The personal and the political mingle in Nicaragua

When my father and I return to visit the country where we lived in the early 1970s, precious memories are offset by a sense of political disappointment

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The reviews on TripAdvisor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Managua are just what we were hoping for. “Room outdated,” goes one. “This probably used to be a great hotel,” reads another, “but it urgently needs a full renovation.” Arriving at the hotel, we are disappointed to find that the renovation is well under way. We had hoped to find the hotel unchanged in the four decades since we were last there.

It was January 1973 when my parents and I first arrived in Nicaragua. The hotel, then known as the Intercontinental, was one of the only buildings still standing after the devastating earthquake that left much of the capital in ruins. Bodies were still being pulled out of the rubble and the international aid that was pouring into the country was already being siphoned off by the Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled Nicaragua for decades. The 1979 Sandinista revolution that would capture the imagination of the world was still only a dream in the minds of many.

Now, 40 years later, my father and I have returned to find out what has become of that dream and of the country that forms a small but important part of our own history.

Old photographs

I was only two when we first arrived, and although I have been trading on this exotic snippet of biography ever since, the truth is that I hardly remember it at all. Nicaragua to me is a place that exists only in the old photographs that show my mum, barely 30 and movie-star glamorous, standing beside her white Cadillac on the street where we lived in the provincial city of León. Another shows my dad with a sombrero on his head and a gun in his holster, embracing the adventure of his life.

My return to Nicaragua is an attempt to fill a blank space before recollection starts, but for him it is different. He is venturing into a sea of memories.

When we arrive in León, there’s a celebration going on. Black and red Sandinista flags fly from the lamp posts as 100 plastic chairs are set out on a side street by the central square. A sound system is being rigged up. A stage is set with seats. There are almost as many dignitaries as there are people in the audience. A very old man wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt is in town for the event. He raises the flaps on his sunglasses to reveal brown eyes ringed with circles of deep blue. “I’m a Sandinista,” he tells us, his hand on his heart. “This is my party.”

“We lived here in the early 1970s,” I tell him. He looks at me fiercely. “Things are better now,” he says, challenging me to agree. “The revolution cost a lot of blood and sacrifice, but it was worth it,” he says. “Before, things were very bad. Now, things are better.”

At the Museum of the Revolution in León, old combatants sit out the day against a backdrop of crude murals glorifying the Sandinistas. The paintwork on the walls peels back decades; the floors are unbrushed, the photo displays yellowed and unframed.

A volunteer guide shows us a picture of himself aged 18, in the company of a group of other young fighters who all lost their lives. “I don’t repent anything,” says Carlos. “The people made the revolution and it belongs to the people. Now the very poorest people can go to university. They can achieve anything they want.”

We hail a taxi from León’s chaotic street market to go in search of our house, even though we have no address to give. My dad is peering eagerly out the window. I’m worried he won’t be able to find the house, or that it will have been knocked down in the decades since we left.

“There,” he says suddenly. “Turn left there.” The taxi driver swings around and we find ourselves in front of a large white house, with its windows firmly shuttered and its iron gates locked. Outside is a “To Rent” sign.

We peer through the railings, hoping for what? A glimpse of my mother, perhaps, sitting on the front step with her legs exposed to the sun, as she does in an old photograph. A sighting of my baby brother and me, with melting ice-creams dripping rivers down our bare bellies; that too, is just a photograph. The shuttered windows of the house stare coldly back at us, offering no clue of the life we lived here. We get back into the taxi.

Our driver is a former mechanic who used to service aircraft for the crop dusters who came from the US to spray the cotton crop. He participated in the revolution, as did his sister. Two of his brothers fell.

“Was it worth it?” I ask him.

He pauses. “Life is very hard here,” he says. “People who work for the government are all right, but for everyone else, life is hard. What most people want is work, but what they get is handouts. I don’t agree with handouts. It’s a form of control.”

To the beach

When we lived in León, we would often drive out to the beach at Poneloya to wash the city heat away in the surf of the Pacific.

Retracing that journey, we arrive to find dozens of workers digging rocks out of the sand. They’re building a malecón, or promenade, which they hope will bring the tourists to Poneloya.

Overlooking the beach are the eerie ruins of the seaside villas of the rich. They were abandoned in 1979, when the revolution triumphed, and have been empty ever since. The countryside haciendas of the Somocistas were turned over to the farm workers, but in some places that process is now being reversed, with smallholders coming under pressure to sell their lands back to large landowners and business interests, according to Trócaire’s director in Nicaragua, Martin Larrecochea.

“Macro-economically, Nicaragua is performing well,” he says, “But there’s growing inequality. There’s construction in Managua, but it’s not reaching the poor. The government does have some social programmes for them, but people complain that they’re not bringing change.”

Nearly four decades after the revolution that was supposed to bring justice and equality for all, Nicaragua is the second-poorest country in Latin America, after Haiti. Horse-drawn carts still ply the roads, even in the capital. Women wash their clothes in rivers and lakes. We see people queuing outside a Western Union office for remittances from family living abroad.

Vamos Adelante! – we’re going forwards – proclaim the giant billboards that appear along every main road. With his fist raised in a gesture of resolve, President Daniel Ortega is pictured with his wife Rosario Murillo, who some accuse of being his unelected co-president. Ortega seldom appears in public these days, but his wife goes on television daily with scripted bulletins full of good news.

“Ortega, in Somocista style, does not want critics,” says Carlos Salinas, an independent journalist who writes for Spain’s El País newspaper.

Ortega, one of the original comandantes of the 1979 revolution, first served as president of Nicaragua in the 1980s. After a long period in opposition, he was re-elected in 2006, despite allegations of sexual abuse made by his stepdaughter.

But Ortega’s much-heralded “second phase of the revolution” has alienated many of his former comrades. Term limits on the presidency have been abolished, leaving the way open for him to remain in office. Christianity has been welded to the revolutionary values of solidarity and socialism. Abortion has been made illegal in all cases, even where necessary to save the life of the mother.

“Things are worse now for women than they ever were,” says Sofia Montenegro, a former Sandinista who has become an outspoken critic of Ortega. Over coffee in a bookshop in Managua, she rails against the corruption, clientelism and interference in the workings of the press that she believes are the hallmarks of his government. “It’s a total betrayal of the people of Nicaragua,” she says.

Plus ça change

Everywhere we go in Nicaragua, people ask my father if he finds the country much changed in the four decades since we left. He doesn’t have the heart to say that many things in Nicaragua are surprisingly and shockingly, much the same.

“It’s been very disconcerting,” says Gioconda Belli, when I get talking to her at an event in Managua to discuss press freedom. Belli, Nicaragua’s most famous contemporary writer, is a veteran of the revolution. “The circle has gone back to the beginning,” she tells me. “But history is very long and we only live a little bit of it.”

The life of a person is not as long as that of a country. My parents were in their 30s when they moved to Nicaragua. My father is no longer a young man. My mother is no longer alive.

In coming back, we were venturing beyond the few faded photographs we have of the time we spent here, to walk the sun-baked street where we once lived, and to stand with our feet in the sand of the beach where we spent so many days as a young family. What we have found is no less and no more than the place where they were happiest.

  • Kathleen MacMahon is a former RTÉ news reporter and the author of two books, So This Is How it Ends and The Long, Hot Summer
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