democracy in Nica-land

Tuesday, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for Nicaragua. The capital is a bit in turmoil and democracy hangs in a precarious balance between traffic rotundas, the epicenters of national protests. Indeed, Nicaragua’s having a rough time at this point due to the municipal elections of two weeks prior which were, according to most news sources, rigged. Given that two of six million Nicaraguans live in Managua, and therefore the position of mayor holds a great deal of power, the outcome of their election is important. But, it’s important more so because it’s symbolic of the health of the institution of democracy in Nicaragua. In Leon, a city up north, bags of uncounted ballots were found in the cities dump and more than one person has claimed that they were turned away from the polls. More so than pitting one party against another, the election demonstrates some pretty serious cracks in Nicaragua’s democratic foundation–and perhaps that it’s all a charade. 

The election carries with it echoes of the 80’s. I, for one, thought that this was long past—and indeed, it is, from all signs around the country—but this election is showing that what seemed like a stable democracy, born out of war, is perhaps not so stable after all. I chatted with some gringos with run a hotel down by the beach who were quite concerned about the distress in Managua. Now, especially being in Gigante, I don’t feel remotely unsafe. Although it’s certainly troubling for Nicaragua and Nicaraguans, I don’t feel like these protests in the capital affect me too much. But, understandably, those who have invested in Nicaragua and live here full-time are made nervous by such volatility in the government, especially since the president has been accused of returning to “dictatorship”.

I’ve made a Nicaraguan friend besides the folks at the hotel, a fellow who works at a resort a couple of kilometers away. He comes by Brio most nights to use the internet and is super nice. Originally from Managua, he’s always full of updates and information about what’s going on. Yesterday, he blew into Brio as I was preparing for my 6 p.m. class and said “Megan, Managua’s on fire.” No, no, no, not literally on fire. But, he has friends there calling him to update him on the people protesting in the streets, information which was then passed along to me. Juan is, as always, a fantastic source of information: “Juan what happened in Managua yesterday,” I asked this morning, and got up half-an-hour later after Juan passed his news-gathering wisdom along. So, I’m actually quite proud of myself for being in the know, not because I’ve been reading the news (which I have) but because I’ve been talking to Nicaraguans.

My friend sent me a forward he got from a friend in Managua about propaganda posters all around Managua of President Daniel Ortega. Ortega’s got his fist raised, a standard gesture, and below says “More power, more democracy!” Apparently, the shadow of his hand is the in shape of a serpent, mouth stretching over Sr. Ortega’s heart. The email is attempting to demonstrate some relation between the Sandanista’s and Satanism, how and what I didn’t take the time to figure out. But, what impressed me about this email of, essentially, political spam, was that it was in powerpoint form: some lonely Nica somewhere went through the trouble to make a fourteen-slide powerpoint about subliminal messages in political advertisements; the craft alone impressed me.

He also shared with me an email his brother sent him in which a friend recounts his attempt to march peacefully through Managua on Tuesday as part of an organized demonstration against this incredible backwards slide in Nicaragua’s political well-being. From all accounts, it seemed to be a pretty chaotic and unnecessarily violent affair. 

On an interesting side-note, quite on the opposite end of the powerpoint spectrum, all votes in the election are hand-counted. My friend had a purple stain on his thumb, which is how they control that you vote only once. My first reaction was surprise at this primitiveness of it, and then realization that a computer system to count votes in every county of Nicaragua—including those who’s results were delayed because they had to cart bags of ballots into cities on horseback—is simply impossible. Obviously, the stained-thumb thing only works if the person staining the thumbs does so for every person who comes to vote, and doesn’t ‘forget’ to stain his party-friends.

So amidst all this Nicaraguan fun, Sunday evening Juan, Jackie and I made a trek over to Iguana, a resort just up the coast. Iguana is a fancy-schmancy gated community of apartments, houses, a golf course, and a restaurant—basically, a bubble, a little self-sustainable world within itself. I didn’t actually know it was so close… it’s a forty minute rough and tumble drive, along rutted and wrecked roads, but is actually located at the end of a beach that I’ve run to before from Gigante.

A security guard unlocked the gate for us, noting the car’s license plate number, and we entered into Iguana-land: or, what happens if gringos ruled Nicaragua (I’ll resist the temptation to say anything besides ‘if’ there). We turned onto perfectly smooth road, smoother even compared to our bumpy journey, and tooled along next to groomed fields and crops. Already feeling removed from some sort of reality, we pulled into the restaurant parking lot (which is already a sign of what to come, as parking lots are generally non-existent) and walked into to gringo-land. It’s like a little U.S. Embassy right on the coast. The menu, in English first then Spanish, listed pricey options, in dollars, for us to enjoy in an air-conditioned restaurant, watching American football on a plasma-screen TV. ‘Where’s the bathroom?’ asked Jackie; ‘Where it says, Restroom’ I said. ‘After the door that says Kitchen: Employees only.’ We ordered outrageously priced beers and pizza and chatted with the bartender, a friend of Juan’s and had a lovely time; that is, until the place was swarmed by gringos screaming over football and tequila shots. It was bizarre, and made me so appreciate the accessibility of culture at Brio.

On a side note, it’s a little hard to be concerned about the election when you’re swimming in the Pacific Ocean at sunset, like I did this evening…



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