Traveling in Nicaragua, it helps to have a handle on the country’s recent history. The last 60 years can basically be divided into four periods: pre-revolutionary (1950s-1970s, Samoza family dictatorship, friendly with big landowners and the USA), Sandinista (1980s, with Daniel Ortega’s leftist government fighting the US-funded Contra insurgency), neoliberalism (1990-2006, after the right-wing, business-friendly party defeated the Sandinistas at the polls and the country was ruled by Violeta Chamorro, then Arnoldo Alemán, then Enrique Bolaños), and the return of the Sandinistas (since 2006, during which the ideals of the revolution have been tempered by the need to work with the right). In a nutshell: right, left, right, left over the last six decades.
Much of this power struggle coincided with the Cold War, and the political players here were pawns in a greater US-versus-USSR, capitalism-versus-communism struggle. Well-intended, patriotic Americans ‘ fearful of the Soviet sphere of influence ‘ felt we should support the pro-US, pro-capitalist factions. And yet, those same factions exacerbated horrific living conditions for the country’s poor. While Marxist, at least the Sandinistas wanted to improve things for the people. The US waded into the fray when the Reagan Administration imposed a trade embargo and financed a counter-revolutionary army, called the Contras, to fight against the Sandinistas. From one way of looking at things, to cheer on the Sandinistas was to support a dangerous communist influence in our hemisphere, and to subvert America’s capitalistic way of life. From another perspective, the Sandinistas were the only thing here that attempted to empower the downtrodden populace…geopolitics be damned. Communism was evil in Eastern Europe…but was it really so evil here in Latin America, where it strove to provide starving people with necessary food and medicine?
The scrappy leader of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, Daniel Ortega ‘ who stirred the hearts of romantics in the 1980s ‘ is now running the place. Back then, Ortega led an idealistic leftist revolution named for Augusto Sandino, who fought against the US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 1930s. Ortega’s Sandinista movement (and its political wing, the FSLN party) overthrew the dictatorial, US-backed Somoza regime, which had ruled the country with an iron fist for decades. It was a victory for bleeding-heart liberals the world over: Finally, “the people” had taken over the government. Things could only improve for Nicaragua’s poor.
But Ortega’s election to the presidency in the 1980s ‘ and again in 2006 ‘ has seen his idealistic worldview shifted, as he’s compromised on some of his core values. Today even many of Ortega’s former supporters consider him corrupt and willing to do anything just to hold onto power. Ortega confounded his base with what’s called “El Pacto” ‘ an alliance with his political archenemy, Arnoldo Alemán, to edge other parties out of power. And he reconciled with the archconservative cardinal, Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was once a harsh critic of the Sandinista movement. While campesinos still struggle, the Ortega family enriches itself by fashioning corrupt policies enabling them to virtually own entire industries.
While there’s plenty of desperation these days in Managua, you see almost no angry graffiti. But the city is covered with spray-painted cheers for Daniel Ortega. And yet, the graffiti rings hollow…it has as much soul as a sea of prefab Tea Party banners. This pro-Ortega propaganda appeared all at once, basically overnight, after the president unleashed a battalion of graffiti artists armed with black spray-paint cans to tag the entire city with “Viva Daniel” and “Viva FSLN” (his political party). It’s ugly, and it is a constant reminder of how power corrupts. The broad-based “Sandinismo” people’s movement has morphed into “Danielismo” ‘ a cult-of-personality celebration of one man’s ego.
When asked about this, people here shrug and say, “Well, our leaders are always corrupt and abuse democracy. At least the excesses of Ortega are not as worker- and campesino-brutal as Somoza’s were. Ortega never dropped his political opponents from helicopters into the Masaya Volcano that towers above Managua.”
While Ortega is the current big man, the official signs of national respect (coins, governmental slogans, monuments) ‘ like people’s hearts ‘ cheer not for Daniel Ortega, but for Augusto Sandino. While the Samoza regime killed this inspiration for the modern guerilla movement that would ultimately overthrow them in 1934, Sandino clearly lives in the hearts of the Nicaraguan people.
For me, it’s a personal challenge to come here and, rather than have my preconceptions confirmed, be forced to grapple with an uncomfortable reality. The Sandinistas are in power, and their FSLN flags are everywhere. The “people” have won, and yes, things are better for Nicaragua’s poor. But not all of the promises have materialized. The leader of the revolution seems to have been corrupted by power.
In the 1980s, the political voices of both liberal and conservative churches were stoked by left-wing and right-wing forces with an agenda. But today, after a generation of war ‘ fighting Samoza, and then the USA and the Contras ‘ the Nicaraguan people seem tired of struggle. The Nicaraguan right wing is also exhausted. Once emboldened by what seemed like unconditional support from the USA, it’s so overtly corrupt now that the US government has been revoking the visas of powerful right-wingers. A Nicaraguan elite without access to USA is no longer much of an elite. Stranded in Nicaragua ‘ even with endless money ‘ there’s something hollow about your elite-ness.
It feels like speaking out in either extreme is impolite. With Ortega so cozy with his former enemies, the Church no longer speaking for the poor, and the lack of political anger in the streets, it all seems like the symptoms of society that is, in general, exhausted. While once as agreeable as American Democrats and Republicans, today, it seems Nicaraguan society has found a more pragmatic alternative: cooperation.
This all reminds me of Europe in the 1600s, after a century of Catholics-versus-Protestants religious wars: People just embraced the Baroque, pro-status-quo world of divine monarchs and lofty Church ritual. So much of Central American contemporary history has parallels in European history ‘ affirming my belief that societies are evolving on similar tracks on different timelines.
I don’t know whether the FSLN leaders have been corrupted by power, or simply have no choice but to compromise pragmatically to stay in power in a world where the current of globalization cannot be paddled against. Either way, the ideals and spirit of the Sandinista revolution have blossomed into the society at large. They live in the people we talked to. While Daniel may have jumped ship, the boat of revolution has been cut loose and is still sailing.