In February of 1990, Nicaraguans were shocked to discover that they had voted the Sandinistas out of power. Nobody expected it, not even the opposition. The Sandinista Revolution was a revolution of the people, the project of building the country anew was a project taken on by the country as a whole. The FSLN had a big election victory party planned, and only a few people wandered around it in a daze until Daniel Ortega conceded to Violeta Chamorro, marking the first time in history that a party that had taken power with guns handed it over at the ballot box.
This week for the first time I’m able to understand a bit of what it must have felt like milling around the thwarted victory party, waiting to wake up from the nightmare.
I’ll not pretend that I’ve been a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but when my daughter Orla took one look at the democratic debate stage, she pointed to Hillary and said, “I want her to win.” At that moment I recognized the value of girls having someone who looks like them in the White House. The morning after the election I broke down trying to tell Orla that her candidate had lost.
More than that, of course, is the candidate who won. (I find it hard to use his name and the words “President Elect” together, so I’m considering simply referring to him as He Who Shall Not Be Named.) All week long Nicaraguans have been asking me how it can be that people – including 3 of every 10 Latinos – voted for the man who hates immigrants and incites his followers to violence against people of color. Then they ask me to explain the Electoral College, and lord knows I’ve tried to explain the inexplicable. It’s clear to me from outside America that the world sees the U.S. has made a Very Big Mistake, and unfortunately for the world, the consequences of our U.S. mistake will be far-reaching.
As I began to process the U.S. election, I have felt myself pulling inward, closing down, slowing down. This has made me mindful of what happened in Nicaragua after the FSLN lost the elections in 1990. The election marked the end of the Contra war – the U.S. had funded doña Violeta’s candidacy and made it clear that if she won the election, the U.S.-funded proxy war that had killed 50,000 people would end – and it marked the end of the Revolution as well. The Revolution was the first time in 500 years that the Nicaraguan people had been able to control their country’s future. During the 1980s so many had thrown themselves into the work of reimagining and recreating their country from the ground up, and although they themselves recognized many flaws, there was a tangible feeling of possibility and hope.
The loss of the election snatched that hope from them, and I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Nicaraguan society as a whole went into a depression that lasted more than a decade. A good friend of mine says that she went into a depression herself with the loss of the election. She’d learned to read at the age of 13 when the literacy crusade made it to her village. She then went to school for the first time, and when she finished 6th grade she decided to join the army in order to give back to the Revolution. She became an instructor teaching new recruits how to use antiaircraft artillery and was active in her neighborhood and in the FSLN. When they lost the elections, she went home to her partner and boarded up walls around the army tent they’d been living in and raised children. She didn’t venture out of her home sphere for ten years.
People tell me this happened everywhere: Nicaragua became quiet. People drew inward.
They fended for their families as best they could, but by and large they did not have energy or the mental space to concern themselves with society or any kind of doings on a national level. On an annual basis there would be student protests trying to get funding for public universities, and transport strikes seeking subsidies (both of which would inevitably end up with burning vehicles), but by and large the Nicaraguan people were in a debilitating depression.
While they were incapacitated, the somocistas who had supported the former dictator oozed back into the country and violently stole back properties they had forfeited when they fled the country a decade earlier. Doña Violeta’s government quietly stripped the country, selling nearly all public enterprises at concessionary rates and effectively privatizing health care and education. She welcomed the World Bank and IMF and followed the letter of their structural readjustment programs, refusing to raise wages for teachers, police, any public worker. Once cooperatives were no longer funded, they began to fold, and as those in the countryside lost their land they began to move into the cities looking for work. Gangs took hold in the cities, and crime rates – which had been all but nonexistent in the 80s – skyrocketed. The poor got poorer and the rich got richer until Nicaragua became one of the most unequal societies in the world. Desperate to find a way to earn a living, people began to leave in droves to Costa Rica and the U.S. until this small country had nearly 1 million citizens living outside its borders.
This dystopia was probably most disturbingly and most famously embodied in La Chureca,* the dump in Managua where 2,000 people lived on top of the trash, digging through it to find plastic and metal to sell and food scraps to eat. Drug addicted parents prostituted their daughters out to garbage men for another high and the entire place was filled with smoke and hollow, haunted eyes.
Recalling my many visits to the Chureca, I think this: although I want to pull into myself, although I want to turn my back on America and just concentrate on raising my family in Nicaragua, although I am feeling sad and defeated, Nicaragua has given us a glimpse of what may happen if we allow the most active sectors, the most progressive people in American society, to go quiet. The current situation in the U.S. is very different from 1990 Nicaragua, but I’m afraid there will be great suffering ahead in the U.S. too, especially for the poor and vulnerable, for people of color, our LGBT community and women. For the sake of all those who will find themselves targeted or marginalized, we must refuse to fall into a depression. We must come together and share sources of hope and ideas…and quite possibly we will have to start chapter of the Order of the Phoenix. – Becca
*Thanks to God, as they say here in Nicaragua, the residents were moved out of the dump several years ago and a more formal recycling plant was set up to give jobs to many of them. Other dumps around the country continue much in the same vein as La Chureca, including one in Ciudad Sandino, but there are fewer workers and people don’t live inside the dump.