Bricks and Mortars

A fading revolution?

By Lawrence Reichard | Mar 02, 2018

Three columns ago I said my next column would be on the current state of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution. Then I got distracted. A cocked gun in your face will do that. In any event, here is the promised column, two columns late.

I arrived in Managua, Nicaragua's capital and biggest city, Jan. 2, and I welcomed the rush of heat and humidity after an unusually cold December in Maine. It was odd, and exhilarating, to be back in Nicaragua, where I had lived for half of 1988, and as I made my way through the wonderful fresh air of an airport without air conditioning, I was welcomed by a big banner hanging from the ceiling of the modest airport's lone terminal.

The banner bore an image, but it was not of Augusto Sandino, the early 20th-century revolutionary hero for whom the airport was named. It was of Daniel Ortega, current president and hero of the 1979 revolution, and Rosario Murillo, Ortega's wife and current vice president, whose image bore a slight resemblance to the pale, latter-day Michael Jackson.

Immediately something was amiss. The banner had all the markings of a campaign banner, and it wasn't hanging on a private, paid-for billboard, but rather in a high-profile, publicly financed venue that suggested official approval. And it suggested at least the beginnings of a personality cult, in what is at least on paper a democracy. Uh oh.

"Times of Victory!" the banner announced. "For the Grace of God! Love for Nicaragua...Always Forward!" This was new. I didn't remember the Sandinistas ever making a play for the religious vote.

I would go on to see this and similar banners extolling Ortega and Murillo scattered all over Nicaragua in my three weeks there. And in other venues that lacked humility. Outside and inside the impressive — and except for me entirely vacant — National Museum, and even in the sprawling cemetery of the very pleasant mountain town of Jinotega.

On my second day in-country, I hitched from Managua 26 miles to the old colonial city of Granada, and save for one hairy motorcycle ride, all my rides weighed in, with no prompting from me, on the current state of politics in Nicaragua. And they all said variations of the same thing.

"It's becoming a dictatorship," said middle-aged Antonio, who had lived in the States and was busy working the loud, grinding gears of his ancient workhorse truck. Having to speak loudly to be heard is not something that will deter any Nicaraguan.

Like every Nicaraguan I met, Antonio referred to President Ortega as simply Daniel, perhaps another hallmark, however benign, of a nascent personality cult.

"He started out well," Antonio said. "But now it is slowly becoming a dictatorship. I agree with his politics, but he should not have changed the constitution to allow for terms without limits. I'm afraid he's going to be president forever, and we need a change." I was to hear variations of this over and over in my three weeks in Nicaragua.

Indeed, Ortega did stack the Supreme Court, which in turn showed its gratitude by changing the constitution to allow him to run for an unlimited number of terms.

After a couple of days in the colonial charms of Granada, I made my way back to sprawling Managua, where I stayed for several days in the former Quaker House, where I lived in 1988. As a Quaker, I was disappointed to hear that the house had been given over to a non-Quaker aid group. I was sorry to see an apparent Quaker pullback from engagement with Nicaragua.

But still up on the walls of the house were two photos of Ben Linder, a 27-year-old U.S. engineer who was working on a small hydroelectric dam in rural Nicaragua in 1987 when he was murdered by U.S.-supported conter-revolutionary Contra forces. There was one photo of a beaming Linder riding a unicycle while surrounded by Nicaraguan children.

It was good to see Linder remembered — I hadn't thought about him for years — but the photo was heartrending. Linder was one of many North Americans, many of them young, who poured into Nicaragua to soak in the revolution and to help out, and their presence in Nicaragua helped galvanize U.S. opposition to the Contra War, a lesson that probably wasn't lost on the Contra forces that killed him.

While I was in Nicaragua, the La Prensa newspaper ran an in-depth article marking Daniel Ortega's completion of 16 years as official and de facto head of state. La Prensa repeatedly pointed out that Ortega's 16 years in power tied him with two of the country's most infamous dictators, one of them being Anastasio "Tachito" Somoza Debayle. Ortega's Sandinista comrades shed much blood in their successful war to oust Somoza, and now Ortega was being compared to the brutal and fantastically corrupt former dictator. To be in any way compared to Somoza marks a long, ignoble journey for Ortega.

And this is what has given rise to what I referred to in my previous Nicaragua column as a political cynicism and fatalism that has replaced the exciting and dynamic revolutionary enthusiasm that suffused Nicaragua when I lived there in 1988, when the country was on the brink of defeating the U.S.-sponsored counter-revolutionary Contra forces, and when most of the country seemed to be actively engaged in the same struggle for a more just and equitable society.

Nicaraguans' current concerns of a possible dictatorship-in-the-making may be perfectly legitimate, but Ortega's rule is a far cry from the murderous reign of Somoza and his father before him, and it is met largely with a cynicism marked by oh-well smiles and shrugs. Life goes on.

But history is a fickle beast. It can change course on a dime, and I wouldn't bet on Daniel Ortega serving out however many terms he may have in mind.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.


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