Talking Trash in Nicaragua


fter visiting Nicaragua many
times over the course of 22 years, I finally explored the trash
and garbage dumps of Managua and Bluefields during my November 2006
annual pilgrimage. I had planned to be present for the presidential
elections and expected to make that event the focus of my trip.
But as exciting and disturbing as the elections were, my most vivid
memories are of la basura— the trash. 

Even from the safety and comfort of a delegation van that drove
through the Managua basurero, I felt like I was moving through Dante’s
Inferno. Mountains of trash and garbage lined the long road through
the dump—fires blazed, noxious odors arose, dogs, cows, and
people hurried to scavenge for food and recyclable treasure to use
and sell. Houses built of scrap blended with the landscape. Children
happily played in a makeshift “playground” they had fashioned
out of moldy mattresses, tires, and other cast-offs. 

In the van we were speechless as we left the basurero and went on
to visit one of the polling places on November 5—election day.
Nicaraguans had begun to line up to vote by 6:00 AM. Like many others,
my friend waited over five hours before she got her turn to vote
for one of five candidates: Daniel Ortega, running for the FSLN
for the fifth time; Edmundo Jarquin from the MRS, a reformist splinter
of the Sandinistas; Eduardo Montealegre from the ALN-PC and supported
by the U.S.; Jose Rizo from the PLC; and former contra leader, Eden
Pastora of his own party. 

The campaign was fierce and lengthy. The U.S. tried to affect the
outcome with threats, bribes, and manipulations. The U.S. ambassador,
Paul Trivelli, was so blatant in his attempts to control the process
that even “his man” Montealegre publicly criticized the
U.S. for its lack of respect for Nicaraguan sovereignty. 

As Sunday drew to a close, the results were incomplete, but Ortega
was claiming victory. On Monday, I flew to Bluefields on the Atlantic
Coast to meet with Dr. Bernardeth Kelly who works with the Moravian
Church there and focuses on the needs of children, especially those
who live near or in the dangerous basurero. She had already established
a pediatric clinic and pharmacy, a feeding center for malnourished
children, and a small daycare center. 

She wanted me to see the basurero firsthand. While the Bluefields
dump is much smaller than the one in Managua, it is just as terrible
and this time I walked through it. It was hard to keep my footing
through pools of dirty water and slippery refuse. It was harder
still to see ragged children picking through the piles. It was almost
unbearable to have a five-year-old take my hand to walk me safely
back to the road.

These children were among the poorest of the poor that Daniel Ortega
promised to help lift out of poverty if elected. When he made these
same promises in November 1989 and lost to Violeta Chamorra, the
presidential choice of the U.S., I was living and working in Managua
 as a nurse practitioner at the Moravian Health Clinic. I had
supported the advances in health and education made by the Sandinistas. 

Now, as I stayed glued to the election returns in Bluefields, it
looked like Ortega would win. I should have been elated, but those
intervening 16 years had changed Ortega and me. He has been accused
of being financially opportunistic, of sexually abusing his step
daughter, of making an unholy alliance with the corrupt ex-president
Arnoldo Aleman, of supporting World Bank and IMF policies, and of
helping to pass a Draconian anti-abortion bill, which even forbids
the procedure to save the life of the mother.  

But what were the alternatives? Either of the two Liberal candidates
(PLC and ALN-PC) would continue the disastrous policies of the last
12 years—policies that favored a small, rich upper class. The
MRS candidate was the only one who opposed the new anti-abortion
bill, but he was not well known. Jarquin had recently taken the
place of Herty Lewites, a much respected and admired former Sandinista
mayor of Managua. He would have had a good chance of being elected,
but he died last summer during minor surgery. The other candidate,
Pastora, did not receive even 1 percent of the vote.  

The U.S. tried unsuccessfully to unify the two Liberal candidates,
one backed by the ex-president, Aleman, the other by the current
president, Enrique Bolanos. If they had united, the Liberal party
would have beaten Ortega, who was finally declared the winner, with
only 38 percent of the vote, and was inaugurated as president on
January 9, 2007. 

Many Nicaraguans still consider themselves Sandinistas, but not
“Danielistas.” A loyal minority have great faith that
Ortega will improve living conditions and be an integral part of
the new left coalition in Latin America. Others still hate and fear
the Sandinistas for the way they governed during the 1970s and 1980s.
Feminists are furious over the new anti-abortion bill. The most
common remark I heard after Montealegre conceded was, “Vamos
a ver” (“We will see”). 

It seems to me that one way to judge the presidency of Daniel Ortega
will be to take a walking tour of the basureros in Managua and Bluefields
in 2011 and see whether he has indeed been talking trash. (I have
heard that Daniel Ortega has eliminated public school fees and lowered
the too high salaries of National Assembly members and other government
officials—so far so good.) As for the U.S., a way to judge
those who live in a country infamous for its oppression of the Nicaraguan
people is to ask, Will we insist the U.S. respect the sovereignty
of our neighbor to the south? Did we lobby and march for economic
justice so that Nica children are safe in schools and homes instead
of working and playing in the trash? Vamos a ver.

Metzler is a nurse practitioner who lived and worked in Nicaragua
from 1989 to 1991. She continues to support the clinic where she volunteered
and visits the Moravian Clinic and staff yearly.