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After Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega lost his re-election bid in 1990, the eccentric poet and first lady Rosario Murillo told a reporter she was happier with her common-law husband out of power. “I had a series of responsibilities that didn’t let me do art,” she explained. From 1988 until 1990, Murillo had acted as the nation’s art czar, directing the Institute of Culture. Now, she’d be able to get back to her writing desk — at least for a season.
Ortega first became president in 1984, a few years after fighting as a guerrilla for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Murillo had also served as an underground courier for the Marxist movement. When it overthrew the right-wing government in 1979, the world looked on curiously at what appeared to be the only Central American country in which leftist ideals had triumphed. A Vanity Fair reporter wrote of Murillo: “Her charm is the charm of the revolution peopled by the young, the brave, and the good-looking … ”
But before Ortega actually left office in 1990, he practically emptied the nation’s coffers, prompting the revolution’s most prominent players to speak out against him. Undeterred, he campaigned three more times and was finally re-elected president in 2006. In 2011, he assumed office again after changing Nicaragua’s constitution to allow himself to run a third time. This past December, the Sandinista-controlled National Assembly threw out term limits altogether, which lets Ortega pursue a fourth term in 2016.
It seems unlikely Murillo has much time for poetry nowadays. Many see her as the contemporary Eva Perón, possibly holding as much power as her husband. A flower child with a plethora of jewelry, she appears daily on television to address the nation on behalf of Ortega. And her ties to the Sandinista party are almost mythological: she is the great-niece of Augusto Sandino, the moody Nicaraguan revolutionary (à la Che Guevara) for which the FSLN is named.
Besides being the Sandinista’s spokesperson, Murillo has poured her artistic energy into making her mark throughout Managua in a very public way: first through the visual rebranding of the Sandinista party, then through the many public monuments she has conceived — remarkably unique and puzzling structures, which are not well-known outside Nicaragua. The city is her canvas, and oil money, it seems, her patron.
Under Murillo’s influence, fuschia has replaced black and red as the official color of the FSLN. The Disney princess hue now adorns posters, billboards and entire walls throughout the country; some have even dubbed its arrival the “Pink Revolution.”
The makeover added a feminine touch to a movement known for its machismo. It also accompanied the FSLN’s ideological transformation: “Ortega the Marxist-Leninist in military uniform was replaced by Ortega the practicing Catholic in white shirt and jeans. The rhetoric of peace and reconciliation supplanted that of anti-imperialism and class struggle.” Though Nicaragua’s official slogan is “Christian, Socialist and In Solidarity,” the country has become increasingly capitalistic. (Its plan to allow a Chinese businessman to build a transoceanic canal in the country was the subject of a recent article in the New Yorker).
Despite Nicaragua’s economic reality, Murillo has inaugurated a number of public art projects that flaunt its leftist ties. In 2012, she conceived a massive monument to the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (ALBA), a left-wing alliance formed to reduce dependence on — as Ortega often puts it — los Yankis. Founded by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2004, ALBA promotes the exchange of petroleum among member nations, and through it, Chavez propped up the Ortega regime with up to $3 billion in donated oil revenues since 2007. Murillo’s monument features nine painted stelae celebrating the leaders of ALBA nations, including Venezuela’s Chavez, Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, Cuba’s Raúl Castro and, of course, Ortega. You might say it’s the Latin American version of Hungary’s Memento Park.
After the ALBA monument came the Arboles de la Vida: dozens of yellow, metal trees heavily inspired by Gustav Klimt’s 1909 painting Tree of Life. Murillo had them erected throughout the city in 2013 to honor the 34th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. They stand more than 45 feet high and are lit by thousands of bright bulbs. Each cost an estimated $20,000 — a lot of money in a country that is, after Haiti and Guatemala, the poorest in the Western hemisphere, and where many don’t even have electricity in their homes. While the first lady has said the trees represent life, it’s hard not to read them as symbols of an immortal Sandinista reign.
2013 was a prolific year for Murillo. In July, she also unveiled a 33-foot-tall electrified tribute to Hugo Chavez in the center of a traffic circle in Managua. The $1.1 million “Hugo Chávez Eternal Commander Rotunda” features a portrait of the beret-clad dictator emanating from a multi-colored Aztec sun. A small grove of Murillo’s signature trees shine behind him. It all looks a lot like the American light displays that illuminate suburbia during the holidays with images of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. Murillo’s display expresses the hope that the spirit of Chavez will endure (and perhaps also the money Venezuela funnels to Nicaragua).
Maybe the flashiest monument constructed last year was a tribute to Sandino himself. Before his assassination, the revolutionary led the Nicaraguan resistance to the United States’s occupation between 1927 and 1933. Though demonized by the U.S. press, many Nicaraguans see Sandino as a man of the people who fought for their freedom. Murillo’s tribute to her great-uncle — which joined many already-existing Sandino statues and memorials — was constructed over the existing Concha Acustica (Acoustic Shell), a free outdoor concert space that opened in 2005. The new, permanent installation includes a 40-foot high, banana-hued silhouette of the revolutionary guerrilla onstage. He stands where a band might otherwise perform, next to the same giant folkloric medallion that appears alongside the Hugo Chavez effigy. Five more Arboles de la Vida flank the stage. Above it all, the call: VIVA NICARAGUA.
Like the costly cathedrals erected by the Catholic church in colonial times, these vibrant public artworks have drastically brightened the streets of Managua — and in a relatively short time. But their legacy is mirky. It’s not clear whether any of these art projects were actually approved by anyone outside of Ortega’s inner circle. All of them seem to have been installed without much, if any, public discussion or even announcement. When the ALBA monument went up, city council members claimed they had no idea who ordered the construction or how much it cost. Similarly, funding for the Arboles de la Vida was not included in the state or city’s general budget. The same appears to be true of the monuments to Chavez and Sandino. Some speculate the money comes from the opaque account into which Venezuela oil money flows.
As Ortega looks toward a fourth term — probable given his popularity — it’s ironic that these monuments echo the less-colorful public artworks commissioned by the 20th century’s dictatorships: statues of Lenin, Stalin and Mao; fascist and communist architecture.
They also makes you wonder: what is the value of public art in a poverty-stricken country where, presumably, the money could be used to build needed roads and provide public goods like water and electricity? Are Managua’s new public art projects worthy investments in the city’s urban landscape, or are they the rainbow-hued by-product of an artsy first lady playing with the people’s money? It remains to be seen whether these works will be celebrated in the future as proud beacons of Nicaragua’s social democracy, or whether they will be lamented as the unfortunate blunders of a profligate leader.