Best Weekend Yet by Chris Rhodenbaugh

July 7, 2010

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Last weekend was extremely eventful in the best possible of ways.

A walk on Friday through Monimbol, an area of Masaya, took me past a pick up game of soccer up on the hill. The courts look out over the mountains and the city of Masaya. I am falling in love with this sport during my time here. I have been practicing when I can and want to play in a casual game before I leave.

The weekend started off with an easy Friday night, staying in, because Movistar (the cell phone company that 45% of Nicaragua uses, and is popular across Central America) shut down for about 30 hours. That's right, a cell phone company went down for 30 hours, can you imagine what would happen in the US if Verizon went down for more than 24 hours?? People here didnt panic and just went about there lives. When I went in to the Movistar store I was the only person in there inquiring why I couldn't make phone calls, the employee in the store calmly informed me that the the entire country's network was out and she wasn't sure when it would come back on (I found out later they had problems across Central America).

Saturday afternoon I helped administer a listening and conversation test (my responsibilities are growing in the classroom!). Also, since the revolution in 1979, July 3rd has been a day of celebration for the Sandinistas. (The Sandinistas, also known as FSLN, are the socialist party of Nicaragua who led the revolution that toppled the Somoza government in 1979). Victory was achieved by the Sandinistas on July 19, 1979, on July 3rd of that year there was an important event. From various descriptions of what occurred I believe it goes like this...Somoza, the president at the time, was using airplanes (almost certain they were purchased by the US, the US government was a consistent cheerleader of the Somoza regime) to bomb his own people in the capital city of Managua. He had lost control of the war and took to a strategy of desperation. Many Sandinistas and people affected by the bombing in Managua fled to Masaya and in Masaya there was an important battle won by the Sandinistas, a turning point in the revolution. So the tradition became, whenever a Sandinista is President (or in reality, every year Daniel Ortega has been president), there is a march from Managua to Masaya. The march stops in different places on the way in which Ortega gives a short speech.

I joined two of my friends from MASINFA and caught up with the parade in Nindiri, a small city next to Masaya. We waited for two hours in the crowd to see the speech. Unfortunately I didn't get a good photo of the crowd from within. The 2 hours I stood waiting for the President to show up was a full out dance party. There were huge speakers, and a dj mixing different revolution songs, reggaeton, bachata, techno etc. A really incredible glimpse into both the culture of Nicaragua and the politics here. I was front row to watch the President's speech in Nindiri. On Monday at school, one of my teachers told me that he saw me on Nicaraguan national news in a crowd close up!! Awesome.

My group met up with others and we walked in the parade from Nindiri to Masaya. Ortega spoke at about 11PM in Nindiri and the night finished with his speech at 2:30 AM in Masaya. The revolution plays an enormous role in Nicaraguan politics (it is one of the only countries of the 20th century to pull off an armed revolution and have revolutionaries take over, and maintain power). The parade is one of the many days of celebration every year.

Political appeals on the left rely largely on reminding people of the excitement of the revolution and celebrating that socialists run the country. For everyone affiliated with the revolutionary forces, directly or through their family, the events are the best times of the year. There are intense levels of pride in their accomplishments in ousting the Somoza dictatorship. It is easy to see why Nicaragua consistently has a dicey political situation. The division between political ideologies here is extreme. Ortega won the last election in 2006 with less than 40% of the vote. The issue in the upcoming election is if all the opposition parties will be able to unite behind one candidate. If they are divided again, Ortega will win the election. The opposition ranges from the MRS (Movimiento Renovador Sandino) a social democratic party who support much of what the revolution was about but do not believe in Ortega and his anti-democratic behavior, to the more conservative ALN (Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense) and PLC (Partido Liberal Constitucionalista). The conservative parties would likely be classified as center or center left in U.S. politics. Most people if they do not share political views will not touch the topic of politics in conversation. I have witnessed a couple of close calls, in which friends got a little testy and had to drop it (way more intense than in the US). It is sad that Nicaragua is a country largely void of a real exchange of ideas in politics. The main political issue facing the country today is retaining democracy, instead of a real debate on how to improve the well being of Nicaraguans (Ortega has been heavily criticized by opposition for adjusting the constitution to accommodate his multiple term presidency, 1979-1990, 2006-2010, the U.S. certified the 2006 election as fair and legal but in 2008 international observers were not permitted and there were heavy allegations of problems with vote counting in the mayoral races). Ortega's speeches were more akin to toasts to the celebration than anything of substance (part of that is that the day is a long party, but I was disappointed he didn't use the opportunity to discuss something of substance). The divisions are deep, and largely responsible for many of the countries problems. The key to success of a divided country is that parties can unite on the most serious of issues. When divisions are too deep ineffective governance and sub-optimal solutions become the norm (we are starting to see this in the US in my opinion).

PART 2 of my weekend started at 5:30 AM on Sunday morning. I went to San Juan del Sur with a group of friends from MASINFA, and another intern from MASINFA that works at the medical clinic. The sun comes out in Nicaragua between 5 and 5:30 AM. By 9:30 the sun is hot, and by 12 the sun is at peak temperature. The sun goes down much earlier here as well, between 6-7 it becomes dark. San Juan del Sur is a city on the Pacific Ocean in the southwestern part of Nicaragua, probably an hour or less to get to Costa Rica from there. It is in the department of Rivas (Nicaragua is divided into departments, kind of like our states but government power here is more centralized). The city is a popular destination for foreign tourists and Nicaraguan tourism. From what I heard prior to going I expected a full out tourism zone, complete with resorts on the beach and lots of more upscale tourist options. However, the city is really quaint and laid back. There are two or three upper class hotels but they are far from resorts (not western hotels, only buildings, no private beaches). It feels more like a beach town for the hostel type of tourist, which I prefer. It is also a popular destination for talented surfers (a major competition has been held in the city before). The waves were enormous, and I have never felt an undertoe so strong. During my time I spotted white guys with dread locks, a young US woman with a healthy supply of armpit hair, and I talked with a Nicaraguan and Rastafarian merchant. There were also many Nicaraguan families, and groups of European tourists. The sands weren't perfectly white like many of the Nicaraguan Islands or more exclusive beaches along the coast, but the scenery was unbelievably gorgeous. The highlights of the day were bodysurfing in enormous waves, playing soccer on the beach and learning ball juggling tricks, and hiking up a small mountain that is the corner of the bay. On top of the mountain is a park with a large statue of Jesus and a cross.

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