals. Political leaders don't have to be philosophers, but they should have a basic formation that makes them less weak in the face of twisted demagogy and populism, vanity and egocentrism.
The current level of the leaders of Latin America's political parties, including the left, of course, is tragic. They recede further and further away from the stature of articulate statesmen like Cardozo, who was one of the creators of Dependence Theory. The political class of Colombia is well-educated, but sometimes primitive. Having three doctorates doesn't resolve anything if one lacks social sensibility.
Farewell with emoticons.
T.H.: A final point of curiosity: in the Whatsapp messages that we exchanged setting up this meeting, I see that you frequently use emoticons. You are a master of the written word. Don't you believe that they are a threat to language?
S.R.: Yes. I use emoticons a lot (he says with a smile). Emoticons speak for me. They are very practical. Hieroglyphics were the first emoticons and language began ideographically. I have nothing to fear from change. Change doesn't damage language, it enriches it, it opens new pathways. I use social media a great deal: I'm on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and I have webpages and blogs. They help me to communicate better with readers. I don't want to be an old man left by the wayside.
Bogotá, March 13, 2018
Sergio Ramírez (Masatepe, Nicaragua, 1942) is part of the generation of writers that emerged after the Latin American Boom, and after a long, voluntary exile in Costa Rica and Germany, he set his literary career aside for a time to participate in the Sandinista Revolution. This movement overthrew the dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty; he then returned to writing with the novel Divine Punishment (1988, Dashiell Hammett Prize). Un baile de máscaras [A dance of masks] won the Laure Bataillon Prize for best foreign novel translated in France in 1998. His other works include Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea (1998), Mentiras verdaderas [True lies] (2001), the short story collections Catalina y Catalina (2001), El reino animal [The animal kingdom] (2007), and Flores oscuras [Dark flowers] (2013), as well as teh novels Sombras nada más [No more shadows] (2002), Mil y una muertes [One thousand one deaths] (2005), El cielo llora por mí [The sky cries for me] (2008), and La fugitiva [The fugitive] (2011), winner of the Bleu Metropole Prize in Montreal, Canada. He has also published his memoirs of the revolution, Adiós muchachos (1999), and a book of chronicles on writers and writing, Juan de Juanes (2014). He has been distinguished with many awards, including the José Donoso Prize for Spanish American Letters for the entirety of his literary work (Chile, 2011) and the International Carlos Fuentes Prize for Literary Creation in Spanish Language (Mexico, 2014). His books have been translated to more than fifteen languages.
Tulio Hernández is a Venezuelan writer who combines sociology with opinion writing, cultural criticism, and academic activities. He has been a member of the Communication Research Institute (ININCO) of the Central University of Venezuela and of the editorial board of the newspaper El Nacional, where he has written a Sunday column for over twenty years. His writing has been published in El País, The New York Times in Spanish, and Arcadia magazine, among other publications. Fleeing from the threat of imprisonment in Venezuela, he currently lives between Madrid and Bogotá. In 2017, he published his book Una nación a la deriva [A nation adrift].
Michael Redzich is a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He earned degrees in Spanish and Letters, and intends to pursue a legal education upon graduation. Michael came to OU in 2013 from Jackson, Wyoming, where he grew up with his parents and one brother. He spent the past two years living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and looks forward to seeing more of Latin America: the places, the people, the literature, and more.
The eighth issue of Latin American Literature pays homage to Nicaraguan writer and politician Sergio Ramírez, winner of the 2017 Cervantes Prize and an important voice in a country currently gripped by crisis. We also feature poetry from Octavio Armand, as well as special sections dedicated to four indigenous writers of Mexico and Guatemala, bilingual sci-fi from Worldcon 76, and the poetry of Marosa di Giorgio, Olga Orozco, and Elena Garro.