The mural is old and faded, a reminder of headier days when the world looked ripe for violent revolution. Three years of neglect, the effects of a tropical climate, and petty vandalism have combined to give the mural its present appearance of a long-forgotten billboard along some abandoned stretch of rural highway. Yet the huge faces painted on the mountainside, Carlos Fonseca, Daniel Ortega, and Augusto Sandino—founder, unseated cuadillo, and namesake respectively of Nicaragua’s Sandinista National Liberation Front—still glower at those making the border-crossing into Nicaragua at Los Manos.
The crossing causes but a ten-minute delay in your journey thanks to an efficient and friendly group of customs employees. You change your money into Nicaraguan cordobas and are surprised to learn that they have a value roughly equal to the Honduran lempiras you have been spending these past days— about 15 U.S. cents. This is the new cordoba de oro or gold cordoba, of course. The old silver cordoba has a value exactly equal to that which it possessed in the Sandinista days—nada.
You climb into the canvas-covered back of the two-and-a-half-ton Isuzu truck that serves as a bus, pay your three cordoba fare, and you’re off to Ocotal, a small market town about 15 miles down the highway. The countryside is lush, green, cool, and perpetually bathed in a fine mountain mist. The weather is great. It’s hard to believe that you are in the tropics in June. You climb aboard an old school bus in Ocotal with the words “Storm Lake Community Schools” still painted on the sides. After paying your six-cordoba fare you continue down the mountain highway to Estelí, the first town of any size you come to in Nicaragua.
Your Central American guidebook points out that the pleasant mountain climate of Estelí made it a favorite pilgrimage site for “internaçionalista volunteers” during the Sandinista years. Gangs of would-be revolutionaries descended on the place during the 1980’s and covered its walls with propaganda murals. Since the election of Violeta Chamorro as president in 1990, the foreign “volunteers” have all but disappeared from Estelí and the murals are fading. The few internaçionalista-types that still arrive—like the longhaired, effeminate man and the two shorthaired, “butch” women you met at the Cordoba hotel where you took a room—are shunned by the locals who refer to them as “los inbanables,” or the unbathable ones.
As you walk about town you notice that Sandinista campaign slogans from the 1990 election are still visible everywhere. “Con Daniel todo serà mejor.” (With Daniel everything will be better.) Yet even die-hard Sandinista supporters in Estelí—one of only two towns in Nicaragua where the Sandinistas won a majority of votes in 1990—reluctantly concede that everything is better without Daniel and the Sandinistas. The town is filled with well-stocked shops and small pleasant restaurants that weren’t here just a few years ago. And unlike during the Sandinista years, you can actually make purchases with the local currency, rather than with American dollars. True, many businesses seem incapable of making change for even the smallest of bills. But the business climate is coming back from the dead. There’s no doubt about it.
The Galerìa de Héroes y Màrtires and the Sandinista Casa de Culture are closed. And this is a Saturday night! So what do the common people of Estelí—the ones for whom the Sandinista Front purported to have made its revolution— do on a weekend? Well, about a thousand of them are packed into the huge cathedral. The Roman Catholic Church is thriving in post-revolutionary Nicaragua. Meanwhile, the “Popular Front Church” created by the Sandinistas as a means of diffusing support for the Catholic Church has shriveled to a small band of fanatics who travel the country disrupting traditional church services.
The next morning a three-hour journey in another old school bus brings you down several thousand feet in altitude and spirit to Managua, a sprawling dump of a place. And it’s hot. A dead hot, sea-level city without hope of an ocean breeze. Central Managua was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972 and has yet to be rebuilt. Millions in foreign aid poured m following the earthquake, but every dime was pocketed by dictator Anastasio Somoza. An additional decade of neglect by the Sandinistas served only to exacerbate the problem. The earthquake zone is currently a no-man’s land filled with little squatter shanties. The rest of the city is a sprawling jumble of roads that run every which way. Chaos. Pure chaos. Luckily, the bus drops you off at a huge open-air market where one can catch buses to other parts of the country. You hop on a bus bound for Granada and go.
You open the latest issue of La Presna and read that the 16th cache of arms has been discovered. Like the others, this one belongs to the Marxist guerrillas of El Salvador and has been maintained for them by the Nicaraguan army. President Chamorro wants answers, but army chief Humberto Ortega, brother of former Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega, isn’t providing any. He simply says that the arms were “forgotten.” Meanwhile, Barricada, the Sandinistas’ daily newspaper, points out that 13 of the 16 bunkers were all but empty. It doesn’t inform its readers, however, that the other three contained hundreds of mortar shells, rocket-propelled grenades, and Claymore mines and tens of thousands of AK-47 rounds. The most recently discovered bunker contained thousands of pounds of C-4!
The ride to Granada is hot but lovely. The bus passes hundreds of little individual farms. Some of the fields are being worked with ox-drawn plows. Much of the resulting produce is transported along the highway in horsecarts. Still, many of these folks are purchasing secondhand tractors and pickup trucks. Just a few short years ago most were little better than subsistence-farming peasants. Now they are in business.
Granada is a grand town built on the shores of a great lake—Lake Nicaragua. It was the first Spanish settlement of any size in Nicaragua and still possesses a great deal of colonial charm, despite having been sacked a dozen times by pirates, plunderers, and revolutionaries. You ride from the bus station to the lovely central square in a horse-drawn stagecoach passing adorable tile-roofed houses. The wide, paved streets are shaded by huge mango and ceiba trees.
You take a room at another cheap hotel. This one costs 20 cordobas. And like the hotel in Estelí, this one has a few scruffy “gringos” staying there. A couple of limp-wristed men and two more dikes. They try to propagandize you about the great proletarian struggle until you inform them that you came to Nicaragua to celebrate the counterrevolution. They call you a “fascist.” You smile at these last remnants of the American hardleft—James’ “longhaired men and shorthaired women.” Hormonal (and societal) rejects.
That evening you stroll down to the waterfront where you encounter an unusual statue of Captain Don Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba, founder of Granada and namesake of Nicaragua’s monetary unit. The statue itself is not so unusual. It’s the brass commemoration plate: the inscription reads that the statue was “Presented to the President of the Republic of Nicaragua by Chief of State of Spain Don Francisco Franco. . . . ” The missing words from the commemoration plate, chiseled off with a powerful grinder yet still readable, are “Anastasio Somoza.” Orwell meets Ortega.
The next morning you find yourself on another old school bus heading to San Jorge, a small lakeshore town an hour south of Granada. And tied up at the pier, just as you’d been promised in Granada, you find La Senora del Lago, an old tub of a boat that makes a daily run to Ometepe, the volcanic island that shoots up nearly 5,000 feet from the surface of the lake. You pay your three-and-a-half-cordoba fare and climb aboard, taking a seat with about 50 other passengers among tons of freight. The 90-minute ride is delightful, in spite of the fact that the baby seated in the lap of the woman next to you throws up on you. No problem. You simply take off your shirt and drag it in the clear lake water. You set it in the sun and it is dry by the time you reach the island.
You take a room at the little hotel near the wharf. The price is 15 cordobas, or 20 if you want a table fan in your room. It’s about 110 degrees, so you opt for the fan. There is no running water in this hotel. The “shower” consists of a cubicle where one can dip buckets of water out of a rain barrel. The toilet facility consists of an honest-to-God outhouse. The clientele of this hotel is entirely female and middle-aged. “Donde estàn los hombres?” Where are the men? you ask. “At home,” they reply. And why? “Because we are on vacation.” Okay, okay. You sit down in a cane rocking chair with these ladies and lazily rock the day away discussing recipes and watching novelas, or soap operas, on the hotel’s television set. Hillary Clinton wouldn’t like this bunch of gals.
The boat makes its return trip at six o’clock the following morning. You quickly hop aboard another old school bus, and by ten you find yourself back in Managua. It’s already 100 degrees. Hot. Way too hot. You immediately board a bus headed for Matagalpa and fan yourself madly with that morning’s edition of Barricada. (Who said the newspaper isn’t good for anything?) Within an hour you are heading into the mountains, and the temperature drops about 25 degrees. As you cruise through one broad, flat-bottomed river valley you notice a school with a sign in Spanish that reads “The Mikhail Gorbachev School of Mechanized Agriculture.” Within the valley are a number of former Sandinista rice cooperatives that have either been abandoned or privatized since 1990. By early afternoon you reach the pleasant mountain town of Matagalpa.
The area around Matagalpa saw a great deal of revolutionary activity during the uprising that unseated Somoza. The Sandinistas later forced unwilling camposinos onto cooperatives, thereby giving birth to a great deal of counterrevolutionary, or “contra,” activity during the 1980’s. Like in Estelí, shops and restaurants are springing up everywhere. But unlike in Estelí, the people here are quite willing to express their disgust with the Ortega clan. The Sandinistas are killing the ex-contras, they say. They are undermining the peace process in neighboring El Salvador. The economy is being sabotaged. No wonder the muchachos are returning to the hills. . . .
Indeed, the latest news involves two more political assassinations. Another ex-contra has been rubbed out. So too has an agricultural expert who had been overseeing the reprivatization of lands seized during the Sandinista years. According to President Chamorro, over 100 former contras and civilian resistance leaders have been mysteriously murdered by gangs of armed men during the past year. Does this make the papers back home? Or are “death squads” only news when they can be tied to the political right?
The general consensus is that some 20 percent of the Nicaraguan people still strongly support the Sandinistas. Meanwhile, the UNO (United Nicaraguan Opposition) coalition that united behind Violeta Chamorro and unseated the Sandinistas in 1990 has completely fallen apart. By election time this year, the coalition may have broken into as many as 15 different parties. The Liberal Party alone has split into four warring factions. The Conservatives are divided six ways. Even the Social Christian Party—itself little more than a faction—is fractured. It is conceivable that the Sandinista Front could emerge from the elections holding the largest single block of votes!
Factional politics has long been a curse in Nicaragua. Time and again, the inability of those on any one side to close ranks around a single candidate has created political vacuums that are quickly and easily filled by armed groups of thugs—Somoza’s Guardia Naçional in the old days; the Sandinista Front more recently.
You arise bright and early the next morning and walk down to the mercado in the cool mountain air. The surrounding mountain tops are bathed in thick clouds, though the mist in the valleys is starting to clear. You hop on a bus to Estelí and ride for two hours up the pleasant little mountain highway. By the time you reach Estelí, the morning fog has cleared and the skies are as blue as can be. It’s a perfect 75-degree day. A quick bus change brings you to Ocotal, the small market town where you immediately hop aboard a two-and-a-half-ton Isuzu truck bound for the Honduran frontier.
The border formalities are as easy leaving Nicaragua as they were coming. The customs officials are pleasant and professional. You get your passport stamped, then change your Nicaraguan cordobas for Honduran lempiras. Yet as you walk toward the Honduran immigration station you can’t help feeling a bit uneasy. It’s those eyes. The eyes on the mountainside. You’re leaving Nicaragua under the harsh stare of Carlos Fonseca, Daniel Ortega, and Augusto Sandino, and it doesn’t feel good. You take a final glance over your shoulder at these three as you cross into Honduras. “We’ll be back!” they seem to be saying.