Sandanista revolutionary, award-winning poet, wife, mother, passionate lover, advertising executive…Gioconda Belli juggles all of these roles while she and her fellow Nicaraguans fight the Somoza dictatorship.
Country Focus: Nicaragua
The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War
By Gioconda Belli
Translated by Kristina Cordero with the author
Originally published in the Spain as El pais bajo de mi piel by Plaza y Janes Editores SA, 2001.
My edition: Anchor Books, 2003.
Time period: 1952-2002
One revolution, two lives, seven love affairs, three husbands, four pregnancies, and one of Latin America’s most prestigious literary awards. Gioconda Belli recounts her impressive political, personal and literary exploits in The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War.
Belli was one of five siblings born into an affluent Nicaraguan family with Italian roots. At age eighteen, she married another high-society Nicaraguan and began a career as an account executive at an advertising agency. A coworker she calls “The Poet” introduced her to a beguiling community of artists and non-conformists who encouraged her to take a closer look at Nicaraguan history and politics. The year was 1970, and Anatasio Somoza Debayle, the U.S.’s puppet dictator, ruled Nicaragua. A huge gulf existed between rich and poor, freedoms were limited and corruption prevailed.
Upended by her newfound socialist friends and disillusioned by married life (although she enjoyed being a mother to her two young daughters), she joined the Sandanistas, an underground movement inspired by the heroic resistance fighter Augusto Cesar Sandino. Sandino had rebelled against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The Sandanistas represented the Sandanista National Liberation Front or FSLN (Frente Sandanista Liberación Nacional). Through armed revolution, the FSLN planned to overthrow Somoza and install a unique version of socialism à la Fidel Castro’s Cuba.
Belli’s upper-class status served as the perfect cover for her subversive activities. As a rookie, she learned more about the movement, how to live underground and how to aid the burgeoning rebellion. As trust in her grew, she rose to the role of courier. She ferried letters to and from a handsome secret operative named Marcos, and soon enough the two were exchanging more than just correspondence. Her upsurge in anti-Somoza activities didn’t go unnoticed and the secret police began following her. She fled to Mexico City, narrowly escaping a military tribunal and a seven-year prison sentence.
Resigned to a life in exile, Belli moved to Costa Rica. She found legitimate employment at an ad agency, connected with the Sandanista network in San José, won a prestigious Latin American poetry prize, remarried, and bore a son. Her continuing commitment to the FSLN and her resounding charisma carried her even further up the FSLN ranks as the guerrilla war against Somoza caught fire.
If you’re a history buff, you know what became of the Sandanistas, and if not, Belli will fill you in. Be assured that you don’t need to know anything about Nicaragua or the FSLN (I didn’t) in order to make sense of The Country Under My Skin. Nor does one have to be a foreign policy junkie to enjoy it. Belli’s explanations and narrative are accessible and well-edited. As a woman, I was intrigued by Belli’s strong sense of how special and powerful being a woman is (a conviction passed down to her by her mother) and how welcoming the Sandanistas were to female insurgents. On the flip side, Belli’s insecurities and doubts about her turbulent relationships make this otherwise super-woman relatable; probably not many readers feel up to joining a guerrilla movement but almost all of us can remember a time when we followed the wrong man around like a puppy dog.
The Country Under My Skin bears comparison with Julia Alvarez’s novel In the Time of the Butterflies, in which three sisters in the Dominican Republic also support a revolution, and Carlos Eire’s memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana that takes the opposite stance by vehemently opposing Fidel Castro’s takeover of his native Cuba. All three of these authors made me question the U.S.’s role in Latin America. What more could I ask from a book that that?
No solitary pleasure could remotely compare with the satisfaction of feeling responsible for at least a minute particle of the gaiety that surrounded me. This time, the dead came alive inside of me. I felt as if they were taking turns to look at the scene through my eyes. Tears rolled down my cheeks, turning to mud as the mixed with the dust on my face. Now my dead friends would finally be consoled. To die is not as terrible as to not know why one lives, and they had known it all along. That slow truck ride into Managua reminded me of childbirth, of the joy after pain. I was witnessing the birth of my country.