The Jaguar Smile – Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is best known as a novelist, but he has written a few non-fiction books and this was his first. Originally published in 1987 and subtitled A Nicaraguan Journey even Rushdie in his new introduction to my edition written 10 years after first publication admits…

In the last ten years the world has changed so dramatically that The Jaguar Smile now reads like a period piece, a fairy tale of one of the hotter moments in the Cold War.

By the time I first read the book, almost a further 10 years on again in 2006, I was also in Nicaragua and the story was coming full circle although I didn’t know that when I arrived.

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But first a little history to set the book in its time and to provide background to the various characters. We need to go back to the US occupation of Nicaragua which lasted from 1909 to 1933 and which was opposed in a guerrilla war by a group led by Augusto Sandino. When the Americans left Sandino agreed a peace treaty with the new regime but on his way home from the signing banquet he was assassinated on the orders of the commander of the National Guard, Somoza who in 1937 took power himself and so began a 42 year brutal dictatorship led by his family. They siphoned off all the money they could from the country during their time in power especially the aid funds to rebuild the capital, Managua, following a devastating earthquake in 1972 this meant that when they were finally deposed in 1979 it was estimated the family wealth was in the region of $1 billion ($3.5 billion today) and all from a relatively poor small country of just three million people. They were overthrown by a rebel group who call themselves Sandinista’s in honour of the 1930’s rebel leader, whose profile now stands high above Managua.

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And this is where Rushdie comes in, he arrived in 1986 during yet another revolution, this time by a group called the Contra’s and financed by the Reagan administration in the USA in an attempt to overthrow the Sandinista government, even though the US Congress and the International Court of Justice in the Hague deemed such actions as illegal. The fighting was brutal with the Contra’s targeting the civilian population with kidnapping, rape and random murders being their main strategy to try to wear down the people rather than attacking the military forces of Nicaragua. That is not to say that the Sandinista’s were blameless and he makes a fair attempt to provide a balanced view of the situation. He had excellent access to almost all the government leaders and as a novelist he seems to have been able to talk to them (most of which were published novelists or poets themselves) as an equal and therefore get past the politics to be able to put issues regarding press freedom, food shortages, repression of the Catholic church and other items directly to even the president Daniel Ortega himself. There is a whole chapter detailing an interview with Ortega.

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The ruins of the cathedral in Managua

All of the leaders point out that they are at war and it is difficult to do things in such a context, and that the food shortages were mainly due to the US blockade and mining of the only deep water port in the country which was a fair point. They are however able to point to successes such as the reduction in child mortality, this would be halved by the time they lost power in 1990 and a significant increase in literacy (although this was not as big as they claimed), which was a priority for a government led in the main by writers. That the capital was still in ruins, and presumably still is, it certainly was when I was there twenty years after Rushdie, was not really a surprise either with the Somoza’s having emptied the country’s coffers when they fled into exile.

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Anti-CIA mural on a wall in Leon, presumably dating back to the 80’s when Rushdie was there as the CIA were heavily involved in the Contra revolution.

As well as having excellent access to the leadership Rushdie also manages to travel round the country to a certain extent, obviously the border areas, especially those with Honduras were too dangerous to enter, but he did manage to get over to the Caribbean coastal area of Bluefields which as usual was in the middle of storms throughout most of his time there and he memorably describes as

Bluefields was poor as mud (only dry places could be dirt poor)

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Bluefields

This is a really interesting section of the book. The Sandinista’s had completely messed up their control of this part of the country and were only then coming to recognise that the west (where they were) and the east were very different places, indeed there wasn’t even a road joining the two sides of the country and the east was (and still is) really really poor. There was slowly coming into place a new policy called “Autonomy” where the east would have more control over its own governance and the wildly mixed population could return to their own localities.

In Bluefields it was often difficult to remember I was still in Nicaragua. The west coast was, for the most part, homogeneous, but here, as well as Mestizos, there were Creoles, three different Amerindian tribes and even a small community of Garifonos, who shouldn’t have been there at all, according to the textbooks, but up in Belize. And that wasn’t the only difference. The majority of the inhabitants here were not Catholic, but belonged to the Moravian church. And a large proportion of them were English speaking to boot.

I had arrived in Bluefields via a small plane from The Corn Islands, a pair of islands about 70km (roughly 45 miles) off the coast from Bluefields where I was when the result of the elections that we had been following since arriving in Nicaragua were announced. These two islands are a tropical paradise and made the poverty in Bluefields even more striking.

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Procession of cars driving round and round Big Corn Island in celebration of the Sandinista win in the 2006 elections

In 1990 the Sandinista government lost the election and would be out of power for sixteen years. The government that replaced them was led by Violeta Chamorro, the widow of a journalist who had been assassinated by the Somozo regime and whose paper had been closed down by the Sandinista’s so there was no love lost between her and Ortega. Rushdie also has a chapter interviewing her in the book and although he ends up being less than impressed by her she would be the person credited as bringing an end to fighting in Nicaragua after decades of various struggles.

Salman Rushdie makes a creditable attempt to understand Nicaragua and present as balanced view as was possible at the time. If he went there now I’m sure he would write a very different book, the Sandinista’s are still led by Daniel Ortega and he is still president thirteen years after the election I witnessed but for how much longer? There is considerable unrest in Nicaragua again and this time the Sandinista government are the ones putting down a rebellious populace. It’s a pity, it is after all a beautiful country with friendly people and a fantastic place to be and I thoroughly enjoyed this book whilst I was there and it’s subsequent rereading for this blog. Yes it’s dated but it’s still definitely worth a read.

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Brightly coloured buildings in Grenada

All photographs are by myself from my trip in 2006 and are © David Jackson 2019

The Communist Manifesto

20190514 The Communist Manifesto

I was first introduced to the works of Karl Marx at school. At the age of seventeen the teacher assigned to my year to teach the compulsory Religious Education class (oddly the only subject mandated by law in the UK) decided to take a VERY wide view of his brief. What he decided to do was, as we had already done many years of ‘normal’ RE classes, he would spend a term each on three significant thinkers of the modern age. This was interesting as philosophy was not available as a subject at my school so exposure to the three people he chose was a whole new concept for most of us. We started with Marx, then after Christmas moved on to Sigmund Freud and finally after Easter we reached Jean Paul Satre. We didn’t read The Communist Manifesto at the time (purchasing thirty copies might have been pushing the school governors a bit too much) but did discuss his ideas. I’ve owned this book for three years now so it seems about time I opened it.

A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of Communism. All the Powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Czar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies.

OK that was not how I expected the book to start but all is explained further down the page. What is being pointed out is that Communism at the time was being blamed for all sorts of things without anyone really knowing what it does stand for so the decision was made to have a symposium of international Communists and come up with a manifesto which ultimately came to be written by Marx and Engels. By the way His Most Serene Highness The Prince of Metternich-Winneburg was Chancellor of the Austrian Empire and François Guizot was Prime Minister of France during the time the manifesto was written. It’s safe to assume that whilst almost everyone has heard of Karl Marx and probably to a lesser extent Friedrich Engels almost nobody knows who the two people mentioned in the opening paragraph are any more.

In fact the entire book is nothing like I expected as it isn’t a manifesto as we would now understand the word, which is a document that sets outs a party’s proposed policies and aims in the lead up to an election. Instead it relies more on the original Latin derivation manifestare (to make public) which also comes from manifestus (obvious). What the book is intended to do is make public and obvious the arguments for communism and against the current status quo as seen by Marx, Engels and their grouping that instigated the document. In doing so it is split into four sections after the initial introduction.

The first is entitled Bourgeois and Proletarians. This is an attempt by Marx and Engels to set out their view of the current situation and how we got there with the modern industrialist bourgeois making money out of the work and indeed the lives of their downtrodden workforce proletariat. The irony that Engels is the son of a wealthy industrialist with factories in Germany and England and that it is his money that finances not only his lifestyle but allows Marx to live for the rest of his life without having to do any actual physical work and instead spend a large amount of time writing his later magnum opus Das Kapital in the British Library reading room is completely lost on both of them.

The second section is headed Proletarians and Communists. This is the only section that actually includes anything that can be described as a policy plan in the entire book.

These measures will of course be different in different countries.

Nevertheless in the most advanced countries, the following will be pretty generally applicable.

1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

3. Abolition of all right of inheritance.

4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

5. Centralisation of credit in the hands of the State, by means of a national bank with State capital and an exclusive monopoly.

6. Centralisation of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the State.

7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the State; the bringing into cultivation of waste-lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

8. Equal liability of all to labour. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of the distinction between town and country, by a more equable distribution of the population over the country.

10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children’s factory labour in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, &c., &c.

Of these the last one is probably the only non-contentious concept. The fourth is yet again an inability of Marx and Engels to recognise irony as both are emigrants to England from Germany but without Engels’ money they wouldn’t have had the leisure time to develop their theories. These policies have been tried to a greater or lesser extent several times by various countries. Sometimes, when taken literally, they have had disastrous consequences such as the application of numbers eight and nine by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia which started with forced movement of population away from the cities to the land, regardless of whether it was good for agriculture and ultimately led to the genocide of millions.

Even Marx and Engels recognised the difficulty in selling several of these to the proletariat, why should they work hard if the state takes everything they earn above what is needed to live? Most of part two is made up of a question and answer format addressing such points.

Part three, Socialist and Communist Literature, is probably the oddest part of the manifesto. It seems to consist mainly of the authors rubbishing of other movements, they appear to have a particular dislike of German Socialism spending almost 8% of the entire manifesto in a diatribe about its failures.

The final section, with the unwieldy title of “Position of the Communists in relation to the various existing opposition parties”, is a quick bounce around Europe stating where the authors see the state of communism. The manifesto ends with probably the most well known quotes from it, even amongst people who have never read it.

In short, the Communists everywhere support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things.

In all these movements they bring to the front, as the leading question in each, the property question, no matter what its degree of development at the time.

Finally, they labour everywhere for the union and agreement of the democratic parties of all countries.

The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution.
The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains.
They have a world to win.

WORKING MEN OF ALL COUNTRIES, UNITE!