"This spaceship needs a change of course"
You can see the years in his face, but still his thoughts and words are as sharp as a blade: The Nicaraguan poet, theologian and freedom fighter Ernesto Cardenal was awarded the ifa’s Theodor Wanner Prize in the Allianz Forum in Berlin for his cultural and social lifetime achievement.
Report by Dominic Konrad
White linen shirt, jeans and slippers, the billowing white mane tucked under the black Basque beret, the eyes reveal knowledge, humour, determination and militancy. With his 89 years the poet, theologian and political activist Ernesto Cardenal is still an equally pugnacious as eloquent fighter for the rights of the poor, for a cosmopolitan Catholicism and for his native Nicaragua. His lifelong commitment to freedom, peace, culture and a fairer society is honoured now by the ifa (Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations) with the Theodor Wanner Prize, 2014.
For the award ceremony on June 25, 2014 Cardenal travelled from Nicaragua to Berlin. In the blue-lit atrium of the Allianz Forum at the Brandenburg Gate, some 400 people arrived, among them high-ranking representatives from politics, diplomacy and media as Bundestag President Wolfgang Thierse (ret.), Bundestag Vice President Hermann Otto Solms (ret.), and publicist and Latin America expert Peter B. Schumann.
Ifa President Ursula Seiler-Albring welcomed the winner as a "symbol of the passionate and courageous fight against injustice and misery" and "advocate of the weak and oppressed". The world always needs people who fight with passion against injustice and call attention to abuses, even if it seems so difficult, said Seiler-Albring – people like Ernesto Cardenal. The fact that theology and culture have something to say in politics and business can be seen in the work of Cardenal, commented Volker Deville, head of the Allianz Forum Berlin in his welcome address. The arts have always been committed not only to aesthetics but also to making a contribution to society.
Bundestag President Norbert Lammert highlighted at the beginning of his speech that the Theodor Wanner Prize now has a "stable tradition" after five years and four prestigious awardees. Ernesto Cardenal received the prize as a philosopher, theologian, writer and revolutionary, “meaning several virtual positions are awarded the same time," said the President of the Bundestag. In his eulogy, Lammert looked back over Cardenal’s life works: from the failed April Revolution against dictator Somoza García in 1954, via his US exile and the early Christian community of Solentiname, all the way to taking office as Minister of Culture and the break with President Ortega and the Sandinista Party. Even if he could not share the political beliefs of the communist, as a conservative politician, Lammert claimed to share his faith: "the belief that religion is not only one of the basic phenomena of human societies, but quite obviously also one of the vital human needs". Cardenal was never stuck in his thinking, neither in the past nor in the present, but has always dealt with the future. He measured current conditions by the possibilities open to mankind, Lammert continued. Ernesto Cardenal has repeatedly attempted to improve the world. "This compels high respect and explains the admiration he receives in his own country and far beyond," the Bundestag President summed up at the end of his speech.
"I came from far because I know the importance of this award," Ernesto Cardenal began his acceptance speech, after receiving the Theodor Wanner Award in 2014 from the ifa Secretary General Ronald Grätz. The poet voiced criticism of the dire situation of the earth, both in ecological and in social terms: "Our planet is a spaceship and this ship needs a change of course." Yet humanity still has time to take action, he said, and change the world for the better. But that would require a radical rethink in society and a closing of the social gap. In the USA it has been seen that the poorest regions are congruent with the regions with the highest environmental impact. Without social justice there is no chance for adequate environmental protection, said Cardenal. That is why the freedom and liberation of the poor in the world have absolute priority. The Bible also commands this: "The word Gospel is a Greek word and it means 'good news'," said the former priest. The term "liberation" he considered, however, to be a euphemism. He called for a revolution of the poor to make the world more just. "The meaning that Jesus gave the word was that of good news for the poor, a liberation message. And that is the same as saying 'revolution'."
To further promote the opportunities of the poor in his native Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal said that he would grant the prize money of 10,000 euros from Alfred Ritter GmbH & Co. KG to two local humanitarian associations: Pan y Arte and Solentiname. Heike Haftstein handed over the check on behalf of the company owners Alfred T. Ritter and Marli Hoppe-Ritter to Henning Scherf, mayor of Bremen (ret.) and CEO of Pan y Arte. Ernesto Cardenal sees culture as food, said Scherf: "A society lives off it, a person lives off it… if they can access it, if they can come into their own through it and affirm themselves." Through "Casa de los Tres Mundos”, Pan y Arte promotes music and dance projects and supports literacy in the Nicaraguan population with a traveling library. Cardenal's personal foundation Solentiname helps farmers of the Solentiname Archipelago to gain a solid livelihood through crafts.
The ceremony ended with the musical accompaniment of the Rudi Zapf Quartet and thanks from the Chairman of the ifa Development Association, Stephan Brübach. Even 89-year-old Ernesto Cardenal has not given up the fight for justice and equality in Nicaragua and throughout the world.