Daniel Ortega’s government has created a “Secretariat for Matters of Extraterrestrial Space, the Moon and other Celestial Bodies”. That’s no joke. Carlos Salinas Maldonado has written about it in El Pais, and Sergio Ramirez in La Jornada. It’s a full-scale new ministry that’s supposed to conduct research in astronomy. It’s also supposed to develop science, technology and education in Nicaragua.
The information is vague; as a result, the news has generated all kinds of speculations. This is a country where Rosario Murillo, the first lady and vice president, is a dedicated practitioner of astrology. Murillo is also the fundamental pillar of the Ortega government’s media machine. She serves as spiritual counselor to the president himself, and to the people who follow her.
The announcement of a Celestial Bodies Ministry has been added to a list of the regime’s megalomaniac whims. High profile projects have included an inter-oceanic canal and the installation of a satellite, both with support from Chinese tycoons. the new ministry could also be interpreted as yet another sign of the Sandinista leader’s mutation. This is a leader who in his youth claimed to be a dedicated follower of Marxist-Leninism.
The cosmos has been an important aspiration for the Latin American left. At the end of the twentieth century, that generation of leftists went from a Marxist-oriented to a populist socialism. For the pro-Soviet Marxists, the conquest of space was one of the great scientific challenges of the Cold War. For the socialists of the Chavez- Christian stripe, it also represented access to the source of all mysteries.
Both roots intertwine in Ortega’s project. There’s the modernizing one of the old socialist Sandinista thought, and the traditionalist root of the new strongman clan. The appeal to “celestial bodies” gives rise to all kinds of mumbo jumbo. These superstitious beliefs can prove useful to a mystical power structure whose aim is to exploit popular beliefs to perpetuate the couple at the helm of the State.
I want to recall here Karl Marx’s 1841 doctoral thesis at the University of Jena. It was titled: “The differences between Democritus’ and Epicurus’ Natural Philosophies.” In his treatment of this topic, Marx challenged an entire theological tradition, personified by Petri Gassendi, who had whisked away Epicurus’ radical materialism. According to Marx, however, Epicurus’ grandeur was based on having opposed not only Hellenic philosophy, but also the popular legends. He had sustained that ancient astronomy was nothing more than the Greeks’ veneration of their own spirit.
The same could be said of Ortega and Murillo’s celestial bodies project. It’s a monument to their belief that their own spirits are reflected in unknown planets and astronomical objects. The Latin American populist left, from Peron and Evita onwards, has demonstrated more sensitivity to popular culture than to Marxist-Leninism. But popular myths are one thing, and the frauds of an elite is something else.
Originally published in La Razón.