issue 156 | February 1986
A journey through the
I'M TAKING a photograph of a queue of I women outside a supermarket - and I'm being watched by a shoeshine boy.
'Are you a journalist?', he asks. 'Do you work for the press?'
'Well, yes I do,' I say, a bit surprised he could guess. 'Why are all those women queuing?'
'I'm not sure,' he shrugs. 'But they've just reduced the prices of a lot of things. Maybe they just want to get there before everything runs out.'
'You can't shine my shoes I'm afraid,' I say apologetically (I'm wearing running shoes).
'I know,' he says, 'but can you do something for me? You see that snack bar over there?' He points to a rather smart fish restaurant, the Pesca Fresca. 'The owner won't let me in to shine shoes. You should put that in the paper - it's an injustice!'
I can see there's been a misunderstanding.
'Oh no,' I apologise, 'I don't actually work for La Prensa.' (La Prensa is one of Nicaragua's three daily papers - though in Spanish it just means 'the press'.)
'For Barricada then, or El Nuevo Diario?'
I explain that I work for a foreign magazine and that I don't think that the New Internationalist will cut much ice with the restaurant owner. But I will see what I can do.
This is my first day in Managua. I am hoping for a gentle start, just pottering around till the jet lag wears off. But I can see that my first interview has begun.
'It's very unfair,' he says. 'Everyone has the right to earn a living.'
'How much do you earn then, shining shoes?'
'Depends. About 500 cordobas* a day.'
I haven't quite got a grip on the currency but as far as I know the basic daily wage is around 250 cordobas. So he (his name is Emilio Martinez and he's 14 years old) is not doing too badly - even if he can't get into the Pesca Fresca.
But I would have thought, in any case, that Nicaragua's popular democracy should have been able to solve his problem. There are Sandinista Defence Committees, 'CDSs', one committee for each zone, where people can air their grievances. I ask him why he doesn't try this.
'That's no good,' he says. 'I live in a different zone. This is Bello Horizonte and I live in Waspan. Each zone has its own CDS.'
Emilio hasn't lived there very long. He and his family, he explains, are refugees from the north-east of the country, from territory where the government and the contras are locked in combat - and from which many young boys have been forcibly recruited by the contras.
'It was getting too dangerous. A lot of people have been killed or kidnapped. We've decided to stay down here till the war is over.'
If he's 14 years old I wonder whether he should be at school. I ask him and his eyes start to look vacant, and a bit evasive. His sister, he says, is teaching him how to read and write. Enough questions have been asked; his look implies it is time to get on with some work.
I think I can draw some conclusions now. Nicaragua is a country in which contra attacks have displaced of lot of the population. Local democracy may be fine in principle but can't always respond to people's needs. There is a strong faith in the critical power of the press. Independent entrepreneurs, on the streets, can earn twice as much as those on official salaries. And the schools have a serious absentee problem.
A bit premature, you might think - and based on a smallish sample. But this is journalism after all (though I must say, looking back on this later, and after talking to many more people, it does still seem to stand up).
This report is made up of such casual conversations and inquisitions, sometimes with people I meet in bars or at bus stops, sometimes conducted as formal interviews. Nicaraguans invite anyone and everyone to come and talk to them - to see precisely what is going on. And this magazine has been written in the form of a travelogue to give some impression of the things you can find out if you take up that invitation.
I was curious about Nicaragua - a country that shook off one of the world's most corrupt dictatorships only to find itself under attack from the most powerful nation on earth. I wanted to know what it had done to deserve such treatment. Is it, as radical supporters will tell you, a popular grass-roots revolution? Or is it a marxist-leninist dictatorship? Or is it an open and pluralist democracy? Do any of these questions even make any sense?
Managua is the obvious place to start. But it's a ruin of a city, one of the most bizarre capitals on earth. Almost the entire centre was flattened by an earthquake in 1972 and has languished vacant to this day. Just a few skeletons and shells of buildings rear up here and there through a forest of weeds. And there are even a few isolated structures which survived perfectly intact: the square tower of the earthquake-proof Bank of America, for example, pokes resolutely through the skyline - though its ex-owners probably wish it had crumbled with the rest, since it was subsequently nationalised by the Sandinista government.
Rebuilding has taken place in parts, but has largely been confined to the periphery. So Managua is a cluster of suburbs: the Los Angeles of Central America you might say. But the similarities (with LA, or anywhere else for that matter) don't stretch very far.
For one thing, there are no street addresses. Plenty of streets, but few signs and scarcely any numbers. So how do you find a particular building? In my case, you frequently don't. But the locals have developed a system which seems to serve. The headed notepaper of an institution will carry a set of directions like: 'Three and a half blocks up from where the Morales house used to be'. But where on earth was the Morales house? And which way is 'up' for that matter? This was a code I never managed to crack.
Then there is the transport system. The overcrowding of buses in Managua, indeed in Nicaragua in general, is something beyond my experience. There appears to be no limit to the number of humans (and sometimes livestock) that can be absorbed.
The analogy most frequently used by the suffering passengers is that of sardines in a tin. But fish, once tinned, are under no obligation to move. The experienced bus passenger knows, however, that if they are not within striking distance of the exit at the critical moment there is little chance of getting off. So the mass of bodies inside must always be moving through, a writhing fluid of arms and legs and trunks experiencing every position in which human bodies can be made to fit against each other.
Sorry to go on about this. But I do have to use the buses to get from A to B, so they figure largely in my recollection of the country. I have to use one, for example, to get to the satellite town of Ciudad Sandino.
I want to visit Ciudad Sandino to find out more about those Sandinista Defence Committees. They might offer little help to itinerant shoe-shine boys but they are supposed to be Nicaragua's fount of popular democracy. And Ciudad Sandino had been a focus of insurrection at the time of the revolution, so I would expect to find the Committee particularly active here.
Ciudad Sandino is named after the stubborn 1930s nationalist leader Augusto Sandino, who led a guerilla struggle against the US presence in Nicaragua but who was eventually murdered on the orders of the founder of the Somoza dynasty. Literally it means 'Sandino City' but it is nothing like as spectacular as it sounds. It's a poor dormitory district some 13 kilometres from the centre of Managua, with wide, muddy streets and ramshackle, improvised housing sprawling towards the horizon much like any other Latin American shanty town.
The 113 bus squeezes me out by the new concrete market building. Dripping with sweat (Managua is hot and very humid) I badly need a drink. No fruit juices available so it has to be a fizzy 'Rojita', the 'little red one', a drink which has been unkindly and accurately described as 'carbonated cough mixture'. A fellow Rojita drinker offers to take me off to meet a friend of his who is a brigadista, a member of the voluntary health 'brigade' who will be able to tell me about the local CDS.
I'm interrupting her washing when we arrive but she doesn't seem to mind and invites me in.
We can't have been talking for more than two minutes when two men materialize as from nowhere. They have been alerted that there is a journalist in town.
'Journalists tell so many lies,' says one, who introduces himself as Antonio Lopez. I can't argue with that. But I do try to convince them that I am at least open minded, and possibly even biased towards them. I am free to talk to anyone I like, he says quickly, but I gather that it would be best to talk to CDS officials first to get a 'fuller picture'. Antonio has introduced himself as a Secretary for Propaganda, a word used much more freely in Spanish than in English (it does not imply that what is being propagated is a lie).
The propaganda he treats me to, on the way to see the top man in the CDS, is straightforward enough, about the impact of the US support for the counter revolutionaries, the suffering, that it is causing, and about Nicaragua's determination to stick it out.
The Sandinista Defence Committees are branches of a quasi-independent organisation set up to maintain the momentum and the enthusiasm that brought about the revolution - as well as to make sure that individuals have a voice in government: to express the will of the 'masses' (another word used much more cheerfully here).
But the CDS officials also have power of patronage; they allocate some of the local resources and are in charge of ration cards, for example, so they can be tempted to favour whose who are most loyal to Sandinistas. You might suspect, therefore that the same channels that can be used to expose the government to the people could also be used in the other direction as a way for the government to keep an eye on its citizens.
Jose Inosente, the 'Zonal Co-ordinator' for Ciudad Sandino, is at pains to point out , as you can read below, that his CDS is nothing like so partisan. He is a charming, soft-spoken character, nothing like the sloganising politician I was expecting. The desk in his cluttered office was piled high with papers and he was constantly interrupted by people coming to ask his advice on this or that.
Recently the CDS have been accused of having list touch with the people. They have shown that they can mobilise people for certain 'blitz' campaigns like the current onslaught against the mosquito that carries dengue fever. But they run into the same kind of problems as community organisations everywhere - that people's enthusiasm wanes and that everything is left to a few activists.
But when I talk to people randomly later it does seem that they are happy with what the CDS are trying to do - and indeed with what the revolution itself has achieved, Juan Pinoza, for example, is sunning himself in front of his house reading the newspaper El Nuevo Diario when I arrive.
'I'm a baker', he says. 'I've been running my own business for the past ten years; there's a small oven in the house here. Things have improved a lot since the Triumph. For one thing, since we do a lot of things in common, like cleaning the street, we have got to know all the neighbours.
His wife Heidi asks where I come from and then says: 'We've had quite a few internacionalistas here. There was a Danish work brigade that spent six months building those houses over there.'
All foreigners in Nicaragua seem to be called 'internationalists', which makes a pleasant change from gringo. Many of these are working here as volunteers. Indeed I'm starting to feel a bit guilty that this particular internacionalista is doing nothing more positive than scribbling away in his notebook. Heidi cheers me with a couple of cakes from the bakery.
Another woman brightens up my day still further just as I am about to leave the district altogether. At the bus stop there is a fierce argument at the front of the queue.
'You men are all the same,' a woman is saying. 'You machos!' A portly grey-haired gent is arguing that men deserve their freedom because it is they who bring home the wages. 'Really?,' she scoffs, 'what about all the jobs that women do?' Then she starts to mime chalking up figures on the wall behind her. 'Let's say 4,000 cordobas a month's worth of cleaning. Another 4,000 for the cooking and the same again for washing and ironing. Think what would happen if we had to be paid for all that.'
Her opponent is trying to maintain that when a couple splits up the man should be allowed to keep all the property his earnings have paid for. She has strong views about this too, but now the bus appears and, with evident relief, her 'macho' disappears into the crush.
* It's not easy to say what a cordoba is worth. Multiple exchange rates value