Nicaragua and the Ghosts of Revolution
N icaragua’s Managua is a very weird capital. Compared to other Latin American cities, not to mention capitals, it has a rather unique town planning, clearly visible from its city center. Where one would typically expect to find the cathedral, the main square, the Palacio Nacional in the heart of the city center, Managua surprises: the cathedral is there, as well as the Plaza de la Revolucion and the Palacio Nacional, but what’s missing is the city around it.
Managua’s center was largely destroyed by the earthquake of 1972, which, as it happens, also “assisted” the Sandinista Revolution in its overthrow over the dictator Somoza.
The city center was never reconstructed; the cathedral and the Palacio still exist because they were some of the few buildings that survived the earthquake largely unscathed. In fact, up to a few years ago, the debris of what used to be the city’s center was still there, reminding the locals of their past, of what the city used to be.
Try to take a taxi in Managua and ask the driver to take you to the Arbolito (little tree) or to Valvoline (the factory of Valvoline). The driver will take you to the right destination where the Arbolito and Volvoline used to be. Before the earthquake, and before the revolution. But you will see no little tree and no factory anymore. These places only exist in the city’s and the country’s past; only in the people’s collective memory. And it seems that the Nicas have not yet overcome that past.
The Sandinista, young revolutionaries of the 1970s shook the world by bringing the Revolution with a capital “R” to the forefront of international politics again, in 1979 and managed to overthrow dictator Somoza and capture state power.
To bring their Revolution to a successful end, they had to unite the three different strands of the Sandinista movement: the FSLN Proletario, the FLSN GPP (Guerra Popular Prolongada), and the FSLN Tercerista. After that, they were ready to launch the final attack that eventually led to the triumphant arrival of the Sandinistas at the Square of the Revolution.
The main difference between the three strands was in their respective strategies. The FSLN Proletario favored a more Marxist-Leninist approach to the revolution (the formation of a vanguard workers’ party that would lead the insurrection) and the FSLN GPP were more Castro-Guevarist and—later on—Maoist (moving from foquismo to the prolonged people’s war, putting the emphasis on the campesinos as the main agents of revolutionary change and protagonists of a guerrilla war). The third strand, the Terceristas, occupied a middle ground, strategically speaking.
Once in power, the Sandinistas set off on the herculean task of changing their country. They embarked on literacy campaigns that saw the revolutionary youth venturing to the farthest corners of the country to teach their least privileged compatriots how to read and write. They confiscated the dictator’s property and organized a massive agrarian reform program. They organized relatively free elections, according to international observers, while simultaneously fighting a civil war. Former members of Somoza’s army, the notorious contras, funded and supported by the U.S., started a war against Sandinista Nicaragua, organizing raids using neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica as their bases. The Sandinistas responded with a mandatory military conscription drive that forced many of the youths that were previously involved with the literacy campaigns to the battlefields. This eventually led to overall dissatisfaction of the population and to the loss of the crucial elections of 1990 (again, free and fair) to Violeta Chamorro.
Perhaps surprisingly, those young revolutionaries recognized their electoral defeat and left the Palacio Nacional, offering the world a real lesson in democratic principles.
Thereafter, Nicaragua entered its neoliberal years. This was a difficult period of reconstruction and reconciliation through which several of the leading figures of the Sandinistas had either died, left the FSLN due to disagreements with Daniel Ortega’s authoritarian turn and absolute control (like the author Sergio Ramírez), or gave up political life to become successful businesspeople (like Humberto Ortega, Daniel’s brother). Despite his many shortcomings, even his enemies recognize that the only person who constantly reminded the Nicas of their revolution, of what they used to be, was Daniel Ortega. He eventually won the elections in 2006 and has managed to stay in power ever since. However, he is no longer what he used to be.
The khaki uniform of the Comandante has been replaced by a peaceful white. He is now the absolute, authoritarian leader, no longer just first among equals. He has outlawed abortion and has, most probably for electoral reasons, established a pact with the the institution that used to be one of the biggest enemies of the Revolution: the Church (“Nicaragua Cristiana, Socialista y Solidaria” is his new motto).
Even the red and black of the FSLN have been replaced by pink and black, proper pink-tide style. A new gigantic canal aimed at challenging Panama’s control of maritime traffic is being planned in liaison with the Chinese government. Of course the canal will displace numerous indigenous communities from their territories and will probably have disastrous and irreversible consequences for Lake Nicaragua, one of the biggest sweet-water lakes in the world and habitat to numerous rare species like the lake sharks, as well as for other areas of great natural beauty and social or ecological importance. Nonetheless, Daniel Ortega does not seem to be very worried about these effects and objections of the opposition.
In the meantime, Ortega has also had to deal with two accusations of sexual abuse of minors, one of which was his own stepdaughter, Zoilamérica. His popularity, however, together with that of his wife Murillo (la compañera, as the Nicas ironically call her) is at its highest level—maybe because of what he used to be, or maybe because of his control of the media. He recently also pushed through a series of legislative reforms that now allow him to run for the presidency for an unlimited amount of terms. Interestingly, Ortega’s wife, Murillo, is trying to give a new colorful psychological injection to her fellow countrypeople. Under her guidance, Managua is now full of huge colorful metallic trees—the symbol of Ortega’s and Murillo’s era—each of which has cost the country around $25,000. A shameful waste of public funds, considering Nicaragua is Latin America’s second poorest country, after Haiti.
The Collective Trauma
One could suggest that Nicaragua and its people are suffering more than anything else from a collective trauma. It’s not nothing to have lived through a revolution and a civil war, not so much time ago. It’s not nothing to have seen your friends or your relatives die for the Revolution or in the war against the U.S.-backed contras. It’s not nothing to see your parents taken by the war. It’s not nothing to see the enemies of the revolution, the collaborators of Somoza, rewarded with key positions in the state apparatus. It’s not nothing to know that your neighbor actually tried, or succeeded, to kill a friend of yours, or a relative, and to have to still live side by side with him.
Maybe these are some of the reasons why Nicaragua is now experiencing such big problems with alcoholism as well—this is what you could call the collective trauma of the interrupted Revolution, to borrow Adolfo Gilly’s term. Not of what is left of it, nor of what it used to be; but rather of what it could have been, should history have taken a different course.