July is a month of many important events in Nicaraguan history, in its search for true sovereignty, freedom from the claws of the Northern Eagle:
- 16 July 1927 – In Ocotal, Augusto César Sandino leads an attack against the US Marines and Nicaraguan National Guard, under the leadership of Anastasio Somoza García, who later was responsible of Sandino’s assassination and was made president by the U.S. government.
- 24 July 1928 – Augusto César Sandino’s movement against the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua officially ends – though the struggle would continue ….
- 23 July 1961 – The Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) was founded by Carlos Fonseca Amador, Santos López, Tomás Borge, Silvio Mayorga, Germán Pomares Ordóñez and others. (Borges would be the only one of these to see the FSLN victory.)
- 17 July 1979 – Nicaraguan president-dicatator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (Anastasio Somoza García’s son) resigned and fled to Miami (Florida, USA). He was the third member of the Somoza dynasty that ruled Nicaragua.
- 19 July 1979 – The FSLN and other popular movements that fought against the Somoza dictatorship declare victory.
Soon after that 1979 victory, the Revolution faced innumerable aggressions from that great Northern Eagle. With the ascension of Ronald Reagan as US President (1982-1989), the US would institute a media campaign of mis- and disinformation against the Revolution, impose an economic embargo, mine Nicaragua’s harbors (by the CIA – and condemned by the World Court in its 27 June 1986 decision), illegally establish and arm the Contras (which resulted in the Iran-Contra scandal), and other acts.
The 25 February 1990 elections would mark the turning point. The US promised that if the opposition candidate, Violeta Barrios Chamorro of the UNO party, won, it would end the embargo and the Contra War, and pay the reparations the World Court demanded in 1986. And in part, that is why the Sandinista Party candidate, Daniel Ortega, was defeated. Thus came to an end the first round of Sandinista rule on 25 April 1990, when Barrios Chamorro was sworn into office.
As a friend I visited in 1992 told me:
Estábamos entre la pared y la piedra. (We were caught between a rock and a hard place.) We were tired of the war, the shortages. The night of the elections, it was like a grave. No-one was out in the streets celebrating. Everyone was locked away in their homes.
I recently read Nicaraguan poet-novelist Gioconda Belli’s memoir. Her recounting of those 1990 elections and the aftermath reminded me of my Masaya friend’s recounting.
Gioconda Belli’s book, The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War.
In the mid-80s, I listened to many reports of what was happening in Nicaragua: US news and Latin American news. People who had traveled there to witness what was happening, and bring those lessons back to us. The discrepancies in what was going on provoked me to take my first trip to Central America. I left in early 1988, traveling solo overland through Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
I arrived in in San Marcos de Colón, the Honduras town just north of the only border crossing into Nicaragua open at that time. When I stepped off the combi at sunset, I was mobbed by kids touting places to stay. I got a room in the back of a general store. I heard the people’s scandalized gossip: She’s crossing into Nicaragua tomorrow. She’s traveling alone. She’s going to be raped. I took a walk around town and came across an old-fashioned, evangelical tent revival meeting. It felt as if I had walked into a Twilight Zone scenario.
The next morning I left for the Honduran border post. I had to walk the three kilometers (or was it five?) to the Nicaraguan border post – there was no transportation. I felt as if dozens of eyes and guns were trained on me. (I later learned that there were at least a half-dozen Contra base camps in that immediate area.)
There was no sign of where the Nicaraguan border was. But I could feel it – it was as if the vibes suddenly lightened. I walked past a bombed-out birder post, looking around for some indication, continuing to walk on. It wasn’t until someone sss-sss’ed at me. In that direction, I saw a young man sitting with a gun across his lap. “¡Bienvenida a Nicaragua, compañera!” He then led me to the immigration office.
I spent 10 days on a whirlwind visit of Nicaragua. It was just a few weeks after Hurricán Juana (Hurricane Joan, 22-23 October 1988) had cut a wide swath across Nicaragua. Roads were deeply gouged by raging rivers.
A Nicaraguan friend in Managua could not receive me, as she had to go out to the field to see the damage and plan for new plans for the redistribution of international aid. She told me, “This is your first time in Nicaragua. Stay out of the war zones. Please learn about us and our lives. I highly recommend you include San Juan de Sur on your itinerary.”
In that week and half, I visited not only Managua, but also Masaya, San Juan del Sur (arriving shortly after a Contra attack), Granada (from whence I took the train to …), León (where I went to a huge concert celebrating Nicaraguan-Swedish Solidarity Week), and Estelí (arriving on the feast day of La Purísima). I spoke with people wherever I went.
Within months of the 1990 change of power, the stories coming out of Nicaragua were not promising. Many of the Revolution’s accomplishments were quickly unravelling. Maternal and infant mortality rates were rising sharply, as were deaths from malnutrition, dysentery and other preventable diseases. Collectives and cooperatives were being dismantled as the moneyed classes returned to Nicaragua.
And I set my pen to paper, thinking about my 1988 journey to learn from Nicaraguans, to learn about their lives, their realities. Today I share with you that prose-poem, those vignettes (which had been published as a chapbook by Twin Tales Publishing, in 2000).
(In later trips to Nicaragua – talking with people on the streets, in the markets and in their homes, volunteering several times at the women’s center in Estelí – I would hear more testimonies of how life had changed for the people in Nicaragua – tales to be shared at another time …)
THE PEOPLE OF NICARAGUA
Carlos shows me to a hotel after we arrive in Managua in the darkening dusk. Cheap, clean and she allows only good people, he assures me. He tells me my friend live only about six blocks away and slips into the night to his mate and four children.
Guillermo tells me I’ve missed my stop. We get off the city bus together. He walks with me, points out where I want to go. He wants to show me Managua at night. I leave him with an unfulfilled promise to meet him later. He runs off, late for work.
Luís is not a Sandinista, unemployed with a wife and new-born in León. He helps me search for my friend though the unmarked streets of Managua in exchange for cigarettes / lunch / conversation. He offers me a place to stay if I need it.
Marcos sits in the Plaza near the museum and market. He waits for the bus to León to see his novia. I wait for the museum to open. We talk about his yearning to see the States, saving for a trip there. I give him my address in case he ever makes it.
A half-dozen men in the back of a pick-up truck, riding to La Virgen when I and two others jump in. One man chews on a piece of sugar cane. I turn to my traveling companion: Been so long since I’ve had some. The man offers me half, shares his half with those near him. I share mine with those near me. Another man has a semi-green orange, peels it and passes half one way, half the other.
A sugar refinery engineer picks us up outside of Rivas. We jump in back to join a man already there, who points out the hurricane destruction in the waning afternoon. After one stop, the ever-quiet engineer gets back in the truck, leans out the window towards us, hands us pieces of coconut candy. It’s late and thought you’d be getting hungry, he says, and turns back inward.
Fernando shows me the way to the train station in León, complains about the situation as we walk through the dirt streets. He thinks the Revolution is bad for the country, says that nothing has been done, points to the deteriorating railroad tracks.
Rosamaría and Tomás sit in the back of the bus. We travel together from León to Managua, joking, talking about life. Tomás teaches me about the passing countryside, its plants and its history, through the window, the afternoon.
The giving people of Nicaragua share what little they have, their history / their country / their conversation about life.
Truly Christian in thought and in action.
Mercedes, the owner of the Hotel Mascota in Managua, has eyes of a hawk, a mind as quick as an eagle. She sweeps her tiled floor nonchalantly, uses La Prensa for toilet paper.
Concepción – Connie in English, she says – runs an eatery across the highway from the market, places a plate of chicken and rice before me, joins us in a conversation over beer and rum.
The woman at the Museum of Nicaragua offers to guide / teach me their history, their culture. We stand in a room full of pre-Columbian pottery. Where have all the indigenous gone, I ask her. She stares at me, mouth, eyes open wide. Why they’re us, we all are of their blood!
Two women in their best dresses stand near us on the highway outside Rivas. They are traveling to see their mates, who are in the military, for the weekend. We pass the afternoon waiting for a ride with little luck. They teach us the finer points of hitching in Nicaragua.
A young woman watches me fight off the moneyed advances of a drunk, offers me refuge in the now-empty seat next to her. I thank her and mumble: Men. We look into each other’s eyes and laugh.
The women of Nicaragua are sharing and loving, are sisters.
How hard must you now fight to preserve your families, you’re her-story, your Selves?
Ángel, sitting with me in Connie’s eatery, practices his English over our beer and rum. If you want to see the progress of the Revolution, he says, see my friend who runs a school for mentally-handicapped kids. Under Somoza, there was no such thing.
The doorman at CEPAD in Managua asks a compañero going to the old center of the city to give me a lift. We ride on his motorcycle through the streets, growingly deserted, populated by fields of weeds and trees. At traffic lights her points out the earthquake destruction. At the ruins of the cathedral next to the marshen shores of the lake, he bids me farewell.
Juan, call me John, stands at the roadside in Masaya. What do you think of Nicaragua, he asks me. A beautiful country, I say, but life is so hard. Ay! But the people have such a beautiful spirit! What do you think about the war, he asks. It is wrong, I say. Nicaraguans have the right to decide their own future. The US is not Nicaragua and Nicaragua is not the US. Well said, he says ….
The Sandinista soldiers on leave at a concert in León, talking, drinking beers with us. I offer Pablo a cigarette, and the pack goes ‘round to everyone else, comes back half-empty. His friend and I dance in the calf-high grass.
A man finishing his work meets me in the courtyard of the pensión, comments on my arms full of Che’s books I’d just bought. I see the yearning in his eyes for them. I realize I just spent his month’s salary in ten minutes.
The defenders of Nicaragua’s future, holding hope and pride with your spirit.
How hard the struggle must seem now! Do your yearning spirits still fight?
A young boy comes make-believe begging as I finish my soda in a bag in the Plaza between the museum and the market. He runs off in glee when I call his bluff, returns with others who take my handkerchief. We play chase in the Plaza in the afternoon light.
Three neighborhood children gather around me, the oldest girl straddled on her bike. We talk of school on the curb in front of my friend’s house in the waning afternoon light.
Children play in the commons of a friend’s neighborhood in Masaya. I force my attention back to our conversation, our tales of survival.
Five children play a game of baseball in the cobbled streets that slope to the beach of San Juan del Sur. I ask if I could join them, they hand me the bat. I pitch to them in the late-afternoon sun.
The young boy – barely five or six – pulls on my pigtails as we leave a market in León. I turn around with a smile. His mother is apologetic. He’s never seen hair so long, she says.
The children of Nicaragua – you were the first I saw in all of Mexico and Central America playing, marveling, being kids.
I wonder how many of you have now died of starvation, malnutrition, disease, diarrhea.
A man with thinning white hair sits in a white cane chair next to his wife. He sells me a bag with a glint in his eyes, wants to know if I’ll go swimming with him in the morning.
A man, rotund with muscles and tanned, sits with me in a beach eatery in the mid-morning. He claims to be 64, but looks 50, claims to have two women and sixteen children. He leans forward, asking me to be his third. I decline, waving my hand. I’m already married and one man’s enough, I say. He leans back, laughing. Everyone has a lover here in Nicaragua, he claims, even married women!
Gustavo works in that eatery, finishes his sweeping, grabs his towel. We walk along the rocky shoreline to the best swimming hole. He serenades me along the way, woos me on the rocks overlooking the laguna. In desperation he swims out to the rocks, emerges on the other side, arms streaming with blood. This will be a permanent reminder of you, he says.
The men of San Juan del Sur, their hearts full of lust.
I wonder if you still seek a woman’s embrace in the night sea breezes.
A man, blind and leaning on a crutch, boards the bus. He stands in front, relates the tales of his war injuries, demonstrating each scar. He limps down the aisle praying, extending his hand for money. He steps out the backdoor.
A young man, eternally bathes in rum, expresses his hatred for America, his intense sorrow for his brother, killed by Contras two weeks earlier. I see him in the growing light of the next morning, weaving through the streets of San Juan del Sur, singing laments in his drink-cracked voice.
A man lifts himself from a wheelchair to a park bench in Granada. I ask him if I may talk with him. He tells me of the Contra wars.
A hunched-over man, darkened with unkempt hair and dirt, stoops into his open-air shanty in an empty lot near the Cathedral in León in the darkening night sky.
A man leans over the edge of a garbage can in the Managua bus terminal. I watch him as I wait in an endless line for Estelí, watch him run away from an extended hand.
The victims of circumstance, of economic hardship / decades of struggle for independence / years of Contra wars.
I wonder how well you yet survive ….