In This Review

Nicaragua and the Politics of Utopia: Development and Culture in the Modern State
Nicaragua and the Politics of Utopia: Development and Culture in the Modern State
By Daniel Chávez
Vanderbilt University Press, 2015, 376 pp.
Faith and Joy: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest
Faith and Joy: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Priest
By Fernando Cardenal; edited and translated by Kathleen McBride and Mark Lester
Orbis Books, 2015, 288 pp.

For a small country, Nicaragua has produced a remarkable literary and poetic tradition, one steeped in utopian politics. As the country’s most famous poet, Rubén Darío, famously remarked, “If small is the homeland, one dreams it great.” In his highly original book, Chávez seeks the literary and philosophical roots of three very different Nicaraguan regimes: the modernizing, authoritarian Somoza dictatorship (1937–79), the agrarian-socialist Sandinista revolution (1979–90), and the neoliberal capitalism of the post-Sandinista era (1990–2006). All three regimes were “utopian” in that their legitimizing rhetoric and imagery contained contradictory elements that were impossible to reconcile or fully realize and that obscured their less savory characteristics. Chávez carefully dissects official speeches and constitutional texts and expertly elucidates their literary and discursive origins. His critiques of two outstanding contemporary writers, Sergio Ramírez and Gioconda Belli, are especially well drawn, as he guides readers from their early anti-Somoza mythological stories and poems to their subsequent writings on political disillusionment. But Chávez is no cynic: on the contrary, he asserts that the drive to imagine a better, more hopeful future is profoundly and gloriously human.

An outstanding example of Chávez’s kind of utopian is Cardenal, a Jesuit priest who joined in the Sandinista insurrection and later served as minister of education. (Cardenal’s older brother, Ernesto, is a well-known poet and the founder of a legendary religious commune in Solentiname.) In his memoir, a longer version of which was published in Spanish in 2009, Cardenal explains that his support for the 1979 revolution against Somoza was rooted in his conviction that abject poverty had resulted from repression and injustice (and not from low labor productivity or incompetent governance). He believed that Nicaragua’s problems could best be addressed by faith in Jesus Christ and love for the poor. Under the circumstances of the brutal Somoza dictatorship, violent revolution was justifiable, Cardenal argues, but never terrorism, understood as violence against civilians for political ends. After the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections, Cardenal withdrew into religious life but retained his faith in utopia. He had witnessed the generous energy and self-sacrifice of young Nicaraguans fighting the dictatorship and working for social transformation—examples, in Cardenal’s mind, of a form of Christianity grounded not just in the catechism but also in lived experience.