- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 12, 2002

The country in question is Nicaragua, and the memoirist details her life spent as a Sandinista revolutionary before and after the fall of the Somoza dynasty. She also documents the rise and subsequent fall of its enemies, the self-proclaimed followers of Augusto Sandino, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation.

The story is not particularly well told, but it does have some points of interest. Although Gioconda Belli remains hopelessly naive about the Sandinista leadership, despite an occasional criticism of its "authoritarianism," she does give an excellent account of what it was like being a useful tool of the revolution. And then there are the scenes with Omar Torrijos, the late tinhorn dictator of Panama, in which he attempted (crudely) to seduce Ms. Belli at his seaside villa. This is all quite hilarious, even if unintentionally so.

More interesting are the author's encounters with Fidel Castro, vignettes that demonstrate what a first-class caudillo Cuba's Maximum Leader really is. Of course, he flirts with the writer (who wouldn't, judging by her picture) and he does so with considerably more finesse than his Panamanian counterpart but he also had a political purpose the author to this day can't quite figure out. So, ole, Fidel.

Unfortunately, there are too few of these anecdotes. And because it is a political and personal memoir, things can get quite sticky, especially since the author remains forever at the center of the story. An early memory is revealing. It seems the young Gioconda had earned some money that the family maid demanded, believing, as a working-class realist, it was stolen. Instead of complying, the child promptly swallowed the coin. To this day she seems wholly unaware of the pain and cost to her family that little bit of willful childish stubbornness incurred.

And on it goes. The writer dabbles in anti-Somoza politics, putting her family and friends at risk. She takes on lovers after her first husband a depressive who seems only to watch television after his boring government job proves a bust. The lovers too are found wanting macho, mama's boys who give her little space to be herself or listen to her own ideas on how to manage the revolution. It all sounds like something from Giacomo Puccini, but Puccini stuck with a terrible libretto.

But which of Puccini heroines is she? Tosca? Butterfly? Mimi? Perhaps all three, but I prefer Turandot. Not that the author would execute any of her wannabe suitors, but there is an awful lot of self-absorption that never really rises much above a Harlequin romance.

As for the politics, the writer also is plumbing the shallows, indeed. She protests she is no communist and derides Americans (and the Reagan administration in particular) for their preoccupation with "communism." Fair enough. From this memoir it is clear that the author is (or was) a member of the soft left.

Well-meaning, to be sure, but clueless as political operators and totally out of their element when they have to deal with the hard, Jacobin left which the top Sandinistas most certainly were. Jacobins, I might add, that were firmly allied with the Soviet Union a detail, among many others, not mentioned by the author, among them the Sandinista leadership helping themselves to whatever they wanted as they left office vowing to rule from below.

Result? Nicaragua was transformed from one of the poorest nations in Latin America, corrupt and dictator-ridden as well into the poorest nation, save Haiti, in the hemisphere. A bakers' dozen of years after the fall of the Sandinistas, it remains so.

The Sandinistas until recently were replaced with either well-meaning, but incompetentleadership,or not-so-well-meaning, and very corrupt leadership.

As for Gioconda Belli, she lives mostly in Santa Monica, Calif., in a home built by a personal architect. She remains well clear of the poverty that she has never known herself by her own admission she still knows hardly anyone in her native land who is poor, or bothered enough by poverty to deal with it in a personal fashion. She does remember as a child being embarrassed at little acts of ritual charity that her parochial school demanded. Well, at least, that was something.


Roger Fontaine served on the National Security Council staff during the first Reagan administration.

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