Saturday, September 16, 2006

A visit to the city center

September 10, 2006

I was pretty bummed out to be here a week and feel as though I really hadn’t seen anything of the city. So today, I organized a conversational Spanish lesson and arranged for it to be held somewhere in the city.

Awilliam picked me up in his 1981 Datsun truck. None of the indicators – speed, temperature, gas – worked, to roll down my window, he attached the crank, then removed it, and opening the door required a punch in a certain location of the door. But I was excited to get out and see something – anything.

His plan was to take me to Revolution Plaza. But the main road was closed off, due to a motorcycle race and we had to take a detour.

We went through what Awilliam said used to be old Managua. Until the earthquake of 1972, it was the center of town and filled with multistory buildings. But now mostly one-story homes of low-income residents fill it. Even these are built with steel rods to weather future earthquakes. Awilliam said that parts of Managua lie directly on faults.

Early on a Sunday morning, there wasn’t much activity at the Revolution Plaza. But I saw the most attractive collection of buildings I’ve seen so far in Managua.

We stood in front of the old cathedral, where two guards kept visitors at bay and the birds living inside tweeted contentedly.

“It’s their palace,” Awilliam said.

It had been heavily damaged in the earthquake of 72 and Awilliam said that pieces can come tumbling down at any time. It seemed to be a dangerous job for the two guards.

A still, round fountain stood in between the church, the yellow and sand-colored Presidential offices, the ivory National Museum, and a deteriorating park. This fountain, Awilliam said, used to be very beautiful. And in order to tell me the story, he filled me in on the past several decades of Nicaraguan history.

At the time of Nicaraguan independence, in 1921, there were two parties, the Liberal and the Conservative Party. The conservative party almost always held control. In 1893 the Liberal Party sponsored a revolution, wanted more changes. Among their achievements were bringing coffee to Nicaragua for production and export. By the mid 1950s, Nicaragua had good roads, plenty of work and a strong currency.

But at that time, the hippies set the fashion. And when the Cuban revolution took place in 1959, the Liberal party no longer seemed to be on the forefront of change. The future was with Castro and with the Soviet Union.

A group of Nicaraguans went for ideological and military training in socialism. These people later founded the FSLN (the Sandinistan Front for National Liberation), which opposed the Liberal party. They began a guerilla war, which drove President Samosa out of office in 1979.

When the FSLN assumed power, they moved to the extreme left, forming close relations with Castro and Qaddafi, confiscating homes and land from the rich, jailing and killing people with other ideas.

The people didn’t want an extreme government, so they began a contra-revolution, which the U.S. assisted. Wars began in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

“Nicaragua served as a bridge for transporting arms to this different wars,” Awilliam said. “The U.S. knew Cuba could be controlled because it was an island. But Nicaragua had the possibility to spread these problems throughout the region.”

In 1985 the population asked for elections. The FSLN agreed, but only allowed the FSLN, Socialists and Communists to run. The FSLN won.

By 1989, the war was serious. Young men were drafted from schools and universities, sent to fight without any experience, died.

“The mothers and fathers looked ahead to the future and saw that their children would die in battle. They didn’t want war anymore,” Awilliam said. So they asked the Organization of American States and the UN for pluralistic elections with observers.

The FSLN gave permission to anyone who wanted to form a political party. Despite the continued danger of opposing the regime, 14 parties were established.

“No one could speak openly,” Awilliam said. “On each corner stood CDSs, members of the Committee in Defense of the Sandinistas. They were the eyes and ears of the Revolution. They could kill anyone they thought was against the Revolution.”

The parties recognized that without uniting, they couldn’t defeat the FSLN, which controlled all the countries resources. So in September of 1989, they formed into a single party, Party UNO, the Union of National Opposition.

UNO won the election and took power in 1990.

“It was very difficult for them though,” said Awilliam. “Because everything Nicaragua had was under FSLN control – the police, the army, transport. They couldn’t just change the leaders because there were masses of people under them still loyal to the FSLN, who could organize coups. They decided to leave the leaders in place, to try to change them little by little.”

In the 1995-96 elections, UNO disappeared and the 14 parties competed separately. The Liberal Party won, based on the progress it had made during its former rule. The President, Arnoldo Aleman, obtained investments, built new hotels and tourist structures, and created the National Museum, the Presidential offices, and the fountain we were looking at.

“But he had a problem,” Awilliam said. “He stole money. There was a lot of corruption.”

By 2001, the population, tired of the corruption, was ready to vote FSLN back into power. Until the events of September 11th. After the attack on the World Trade Center, FSLN leader Daniel Ortega was interviewed on TV. He congratulated Osama Bin Ladin, saying it was about time the U.S. experienced the same thing it did in other countries.

After that interview, President Bush said that if the FSLN won the election, the U.S. would immediately impose a blockage on Nicaragua, equal to those imposed on Cuba, Iraq and North Korea.

“The Nicaraguans knew what a blockade was like from the 1980s,” Awilliam said. “And they were afraid. Even the Sandinistas didn’t vote for the Sandinistas.”

So the former Liberal Party vice-President, Enrique Volanyos, became President.

“The fountain had expensive colored lights, streams of water, and speakers. But that wasn’t all,” Awilliam said. “The water and lights moved to the rhythm of the music. So when a particular symphony was played, the water and light flashed and moved to the music. People would gather at the park to watch and listen.”

However, in the last two biannual municipal elections, the Sandinistas won. And the Sandinistas ignored the fountain. When it broke, due to neglect, they didn’t want to repair it, because it had been created by the Liberals.

We walked to a nearby area, where we ambled along the top rows of a white bandstand. In one direction, I could look out at the obelisk built to honor Pope John Paul II, at a faded amusement park and young boys driving four-wheelers for rent, at a statue of Simon Bolivar, the liberator of the Americas, on a horse.

In the other direction, I looked out at the shores of Lake Xolotlan, polluted due to dirty water that has run into it from higher elevations, and a series of small lakeside cafes, where people gather to drink and dance in the evenings. A Cuban café played upbeat Spanish music, wild parakeets make a constant racket, and the smell of garbage filled the air, despite the impressive numbers of trash bins.

“The government keeps reminding people to keep their city clean. But they throw things on the ground anyway. It’s very difficult to change,” Awilliam said.

I looked out at culture, history, nature and amusement, at a place with so much potential. But it felt run-down, abandoned, stripped of its potential. Maybe it appears differently in the evenings, when concerts are in progress and the heat and spirit of the people liven the area up. But for now, it seemed emblematic of where Nicaragua is right now – a place of potential that needs a good push forward.

When I returned home, I turned on the TV. Awilliam had told me that channel 8 showed sensational local news. And when I came across it, the coverage struck me. A motorcycle, that had participated in the races we passed, hit some bystanders. One person died and four were injured.

The news camera came in for close-up shots of the stunned and hurt living, as well as the woman who’d died. According to the broadcaster, the heavyset woman lying face-down in the street, her legs splayed, her shorts ripped open, was a vendor named Dona Theresa. She’d been selling things to the bystanders and had been with a child, who wasn’t with her at the time of the accident. The camera zoomed in to where guts were spilling out of her knee, where the bike had probably run over her.

It was really distressing to see. It may be called censorship, but I’m glad the news in the U.S. doesn’t show such images. It didn’t do me any good to see that. I only found it disturbing to see the lifeless body of someone who rose this morning to work, trying to support her family. And it must be terrible for her relatives. The broadcaster seemed to expect her relatives to be watching.

“Her body is in the morgue, waiting to be identified by relatives,” she said. “Dona Theresa didn’t have any identification on her.”

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