Senora Nicaragua

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 and her husband.

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.

A Liberation Theology mural decorates the barrio church.

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.”


22 Replies to “Senora Nicaragua”

  1. Did she mention that her people recieved funding and weapons from Russia and that they initiated the conlfict ? Conveniently not

  2. Great post Rick! It seems that a revolution by people trying free themselves from tryanny is perceived by others through the prism of their own biases. Correct me if I am wrong, but did not the American revoluiontaries receive funding and help from the French? Our political leaders often tell us education is the key to a better life, but then disparage teachers and cut funding of programs that would enable the less wealthy to attend school. Easier for political leaders to lead, or mis-lead, people who do not have a decent education? It seems some want others to be sure busy just trying to survive daily life they will have neither time nor energy to try to make life better for all.

  3. Balance. Objectivity. Compassion. Rick Steves` blog about the poor woman and her husband remind me a bit of US. The poor get short shrift. But people and businesses paying taxes support them directly or indirectly because most of the poor pay little or no taxes. On the other hand, the poor may be poor because they weren`t provided the opportunity to get a good education, didn`t have the right parents or had bad luck. Or were self-indulgent, weak etc etc. We seem to have two extreme and vocal factions among US: those who want and need but can`t tribute to their own needs financially; and those who have but don`t want to contribute. Perhaps the haves have seen examples of people taking advantage? I have. But throwing the baby out with the bath water penalizes the vast majority who don`t milk the system or rather are victimized by it.

  4. “Health, Happiness and the blessing of work”, seems to be something the whole world wants. So hard to accomplish?

  5. Ok, help me understand this. Instead of attacking this post I want to make sure I am trying to be open minded and understand Rick`s message. The Sandinistas are marxist and would be considered left wing, correct? And under their government the people had superior health care and medical attention? Ortega is pro capitalism and right wing? Under Ortega education faltered and medicine was extremely expensive? So Rick believes that a marxism would be better for the U.S. than capitalism?

  6. I own a business in a county of the U.S. that has had one of the highest unemployment rates since the Jimmy Carter years. We constantly have trouble finding fellow laborers. Unfortunately, my observation is that “much of the world wants the BLESSING of work but they don`t want TO work”

  7. Interesting take on things. I am sure that many naive, well meaning, but misinformed people supported the Sandinistas (such as Rick and “Sra. Nicaragua) and they had the best of intentions. The trouble is that socialism/communism simply does not provide the highest possible standard of living for the people of a nation and it must be enforced by terror. You cannot raise up the poor by striking down the rich. You raise up the poor by freeing the economy, eliminating corruption and providing opportunities for people to work and succeed in their own lives. Of course, a safety net is needed for children, elderly and those unable (not those unwilling) to work. But a dynamic free market is what allows us to live better lives (and have more money to travel). I would like to suggest a future vacation for Rick. Rather than heading down the same old rathole in Nicaragua and speaking with the same old ignorant Marxists (those who thought black birds caused thunder are probably not well informed on economics or liberty generally), take a trip to Chile. Chile had one of the lowest standards of living in Latin America prior to free market reforms 30 years ago and now has the highest. It has done this by embracing free trade, low flat taxes and private retirement accounts. Chileans of all classes have seen huge improvements in their material lives. For more on this, see: If people would just think outside of the box a little, they can free their minds of the failed ideologies of the past and we can all move forward into an era of peace and prosperity.

  8. These postings from Nicaragua remind me of how special the United States is, and how special the founding fathers were. George Washington could have made himself king, emperor, exalted potentate, or president-for-life, but he stepped aside after two terms to go back to his plantation. He set a pattern that continues to this day. No matter how contentious the election or politics, the transition of power is peaceful. We have been truly blessed.

  9. There is no comparison between the US and Latin America, or for that matter any other non democratic country. Left Right is not the same. The difference I personally see with Latin American and the US is that we have fought for our democracy from day one. The same reason that in Arizona people stepped in and took the gunmans ammo away and stopped his assalt, people have to want to work to fight for education to fight for their rights like our fore fathers did. Even with all the problems between Dems, Rep and what ever else in this country we basically all want our rights prosperity and education and health care for our people.

  10. Interesting points. For those who point out how poor the once-Marxist countries are, an interesting question might be: Are they so poor purely because of the failings of the Marxist philosophy…or because their embrace of Marxism was violently punished by the US, who both militarily and economically made every effort to ensure that those countries were not allowed to develop? I may be wrong here, but I don`t remember Chile`s legally elected government ever being wracked by a US-backed armed insurrection. Incidentally, I think it`s just plain hurtful to describe someone`s home as a “rathole.” Just because they live in poverty, does that make them any less human or worthy of our concern? Everyone`s entitled to their opinion, but please, let`s not disrespect the dignity of the people who Rick met.

  11. CH: Your attempt to explain that the US is to blame for the economic failures in Cuba and Nicaragua is both wrong and nothing more than an excuse. Marxism produces failure every time it is tried without regard to the policies of the United States. Please read the history books and read something written by an economist. As for the “rathole”, I was referring to the mess that communism produced generally, not to the home of “Sra. Nicaragua” specifically. It was simply a metaphor for the abject failure of communism always and everywhere. Frankly though it is stunning to me that, considering the history of the 20th century and the obvious failure of communism, such things even need to be said anymore.

  12. Thank you for this post. It is a breath of fresh air to read what really happened according to someone who was there. Outsiders don`t usually get the full picture. I hope Senora Nicaragua and her family remain happy and healthy.

  13. I am as conservative as they come, but Rick and I can agree the politics in Nicaragua are much more complex than they seem at first. Many of the friends I visit each summer live in Batahola Sur in homes built by the Sandinistas after the revolution. Many in our partner church Iglesia Luterana Fe y Esperanza are Sandinistas who have the same hopes for their families we have for ours – food, shelter, education, and the opportunity to succeed. They may be Sandinistas with Marxist leanings, but they don`t seem to be looking to the government to meet all their needs. Most work night and day to provide for their families and do indeed consider it a blessing to be able to work.

  14. Laura so would you consider the Sandinistas you know not so much Marxist as maybe liberal? It seems that the term Marxist still carries U.S.S.R connotations to some. I for one am guilty of this, not saying its right, just a knee jerk reaction and I understand the differences between the two. I just watched Ricks new tour in Slovkia where he asked people there feelings under the various leaderships. While they fondly remember marxist rule they also enjoy the new capitalism. Just wondering if the Sandinistas are similar to that.

  15. Interesting post Rick. Am I reading things incorrectly, or are some people thinking Communism (with a capital C) and socialism are the same thing? A number of European countries have socialism to a greater or lesser extent ( for example, Norway and Sweden) and they seem to have a pretty high standard of living. I look at their GDP, unemployment rate, poverty rate, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, literacy rate, per cent of population with post high school degrees and I do not see countries that are failures. Of course, they are not sending large sums of money down the rat hole of the military-industrial complex. Rick do have any radio shows planned covering your trip to Latin America? Thank you for your time and keep up the good work.

  16. Quoting Ari: Am I reading things incorrectly, or are some people thinking Communism (with a capital C) and socialism are the same thing?

    No, Ari, you are not. A large percentage of Americans seem to have been brought up to regard socialism and communism as one and the same thing, and they are as different as chalk and cheese. Apart from the many other differences, socialist governments, such as the one I grew up under, are elected, and I don`t mean elected in an election where only one party is allowed to field candidates. Bill`s suggestion that socialism must be enforced by terror shows such a lack of understanding that it`s almost breathtaking. Of course Stalin (in particular) was a tyrannical megalomaniac, but to suggest that the socialist British governments of Harold Wilson and Clement Attlee were regimes of terror is just laughable.

  17. Is there any check by the webmaster or moderator for accuracy of data in posts by Rick, or in comments by others? For example, Wikipedia has a table ranking USA 6 by the International Monetary Fund (2010), 5 by The World Bank (2009), and 8 by the CIA World Fact Book for per capita GDP using Purchasing Power Parity. If one just uses nominal GDP per capita, the results are different. An interesting topic for one of Rick`s radio shows may be how people in different countris define freedom and what it means to them. Does it mean they can meet their legislator with freedom of fear of being shot? Does it mean they can get medical attention for their spouse or child free of the fear they will become bankrupt? Does it mean the freedom to pursue one`s dreams with fear of the government in power and its supporters? This freedom was not available to people of the USSR or the people of Nicaragua under Somoza or El Salvador under Duarte.

  18. Rick, I understand you are a student of history. Perhaps, you can tell me if the US ever worked to destabilize the government of Chile. I thought the CIA was involved with the overthrow of Allende in Chile and the rise to power of the murderous Pinnochet regime.

  19. We`re thrilled about all of the interest in Rick`s Latin America blog. We appreciate the full range of opinions represented here; it`s clear that this is a complicated issue that can be seen from many different perspectives. If you would like to comment here, we ask that you please review our Community Guidelines. Specifically, to avoid lengthy back-and-forths between two or three parties, we generally limit each poster to a maximum of two posts per blog entry. And, while it`s fine to “piggyback” on ideas raised by others in this forum, we strongly discourage (and reserve the right to delete) comments that directly rebut other posters. This is not to limit any particular voice or viewpoint, but to prevent the conversation from being dominated by a single participant. Thanks again for everybody`s comments; keep them coming!

  20. Hi Ari, Have been enjoying your thoughtful and well reasoned posts. Are you aware of the Democracy Index put out every year by The Economist? Norway and Sweden rank 1st and 4th every year…while the USA ranks 17th. Interesting that two countries with so many socialist programs ranks substantially higher than the USA when comparing democratic components.

  21. Thanks for your post, Rick. I studied in Nicaragua for about 6 weeks in the fall and had the joy of becoming Senora Nicaragua`s temporary daughter. I think of and pray for the Nicaragua family often, and I know how hard-working they truly are. Living with an education and motivation but with no where to apply it seems to be a hard issue for many Central Americans. And it is not that they do not want to work[INVALID]they simply cannot find anywhere or anyone with money to pay them. The Nicaragua family has a huge place in my heart. I hope they forever remain in yours.

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