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Ernesto Cardenal obituary

Poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua

From the northernmost islands of Solentiname down to San Carlos it could take seven hours in the rowboat. Another day to travel back up from San Carlos to the markets in Granada on the northwest coast where perhaps the distance will make the prices worth the exhaustion. The surplus one would take was mostly hypothetical. Blight grabbed up the crops. There was enough to survive sometimes. The radio was never finally purchased from the nonexistent savings. 

One would have to row to the doctor, too. All night. “Instead of getting better the child would get worse,” explained Natalia Sequeira, remembering the day when a priest arrived, as had been rumored he would, on Sunday. 

She remembered the day because on Saturday her daughter had died, hepatitis, one-year-old. There wasn’t a priest who would normally show up for comforting rites of passage in that awful moment. The priest who did sometimes visit was from San Carlos. 300 pesos perhaps covered his costs. Extra on St. Joseph’s day. A Somocista and a chaplain for the National Guard, Father Chacon. A “damned creep,” according to Alejandro Guevara, whose grandfather came to Solentiname when there was nobody in Solentiname.

Ometepe, nearby, means in Nahuatl, “two mountains”. The volcanoes of this dumbbell island are further north than the archipelago of Solentiname where an altogether different kind of priest would arrive on that Sunday, February 13, in 1966. Stone idols and petroglyphs are records of its ancient past. Several centuries after those chiseled artifacts, the Chorotega who came from Chiapas would carve statues out of the basalt rock, from the lava of those twin mountains. They, in turn, would encounter the Spanish conquistadors and British pirates (like Captain Morgan who snuck up on his Iberian enemies there). Europeans came up the drainpipe of the San Juan from the Caribbean-Atlantic to operate in the coves of that great lake called a sweet sea, pearled by Granada, preeminent city of  Central America since León was destroyed by volcano and earthquake. 

By the time Alejandro’s grandfather arrived in those isolated islands in the 1860s even the Guatuso had left, moving far beyond the desaguadero into Costa Rica where by 1966 most of them had disappeared. Ometepe was where Sunday’s new guest had thought he would end up. More populous but still isolated, poor, rural Ometepe had been where the priest and his mentor, Thomas Merton, decided upon for their new kind of religious community when they had finally decided on somewhere in Nicaragua. 

When Merton was trapped in his Trappist Monastery, barred from leaving his orders, and quarantined for the dangerous idea, the letters he wrote to Ernesto Cardenal, passing under the abbot’s inspection, would still have “Ometepe” as code for the venture he’d live vicariously through his protégé. Solentiname, not Ometepe, was where Cardenal could buy land. And where Cardenal appeared one day on a Sunday, the day after Natalia Sequeira’s one-year-old died of hepatitis.

The community was to be, either way, more an artists’ commune than a monk’s existence. Merton had made sure Cardenal knew to be ordained elsewhere than the Trappist Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. For that, the abbot had made sure Merton would not get permission from Rome to venture into the unknown and lead any other novices away from where he’d been such a drawcard (Merton and Cardenal were both famous for their writing). And even though Cardenal and Merton would exchange letters up until Merton’s untimely death — “ tu muerte marca General Electric ” — in 1968, the community at Solentiname would move beyond the initial vision they discussed. Certainly what became of Solentiname was something Merton could never have foreseen. 

Its members comprised the locals on Lake Nicaragua and visitors who came from all over. Like any small church anywhere in the world, its core was the dedication and love of especially the women, mothers and grandmothers whose hopes and struggles for their children gave them every reason to find solace in the power of prayer. What they hadn’t expected to find was such a voice through it. The project of rebuilding that little church was something entirely new. Even without the priest’s novel ideas it was they who were building the vision from the ground floor. And practices that became impractical were tried and then gave way to better ideas.

The prayers that accompanied every part of the day, still in monastery fashion, were done away with. Too regular, static. Psalm reading became just one short session. The Gospels were read sometimes, not every time, and next to political tracts and group discussions about the situation in Nicaragua and Latin America and the world. Mao, Castro, Christ, Lenin, Sandino, St. Paul. Painting stayed. Cardenal supplied the paints and it became a source of joy as well as income for those who dared to try it. Not everyone liked it. 

People visit Solentiname today for the painting style initiated there. Solentiname’s art can be found throughout Nicaragua. There is a Solentiname style; naive, detailed, colorful, simple, wise. Before the triumph of the revolution, for many locals to paint was to be a communist. To be one of those painters from Solentiname was certainly to be communist. People gossip. But the government was not yet so suspicious of the strange project going on through the poet-priest and the small community of peasants on the neglected islands of Solentiname. 

In 1966, the day after Natalia Sequeira lost her one-year-old daughter to hepatitis, the inauspicious half-built abandoned church building on Mancarrón welcomed a new kind of priest and two compañeros. It was to be an artistic, contemplative, Christian commune. And it did become so. In 1977 the National Guard destroyed the whole thing: community library with all the books, the art, sculptures, anything literary at all, all of it considered subversive. The community at Solentiname had become terribly dangerous. By 1977, the peasant artists of Solentiname were enemies of the state, the priest Cardenal was a fugitive, and the young had been killed in reprisal for the attack on the San Carlos barracks.

Let’s take an example. What does one read when one reads The Magnificat, the Song of Mary? Words on a mother’s lips of a son who became not only Jesus of Nazareth (where nothing good comes from) but Jesus the Christ, called Son of Man, the figure of upheaval so great it was said by his followers to be the Good News of God for humankind. “Derribó a los poderosos de sus tronos y encumbró a los humildes. Llenó de bienes a los hambrientos y despidió a los ricos con las manos vacías. / He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1: 52-53, translations from BLPH and NRSV).

Rosita: Que era comunista

Laureano: No es que sólo dirían que la Virgen era comunista: era comunista.

¿Y qué dirían en Nicaragua si oyeran lo que aquí se habla en Solentiname?, pregunto.

Varios: Que somos comunistas.

Alguien pregunta: ¿Eso de que a los hambrientos llenó de bienes?

Contesta un joven: Que los hambrientos van a comer.

Y otro: La revolución.

In a country where there are the powerful on their thrones, where the masses of the people are hungry, where Natalia Sequeira’s child dies like so many are dying, where tuberculosis is the case for every mine worker, where the capital is destroyed by an earthquake, where now the National Guard loot the shops and the international aid, where a family called Somoza are four decades in control, where in the next town over its empty, liquidated, a mass grave: in a country such as that the words of a gospel text could be tinder for a revolutionary fire. Of course, those same scriptures could be used to extinguish any thought of change. But in the 1970s, small groups across Latin America were becoming the groundswell of a democratic revolution that would shake the continent from Central America to the Southern Cone, from the Andes to the Atlantic Coast. They are known to us now as comunidades eclesiales de base, basic church communities.

80,000 such groups operated in Brazil alone. On farms, in the forests, in favelas and industrial zones, the people were hungry. And hunger was not the will of God. And dictators and security states were not the will of God, either. Merton’s idea and Cardenal’s experiment had accidentally joined something already happening across the land. And what was happening all across the land was now being noticed by the landlords, those lords of the earth. All talk of equality and dignity was called “communist” back then. All dissent against the economic order of North Atlantic capital was treated decisively. And as the armed rebellion in Nicaragua grew through the 1970s, peasant communities, its base support, were targeted increasingly by the Guardia whether or not they harbored militants or information or anything more than their poverty. Next to gospel readings were now more and more news of the massacres taking place across the country. And the poet-priest had been meeting with revolutionaries, realising their vision was the same and intrigued by the number of clergies (including his brother, Fernando Cardenal)  already calling themselves Sandinistas.

Oscar: The Gospel was quite clear. It told of the suffering that Christ underwent for a group that was in a similar situation to ours in Nicaragua under Somoza. Earlier we had thought we could always live like that, with the Book in our hands, without any change. Because many people, even the oldest men, believe that you can be saved by the Bible alone. After hearing the Gospel we saw more clearly what Jesus Christ wanted, what kind of love he had for his people. We saw that you had to overthrow imperialism to live a little better.

It was only a matter of time until the peasant-painters and poet-priest of Solentiname had their own run-in with the authorities. We are fortunate to have their own words about that seemingly inevitable journey from the early memories of the 1960s leading to destruction in 1977. The first volumes of El Vangelio en Solentiname were already begun in ‘75, meaning that what is fortunate to the researcher now was evidence for the Guard at the time they took an interest in that isolated group of islands. More was going on besides bible studies and painting, sure enough. That “more” has made Solentiname and the name of Ernesto Cardenal commensurate with the Nicaraguan Revolution’s triumph in 1979.

A revolutionary since 13-years-old, it was Tomás Borge, born in 1930, whose father had been a deputy commander of Augusto Sandino against the United States occupation, who wrote a letter to Fr. Ernesto in 1968 asking to talk. Seven years earlier, Borge founded the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN, the Sandinistas) along with Carlos Fonseca and Silvio Mayorga. “I told [Fonseca] I agreed with everything,” recalled in Cardenal, “and supported their armed struggle. But as a priest, I felt that I could not kill.” Cardenal sent the Sandinista leaders a copy of Gandhi’s biography. Fonseca pointed out that China had changed through armed struggle while India was still racked by poverty.

In 1971, Cardenal traveled to Peru and Chile and met with Marxist priests. Some were even armed, openly part of the new governments, or underground and expecting retaliation from the international oil concerns and other industrial interests for the nationalisation of resources and infrastructure. In stark contrast, most of Latin America was still in the hands of the landed elite, foreign multinationals, and militaries that functioned as U.S. organs for business as usual. Cuban Revolution in 1958 modeled an alternative for the Latin American and Caribbean U.S./European-dependencies but henceforth the battle over the western hemisphere’s southern half would be more easily won by the old order than by the surging potential of the revolutionaries. That potential was not to be scoffed at, however. Castro in Cuba, and now Allende in Chile. A series of security states were instituted by the leaders of the military coups that toppled Brazil in 1964, Chile two years after Cardenal’s visit, Uruguay also in 1973, Argentina 1976, and so on. The bodies of the slain are still being exhumed from that era of famous violence.

Reprisal and repression lead to even greater revolt. It was only a matter of time until the poet-priest and peasant artisans of Solentiname had their own run-in with the authorities. Fr. Ernesto visited Cuba and when back in Nicaragua publicly defended the revolution, declaring himself to be socialist, though not, he was careful to omit a “Marxist”. After sporadic meetings with Borge and Fonseca, Cardenal was contacted in January 1975, right after the attack on the house of Chema Castillo the Somocista, hostages were taken at a Christmas party, released in return for the release of Sandinista prisoners, $1000,000, and the broadcasting of the rebels’ political manifesto. A real blow. Cardenal was dispatched to Rome to denounce the atrocities committed by the Guard. The priest was now a Sandinista.

The next mission was much harder. Choose from among the young in your community who will be sent to fight. And so that’s what he did. Or rather the young had already chosen themselves. The community chicken-farm had become a makeshift training camp. Nubia the schoolteacher (who came to Solentiname after the former schoolteacher was discovered a spy) and her boyfriend, Alejandro. Alejandro’s two sisters. Also Felipe. Elvis. Donald. Of Olivia’s children, six in total and one nephews. There was also Juan Bosco Centeno, Alejandro’s brother-in-law, and Laureano, Gloria, Esperanza. The young William Agudelo who came from Colombia with Cardenal in 1966 was sent with Mario Avila to operate the radio transmitting the revolution across the border in San Jose. The others went to Costa Rica too but for weapons training.

It is not clear what went wrong in the attack on the San Carlos barracks, and why the youth were left ill-equipped and abandoned in the breach. We have the testimonies of the survivors in Margaret Randall’s Christians in the Nicaraguan Revolution (1983), told by interview and narrative. Those records are surprising for their candor. So Nubia can recall the argument about the guns:

“I went like any other comrade, an equal fighter. I had a 2-22 rifle with a telescopic sight, and Bosco, who’s a good shot, was green with envy. Before that, when we arrived at La Loma, the Sandinista headquarters, “Marvin” had given me a little .22 rifle that we had brought from home. I had a fight with him about that. I didn’t want that little rifle, I wanted something better. Alejandro yelled at me about being undisciplined; I was to take whatever they gave me.”

It is true that they were not well-armed. Well-armed rebels have bigger sponsors than the Sandinistas ever did. And perhaps the little band from Solentiname were not the main priority in the coordinated attacks planned that day.

Nubia: “In the end, Bosco did take my rifle away. That was only at the end when the air force was on top of us. Then I exchanged the Garand with Donald who gave me a shotgun. A 12-gauge shotgun, which had a cracked barrel. I gave him mine because of machismo, thinking he could do better than I. I gave him the Garand to shoot at the planes and I was left with the shotgun. In the end, I had to throw it away along the road because it was completely useless.”

They didn’t know it but the attacks being carried out across the country had been called off last minute. The provisional Sandinista government was not going to be crossing the San Juan into rebel-won Nicaragua. The air-waves were not about to fill with the crackling audio of William announcing the revolution had taken cities and towns across the country. And “Commander Cero” or “Plutarco” or whoever he really was, who met the young fighters in San Carlos, left for a minute during the battle and never returned. It was not that he was caught. He just left. They were left on their own and when they ran out of ammunition they retreated along the paths that Nubia knew from her childhood town, shortcuts back to the river where they would paddle until safety, bruised and bewildered from the skirmish.

Ernesto: “They had no way out. There had been no plan for the retreat because insurrections were to happen everywhere. The order was: fir and no retreat. And then they realized that the chief had gone away with a group and only the ones from Solentiname were left. Nobody would have died if they had planned a proper retreat.”

Nubia: “Since I was from San Carlos, I knew a path to the river. So we decided to try it. We stayed there for a bit discussing how we’d leave; it was more difficult because of the wounded man [El Chatto, a fighter from elsewhere]. It is terrible to see a comrade like that, and you have to think about how to get out and whether to take him or leave him. You don’t know what to do.

[cont.]: I went to say goodbye to my mother. My house is very close to the barracks where we were. My mother was pale and didn’t say anything. I told her we were lost and if the Guard found us they would kill us. I said if anything happens, don’t mourn me. All she said was, “My child, why did you get involved?” Only that.”

The split decision was made to get El Chatto to the hospital and to find a boat. Stash the weapons in an outhouse with the ammunition and anything red and black, rebel colors. A pale neighbor with a cup of black coffee. Another with some better shoes. Take them. Try to not get caught. The whole airforce, not otherwise engaged, was overhead. Families on Solentiname who hadn’t left already were watching the planes and helicopters fly diagonally eastward to San Carlos where the children were. A woman living by the river had two little rowboats, no paddles, and the river, she said, was hard to cross. They paddled with their hands across the river into the cover of the trees and trudged by foot all day in a terrible swamp going vaguely south toward Costa Rica. “There were all kinds of animals; you feel them going by, here and there. The water was up to my waist” Ronald and Elvis were not with them.

By nightfall, they reached hard ground covered in thorns. Nubia had lost the awkwardly floating shoes given by that neighbor. For two days she had to drag herself to save her feet. Then another river. The islanders found it easier to swim across. Gloria and Miriam crossed easily. Ivan and Alejandro had to come back to rescue Nubia who was just floating without strength to swim. And then more walking, almost about to drop, through mosquito clouds and up above came the airforce again in daybreak as they ate green guavas by a Somoza farm. So they split, some one way, some another, and somehow recovered each other by 5 pm, another day gone. But the comrade nicknamed “El Chacal” was not there. He shot himself in desperation, just out of sight of Alejandro and Pedro Pablo as they fanned out. The Jackal had been a prisoner before and could not stand the thought of being in the Guard’s hands again. Alejandro protested when Nubia pried William’s stiff fingers from his shotgun, but they needed it. One can imagine what she saw that close.

Another night, an exposed road, two more swamps, and another river by rowboat from a one-eyed rancher and finally they arrived bedraggled, bitten all over and with shreds for clothing into Los Chiles, across the border. The Costa Rican Guard found out they were there. The farm they found was not Maria Kautz’s, wife of Jose Coronel Urtecho, the famed poet and friend of the revolution, but a Somocista who comforted them and sent word to the authorities.  The youth couldn’t even run after five nightmare days had done its work. They were arrested and moved for safety to San Jose by plane with a small armed plane escort to deter the Nicaraguan ones still hovering over Los Chiles.

Solentiname was near deserted. A call to Managua had told Cardenal not to return, not even for his beloved typewriter or his books. He was to get his visa and get out of the country, that was an order. The few families still dotted about heard news of the early morning attack on the San Carlos barracks, about its failure, and that Bosco Centeno, Alejandro’s brother-in-law, was dead or in prison. They had heard the planes overhead but they hadn’t known all the details until word came by rowboat from the city. Bosco Centeno was alive they learned. Ronald and Elvis, though, were missing. At least one from the attack was in custody. And everyone knew that Solentiname was the rebel base. The National Guard would soon be arriving with questions and more.

There wasn’t much left to discover. One old Spanish lady accidentally turned over a copy of The Gospel in Solentiname, with its pages full of the names of locals and their discussions about the gospel and the Guard and all manner of things. Manuel’s name was in there, his words about Somoza too. They came to his house to question him but he managed to act sufficiently blank as to the attack. Yes, they came from here. No, they’re not here. If I was involved I would not be here. Look around my house if you like. Nothing to see here. Another day the Guard was frustrated. They came and took Gloria’s brother and another lad and they buried them alive in front of witnesses on a Somoza farm plot in San Carlos. Natalia’s son Rafael was taken along with Jose Arana and Oscar, tortured but eventually released. Elvis, another of Natalia’s boys, was dead. And Olivia’s son, Donald, too. The two had been split from the group fleeing San Carlos. All the books were burned. When the Guard came back to take Manuel into questioning he was gone.

We know how the story goes. We get to look back from our future vantage point. But the huddled Solentiname exiles arriving in San Jose via Delicias, and Los Chiles, and Upala did not know that two years later their victory would come. Meanwhile, they worked underground for the revolution from Costa Rica while a key few of them went back to the frontlines. Alejandro became a fighter and was fated to another retreat from the battlefield of Rivas in December of 1978, the one where the Spanish priest Gaspar Garcia Laviana was killed. They had a 50-caliber machine gun, two other guns, and two bazookas. “Gaspar died right there beside me.” By 1978, the church in Latin America had many martyrs and many more to come. Some were killed in skirmishes like Colombia’s Fr. Camilo Torres (killed in 1966). Others were high-ranking assassinations such as Argentina’s Bishop Enrique Angelelli (killed in 1976). 

Fr. Ernesto Cardenal gathered with his flock in San Jose too, via Venezuela, and stayed in exile until 1979 when the FSLN seized power, becoming Minister for Culture. His brother, Fr. Fernando Cardenal became Minister of Education. Fr. Miguel d’Escoto became Foreign Minister. All three were denounced and censured by Rome’s attack-dog, Joseph Ratzinger. When Pope John Paul II visited Managua in 1983 he appeared in a now-famous photo, wagging his finger in the face of the kneeling Padre Ernesto. It was during the ongoing Contra war against the new Nicaraguan government, where the deposed National Guard core, Somoza-loyalists, and Miskito Indians became the new rebels to contend with. The Iran-Contra scandal is now emblematic of the crusading anti-Communist 1980s. In Nicaragua, it meant concretely that the massacres so beloved by the Somocistas not only continued but increased. A steady flow of arms, intelligence, and personnel flowed into Nicaragua from the training schools of Fort Benning and the camps in Honduras. The horrors of that decade were well documented and not advisable for the compassionate reader.

Eventually, both the Cardenal brothers would leave the party and become figureheads for the reform movements in the country. Besides a gap in the 1990s, Daniel Ortega has been in power since 1979, about as long a period as the Somoza family were. This week, Retired Lieutenant Colonel, Juan Bosco Centeno, who years ago had fought with the other youth of Solentiname at the failed attack on the San Carlos barracks, brought with him Fr. Ernesto’s ashes from Managua to Solentiname to be buried at the monument inscribed with names like Elvis Chavarria, Laureano Mairena, Alejandro Guevara. The funeral mass held on Tuesday in the capital was set upon by government thugs, said Bosco, so the Saturday scheduled burial was done in secret earlier. Reporting from Nicaragua, Wilfredo Miranda Aburto, sets the scene:

“The evening fell, drenched in heat, the crickets began their chirping, and the projector was lit and directed at the white wall of the church where Cardenal spoke of the Gospels with the farmers, promoting their utopia, created in the contemplative dimension and later, as revolutionary. Many farmers, friends and family members of the poet took their turn to speak. But the funeral rites truly began when the vigoron was served (yuca root, fried pigskin, and cabbage salad). Everyone from Solentiname was called to the same table.

‘“This is how we lived with him,” explained Esperanza Guevara Silva, from the side door of the church, painted in primitivist art, while observing the communion of dozens of servings of vigorous. “After mass, we would have lunch or dinner, a meal with the father…and that was to continue the Eucharist. We are here in a Eucharist with Christ,” she insisted. It would be Solentiname’s last supper with their Father Cardenal, under a night sky of bright stars, reflected by the calm waves of Lake Cocibolca.” (Confidencial, 09.03.2020)

Now there are nine schools in Solentiname. There was no school before the unusual poet-priest arrived one day in February 1966. That was the Cardenal. That was Solentiname. Lo que fue Solentiname.

Alexander Holmes-Brown studied for his Bachelor’s Degree at Perth Bible College. He has worked for governmental, church-based, and charitable organisations. His writing projects are interested in Liberation Theologies, Alexander writes for The Southern African Times on religion from Majority World perspectives.

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