Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Nicaragua - years of strife

I would like to start to tell you about my first trip to Central America.

But to start out, I'd love to tell you a little about Nicaragua.  About a month before the trip, my dad, who is our Missions Coordinator at church and the leader of our trip, had me read a book about Nicaraguan history - Blood of Brothers by Stephen Kinzer.

It was a wonderful and insightful book about the recent (past 30 years) history of Nicaragua written by a fairly unbiased journalist who lived in Nicaragua for 5 years in the early 1980's.  His love for Nicaragua as a country and the people in particular comes across so well in the book.  As a reader you realize the Nicaraguan people have been through so much yet they are resilient.  For 47 years, ending in 1979, they were ruled by a family of dictators called the Somozas, the last being Anastasio Somoza Debayle.  As all dictators go, he ruled with an iron fist, imprisoning and killing people on nothing more than suspicion.  The sad thing is that during this reign, he was supported by America.  Yup, that's right.  The American government supported a Central American dictator by supplying money, supplies and enacting favorable trade agreements.

As often happens during years of repression, a rebellion grew up and a group of young rebels known as the Sandinistas started a civil war against the injustices of the dictator.  As the group was formed, they took their name from a famous rebel in Nicaraguan history, Augusto Cesar Sandino.  As a rebel in the early 1900's, Sandino had fought against a group of US Marines and had won a small victory.  That made him the only successful rebel in Nicaraguan history and a hero to his people.

The Sandinistas began their campaign around 1970 and continued a guerrilla-type war for almost 10 years until 1979.  Obviously during those 9 years, countless men, women and children died on both sides of the conflict.  Finally in July 1979, Somoza feared for his life and decided to flee Managua (the capital) and escape to Paraguay.  He remained in exile there until he was assassinated Sept. of 1980.  Ironically, after years of fighting, the Sandinistas just walked into the capital city and took over the government without a single shot being fired.

The people of Nicaragua were at first excited about the new regime - no more dictator to tell them what to do...or so they thought.  Unfortunately, the Sandinista government was made up of 30 year old rebels who knew how to fight well but not how to run a government well.  They were very good friends with Castro who had financially supported their revolution.  They respected and revered the Communist society that he had created in Cuba and looked to model Nicaragua after that.  They implemented more and more socialist practices without realizing what a strain it was putting on their economy.  They had a nation of individuals who just wanted freedom - the freedom to plant what they wanted and buy what they wanted without someone telling them what to do.  But instead the new government pushed its socialist, communal ideas on its people and caused the downfall of the nation's economy (now Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas).

Soon, history was repeating itself.  The Sandinistas elected Daniel Ortega as their president in a puppet election.  In short order, Daniel was acting as supreme ruler over the country and his government was imprisoning and killing people just as much as his predecessor had.  A new dictatorship was born under the guise of a socialist state.

Of course, as Americans, our government felt like it couldn't handle another Cuba-type government in Central America.  Under the leadership of Ronald Regan, they stepped in and started giving money and training to former National Guard members (the dictator's former police force).  As the Sandinista government became more strict and more corrupt, additional people joined this band, now called the Contras, and a second civil war was started. (See Iran-Contra affair for additional info.)

This war lasted about 10 years as well and many more men, women and children (and MANY teenage boys) were killed.  In fact, almost an entire generation of Nicaraguan men were wiped out.  The Contra war was fought mainly in northern Nicaragua and was made up of sneak attacks, homemade bombs and mined roads.  After 10 years, the Sandinistas and Contras met to discuss a peace agreement.  Against all odds and with great help from the president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, peace was declared.

Nicaragua held its first true Presidential election in 1980.  Peace has reigned since that day but the wounds of war are deep.  Currently half of the Nicaraguan population are 18 years old and younger.  Most of men that should have been their mentors and leaders were killed during the two consecutive civil wars.  The economy in Nicaragua has still not recovered from its years of war and the failed socialist government of the Sandinistas.  The people there like Americans (and American money) but the name Ronald Regan still leaves a bad taste in their mouths.  They are trying to recover and rebuild but the process is slow.

Going into the country knowing this as their history was such a huge asset.  It helped me to understand that the younger generation didn't have a generation older than them to look up to.  It helped me to know that men and women as young as thirty had survived at least part of 2 civil wars.  Most still remembered the tanks in the streets and the AK-47s carried by all the men.  It helped me to know that the older generation had lived through a dictator's rule and valued peace and freedom above almost all else.  And it helped me love the Nicaraguan people all the more.

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More to come on my trip.  Don't forget my giveaway.  Tomorrow is the last day and so far, your chances are great!
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