And you go, and get wet, and are shivering with cold and hunger, with no caresses, no laughter, nobody to hug and kiss, and the mud and the darkness of the night, and everybody by 7:00 P.M. lying in their hammocks, each thinking his separate thoughts. -- From "Fire From the Mountain" by Omar Cabezas
This is boot camp, Sandinista style, circa 1973.
But, for a moment, try to forget the political clash between Nicaragua and the United States, the news photos of a uniform-clad Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in Moscow, the color photos of a contra slashing a Sandinista throat.
Omar Cabezas has made no attempt to hide or justify his loyalties to the Sandinistas. And if you didn't sympathize with their cause before, you probably won't after you read "Fire From the Mountain." What Cabezas does is tell you about his life in Nicaragua -- in Leo'n where the streets are so hot that dogs walk in the shade of pedestrians, in the mountains where guerrilla training meant subsisting on roasted corn and monkey soup and suffering from "mountain leprosy," large, painful lesions on the legs.
The result is neither ideological tract nor political journalism. It is one man's view of his world, and he is charmingly frank about it all -- his frustrations and triumphs in training, his ideals, his rakishness, his longing for female company, for any new company.
"I reached the conclusion," Cabezas says about the process of writing this book, "that I had a vice -- of sharing."
Why is that a vice?
He shrugs. "Because I can't live without it."
Omar Cabezas says this sitting in the dining room of the Madison Hotel, which is something of a surprise, because his American publisher never expected him to be sitting anywhere in the United States talking about this book. "We were 95 percent sure he wouldn't get a visa," says the publicist for Crown Publishers Inc. who accompanied Cabezas.
Cabezas was just out of high school when a friend recruited him for the Frente (the Sandinista National Liberation Front) in 1968:
"Remember, I didn't have any firm political convictions," he writes. ". . . Worse, I had serious doubts about whether Marxism was a good thing or a bad thing . . . It was more or less a question of manhood. What I mean is, I knew what I wanted. I wanted to fight the dictatorship. But . . . I had a sort of fear or doubt, or who knows what I felt, about seeing that commitment through to its final consequences."
But he did see it through -- he worked as a student leader and then he trained as a guerrilla under a brutally demanding instructor, Rene' Tejada (called Tello), who one day opened a door and got a bullet in the forehead from an enemy rifle.
Cabezas' story doesn't even take you to the Sandinistas' most exultant moment: It stops four years short of July 19, 1979, the day they won their fight against the regime of longtime Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Cabezas' book was a best seller in Nicaragua, where it sold 50,000 copies and is now out of print, according to Berk. It's been printed in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, and there are also Dutch, German, Scandinavian and Russian editions. The book is in its third American printing and the publisher expects a fourth. Early reviews have praised it as an insider's account; Chilean novelist Ariel Dorfman, in the Los Angeles Times, called it a book "that shows us that the enemy is a human being, a book that if widely read, may prevent a war." "Fire From the Mountain" is reviewed today in Book World.
The rigors of the mountains may have cleansed Cabezas, as his book says, of "bourgeois defects," but the rise of the Sandinistas has clearly threatened him with at least the trappings of creeping bourgeoisie: he wears a suit, holds the position of deputy minister in the Interior Ministry ("I oversee the head of the police force and penitentiary and fire system") and lives in the well-to-do, international neighborhood, Las Colinas, in the southeast part of Managua.
His U.S. tour has taken him to Washington and New York, where he dined with various literati at Elaine's. "It was all right," he says noncommittally, seeming perplexed that one would even ask about a restaurant.
He won't estimate how much he's earned from his book but says that it's a lot. "Everything, I gave to the FSLN the Sandinista Front . I gave it to the orphans of the war."
He wants to pocket at least some: "I have a wish to keep $10,000 to buy cigarettes," says Cabezas. (He smokes Marlboros.) "Cigarettes in Nicaragua are very bad."
Later this summer, paperback rights will be auctioned in New York, and, Cabezas says, two movie studios (Universal and Columbia) have courted him for film rights but at the moment no options have been sold.
He has written that his face hardened during his days in the mountains, but now, at 34, there is a softening. The huge brown eyes go impish when he talks of an adventure or flash anger -- even a flicker of annoyed boredom -- when asked about the Sandinistas' steady decline from favor with U.S. politicians.
Now the hardened faces are worn by the two bodyguards provided by the Nicaraguan government who travel with him at all times. They say they are not armed. "They're karate experts," Cabezas says. During lunch (Cabezas has a small steak), they sit at a nearby table. "They just burned our embassy," he says, referring to the June 20 fires at the Nicaraguan embassy here which authorities say were deliberately set. "I'm afraid they may burn my mustache."
Cabezas kept no notes during his days in the mountains: "I'm not so disciplined to have had a diary," he says through his translator, "and my personality doesn't allow it. The secret of the details is the easy thing to tell you. If I ask you to tell me when you were a child what were the things that most impressed you -- anything -- I'm sure you'd be able to explain it in some detail. The human brain always registers with great detail the events that have had a great influence on you."
Like watching fire rise up from the soaked vegetation of the mountains: "You're dead if you can't build a fire in the mountains," he writes. ". . . You discover how valuable fire really is -- for drying you out and to cook with, and even for company, because fire is company, too."
His book began with a journalist who taped a series of long interviews with Cabezas for a book she was writing on Nicaragua. "After working hours, I used to go to her house, she'd give me two or three beers to reduce my tension," Cabezas says. "She used to have a pool of secretaries to transcribe tapes. One day she called me and said she wanted to talk to me. She said, 'Look, Omar, I've come to tell you you are a natural writer.' And I said, 'Why?' And she said, 'Read.' "
She gave him transcripts of his tapes. He was fascinated. "I don't know if I was narcissistic or just thought it was good material," Cabezas says, "but I couldn't stop reading."
Cabezas didn't do anything about the transcripts until several months later when he showed them to the secretary of Nicaraguan official Bayardo Arce in the office next door. She encouraged him to write. "I said, 'I have enough trouble writing reports for Bayardo.' " She offered to sit with him while he taped his thoughts.
"When she proposed the idea of accompanying me with the taping -- because she was pretty and I was single at the time -- I saw an opportunity to be near her with the pretext of taping," says Cabezas with a little grin. "I didn't really care about the taping. I was happy to be near her. She was happy that I was taping. I thought everyone will be happy."
That lasted through three tapings. "Unfortunately, she left the country." Then there was another friend, and then, "I found another woman," he says with a sheepish smile. "This third woman was a thin woman with these really beautiful blue eyes and long legs . . . and a type of tenderness that exuded through her pores. So I started taping with her, and, today, she is my present wife." He and his wife, Ruth Elizondo, whom he calls Gata (Spanish for cat -- "She has beautiful eyes like a cat"), have a 3--year-old daughter whom he affectionately calls Gatita.
Cabezas has yet to actually write any words on paper. In fact, according to Cabezas, it was Ernesto Cardenal, minister of culture, who took his transcripts and had them published first in a magazine. Later, at Cardenal's urging, Cabezas arranged them chronologically and made them into a book to be entered for Cuba's 1982 Casa de las Americas literary competition, a government-funded but privately administered prize. He won.
"I hope," writes Carlos Fuentes in his introduction to Cabezas' book, "when I finish reading this book, that Omar Cabezas and his country, his revolution, and his memory will not have to smile in death, but in life. Such a human, humorous, dramatic, anguished, and liberating account as his deserves life and a smile more than the mechanical optimism of revolutionary lyrics."
Cabezas' account is also deeply personal, filled with intimate, sometimes amusing details. Such as the sex life of a guerrilla -- or rather the lack of it.
"I'm really uninhibited," Cabezas says earnestly, leaning both elbows on the table, resting his chin in his curled palms, talking about his ability to write unflinchingly about himself. "I'm very liberated, to use a certain term." He glances around the restaurant at the business-suited clientele. "Of all the men present here, I think there's not one that hasn't masturbated, but most men maintain it as a taboo . . . What's wrong with saying one masturbates? Or one is scared? I detest masks. I hate when people put on faces. This is my face -- with all the scars. I say what I think." He frowns and then smiles slightly. "Well, not always."
Politicization came gradually for Cabezas, he says. His hero -- and the hero of many of his friends -- was Ernesto Che Guevara. ("Because I think that in Nicaragua in order to be like Che you have to be a Sandinista," Cebezas writes.) In the time between joining the Frente and being sent off to the mountains, he did much of his organizing at the university he attended in Leo'n and received much of his political education in study circles organized by Sandinista leaders.
"I'm in agreement with certain tenets of Marxism but not with others," he says. "Like I'm in agreement with certain aspects of capitalism and not in agreement with others. I hate textbooks and dogmas."
Ask him why he joined the Frente and he says, "Because of another vice -- my barrio was a very poor one. Cabezas grew up in Leo'n. And sometimes I used to think if I were God, how beautiful it would be to give everything to those people in the barrio."
At one point in his book he mentions that he read from "The Communist Manifesto" to a group of Nicaraguan Indians he was organizing.
"It called their attention to the fact that the minority had everything and the majority had nothing. So in that sense it was important. All that crap about communism -- they didn't comprehend all that stuff. They didn't care about the intricacies of theory. We also had to explain why it was necessary to struggle against the establishment."
He won't classify himself: "I'm a hybrid. Look, I don't like manuals. I'm an iconoclast."
The U.S. government, he says, "sees things in terms of black and white and couches those things in those terms: 'If you don't think exactly like we do, you're a Communist.' "
On the other hand, he says, "the Communist Party of Nicaragua says we betrayed the revolution and we the Sandinistas constitute the new bourgeoisie. Why do the Nicaraguan Communists say this? Because we don't think exactly like they do . . . If the Communists say we're capitalists and the capitalists think we're Communists, then I think we're going along the right path."
The Reagan administration has long been harshly critical of Nicaragua's leftist government, and in response Ortega has predicted at least a dozen times that the United States was planning an invasion. In lobbying for humanitarian aid to the contras -- the rebels fighting the Sandinista government -- President Reagan said in his June 8 weekly radio address, "We must not sit by while the Nicaraguan people are saddled with a communist dictatorship that threatens this entire hemisphere." Last Monday, Reagan accused Nicaragua (along with Iran, Libya, North Korea and Cuba) of forming an international terrorist network he compared to "Murder Inc."
After opposing aid to the contras in April, the Democratic-controlled House reversed itself on June 12.
Cabezas says he would ask the U.S. government to "have the perspective and intelligence to acknowledge that things are not black and white and that we be given an opportunity to show something new can be created."
Critics of the Sandinista government "are present in the country," Cabezas says. "Possibly in other countries, the dissidents would already be eliminated."
Cabezas hotly denies that Nicaragua is a Soviet satellite. "That's a bunch of expletive ," he says. "We do not wish to be a satellite. We're offended when we're accused of that. It's like we're stupid. It's like we went through this guerrilla movement to become a satellite."
Referring to Ortega's trip to the Soviet Union, Cabezas says it was economically necessary: "We only had one month of oil reserves, and we had to find assistance. What does the U.S. want? They carry out military aggression against us, an economic blockade, and mount a disinformation campaign against us and then they don't wish for us to go to the Soviet Union for oil? Maybe they would rather that we commit hari-kari?
"If I die and were to be reborn, I would be a Sandinista," he says, recalling the worst times of his guerrilla days, saying he would go through it all again, even though it meant getting a Dear John letter from his girlfriend, the mother of his daughter. That was one of the worst moments, and then there was an incident in 1977. But he refuses to talk about it.
"You'll have to wait," he says, "for the second book."