Reconciling with the Past in Heiress of the Wind

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Heiress of the Wind (2017) is an autobiographical documentary that follows the rise and fall of the Sandinistas. The daughter of two Sandinistas, Gloria Carrion Fonseca and her parents begin to reconcile with the past and build a path toward the future.

The Contra War and Modern Nicaragua

From 1979 to 1983 the economy of Nicaragua grew by 7% but it leveled off in 1984. The Reagan administration’s complete economic embargo imposed in April 1985 made it virtually impossible to obtain necessary imports and to top it all off, the Sandinistas agricultural reform wasn’t working. Many peasants were culturally conservative. They did not want cooperatives but individual titles to their own land and the ability to make their own decisions as to what to plant and at what price to sell their products and many left the cooperatives. When the 1984 elections came around, the Reagan administration tried to increase Contra power by influencing the elections. American spy planes made supersonic flights over Managua each day for a week and his administration made false claims in the media about Soviet advanced fighter jets being sent to Nicaragua.

Nicaragua’s Contra Rebels in 1990

Still, Daniel Ortega was elected president with 67% of the vote and though the Reagan administration declared the elections to be a “Soviet-style farce” election observers representing several European countries found the elections to be basically fair with minimal problems. The embargo got worse and the government was left with few options if they wanted to remain in power. In October 1985, the Sandinistas placed more restrictions on civil liberties including the press. The major opposition newspaper run by Chamorro and funded by the US-based National Endowment for Democracy was heavily censored. Though the Iran-Contra Conflict sewed distrust in Congress, by June 1986, Reagan convinced Congress to vote to provide $70 million in military supplies to the Contras for the first time. 

Violeta Chamorro

The war got worse and young men were either drafted into the Sandinista Army or fled to Honduras to join the Contras. The government was running out of options and then the Arias Peace Plan came. After tense agreements with the US, the Sandinistas unanimously sanctioned the Arias Peace Plan. By 1989 the Sandinistas and the Contras finally agreed on negotiations. By then, 30,000 Nicaraguans had died. But the Sandinistas were still optimistic about the February 1990 elections. Unfortunately for them, outside events would influence the results. The Berlin Wall collapsed and the Soviets were pulling out of Afghanistan. Violeta Chamorro was elected president and in her acceptance speech, she emphasized the need for national reconciliation and officially ended the military draft.

The FSLN began to fracture. One group led by Daniel Ortega argued for a more pragmatic approach which meant an alliance with the moderates. Another group of Sandinistas argued that while the FSLN needed to expand its membership it should remain true to its ideology and focus on the struggles within the unions. In October 1990, Ortega entered into an alliance with Chamorro. Ortega had to agree to accept the privatization of the state-run businesses and state farms created during the revolutionary years. It was a tumultuous time for Nicaragua. There was the constitutional crisis, the end of free health care, and the privatization of state-run businesses, often to the highest bidder. Illiteracy rates rose again and diseases like cholera and malaria which had disappeared in the 80s reappeared. Education policies changed dramatically and the Church exercised greater control in schools. 

2018 Nicaraguan Protests

Land reform reversal often resulted in one peasant displacing another peasant or more people joining the cooperative and thus reducing the amount of land for each cooperative participant. But at the same time, the end of the US trade embargo led to a dramatic decrease in inflation. In the 1996 elections the FSLN, the single largest party in the country, won 36 seats but conservative candidate Jose Aleman, who was more confrontational towards the Sandinistas, won the presidency. Early in his administration traces of cocaine were found in the presidential plane and Aleman spent $300,000 of public money to build a road to his home. While Aleman and Ortega publicly condemned each other, they often worked together behind closed doors. Many Sandinistas believed that Ortega had sold his soul to the devil in order to gain more power. By 2007, Ortega was finally president again. He ran on a platform of reconciliation with the Contras and the Church. He adopted strong anti-abortion policies and allied himself with oil-rich Chavez. By 2016, he pressured the courts to allow him to run for three terms and in April 2018, pro-government groups violently crushed a small demonstration against reforms to Nicaragua’s pension system. As the violence continued, a university student received widespread attention for standing in front of Ortega in a televised debate and calling him a murderer.

The End of the Sandinista Dream

Heiress of the Wind

One of the most striking and exciting elements of the documentary is Gloria’s parents’ love story. This love story was born out of the revolution and was uniquely Sandinista. When they first met each other, they only knew each other’s noms de guerre, Patricia & Miguel,  and had to ask their superiors for permission to go on their first date. Gloria takes her parents to the site of their dates and the memory seems so strong, they remember each detail like it was yesterday. When the two are imprisoned, they continue to write notes to each other with him telling her that he believes they will meet again at the plaza in Managua celebrating the end of the Somoza years. Like all great love stories, deceit and ignorance lead the two to believe the other is dead until dramatically they find each other in the plaza celebrating the revolution. Gloria details that she is the fruit of their love. But maybe that’s where the story should have ended for her parents and the Sandinistas. The Contra War changed the nature of the revolution and her parents’ relationship. Her parents got divorced in one of the shocking turns of this film and Gloria remarks that though her parents were separate she still wondered if Patricia and Miguel were still together. Maybe if the revolution hadn’t changed and the country wasn’t divided, their love could have flourished even more. Unfortunately, the dissolution of the revolution killed their love. That is the real tragedy of this film.

Learning from the Contras

Heiress of the Wind

One of the most powerful moments in the documentary comes when Gloria decides to interview former Contras. When she was younger, she hated the Contras since, among many others, they killed her uncle. She stopped seeing them as human and simply saw them as monsters. As part of her process of reconciling with her past, she interviews several peasants who joined the Contras after witnessing atrocities like rapes and murders committed by Sandinistas. Gloria characterizes these conversations as hard but necessary. Part of the documentary is also about reconciling with past mistakes like becoming arrogant and ignoring some of the peasants’ needs as she believes the Sandinistas did. Reconciliation is the only future for Nicaragua, but not the way the politicians mean it. Reconciliation should not just be elite politicians negotiating on policy issues. It should be about day-to-day conversations like the ones Gloria has and finally coming to understand that the ideas of the Contras may have been imperialist and the ideas of the Sandinistas may have been totalitarian, but the soldiers of these wars were not the guilty party. The future of Nicaragua can only be good when both sides realize that almost everyone was afflicted by the horrors of war.

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