Last week, Nicaraguans commemorated the 10th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Maclean’s Correspondent David Gollob, who is returning to Canada after 2V2 years in Managua, offers a bleak assessment of the past decade. His report:
The cattle were gone from the vast field across the street from the luxurious Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Managua. Much of the field had been paved by laborers in a frenetic rush the previous week to make a new parking lot for hundreds of guests invited by President Daniel Ortega to mark the revolution’s anniversary. On July 19, 1979, the leftist guerrillas marched triumphantly into the capital after 43 years of right-wing dictatorship under the Somoza family. The hotel, whose bold design resembling a Mayan pyramid enabled it to survive a devastating earthquake in 1972, is a bizarre relic of prosperity in a landscape of ruins—testimony to a nation’s failure to rebuild itself under the new regime. And in their determination to retain power and to deny responsibility for that failure, the Sandinistas countered reality with appearances: with fanfare, propaganda—even a new parking lot.
In other struggling Central American countries, the construction of a humble parking lot would probably not invite comment. Nicaragua, however, has not seen much building of any kind in the past 10 years. Many of Managua’s streets are virtually impassable due to gaping potholes, and onethird of the city’s 1.3 million inhabitants lack potable water and basic sanitation. Independent economists say that inflation last year topped 30,000 per cent. But despite unprecedented economic decline—the result of war, a U.S. economic embargo and mismanagement—the Sandinista National Liberation Front tried to paint a glowing picture of life after a decade in power. On state television, the Sandinistas unleashed a propaganda barrage recounting their achievements since 1979, when they won the hearts of much of the free
world with promises of a New Jerusalem of democracy and social justice.
The ubiquitous TV commercials portray a picture of bustling economic progress, focusing on such scenes as bright-red tractors being unloaded at a port and neat fields of irrigated crops. But, in reality, the economy is foundering. Agricultural exports have shrunk by twothirds since the revolution, while Nicaraguan incomes have slumped to one-tenth of what they were in 1981. Peasant laborers, in whose
name the revolution was fought, earn as little as 30 cents per day. And while TV ads show children being vaccinated against disease, simple diarrhea is the leading cause of death among young Nicaraguans. Yet the rosy commercials roll on. Declared the opposition newspaper La Prensa in a recent editorial: “They must think we Nicaraguans are complete idiots.”
Sandinista leaders have a ready explanation for the economic distress: “the imperialist war of aggression.” They claim that eight years of fighting the contras—a U.S.-created force championed by former president Ronald Rea-
gan—resulted in $18 billion worth of damage to the economy. Since Washington cut military aid to the contras in 1988, the war has been dormant. But the destruction wrought by the rebels is irrefutable. The northern coffeegrowing province of Jinotega is littered with the wreckage of trucks blown up by U.S.supplied land mines. Hundreds of thousands of refugees clog Nicaraguan towns and cities, where jobs are scarce and public services are overstretched. The Sandinistas outlived the Reagan administration but at the price of a defence budget that, until this year, consumed 60 per cent of annual government spending.
Now, peace has focused attention on the Sandinistas’ burden of blame for the economic stagnation. Critics point to administrative incompetence—including faltering attempts at agrarian reform and an authoritarian economic system—as well as ideological intransigence. As the leftist regime continually delayed the introduction of basic political and economic reforms, loans and credits from sympathetic Western countries dwindled. Even Moscow— once the Sandinistas’ principal supporter—has significantly reduced its aid. “I am still waiting for one of them [the Sandinista leaders] to admit making a mistake,” said Moisés Hassan, the former mayor of Managua. Hassan, 47, who joined the Sandinista Front in 1967 and fought in the revolution, quit last year. “The front has determined that its top priority is to remain in power,” declared Hassan, “and anything that serves this purpose is all right.”
Hassan’s disenchantment is shared by many Nicaraguans who jubilantly embraced Sandinista visions of Utopia 10 years ago. Some observers claim that such disillusionment could spell defeat for the government in national elections next February. The elections will be a vital test, not just of Sandinista pledges to allow
democracy, but of the largely right-wing opposition’s capacity to present a credible alternative. About a dozen of Nicaragua’s 21 opposition parties have agreed to support a united ticket. But they have yet to produce a presidential candidate or a platform, and sharp ideological differences could sink the fragile alliance
before it even sets sail. Said one prominent business leader: “No one in the opposition will say it openly, but I think they all know we’ll have another six years of Daniel Ortega.”
In fact, Ortega gave a campaign-style speech at the anniversary celebrations in Managua last week. Before hundreds of thousands of cheering supporters, Ortega predicted that “better days are coming.” He said that Managua was ready to work with Washington for stability in Central America, but added that the Sandinista revolution had been an example for repressed people throughout the region. “The revolution possesses truth and justice,” declared Ortega, who claimed that the past 10 years under the Sandinistas had been a “yes” vote for agrarian reform, new houses and schools.
But, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Ortega’s rhetoric convinced few but the most ardent Sandinista supporters. The religious wife of a Canadian MP visiting Managua once asked indignantly why the city’s cathedral was never rebuilt after the 1972 earthquake. The answer was not Sandinista godlessness; the cathedral stood on a geological fault and would probably collapse in the next tremor. Longtime observers of Nicaragua say that the Sandinistas blithely built their New Jerusalem on a similar fault: the gap between appearance and reality. In only 10 years, that gap has become an abyss. And although the Sandinistas strived mightily to conceal it last week, Nicaraguans know that it is there. □
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