Karen Kampwirth’s book LGBTQ Politics in Nicaragua: Revolution, Dictatorship, and Social Movements is an engaging, in-depth look at lesbian, gay, trans, and queer (LGBTQ) politics in Nicaragua, based on her years of political involvement and research in the country and her extensive network of contacts. Through an examination of the past, Kampwirth provides fresh perspectives on Nicaraguan politics, especially in regards to the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) more nuanced use of clientelism and cooptation.
Kampwirth’s knowledge is deep, and her analysis is sharp. She places Nicaraguan LGBTQ politics in the context of Latin American and global organising, based on her 120 interviews and nearly two decades of fieldwork, especially in Managua between 2011 and 2017, but she insists that each country’s LGBTQ history is unique in identity construction and organising. Local slang, such as cuir, gay, and cochón, will be investigated. From the perspective of many of us, Cuir is not the same as queer,” Ana Victoria Portocarrero of the collective Operación Queer emphasised. In my opinion, Cuir is a means by which we can locate ourselves within the queer Latin American experience. When defining the difference between “gay” and “cochón,” Elyla, also of Operación Queer, uses an intersectional lens. “A gay is a homosexual with a car, a house, a job, and a sense of self-worth,” “What happened, Elyla elaborated. “A cochón is “a person who survives, who struggles, who lives on the street and who has trouble finding gainful employment because he does not conform to the logic of the ruling class and because he is very black.”
Afterwards, Kampwirth moves on to trace the ebb and flow of LGBTQ organising and rights from the guerrilla uprising of the 1970s to the present day. Her research details how the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has shifted from intolerance and repression to tolerance and acceptance, and even cooptation, on the issue of LGBTQ rights. From 1979 to 1990, when the FSLN was first in power, the party had no coherent LGBTQ policy, leading to varying experiences for different people. Some people found serving in the military during the Contra War to be an empowering experience, while others found it restrictive and even harmful. In the middle of the 1980s, a group of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and cisgender Sandinistas began meeting in private to discuss their own rights. The state security agency took swift action after learning of their plot, accusing them of aiding imperialism and banning any further gatherings. Many were fired from their jobs, expelled from the Sandinista party, and even threatened with imprisonment and violence. Some regrouped under the Health Ministry to continue HIV/AIDS education several years later.
In 1990, after the FSLN’s electoral defeat, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista opposition handed power to Violeta Chamorro. The LGBTQ community experienced a backlash under her conservative administration, with the passage of Article 204, an anti-sodomy law that was the most extreme anti-LGBTQ legislation in the hemisphere at the time. Despite this, the LGBTQ movement flourished and gained prominence, expanding its scope beyond HIV/AIDS advocacy to include other forms of organising and rights-based work.
Kampwirth’s contributions to our understanding of LGBTQ issues and Nicaraguan politics after the fall of the Sandinista government in 2006 stand out. Kampwirth persuasively argues that Ortega’s embrace of the LGBTQ community was a form of clientelism and a way for the FSLN to establish legitimacy after Ortega’s return to the presidency in 2007 and the steady concentration of power in his hands. To many, it may seem counterintuitive that LGBTQ organisations would be welcomed into the Christian, anti-feminist FSLN that Ortega transformed it into. In 2008, the FSLN overturned the anti-sodomy law, and subsequent anti-LGBTQ repression decreased, creating more room for LGBTQ organising. Kampwirth claims that between 2007 and 2017, there was an LGBTQ boom as new groups emerged and thrived.
The Ortega government, on the other hand, harassed feminist groups, seemingly in retaliation for feminist “disloyalty,” following the 1998 revelation by Ortega’s stepdaughter Zoilamérica Ortega Murillo that he had sexually abused her since she was a child and the 2006 feminist opposition to Sandinista support for an abortion ban with no exceptions. Retaliation came in the form of office raids and attacks on feminist groups. The historically powerful feminist-LGBTQ alliance was subtly undermined through a strategy of co-opting LGBTQ organisations and activists. Many LGBTQ organisers believed that in order to prove loyalty to the FSLN, they had to take a stand against feminist groups.
The FSLN not only hoped to profit from undermining the LGBTQ-feminist alliance, but its outward display of tolerance for that community also improved Nicaragua’s standing in the international community. Kampwirth argues that this amounted to a form of pinkwashing in which the Ortega administration tried to divert international attention away from its troubling record on other progressive and human rights issues by publicly emphasising a pro-LGBTQ stance.
After describing the “LGBTQ boom” of the years 2007–2017, Kampwirth identifies four causes and effects that explain it. She begins by mentioning the repeal of anti-LGBTQ Article 204 and the passage of a new penal code after the FSLN took power again. And second, she points out that the FSLN showed more tolerance and support for the LGBTQ community than the Sandinista government did in the 1980s, when the FSLN received some funding and received favourable media coverage. Third, during this time period, international support for LGBTQ groups and gatherings grew. Last but not least was the part played by First Lady (and current Vice President) Rosario Murillo’s daughter and President Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamérica. She was a well-known and experienced political organiser, and she devoted a lot of her time and energy to the LGBTQ community, but she was estranged from her family.
The Ortega government instituted a state-level human rights approach in 2009 when it appointed Nicaragua’s first state Ombudsperson for the LGBTQ community, making it the first such position in Central America. This public show of support from the government was a magnet for outside investors. However, as Kampwirth explains, some LGBTQ activists questioned the motivation behind establishing an Ombuds, wondering if the goal was to advance LGBTQ rights or to buy off and silence a growing LGBTQ movement. Some people felt like they were being controlled instead of helped by the Ombuds office’s suggestions.
High-profile events like the 2012 Miss Gay Nicaragua pageant showed the world that the LGBTQ community was thriving in Nicaragua. It was held in a prominent venue, televised, sponsored by the Norwegian embassy, and supported by the ruling Sandinista party, marking the first notable form of government support for an LGBTQ initiative. One organiser described it as a beauty contest with a human rights focus. Kampwirth, however, discovers that many LGBTQ activists worried that their community was only seen as a source of entertainment, and that the emphasis on social events like “Miss Gay” contests and drag shows perpetuated harmful stereotypes. A trans woman who asked to be identified only as Martina said, “Trans women have always been utilised for a show.” This is because they are frequently expected to take part in events, wear elaborate costumes, and receive official recognition from the mayor. To paraphrase: “But when they need something and go to the mayor’s office, they deny their request.”
There were a number of LGBTQ groups that reached out to Zoilamérica and the non-profit she headed, Centro de Estudios Internacionales (CEI), for assistance. Casas de Diversidad Sexual (Sex Diversity Houses) were built by CEI in several cities to provide a safe haven for victims of sexual assault and harassment, as well as counselling, legal assistance, classes, opportunities for advancement, community building, and social activities.
Kampwirth argues that the advancement of civil rights for LGBTQ people slowed or even stalled under Ortega. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) people are denied basic civil rights. And with “little effort to disguise the confluence of family and state,” the Ortega administration started harassing CEI and its director Zoilamérica. The LGBTQ movement became entangled in Ortega’s larger effort to co-opt and control civil society, which aimed squarely at autonomously successful, high-profile groups. Methods included sabotaging LGBTQ organisations by interfering with and stipulating conditions on their access to foreign financing.
Norwegian embassy funding for CEI’s LGBTQ programme was cut off in 2013 after the state mandated that all Norwegian support for LGBTQ causes be channelled through a state agency. When it came to CEI, the Ortega government adopted a strategy of “divide and conquer,” which ultimately backfired. After the Norwegian embassy cut off funding to CEI, members of the LGBTQ community staged a protest outside the CEI offices, demanding the return of the computers and other resources that had been paid for with the Norwegian money. Zoilamérica remained in Nicaragua after CEI was harassed there until she and her partner, a Bolivian citizen and CEI advisor, were arrested a few months later. As soon as her partner was deported, Zoilamérica followed him to Costa Rica. The CEI and several LGBTQ-related CEI-affiliated programmes in different cities ended after she left.
At the time of the 2017 Ortega-Murillo power consolidation, when Kampwirth’s study concludes, Pride Day was celebrated outdoors for the last time by a large number of people. The government began a violent crackdown on retirees and students protesting social security reforms in April of 2018, which quickly grew into a massive nationwide movement and resulted in beatings, arrests, and hundreds of deaths. LGBTQ people were heavily involved in and affected by the repression, with trans women being singled out for harassment and violence. As a result, public demonstrations were outlawed and many non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including feminist and LGBTQ groups, were closed down by the government.
Kampwirth’s captivating book successfully bridges the gap between empirical detail and analysis, addressing knowledge gaps on both sides. The nuance and depth with which she places LGBTQ politics within Nicaraguan politics makes her book a model for future research. She not only provides a comprehensive overview of LGBTQ politics over the past half-century but also offers fresh perspectives on Nicaraguan politics, such as the ways in which the Sandinista party, formed in a popular revolution and purportedly progressive, sought to legitimise and strengthen itself on the back of the community. First, it was accomplished through repression, then through clientelism and cooptation, and finally, through repression once more. The 2018 authoritarian turn by the FSLN effectively ended Nicaragua’s LGBTQ boom. A new and more powerful movement, Kampwirth believes, will emerge “as it always does,” despite the current repression.