Columbus Day – The Panels of Hell

José Coronel Urtecho

The poem below was written by José Coronel Urtecho (1906-1994) in the months following the July 1979 Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. These were the days of innocence and euphoria, the likes of which had never before been known in that very poor Central American country. In those early days of the revolution the whole country was undergoing a radical transformation; the young, educated few were going out in brigades into the countryside and the poor urban neighbourhoods bringing the gift of literacy to the hundreds of thousands who had been denied any sort of education under the successive governments of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. Alongside, there were brigades of doctors and nurses and health workers taking healthcare, for the first time ever, to the same marginalized sectors of the population in order to vaccinate, to provide antenatal and perinatal care and to conduct an all-out offensive against infant mortality and preventable disease.

Coronel Urtecho, one of Nicaragua’s greatest poets, had earlier in his life been a supporter of the Somoza dictatorship but he was gradually radicalized through contact with members of the Sandinista National Liberation front, and Panels of Hell was written as an act of contrition for the sins of his earlier ideological beliefs.

My translation of the poem was eventually published by Harold Pinter in 1989 at the height of the illegal Contra war against the people of Nicaragua, instigated by Ronald Reagan and spearheaded by the Oliver North.

It is salutary, on this Columbus Day 2015, to reflect on the significance of today’s commemorations, to ask exactly who in the Amercias has anything to commemorate, to speculate how the native American peoples, for example, might be taking Christopher Columbus to their hearts, how the poor and dispossessed of the Americas might like to remember that fateful day, 12 October 1492, when according to his log, Columbus, in his search for a new route to the spice lands of the East, first sighted land in the West.

The two avatars of that discovery were (and remain to this day) wealth and poverty, or as they are known euphemistically: North and South! Happy Columbus Day!

PANELS OF HELL (extract)

Who remembers the octogenarian swine in his sedan chair the one who
          first stole Nicaragua the country the government the land for himself
                   and for his family
          the first one who saw Nicaragua as a business his own business
          the first one who in Nicaragua established the business of slaves the
                   exploitation and selling of slaves
          the first of the usurious foreign bankers and financiers in Nicaragua
          the one who first brought to Nicaragua his genocidal dogs
                   to guard over his minerals
          the one who first killed in Nicaragua ‘two million’ Indians (2,000,000)
          the first one who installed his dynasty in Nicaragua
          the first of the first dynasty in Nicaragua continued by his daughter and
          his son-in-law and his grandchildren tyrant usufructuaries of the Empire
who in Nicaragua today remembers the worst of all the Spanish
          conquerors of America and his murderous descendants?

All of them are submerged in the dung heap of History

What became of the cold paranoid filibuster robber of countries
          the ill-famed adventurer from Tennessee gone bust in Sonora
          ill-adapted in California who very nearly stole Nicaragua
          from the democrats and legitimists or Liberals and Conservatives
          who amongst themselves were killing each other to exploit
                   the Nicaraguan people
the first North American to see Nicaragua the country the
          government the land as a subsidiary business to
                   North American business
the first imperialist racist North American pro-slaver who tried
          in Nicaragua to introduce the black slave trade importing the
          slavery of the slave States of the South of North America
          through the elimination of Nicaragua’s Indians and mestizos
          but could get nowhere with the people of Nicaragua
          Costa Rica Honduras El Salvador and Guatemala

the first North American of the South or the North the East or
          the West who brought his dogs to Nicaragua and thugs or
          mercenary animals enlisted in New York and New Orleans
                   and San Francisco California

the first agent of the thieving bankers of Frisco competitors of
          the usurious bankers of Manhattan concessionaires of the
          inter-oceanic Transit of foreign passengers through Nicaragua

the first North American arsonist destroyer of Nicaraguan
          cities who would have reduced them all to ashes and left them
          in ruins and sown the land with wooden crosses and scattered
          cemeteries and common graves before handing it over empty
          to his pro-slaver filibusters but could get nowhere with the
          resistance of the people of Nicaragua Costa Rica Honduras El Salvador
                   and Guatemala

the first for us of the models of North American imperialism
          without a mask or with a mask in person or if not through an
          intermediary but in any case the model for the North American
          invaders interveners ambassadors swindlers mediators and
          for the North Americanizing dealers and businessmen and
          traffickers of the Nicaraguan patrimony-peddling bourgeoisie

the first of the first North American military occupation
          of Nicaragua never really discontinued rather immediately continued
          by the Conservative and Liberal oligarchies and from 1936 to the
         19th of July 1979 by the proconsular family of the pentagonal dynasty
          enthroned on Tiscapa Hill by the Yankee Empire
who today is aware in Nicaragua of the worst of all the filibusters of
          America—admired by Truman—and of his murderous successors?

All of them are at the bottom of the latrines of History

February 1980

Translation by John Lyons