All revolutions are betrayed, so it is said. Nicaragua was one of the great hopes, where in 1979 the people arose and overthrew the dictator General Somoza and, in his place, gave the people literacy and free health care, a great flowering of the arts, and a level of public debate and participatory democracy of the sort the Left can usually only dream of. A few years after the popular Triumph, as the US-backed ‘Contra’ attempted to reverse the revolution, I visited the impoverished little country on behalf of a London charity – the Nicaragua Health Fund – looking for projects to support. In those days, enthusiastic young westerners travelled to help bring in the Nica coffee harvest, while the UK’s N.U.M provided expertise in mining techniques, and European labour organisers helped put worker cooperatives on their feet. Apart from health projects, the trip was the origin of several of my short stories including Matagalpa, describing a makeshift circus, and Ugly Italians about a Spanish ‘facilitator of cooperatives’.
But now, all the news from Nicaragua seems to be bad. Daniel Ortega, hero of the revolution who led the first government of popular liberation, appears more and more as a dictator in his own right, harshly suppressing dissent but simply spurring more violence in the streets. Just yesterday, more fighting broke out in Masaya, the town where the revolution started.
Stockbridge Nicaraguan Carnival, 1997
Reading about this rather sadly, I’ve been rummaging through old files to find records of ¡Diriamba!, a play I was involved in at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1997. It was a remarkable production. Robert Rae, director of the Edinburgh Theatre Workshop and dedicated to breaking theatre out of any middle class straitjacket, had made links with Teatro Nixtayolero from Nicaragua, and over three weeks a musical show was devised around an ancient Hispanic community ritual and a drama about modern aid workers blundering into Central America. I was hired as interpreter working between the Nica actors and the small group of Scottish counterparts, and as scriptwriter bringing some order to the outcome of each day’s workshopping. There were times when things grew tense and difficult (as only theatrical productions can), while my own careful Castillian Spanish was pushed to keep up with the Nica actors street argot. We managed, just – thanks to the commitment of the actors and the extraordinary dogged energy of Robert Rae. The show won a Fringe First, and went on to be a part of a Nica Carnival in Stockbridge (north Edinburgh). Photo above.