The present day turmoil in Central America, that leads so many to risk death or incarceration while attempting to cross the US border, has its origins in the Cold War. The civil wars and revolutions that reached their peak during the 1970s are collectively known as the Central American Crisis. This unrest in turn had its origins in the so-called Banana Wars of the early twentieth century, when the United States sent armed forces to occupy countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, in order to maintain control over plantations and to dominate regional trade.
Espionart earlier looked at Glorious Victory, a mural by Mexican artist Diego Rivera that expressed his outrage at a CIA-led coup in Guatemala that deposed the democratically-elected president, in support of the interests of the nefarious American United Fruit Company. The great Mexican mural movement, of which Rivera was leader, later inspired Nicaraguan artists to work together on creating numerous public paintings that responded to the long years of conflict in that country.
The Nicaraguan Revolution began as a series of uprisings against the ruthless dictatorship of the US-backed Somoza family, which ruled for over 42 years until it was swept from power on 17 July 1979 by the Sandinista rebels. In turn, the socialist Sandinistas were challenged by the Contras, right-wing militias trained and funded by the United States. Over the next two decades, both sides systematically terrorised and murdered civilians, with indigenous communities in particular decimated as they were – and continue to be – scapegoated as outsiders in their own countries.
After the Sandinista victory in 1979, murals began to spring up across Nicaragua. The first pro-Sandinista murals were in fact painted in Panama, a southern neighbour that provided both support and refuge to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) during its years of insurrection. Brothers Virgilio and Ignacio Ortega formed the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama in the 1970s, painting starkly confrontational social realist murals near army bases and police stations. Soon after the coup, members of the brigade relocated to Nicaragua at the invitation of the FSLN, as the new government recognised the potential for consolidating its power through painting.
As the movement gained pace, international mural artists travelled to Nicaragua, resulting in the creation of over 300 murals during the decade that followed the Sandinista takeover. While the Felicia Santizo Brigade of Panama tended to depict Sandinista revolutionaries, the mural movement grew to include romantic or domestic scenes of an idealised post-revolutionary future, celebrating Nicaragua’s cultural heritage and supporting the FSLN drive towards mass literacy, universal health care, and gender equality.
While in power, the Sandinistas passed laws to protect the murals. But after they were voted out of office in 1990, the new pro-US right-wing government oversaw the destruction of many of the paintings, despite the efforts of local communities to preserve and restore them. Others took it upon themselves to document the murals, providing a lasting record for these lost artworks. During the 1980s, Albright College professor, David Schwartz, took full-colour images of many of the murals, some of which have been made available online. At the height of the destruction, UCLA art history professor David Kunzle also travelled to Nicaragua and succeeded in recording about 80 percentage of the original works. His book, The Murals of Revolutionary Nicaragua, 1979–1992, was published in 1995 and is partly available to view at Google Books.
But the Sandinista murals would prove to be as resilient as the political movement they celebrated. In the 2006 Nicaraguan general election, the FSLN and its leader, Daniel Ortega, once again claimed the presidency, heralding the start of a new mural movement across the country.
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Here are some other Espionart posts you might enjoy:
- Rivera Paints the Guatemalan Coup d’État
- Brazilian Dictatorship and the Bloody Bundles
- Bearing Witness: Art and Resistance in Cold War Latin America