For a dirt-floor view of this country, we visited the poor barrio of Batahola, and dropped in on a simple woman with a grandiose name: Señora Nicaragua. Her husband fought for the Sandinistas, and she’s in her fourth decade as a Sandinista supporter. She stays at home, managing a three-generation family of 12 and running a tiny pulpería(“octopus shop” ‘ a Nicaraguan nickname for a corner convenience store that sells enough odds and ends to even fill eight arms). Her shop was crammed into the walled porch of their cinderblock home. While clearly poor, she’s strong, bright, and politically savvy. Talking with her offered an intriguing insight into the thinking of salt-of-the-earth Nicaraguans.
Señora Nicaragua lived through frightening times, as the USA bore down on their revolution. She told of her entire family being terrorized back in the 1980s by the “thunder of the black bird,” as they referred to the US fighter jets that intentionally broke the sound barrier over Managua. She now understands how these caused sonic booms over their heads, to illustrate the power of the US military.
While many Americans remember the Sandinistas for their Marxist leanings, she remembers them for education drives (when Nicaragua became one of the most literate countries in Latin America), accessible health care, and the pride of the 1980s. In her mind, Sandinista Nicaragua was neither pro-communist nor anti-capitalist ‘ just trying to find a third way.
And she remembers the 16 years of “neoliberal” (that is, pro-business) government after Ortega was voted out ‘ when health care and education were privatized, and when literacy plummeted and poor children were humiliated by education becoming unaffordable. Those years were a time when poor people needed to bring their own syringes and bandages with them to the hospital. And she believes that if the same right-wingers were in power a few years later, when her husband had his bout with colon cancer, he could have never afforded the $400 colonoscopy…and would have died. Today, under the re-elected (if watered-down) Ortega, at least people like Señor Nicaragua get affordable health care.
During the days of neoliberalism, Señora Nicaragua and her neighbors gathered in their barrio church to protect its art ‘ fearful that the post-revolutionary police would paint over their Liberation Theology murals. (Nearly all of the stirring murals of the Sandinista era were painted over in the 1990s by the neoliberal government that succeeded them.) Later, while walking through her barrio, we came upon a poster that bragged, “Eradicación de Polio y Somocismo”‘ by working together, they had eradicated both the scourge of polio and the policies of the dictator Somoza.
Señora Nicaragua knows Daniel Ortega has betrayed the revolution’s ideals as (she says) power has corrupted him, and she would prefer another candidate for president. And, as is so common with strongmen even beyond Latin America, he’s had his sex scandals. But she understands the Latin American penchant for having strongman governments, and that Ortega ‘ while compromising ‘ is the first Nicaraguan leader with a heart for the poor. For example, she thanks her government for the fact that her son is enjoying a college education. For her, education is the foundation for her society to pull itself up out of poverty.
When asked what she wished for her family for the New Year, Señora Nicaragua said, “Health, happiness, and the blessing of work.”