Recovering from food poising, or something equally horrible, and following the advice of Leon’s friendliest pharmacist after she heard me list off my various ailments, I walked into the public hospital here to have my blood pressure checked. Blood pressure within the normal range, the doctor tells me and prescribes an aspirin a day for the burst capillary in my eye and nausea pills if I feel like chucking my guts out again. No problem. Lets turn the tables, if a young Nicaraguan woman walked into a US hospital to have her blood pressure checked, how much would it cost her? Sure the hospital here in Leon is nowhere close to first world standards, but what is more pressing, to have a spic and span health care system where only those with resources receive attention, or a broad based one stretching resources to the limit where all can be treated? It goes back to what our host Vicentino said about democracy, that you can’t have one when working people can’t eat, buy medicine and house their families without sacrificing something else equally necessary.
Leon is the fourth of either rural or urban zones with socialist, revolutionary and defiantly laid back vibes. Livingston, Guatemala; San Salvador and Perquín, El Salvador; and now León, Nicaragua. Beto, an old friend and former co-Poetry for the People Student Teacher Poet (P4P STP), once said of Mexico that social movements grow in the soil down there, and this is just as true of Central America. While each country struggles with her community members' ever-increasing flight to the US and the influence of the all-mighty dollar on those who remain, the histories of these diverse countries are filled with revolution, armed uprisings and today remain rich with current direct action mobilizations against CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) and other abuses to their democracies and self-sustainability.
Livingston is a Garifuna town on the Atlantic coast of Guatemala. Vladi and I made the last leg of our road trip with Mauricio to Rio Dulce, but not before hearing two original members of the Afro-Cuban All Stars perform at a small club in their current town of residence, Antigua Guatemala. From the town of Rio Dulce, we took a boat to Livington, which is isolated from the rest of Guatemala via automobile. Cars, goods and people arrive by ferry, boat and canoe, the latter our skipper compared to bikes in urban areas, and the more affluent have shiny sailboats parked at the docks outside their river front properties. After unhurriedly boating down the Rio Dulce through a small canyon of green vegetation, flocks of pelicans, cormorants and cranes overhead reminding us of the Atlantic coast coming up, we finally arrived to Livingston to meet Kikis, who we ran into each day thereafter. He helped us find our housing at Javier's African Place; we settled in and wandered around the small town. (We met so many people I could never do them all justice in this piece; of course that is Vladi's specialty so ya'll will have to wait for his entry....) Tons of folks we met had at least one relative in the US or Belize who left to work and provide for their families back home, and everyone sports all the latest US fashions and listens to Snoop Dogg on the radio. However, I noticed how people actively work to preserve the richness of their day to day lives, protesting the construction of a road to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala and maintaining a proud sense of community visible from the streets and sidewalks, as everyone opens their front doors in hopes that a breeze or piece of gossip will find its way inside. Vladi and I waited for the rain clouds to blow south and enjoyed a few days of sun rays before packing up our mochilotas, saying our goodbyes to everyone, boarding the ferry to Puerto Barrios and finally crossing the border into Honduras.
Our stay in Honduras was short. We spent our first night in San Pedro Sula, an almost first world city full of malls, where I shocked Vladi when I craved and eventually dragged him to get an egg mc muffin from McDonald’s after seeing all the familiar neon fast food chain signs. We quickly moved on to the town of Copan Ruinas, where we spent an amazing day at the intricately detailed Mayan ruins. Copan is an UNESCO World Heritage site, and is comparatively expensive, very well kept and of course very well guarded. Throughout our travels in Honduras I spied many soldiers, noticeably more than her neighboring countries, who sport as uniform an eerily familiar blue grey and green grey camouflage I have seen on the Fox evening news back home with my dad when reporting on the young American soldiers in Iraq. Of course, because the fashion industry upholds the popular notion that to support one's nation one must support her unjust actions, the same camouflage pattern can be seen on civilians of all type, not excluding young people throughout Central America. Maybe because of the military presence, or maybe because we had less luck in meeting folks in Honduras than Guate, we spent one final night in Ocotopeque on the El Salvador border and were off.
We crossed the border early and arrived in San Salvador by mid-afternoon, found a cheap bed in the seediest of neighborhoods, crashed out and were awoken before sunrise as the local buses poured diesel exhaust into our hotel window. To escape the gas chamber-like hotel, we took off to the capital’s center, which by seven in the morning is crazy with buses, commuters, uniformed students, newspaper venders, breakfast venders and some pigeon feeders. After being overwhelmed before a decent morning hour or a cup o joe, we made the hasty decision to try the university campus, called as in DF la Ciudad Universitaria, and we laid our tired eyes on a refuge, both in the physical and ideological sense of the word. Posters, flyers, banners and murals decorated the campus and the predominate red and black stood out in the grey morning air. Conference to reflect on current social movements in El Salvador! Cultural Political Action Meetings of the Salvadorian Student Force! Remember the November 1989 Student Movement! Face portraits of Fidel, Che and Farabundo Marti. All these and more messages of involving oneself in political activity and social movements were scrawled on the walls and plastered to lampposts. The cool canopy of green I felt on my shoulders in the middle of the concrete jungle of San Salvador was a metaphor for how I felt the moment I laid my eyes on the consciousness of those students. My travels up to this point have been blessed with beautiful sights, friendly folks, smooth road tripping and trying yummy new foods, but at that moment I felt a familiar stir, like the one that brought me to Berkeley and later to Mexico City. Learning about the past and present social movements locally from people who lived them is one goal in many I have for my time in Latin America. I want to find my niche where I can offer myself and any services I can in a positive way while shaping the protest tactics I have picked up in Berkeley and DF. My time in the University of El Salvador reminded me like an itch of a mosquito bite that I needed to begin to actively pursue my goals, or I would end up touring and turning a blind eye to the challenges of those around me. We ended up leaving San Salvador after being there for less than 24 hours, but it was an important turning point for me.
From the capital, we headed for Perquín, El Salvador, on the northeaster border with Honduras, within the state of Morazan. Perquín was a guerilla stronghold during the Civil War, the site of Radio Venceremos and the Massacre of Mozote. The town is highly recommended by Lonely Planet thanks to former P4P STP Gary Chandler, but despite being the number one site to visit in all of El Salvador, it is still tranquil, traditional, and goes to bed by eight each night. We stayed with and eventually adopted la Abuelita as our own, and likewise she took good care of me when I got sick after eating a pupusa from a street vendor (note: while I was dying after half a pupusa, Vladi was a little queasy but overall kept his cool after eating three! Which proves that Chilangos really do have bullet proof bellies as Vladi loves to tell folks). La Abuela's stories of the Civil War and our visit to the Museo de la Revolucion Salvadoreña: Homenaje a los Heroes y Martires (Museum of the Salvadorian Revolution: an Homage to the Heroes and Martyrs), illustrated the words we read aloud to each other each night as the town snoozed away from the excellent book Las mil y una historias del Radio Venceremos (The Thousand and One Stories of the Radio Venceremos). We very contentedly ended up staying a few days extra while I recuperated and when I was strong enough, we made the long leg of our journey, crossing a small section of Honduras, into Nicaragua.
During the revolution, León was, and remains today, a bastion of Sandinismo, as we heard repeatedly on the radio and in person at the political rally held by FSLN presidential candidate Daniel Ortega. The election will be held Sunday, November 5 2006, between three main candidates: former Sandanista leader and FSLN ticket holder Daniel Ortega (popularly know as just Daniel), right wing and US hopeful Eduardo Montealegre, and right wing vote splitter Jose Rizo (known as El Feo). While Daniels popularity is high and the right divided, the United States is not hiding their opposition for the candidate against whom they fought so hard during the Reagan era Contra War (for a detailed overview of the Elections, check out the Democracy Now! Show from Thursday, October 26th, URL http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=06/10/26/1341242&mode=thread&tid=25). The support for Daniel is especially strong here in Leon, which we saw first hand as we accompanied thousands at his closing campaign rally. Sandanista, or I would venture to say Nicaraguan, is synonymous to poet, as many from that era and today wrote and published verse, notably Ernesto Cardenal and Leonel Rugama (who was introduced to me by the late great June Jordan). The FSLN fought for many social changes such as literacy campaigns, support for the arts, universal health care (which they championed in mass vaccinations, water cleaning facilities, and popular health education), women’s rights, the building of schools, roads and infrastructure, as well as the democratic system that people are readying themselves for in the coming week. After the Sandinistas won the revolution, they opened up the electoral process and their political party, the FSLN shocked everyone when they eventually lost the first, second and third free elections of Nicaraguan history. People today are becoming very aware of the fact that the international loan repayments and structural adjustment programs imposed on them by the liberal market are not helping them eat, buy medicine and house their families. I feel in the air, at least here in Leon, that they want change. Whether the electorate of Nicaragua opts for change or remains on their free market path is beside the point. What is urgent and imparative is that the Nicaraguan people decide the outcome of this election without interference from the US or any special interest parties.
Among the many activities Vladi and I embarked upon during our stay in León, including visiting the largest cathedral in Central America, viewing the political murals and graffiti around town, visiting the University of Nicaragua, we also paid our respects to the birthplace and resting place of famed poet, Ruben Dario, who is celebrated on the 100 denomination bill of Nicaragua's currency, the Colon. It is fitting since poetry, like social movements, grows in the soil down here.
I would like to dedicate this to the many brave activists right now supporting Oaxacan teachers demanding a living wage, and in memory to Brad Will, and Indymedia journalist killed while reporting on the police brutality against the strikers.