By John Kotula
This brief look at the history of culture and revolution is prompted by the recent publication of a Spanish edition of David Kunzle’s groundbreaking The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua 1979 – 1992.
“For us, la cultura es la Revolución y la Revolución es la cultura. [culture is the revolution and the revolution is culture.] There is no separation between our cultural progression and the Revolution, since the transformation that Nicaragua is undertaking is also a cultural transformation.” Ernesto Cardinal (1)
In Nicaragua, following the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, a remarkable artistic phenomenon took place. As Trevor Stutely noted, “In those halcyon days of the Sandinistas’ ‘new Nicaragua,’ the arts were an integral part of the popular revolution, and ‘mural brigades’ spread across the country using outdoor walls to portray the struggles of history and the promise of the future.” (2) There are more than 300 documented examples of revolutionary murals created in the 1980’s. Many were painted by international brigades of cultural workers who came to Nicaragua to show support for the new government and join in the efforts to solidify the vision of the revolution.
The murals functioned as the people’s billboards, but instead of peddling products, they presented ideals: literacy, anti-imperialism, national sovereignty, women’s rights, and solidarity. They also documented in powerful, sometimes bloody, images the abuses of the dictator Somoza and the imperialism of the United States. The murals made no apology for armed revolution: from a mural in Esteli, “Los Derechos se toman, no se piden. Se arrancan, no se mendigan.” (You don’t ask for rights, you take them. You grab them; you don’t beg for them.)
The quality of the murals created during this period varied widely from the primitive to works rivaling the Mexican masterpieces of Diego Rivera. However, taken as a whole El Muralismo de Nicaragua was recognized early and consistently as a cultural movement of world importance. This recognition became urgent when the Sandinistas were defeated in the elections of 1990 and the US backed government that came to power began to systematically destroy this artistic and historical heritage. There is little doubt that the United States directed and funded these vandalistic acts; the artistic equivalent of book burning.
“The new government may remove images of Sandino from the walls, the ramparts and the electric posts, but not from the hearts of the people, because Sandino lives.” Ernesto Cardinal (2)
David Kunzle is a prolific and dedicated art historian with a fascinating history. He was born and educated in England, but taught at The University of Southern California for many years. He is a “Marxist/social historian-style scholar of popular arts” (3) who has produced well respected academic studies with titles like The History of the Comic Strip, How to Read Donald Duck, and Chesucristo: The Fusion in Word and Image of Che Guevara and Jesus Christ. Fortunately, he became dedicated to documenting, analyzing, and advocating for Nicaraguan muralism early in the 80s. On many visits to Nicaragua, he compiled an extensive catalog of the art being created. When it became clear that these works were in danger, he wrote and published The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua 1979 – 1992. First issued in 1995 by The University of California Press, it is an immensely important work of art history, political history, and social commentary.
The Institute of History of Nicaragua and Central America (IHNCA) has just come out with a new Spanish edition of Kunzle’s book. The new book is gorgeous! Kunzle gave his support to the edition and donated his photographic archive of more than 2,400 slides. However, the IHNCA publication is expanded, improved, and all in color. (4) For people interested in the art and history of Nicaragua it is a book that you’ll want to own or at least get a look at. It is available at Hispamer in Managua. If your Spanish is not great, the English version is available through Amazon. (5)
The Alliance for Global Justice and Nicaragua Network are developing plans to offer trips to Nicaragua to learn about the role of culture in the revolution and in the country today. Participants would encounter historic and contemporary art, music and poetry. The trip might include working with Nicaraguan artists to restore a revolutionary era mural. If you would be interested in this trip, contact John Kotula: firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. David Craven, Art and Revolution in Latin America 1910 – 1990, p. 185.
- The San Martin Beef company announced that is investing US$7 million in a new bio-digester project in Nicaragua to produce electricity using solid waste. Emilio Caldera, San Martin Project Director, said the bio-digester will utilize 70 metric tons of solid waste yearly to produce 6.7MW of electricity. (Nicaragua News, Aug. 16)
[bullet] Jose Adan Aguerri, president of the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP), said the Nicaragua agro-industrial sector is increasing investments to add greater value to export products. “We are exporting more than just raw materials. This year alone the sector has inaugurated a US$ 9 million egg pasteurizing plant, a new yucca root processing plant valued at US$7 million, and a US$1.5 million avocado industrial plant,” Aguerri said. (Nicaragua News, Aug. 17)
- Informe Pastran published statistics indicating the successes of social development during the government of President Daniel Ortega as reported in the Unsatisfied Needs Report from the Continuous Household Survey for the period 2009-2016. The percentage of households with insufficient water and sewer service fell from 27.4% in 2009 to 19.2% in 2016. That worked out to an 8.2% decrease in urban areas and 11.7% in rural areas. In the same period, the Inadequate Housing Index based on exterior walls, roofs and floors went from 10.8% to 6.6%, decreasing by 3.7% in urban areas and 4.9% in rural areas. Again using 2009 and 2016 figures, the Low Education Index for children 7-14 years old not attending school dropped from 16.1% to 9.4%. Though there were improvements in both urban and rural areas, those not in school constitute only 4.7% of urban children, while in the rural areas that figure stands at 15.1%. The Economic Dependency Index wasn’t defined but looks similar to the poverty rate. It decreased from 23.9% in 2009 to 15.1% in 2016. Urban areas, except Managua, actually ranked higher in Economic Dependency than rural areas. Managua stood at 11.7% in 2016 with other urban areas at 17.9% and rural areas at 13.7%. (Informe Pastran, Aug. 18)
- The Sandinista Party (FSLN) registered 6,088 candidates for mayor, deputy-mayor, and city council members, running candidates for every slot in 153 municipalities in the November 5 municipal elections. Vice-president Rosario Murillo noted that 77 of the FSLN’s mayoral candidates are women, a historical first. (Informe Pastran, Aug. 18)
[bullet] A claim by Freedom House Latin America Programs Director Carlos Ponce that the US government has a black list of Nicaraguan officials and businesspeople was shot down by US Ambassador Laura Dogu who said, “We are not working with Freedom House. I have no more information. Obviously Freedom House says this but they are not part of the United States government.” (Informe Pastran, Aug. 18)