Farewell to a revolutionary

Nicaraguan Ernesto Cardenal, Catholic priest, poet and revolutionary, was an essential figure of Latin American liberation theology. He died on March 1. He was 95. Cardenal’s spiritual life was the unyielding foundations of his country’s social and political struggle.

Ernesto Cardenal (Jimelovski Platano Macho/Flickr)

As a staunch revolutionary, he joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN in Spanish) in its armed struggle against US-backed and US-educated Anastasio Somoza, the last of the Somoza dynasty of dictators that ruled Nicaragua from 1936 to 1979. He became the moral voice and spiritual heart of the Sandinistas.

His conviction that Catholicism, socialism and revolution were compatible drove him to accept, after the triumph of the revolution, the position of Minister of Culture from 1979 to 1987. Due to his political commitment, Cardenal was already under the critical gaze of the Vatican. On March 4, 1983, he was publicly humiliated by the Polish-born Pope John Paul II at Managua airport as punishment for being part of the Sandinista government.

The photo of John Paul II wagging his right-hand finger at a kneeling Ernesto Cardenal became iconic. It was a symbol of a deeply conservative head of the Catholic Church condemning the actions of a priest deeply committed to the concept of a ‘preferential option for the poor’. This was a dictum central to the 1968 Medellin Second Episcopal Conference.

‘You have to reconcile with the Church,’ the enraged Pope told Cardenal. ‘Since I did not answer, he repeated the abrupt admonition,’ Cardenal wrote in his autobiography. A year after his visit to Nicaragua — in 1984 — Pope John Paul II banned Cardenal ‘a divinis’ from administering the sacraments.

Ernesto Cardenal was born to a well-off family in Managua, the country’s capital. He was ordained a Trappist priest in 1965 and he settled in the Solentiname archipelago, in the Great Lake of Nicaragua. His religious vocation was not contemplative. ‘You can’t be with God and be neutral. True contemplation is resistance,’ he wrote. It was this sense of resistance that inspired him to set up in Solentiname, in 1966, a community of artists, poets, farmers and fishermen. They became known as the ‘primitivists.’

Solentiname became also — in the 1960s — a sanctuary for the Sandinistas. ‘At first, I had told the guerrilla leaders that I agreed with their goals but not their methods, but in the face of Somoza’s dictatorship, the only possible way was armed struggle,’ Cardenal told BBC World in 2007. When the artists of Solentiname — the ‘primitivists’ turned into guerrilla fighters, Somoza ordered the destruction of the community. Today many of these rural artists are still active and their work is still shown in Nicaragua and around the world.

Ernesto Cardenal is one of the great figures of Latin American literature. He was nominated four times for the Nobel prize in literature. As a poet, Cardenal defined himself as the founder of what he called ‘scientific poetry.’ It was ‘poetry about science’ — poetry that shows — he said — ‘God’s creation’.

Cardenal’s Psalms and poems, especially his 1950s poem ‘Hora Cero’ (Zero Hour), became the muse for the creation of the ‘Misa Campesina’ (Peasants Mass), a Catholic mass where traditional Latin American folk music intersects with canonical texts of the theology of liberation. The author of the Peasants Mass — described once as the ‘soundtrack of the Sandinista Revolution’ — was Nicaragua’s composer Carlos Mejia Godoy.

Cardenal and Mejia Godoy, described by The Guardian as ‘Sandinismo’s pre-eminent bard,’ were close friends and collaborators. In later years both men — and many other Nicaraguans — became the vicious targets of the increasing despotic regime of Daniel Ortega, the leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution and now the country’s president.

Cardenal became deeply saddened by the moral erosion of the Sandinista Party. In one of his last books, The Lost Revolution (2003), Cardenal launched a devastating critic of Ortega and the Sandinista party, a party he resigned from in the 1990s.

During the April 2018 protests accusing Ortega’s government of crimes against humanity. ‘The state of Nicaragua has engaged in conduct that should be considered crimes against humanity,’ Cardenal said. ‘For many years I had been saying a prayer taken from one of the Psalms, ‘Lord, make us become what we were again.’

The white-haired, white robe and black beret-wearing Ernesto Cardenal never left the Catholic Church. His faith was unwavering. In February 2019 Cardenal was rehabilitated by Pope Francis. In a personal letter, the Argentinean born Pope told him he was ‘absolved of all canonical censure.’

He received the news while in a hospital in Managua — he was hospitalized due to a serious kidney infection. As soon as the news from the Vatican arrived, a fragile Ernesto Cardenal was finally able to wear a priest’s stole and celebrate in bed — after 35 years — a mass. His 1967 ‘Psalm 25’, finally proved prophetic: ‘Do me, justice Lord, because I am innocent.’

Originally published at https://www.eurekastreet.com.au.

Latin American journalist and senior academic at RMIT University, Melbourne — Australia

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