It is impossible for me to vacation anywhere without having first conducted a little bit of research about the history and contemporary politics of the destination. The last thing I want to appear to be to locals is a bumbling, passing-through tourist with zero interest in the land and people who are hosting me. To be at least mildly informed is the least I can do. It was with this attitude and mindset that I approached my recent vacation in Nicaragua.
In preparation for my visit to the “land of lakes and volcanoes,” I studied the country’s tumultuous history, namely from the beginning of the Sandinista Revolution to today, by reading Gioconda Belli’s gripping (and sex-infused) memoir, The Country Under My Skin; The Sandinista Revolution: National Liberation and Social Transformation in Central America, a dense Marxist take on the Sandinista Revolution by Carlos Vilas;the novel Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea (Margarita, está linda la mar) by Nicaragua’s first vice president after the Revolution, Sergio Ramirez; Nicaragua: A Decade of Revolution, a terrific photo essay and history, edited by Chris Vail and Lou Dematteis and introduced by Eduardo Galeano; as well as a smattering of pieces published by Democracy Now!, The New York Times, and other outlets.
I spent only one week in Nicaragua: a few days in the capital, Managua, and then three days in the seaside town of San Juan del Sur. Over the course of my stay, I had the opportunity to meet with and informally interview a wide stripe of people, from former Sandinista revolutionaries and disaffected Leftists, to less politically-charged folks, including a housekeeper, an architect, and a hotel owner. My host, who is my age (32), grew up under Sandinista rule, and is well-versed in the country’s history and contemporary politics. My readings and my casual conversations informed my observations on this beautiful country, the largest in Central America.
This is what I’ve come up with: I can’t help but think that Nicaragua is a land of volcanoes, lakes, and … echoes. Reverberations from Nicaragua’s recent history continue to inform and shape the country, for better or for worse. The country and its people just can’t seem to—or don’t want to—shake these ethereal chains. That Nicaraguans variously live behind cold steel bars and razor wire, unforgiving concrete walls, and stiff tin roofs gives a physical grounding on which these echoes can resound practically ad infinitum.
Those historical echoes largely originate in five defining people or moments:
Augusto César Sandino, revolutionary and national hero; devastating 1972 earthquake; triumphant 1979 Sandinista Revolution; The Contra War / Reagan intervention; Daniel Ortega (current/again president)
Augusto César Sandino is a legend in Nicaragua. He’s like George Washington and Che Guevara rolled into one. Like Washington and Che, Sandino was a cunning guerilla. Also, like Che, Sandino gained regional fame and support, before (like Che) ultimately falling to an assassin’s bullet.
From 1927 to 1933, Sandino (from whence the Sandinista’s take their name) rebelled against the United States’ occupation of Nicaragua (which ended with the selection of Juan Bautista Sacasa as president). The next year, Sandino was assassinated by Anastasio Somoza García, who would soon take control of the country and instill a ruling dynasty that would last over forty years.
For his heroic exploits, Sandino has practically been canonized. One cannot travel anywhere in the country without seeing “Viva Sandino!” scrawled across walls in crude graffiti or his iconic image (including the wide-brimmed hat) plastered on political murals or campaign advertisements. Indeed, a giant silhouette of Sandino overlooks the city of Managua, a visage whose attitude oscillates between ghostly overlord and triumphalism, depending on your angle (or mood). Having landed in Nicaragua shortly after nation-wide elections, in which Daniel Ortega claimed (some say stole) yet another presidential victory, it was hard to miss the posters that displayed Ortega’s and Sandino’s images, as if they were equal revolutionary partners.
Much like the ghost of Sandino past, the 1972 earthquake has also left an indelible impact on the relatively small city of Managua. Striking just after midnight two days before Christmas, the earthquake leveled most of the city, killed thousands, and left a quarter of a million homeless. With water and sewage treatment infrastructure significantly impaired, disease spread quickly. Hundreds of thousands fled Managua, setting up temporary residence elsewhere in the country. Fires burned in the capital for days.
Managua has never been the same. The core of the city (downtown) was not rebuilt, so that now there is effectively no locus of business, political, or cultural affairs. Instead, these societal hotspots are scattered across the increasingly sprawling city. Amusingly (and confusingly), poor city planning resulted in city crisscrossed by streets with no names. Though U2 has never explicitly said so, many claim that the band’s song “Where the Streets Have No Name” is a song about Managua.
In the former city center, the Plaza de la República, the Catedral de Santiago, known now as “the old cathedral” fades into history. Damaged in the earthquake, it sits empty, rotting, and crumbling into the square. A shadow of its former glory, the cathedral is a stark reminder of the earthquake’s lasting damage, as well as a metaphor for the country on the whole.
In the wake of the earthquake recovery, President Anastasio Somoza Debayle (the third child of the first President Somoza), his political and business partners as well as military leaders were revealed to be inept and corrupt. Disaster relief was pocketed by elites and distributed to friends and family, leaving much of the earthquake’s victim’s to fend for themselves. This misstep turned out to be one Somoza would forever regret: anger over the president’s handling of the disaster fueled the Sandinista Revolution that would remove Somoza from power before the decade was up.
Which brings us to the victorious Sandinista Revolution…
Sandinista Revolution, Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, Managua