L: Good graffiti. Look – about the revolution.
They are walking through the Nicaraguan city of Leon, after supper. They have crossed the central plaza, past the wide white façade of the cathedral, and the Christmas tree all lit up in January, and the strollers and the step-sitters and the snack-sellers, and the bar spraying mist at its entrance to keep its well-heeled patrons cool, and the group of dreadlocked dudes and jewellery makers sitting in that spray on the curb.
They look up at the huge figure painted on the wall.
L: D’you know what it all means?
D: Some. But there’s a hundred years of history in that picture.
L: Oh. Sounds rather indigestible. Can’t you just tell me a little bit?
D: Which little bit?
L: How about…..his leg. Just one leg. There – why does it say “US Out Now” on his shin? What were the US doing in Nicaragua?
D: They were worried about the canal.
L: What canal?
D: The Panama Canal.
L: Which is in Panama, not Nicaragua. So what crazy shit are you talking, man?
D: How much wine did you have at supper?
L: One wine. Carry on.
D: What does one wine even mean? Never mind. Are you listening? Once upon a time, over 100 years ago, a Nicaraguan general from the Partido Liberal deposed the country’s president. Which America wouldn’t have cared about, except that once he’d become Nicaragua’s dictator, the general started talking about building a cross-country canal.
L: So what?
D: America were busy building the Panama Canal at the time. They absolutely didn’t want another canal just up the road. So they encouraged Nicaragua’s other main party, the Partido Conservador, to rebel, which would incidentally put a stop to the general’s fiendish canal scheming.
L: Did it work?
D: Yes, but the Liberals killed a couple of US mercenaries that were helping out the Conservatives. Which made America quite cross. So they sent in 2,500 marines.
L: Blimey. Then what?
D: The US stayed in Nicaragua for the next two decades, supporting presidents that it liked and getting rid of ones it didn’t.
L: Oh. That can’t have been very popular.
D: No, it wasn’t.
L: Tell me a bit more.
D: OK. Which bit?
L: His tummy. Who’s Sandino? It says “Sandino Vive” across his belly.
D: Right. As you said, some people, specifically the Liberals, didn’t much like all the US involvement and the Conservative regime. Augusto Sandino was the leader of a Liberal rebel group that grew up as a result.
L: But you said the Americans left after two decades. Wasn’t everything OK after that?
D: No – they left in the 1930s, but only after training up a Conservative National Guard – a military force led by a fellow called Somoza – to put down Sandino and his rebels.
L: And did they?
D: Yes. In 1934 Somoza invited Sandino to some peace talks and then had him assassinated. Shortly after which Somoza became Nicaragua’s new dictator.
L: Oh. So if Somoza killed Sandino, why does it say he lives – Sandino Vive?
D: Ah. It’s his revolutionary spirit that lives.
The following day….
Leon’s streets are alive. There are bursts of colour wherever they look. Long vistas down cable-crossed streets, to crumbling churches with Baroque pillars and portals, glowing cream and golden and pink, and the dark peaks of volcanoes against the sharp blue sky. Dazzling bougainvillea overflows walls, and ripe fruit, for sale on the street, overflows baskets and crates: pineapples, persimmon, plums, apples, bananas, melons and limes.
There is movement and noise wherever they turn, from cars and vans and open back trucks, from canvas-clad lorries carrying goods and people, from motorbikes, bicycles, bike-carts and hand-carts.
In a quiet, sleepy side street, an ivy-walled courtyard hosts a medical clinic. And, humbly, in one corner, is the understated Gallery of Heroes and Martyrs. Here are displayed 300 small portraits, photographs of earnest-faced teenagers killed in 1978 and 79, resistance fighters for the revolution. The museum is free, and was set up their mothers. On the wall is a quote:
“The Sandinista has the hands to work alongside others on the land, the wide eyes to see the horizon, and the ready courage to be a martyr.”
L: They were so young. Just boys. Why did the revolution happen?
D: After Augusto Sandino was killed, the Somoza family were in power here for over 40 years. By the 1960s, a lot of people had had enough – the Somozas were running the country into the ground and building themselves a vast personal fortune in the process. A rebel guerrilla force known as the Sandinistas, named after Sandino, started steadily gaining support. But what really pushed things over the edge was the earthquake.
L: What earthquake?
D: In 1972, a massive earthquake flattened Nicaragua’s capital, Managua. Something like 6,000 people died and 300,000 were left homeless. As you might expect, international aid poured in, but it was promptly embezzled by the Somozas.
L: No wonder people were ready for a revolution.
D: Yes. Anyway, things escalated through the 70s with kidnaps, assassinations, strikes, street violence, uprisings in towns all over the country, guerrilla warfare, and shelling by Somoza’s National Guard. It was a real mess.
L: From the dates here, it looks as though it all came to a head in 1978-79, when these poor boys died.
D: Yes, in 1979 the Sandinistas launched a final push, taking city after city through Nicaragua, supported by thousands of civilians. Leon had a tough time of it – there was a lot of fighting here. You can still spot bullet holes in some of the buildings around town. Somoza even had the air force bomb the city.
L: But the Sandinistas won?
D: Yes, and Somoza fled the country. That was the end of the dictatorship.
L: Viva la revolución!
D: It wasn’t much of a fairy-tale ending. The Sandinistas inherited a country struggling with terrible poverty, homelessness, illiteracy and inadequate healthcare. 150,000 people had lost their homes during the revolution, and 50,000 had died.
L: And presumably the new government had no money.
D: No. But America helped out – providing them with aid to help rebuild the country. That was Jimmy Carter.
Later that day….
They have spent the afternoon in the remarkable Ortiz-Guardian Art Museum, which is lauded as the finest contemporary art museum in Central America. The art is spread between two rambling single storey colonial buildings, with creaking wood floors and beautiful enclosed courtyards. There are some European big names on display, but it is the extensive Latin American collection which captivates. They leave as the day begins to finally cool.
L: I loved that, but I’ve got art fatigue.
D: I’ve got museum back.
L: Let’s go back to our room and lie down.
D: Just one more.
L: Just one more what? Picture? Museum?
L: You’ve got to be joking. No way!
D: Yes way. Just one picture. It’s interesting. I promise.
L: How interesting can it be? My feet hurt.
D: it’s not far. Follow me.
10 minutes later….
L: How bizarre! Come and look at this. It’s a picture of….
D: That’s the one.
L: ….. Ronald Reagan sitting on someone’s head. What’s going on?
D: You’re right. It is Ronald Reagan. Squashing the downtrodden Nicaraguan.
L: Why? What did he do?
D: He took over from Jimmy Carter as US President in 1981. By then the Sandinista government was getting a lot of help from the Soviets and Cubans, which made Reagan nervous, so he stopped the US aid to Nicaragua.
L: That was mean.
D: Remember this was the 80s. The Soviet Union was still threatening to take over the world and turn everybody Communist. Everyone had nuclear weapons pointed at everyone else to stop it happening. It was all a bit fraught.
D: Anyway, Reagan was so worried about the involvement of communist countries in Nicaragua that he started funding counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras, to destabilize the Sandinista government. Many of the Contra leaders had been in Somoza’s Guardia Nacional, which had been Conservative and US-friendly.
L: What did the Sandinistas do?
D: They built a massive army, and got lots more military and economic help from Russia and Cuba.
L: So what did Reagan do?
D: Imposed trade embargoes on Nicaragua, and encouraged other countries to do the same.
L: This is going nowhere good.
D: In the mid-80s, US Congress decided to stop interfering and stopped military aid to the Contras.
L: So did the Contras fizzle out?
D: No, because Reagan’s administration just kept on going – only in secret. They were a bit embarrassed when the US media found a Contras training manual written by the CIA, encouraging Sandinista assassinations.
L: They must have been.
D: And then they had their wrists slapped when a CIA scheme to mine Nicaragua’s harbours was deemed to be against international law.
L: I should think so.
D: But their most uncomfortable moment was probably when it was discovered they were still funding the Contras through the CIA by illegally selling arms to Iran and diverting the proceeds to the Contras.
L: Are you sure you’re not making this up now?
D: Truly not. It was known as the Iran-Contra affair. You can look it up. I just did.
L: I will. So then what?
D: In the late 80s it all settled down and peace agreements were put in place. But although the Sandinistas had dramatically improved literacy and healthcare since the revolution, Nicaragua still had huge economic problems, and they lost the election in 1989 to Violetta Chamorro, who was supported by the US.
L: She’s the one who sold the trains. And the sharks.
D: Yes. And once she was in charge, the trade embargo was lifted and international aid poured in. Things have been improving since then.
L: And now?
D: The Sandinista’s Daniel Ortega has been back in power since 2006. He’s managed not to fall out with the US, and continues to rebuild the country’s economy, healthcare and education. The country is on the way up.
L: Now can we go back and lie down?
D: Yes. I think we need to.