International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Central America
A view from both sides of the wire
Jeannine M. Pitas
"You dont know anything about my life," my friend
Enrique tells me.
sitting on the floor in the Huembes bus station, watching the tortilla
vendors and shoe shiners amble by. Its so hot that I already
need a shower even though its only seven a.m. and I just took
one an hour ago. The concrete wall jabs against my back as I think
about Enriques words. The fact is, hes right.
I dont have
a crazy stepmother who throws me out of the house and leaves me to sleep
in the bus station whenever the spirit moves her to do so. I didnt
grow up shining shoes on the street. Ive never had to go four,
five, six days without food. And even though Ive lived in Nicaragua
for nearly a year now, I dont know anything about this strange,
beautiful country which ranks as one of the Western Hemispheres
The only thing I do know is that it is getting even poorer. Food prices
have shot up even within the past year, with more and more people struggling
just to afford the basic staples of rice and beans. The current global
financial meltdown has hit Nicaragua especially harshly; fewer remittances
are coming in from the United States and factory closures are leaving
workers- especially women without jobs.
However, many Nicaraguans claim that there is more to their countrys
problems than the current state of global affairs. Some have argued
that the current Sandinista government- led by President Daniel Ortega-
bears the most of the blame. The leftist Sandinistas achieved international
fame thirty years ago in 1979, when they revolted against the dictatorial
Somoza dynasty that had ruled the country since 1937. One of these was
the then-17-year-old Susana Briceño, who joined the resistance
early in 1977 as a guerilla combatant in Nicaraguas northern mountainous
"I joined because I was angered by the Somoza governments
exploitation of the working class," she explains. The revolution
was victorious on July 19, 1979 and a government junta was formed with
nine initial members. According to Briceño, the Sandinistas achieved
many of their goals, but some weaknesses were present from the start.
"Their greatest achievement was providing vaccinations, health
care, housing for the working class and education. Also, there were
opportunities for debate and widespread participation We certainly
didnt have that under Somoza. However, the main weakness at the
time was a lack of coordination and organization among government leaders.
They were not well-organized enough to achieve their goals."
The Sandinistas soon found themselves faced with another problem
the US-backed Contra War, which strove to oust them from power and brought
widespread violence to the country. Only with the election of center-right
president Violeta Chamorro in 1990 did peace return to the country.
The next sixteen years saw some economic development, but also corruption
and widespread poverty.
The year 2006 brought a combination of hope and dread as to everyones
shock- Daniel Ortega returned to power with only 38% of the vote. While
the lower classes hoped for a redistribution of wealth, the upper classes
feared for the countrys liberty and economic future. However,
we must recall that that less than half of the Nicaraguan populace voted
for Ortega, and now especially after the controversy surrounding
the 2008 municipal elections- even fewer people are on his side.
As it turns out, many former Sandinista supporters have grown disillusioned
with the partys twenty-first century reincarnation. Susana Briceño
is one of these. "The greatest problem is that most of what we
produce is exported to Venezuela, and this is making our economy weaker.
The money that comes in never reaches the people; it stays in government
hands, and theres plenty of corruption. Theyre especially
deceiving the people who live in rural areas and trying to gain their
Briceño says that, while she still sympathizes with the ideals
that led her to fight for the Sandinistas during the 80s,
she cannot support a deceitful government. When offered a job to travel
door-to-door promising food for the poor, she declined. "Im
not going to go around deceiving people," she says. "They
say the US is a parasite, but really they are the parasites because
theyre taking advantage of the working class."
However, other people in Nicaragua believe that the cause of such widespread
poverty runs much deeper than the current government. "The gap
between the rich and poor has never changed," says Susan Bursey,
a Texas native who has lived in Latin America for over forty years and
in Nicaragua since 1976. "The rural poor are as poor as they were
in 1976. The schools are as bad as ever, or worse. At least under the
Somoza dictatorship the schools had electricity and basic infrastructure.
Now in rural areas there is none of that. I was also shocked that during
the 1980s there was still such bad child malnutrition. I thought
theyd be better with social programs."
According to Bursey, who once owned Nicaraguas largest Internet
provider and now runs an independent bookstore, no Nicaraguan government
left or right has managed to change the economic situation.
Meanwhile, social problems are increasing. "The crime rate is getting
worse," says Bursey. "In the 90s we were the only country
in Central America that did not have an issue with drugs or violent
gangs. Its been getting worse under the past two administrations."
Given the complexity of Nicaraguas history, government, and economic
structures, it can be understandable as to why a foreigner might have
difficulties making friends. As an American teacher working in a bilingual
school, I lived in a gorgeous house with a live-in housekeeper, shopped
in the local mall, and ate in nearby restaurants. However, one of the
first things that struck me about this house as well as a garden
filled with flowers and mango and coconut trees- was that it was surrounded
by a high wall capped in barbed wire. In Nicaragua all of the wealthy-and
indeed even some more modest- houses wear this adornment. In my native
US, the only buildings that have barbed wire are the prisons. For me,
the tiny, sheltered world of the Nicaraguan upper class soon came to
feel like something of a prison.
And so, I decided to venture out to the other side of the wire- riding
the public buses, wandering through the markets, making friends from
neighborhoods less agreeable than mine in search of "the reality
of Nicaragua." However, as my friend commented, it is difficult
if not impossible for a foreign tourist (for even after one year of
residence, I was still something of a tourist) to know this reality.
According to Bursey, one reason that a foreigner in Nicaragua may take
some time in getting adapted to the culture is the legacy of the Monroe
Doctrine; all over Latin America the US is still seen as an imperialist
power that only seeks after its own self-interest. Another is the "Gueguense
factor,"a long-standing custom Nicaraguans have of saying what
they think people want to hear rather than revealing their true opinions.
This custom dates back to colonial times and basically evolved as a
means of survival under many difficult governments. Nevertheless, when
youve lived in Nicaragua as long as Bursey has, you come to feel
"The quality of people in Nicaragua is amazing. People here are
so spontaneous and welcoming that they make up for all the inconveniences,
all the garbage in the street. Theres a wonderful quality of life
that has to do with ordinary people. You know youve made friends
when you go to childrens baptisms or other intimate family events
and find that you are the only foreigner there."
Bursey adds that she strongly believes the Nicaraguan standard of living
could be greatly improved, just as it has improved in China, Korea and
Southeast Asia, which went from impoverished countries to booming powerhouses.
"Economic development is key," she states.
For now, though, the situation remains grim, and as I leave this country
after one year of work, friendship, and many life lessons, I recall
the words of another friend- a coworker who despite his middle-class
appearance was dealing with many economic difficulties. "Even in
a neighborhood like this one," he once said while driving me home,
"even in one of these houses, there might be someone who doesnt
© Jeannine Pitas August 2009
dymphna015 at yahoo.com
by Jeannine Pitas
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