In February right before the world closed down, I went back to Nicaragua. The border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was still open then. Before taking a bus to Granada from Liberia, I spent two days with my friend Marlene Rivas, the descendent of Patricio Rivas, a Nicaraguan president who was stabbed in the back in 1856 by a conquering anti-hero named William Walker.
After deposing Patricio Rivas with a can of lies, the real William Walker declared himself president of Nicaragua and was sworn in outside La Merced, an imposing church in Granada. Walker was a gringo and therefore conspicuously other; however, he is not alone in the rogue’s gallery of men who have stepped on Nicaragua’s neck. The Somoza family takes up a lot of space in that gallery of infamy. Another character, much less articulate than Walker but equally shrewd, has held on to the reins of power, often with assistance and an alternating grip, since the Sandinista revolution in 1979. That man is Daniel Ortega. Nicaraguans simply refer to him as Daniel.
Walker’s story and its connection to Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas brought me back to Nicaragua in the summer of 2017. I wanted to see Granada. It’s a Spanish colonial town that in the 19th century became the commercial heart of Nicaragua. Walker, surrounded by enemies of many stripes, set fire to the city and destroyed much of its architectural splendor. His depleted force, barely fueled by the protein of horse meat, retreated from the bullet riddled Guadalupe church to a waiting boat on Lake Nicaragua. It was in Granada, either through dumb luck or fate, that Marlene and I first met.
A tourist guide and a proud Nicaraguan, she moved to Costa Rica to find work after Daniel Ortega’s paramilitary thugs used live ammunition on protestors. The 2018 protests in Nicaragua began in response to Ortega’s cuts to social security. They quickly grew into large scale protests against the corruption, nepotism, and vote rigging of the Ortega regime. In the ensuing clashes more than 300 people died. So did tourism in Nicaragua.
I was curious to see how Nicaragua had rebounded from its spate of isolation in the wake of Ortega’s heavy-handed tactics. Had gringos with dollars come back to see the volcanoes and lakes, the pristine beaches along the Pacific Ocean and beautiful Granada? Would the distinctive red and black flag of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) – the Sandinistas – still fly alongside the blue and white flag of Nicaragua? What would people have to say about Daniel, about the future of their country?
When turtles hatch in the sands of Central American beaches, like Playa Grande for instance, they waddle with all haste to the foamy reach of the tides: thousands of them in unison racing with atavistic urgency to the Pacific Ocean. Only a tiny fraction of them survive this desperate race, a kind of Darwinian contest. Daniel Ortega was once a hatchling, a tiny turtle.
I was the only gringo on the bus that took me across the border in February. A Nicaraguan doctor in the customs building waved my passport and asked, “Are you Mr. Mahoney, it’s alright if I ask you some questions?” Though he was a doctor, my bad Spanish was much better than his really bad English. He had a hard time understanding where I was from until I mentioned Kentucky Fried Chicken. “Ohhhh, entiendo, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Kentucky!” We laughed. Like everyone in the world, he’d heard of Muhammad Ali too. Half the conversations I’ve had with Nicaraguans begin with fried chicken and Louisville’s favorite son, Muhammad Ali.
The doctor was part of a mission to record the wanderings of foreigners coming into Nicaragua. He was there to trace possible Covid-19 exposure; to my surprise, tiny Nicaragua was taking the coronavirus seriously. In time Ortega and the FSLN would resort to misinformation and outright lies to downplay the spread of the virus in the country.
Back on the bus and motoring north, with Lake Nicaragua and the massive volcanoes of Ometepe island on the right, I looked for signs of Daniel. I looked for those billboards with his grinning face and bushy moustache, his wife Rosario Murillo in her gang of bangles, and the words “Adelante con Daniel.” (Ahead with Daniel) in huge diagonal letters. The roads leading in and out of Managua used to be littered with them.
Like many other strong men in Latin America, Ortega has always been a better underdog than dictator. He and the FSLN lost power for a time when in 1990 he lost a fair presidential election to Violeta Chamorro, the wife of Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, a newspaper editor whose murder helped spark the Sandinista revolution in 1979. Violeta Chamorro’s victory was one of the biggest surprises in the history of a nation accustomed to shocks. A moderate, she ran the country well. Ortega led the FSLN in opposition while one of Violeta’s successors, Arnoldo Alemán, who used the nation’s credit card to live like a king in swanky hotels and purchase carpets in Cairo for a mere $22,530, was convicted of corruption. Meanwhile, Daniel prepared for a comeback.
When he (Ortega) lost the 1990 election, he began to do a good job as an opposition leader. I remember him devoting a lot of attention to the children. I remember the neighborhood piñatas, the packages of school supplies for poor children, and the popular festivals for young people in the squares of all the towns. For this reason, 16 years later in 2006, his electoral strength came from the ‘youth vote’ because in Nicaragua we can vote from the age of 16.
Ortega became an urban guerrilla in the Sandinista revolution in 1979. In a decade’s time he would join the pantheon of the rebel elite. Ortega would join the iconic figure of Che Guevara and take his place in a club that includes Fidel Castro, Carlos Fonseca, Salvador Allende, Víctor Jara, and even Bobby Sands. With his facial hair and nerdy eyeglasses, Ortega even looks like a certain commander of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, a man who has never been a member of the IRA. Or so he says. The dogs in the street know better. Like Adams, Ortega has always been a cunning figure. But that’s a topic for another day.
Michael Shaw Mahoney (MA Queen's University Belfast) is a school teacher from Louisville, Kentucky, USA.