As our knowledge of the Nicaraguan experience has expanded, it has become clear that the preliminary Lonely Planet history I provided will simply not suffice as a contextual background for my intents and purposes. So, I’ve included the following to fill in some of the more bitter parts of Nicaragua’s history and her present struggles. Much of this information comes from a lecture by Lillian Hall, our ProNica facilitator. She moved to Nicaragua in 1984 during the post-revolution, U.S.-financed Contra war, and got up close and personal with the combat zones: “I needed to be where the war was, to see what our government was doing with our tax dollars,” she explains.
Ms. Hall traveled to Nicaragua for the first time as a college student in 1982. She describes this as the “honeymoon period” after the revolution, when the population was full of the excitement that comes from building a new society that would, for the first time in Nicaragua, govern for the poor majority instead of the rich minority, with heath care, land reform, literacy, and education as its principle values. Sandinistas had fought a revolution against the vastly rich dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and his heavily armed, U.S. supported National Guard, and they fought with pistols, dysfunctional rifles, molotov cocktails, and stones. One Sandinista said:
“If we were being logical, we never would have thought we could do it. But we weren’t logical; we were dreaming. But we allowed ourselves to dream. And we did it.”
Ms. Hall reluctantly returned after a month in Nicaragua to finish college in the U.S. In 1984, she moved to Nicaragua, with a plan to stay for two years. But she’s still here.
The 1984 Nicaragua housed a very different society than it had in 1982. Reagan had been elected President of the United States. After he labeled the Sandinistas (whose three principles were: 1) political pluralism, 2) non-alignment with East or West world powers, and 3) freedom of expression) “Communists,”placed an embargo on Nicaragua, and launched the Contra War, Nicaragua was militarized, full of tanks, Contra death squads, and crushed dreams. Fear and mistrust permeated everything during the Contra War, just as it had under the Somoza dictatorship. As Eisenhower had said of Somoza, “He’s a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Following the same logic, Reagan poured money into the Contra army, and funded a “civil war,” that was in reality a proxy war for the U.S., which was unwilling to let the Sandinistas usher in democracy in its backyard.
The Contras targeted the infrastructure elements the Sandinistas had built since the revolution had triumphed in 1979: health care centers, schools, day cares, cooperatives, agricultural centers, ecological centers… the U.S. air force flew “Pajaros Negros” (Black Birds) over Nicaragua that did not drop bombs, but rather broadcasted audio that sounded like bomb explosions. The U.S. claimed this targeting of social centers instead of the Sandinista People’s Army, and its employment of psychological warfare rendered it a “low-intensity war.” Since then, it has been reclassified (though never by the U.S. government) as a war of terror, waged against civilians. And rightly so.
In 1990, elections were held in Nicaragua. The candidiates included Sandinista Daniel Ortega, and conservative member of the traditional oligarchy Violeta Chamorro. After years of war, Nicaraguans were unwilling and unable to continue fighting the Contras. So they voted for Chamorro, the U.S.-backed candidate, and immediately the embargo was lifted and the war ended. “My heart is with the Sandinistas, but my ballot is not,” captures the sentiment of the day.
And, as soldiers returned from a sick and seemingly never-ending war with severe psychological disturbances, and tried to integrate into society without any psychiatric treatment, Nicaraguan statistics of rape, domestic abuse incest, drug use, and though one of the first laws passed by the Sandinistas was the outlawing of capital punishment, suicide rates skyrocketed.
With Chamorro in power, the war over, and the country in shambles, the world held its breath with the expectation that the U.S. would repair and rebuild Nicaragua. It didn’t. The International Court found that the United States owed Ncaragua $17 billion in damages. The U.S. refused, declaring that the U.S. government does not recognize the International Court. In response to international pressure, the U.S. claimed that Nicaragua was in fact indebted to the U.S., for all of the money that Somoza, “our son of a bitch,” had been granted, and then pocketed, from the U.S. over the decades of the family’s dictatorship. Furthermore, they claimed, Nicaragua was indebted to the U.S. for the aid that had been granted to the Contras to terrorize the nation and her civilians, and which continues to terrorize the mothers who have nothing left of their children except the photos on the wall in the Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs in Esteli.
Though 80% of Nicaragua’s population lives on under $2 a day, and is the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere (aside from Haiti, which is the poorest country in the world), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund assured the U.S. that it would never grant any loans, aid, or debt forgiveness to Nicaragua if the desperate nation did not repay its “debts” to the U.S. government. This burden, of course, falls on the shoulders of the 80% of Nicaraguans who live in poverty. The 12 Nicaraguan families that have over $100 million each had fled to the United States along with the other 1500 Nicaraguan families who had accumulated millions during the centuries of corruption.
The revolution is far from over.
When I arrived, I saw Radio Shack, Pizza Hut, malls… and I thought, “Oh, well Nicaragua mustn’t be that poor.” And then we learned that these shops are frequented by the 1,512 millionaires in the country. The photos of commercial centers in Nicaragua are precisely those that the government points to, as if to say, “See what we’ve accomplished? Nicaragua prospers! The poor have triumphed!”
Daniel Ortega, current President of Nicaragua, made a pact with former President Aleman, the “blast from the dictatorial past” that ensured the two would share and negotiate their power in order to remain in power. Ortega manipulated Nicaraguan laws with Aleman and won the 2006 presidential election with a smaller percentage of the vote than he had lost with in 1998. Many Nicaraguans have explained the current state of the Sandinistas: “The Sandinista leaders have become rich and abandoned the true Sandinista values.”
Although Ortega offered “free” health care and education once he was elected, he has not allotted any money to back up his promise. His symbolic declaration is nothing more than just that – symbolism, and the irony is tangible in the ubiquitous billboards across the country that show a smiling Ortega and a message like “The rich can triumph!” signed, Daniel. It seems obvious where the dollars intended for education and health care have gone. Public hospitals have materials dating to the 1940s, and the 80% of the population that cannot afford health care rarely receive treatment at all, let alone effective treatment.
And what about public housing? One thousand homes are being built for homeless loyal Sandinista supporters who lost during the wars that consolidated Sandinista power. They are being built over the center of Managua, which was reduced to rubble and never rebuilt after the 1972 earthquake, since its right above a fault line, which means it’s prime territory for the next earthquake to do its worst. In order to get these homes ready before July 19th, Nicaraguan Independence Day, the government decided to forego building metal supports that would hold up the homes in the event of an earthquake or hurricane. I’ve been here for 9 days, and I’ve been through a hurricane already. So, again, the public housing project is terribly symbolic, but terribly inadequate. The homes will barely last longer than the photo opp. on July 19th.
It is, however, Ortega’s second five-year term in office, so as of 2011, his time is over. Considering that Ortega changed nepotism laws that would allow his wife to run for president, it seems that Nicaragua hasn’t seen the end of the Ortegas, and may not until 2021, since Ortega also lowered the percentage of votes required to elect a president (from 45% to 35%), which worked out in 2006 when he received 38% of the vote.
It seems that there is a lot of talk, a lot of billboards, a lot of symbolism (Ortega sent a rose to each of the mothers present at the Mothers Day celebration sponsored by Esteli’s Gallery for Heroes and Martyrs), but behind the scenes, nepotism laws are being struck down, and everything is run by the Sandinistas of the 21st century- a group that bears little resemblance to the Sandinistas of the revoltionary 70s, 80s, and 90s.
A few samples of the ubiquitous billboards I’ve mentioned:
Ortega’s “deal” with corrupt ex-president Aleman ensured a set of political requirements that are impossible to fulfill by anyone aside the post-revolution Sandinistas (thus closing out any potential political competitors), and as a result Aleman, the grossly corrupt president of the mid-90′s who former President Bolanos put in jail, was set free, and put under house arrest. And then it was decided that Nicaragua was his house. It was a very convenient decision, considering the ranches and beach houses he built with money stolen from the Nicaraguan treasury.
Oh, will the corruption and selfishness ever end?
It’s up to Nicaragua. But it’s also up to you and me. Get involved. Stay informed. Give. www.pronica.org