Now that Somoza has been cauterized from the sick body of Nicaragua, outsiders are beginning to wonder about that country's future.
Some are nervous about "the second Cuba" that Nicaragua may become. Others are put off by the pitcures of your Sandinistas shooting rifles into the air. Some would like to know whether the new government will make Nicaragua safe again for U.S. corporations.
Instead of such speculation about Nicaragua's future -- much of it based on the twisted notion that America lost a good friend in Somoza -- an opportunity exists to learn something about its cultural past. It has one, surprising as that may be to North Americans who look on the country as just another banana republic somewhere south of Texas.
If only its poets and writers are considered, it can be said without qualification that Nicaragua has been a land of radiant beauty and soulful emotions.
Its literary figures have never been as celebrated beyond Nicaragua as were Neruda of Chile, Borges of Argentina or Vallejo of Peru. But they are widely published in Central America and available in English translations.
Anyone who has taken the time to read them quickly senses that Nicaraguan writers and poets come out of a social context not known in this country: The general population cares intensely that they keep writing. Citizens cherish them as the unpaid consultants to truth. In turn, the writers themselves know that their voices are needed. They know they have the power to ease the pain caused by decades of systematic oppression.
The father of Nicaraguan poetry is Ruben Dario. He died in 1916. He understood the colonial reality but insisted on using poetry as the artist's resistance to defeat.
Pablo Antonio Cuadra, once the editor of La Prensa, the Managua newspaper, is a writer who has combined the pre=Mayan myths of his homeland with the modern folklore of Central America Indians. Cuadra, with the disciplines of daily journalism as a help to stay grounded, became a student of the ancient peoples of Nicaragua. He has kept alive their artistic outlook.
Alfonso Cortes suffered insanity in the late 1920. He pushed through his craze to write of feelings that probably would have remained inexpressible if he were fully sane. He toured his soul and came back with a mind ready to believe that the metaphysical was real and everything else an illusion. In the poem "Great Prayer" Cortes wrote: Drean is a solitary rock Where the soul's hawk nests: Dream, dream, during Ordinary life.
For North Americans, the most familiar Nicaraguan writer is, or should be, Ernesto Cardenal. Now 54 and a priest, he studied at Columbia Univeristy in New York and once had an exhibit of his ceramics at the Pan American Union in Washington.
In the late 1950s, Cardenal spent some time at the Trappist monastery in Kentucky. He came under the guidance of Thomas Merton. Though Cardenal was taking a breather in the simple routine of the monastery and would leave before taking vows, Merton wrote of him: "He was one of the rare vocations we have had here who certainly and manifestly combined the gifts of a contemplative with those of an artist."
Cardenal had a third side -- a leader in the resistance movement against the Somozas. Before he went to Kentucky, his poem "Three Epigrams" was a sardonic comment on the demonic dictators: Shots were heard last night Out by the burial ground; No one knows who killed, or was killed. No one knows a thing. Shots were heard last night. That is all. We wake with guns going off And the dawn alive with planes -- It sounds like a revolution: It is only the Tyrant's birthday.
In early 1977, Cardenal returned to the United States for a series of lectures. His message was that his country would soon be exploding and that the United States should not pretend that it did not have a grave complicity in the long brutalization of the Nicaraguan people.
Cardenal is now the minister of culture in his country's new government. That alone is worth celebrating. A revolution that makes room for a poet is likely to make room for much else that matters.