Saturday, August 2, 2008

Managua, an earthquake, and the revolution

Managua is Nicaragua's capital city and now boasts a population of over 1.6 million (1,680,000 estimated on wikipedia). It was founded as a fishing village on the coast of a mini-great-lake lake, the heavily polluted Lake Managua (apparently there is a program to decontaminate it that is supposed to finish cleaning its waters sometime this year (2008), also according to wikipedia). Nicaragua's population is listed as being estimated at 5.6 million, a number that represents a growth of almost 10% in little over a year after the census of 2005 (there must be a mistake somewhere, perhaps with the date of the estimate), when the population was 5.1 million. In any case, Managua has grown since I was last there in the early 1990s when its population was estimated to be about 1 million (in a country of 4 million) and has also grown in regards to its share of the country's population: about 25% when I was there to around 30% today.

Managua was created to place a capital in a compromise location between the colonial cities of León and Granada that dominated Nicaraguan politics, with the Liberal Party associated with the former and the Conservative party with the latter. Managua was perhaps not the best choice, given the two earthquakes that shook the city in the 20th century. In 1931 an earthquake shook the city and it rebuilt. The 1972 earthquake was much more tragic. It lasted only 30 seconds, but it destroyed 90% of the city (the center was never rebuilt) and shook national politics.

Nicaragua had been ruled by the Somoza dynasty since the mid-1930s when Anastacio Somoza (Tacho) staged a coup d'etat and took over the presidency. While he and his two sons were not always officially the president, all politics went through them and though it was first Tacho until 1956, then his eldest (legitimate) son Luis until 1967 (he died of a heart attack; I read a piece that mentioned a rumor that he was poisoned by his brother -- the family was certainly capable of doing just that) and then Tachito until he was deposed in 1979. Tacho was assassinated but his death failed to have an impact on national politics. Luis was a bit more benevolent, at least after the crackdown that followed the assassination. Tachito was hard-handed, perhaps as much as his father if not more so. In the early 1960s in the wake of the Cuban Revolution (1959), Carlos Fonseca and others began a guerrilla group dedicated to toppling the dynasty. Their group, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) eventually split into three groups, with third group emerging as a sort of compromise group in an attempt to reconcile the different factions, as well as to broaden the appeal of the Sandinista movement in general. The two primary factions were the GPP and the TP (Guerra Popular Prolongada -- that's Prolonged Popular War and Tendencia Proletaria, Proletarian tendency, respectively). The former favored the gradual accumulation of forces in the countryside and in the nearly uninhabited mountains, while the former favored armed actions included bank and restaurant robberies in an urban setting. At seems that they complemented each other nicely -- one group in the mountains driving the National Guard soliders crazy and the other making public actions in the city that called attention to the movement.

In 1969, at about the same time that the Apollo mission was about to step on the moon, an incident with the urban group was televised (without sound). The National Guard (this was Nicaragua's army, set up by the United States during the early part of the twentieth century when they occupied the country; Somoza rose to prominence not because he was a good officer --apparently he was just the opposite -- but because he knew English) had discovered a house that had several Sandinista operatives inside. The GN (its initials in Spanish, for Guardia Nacional) surrounded the house (as was their custom) and the female members of the Sandinistas left the house, were arrested, and later tortured. Only one man remained inside, though the GN thought there were more. What happened was perhaps a decisive moment in the revolution as that one man -- Julio Buitraga -- held off the National Guard for hours. In a scene that seems straight out of an Ahnold or Rambo film, the house was fired upon, and Buitraga fired back. Eventually they knocked down the walls of the house, reducing it to rubble. Buitraga came out of the rubble, firing at the soldiers before finally dying. In the meantime, the TV audience could see the officers tremble with fear. Fear that they had of one guy.

The next key moment was the 1972 earthquake. It occurred December 23, just before Christmas, and destoyed at least 90% of the residences. In the aftermath Managua became one of the most expensive cities to live in the world (1973). The international community responded generously but immediately there were reports of Tachito and the National Guard hoarding the donations and not helping the residents. Roberto Clemente heard these reports and was on his way to Nicaragua to help ensure the delivery of foodstuffs and other aid to the common people when his plane crashed. The corruption of Somoza became public in the wake of the earthquake and the struggles of the US with Nixon's own corruption, Ford's brief presidency, and then the economic struggles that came to a head under Carter, especially with the sudden increase in oil prices in the late 1970s all eroded American support for the regime. Carter refused support to Somoza late in his reign and even denied him entry to the US. Jorge Eduardo Arellano, one of Nicaragua's more prominent intellectuals, downplayed the revolution and told me that Nicarauga didn't have a revolution as much as it had an earthquake. After the earthquake, with the corruption of Somoza plainly evident, support from his previous allies eroded until he had no allies. His time was up.

It would be reductionist to take Arellano's claim at face value, just as it would to take Omar Cabezas's account of the revolution at face value. Omar Cabezas won the Casa de las America's prize for best testimonio in 1982, the year before Rigoberta Menchú won it. Cabezas's book, La montaña es algo más que una inmensa estepa verde (translated into English with the title, Fire from the Mountain: the Making of a Sandinista, but whose title more literally translates as The Mountain is something more than an immense green wasteland), describes his intial period of entry as a militant in the Sandinista ranks, beginning with the period before he was burned, i.e., identified as a Sandinista, and forced to go to the mountains (he was a member of the GPP). His work, an absolute beautiful work in spoken Nicaraguan Spanish (he didn't write the book per se, he spoke with different people and others transcribed it for him; he actually wrote the sequel; it didn't do as well, though it is a nice view of the struggle and has a great glossary of Nicaraguan swear words -- Cabezas has a reputation as being... well George Carlin-like in his use of the language). One of the central points is the association of the mountain, the Nicaraguan landscape, with the Nicaraguan people and, more importantly, with the Sandinista Revolution. Of course, Cabezas is wrong: the revolution was won not in the countryside (though it certainly did help) but by the progress of the urban movement. The robberies in the city brough the movement both recognition of its presence and funds. Its urban actions like the kidnapping of an ambassador -- in his own home -- brought a lot of attention, money, and the release of several political prisoners, one of whom, Daniel Ortega, would later head the government shortly after the triumph (and again today). A later raid on the National Palace had a simliar effect. Young people (mainly boys in their teens) were quick to join the Sandinistas; they had been targeted by the Guardia during the 1970s and they decided to join, perhaps figuring that they were going to die anyway (I'm a little glib here; more work is needed on this point). They also contributed, as did the the turnabout of Somoza's former allies (perhaps out of interest in shaping the new government, realizing that Somoz's days were numbered, but also realizing in the process that Somoza had to go).

Was the Revolution an earthquake? Absolutely. Did the 1972 earthquake bring about Somoza's downfall? It certainly contributed, but without the presence of other actors, Nicaraguan history would certainly have been different.

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