A look at daily life in Managua in the midst of a political crisis.
I recently attended a conference here in Managua, the subject was, among other things, the recent office raids and the threatened expulsions of several international NGOs by the Ortega-led Sandinista government. The attendees were a collection of both Nicaraguans and internationals and the discussion around reasons, reactions, and responses was both interesting and at times, quite inspiring. However, what struck me the most during the conference was something repeated over and over again by the meetings chairperson in her analysis - that if you know something, or learn something new then you have a responsibility to share it with those around you. She was talking specifically about the need to continue questioning the increasingly arbitrary actions of Nicaragua's current Head of State, but I am sure she would agree that it can be applied to a much broader spectrum of experience.
Personally, it got me thinking about how and why I would like to write about my experiences here in Central America over the past eight months. About what it is that I have learned about the reality of life here, and about the responsibility that I feel in sharing what I have seen with people in another part of the world. So what follows are some thoughts and impressions about my most recent experiences here, in Nicaragua, or more specifically, the capital city Managua, where recent local elections have made global headlines and violence has spilled onto the streets.
The slogans and political rallies of competing parties in Managua´s local elections have formed the backdrop of the last two months that I have spent living in the city. The harsh reality of Managua´s poverty has been centre-stage. About three weeks ago it rained for five days non-stop. Not unusual for this time of year but nonetheless, it was significantly heavier than it has been in recent times. In the neighbourhood of Acahualinca where I have been living with a local Nica family, the effects felt in the aftermath of the flooding that followed are I believe, representative of similar situations faced and dealt with by other communities , or barrios, that stretch along the shores of Managua's monstrous Lake Xotolan.
Acahualinca is one of the poorest barrio´s in the city. Official employment, like almost everywhere else in Nicaragua, is rare and most people simply do what they can to get by. The barrio itself varies greatly. The centre, where the buses enter the community boasts paved roads and houses made of concrete and brick, albeit in a somewhat ramshackle fashion. But walk away from here in any direction and appearances begin to deteriorate rapidly. Paved streets first give way to dirt roads and these are intersected by numerous callejones; small dirt walkways that wind between the rambling, makeshift dwellings that people here call home. Walk to the north of the barrio towards the lake and things deteriorate even further. The homes here are nothing more than shacks - collections of wood, cardboard, plastic, and if you're lucky, aluminium sheeting to keep the elements at bay. Once upon a time this part of Acahualinca was simply another of Managua´s many green areas, and one that was undoubtedly quite beautiful and picturesque - lush green growth backing onto a lake surrounded by volcanoes and mountains. Now, it provides refuge to Managua´s poor, many of whom have migrated from other parts of the Nicaraguan countryside in search of employment and a brighter future for themselves and their families, but instead found themselves positioned dangerously close to the bottom of Managuas social pecking order. To the west of Acauhalincas paved streets are those who find themselves at the very bottom; the 100 or so families who live in similar shacks inside of La Chureca, the city dump.
La Chureca is perhaps the most hard-hitting visual manifestation of this countries poverty crisis. Daily, over a thousand people make their way here to pick through other peoples discarded rubbish, searching for something to sell, trade, or eat. Hoards of people crowd around the dump trucks as they back up to empty a ´fresh´ load upon them, while the fattest vultures you've ever seen swoop over to take a peek at what's on offer. Entire families come here to scavenge through other peoples waste, often working from sunrise to sunset, unprotected from the scorching sun and Managua's oppressive heat. People often wrap swathes of cloth around their heads and faces to ward off the overwhelming stench, and with the enormous birds flocking overhead it can seem like a scene from some strange Arabian desert. It's an image that always returns to me when I hear a taxi-driver, or a better-off Nicaraguan, or in one case, an EU diplomat's wife tell me that the problem with Nicaragua is that "poor Nicaraguans are just lazy".
Most of the people who live in Acahualinca have at one point in their lives worked in La Chureca. A lot of them still do. Others fall back on the dump when times get harder. But residents who live outside of the confines of La Chureca remain grateful and acknowledge a sense of privilege in doing so. Nobody wants to live there, but someone always does. Those who are eventually re-housed by the government or international NGOs are quickly replaced by more poor Nicaraguans, fresh up from the countryside. There is a seemingly endless supply of desperate people to fill the ranks.
And so added to this quite shocking state of affairs is the background of political orators calling for change and promising alternatives. Two years previously, the FSLN or Sandinista Party, emerged victorious in the national elections and Daniel Ortega, the party leader, again became president of Nicaragua. Ortega had served only one term as president after the Sandinista revolution in the 1980's but had been defeated at the polls after eight years of the US-backed Contra War which had devastated the country. Many argue that the Sandinismo of the past was also lost in this defeat, and that the revolutionary dreams that once inspired a nation to overthrow a dictatorship have well and truly been shattered. Nowadays, many members of the Sandinista Party and former revolutionaries have left the party because of their own disillusionment with how 'revolutionary' the party policies' have become. Many argue that Ortega has been co-opted into Nicaragua's elite and is no longer representative of the poverty-stricken whose interests he claims to serve. In fact, some critics claim that his current interest is in simply serving himself to unlimited power and influence by eroding the democratic structures of Nicaraguan society.
Since his re-election as president he has created new, powerful positions in government that have been awarded to his close allies and family members (most notably, to his wife) and the government has become increasingly closed off to any kind of critical dialogue both within the party and more recently, within a wider political and social spectrum. Recent raids of the offices of international NGO's, such as Oxfam Great Britain, come in retaliation for cautious criticism of the government's apparent lack of transparency and accountability and the questionability of their take on human rights.
The recent municipal elections became the stage on which all of these issues and concerns were to be played out. In Nicaragua, local government, or municipality, elections are almost as important and politically significant as national. A local mayor retains a lot of power in both decision-making and the distribution of national funds and could thus potentially provide a challenge to the arbitrary decision-making strategies of the presidential couple (or so the argument went). However, due to the government's pre-election decision to exclude both the Conservative Party and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (a breakaway Sandinista party) from standing for election, the only viable alternative that could compete became the Liberal Party candidates. And for many, this was not a particularly promising alternative. The Liberal Party's time in power after the Sandinista's fall from grace in the early 90s had ushered in years of neo-liberal policies that are in part responsible for the extreme poverty currently felt throughout the country - and also contributed to the extreme division between the wealthy and the poor that is evident throughout. Not to mention the charges of corruption and theft that have been brought against prominent Liberal leaders in recent times, most notably the case of former president Arnoldo Aleman who it is claimed, stole more from the Nicaraguan people during his term as president than that taken during the three generations of the Somoza family's dictatorship combined. Nonetheless, the Liberals are popular mainly among the middle and upper classes and do receive some support among the working poor, and the election was set to be incredibly close.
And so the main battle was to take place in Managua by virtue of its large population and political importance. And it was here that the pre and post-election violence that occurred was most strongly felt. The Liberal alliance candidate Eduardo Montealegre's campaign posters and TV ads touted 'everybody against Ortega', while the public questioned the ability and intelligence of the Sandinista representative Alexis Arguello, who in spite of being a national boxing champion, many believed had been selected because he would be easy for Ortega and his administration to push around. Grafitti around the city declared ' No to the Dictatorship' and claimed that Sandino had been sold, or bargained off, and called on people to spoil their votes in dissent. And the debate raged on television and in print media, throughout the barrios and universities, and on street corners and buses. When it comes to politics here, everybody has an opinion.
Three weeks before the people went to the polls, the heaviest rains in recent years thundered down on the city. In Acahualinca, rumours began to circulate that the lake was on the rise. And sure enough, by Friday evening over 30 families had appeared at the gates to Acahualinca Elementary School seeking refuge. The community responded and the gates and classrooms were unlocked. Community leaders (the mother of the Nica family I lived with included) came together to coordinate a relief effort and the school was quickly transformed into something resembling a refugee camp. Bags of rice and beans came in from the government and many locals donated dry clothes and bedsheets - all of it appearing late that same Friday evening. The efficiency of the relief effort was impressive, and the tasks of cooking, counting families and children, and ensuring those most in need were seen to first were quickly allocated among community volunteers. It was obvious that these people had done this all before. Most of the families from around the lake I had never seen before (I had been living and working in the community for over a month at this stage) and from their dishevelled appearances and the physical evidence of malnutrition in both adults and children alike, it was clear that life by the lake varied greatly to life on higher ground. Later that night as the family and I walked home together through the barrio we could see huge fires raging up ahead at the entrance to La Chureca. Apparently the dump had been closed to the public for several days now as it was impassable due to the rains, and people had been dumping the rubbish at the gates where the locals later set it on fire. Nobody knew how the people living inside were coping with the floods.
For the first few days people came and went as the weather changed, but when the rains returned in force a few days later all was back to square one. At its busiest time, the school was housing 47 families, each averaging around 8 people. Over the days and then weeks that followed more crises evolved, and it seemed that every day a new issue had presented itself. Security became a problem at the school and as the local police force would only provide one police officer to oversee goings ons at night-time the community leaders and their families began taking it in turn to be at the school overnight should anyone need them. Meanwhile, down by the lake, many people refused to leave their flooded homes for fear that their neighbours would steal their roofing and walls once they were left unguarded. I met one woman whose son had stolen and sold part of her roofing when she went up to the school one afternoon to get something to eat. Personal security was also an issue in places where some of the community were absent while off seeking refuge. A single woman with her three children who had decided not to leave her wooden shack was attacked and raped in her own home by a group of men who knew there was no-one nearby to come to her aid. No security, day time or night, was provided for those living by the lake. Health concerns and the risk of dengue fever increased as children played in pools of stagnant water in Acahaulinca´s flooded callejones. A poisonous snake was found in a child's bed and more were soon spotted as they began appearing in their search for drier ground. And throughout it all, it was the community, led by local leaders who reacted and dealt with everything, drawing on whatever connections or influence they had with government officials to garner some support or materials to aid them in the relief effort. And showing so much dedication and determination that it was, to put it simply, inspirational.
And for its part, the government did respond - however insufficient its response may be in a long term sense of the problem. In part to secure votes for the upcoming election but also in recognition that their support base is comprised largely of the country's poor. While they refused to re-house the majority, the government continued to provide food and later mattresses to aid the operational capacities of the temporary shelter. They also sent in the army to transport flood victims from another of Managua's lakeside barrios (along with all of their belongings, including the walls and roofs of their homes) over to the school.
It is in this context of frequent crises and constant struggle that the Sandinista Party's victory, at least in Managua, can be understood. Many of the flood victims and locals from Acahualinca are very much aware of the contradictions inherent in the Party and are sceptical of ´Danielismo´ and the worrying direction that the party is beginning to take. In fact, much of the conversation that took place in the schools kitchen as we prepared meals centred around politics and the upcoming elections. And the people were well informed. Many felt that Alexis was a horrendous choice for mayor but were nonetheless planning to give him their vote. It seems that regardless of where Ortega stands on the line between democracy and dictatorship, he understands better than the Liberals that the majority of the electorate is struggling to put food on the table. While throwing a few bags of beans and rice at a local relief effort is far from sufficient in solving the country's poverty crisis, many people feel that it is more than the Liberal Party is willing to commit to. And they might very well be right. It is in this context that the Sandinista ´victory´ in Managua and 93 other municipalities throughout Nicaragua can be better understood. The opposition may claim the election results were fraudulent, but from my experiences here so far, I find it very plausible that the majority did in fact knowingly elect a regime that is becoming extremely undemocratic. It can be read as an exercise in self preservation. And as global food prices continue to fluctuate and peoples real-life situations deteriorate, faith and idealism in abstract concepts such as democracy becomes nothing short of a luxury.
Here in Acahualinca, the community will continue to look after itself and the other unfortunates who end up here, and hope that the Sandinista mayor will look favourably upon them when it arbitrarily decides who to help out. Meanwhile, Nica students and academics, concerned citizens in general, and national and international NGO workers will continue to pull out their hair with worry as their challenges and criticisms are silenced with threats and intimidation. But despite this outlook of despair expressed by many of these actors, I have seen that hope and faith in the potential for change has not been lost completely. In the face of attempts to the contrary, the people have not been silenced. The political engagement among the people here is inspiring in itself, and they are far from being apathetic. And the potential for change that this implies, even when democratic participation is limited, should not be underestimated.
This is something that Nicaragua has taught me in my short time here. When I first arrived and started learning and seeing all that I've seen here, I was completely overwhelmed by it all and felt incredibly helpless and useless in the midst of what was going on around me. I later realised, after pulling my own hair out for a while, that my Nica mother was not showing me all of this because she expected me to fix it, or because she thought that I could. She shared it with me because she has an amazing faith in the human capacity for good. For her, if people would only open their eyes to what's going on in the world around them then they could not in good conscience allow it to continue as it is. It is in this spirit that she took me into her home and taught me about their community and the daily struggle faced by many who are trying to survive here. She recognises her own privilege in having secure employment and a stable home and feels that she has a responsibility to support those in her community who do not.
She showed me Acahualinca so that I would share it with other people from my neighbourhood, my part of the world, so that I could ask them to open their eyes to what's going on around us. The problems in Nicaragua won't be fixed by Nicaraguans working alone, the problems run deeper than any that are rooted in any one country. Yes there are problems with the government here in Nicaragua, and yes, they warrant international concern and attention - in fact it's necessary. But we also need to listen to what it is that the people here have said in voting for a democratically questionable regime - rather than simply doubting and denying the results. The election campaign and its aftermath were the dirtiest I have ever seen, and the local media the most biased in supporting it. Dirty games were played on both sides, and dirtier games still are being played right now. It would be more instructive for any international media interested in giving a balanced, objective analysis, to speak to the people here in the city about what's going on. There is a real danger that these international representatives are being manipulated by the unbalanced coverage of pre and post election violence, claims of fraud, and apparent dissatisfaction with the results. They would better serve Nicaragua and the international public to speak to the public about why they voted for the FSLN. We need to start asking the right questions and paying attention to the answers. In this we have a responsibility.
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