TIPITAPA, Nicaragua—Cesar Augusto Mejia has given up on politicians. Decades of war, incompetence, and corruption—on the Right and Left—tends to sour a person on politics. For many Nicaraguans, it hasn’t really mattered whether the government’s acclaimed ideology was Sandinista Left or neoliberal Right, the upshot has been a hardscrabble life, little meaningful work, and less hope.
A stenciled sign next to the road from Managua to the small town of Tipitapa summed it up. "Sandinistas y Somacistas..." was scrawled at the top, followed by words that a visiting North American journalist translated as "...we’re all the same." She was asked, "Does that mean, ‘we’re all in this together’?" "I think that’s the idea," she said. Later, as we passed the sign on our way out of town, a native Spanish speaker clarified, saying the sign actually reads "they’re all the same." It’s a protest sign, he explained. It says, essentially, that they’re both screwing us; neither party cares about the poor, about the people.
Nicaragua is one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries, and demographics suggest that it will remain so: Half the population is under age 15, and a half-million children have no access to the nation’s education system. For Cesar Augusto, the main problem has been finding work in a country with a 60 percent unemployment rate.
"We’re tired of extending our hands [asking for assistance]," Augusto says. "We’re not beggars." There is a plywood factory southeast of Tipitapa that pays workers $2 a day; Augusto says he needs $10 a day to support his family. It was much worse in the Sandinista era, he says, because with a war going on food was limited. "If you belonged to the Sandinistas, you got a job," Augusto says. "You could not be apolitical. I decided not to join the party, so I couldn’t get a job. I had to fish." He pointed to the waters of Lake Managua, still at flood level a year after Hurricane Mitch roared through the region—waters tainted with mercury and other pollutants, a legacy of the Somoza dictatorship. "The Sandinistas lived better than we did," Augusto said.
Virtually every family in Nicaragua has scars from the contra war, in which as many as 50,000 people lost their lives, perhaps 100,000 were injured, and 150,000 left homeless. Cesar Augusto and his friend Luna Jimenez blame the Sandinistas. "They would come and take our sons away to go to war," Augusto said, "whether they wanted to go or not." Jimenez said that two of her sons—ages 20 and 16—were taken by the Sandinistas. She never saw them again.
Later, on a bus leaving Tipitapa, an American journalist began to recount Jimenez’ story. "She said her sons were taken, and killed by the contras..." the journalist said. Another writer who had heard Jimenez jumped in, "She never said the contras killed them. They could have been killed by the Sandinistas." An argument ensued—not over what she said, but over who was to blame for her sons’ deaths. The war still divides Nicaraguans, and Americans, too.
THE GIFT SHOP in Managua’s Hotel Intercontinental is perhaps like no other in the world. Next to the usual touristy knick-knacks are treatises on neoliberal economics, encyclicals by the pope, and works by Kant and Hume (all in Spanish)—as well as slightly more popular fare by John Grisham and Danielle Steel.
On the magazine rack, the latest issue of the London-based Economist magazine is most prominently displayed. The cover is adorned with a map of the globe, centered on the United States, with the headline "America’s World." Near Hawaii is the word "Surfin’." Up in Canada, "Huntin’." Off the coast of Florida, the label says "Fishin’." And for Latin America? "Exploitin’."
The contra war was a dramatic example of U.S. intervention in Nicaraguan affairs, but it certainly wasn’t the first, or even the most violent. Since the days of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has considered Central and South America its backyard—and has enforced that view with military (often) and economic (always) means. Some would say the economic interventions in the last century have been the more effective—and perhaps even more painful for the poor.
The U.S.-backed government that succeeded the Sandinistas, for instance, immediately cut taxes on luxury goods and raised them on medicines, clothing, and school supplies. Literacy rates among the poor, which had risen dramatically under the Sandinistas, began to fall. The current neoliberal government of Arnoldo Aleman has continued the "free-market" policies that prove such a boon to the rich, and provides little hope for those seeking meaningful change. "Corruption has reached the levels of the Somoza period," said Jefferson Shriver, the Managua-based Hurricane Mitch response coordinator for Lutheran World Relief. "People are cynical about politicians being interested in anything but their own enrichment and power."
While some Nicaraguans are understandably disillusioned with all political parties, support for the Sandinistas—who still control some local governments, despite their declining credibility in national affairs—is still strongest among the poor, as it always was. Not surprising, those who most benefited from the Somoza regime—generally, the well-to-do and the ruling class—were the most critical of the Sandinistas. Even the church was split along class lines, with those at the top of church institutions—most notably Catholic Archbishop Obando y Bravo of Managua—largely opposing the Sandinistas and the "people’s church" providing support. And despite the corruption of the Sandinistas after they took power, many poor Nicaraguans still feel they at least tried to institute policies that helped the poor.
Jose Varga, a man in his 30s who was moved to a site next to a garbage dump after Hurricane Mitch destroyed his home, complained about what he called the lies of the Aleman government. "The government said that we’d be better off here than in the flooded lands," Varga said. "They said it was temporary. They didn’t warn us about the [contaminated] water. The government is totally corrupt. They don’t care about us." A year after the hurricane, Varga was still living in a tarp-and-cardboard "house" next to the dump site.
When asked whether he felt the Sandinistas were any better, he first replied, "We don’t care. We like whoever will help us." A friend, Carlos Alberto Esquinal, 27, agreed. "I don’t depend on them anyway," Alberto said. A few minutes later, in a more private setting, Varga said quietly, "The Sandinistas helped more with the houses; they gave help to the poor. For example, in the past when we had floods, and bridges were washed out, it didn’t take a year for the bridges to be replaced. Now, bridges are down, and no help comes."
After decades of exploitation, oppression, war, corruption, and the ravages of wind and water, it’s easy to understand why the people of Nicaragua are tired and disillusioned. But the raw materials for the country’s recovery and healing—most notably the resilience and strength of its people—are waiting to be tapped, and external policies such as debt relief and fair trade could begin to make change possible. Given half a chance, Nicaragua can be born again. Given half a chance.
JIM RICE is managing editor of Sojourners. He traveled to Nicaragua last fall with a Food for the Poor-sponsored delegation of journalists visiting projects aimed at rebuilding after Hurricane Mitch.