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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Central America

Nicaragua: A view from both sides of the wire
Jeannine M. Pitas
"You don’t know anything about my life," my friend Enrique tells me.

We’re sitting on the floor in the Huembes bus station, watching the tortilla vendors and shoe shiners amble by. It’s so hot that I already need a shower even though it’s only seven a.m. and I just took one an hour ago. The concrete wall jabs against my back as I think about Enrique’s words. The fact is, he’s right.

I don’t 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 didn’t grow up shining shoes on the street. I’ve never had to go four, five, six days without food. And even though I’ve lived in Nicaragua for nearly a year now, I don’t know anything about this strange, beautiful country which ranks as one of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest.

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 country’s 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 Nicaragua’s northern mountainous region.
"I joined because I was angered by the Somoza government’s 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 didn’t 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 everyone’s 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 country’s 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 party’s 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 there’s plenty of corruption. They’re especially deceiving the people who live in rural areas and trying to gain their support."

Briceño says that, while she still sympathizes with the ideals that led her to fight for the Sandinistas during the ‘80’s, she cannot support a deceitful government. When offered a job to travel door-to-door promising food for the poor, she declined. "I’m not going to go around deceiving people," she says. "They say the US is a parasite, but really they are the parasites because they’re 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 1980’s there was still such bad child malnutrition. I thought they’d be better with social programs."

According to Bursey, who once owned Nicaragua’s 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 90’s we were the only country in Central America that did not have an issue with drugs or violent gangs. It’s been getting worse under the past two administrations."

Given the complexity of Nicaragua’s 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 you’ve lived in Nicaragua as long as Bursey has, you come to feel at home.

"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. There’s a wonderful quality of life that has to do with ordinary people. You know you’ve made friends when you go to children’s 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 doesn’t have food."

© Jeannine Pitas August 2009
dymphna015 at

Entropy by Jeannine Pitas

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