A former U.S. university professor and current expat living in Costa Rica, Kenneth E. Morris became fascinated with Nicaragua through the Nicas he met in Costa Rica. When Ortega won reelection to Nicaragua’s presidency in 2007, Morris was surprised to discover that no biography of him existed. As an experienced biographer (Jimmy Carter, American Moralist, 1996), Morris determined to fill this gap by writing Ortega’s biography.
The resulting Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua’s Struggle for Liberation is the most comprehensive look at this enigmatic politician ever published, and a must-read for anyone hoping to understand how Nicaragua has been shaped – or perhaps misshapen – by Daniel Ortega.
While occasionally chided by the right for not being a hatchet job, the book is far from a fawning, glossy look at Ortega, his wife Rosario Murillo, or their Sandinista associates and henchmen. Although Ortega is portrayed as a master at politics and ultimately devoted to the well-being of his countrymen, his flaws – some personal and egregious, such as the alleged molestation of his stepdaughter – are unflinchingly recounted.
Since Ortega now strives to exercise near total control over his media coverage, he had no interest in cooperating with Morris on a biography that he had no guarantee would be flattering. Accordingly, Unfinished Revolution is not an authorized biography, but rather one constructed by weaving together the wealth of scattered materials both available in print and buried in archives. Although there is therefore no actual new information in the book, Unfinished Revolution manages to create the most complete picture yet of the president by assembling materials no one else had brought together previously.
“Probably the biggest thing I took away from writing the book is how much planning goes into a successful revolution,” Morris said. “People like to believe that revolutions are darn near spontaneous events, since that’s what they see in the streets and on TV, but Ortega taught me that this isn’t so. The Nicaragua revolution was a good 15 years in the making, with lots of false starts and a steep learning curve, and its success is to be credited to the Ortega brothers.”
Reviewing the book for Foreign Affairs, Richard Feinberg opens by calling Unfinished Revolution “a sympathetic, forgiving treatment of Nicaragua’s strongman president,” and closes by saying the book “stands as an informative and up-to-date review of the rise to power of Nicaragua’s latest caudillo.” Morris doesn’t disagree, and is pleased that a person of Feinberg’s stature takes his book seriously.
Insofar as reviewers like Feinberg imply that Morris was insufficiently critical of Ortega, Morris said, “That’s a biographer’s job. Like a defense attorney defending a client, we are supposed to tell the story as much as we possibly can from the perspective of our subject,” adding, “it helped that I was able to find much that I like in Ortega.”
Does Morris believe there will come a time when there will be a book on Ortega talking about a finished revolution? No.
“He may set the stage for it. I’m increasingly persuaded that economic development is a prerequisite for much else, including good government. I think we get the cart before the horse when we imagine that democratic governments can be established in countries as poor as Nicaragua. They can’t. And to look at U.S. history, they weren’t even established there until the economy was pretty strong. Nicaragua’s chief challenge is economic, and frankly a canal may be exactly the boost the country needs to finally get on the economic upswing. If Ortega can pull off this canal project, he may well set the stage for the country to move beyond dictators like him.”
Since publishing Unfinished Revolution, Morris this year published On American Freedom: A Critique of the Country’s Core Value with a Reform Agenda. For his next project he is working on what he calls “the problem of productivity,” or how a global economy can operate with at least several hundred million if not a billion or more people less productive than they can or want to be.
“Once again, I’m trying to use my brain to tackle a problem Nicas suffer, although many others suffer as well,” he said. “It also makes no sense according to market theory. That theory maintains that everybody has the opportunity to be as productive as they want to be, and in the end we all benefit from this. However, economies clearly aren’t operating this way. Instead, they are wasting the talents of much of the world. I’d like to figure out why this is so and what can be done about it. With luck, I’ll be able to improve the situation for some people, although if I don’t I’ll at least go down trying.”
Kenneth E. Morris will be part of the Literature + Politics + Conversation event in Granada on Sun., Nov. 2 at La Hacienda. For more on the event go to http://luchalibrobooks.com/events/ and www.facebook.com/events/649707971810878/. Morris, Joseph B. Frazier, and Silvio Sirias will also be appearing at El Gato Negro on Sat., Nov. 1 and Búho Books in León on Tues., Nov. 4.