Thirty-one years ago Monday, the Sandinistas marched into Managua and took the city, marking their triumph against the forty-three years of the Somoza family dictatorship. They celebrated their victory as they mourned the loss of the many dead and the complete destruction of pueblos and campos alike. This past Monday, 500,000 people gathered in the central plaza of Managua to celebrate this historical moment. Some went to remember the overthrow of Somoza, others the Triumph of the Sandinistas, others still to hear the president speak. Hundreds of buses lined the greenways leading to the plaza: Sandinista-sponsored caravans carrying people to the capital. Figuring nothing ever happens on time here, we completely missed the music performance, arriving just in time to catch President Daniel Ortega’s speech. We were right, nothing happens on time. But sometimes it’s early.
Red and black flags painted the blue sky with swift stroked. A birthday-cake shaped moon bounce drew the kids. Venders wove in and out of the crowds selling food and FSLN (Frente Sandinista Liberación Nacional) music and T-shirts. It was a Sandinista party. Wearing his signature baseball cap and button-down shirt, Daniel touched on just about every social project the government is doing, no matter how small. Whether or not the Sandinistas are better than their predecessors at implementing social projects, they are certainly better at advertising them. He mentioned the aid packets he’s sent to the mothers as well as the roofs he has promised them. New health centers, schools, and pensions to the people all made the list. A rhetoric-heavy speech, Daniel remembered to repeat again and again the value of the juventud (youth), of clean water, and the evils of poverty. He chose to fill the seats around him with young people, all wearing pink FSLN shirts, clapping and dancing at his every suggestion. Employing a new tactic, he broke his speech into segments, playing music between each part. “Es el gallo en ha bajado ya tiene preparado/ al pueblo trabajador” (he is strong like an armed rooster and he has prepared/ the people to work) blared as he raised his arms to the sky in between speeches and his wife danced and clapped at his side.
This summer, I have been reading a lot about Nicaragua’s recent history. While the Sandinista revolution was a violent one, it also succeeded in empowering many citizens. Women fought and died alongside their male compas (comrades), earning national respect. Everyone knows someone who died in the decade of violence: grandparents tell their grandchildren of the hardships of the war and the rights they demanded as they rose up to defeat a dictatorship. Mothers who lost their children have learned to petition and demand respect and rights from local governments. People frequently march through the streets to show solidarity or to shout that their voices be heard. The revolution mobilized a nation. But what struck me most about this day of remembrance was not the powerful political force of the people or the rhetoric and policies or even the Peron-like populism that Daniel has mastered. Instead, a simple snapshot of the day stays with me:
A camera man zooms in on a group of jovenes. They all wear FSLN shirts, the girls tying them tight around their waists in the latest fashion. The boys brace themselves in a circle and toss one of the girls into the air. She shrieks and the group burst into laughter. The cameraman smiles at his successful snapshot of the Sandinista youth. The chavalos grin and giggle that they have made it onto TV. “To be young and to not be a revolutionary,” the back of one of the shirts quotes Allende, “is a contradiction against biology.” When the Sandinistas took power in 1979, their goal was to consolidate a revolution. When the people elected them in 2006 after 16 years of opposition rule, they celebrated their success. In their enthusiasm for the idea of revolution, the young people seem to have taken that message to heart. But in this snapshot of jovenes, it seems that the Sandinistas have not consolidated a revolution, they have commercialized it.