León has a distinctively comopolitan flair. But not as you find in more internationally famous cities such as New York, Paris, Rome or San Francisco, but rather unique amongst its Central American counterparts. Not gentrified and roaming with gringo tourists as you might find in Antigua, rather still brimming with a traditional culture yet reaching beyond with a youthful exuberance evidenced by the arts and energy throughout the small yet growing city center. And with two popular Universities, one known for arts, the other the National Law University its no wonder that León is arguably the birthplace of the Sandinista revolution and many political figures that have shaken the country since the 1950’s.
Waking up the next morning and throwing up my century old shutters and letting in a swath sunlight and hot humid air fill my room, I had no idea I’d walk through streets where local university students perhaps ignited the movement that put an end to generations of Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. Strolling along the avenida toward parque central a short woman in her late 50’s carrying a small plastic shopping bag politely asked me for the time. Perhaps my trademark, I gave up wearing watches before I ever started. But I gave her my best estimate “mas o menos” and this ignited a conversation in Spanish. When I told her I hadn’t yet seen the history murals she promptly and stoutly told me that she’d show me.
Nicaraguan history fascinates me. But through it’s tumultuous past with what could arguably called a dynasty of repressive, controlling and obviously corrupt dictatorship, it’s fact that the United States and the CIA had helping hands in creating it.
Since gaining its independence from Spain in 1821 and after the ill-fated Central America Federation, Nicaragua became an independent union in 1838. Perhaps buried in the history books, but the U.S. took an active interest in Nicaragua because it believed at the time that the Rio San Juan, a long river that runs from the Caribbean in the southernmost part of the country dumping into the largest lake in Central America, Lago de Nicaragua, could be an ideal route for transporting goods and passengers from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. Thus, a partnership between an American, Cornelius Venderbilt, and the Nicaraguan government (The Accessory Transit Company) was granted exclusive rights to build a canal.
In an age old conflict that we see in the United States and nearly everywhere in the world, conservatives and liberals in their respective stronghold Nicaraguan cities of Granada and León were at each others’ throats. Eager to topple the Granada conservatives who held the power cards in 1855, the León liberals engaged the political and promotional services of American William Walker to help it achieve its objective. In short order, Walker took Granada and in affect, gained control of the entire country. Initially, Walker put in place a puppet government which he controlled, but eventually held rigged elections and declared himself president. He then ordained English as the official language and legalized slavery.
Vanderbilt still moving forward on his canal plans, feared the megomaniacal Walker was gaining too much power and with his political clout convinced neighboring countries Walker’s actions might incite rebellions elsewhere in Central America. Eventually Walker was overthrown with the help of the Costa Rican and Guatemalan governments. Many Nicaraguan lives were lost in the conflict and as Walker retreated he burned the charming colonial city of Granada. Eventually a team of U.S. Marines and escorted Walker out of the country as the United States intervened in the conflict. Ironically, three years later Walker returned for another adventure in Central America politics. He was captured by the British handed over to Honduras who ultimately executed him.
And such is the story of Nicaragua.
For the next three decades, power in Nicaragua bounced back and forth between liberals and conservatives, but overall the years led to prosperity in Nicaragua. This was largely due to the growing desire of American’s and Europeans to drink coffee — at the time Nicaragua’s largest export. Ultimately U.S. coffee and fruit companies gained increasing presence and power in Nicaragua. But when in 1904 the United States chose Panama for the site of the Transisthmian Canal, then Nicaraguan president Jose Santos Zelaya, ironically invited Japan and Germany to construct a rival canal. Though the plans never left the drawing board, relations with the U.S. deteriorated. This prompted a civil war between Zelaya’s liberals and the U.S.-friendly conservatives. Eventually the U.S. set a precedent in the region by landing nearly 500 marines on the Caribbean coast. Zelaya resigned soon thereafter, and for the next 20 years the U.S. maintained a military presence in the country while the conservatives maintained their power. But in 1926 unrest in the country by opponents of the U.S.-backed conservatives prompted the United States to send more troops to the region.
One of the opponents, Augusto César Sandino, a socialist waged his own independent guerilla activity using a personal army of peasants and laborers. He eventually joined the liberals fight against the conservatives and their U.S. allies. The United States in response to Sandino’s activities took over Nicaragua’s military and formed the Nicaraguan National Guard. The National Guard became such a significant force over the next few years. Surely enough, and as in many U.S.-backed efforts the result of its action was 40 years of dictatorship, undedr the U.S-educated and U.S.-marine confidant Somoza.
Samoza was a power hungry nut. And the long era, known as Somocismo, began in 1934 when as General of the National Guard he ordered the assination of Sandino who had by then become the liberal candidate or the upcoming presidential election. With Sandino six feel under rigged elections were held and Somoza was sworn in as president in 1937.
For nearly 20 years Somoza remained in power through rigged election and constitutional manipulating, during which the National Guard became like his personal army giving it power beyond the military sphere enabling it to take control of the post office, radio stations, newspapers, medical institutions and more. What a mess!
But in this wonderful town of León in 1956 a 27 year old artist and poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, took the situation into his own hands and as music played on the streets he fired a bullet into Somoza ending his life. The National Guard eventually repayed the favor by cerrating his body with 50 shots. Dead. But not much changed in Nicaragua as Somoza’s son, Luis Somoza Debayle, also U.S.-educated, took the position of intermim U.S.-president. His younger brother, Anasatasio “Tachiot” Somoza Debayle assumed command of the National Guard. And like father, like son, the Somozas stayed in power through manipulating the constitution and election process. As the years went on the dictatorship grew more severe as dissidents were regulary tortured, imprisoned and killed.
I had a chance to view two of the many sites where oppresives were impisoned and tortured. People where hung by their legs from trees and dunked into tubs of water. Many drowned. Fingernails were ripped from the feeble hands of starved prisoners and teeth extracted through tortuous means. As my guide wandered me throug the little visited “Fortina” just a few clicks north of the city of León, I was sick as I wandered this prison built in the mid-1930’s imagining the National Guard’s treatment of citizens looking for a better life for themselves and their families only to be sent to prison to be tortuned and killed.
But opposition to Luis Somoza grew stronger and in 1967 the conservatives and Christian Social Party banded together to ceate the National Opposition Union (UNO). But voter harrassment and rigged election ensured yet another Somoza victory. Shortly after Luiz Somoza died and power was left to his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza, who now was both president and the head of the National Guard. In 1972 just a few minutes after midnight on December 23rd an earthquake rocked Managua. By the time the earth stopped moving 10,000 people were dead and 50,000 left homeless. It was this earthquake the opened the eyes of most Nicaraguans, including those supporting Somoza, to the self-interested and corrupt Somaza government.
Why? Simply because most of the emergency supplies and aid sent from abroad were intercepted by the National Guard who on Somoza’s orders were sold to victims on the streets of Managua. What’s more, business and homeowners were unable to claim compensation for damaged property because the Somaza-owned insurance companies denied their claims. All classes of Nicaraguans were stunned and appalled by Somoza’s greed and cynicism — by 1974 his personal wealth was estimated at $400 million — while the rest of the country was living below the poverty line and trying to recover from its recent natural disaster.
Back in León, the Frente Sandinisists de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) named after Sandino, became a rallying force in the country. Founded in the late 1950’s by law students at the National University here as a Marxists-Lenninst response to the dictorship, the FSLN gained the support of students and workers and farmers from the countryside. In 1974 FSLN guerillas raided the home of a government official and held relatives of Somoza for ransom eventually earning U.S. $1 million. The guerillas fled and though the opposition gained ground, Somoza responded with further repression, surveillance, torture and murder of suspected dissidents.
And on the street I walked on today, Maria told me of a peaceful student protest held in 1978 that ended in the injury and bloody death of four students as the National Guard fired on the protest marching down this street of León. Today four crooses mark the spot where the bodies fell on that fateful day and yet another mural depicts the faces of the four students who died for freedom from the Samozan dictatorship. Eventually the “good” prevailed and on July 19, 1979 the revolution was offically won by the Sandinsitas,
The Sadinistas were a mixed bag, though. Despite their questionable politics, you’ve got to hand it to them for toppling Samoza’s dictatorship and for their efforts in bolstering the economy and literacy rate from the drowning depths of despair to hope. At the time they took over the Samozan dictatorship approximately 60 percent of the population was illiterate. Literacy workers dispatched to every corner and armed with only a chalkboard and a gaslamp had reduced this figure to thirteen percent. Women’s roles and rights were also affected postively because at the time nearly 20 percent of the Sandinista army were women.
But the Ronald Reagan era in the United States eventually spelt doom for the Sandinistas. Reagan was convinced that Nicaraguan’s leftist policies and its ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union meant the potential spread of communism daringly close to the U.S. border. The Reagan administration suspended all aid to Nicaragua in 1981 and subsequently waged a an open campaign against the Sandinistas. With $20 million of U.S. assistance the U.S. prompted the Contra War. Troops in training camps based in Honduras were made up of primarily ex-Somoza National Guard forces who fled the country on Somoza’s departure. And while many sectors of the Nicaraguan population had issues with the Sandinistas, there was distrust of the Contras because of the presence of ex-National Guard in the Contra forces.
With its neighbors, the U.S. and a heavily funded and armed Contra force, the Sandinistas were isolated. Soon their actions were ironically similar to the Somozas which they originally stood against. That is they revoked their promise for an open political system, banned opposition in the media and prohibited rival political parties. While the Iran-gate scandal in the United States put a crimp on support for the Contra forces, the Nicaraguan economy was ultimately strangled by a five-year U.S. trade embargo. By 1988 the FSLN and the Contras signed a ceasefire agreement.
In 1990 the Sandinistas, consider a shoe-in winner for the 1990 elections, but with 55 percent of the vote the publisher of a leading opposition newspaper, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, became the next Nicaraguan president ending nearly 10 years of Sandinista rule. With her win the U.S. lifted its embargo and cut off supplies to the Contras.
For six years Chomorro worked to rebuild Nicaragua. She negotiated with the World Bank and International Monetary fund to relieve Nicaragua’s debt burden. But inflation was sky high and two labor strikes crippled the country further forcing Chomorro to resolve the crisis by working with the Sandinistas during the strikes. This short affair with the Sandinistas angered and alientated the hard core right wing conservatives who ultimately got behind former Managuan mayor Arnoldo Alemán. Ironically, his party (PLC) was a splinter group of Anastasio Somoza’s political vehicle(PLN) and closely aligned with the Catholic Church. And in the 1996 elections Aleman defeated the Sandinistas and Chomorros UNO party. Aleman’s openly committed to the destruction of the Sandinistas.
In 2002, Aleman’s former vice president, now president of Nicarauga led the charge to strip Aleman of immunity and charged him with defrauding the government of $100 million. The soap opera got funnier when the next year Sandinista leader, Daniel Ortega announced he was forming a pact with Aleman — the man who just 5 years earlier was out to eliminate the Sandinistas for good. Their goal? To united against U.S. intervention.
Today more than 60 percent of the population still lives below the poverty line with 30 percent of these in extreme poverty. Yet despite its tumultuous political past, poor economy, escalating corruption and unemployment, the Nicaraguan people I found were happy, smiling and eager to share their country with me. And the more I stay in Nicaragua, the more I want to stay longer.
Toward the end of my few hour tour with Maria she started working me with her pitch. Disclosing her swollen and somewhat deformed forearm and wrist, she complained about the pain she was in. Just a few weeks back she tripped on a sidewalk and the fall caused her arm to break. The surgery would cost $150, but she can’t afford it. She then pulled a notebook out of her plastic bag. I flipped through the pages that discussed a hospital and school for deaf children and its need for donors for hearing aids: $250 each. And finally I read through a series of pages on tours of Leon and surrounding with suggested prices — including many of the sites she accompanied me. The first hour walking tour was free. She told me that I should go with my heart and anything I could provide on any of these fronts would be acceptable.
As I reached for a handful of Cordobas she pulled a watch out of her plastic bag, wound it and placed it on her wrist. I see. She really didn’t need to know the time after all. I explained to her firmly that the money I gave her was a down-payment for her operation and she should put the nearly $20 aside for this purpose.
I left her at the corner near the first history mural. She introduced her two daughters and grand children. They were sitting on the park trying to sell small handicrafts. Yes, life is hard, yet simple for most Nicaraguan’s. But one thing seems sure, everyone is happy. For the future must look brighter than the past.
Photos: (1) Doc sitting outside Las Balconies, where I stayed in León; (2) they are petitioning UNESCO to make the old Cathedral in the historic colonial center of Leon a World Heritage Site; (3) a birds eye view of León with it’s volcanic landscape; (4) a Sandinista mural; on the left is Somazo killing Sandino – on the right is the Sandinistas squashing uncle same with a saying long live Sandino; (5) a street mural of four students who were shot in cold blood during a peaceful protest in 1978; (6) artist depictiions of the torturing and killing performed by the originally US-set up Nicaraguan National Guard; (7) view of the old fort built by Somoza on a hilltop overlooking León where prisoners were locked up, starved and tortured.; (8) Maria my ad hoc tour guide of Leon!
NOTE: clicking images makes them larger. check out the Sandino mural, it’s fascinating!