MANAGUA – For the past two decades, humorist Luis Enrique Calderón has used his keen impersonation skills to ridicule dozens of Nicaraguan personalities, attack sacred cows, mock politicians and delight audiences with his edgy satire.
But not everyone is laughing.
The Sandinista government, which Calderón says has the “worst sense of humor” of the four administrations he’s burlesqued, wants the humorist to stop telling jokes at its expense.
In preparation for the comedian’s special 20th anniversary show in the Rubén Darío National Theater next weekend, Calderón said he requested a meeting with First Lady Rosario Murillo to seek government support for his cultural act. Calderón said he realizes many Sandinistas don’t appreciate his constant ridiculing of President Daniel Ortega and the farcical cast of characters that make up “El Pueblo Presidente,” but he decided to test the administration’s stated commitment to supporting Nicaraguan culture. Plus, he said, he could really use the money.
“I figured, why not? I am a Nicaraguan artist,” Calderón said.
Several days later, the administration responded in the form of envoy Fidel Moreno, one of Murillo’s top political operators in Managua.
“(Moreno) said the government was willing to help me; that they would give scholarships to my kids and help me pay off my house and get out of debt,” Calderón said.
Then came the kicker.
“But, Moreno said there has to be reciprocity. And not artistic reciprocity, but political reciprocity,” Calderón said. “He said, ‘don’t make fun of government’s social programs. Don’t attack Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. Don’t criticize Daniel or the first lady. And stop appearing on the Carlos Fernando Chamorro show.”
Calderón, 45, admits that the offer of Sandinista patronage was tempting. It would have allowed him to get out of debt and provide schooling for his two teenage daughters and 10-year-old son.
“I have the need. But I also have my dignity, and that doesn’t have a price,” Calderón told The Nica Times in a recent interview. “So for me, it’s better to continue on as before, happen what may. I won’t be the first or last person to lose his house; things happen for a reason.”
Since turning down the Sandinistas’ offer, Calderón said he received an anonymous phone message telling him, “Careful your show in the Rubén Darío Theater doesn’t get canceled.” As a result, the impersonator has been scrambling to find a backup venue, just in case.
Subjects Share a Laugh
Though Calderón can imitate more than 40 Nicaraguan and international person- alities, he says he doesn’t mock anyone to be mean-spirited.
And the people he burlesques are generally okay with it – even the subjects of his harsher parodies, such as former boxing champ and ex-Mayor of Managua Alexis Argüello. Calderón said the Sandinistas would get upset when he impersonated the former champ and portrayed him as a laughing fool, but Argüello himself got a kick out of it. The ex-champ, who committed suicide last year, even gave Calderón an autographed pair of miniature boxing gloves.
“Alexis Argüello had a sense of humor,” Calderón said. “I admired Argüello; I celebrated when he won boxing matches, and I cried when he lost. I liked him a lot as an athlete and as a person. And I want the Sandinistas to understand this clearly: I respect Alexis more than they do.”
Calderón said he had the same relationship of respect with former President Arnoldo Alemán, who helped sponsor the humorist’s show during his administration (1996-2002) – even though many of the laughs were coming at his expense. Calderón said the former president even invited him and his daughters to his private birthday celebration at his hacienda, where the president was hosting a luncheon with his inner circle of political supporters and friends.
When Alemán asked Calderón to imitate him at the lunch table, the comedian decided to turn the screws on those in attendance, rather than go for the easy laugh.
“I said (in Aleman’s voice), ‘I want to thank all my friends who are here, and I want to thank all the party crashers who are here, and I want to thank all the hypocrites who have come today.”
Calderón said an uncomfortable silence followed his greeting. “They were in shock and embarrassed. And my daughter said, ‘Dad why’d you say that!?’”
But Alemán quickly broke the silence with a thunderous laugh. “Arnoldo said, ‘That was brutal, you bastard. But it’s true! No jodas, let’s take a photo together!’”
That single event at Alemán’s ranch neatly explains Calderón’s relationship with power. The people he imitates generally don’t seem to care, or are even flattered. But the sycophants who hang around Nicaragua’s powerbrokers bristle when they feel their boss’ honor is offended, Calderón said.
Despite Calderón’s chummy relationship with Alemán, the former president’s minions felt the need to censor his act.
Calderón said a show he was going to do mocking Alemán’s corruption scandals was locked out of the Rubén Darío Theater by Clement Guido, a former Alemán lackey who recently crossed over into Ortega’s camp. Alemán then helped Calderón get a radio spot on Radio La Poderosa, a station controlled by his party. But Calderón said the station director threw him off the air after only 15 days, because he didn’t like the impersonator making fun of President Alemán.
Calderón says history is again repeating itself with the Ortega administration. The impersonator says Sandinista party fanatics cut the electricity on a show he did last year in León, regularly tear down banners advertising his performances and have threatened restaurants that host his show.
“They are trying to asphyxiate me economically,” he said. “If I can’t do my show here, and I can’t do it there – where am I going to earn an income?”
But Calderón doesn’t blame Ortega for the censorship, rather the Sandinista groupies who growl anytime someone questions their boss.
“That’s the problem in this country – these people we call sapos (toadies),” Calderón said. “I have nothing against any of the people I imitate, but I don’t like the opportunists and clowns who hang around them. The United States is the land of opportunity, and Nicaragua is the land of opportunists.”
He added, “Nicaragua is full of ridiculous people – clowns wearing a shirt and tie, or clowns disguised as revolutionaries or socialists or Christians.”
Calderón also criticizes Nicaragua’s business leaders, whom he says applaud him in private but are afraid to support his act economically.
“Here the private sector has also turned its back on me; they keep telling me, ‘Great job! Keep it up!’ But they don’t support me.”
Calderón said he thinks the private sector should put its money where its mouth is because “I criticize power, I criticize government corruption and I defend the interests of the business community which is incapable of saying anything to Daniel or Arnoldo or whoever else is in power.”
20 Years on
Despite the economic and political challenges, Calderón will be going on stage again next weekend for a two-night show celebrating – and mocking – the political events of the past 20 years. His work, though comical and critical, is also educational.
“I am presenting the news in a way that is funny, without straying from the truth,” he said. “My goal is to make Nicaraguans laugh at our misfortunes, but also leave the show thinking about the issues.”
Indeed, in a country with fewer and fewer spaces available to challenge and criticize authority, the man of a thousand voices could become a lone voice in the woods.
Tickets for Calderón’s anniversary special July 29 and 30 are on sale at the ticket window of the Rubén Darío Theater. Tickets cost between 100 and 200 córdobas. Tel. 2222-7426.