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United States

new internationalist
issue 187 - September 1988


Nicaragua's James Dean
Chris Brazier offers a tale of three cowboys -
or how Hollywood missed out on a real star.

[image, unknown] The Nicaraguan James Dean died young too. It may seem offensive to some of you that I compare Augusto Cesar Sandino, guerilla, martyr and revolutionary extraordinaire with a minor Hollywood star. Just as, I suppose, there may be others among you who might deplore my linking a great North American actor with an obscure Central American subversive. But indulge me a moment: I don't just mean that they were often seen in rather large hats.

Almost any photograph of Sandino will show you what I mean. There he is, back in the 1920s during one of his interminable guerilla campaigns against the dictatorship, wearing his indispensable props: the broad-brimmed sombrero and the bandolier strapped across the chest. But it is his face and stance which count. He never smiles but instead cocks his head to one side and stares at the camera with slight contempt.

This is an attitude struck all over the world today by teenagers and by pop stars on their record sleeves - it bespeaks rebellion and a certain arrogant unconcern for what is normal and established. Its roots are generally considered to be in the 1950s when, in the hands of Brando, Dean and emergent rock'n'roll, an entirely new sense of style emerged. This was a new way of looking at the camera that fitted a self-conscious modernist age. James Dean wasn't just posing for the lens like the perfectly groomed Hollywood stars who preceded him. He was making an icon of himself. And by doing so he propelled himself into the collective imagination with such force that his portraits are eternally fashionable adornments for the bedroom walls of young people who would normally consider anything produced before 1987 to be hopelessly outmoded.

It seems to me, having looked at all those old photos (in Managua's Museo de la Revolucion, for example), that Sandino was a self-conscious iconographer too - a man way ahead of his time. It's as if he understood more fully than anyone else in that age when he posed for the camera he wasn't just decorating a snapshot or illustrating a news story that would be read today and forgotten tomorrow. Rather he was posing for the future, knowing that one day his image would be called upon to represent the spirit of a new nation, beyond the Somoza nightmare.

Now his portraits abound. Sandino stares down at you when you cash your traveller's cheques; he looms above you at the front of the National Assembly and, more significantly still, his unmistakably behatted outline is graffitied in just about every street in Nicaragua.

The Sandinistas are consciously developing a national mythology around Sandino - and, to a lesser extent, around Carlos Fonseca, the guerilla leader who might now have been President had he not been killed just before the Revolution. Their reasoning seems to be that their fragile sense of themselves as a free country, independent of US domination, needs the backbone of a uniquely Nicaraguan symbol of resistance and idealism. Revering Sandino's example is much healthier than making gods of current leaders: the nine men (no women, ridiculously enough) who have headed the Government since 1979 seem, where possible, to present a collective, almost retiring face. But the Sandinistas should probably still be wary of the effects of this 'cult of personality': as in other newly liberated states, it could solidify into a symbol that is more oppressive than progressive.

Yet, on the other hand, why should they not make use of all their assets? Sandino, after all, was a man with a message. It does Western governments no harm at all to have their young people exorcizing their mutiny by focussing on a rebel without a cause like James Dean - now that the hope of the Sixties is long gone we can safely confirm that this is no more than 'a revolt into style'. But Sandino's rebel chic had idealistic, egalitarian substance behind the style.

Around the time Sandino was murdered - by the first Somoza, who had invited him to dinner to talk peace - an American teenager was planning his career as a sports reporter, little thinking that his own penchant for cowboy hats and photo opportunities was going to lead him first to Hollywood and then ultimately to the White House.

But that's another, all-too-familiar story. What would Augusto Cesar Sandino have done with Ronald Reagan's TV time and the world for a stage? Now that's a movie I would dearly love to have seen...

Chris Brazier is an NI co-editor who recently returned from three months in Central America.

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