On the political calendar of Nicaragua there is no other date quite like the “Diecenueve”. The 19th of July holds a special place. There is Independence Day, the commemoration of Pancasan, the Retreat to Masaya. But that day, 35 years ago, when the forces of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) entered Managua and declared the capital and country free from 43 years of Somoza family dictatorship is like no other.
Much is made of the Sandinista Popular Revolution. And justifiably so. It brought in sweeping reforms in education and health, not to mention radical land reform. The latter saw the establishment of agricultural co-operatives, where landless people who had worked the land for generations became the collective owners of former privately owned large estates. Women took their places in representative politics and at every level in the administration of state institutions.
Since 1979 the FSLN, both in and out of government, has tried to maintain that character of a popular revolution. If you ask how successful it has been the answer is likely to depend on who you ask.
This year’s celebrations in Managua saw thousands descend on the capital. One estimate in the English language online publication, Nicaragua Dispatch, which is anything but FSLN friendly, claimed 500 000 of the party faithful turned out. Busloads of supporters traveled to the capital from all over the country, many setting out from rural communities before sun rise with an expectation of returning to their point of origin well after midnight. Certainly, Managua’s Plaza de la Fé was full of people wearing T-shirts marked 35/19 amidst a sea of waving blue and white national flags together with the red and black of the FSLN party. There was also a scattering of Palestinian flags.
Compared to other years in Nicaragua 2014 has so far been a quiet period politically. But one event has clearly defined it. Much fuss was made about the signing of an agreement with a Chinese business man to finance the construction of a shipping canal to rival that of Panama in facilitating trade between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. A few weeks ago some details were made public.
After investigations the final canal route was revealed. The quantities of steel, cement, rock and sand required for the construction were made public as were many other technical details. Commercial and legal aspects of the agreement got a mention, causing concern in some quarters, as have environmental considerations. Another detail was released but didn’t really show any media staying power. Laureano Ortega is President Daniel Ortega’s 27 year old son. He has been known as a concert tenor, then more recently as an unpaid advisor on tourism to the semi state foreign investment institution, ProNicaragua. Now he is to be the president’s representative to the canal construction company.
As usual at such big public events, the animated Primera Dama, Rosario Murillo, Coordinator of the Counsel for Communication and Citizenship, introduced the platform. Besides her husband, this included a cardinal and several Latin American dignitaries. Then came Daniel’s turn to speak and he did so for about an hour and a half. It was dark by the time he had finished and many if not most of the gathering had waited in the scorching mid-day and afternoon sun for hours before he even started.
At the best of times Daniel is not an inspiring speaker. Not every political leader is. But on this occasion he was particularly vacuous. He followed a well-used message line frequently taken up by both Ortegas. There was much talk of love. Even more than one might have expected at a Californian hippy convention circa 1968. God figured prominently too, enough to outstrip an ecumenical congress at the Vatican with guest appearances by Billy Graham and a holy host of televangelists.
He did, to his credit, mention of the struggle of the Palestinian people. Those who had come with politics in mind, particularly class aspects of power, must have been disappointed. Absent also was reference to the construction of the Grand Canal of Nicaragua, a project which has been estimated at a cost of US$ 40bn. No leader in command of their mental faculties would let such a thing slip from their mind. On the other hand, a leader with something else on their mind might well do just that.
There are a number of issues bearing on the people and government of Nicaragua. The country has an ongoing border dispute with its neighbour to the south, Costa Rica. Alongside its northern frontier is Honduras, well peppered with US military bases, never with a friendly disposition towards a FSLN government. It was in this northern region that the US backed Contra forces waged their low intensity war against the achievements of the Sandinista revolution during the 1980s. There has been talk of armed groups operating again in the north. But the authorities have dismissed these stories as nothing more than “delinquent”, “criminal” behavior.
Nature isn’t doing Nicaragua any favours either. A leaf disease is affecting coffee plantations in the central north region. Coffee is the major export earner for Nicaragua and a huge job generator. On the west there is a drought, some crops have not been planted, meaning no harvest in the months to come. We know from history that when economies don’t do well people often tend to blame their government.
Be all that as it may, the buses left Managua in the darkness, heading in every direction. Some going north, using the Pan American Highway. Their passengers were returning to locations north of the major cities of Estelí and Matagalpa. But not all the passengers arrived back safe and well to their communities.
Sometime after midnight two separate ambushes were made on returning buses. One was in the community of Las Calabazas, Matagalpa, killing 4 and injuring 24. The other attack, also in the Matagalpa region, near San Ramon claimed the life of a 19 year old Sandinista supporter who was from San Juan de Limay in the region of Estelí. Both attacks show characteristics of the low intensity war waged by the Contra during the 1980s. Robbery was not a motive; the targets were unarmed and bore the identity of Sandinista supporters.
Later on the same day, as usual the Co-coordinator of Communication and Citizenship spoke on radio. The message was the same, peace, love, the Nicaraguan family. In the evening Daniel Ortega appeared on television, addressing a gathering of Sandinista youth, more talk of love and peace. The riband that ran along the bottom of the TV screen read “Nicaragua is full of peace.”
The Ortegas may well be reaching saturation point on the nation’s good will scale. Perhaps they will remember the words of Pablo Neruda. He notes the following in his poem And How Long?
“it was not so much the death of a microbe –
they went down by the ton –
but the few which survived
showed signs of perversity.”
Whatever else is happening in Nicaragua there is something perverse – even if it is being denied – going on in the north. It has been going on for years and may have the capacity to eventually tip Daniel and the FSLN into downfall. Whatever it is, phrases like delinquent and criminal are no way to confront it. But we know that Daniel excels at making deals, so who knows what is going on behind the scenes?
Personal and family grief apart, armed unrest does not bode well for foreign investment and a massive canal construction project. The canal is something not every Nicaraguan is totally sold on. These armed attacks in the north represent a grievance and a response which has gone beyond the bounds of democracy. The former Contras have their own political party, the Nicaraguan Resistance Party. But some of their supporters, who were cynically manipulated and motivated during the 1980s war, have little faith in the party’s leadership, still small but established among the political classes. As yet it is not clear who or what groups are behind this orchestrated attack.
Whatever is going on, one thing speaks out. Any armed attack on Sandinista supporters on the 19th July is a planned and deliberate political act.
Sam Gordon worked in a Belfast factory, then an engineer in the merchant navy, a trainer, researcher and co-coordinator of community projects in Scotland. A graduate from various universities, on a good he claims he’s a decorative artist and sometimes writer. Most days he’s a blacksmith, welder, and painter in Nicaragua.