WASHINGTON -- When I covered the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, I spent many days that summer after the fighting was over chatting casually with Daniel Ortega and the rest of the scruffy Sandinistas in the sunshine outside the iconic Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Managua. These guys didn't look a lot like heroic Latin American "revolucionarios." The "jefe," Daniel, as he was called everywhere, had a big mustache and tried very hard to look presidential, but he always looked sleepy and about to doze off -- not at all like the Cuban-backed communist he said he was. But Washington thought the Sandinistas were the biggest thing since bananas, the big crop in Central America.
Lest you forget, the Reagan administration secretly created and supported an anti-Sandinista group called the "Contras," which roughly means "those who are against," in a charade that involved conspirators in the basement of the White House selling arms to Iran for money to fund the counter-revolutionaries, even presenting the Iranians with a cake, supposedly to whet their appetites. Those were the headlines every day in the early 1980s. But all the dramatics burned out in a series of elections and alternate presidencies, until Daniel, who had been Nicaragua's president during the '80s, became president again in 2007. Since then, virtually nothing has been reported from Nicaragua.
But on April 19, and nearly every day since then, the quiet Nicaragua of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo, has exploded. Protests have erupted on the streets, with riot police called "turbas" firing on the protesters, mainly students who should have been the major benefactors of the Sandinista communist/socialist regime, which gave them free education and other privileges. At this writing, nearly four dozen have been killed and hundreds wounded, and attempts at dialogue by the Catholic Church and organizations of the remaining private sector are unfulfilled.
Worst of all, one cannot be sure this unexpected outbreak of anti-government protest woke up Daniel, even though the papers are now calling him "a revolutionary who lost touch" and "the last of the towering figures of the Cuban Revolution" and (worse) the end of "the region's entrenched elites," meaning the once-revolutionaries. His wife/vice president, who is not sleepy at all and who is renowned for, shall we say, the continuous movement of her mouth, did not soothe the situation by referring to the protesters as "those tiny, petty, mediocre beings, those beings full of hate" for whom, she said in a public speech, "we demand punishment."
Where has little Nicaragua, with only 6 million people who are largely descendants of the original Spanish conquistadores (there were few natives in this part of Central America and no high culture, like the Maya, the Aztec or the Olmec), been all these years? What has happened under the Sandinistas, who were once the scandal of new Latin communism? And what on Earth is happening now?
Like most stories in Central America, nobody comes out exactly smelling like a rose (or, perhaps better here, tasting like a good banana). The U.S. has a bad history here, having assassinated the country's most heroic figure, Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary in the '30s who might have offered hope for the country. Then Washington put all its chips into the game with the Somozas, a land-owning family that played dirty, gave no way to the poor and whose last president, Anastasio Somoza, a laconic figure I also knew, finally walked out when the Sandinistas walked in, only to be assassinated on the street in exile in Paraguay. The Sandinistas were, in the beginning, to be Fidel's big bet in Central America, and he poured a treasure of money and hope into them. Now they, like Cuban hopes in Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, are going down.
Still, in many ways, President Trump should be thanking Daniel and his cohorts. If you haven't noticed, in that threatening "caravan" of Central Americans assaulting our southern border (at least in The Donald's vision), no Nicaraguans are mentioned, nor have I seen a single one come up in stories about Central American immigration to the U.S. The Sandinista government is repressive enough to control emigration and to virtually eliminate the gangs that are taking over countries like Honduras, El Salvador and even Guatemala, not to speak of the drug cartels that reach right up the western coastline of Mexico to the U.S.
The Ortega government has presented itself as a typical communist/socialist Cuban-style state, but in fact, largely through necessity, it has had to allow a good deal of private property and investment. What the protesters are railing against, using a cutback on pension payments as the immediate reason, is in effect the natural repressive responses of an authoritarian or even totalitarian government whose time has finally come.
Only this time, there is nobody in the White House basement to get out that old "we can do anything we want in Central America" attitude and go get the Sandinistas. At least, I don't think there's anybody down there.
The events of these last few weeks, if they make us think again of those events of my summer of 1979 and then Washington's responses of the '80s and of what the Sandininstas have done and not done, should also make us think of bigger historic questions that seldom get asked. To me, as a student of Latin and Central America, it is these questions that are crucially important, especially since we are so deeply and insanely involved in the Middle East, We think of Central America, which God, for whatever reason, put right on our doorstep, only when their overpopulation, gangs, drugs and bad governance immediately hit us.
How can a responsible nation not think first about its neighbors? Why should we be infatuated with Fallujah and Peshawar and Raqqa, while ignoring San Pedro Sula and Managua and San Salvador? Why are we so set upon wasting our seed and our sensibilities in faraway regions that share neither our history nor our geography? That, my friends, is what the Nicaraguan protests made me think of this week.