Nicaragua has been calling to me for years. I’m not sure what the origin of the appeal is, but I came to Mexico partly because it would put me within striking distance of Nica. I’m sure Salman Rushdie is at least partly to blame; in 1986 he visited Nica and turned this visit into The Jaguar Smile, the least celebrated book he will ever write.
Rushdie was in Nica during the Contra war; the Sandinistas were in power and Reagan was not happy about it. Almost 25 years have passed since then though; although Daniel Ortega is once again president, I had to keep reminding myself that there was more to Nica than Sandinistas. I just didn’t know quite what.
Nicaragua had also called to Julio Cortázar. He visited Nicaragua multiple times. He wrote about it. He got involved with the Sandinistas. Of Managua he wrote:
You saw it from the air; this is Managua,
erect among ruins, beautiful in its wasteland,
poor, like the arms it fought with,
rich, like the blood of its children.
I had to visit Managua, if for no other reason then because it is the site of Nica’s international airport. All I had heard about Managua, though, was that it was dangerous and ugly city. There was more to it than this though; Managua is the capital, the centre of the country. Dangerous or not, I couldn’t overlook it.
Cortázar was on to something though. Perched on an immense lake, surrounded by green hills and punctuated by crater lakes, Managua should be beautiful. It has, however, never recovered from the earthquake of 1972, which destroyed some 80% of the city. The devastation was so complete, and the likelihood of further quakes so high (it is predicted that quakes of similar magnitude will repeat every 50 years or so), that the historic centre was never rebuilt.
This was the part of Managua I was most interested in seeing, and also the part I had been most warned about. The historic centre of Managua is eerily quiet; it really does resemble a wasteland. The only people who live here now squat in the patched up ruins of old buildings, or have thrown up tent and shanty towns in vacant lots.
In the midst of this wasteland are the most important buildings of the city. The presidential house, the National Palace of Culture, and the old cathedral all face each other across the desolate Plaza de la Revolución. Close by are the Ruben Darío monument and the tomb of Sandinista leader Carlos Fonseca. Bored police officers keep watch over the monuments and the occasional lonely figure shuffles by.
Although the old cathedral is still standing, it was savaged by the 72 earthquake, and is today only a cracked and crumbling shell. It looks rather post-apocalyptic; the sort of place where Kaenu Reeves might battle demons.
Everywhere about the centre are images of Augusto Sandino and Ortega. The man who leant his name to the revolution, and the man who continues to trade off of that revolution. Although the revolution is mostly definitely over, Ortega and others continue to invoke Sandino’s national hero status, even though, as Rushdie pointed out, Sandino was an unremarkable looking guy, and is only really identifiable by his hat. Sandino has become his hat, an image on billboards and monuments.
And in between the images of Sandino are the vague legacies of the Somoza family. The prison on Loma de Tiscapa in which the Somozas tortured prisoners. The theatre they built. The Palacio Nacional which they renovated, but which has been taken over by Sandinista iconography, including the hat.
After the earthquake, Managua moved to its own outskirts; its defacto centres became malls and and commercial clusters like Metrocentro and Bello Horizonte. These are areas without history; there are few images of Sandino, few dark traces of the Somoza regime. Out here immigrant pockets are blossoming; I stumbled upon the Korean quarter and had a damn good doenjang jjigae. These are also the only places in Nica that have opened up to international brands; whether it be Burger King or Benetton or Benz.
The new cathedral of Managua is out here too, and it is probably the most distinctive cathedral in Latin America. Apparently it was built with money donated by the guy that owns Dominos Pizza. Whereas so many cathedrals seem to stand in sharp contrast to the cities and people around them, this cathedral reflects Managua very well. Built of stark concrete and with a boxy, modern design crowned by small domes that are supposed to be of some use in an earthquake, the cathedral is stark and functional. People filter through the doors and pray in the pews. It is by no means a pretty building, but it is in keeping with a city that is sick of waiting for help while a select few grow rich. That was life under the Somozas.
For the record, at no time in Managua did I feel particularly unsafe. I wouldn’t walk around the historic centre alone at night, but the city’s reputation has little to do with its reality. It wasn’t until I was in the country that I learned that it consistently ranks safest among Central American countries, and near-safest among Latin American countries. Which, given recent history, is quite an achievement.
Be that as it may, after a few nights in Managua I was ready to leave, to get out and see the rest of the country, which was still calling to me…