Carlos Chamorro wins the Cabot Prize, administered by Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, for exceptional reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. Only once before in its 72-year history has it gone to a Nicaraguan journalist, and that was to Chamorro’s father in 1977.

Carlos Chamorro wins the Cabot Prize, administered by Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, fort exceptional reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean. Only once before in its 72-year history has it gone to a Nicaraguan journalist, and that was to Chamorro’s father in 1977.

Carlos Chamorro is a busy man. He runs a nightly news show Esta Noche, a 60 Minutes style weekly newsmagazine, and an online newsletter called “Confidencial.” His father Pedro Chamorro, editor of La Prensa, is a Nicaraguan icon, murdered a year before the revolution, a constant critic of the ruling Somoza family.  His mother, Violetta, became the first post-Sandinista president. Author, teacher and journalist Stephen Kinzer told me that Carlos is the one interview I need to get while in Nicaragua.

“I taught a course in Berkeley on Central America in ’98-’99, ” Carlos says as we sit down in his elegant office for the interview. “We went through the history of the relationship with the U.S., the crisis of the seventies and the eighties, how the U.S. press covered the topics, and contemporary issues like immigration. I went over a lot of the books written in the eighties. Kinzer’s book is one of the best.”

He is a great storyteller. Were you ever involved with La Prensa?

Yes, but for a short time. I entered La Prensa after my father’s assassination. This was early in ‘78, worked there until May/ June 1979. But after the insurrection I did not go back to La Prensa, I stayed with the Frente (FSLN/ Sandinistas), and participated in Barricada (the national Sandinista-controlled newspaper).

If the U.S. did not fund and support operations for the contras, would there still have been a counter-revolution?

That is a tough question. But I think, probably yes.

You were in the middle of it.

Editor-in-Chief Eduardo Enriquez and Brian Gruber in the La Prensa Newsroom, Managua, Nicaragua

Yes, at that time, if you would have asked that question to me, my answer would have been no. Because we perceived it was a foreign creation, and in fact it was, but it was also a civil war, which was something that we did not recognize. It was both, a civil war and a war of foreign aggression.

There was also a civil resistance from business people, the press, even members of your family, who became slowly disenchanted. How did that turn, there was great exuberance when Somoza was overthrown, when was there a feeling when people started to think this was not going the way we thought it would go.

You should ask that of people who felt that way. I didn’t feel that way. I had a commitment that Nicaragua needed a radical change. Part of that was correct, and probably part of that was wrong. In the sense that, we did what we had to do, but probably we were not respectful of other people’s rights, of the need to maintain consensus, dialogue. There was a kind of vanguard-ism at the FSLN. When you overthrow a dictator like Somoza, even though it was a collective work, it was one organization that claimed the leadership of that, so you had an incredible legitimacy. You had also good ideas, in the sense of not having an orthodox Marxist-Leninist conception of power, of revolution, but some of the old ideas were still there. It is a question also of the epoch, of the period…

The Cold War.

…there were not many alternatives. The overthrow of Allende in Chile had tremendous repercussions for a generation of Latin Americans that wanted to promote change. The simplistic reading was, that, OK, if you try to do socialist change through democracy and elections, one way or another, you are going to face counter-revolution, from the army or the U.S.

Guatemala in 1954.

Carlos Chamorro with his mother Violetta. She was in the original junta after the revolution and ran for president ten years later, defeating Sandinista Daniel Ortega.

Carlos Chamorro with his mother Violetta. She was in the original junta after the revolution and ran for president ten years later, defeating Sandinista Daniel Ortega.

Yes, so you cannot trust anyone, and therefore, counter-revolution is inevitable. If it is going to happen, you have to accelerate transformation as much as you can. This sounds very brutal, but I think that is more or less the way it was.

You would think that with your father being in the vanguard against Somoza, that there would be some sensitivity to freedom of the press, certainly with La Prensa, and yet the Sandinistas….

There was a tremendous reference of Chile and the CIA. Let me put it this way. Democracy was important but more important than democracy was social justice,. I think the concept of democracy as I accept it today in terms of equal rights for everyone, the rule of law, the separation of powers, there was a tremendous distrust of these ideas. Democracy was associated with popular participation, citizen participation, people power. Elections, OK, yes, nothing against elections, but elections were not a priority. The priority was social justice, trying to do some of the good things that were done in the eighties, like the literacy campaign, massive health programs, or agrarian reforms.

IMG_0223I saw the picture of Giocanda Belli at the entrance of your office…

You should read her memoir. She is going to be with me today for a presentation of a book.

The person I am staying with lent it to me just yesterday. In reading her memoir, she says, early on, we have a vision for what Nicaragua can be. My question to you is, what has been achieved from that original vision?

I think these days we feel there has been a lot of regression. The revolution was defeated by the Nicaraguan people and by the U.S.  This combination of civil war and aggression, foreign war. In the ‘90’s, there was this process of transition, that was not good for Nicaragua but not everything was bad. There were some good processes of transformation, for some of the institutions created by the revolution, like the police and the army.  I feel afraid now about what is going on with the army and the police, and the kind of authoritarian control that Ortega maintains. For me, one thing was to promote revolution, where you really think that you are going to promote social change; a different thing is Ortega’s sort of personalistic government that resembles in a way the old Somoza.

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At La Prensa today, I was a little surprised when I heard from editor-in-chief Eduardo Enriquez that Ortega today looks the same as Somoza in the ‘60’s.

It looks similar. It is not exactly the same.

On our way out of the office, Carlos arranged a ride for me to the bus station. He laughed, ”So you came to Managua without knowing we were going to have this crazy long weekend? They love to have vacations here.”

I ask one final, personal question. Was the Somoza family directly involved in the assassination of your father?

“We don’t have any specific, direct evidence, but I cannot exclude that at all, because the people who participated in the physical assassination were part of a kind of a mafia that had been related with people that were loyal to Somoza’s son. My father wrote a diary, and I printed that diary in the late ‘80’s.  He wrote a diary because in early 1975 a friend came to him horrified, he was an advisor to the minister of defense, and he said, I hear these people discuss how are they going to kill you, some people say they want to throw you from a plane, other people say do this or that.  So we think that within the Somoza inner group, there had been in many different moments plans to kill my father. So I cannot exclude that.”

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