Posted by: HelenRortvedt | 25 January 2006


I am halfway through reading Salman Rushdie’s Jaguar Smile, his 1986 account of a three week stint as a visiting artist to the Sandinista government. It’s fascinating, especially considering how much has changed since its original publication, and how much things are changing today. The book was written just seven years after the “triumph” in 1979 (it’s impossible not to think of Cuba while reading this…), and the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, feared they were on the brink of a US invasion. Reagan had just approved $100million in aid to the Contras, and the Nicaraguan economy was starting to collapse because of failed crop harvests, an economic blockade spearheaded by the US, and the impending collapse of the Soviet Union.

Rushdie, however, was enthralled by the revolutionary spirit of the times. He talks about visiting a town in Boaco department where land titles were being handed out to the campesinos right before his eyes. He talks about how revered poets and aritists of all kinds were, and how it was impossible to live a second without consciousness of the “Giant to the North” lurking on the horizon. It was a very politically charged time in Nicaragua, very reminiscent of Cuba in the 1960s, I would imagine. It’s strange to realize that this was all happening in my lifetime, when I was a student at Long Branch elementary–a peacefully oblivious child.

As much as they were once alike, Cuba and Nicaragua have taken very different paths over the last 20 years. Both economies were shattered by the fall of the USSR, consumer goods disappeared quickly and inflation spun out of control. Nicaragua, however, with all its socialist Sandinista tendencies, was still a functioning democracy. Cuba was not. In 1990, Nicaraguans elected a more conservative (and US-preferred) Violeta Chamorro as president, and (surprisingly) Daniel Ortega conceded defeat and left office–not without grabbing as many land titles as he could lay his hands on, however. US-Nicaraguan relations have steadily been restored to normalcy, while Cuba’s Fidel has remained a thorn in the side of every US administration since.

The revolutionary spirit is still palpable in Cuba today–whether or not it is genuinely felt by the majority of Cubans is something I have yet to determine. My four months there shed no significant light on the matter. I was led to believe that many people still fervently support the revolution, and equally as many are growing weary of it and crave change. There is certainly a notable generational divide on this issue, with the younger people tending towards wanting change, but again, that is not always the case. Despite an acute lack of civil liberties, Cubans do not struggle with severe poverty, homelessness, lack of medical care or education. Although, in my eyes, its hard to compromise one for the others…

I don’t get the sense here in Nicaragua that people crave a return to the revolutionary days of the FSLN. The market economy is alive and well here. People are proud of their proprietary rights and their freedom to determine their own path in life. That said, Nicaragua is certainly not without its problems, however. As one of the poorest countries in the Americas, poverty is very real here. A general lack of infrastructure outside the Pacific/Managua regions, and a turbulent relationship between the indigenous and Caribbean peoples of the Atlantic coast and the central government in Managua is everpresent. A country constantly devastated by natural disasters, it seems there is always something to be rebuilt, always a pile of rubble somewhere. Dozens of volcanoes, some very active fault lines and vulnerability to hurricanes and mudslides are constant worries of any Nicaraguan administration. Nicaragua relies heavily on international aid to be able to rebuild after such disasters, particularly from the US. It also relies heavily on US and foreign investment to be able to support its nascent economy.

2006 promises to be another turbulent year as the presidential election in November draws nearer. The two major parties (the FSLN and the PLC) are being seriously challenged by a self-named third party candidate in Herty Lewites. His “party”, Herty 2006, is showing significant support in the polls. A renegade Sandinita himself (he served as the Minister of Tourism under the Sandinista government), and former Mayor of Managua, Herty has labeled himself “Sandinista Lite”, which will likely be of little comfort to the US as the entire region takes a sharp turn to the left, following in Hugo Chavez’s footsteps. Daniel Ortega of the FSLN has yet to make any significant moves, but is still polling relatively well with a notable percentage of likely voters.

US-Latin American relations are becoming increasingly strained, and the Nicaraguan elections are just one piece of the puzzle. It is an interesting time to be here. Politics definitely don’t play a major role in day to day life for most people, however, save the myriad FSLN and PLC painted lamp posts and walls that adorn the streets of every town. I get most of my news from US sources online, actually. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to watch the events unfold with my newfound understanding of this country and its tumultuous past.

Politics aside, things are good in Jinotepe. Still slow at Juan Jose, but I am in the process of writing a proposal of all the projects I want to implement in the English lab. I have a meeting (tentatively…”meeting” is a term used very lightly here in Nica, and thoughout Latin America…) with the FSD Country Director this afternoon to discuss the feasibility of these projects, so we’ll see. Hopefully by next week, I will have a better idea of what I will be focusing on. I have yet to meet the English teacher, as she is still on vacation, so it has been hard to try to pull ideas out of thin air, not knowing how the English department is run, what its curriculm is, and how the lab is intended to be used! That’s Latin America for you, though…

I hope this finds you all well.



  1. Helen: This is a well-written, thoughtful reflection on Nicaragua’s recent political history. It will be very interesting to read your updates on this year’s election process there. The comparisons with Cuba are especially thought-provoking. Your observations reminded me of my visit to Nicaragua in early 1990, right after Violeta Chamorro’s inauguration. There were still burned out military vehicles downtown near the cathedral and rubble from the 1972 earthquake (change is sometimes very slow there). My assignment was to bring together players from all facets of Nicaragua’s livestock sector, regardless of party affiliation, to help them work together to re-establish their industry. We brought about 20 representatives to Washington for a week-long workshop. When it began, people couldn’t stand being in the same room with their former enemies. But, after a week of sharing their hopes and dreams for the livestock sector and their country, people agreed to continue their dialogue back home. Effective peace is secured, not through quick military actions, but slowly, step-by-step when people continue their dialogue. Your time in Nicaragua can help keep that dialogue going. Peace, Dick (Dad)

  2. Hi lovely,
    Just catching up on all your blogs here. I love the pictures. Your host family looks muy amable and what a nice big room! : )- not to mention the beautiful scenery, and cathedrals. I only wish I could come visit. It is so fascinating to hear about the politics in Nicaragua and to hear you compare and contrast it to Cuba. It is something I am interested in but know so little about. I wish you luck with the English lab. I’m sure change will take some time, but I know you will persevere. Love you!

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