In The Country Under My Skin, Gioconda Belli describes her involvement with the Nicaraguan socialist rebels known as the Sandinistas, who ended a dictatorship and took over the country in 1979. Here, she explains why she parted ways with the group and how she feels about Nicaragua today.
Why did you join the Sandinistas?
I was born under the dictatorship of the Somoza dynasty that began in 1936. When the third Somoza came to power in 1967, civic alternatives for political change in Nicaragua were no longer viable. My generation considered armed struggle as the only way to depose him. In 1970, I decided to join the Sandinista National Liberation Front. It was not an easy decision. What convinced me was to think that if I didn’t get involved, my two daughters were also going to grow up in a dictatorship, and eventually they would be the ones to pay the price of my cowardice or indifference.
What was the hardest part of having a secret life, involved in the revolution?
The hardest part was to see some of my Sandinista friends and fellow revolutionaries get killed. Somoza’s army was ruthless. As I got more involved and danger increased, I eventually had to go into exile. I had to flee the country and leave behind my two small daughters in 1975. It was heartbreaking.
Can you talk a little about what happened that made you turn away from the rebel’s leaders?
After the Sandinista Front lost the elections to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, a group of us thought the party had to change. It had to get rid of the authoritarian slant it had shown in the ’80s while it was in power and become modern and democratic. Daniel Ortega disagreed and insisted on leading the party on a path that would not allow Chamorro to govern. He called us traitors and broke with Sandinismo’s collective leadership, to become the sole ruler. I suspected his intentions to turn Sandinismo into his own fiefdom. I resigned from the party in 1993. What many of us feared would happen came to pass—Ortega has now become a dictator as ruthless and nefarious as Somoza.
Why did you decide to write about your experiences in The Country Under My Skin?
I wanted to give testimony to what I lived through as a woman and mother. In a way, I wrote it for my children. I also wanted to show the revolutionary struggle not from a heroic perspective but as a process that despite numerous flaws was also filled with altruism and dreams of a better Nicaragua. Where do you live now, and what are your feelings about your country? When my youngest daughter went away to college in 2013, I convinced my husband to move [from the U.S.] back to Nicaragua. I was not happy with Ortega’s rule, but I missed my country very much and felt that there I could be useful. I became president of PEN Nicaragua and was doing a lot of work to support press freedom and promote literature when last April people’s discontent exploded into a popular revolt. Since then, we have been living a hellish situation. I feel as if I were in a time machine that has taken me back to Somoza’s time. I feel so many of my friends who died for freedom must be turning in their graves.
What are you writing next?
Last year I finished a novel, Las fiebres de la memoria, about a very complex and somewhat mysterious French ancestor, a duke who escaped his country after he was accused of a crime of passion and ended up forging a new identity in Nicaragua. [Now] I am working on a poetry collection.