San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
From Leon to Granada, we pass through Managua but briefly to change buses outside the UCA, University of Central America. We stick out like sore thumbs with our overstuffed backpacks as we wait in line for the bus. A young woman just in front of us in line is frightened when two small scruffy boys approach her and ask for the time, she covers her watch with her hand and shoes them off with a gestured nod. I look at Vladi in shock, how can a grown woman be scared of kids? I start to really watch my back, the dark blue of dusk I usually love starts to give me the creeps. We were warned about Managua from Miriam and Vicentino, our hosts in Leon at Hotel to Casa Viejo. But we are always warned about the dangers of the capitals, and it's never as bad as folks report. Something about Managua, her history of neglect and class conflict, the election around the corner and what I witnessed, made me think it hadn't been a bad idea, despite the Museo de la Revolucion Sandanista we missed out on, to spend as little time as possible in this crazy city.
After the Central America Lonely Planet that Betsy had gifted us was lifted from our hostel dorm room, we felt more than a bit like we were traveling in the dark, but made up for it raiding tourism offices of all possible maps and asking everyone under the sun for tips and directions. Luckily here in Nicaragua we are blessed with tons of info. Rafael, a friend of Vladi's from the UNAM Political Science department, kindly sent us a ton of recommendations throughout Nicaragua, after he spent a year living, working and meeting folks all around the country. Our trip has followed his footprints closely, and he hasn't let us down. From Leon we made our way to Granada, a picturesque and politically conservative town on the north shore of Lake Nicaragua, we toured around town and the surrounding islets with an Argentine heir of a feudal lord dictator we befriended, Diego. After working on Wall Street for the last ten years, including September 11th, he was finally coming home, road tripping all the way in his spiffy leather seated gas guzzling Jeep SUV. After parting ways, Vladi and I came back down to earth and were quickly off to the Island of Ometepe, and I can honestly say I have never been to another place like it.
Towards the south of Lake Nicaragua lies an island with two volcanoes, one active and one dormant. We stayed at the foot of the smaller dormant volcano Maderas, with an amazing view of the constantly steaming Volcano Concepcion, at the cooperative coffee farm Finca Magdalena. Anest and Joachim, an EU couple we befriended from Ireland and Germany, respectively, lent me the science, geography and history novel Krakatoa, which explains not only the basic geology behind a volcano, but entwines as well the scientific history behind plate tectonics (which seems to have been as hard for some scientists to accept as a round world once was) in the epic tale of the first worldwide disaster of modern times. From this Ethnic Studies girl's perspective, the novel has a particularly interest tweaking although unsatisfying chapter on the Banten Uprising of 1888, although the overall tone of the novel romanticized colonialism and was quite pro-Dutch. With butterflies and blue jays flying about the garden below, under the shadow of a volcano, my tummy full with the garden grown organic salads and veggie clear soups, I got lost in this novel which I hurriedly read before we parted ways with the EUs, and when I had finished and looked up I realized I had my head in the clouds whilst the election was fast approaching.
Vladi and I packed up and headed back to the mainland to Rivas, where we got caught up on current events and touched base with folks in DF. Emiliano, we soon learned, was safe in DF while the Mexican police and paramilitary moved in on the protesters and striking teachers in Oaxaca. Dick Cheney had commented on talk radio that water boarding to "save US lives" was a "no-brainer". The FSLN congress members had jumped the vote getting bandwagon against abortion that would save the mothers' life. Democrats had the lead in the polls to take the House in the upcoming midterm elections. There had been more scandals among the ranks of Catholic priests and US Congressmen. Red wine had been scientifically proven to be good for you (well at least there's some pertinent news!). Up to date, we set about debating where we would spend the election. Managua, a clear preference, also seemed a bit risky. We had seen in one hour that it wasn’t the safest of cities, and if there were fraud that pointed north towards Uncle Sam, it probably wouldn’t make it any safer for a gal like me, however far left my politics may be. Leon would be the best city to celebrate a FSLN victory, but was close to the northern border and required too much regression from our southward bound travels. Heading towards the Atlantic coast where English speaking and indigenous Creoles and Garifunas live autonomously from the Spanish Nicaraguans, as they are known there, would have been very interesting due to their special relationship with the Nicaraguan government, but would also take a good amount of traveling. We finally decided on a small town on the Pacific coast, close to the Costa Rican border, called San Juan del Sur.
We got settled in San Juan and celebrated a bit too much on the eve of the dry election weekend. The night before the election itself, after spending an unusually rainy but bright and hung over afternoon on the beach, we made our game plan. Get up early, head to the market, put our ears to the ground, interview folks, check out the polls, maybe talk with election workers and observers, and spend the evening watching the news with anticipation of the vote count.
Election Day, Sunday November 5th, 2006
We visited three polling stations in San Juan, each with short lines and tranquil vibes. Floating around town we stopped to chat with many folks about the situation in Nicaragua in the shadow of the US. The Nicaraguan woman who was working as an election observer explained the system of party representatives and elected officials who monitor the polling stations throughout the nation while outside a young man was helping people of all ages (we saw young people from 16 voting for the first time to older folks over 60) line up their electoral IDs and verify their stations. We couldn’t see what happed inside, of course, the handing out of ballots and the electorate filling out and casting them, though we did see the process when the news televised Rizo casting his vote in Managua. We heard mixed things about the turnout, some saying almost all had come to cast and some reporting few had exercised the right.
Around noon we headed over to a second polling station at the church lined central park, where we met Jorge, who was a strong Sandanista and war veteran. He was adamant that an Ortega win wouldn’t bring war, a US embargo possibly, but not another Contra war. A little girl we chatted with in Ometepe had voiced the popular notion among the right, and most likely that of her parents, that she didn't want Ortega to win because she didn’t want another civil war. Interestingly, Ortega is the only candidate with a real platform; while he specifies the micro credits, rural development and geothermal energy plans for Nicaragua, the other candidates focus on using fear of Ortega and another war to win the election. Jorge told us he voted for Ortega because he wanted more education and work opportunities for his son. He spoke in a low voice out of respect of the polling station within earshot and, despite being gregarious, didn’t want to be filmed, though he okayed this transcript. He said his goodbyes and good lucks and we sat in the shadow of the town cathedral until thirst brought us to our second interview under a sign for "raspados". We stopped for a cup of shaved ice and ended up staying almost two hours chatting with Don Rolando and his son Cristian, who were also strong veteran Sandanistas and very critical of the US. Rolando made the point clear that he was not at all against the people of the United States, he in fact had many friends and neighbors in San Juan del Sur from all over the states, a few of them even stopped by to shake his hand while we chatted. He did express vehemently his dislike for the policies of Bush and even more so, Reagan. He also recounted with disgust his experience at the US embassy, standing up and stretching both arms to illustrate how it was illogical to demand one to stand in crucifix form, take off their shoes and present their documents all at the same time. Cristian, who mostly chatted with Vladi, had been working the polls all day and was awaiting a FSLN win, which his own personal exit polls had convinced him would occur. We again said our goodbyes and moseyed on.
After we took a quick dip in the Pacific, as it was an especially hot day, we went on to the third polling station, where we interviewed Manuel, a young representative of the PLC party, the Liberal Constitutional party backing Eduardo Montealegre. Manuel was a bit tired from working the polls all day long, but happy that the end was near with only a half hour to go. He was positive that Montealegre had the best chance, and this he practically quoted the candidates slogan, at beating Daniel Ortega. He also pressed that the process had been smooth all day and all we had to do was wait. Waiting is exactly what we did all evening watching the news, which had nothing to report by one in the morning, when we finally went back to our room to play with the resident orange tabby kitten, who we christened güerito.
We woke up to the celebrations of our Sandanista hosts, Daniel had the lead! All day until evening people wandered around the town tipsy from end of the dry law and the historic change of power to the left. We watched the parade of pickup trucks filled with red and black Sandanista flags and screaming, hollering youth in pink FSLN ball caps and jumped out of our skin each time a rocket was hurled in the night sky. Fifteen years after Daniel Ortega and the Frente Sandanista de Liberacion Nacional won the revolution and opened the electoral process, they had finally been voted into power by the Nicaraguan people to begin their work. The infrastructure has been laid for the free market and international loans have long been spent and need repayment, and Daniel Ortega now faces the challenge of applying his social programs in contemporary Nicaragua's neoliberal context. He has the whole global village at the edge of our seats to see what he will do with this extraordinary opportunity.