Exploring Nicaragua

By Wally Gordon

Exploring Nicaragua – A Convoluted History

Few countries have been linked to the United States as long, as intimately and as painfully as Nicaragua. The relationship has always been complex, defying any generalities, and the odds are it is soon going to get a lot more complex. I want to set the scene by discussing the peculiar, even unique, way the relationship between the countries has played out over the past century and a half.

In the 19th century, an American mercenary tried to make himself ruler of the country and when he failed, destroyed his own capital city. American Marines invaded and occupied the entire country in 1921. An army recruited, trained, armed, equipped and paid by the United States fought a war against the government in the 1980s. The illegal financing of the venture (the so-called Iran-Contra scandal) led to criminal charges against top Reagan administration officials and the threatened impeachment of President Ronald Reagan. Ultimately, no one went to prison.

After having initially considered building an inter-ocean canal in Nicaragua (choosing, instead, to sponsor Panama’s secession from a reluctant Colombia and building the canal there), the United States is now watching warily as a Chinese businessman is starting to do just that. The official ground breaking on the $50 billion project occurred in December.

The U.S. and China are increasingly competing for the allegiance of this tiny nation less than half the size of New Mexico with fewer than 6 million people. Meanwhile Russia and Nicaragua are signing military-basing and security agreements allowing Russian ships and planes to patrol the Pacific and Caribbean coasts and use Nicaraguan bases. The inference some have drawn is that Nicaragua wants Russian ships to prevent Greenpeace from interfering with the environmentally dubious canal project.

Where Nicaragua stands today amid all this international jockeying and maneuvering is not easy to judge. It has a government that is both pro-business and socialist, conservative and liberal, democratic and authoritarian, pro-American and anti-American. While avidly seeking American aid and investment, it lambastes the U.S. in every international forum. It aligns its economy with U.S. trade, investment and tourism but aligns its politics with Venezuela, Cuba, China and Russia. In recent days Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Nicaragua and signed an agreement allowing visits by Russian warships. Shoigu told reporters in Managua that several other agreements were signed to expand military cooperation but he did not say what they were.

Last fall, another Russian official announced Moscow would provide Nicaragua with a high-tech system to be used in constructing the canal. Russia is actively pursuing military agreements with Latin American countries that include sales of weapons, construction of naval facilities and use of airbases for Russian strategic bombers on global patrol missions. Chinese workers and engineers are surveying the canal at the same time that American retirees, businessmen, NGOs and aid workers are swelling the expat community.

Nicaragua is dependent on the U.S. as the main market for its coffee and other agricultural exports but relies on Venezuela for the free oil that has kept its economy growing. When the free oil disappears, as it is soon likely to do, Nicaragua will have little choice but to expand its already sizable infrastructure of renewable solar and wind energy, but that will be a long and expensive haul.

In other respects, too, Nicaragua is a land of contradictions. It is the poorest country in the western hemisphere except for Haiti, but unlike most other very poor countries, it has a low crime rate and an expansive welfare system that forestalls hunger and homelessness. The national police chief is a woman who focuses more on preventing crime than punishing it.

Its cities are among the oldest in the western hemisphere but have been mostly destroyed by natural and man-made catastrophes. It has the two largest fresh-water lakes in Central America but its towns and farms have difficulty getting clean water. It has long coasts and gorgeous beaches on both the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans, but its tourist infrastructure is primitive. It fought and won a revolution to give land to small farmers but now is preparing to take back that same land to build the canal and related projects.

It has all the accoutrements of a democracy, complete with elections, political parties, a congress, a theoretically free press, a constitution and frequent demonstrations against government policy, especially the canal. But only one party, the Sandinistas, the party of government, is viable. The government controls nearly all the media outlets.

With all its failings, however, the government remains probably the best Nicaragua has ever had since it won its independence from Spain in 1821.

When traveling abroad, it is my habit to avoid carrying any electronic gadgets. That way, I have fewer possessions to worry about being damaged, stolen or lost. I have to confess that being totally disconnected from home, country, work, family and friends also appeals to my sense of adventure. And I have no temptation to put my experiences into publishable words until I have seen everything I’m going to see and talked to everybody I’m going to meet. On my return next week, I’ll let you know what I discovered.

Exploring Nicaragua – Emerging from a Brutal Past

On a volcanic island in vast Lake Nicaragua, a team of oxen slowly trudges along a dirt road pulling a cart laden with large logs. Driving the cart is a young man with only part of his mind on his task. The rest of his attention is devoted to his conversation on a cell phone.      Hundreds of kilometers and a week later, a heavily set, elderly woman makes her way slowly and painfully through the cloud forest and up a dirt track in Parque Arenal high in the mountains in northern Nicaragua. She, too, is talking on a cell phone.

In the second largest hotel in the small city of Somoto, gateway to what is sometimes called the Grand Canyon of Central America, I am awakened before dawn by a rhythmic pounding. When I go into the dining area for breakfast, I discover what it was:  a woman making masa paste and forming it into corn tortillas, which she fries over an open wood fire in the middle of the dining room.

Nicaraguans do not look like the second-poorest people in the western hemisphere. They are for the most part neatly dressed and adequately fed. They are healthy with a few exceptions: crippled elderly veterans of American-backed wars in the 1970s and 1980s, sugar cane workers for the country’s first and only billionaire, and Dole’s banana workers, both of these groups reportedly poisoned by chemicals.

Nicaraguans’ homes have sewer systems, electricity and potable water. Everywhere satellite dishes adorn the roofs of tin and tarpaper shacks. WiFi, computer stores and cell phones are ubiquitous. In three weeks of travel, we saw fewer homeless people and fewer beggars than we would normally encounter in an hour in Albuquerque.

Major roads are well paved, mostly with paving stones laid down by hand. Buses (usually resurrected old school buses) go everywhere and do so frequently and for the most part on time.  Expats call them “chicken buses,” although I never saw a live chicken on one. I did, however, see a live pig strapped to a platform at the rear of such a bus.

Every town seems to have a campaign to keep rubbish in trash containers and off the streets, and it seems to be largely successful.

In Granada, horse-drawn carriages await tourists at the Parque Central. In Masaya, Nicaraguans are the main customers of the carriages. Everywhere in Nicaragua, horses pull heavily laden carts along urban highways and rural tracks, teaching bus drivers a valuable lesson in patience. Houses in the cities are tiny and hot, and in the evening, streets are lined with men and women sitting in doorways enjoying the coolness and watching their kids play in the middle of the roads with homemade balls.

In every town and city, on every weekday, long lines form early in the morning outside banks and Western Union offices. Nicaraguans are there to pick up remittance money from their 1 million relatives (one-seventh of the total population) working in the United States, Costa Rica and elsewhere. This money, plus subsidized gas from Venezuela and health workers from Cuba, keeps the wheels turning in a country in which there are almost no jobs, no industry and, with the exception of some gold and a few agricultural products (coffee, bananas, beef, tobacco, sugar cane), no exports. Within Nicaragua, however, the coffee is almost invariably excellent, and the domestic Flor de Caña may be the world’s best rum. Nicaraguan cigars, too, receive high praise.

Like many other countries, the easy generalities about Nicaragua are almost invariably wrong. The one great truth is this: Nicaragua has had an unusually brutal history whose scars are everywhere, on the land and in the cities—pirate raids, invasions, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, civil wars, dictatorships. But somehow (just how is beyond me) the people have emerged from this history impoverished but intact, proud to an astounding degree of what they are but with little hubris, for what they lack is all too obvious.

A good place to begin to understand these contradictions is the long and troubled relationship between Nicaragua and the United States. As early as 1845, the U.S. was telling Nicaragua what to do and how to do it. In the 1850s a maverick U.S. “filibusterer,” a pirate with official US support, conquered Nicaragua and made himself president, before burning down its most notable city, Granada.

The U.S. Marines more or less governed the country from 1909 to 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt inaugurated his “Good Neighbor policy.” In 1914, just as the Panama Canal was opening for business, the U.S. made Nicaragua sign a treaty granting the U.S. the exclusive right to build an inter-ocean canal, although it had no intention of building one in Nicaragua; now it’s the Chinese with exclusive canal rights.

In 1927, the U.S. used Nicaragua to inaugurate what became the international practice of using bombers to attack cities.

With strong U.S. financial and military support, the Somoza family seized power and ruled, and practically owned, the country from 1936 to 1979. Its downfall began with an earthquake that destroyed most of the capital in 1972 and left 150,000 people homeless. When the Somozas failed to cope with the tragedy and in fact stole most of the $75 million in foreign aid donated by the U.S., the Sandinista revolt caught fire.

The U.S. and the Somozas were defeated by the leftwing Sandinistas. The group was named for Augusto César Sandino, who led guerrilla warfare against the U.S. Marines from 1927 to 1933 and was killed by the Somoza government in 1934.

In the 1980s, the CIA created a disparate rebel group of ex-soldiers, Indians and landowners dubbed the Contras (meaning “against,” the only applicable name since they could not agree on what they were for). When the Contras lost, the U.S. imposed a trade embargo that bankrupted what was left of the country.

Since then, the American government position has been to give Nicaragua a bit of humanitarian aid, enlist it in a tariff-cutting treaty that allows the U.S. preferential access to Nicaraguan markets, and more or less ignore the country otherwise. Benign neglect would not be an inappropriate phrase.

The result is that today the U.S. is not a large presence in the country despite all those lines outside the banks, a contingent of 164 Peace Corps volunteers, a huge embassy estate in an isolated suburb of Managua, and a clutch of retired businessmen and lawyers, mostly in the conservative and refurbished old colonial capital of Granada. Most of the small foreign aid projects are undertaken by nongovernmental organizations. Many of the 1 million tourists a year are from Germany and Canada. Even Australians, Dutch and Swedes are more in evidence than Americans.

While the relations between the self-consciously socialist Nicaraguan government and the U.S. government remain rocky, on a human and personal level, they are not. My wife and I never—not once—encountered hostility because of our nationality, a statement I could make about few of the other countries we have visited.

I found this combination of traumas and virtues fascinating and entrancing. Though explaining it all is a tall order, relishing it is not.

Nicaragua Part 3 – Blessed and Cursed by Geography

During our trip to Nicaragua, we spent a night on Las Brasiles, a narrow 5-mile-long barrier island off the northern Pacific coast. The island is entirely owned by its only inhabitant, an eco hostel called Surfing Turtle whose mission is to help endangered turtles survive.

Employees aided by volunteers and guests rescue, feed and protect baby turtles and then set them free en masse on the beach for their march to the ocean. It is a trip for people and turtles alike. We had to help steer the tiny babies toward the ocean when they periodically lost their direction and wandered in circles. We cheered in triumph when the last baby finally took the plunge into the high tide and floated away.

Ecology is a big deal in Nicaragua. Sometimes it seems like 90 percent of the hostels call themselves eco something or other. Many of the foreigners in the country work on one of the innumerable environmental projects. One-fifth of the country is protected in national parks or conservation areas, although none of them has developed infrastructure for tourists. Even marked trails are a rarity.

Certainly, if any country in the world needs an environmental awareness, it is Nicaragua. Much of the land has been stripped bare of its original forests, and the deforestation continues. Some of it is due to logging contracts with foreign companies, but much of it is attributable to Nicaraguans themselves: Campesinos desperately seeking fields clearing forests to make way for coffee, tobacco and sugar cane.

Most of its lakes, including Nicaragua, Managua and Masaya, are polluted, primarily by agricultural runoff and perhaps by human waste, although reports of the latter were in conflict. The country has been in a drought for the past two years, and the result is evident everywhere. Some towns have run out of water. Land stripped of vegetation is giving rise to dust storms that swept over Léon and other cities while we were there. Normally the climate alternates between a June-November wet season and seven months with little rain. But of late the rains have been failing, a tragedy that many in Nicaragua blame on global climate change.

Climate change has also affected Nicaragua in another way. Perversely, in the midst of drought, the Caribbean Sea is rising and has submerged several small islands off the east coast of Nicaragua.

The government has no money to deal with environmental problems. It is, however, doing all it can to expand use of alternative energy. Already nearly half the electricity derives from renewable sources—solar, wind, hydroelectric and volcanic geothermal power, and the goal is to increase that total to 80 percent (the comparable U.S. figure is 13 percent). Such a program is a matter of survival for Nicaragua, which until now has depended on dirt cheap oil from Venezuela that everyone expects to dry up soon since Venezuela itself is near bankruptcy.

In a country with few natural resources and no industry, there are limited hopes for the economy. Most Nicaraguan children are said to drop out of school after the third grade because there are no jobs to reward further schooling. We had a chance to talk with a group of middle class students from a private high school in Managua, and many of them say they will have to go abroad for further education and jobs.

The one great hope for economic growth is dismissed by many as only a chimera. The government has concluded a secretive agreement with a Chinese businessman to build a $50 billion complex, the most expensive project in world history. The focus of the complex is a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific to rival the Panama Canal, but it also includes two new seaports, resort hotels, industries and other facilities.

The project raises huge problems and a host of unanswered questions. One is the financing. No individual has that kind of money to throw at a single, very speculative project. The Chinese government says it has nothing to do with it, but without that government, no one can imagine how the canal would ever get built. Complicating the financial calculations, there does not seem to be enough business to support two canals, meaning that the only rationale for the canal would be political rather than commercial.

The canal route includes not only crossing Lago Nicaragua, but also dredging and deepening its 20-foot average depth so that the largest tankers and container ships can use it. Such a project would split the lake and the country as a whole, threaten to pollute Lago Nicaragua, destroy some of its unique life, including the world’s only fresh water sharks, and jeopardize Isla Ometepe, a foremost tourist attraction.

The project will also require taking land from Indians near the Caribbean Sea and small farmers along the lakeshore—land that was at the heart of the revolution against Somoza and that was only given to the campesinos a few decades ago.

All the evidence is that a majority of Nicaraguans support the canal project. This support is due in part to desperation over where Nicaragua can find sources of growth. It is also attributable to the continuing popularity of the Sandinista government led by President Daniel Ortega.

What kind of future Nicaragua will have is, as Churchill said of the Soviet Union, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. One knowledgeable expat said the country could aspire to the level of Guatemala or Honduras, but “it is inconceivable it could equal Costa Rica or Panama in my lifetime.”

But Nicaragua does not want to be the next Costa Rica, an adjacent country which has justifiably earned a reputation as grotesquely expensive (a restaurant owner told me he found it more expensive to operate a business in San Juan, Costa Rica, than in New York City) and as a kind of reserve for wealthy American retirees.

Nicaragua is still itself, very different from any other Latin American country, with a host of unique weaknesses and equally unique strengths. It preserves its natural resources in parks but sells its logs to anyone who wants to buy. Its women drive trucks and motorcycles but are forbidden to have abortions even to save their own lives. Its journalists are not imprisoned, assaulted or killed, but they are denied access to virtually all information about the government. Nicaragua clearly wants to remain itself, a different kind of country; this is a notable challenge in a world of globalization and increasing homogeneity. The most important question, however, is which of the contradictory facets of its character will ultimately triumph.

DB – Disclaimer – I wish we all agreed on everything but then some of us would not be necessary. Nicaragua Community newsletter provides news and opinion articles as a service to our readers.  Statements and opinions expressed in these articles are solely those of the author or authors and may not be shared by the Nicaragua Community newsletter. Statements and opinions expressed in articles, reviews and other materials herein are those of the authors, editors and publishers.