Sergio Ramírez has been forced into exile twice; once for his role in a revolution and once after writing, in a work of fiction, about what that revolution became. One thing he’s learned in the interim: Dictators lack imagination.
“When it comes to suppressing freedom and exercising absolute power, the distance between left and right is erased,” Ramírez said. “They want the same things.”
It’s not hard to see why authoritarians of varying stripes might want Ramírez to just go away. A central figure in Nicaraguan literature and politics for six decades, his reflections on the perils of power for its own sake — whether they come at a book fair or a peace conference — carry weight.
Ramírez was an intellectual leader of the Nicaraguan revolution that ousted the right wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. He founded his own political party after elements of the victorious Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), of which he was a part, grew increasingly anti-democratic in the 1990s. He is also the prizewinning author of dozens of novels, short story collections and works of nonfiction.
Now 81, Ramírez is hesitant to draw too direct a line between his literary and political lives. But sometimes they collide. In 2021, just before the publication in Spanish of Ramírez’s “Dead Men Cast No Shadows,” set against the backdrop of President Daniel Ortega’s deadly 2018 crackdown on anti-government protests, public prosecutors issued a warrant for Ramírez’s arrest; copies of the book were seized by customs officials before they could be sold.
Ramírez, who had left the country a month earlier, hasn’t been home since. He now lives in Madrid, where he spends the mornings of his exile writing and — between interviews, speeches and literary events — wandering the alleyways around the Spanish capital’s “golden mile” of museums in the afternoons; the Reina Sofia is a short walk from his apartment.
“I’m no longer a leader in the fight,” Ramírez said. “Now I’m just an author being punished for the words he writes.”
Set for release in English on Sept. 1, “Dead Men Cast No Shadows” (McPherson & Company) is the third in Ramírez’s trilogy of Inspector Dolores Morales novels, and features the jaded guerrilla-turned-sleuth returning to Nicaragua just as Ortega’s crackdown begins.
“Morales is on the political margins, so his story moves in parallel with what is happening on the streets,” Ramírez said, adding that he didn’t want the book to “simply read like an indictment” of the Ortega regime.
Still, Morales can’t entirely avoid the government’s eye or the consequences of what’s happening around him — much of which Ramírez recreates from real events that took place in 2018, including the death of six members of one family, two of them infants, when pro-Ortega paramilitary forces set fire to a mattress factory where they lived and worked.
Ramírez had written critically about Ortega and the shortcomings of the Sandinista revolution before, not only in his Inspector Morales novels but also in his 1999 memoir, “Adiós Muchachos.” But in the heightened atmosphere after the violence of 2018, Ramírez knew that “Dead Men Cast No Shadows” would be “a book with consequences,” he said.
Refuting official denials of responsibility for the violence carried risks. So Ramírez lied to himself, pretending he would file away the manuscript when he finished, rather than publish it.
“When you sit down to write a book filled with fear, then you start to censor yourself,” Ramírez said. “And that’s the worst thing that can happen to literature: a bland book, a blank book.”
When Ramírez inevitably went ahead with publication, the consequences came. In addition to being charged accused of money laundering, conspiracy, undermining the nation and other trumped up charges that echoed those leveled against him by Somoza in the 1970s, earlier this year Ramírez, along with more than 300 others, was stripped of his citizenship.
He lets out a laugh recounting how arbitrary some of the regime’s steps against him have been — even his law degree was revoked.
“In Latin America, we’re children of exaggeration, everything is out of proportion — including punishment,” Ramírez said.
He describes Inspector Morales as an alter ego, a former rebel who “grows old dreaming of a frustrated revolution that consumed a part of his youth.” While Ramírez comes across as a man no longer surprised by how petty power can be, and who would surely have rather spent a lifetime simply reading and writing, he was destined for a dual life.
As a 17-year-old law student, he helped co-found the literary journal Ventana in 1959, the same year that the Cuban Revolution’s triumph sent thousands of Nicaraguan protesters into the streets in hopes of similar change. The government response led to the deaths of four people, among them Ramírez’s friends and classmates.
As a leader of the so-called Group of 12 writers and public figures, he helped provide intellectual and moral support to the armed wing of the Sandinistas. The group’s return from exile in 1978 was considered a major milestone in Somoza’s downfall.
Ramírez worked closely with Ortega in the transitional government that succeeded Somoza, and served as vice president when Ortega became president in 1985. He and others eventually split with Ortega over his attempts to expand control of the Sandinista political machinery losing the presidency in 1990; Ramírez founded a dissenting branch of the party before renouncing his membership in the FSLN completely in 1995.
Ortega returned as president in 2007 — and quickly set about consolidating control. But the crackdown in 2018 marked a turning point, and in its aftermath the government has ratcheted up its harassment and persecution of independent media, religious leaders and opposition politicians.
“The situation is not any better,” said Tamara Taraciuk, who directs a program on democracy, human rights and law at the Inter-American Dialogue. “In fact, I would say it’s getting worse by the day.”
Accepting the Cervantes Prize for literature in April 2018, Ramírez dedicated his award to the young people then protesting Ortega’s government and to the memory of Nicaraguans who had recently “been murdered on the streets after demanding justice and democracy.”
Carlos Fonseca, a novelist and professor of Latin American literature at Cambridge University, places him in the tradition of Nicaraguan and Central American writers such as Giocanda Belli, Ernesto Cardenal and Rubén Darío.
“Sergio is always looking toward the poetic element,” Fonseca said, “but very much anchored in prose.” Detective fiction has allowed him to approach political themes from a new, and important, angle, Fonseca added.
“We are seeing state regimes as great storytellers, with the rise of fake news and false narratives,” he said. “And I think that those stories have to be countered by alternative stories, told from the perspective of writers like Sergio.”
Ramírez may no longer consider himself a protagonist in Nicaragua’s fight for democracy. But for young authors in Central America, especially, his voice remains as vital as ever. He has long promoted emerging writers, most notably through Centroamérica Cuenta, a literary festival he founded in Nicaragua in 2012. This year’s event was held in the Dominican Republic, and will move next year to Panama.
“Writing,” he said, “is about finding what story you can make out of that thing you heard on the street, in a coffee shop, an image you saw. It’s about having that antenna, picking up on what others miss.
“And in Latin America, there is a lot that can provoke.”