A novelist's observations of life in troubled Nicaragua

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, by Salman Rushdie. New York: Viking. 138 pp. $12.95. There was a young girl of Nic'ragua Who smiled as she rode on a jaguar. They returned from the ride

With the young girl inside And the smile on the face of the


Toward the end of his three-week visit to Nicaragua in the summer of 1986, Salman Rushdie pondered the limerick that gives his book its title: Was the hapless girl the long-suffering land of Nicaragua itself, about to be devoured by the revolution? Or was the girl the young revolution, in peril of being swallowed up by the ``jaguar'' of geopolitics as practiced by its powerful neighbor to the north? Rushdie opts for the second interpretation, but remains disturbed that the first may also come true.

Born in Bombay and now living in London, Rushdie has been widely praised for his brilliant, scathing portrayals of India and Pakistan in his novels ``Midnight's Children'' and ``Shame.'' He confesses that he went to Nicaragua not as a neutral observer, but as an invited guest of the Sandinista Association of Cultural Workers. Yet he also went cautiously, anxiously, knowing how revolutions often ``become the thing they had been created to destroy.''

He is disturbed by Nicaraguan press censorship, which the government claims is justified by the wartime situation. Recalling his outrage at the British government's ``manipulation'' of Falklands coverage, Rushdie is consistent enough to be appalled when a Nicaraguan journalist happily agrees to the suggestion that the value of press freedom is merely ``cosmetic.'' Equally ``depressing'' is his conversation with the minister of culture, the Honorable Father Ernesto Cardenal. He can understand Fr. Cardenal's enthusiasm for Castro's revolution. But when he helpfully offers Cardenal a chance to respond to the idea that Cuba's record can function both as an inspiration and as a warning of possible ``wrong turnings'' for Nicaragua to avoid, Cardenal replies with a ``radiant smile,'' ``What wrong turnings?''

Yet critics who would brand the Sandinistas as ``totalitarian'' or ``Stalinist'' impress Rushdie even less favorably. Meeting such leaders as Daniel Ortega Saavedra, Sergio Ram'irez Mercado, and Miguel d'Escoto Brockmann, Rushdie finds them relatively free of political cant. They strike him as ``men of integrity and great pragmaticism, with an astonishing lack of bitterness towards their opponents, past or present....'' He feels he has come across a government he can support ``not faute de mieux, but because I wanted its efforts ... to succeed.''

Rushdie's accounts of his experiences reinforce this favorable impression. He visits barrios, marketplaces, churches, farms, and clinics. He visits the National Assembly, where a promising constitution is being drafted. He attends poetry-readings. He learns that Nicaragua, which previously had no publishing houses, now has a state-run publisher, and that books (unlike newspapers) are not subject to censorship. And, on the Atlantic Coast, where the Sandinistas had alienated the Miskito Indians and other cultural minorities, Rushdie reports that a new approach emphasizing greater autonomy appears to be creating a genuine solidarity between the people and their government.

Throughout his trip, Rushdie is engaged in an ongoing mental argument with the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, who supports Peru's right-wing government on the grounds that a flawed democracy is better than no democracy. Rushdie asks, isn't Nicaragua, judged by the same standard, a flawed democracy of the left, and so, worth supporting? And if Nicaragua is in danger of becoming less democratic, the role of the United States government in aiding the contras and in doing all it can to isolate and weaken the Nicaraguan economy must bear a large share of the blame for undermining what hope of democracy still exists.

Llosa's position is to support neither the Sandinistas nor the contras, but instead the great, democratic majority of the Nicaraguan people. Rushdie's trip has convinced him that this ``great majority'' is composed of people who happen to support the Sandinista government: its land reforms, its social programs, its struggle against US domination, and most of all, the hope it kindled when it finally brought an end to the years of corruption, torture, and brutal oppression under the regime of the Somozas.

The value of testimony depends in part upon our belief in the reliability and perceptiveness of the witness. Rushdie, despite his clear sympathy for the Sandinistas, is scarcely a political naif, as his novels assure us and as we again see from his alarm at the propensity of these revolutionaries to ignore the menace of Eastern bloc domination. Yet his visit is short and its purviews limited.

This book is likely to have less of an effect on altering the minds of contra-aid supporters than the continuing revelations about corruption and discord among the contras themselves. More moderate people may at least find in Rushdie's narrative food for thought. For, in his sympathy for the underdog, his anxieties about the many forms of danger confronting the Nicaraguans, his indignation at a US policy that thus far has amounted to giving a dog a bad name and hanging it, and in his anger at the escalating spiral of hostility and death - in all this, we recognize our own confusion, our own concern.

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