Nicaragua’s Sandinista legacy
This op-ed appeared in the Orlando Sentinel on July 19th.
By: Ronnie Lovler
Ronnie Lovler is the former director of news and public affairs at the University of Florida and a former correspondent for CNN in Latin America.
Life in Nicaragua has changed dramatically since I lived there 10 years ago. My most recent trip, in early July, triggered some thought as I wandered around on a hot and steamy Saturday and noticed the preparations for the 25th anniversary of Nicaragua’s signature event: the Sandinista revolution.
Banners were posted around town announcing a big rally in the plaza near Lake Managua today. A film festival is planned. Commemorative T-shirts were already on sale.
The 25th anniversary of the Sandinistas’ triumphant march into Managua on July 19, 1979, will hardly be the silver anniversary that the Sandinistas might have envisioned for themselves on the day they officially toppled the dictatorship of then-President Anastasio Somoza.
For one thing, the Sandinistas have been out of power for 14 years now. The party is fractured and splintered. One-time Sandinista leaders such as former Vice President Sergio Ramirez have retired from politics. Others have started their own political parties. In fact, the only one who just doesn’t seem to give up is Daniel Ortega, still at the helm of the Sandinista party, despite his 1990 electoral loss and his two unsuccessful bids since then to regain the Nicaraguan presidency.
Yet this July 19 anniversary is worthy of commemoration. Nicaragua has changed in the past 25 years. And although they are no longer in power, the Sandinistas literally and figuratively wielded the sword that forced the changes.
Nicaragua was my home for eight years when I was based there as a journalist, during the 1980s and early 1990s, when the U.S. government frenzy against the Sandinistas was at its peak.
In those days, because of the U.S.-backed Contra war against the Sandinistas, shortages were a way of life. Gasoline was rationed — dispensed only with special coupons in hand five gallons at a time. Water was cut off twice a week. Power outages happened randomly and frequently. Supermarket shelves were bare except for sporadic canned goods from the Soviet Union and East Germany.
Getting a new telephone line was impossible, making an international telephone call next to impossible. Restaurants still functioned but more often than not when you asked for something, the server would simply reply, there isn’t any, or “no hay.” On the other hand, I did get to see the Bolshoi Ballet in Managua, something that, in those days, I could not have done in the United States.
These days, the art of compromise seems to be the name of the game on the Nicaraguan political scene. Ortega’s vice-presidential running mate in the 2001 elections, Augustin Jarquin, is a man he had once put in jail. Just this month, Ortega publicly apologized to a Catholic Church functionary he had demonized in the 1980s.
These days in Nicaragua, there is plenty or “si hay,” in a way that I never would have imagined 10 years ago. New highways are being built and roads are being repaved. Instead of the ever-present Lada, a Soviet-made automobile, new Japanese cars abound. Gasoline is abundant — expensive at the equivalent of $2.50 a gallon — but available. The telephone problem has been resolved by the cellular industry. Internet cafes abound in every corner of the country.
Managua’s main drag now resembles a small Miami strip mall. There are sushi bars, pizza places, U.S. fast-food chains and elegant dining at first-class restaurants. Many of Nicaragua’s wealthy are returning from Miami and building new homes in exclusive suburbs. Nicaraguan teens go clubbing in a variety of nightspots. New hotels adorn the strip, and the bed-and-breakfast business is booming.
All this — directly and indirectly — was put into motion by the Sandinistas when they took up arms against the Somoza family and Nicaragua’s hated National Guard in the 1960s. Of course, this “little Miami” scene was not the goal of the Sandinistas — nor is it the goal of serious economic thinkers and planners in Nicaragua today.
Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America, a place where the “haves” still have a lot and the “have-nots” still have very little. But there is a middle class now, however fledgling, and little by little economic opportunities are opening up.
It is said in Nicaragua, and not without some truth, that the Somoza family, who ruled Nicaragua for most of the 20th century, looked upon Nicaragua not so much as a country, but as the family’s personal property. The Sandinistas changed that, and that one fact is worthy of celebration by all Nicaraguans today.
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