“The Composition” is the name of one of many wonderful short stories by Chilean writer Antonio Skarmeta. The story, published in 1998 – eight years after the end of Pinochet’s military dictatorship – portrays the surveillance exercised on a daily basis by the Pinochet government’s secret police. The DINA, as it was known (Direccion de Inteligencia Nacional) kept watch over Skarmata’s fellow citizens, with the aim of destroying any forces that the government considered “subversive”.
One day, as the story unfolds, a member of the DINA visits the school where Pedro, the protagonist, is enrolled. Upon entering the classroom, the teacher, “very erect”, asks all of the students to stand and greet this man, dressed in “a military uniform, with a medal on his chest, greying whiskers, and glasses darker than dirt on your knees.”
The smiling official, “with his toothbrush moustache beneath the black glasses”, tells the students the reason for his visit: to invite the children from every grade to write a composition about what their parents do each night. Captain Romo, as he introduces himself, tells the children that the best essay will be rewarded with a gold medal, and a ribbon with the colors of the flag. The author will also receive a special banner to wear while marching in Chile’s “Independence Week” parade.
Pedro begins his composition: “What my family does at night, by Pedro Malbran, 3rd grade, section A”. Then he hesitates a moment. Pedro’s parents struggle every night to tune in the radio station (which apparently transmits from a hidden location) that announces the names of the newly abducted and missing. The child then writes: …“Every night my Papa and Mama sit on their easy chairs and play chess, while I finish my homework. And they keep playing chess until it’s time to go to sleep. And after that, after that, I can’t tell you because I fall asleep.” When Pedro comes home and tells his parents what happened, they’re terrified and ask their son what he’s written. Pedro reads his composition out loud to them, and his father, with a pleased smile on his lips, tells his son: “Well good (..), we’ll have to buy a chess set now, just in case.”
Skarmata’s story was exactly what came to mind during my most recent visit to Nicaragua. I was there for the electoral circus (November 7th) that on January 10, 2022, further cemented this new family dictatorship, composed of a somewhat taciturn Comandante (and we now know that the reason for his taciturnity is called Zoilamerica Ortega Murillo) who helped overturn the Somoza dictatorship four decades ago; and his wife a would-be poet.
The failed poet, who doesn’t understand the concept of free verse, bites her fingernails in desperation when things aren’t going well for her. The field of poetry, clearly, vomited her out, but nonetheless she continues her pursuit by leaving, according to her, little twigs of combative poetry in the partisan texts she herself writes. The dictatorial couple’s subservient ambassadors are forced to read these texts, generally repudiating any sign of “foreign interference”.
Speaking with my old friends, with people in the neighborhoods, at bus stops, in taxis, I discovered that the greatest damage, from my point of view, that this dictatorship has done to Nicaragua up until now has been the destruction of the social fabric, principally within the family. In November of 2021, I met people who are more than clear that any gesture, any word, any sentence spoken badly or well, can form the basis for accusations that go from “inciting hatred” to “treason to the nation”. This fact has already dawned on the more than 100,000 exiles, who’ve had to flee the country precisely for these same motives.
Within that “beautiful and blessed Nicaragua”- as that poor woman, who cosmetology has also (clearly) vomited out, phrases it – silence and fear reign. These are imposed from the police installed two years ago in the country’s roundabouts, and from the omnipresent “Councils of Citizen Power” in the neighborhoods and residences. These CPC, in exchange for any “trinket”, are constantly on guard, controlling even themselves, to detect any “traitor”, just as in Skarmata’s story.
In that Nicaragua where “Nicaraguans streamed out to vote in peace”, as the dictator claimed on national television on November 7, I met a family where the mother begged her son to ask his wife’s forgiveness for having insulted her and thrown her out of the house. All because the former fears reprisals against her family, since the daughter-in-law works for one of the official media channels, where, of course, cynicism and cheap patriotism abound. “Our sovereignty can be neither sold nor ceded”, repeats one newscaster – whose abundant flesh speaks of her preference for fried food – one day after the voting in this one-party election. I say “repeats”, because it’s a phrase the dictator already used the night before in his antiquated discourse.
Family members spying on other family members; taxi drivers who tell me that if they complain about the high price of gasoline, they’ll be kicked out of the WhatsApp group. You can’t forget that the regime controls the sale and purchase of all hydrocarbons in the country. The skinny, sunburned men in their green shirts who serve as “guards” (a half-truth) in the parking lots of the capital city’s popular markets and hotels, will – in exchange for some pesos – alert the Ortega police about anyone “suspected” of an attempt against the peace. A waitress in a Managua café tells me: “We’re in God’s hands”, when I ask her what awaits Nicaragua now, after the electoral fraud.
If the dictatorship is right about anything, it’s when they assert, via headlines like the ones that appeared in Barricada, one of the official newspapers, on January 10. The headline, referring to the latest circus set up by the dictatorship, proclaimed: “Fifteen years building a new Nicaragua”. In effect, it’s a new Nicaragua where surveillance and control reign via organized structures funded with State money. That’s what I found. Unlike that waitress, I don’t believe in God, but I ask him to bless Nicaragua nonetheless.
* Contributor with Hispanorama magazine