Originally published by Orinocotribune.com.
Of the nearly 300 murals painted in Nicaragua during the decade of the Revolution, most are now gone. In the “capital of mural painting,” Managua, murals were systematically painted over in the early 1990s—often under the cover of darkness—in an act of cultural imperialism that aimed to erase the Revolution itself and destroy the spirit of the Nicaraguan people.
Why did the new neoliberal government deem the Revolution so dangerous that all memory of it had to be erased? Let’s put that time in context. On July 19, 1979, the Sandinista-led insurrection finally overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, signifying the beginning of the Sandinista Popular Revolution.
From the beginning, the Revolution had its enemies: for the US—which had backed the Somoza regime through five administrations, both Republican and Democratic—overthrowing the Sandinistas became a personal mission with the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980. In the context of the Cold War, Reagan used any means necessary to try to accomplish this, including imposing an illegal economic embargo and training and funding a terrorist army of counterrevolutionaries: the Contras. Against all odds, the Sandinista Revolution was improving the lives of the Nicaraguan people through grassroots programs—providing universal health care and free education and eradicating illiteracy through its Literacy Crusade. To effectively attack the Revolution, the Contras attacked its achievements, the “soft targets” of schools, health clinics, and cooperatives; killing teachers, health care workers, farmers and children.
The Revolution was also cultural—after centuries of classist hierarchical art where oil painting was considered the only important art form, culture was democratized. Nicaragua created Centers for Popular Culture—28 of them by 1988—which painted murals, held poetry and pottery workshops, organized dance and theater festivals.
Thanks to the solidarity of muralists from around the world, a culture of painting murals was born, along with a Mural School which trained students and helped define the eclectic Nicaraguan mural style. “We did not want to ‘other-ize’ ourselves… or to serve the demands of the Western art transnationals,” said Raúl Quintanilla, artist, former director of the National School of Plastic Arts and of the Museum of Contemporary Art. “We began to build a visual language embracing many dialects through… a dialogue that engaged everyone and everything, [dovetailing] social commitment and visual experimentation.” Although the murals were stylistically diverse, common themes emerged from the artists’ interpretations of the revolutionary process: dawn as a symbol of rebirth, parallels between the birth of Jesus and the birth of the New Man, and the triumvirate of books, hammers and guns to represent literacy, work and defense of the Revolution.
Particularly poignant in murals of the Revolution is the struggle of the indigenous people of Nicaragua and their resistance to Spanish colonizers, portrayed as parallels to the contemporary “Christian” persecutors, the Contras. In the murals, the colonial struggles were reexamined in light of the Revolutionary struggles; the indigenous of Nicaragua became models for the defense of popular sovereignty during the Revolution.
Colonizers the world over have for time immemorial committed cultural genocide in order to completely subject a people—prohibiting the speaking of indigenous languages, indigenous dances, indigenous clothing. In Nicaragua, this same practice was used to erase the murals that had fed and inspired the country’s revolutionary spirit for over a decade.
By 1990, nearly 50,000 Nicaraguans had been killed in the Contra War and Nicaragua’s revolutionary project was crippled by the economic embargo and derailed by the war. In the run-up to the February 1990 presidential elections, the US made Nicaraguan voters’ choice clear to them: unless US-backed candidate Violeta Chamorro’s party, UNO, won the elections, the economic blockade and the Contra war would continue indefinitely. George H.W. Bush’s administration poured money into UNO’s campaign to ensure its win. Scared and tired, when Nicaraguans went to the polls they voted to end the war: Chamorro won the elections, ushering in a 16-year neoliberal period.
After that election, Arnoldo Alemán became mayor of Managua. Alemán, a Somocista who spent time in prison during the Revolution, was fervently anti-Sandinista and had aspirations to the presidency (indeed, Alemán became president in 1996 and his administration was so infamous—particularly in its embezzlement of Hurricane Mitch aid—that Transparency International named him the 9th most corrupt leader in recent history). As mayor, Alemán made it his personal mission to erase the Revolutionary murals that had come to epitomize Nicaragua, sending municipal workers around the city to paint over any accessible revolutionary murals. Before they left office, the Sandinistas had declared many murals and martyr monuments to be historic patrimony, and therefore untouchable; yet Alemán’s municipal workers continued to paint them over in gray. It is rumored that the US government donated paint to Alemán’s erasure project, and documented that Fuller O’Brien, a San Francisco-based company, donated paint “to obliterate Sandanista [sic] propaganda.” In 1993—at a time when public schools were so underfunded that children had to bring their own desks to the classroom—great quantities of paint were issued by the Ministry of Education to schools all over Nicaragua with orders to use it to paint over any murals on school premises, most of which had been painted by the school children themselves.
It wasn’t just the murals, either, the neo-liberal government worked hard to erase all traces of the Revolution in the early 1990s: public school curriculum was completely overhauled and school textbooks were all pulped and burned, replaced with books that failed to even mention Sandino; books by acclaimed Nicaraguan authors were burned; the eternal flame over the tomb of FSLN founder and martyr Carlos Fonseca was extinguished; later the monument itself was bombed as was a central public art piece, the Worker’s Statue.
In some ways, this strategy to erase was effective. After the elections in 1990, Nicaragua went into a kind of societal depression and the vast majority of families were crippled by extreme poverty, unable to plan beyond the next meal. While the country was incapacitated, the somocistas who had supported the former dictator oozed back into the country and violently stole back properties they had forfeited when they had fled Nicaragua a decade earlier. Violeta Chamorros’s government quietly erased the social gains of the Revolution, selling nearly all public enterprises at concessionary rates and effectively privatizing health care and education. She welcomed the World Bank and IMF and followed the letter of their structural readjustment programs, refusing to raise wages for teachers, police, or any public worker. She all but erased cooperatives by taking away their access to financing—when they could no longer work, they began to fold, and as those in the countryside lost their land they began to move into the cities looking for work. Gangs took hold in the cities, and crime rates—which had been all but nonexistent in the ‘80s—skyrocketed. The poor got poorer and the rich got richer until Nicaragua became one of the most unequal societies in the world. Desperate to find a way to earn a living, people began to leave in droves to Costa Rica and the US until this small country had nearly 1 million citizens living outside its borders.
And yet, not everyone forgot. In hidden neighborhoods around Managua, the people kept watch over their Revolutionary murals at night, saving them from Alemán’s gray brush. Concealed from the public eye, new murals were born inside walls where they could stay safe. We’ll find some of these murals on our next Managua tour.
Featured image: The Supreme Dream of Bolívar, mural by Víctor Canifrú and Alejandra Acuña, in Avenida Bolívar of Managua, Nicaragua. Photo: David Kunzle
Author: Orinoco Tribune
The Orinoco Tribune is an independent news outlet created in 2018 and specially designed to provide relevant progressive information about Venezuela or related to Venezuela in the form of news articles and opinion pieces for English speakers around the world. Their objective is to create their own content, curate and translate from Spanish to English the most relevant pieces that they have access to and to provide an accurate approach to Venezuela’s reality on a daily basis without all the bias in mainstream media. They also report on current events in other nations.