During the late 1970s, the band of the Nicaraguan singer-songwriter Carlos Mejia Godoy provided the music track for the Sandinista Revolution.
I’ve always felt, of all the political uprisings I reported on, the overthrow of the 43 year dictatorship of the Somoza family was the one that best fulfilled the title a “people’s revolution.”
All across Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were supported not just sympathetically, but actively. Wherever their fighters were, they had homes where citizens were happy to let them bed down or fill their stomachs. Wherever the Somoza forces were, they were surrounded by an un-uniformed army of spies, many of them just children, who tracked their movements and reported them to the Sandinistas, and couriered messages from unit to unit, so that the anti-government guerillas constantly got the drop on Somoza’s troops.
Back then, chances were, the Sandinista fighters, their spies and couriers, not to mention the older folks who offered beds and board, were all singing Carlos Mejia Godoy’s songs, which married Nicaraguan folk music to a politicized intellectual pop sound sometimes reminiscent of Randy Newman. His 1970s masterpiece was Misa Campesina Nicaragüense, a Nicaraguan Peasant Mass. The great jazz bassist Charlie Haden considered it one of the greatest pieces of music of our time.
The last time I saw him, maybe 6 or 7 years ago, Carlos Mejia Godoy’s band was on a Christmas-season tour of the country performing with local actors, a kind of soft-rock version of a medieval mystery play about the birth of Christ. The show was a kind of miracle in itself.
By then, Mejia Godoy had changed his political tune. In 2006 he had run unsuccessfully for Vice President in opposition to the Sandinista Daniel Ortega. He and his running mate Edmundo Jarquin finished 4th. A deal that allegedly gave his right-wing predecessors impunity for the corruption Ortega had charged them with allowed Daniel to take the Presidency with just 38% of the vote.
The elections since have given el Presidente bigger margins, but have also drawn criticism for top-down manipulation, like the disqualification of the leading opposition candidate in 2016. Carlos Mejia Godoy hasn’t just criticized what he calls the Ortega “family dictatorship,” he’s tagged it with the harshest label you can use in Nicaragua, calling Ortega’s unending Presidency a “sordid replica” of Somoza’s tyranny, For 10 years he got away with it.
Until a few weeks ago, when Mejia Godoy says, “I was told to get out as soon as I could, …because my life was in danger.” He’s now in Costa Rica, where he’s still writing political songs, about the working class neighborhood of Monimbo in the famous arts and crafts town of Masaya. Only now he’s praising not its fighters for Sandinismo, but the ones killed last month on the barricades raised against Daniel Ortega.
Since students took to the streets in April to denounce an Ortega move to cut back on Social Security benefits, an estimated 300 to 450 people have been killed…including 20 police officers, but most of the rest, ordinary citizens killed by government police officers and government-organized paramilitaries.
What are many of the people who supported the revolution feeling today, 39 years after el Triunfo, the Sandinista Triumph? “Total anxiety,” the vicar general of the Archdiocese of Managua told Kirk Semple of the NY Times, “Every day waking up and asking, ‘How many deaths?’ Death, death, death. That’s what makes you sad.”
Steve Hellinger is president of the Washington-based Development GAP (The Development Group for Alternative Policies), which has worked around the world with local organizations since 1976 to promote economic justice through changes in prevailing international economic programs and policies. He has lived and worked extensively in Nicaragua since 1970, where his work has included the design with the new Sandinista government and community groups in 1979 of a nationwide, World Bank-financed, urban economic recovery program.
His knowledge of Nicaragua was enhanced by his playing baseball around the country with his town team, an experience that helped him and his brother organize the visit of the Baltimore Orioles and it’s Nicaraguan star pitcher, Denis Martinez, in 1980 in an effort to enhance U.S.-Nicaragua relations.
He last lived in Nicaragua in 2015 and last visited in January of this year. He currently lives in NYC.