Cartoonists Go to War

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Manuel Guillen

Cartoon by Manuel Guillen criticizing the irony of "21st Century Socialism" promoted by Chavez and Ortega, who are making monster earnings from their joint oil venture called ALBANISA

How do you parody a government that does such an outstanding job of parodying itself? That's the daily challenge facing Nicaraguan cartoonists Pedro X. Molina and Manuel Guillen. Take the moment, three and a half years ago, when conservative former President Arnoldo Alemán and leftist current President Daniel Ortega, sworn political enemies with a similar fondness for power, agreed to divvy up their kingdom in an infamous power-sharing pact: Molina decided to lampoon the deal by drawing the two men seated at a banquet table being served Nicaragua on a plate. But the internationally acclaimed cartoonist for El Nuevo Diario was beaten to the punch by his subjects, who appeared together, in a leaked photograph, seated at the actual banquet table where they had forged their alliance.

"In my caricatures I try to express irony, sarcasm, implausibility and ridiculousness — which is no small task in a country where the national reality and its political protagonists are in clear competition with me every day," Molina says. Guillen, the cartoonist for the leading daily newspaper La Prensa, agrees: "The saddest part of the reality here is that it always one-ups the irony of the cartoonists."

Guillen, whose own range of facial expressions can seem as cartoonish as those of his caricatures, laughs when he's asked how many times he's drawn President Ortega over the past 25 years. His caricature of the Sandinista leader seldom changes: sullen, paunchy and balding, with a gleam of evil mischief in his eye. Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo — who wears eccentric clothing, dangly jewelry, and talks about peace and love but has a reputation for being vindictive and Machiavellian — practically draws herself. "I draw her as a female version of Ortega, with less weight and lots more hair," said Guillen, who in his cartoons has dubbed her "La Chamuca," or devil woman — a moniker that's become a household nickname for the first lady.

But not everyone is laughing. As Nicaragua becomes increasingly polarized and the Sandinista government intensifies its crackdown on the independent press, cartoonists are suddenly in the firing line. Molina, known for being the more aggressive of the two, says his plume is no more barbed than before, but that the worsening political climate has changed the context of his work. "What has changed is how my role as a cartoonist is understood today, especially from the government's viewpoint," the long-haired cartoonist said. "Whatever I do is automatically called oligarchic, counterrevolutionary, or an instrument of the empire."

While the work of most journalists is complicated by Sandinista secrecy, cartoonists tell a story that reporters can't; and they reach a larger audience in a country with high levels of illiteracy and low levels of formal education. That combination of factors makes cartoonists important opinion makers, representing a strong critical voice in a country where the political opposition is weak.

Nicaraguan media analyst Alfonso Malespin says the role of cartoonists in Nicaragua is "traditionally anti-power, because power is serious and has no sense of humor." By making people laugh at power, the cartoonist's work is inherently subversive. And it's effective, Malespin says, pointing to fact that both papers' newsstand sales jump on Sundays when they publish their weekly cartoon supplements.

Sandinista supporters clearly perceive a threat. Molina says he receives a torrent of abuse by email from Ortega loyalists, but for Guillen, an evangelical Christian whose newspaper was heavily censored and temporarily shut down by the first Sandinista government during the 1980s, the threats hit a lot closer to home. After receiving several e-mail death threats and a cell phone text from someone who threatened to crucify his young daughter, Guillen packed up his family and moved to Miami — from where he continues to file daily cartoons for La Prensa.

In Miami, the cartoonist was approached by several businessmen in the Nicaraguan expat community that fled the Sandinistas in the 1980s, and are now keen to undermine the Ortega administration voted into power in 2006. Their proposal: a mass-distribution anti-Sandinista comic book.

The first edition is scheduled to hit the streets of Nicaragua in July, and Guillen says its mass appeal is aimed at helping his unidentified backers to "win the streets" from the Sandinistas. "Comics are a very powerful instrument of cultural penetration," Guillen said. "This is going to be very subversive. This is a guerrilla war."

Guillen acknowledges that his new venture, which will be distributed for free on buses and in markets, will up the ante. But as someone who grew up believing in the original ideals of the Sandinista revolution, Guillen hopes it will help people to demand change. "Comic books in the United States are for distracting people," Guillen said. "I am trying to get people to focus."