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This week I will be focusing on Nicaragua and the Sandinista Revolution through a child’s eyes. The history section this week will be a bit longer than usual only because there is so much you need to know to understand.
Alsino & the Condor (1983) follows a young boy who desperately wants to fly. His childhood dreams are interrupted by war and he soon learns lessons no child should have to learn.
The Rise of the Sandinistas
The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto Sandino, a nationalist guerrilla leader who led the resistance to the US occupation of Nicaragua from 1927 to 1933 when the US forces left the country. He was assassinated by Anastasio Somoza, the father of Luis and Tachito Somoza, in 1934. In 1956, Luis Somoza became president after his father’s assassination and Tachito became the head of the National Guard. In Luis Somoza’s term, he continued his father’s close ties with the US by providing an airfield and ports for their ships to US-backed Cuban exiles in their attempt to overthrow Castro at the Bay of Pigs. The Alliance for Progress further aided the US-Nicaraguan relationship as military aid to the National Guard played a major role in overcoming most of the organized opposition to Somoza’s continuismo. Economic growth was dramatic but not distributed equally. By 1963, the top one-tenth percent of the rural population owned 20% of the land while the bottom 50% owned less than 3%. The popularity of the guerrilla group, the Sandinistas (FSLN) began to grow especially with the inspiration of the Cuban Revolution. Several Sandinistas gained valuable combat experience helping Castro fight counter-revolutionary forces. The Sandinistas attempted to establish rural bases in the north, unfortunately, they lacked adequate weapons, supply lines, and peasant support.
To combat this, some Sandinistas worked with moderate parties like the MR in publishing an anti-Somoza weekly. Sandinistas also provided literacy classes to workers in the barrios of Managua and worked to bring utilities such as water and electricity to the barrios. By August 1, 1966, Tachito Somoza announced that he would be a candidate for the presidency in the next election. On January 22, 1967, Aguero, his moderate opponent, organized a mass rally of about 30,000 supporters in Managua. Aguero’s supporters were shot by the National Guard and more than 100 demonstrators were killed. Luis Somoza died of a heart attack and Tachito became president. Many more people like priests and women started to join the fight with the Sandinistas at this point.
They gained ties with the PLO and in October 1970, the Sandinistas hijacked a Costa Rican commercial airliner and held United Fruit Company executives as hostages. By the 1970s, the FSLN was strong enough in the rural areas to mount a series of attacks, known as the Zinica campaign, against National Guard outposts in the north-central mountainous region. Rising inflation after the Managua earthquake began to affect the urban population as well and turn them against Somoza. Another turning point came when the leader of moderate opposition Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was killed in 1978 and members of the Conservative Party in the Nicaraguan Congress who had traditionally cooperated with Tachito called for his immediate resignation.
On July 19,1979, the Sandinistas entered Managua and celebrated their hard-fought victory. They inherited a disastrous economy but felt the future was bright with the Somoza era finally over. Initially, moderates had a substantial seat at the table with the junta but in April the junta increased the number of FSLN representatives which led Robelo and Violeta Chamorro to resign. Special tribunals which functioned more like kangaroo courts were created to try former members of the National Guard. Trade agreements were made with the USSR and infrastructure was heavily invested in. By 1980, more than 2,500 cooperatives were formed in rural areas, and in August 1981, the state confiscated the land of any Nicaraguans who had fled the country. In five months the illiteracy rate in Nicaragua was also reduced from 50.3% to 12.9%. Tensions grew and Jorge Salazar, a moderate opponent of the Sandinistas due to their allyship with Cuba, was killed by the Sandinistas. Reagan declared the Sandinistas were immoral and totalitarian and that Somoza “has never been known as a major violator of human rights”. In December 1981 Reagan authorized the CIA to spend $19.9 million dollars to create and organize the Contras and the Sandinistas had another war to fight.
Learning to Fly
The one thing Alsino wants to do in his life is fly like a condor. With flight, he can finally be free and fulfilled but the movie emphasizes that he has to do it the right way. After a failed attempt at flight, he and his friend are taken to a military camp. There, they meet Frank, a US military advisor and helicopter pilot played by Dean Stockwell. An amiable man, He gives Alsino and his friend a ride and tells him that if he stays in school he too will be able to fly. But for some reason, even this wholesome encounter is not enough for Alsino. He does not want to fly like a helicopter, he wants to fly like the condor. Later, he tries to fly on his own but ends up falling from a tree and becoming a hunchback, but he is not embarrassed about the event. Flying is an honorable endeavor. His disability makes him an outsider and slowly he begins to gain more solidarity with the political outsiders, the rebels. They invite him into their camp and treat him as an equal. Everything comes to a head at the end when the rebels attack the Americans and Alsino sees Frank in his burning helicopter which has crashed into the same tree he had tried to fly out of many times. Upon seeing this, he declares he has a new nom de guerre, Manuel, and lifts a machine gun in the air in solidarity with the rebels. This time he does not stand hunched over but tall. He has overcome his disability through the collective solidarity of armed struggle. Independent of the US and with his own community, Alsino might be able to fly.
While this film has been lauded in Nicaragua and around the world, some found the film to be lacking especially in its depiction of Nicaragua. Many of the actors did not have Nicaraguan accents which went unnoticed by its Chilean director, Miguel Littin. Many people felt that the setting was also too vague and though it was Nicaraguan in name it could only be categorized as vaguely Latin American. Though this also has its advantages. Coproduced by the Cubans, Alsino and the Condor, was made as an expression of Third World solidarity. The vague landscape, as well as the magical realist, feel to Alsino’s real and imagined world create a uniquely Latin American film. It is important to note that this film was made at a time when Sandinistas were no longer fighting the elites of their country but the US government and they needed as much support as they could get. The vague setting creates the sense for Latin Americans that all of their struggles were interconnected. It’s no wonder that the film is called Alsino & the Condor. The condor is a bird native to Latin America and Operation Condor is the name of the US-backed campaign of political repression in state terror in countries across the continent. The film may be the first full-length motion picture shot in post-Somoza Nicaragua, but it is also the first Central American film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film. That being so, it’s only right that this film is a Pan-Latino effort.