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The Museum of the Revolution sits in a plum location opposite the cathedral on the main square in León, Nicaragua’s second city. Designed in the 1930s as a telecommunications centre, the building was later used as a judicial court under the US-backed dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza. Between them, Somoza and his two sons ruled Nicaragua for more than 40 years, an administration that even by Latino standards was neglectful and corrupt. The Somozas’ reign was eventually ended by the Sandinista rebels in 1979, after León had become the first city to fall to the upstart guerrillas. The establishment of a museum dedicated to the Sandinista revolution in Somoza’s old courthouse is something of a political act.

Run the gamut of hot dog hawkers and raspado carts outside the museum today and you’ll find a handful of greying men gathered on the steps or in the courtyard, idly shooting the breeze. Around 35 years ago, these men served as Sandinista rebels, helping to overthrow a widely despised dictatorship in the revolution that the museum now commemorates. As young men, the revolution was their life. Nearly four decades later, it remains so, but in ways they surely can’t ever have expected.

 


 

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The Sandinista revolution was a long time coming in Nicaragua. Public disgust with the Somoza regime had grown throughout the 1960s and ’70s, as living conditions worsened while corruption grew. Taking their name and identity from General Augusto Sandino, who had previously fought US forces in the 1920s and ’30s before being executed, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front; FSLN) led the anti-government rebellion, and did so with great success. After Somoza’s forces killed an American journalist who was reporting on the crisis in the capital, Managua, the US gave up on the Somoza regime. However, that ending ultimately heralded the start of another period of US involvement in Nicaragua, involvement that continues to define the country today.

For years, the US’s main emphasis in Latin America was in fighting what it saw as the profound dangers of communism (while, in many cases, also protecting its own economic interests). In doing so, successive US governments propped up and even helped to install a string of dictatorial regimes across South and Central America, perhaps most notoriously backing the Pinochet military coup in Chile. In the recent past, presumably considering the anti-communist fight to have been won, the US has instead placed its emphasis on supporting democracy in Latin America. ‘Elections,’ writes Alma Guillermoprieto in Looking for History, ‘are taken as virtually sacred proof that a country is on the right track and deserves Washington’s encomiums and loans.’ But in the 1980s, the Cold War at its height, democracy didn’t help Nicaragua.

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Despite their hopeless governance of an already troubled economy, the incumbent FSLN government won 1984 elections that international observers deemed to be free and fair. (Some historians have since questioned this judgment.) The US was unimpressed. Fearful of the FSLN’s communist sympathies – it was seen as close to Cuba and Russia – and concerned about American economic interests in the region being eroded, Ronald Reagan’s administration resolved to do everything in its power, legally and illegally, to remove the Sandinista government. The result, the Iran-Contra scandal, became what historian, writer and Latin American specialist Greg Grandin describes in Empire’s Workshop as ‘one of the most egregious presidential violations of the public trust of the 20th century’.

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After the ensuing civil war between Nicaraguan government forces and US-backed Contra rebels, in which 30,000 Nicaraguans died, and following five years of US economic sanctions that nearly crippled the country, the FSLN was voted out of office and replaced by a more conservative regime. Successive governments tacked to a centre-right course that was much more to the US government’s liking. But then, in 2006, the FSLN returned to power under Daniel Ortega, who’d been part of the junta that led the country following the revolution and even served as president for five years during the turbulent 1980s. Having controversially (and, in some accounts, illegally) rewritten the constitution in order to permit his own reelection, Ortega remains in power today.

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An anticharismatic presence and uninspiring communicator, Ortega hardly fits the stereotype of a Latin American firebrand revolutionary (cf Fidel Castro in Cuba, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, even Salvador Allende of Chile). His government, although notably more moderate than its earlier incarnation, has only been partly successful in improving the lot of its citizens, and Ortega himself has been dogged by allegations of corruption, electoral fraud and sexual abuse. (Jon Lee Anderson wrote a terrific profile of Ortega for The New Yorker a few months ago.) What Ortega does offer, though, is a stubborn, independent anti-Americanism that still sits well with the Nicaraguan people, along with a direct link to the iconic events of the Sandinista rebellion of the 1970s. In its own way, the revolution continues.

 


 

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The Museum of the Revolution occupies just a couple of rooms in its grand, formerly elegant old building, the rest of which has been left to crumble. (‘Grand’, ‘formerly elegant’ and ‘left to crumble’ are all descriptions that can just as easily be applied to León as a whole. That’s not criticism; we much preferred its faded appearance and college-town atmosphere to the more manicured colonial streets of Granada.) The exhibits would mean little to most visitors: the yellowed newspaper clippings, dog-eared photographs and torn photocopies lack captions and context, and the overall impression is of a shoebox of memorabilia that’s been dragged down from the attic and hastily tacked to the walls.

This is where the greying men come in. The former Sandinista rebels now spend their days working here as volunteer guides (a tip is appreciated), placing the exhibits in some sort of order. There is little pretence of neutrality in their commentary, presumably for locals as for extranjeros like us. Francisco, our guide, spoke decent English, but we chose to talk with him in Spanish. Inevitably, some subtlety and nuance disappears when second languages are involved, but the good guy/bad guy gist wasn’t hard to follow.

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Smart and politically engaged, Francisco seemed like a good person to ask about Nicaragua today, and in particular about Ortega’s controversial, borderline-crazy plans to build a competitor to the Panama Canal across Nicaragua. (Update: as Jon Lee Anderson reports in this entry on the New Yorker’s blog, ground was broken on the canal’s construction in December 2014.) We didn’t fully understand his answer. (In fairness, he may not have entirely understood our question. Will hasn’t quite got the hang of the conditional future tense.) However, his subtext was plain. If it goes right, we’ll have the government to thank. If it doesn’t, it’ll be the fault of the Chinese contractors who’ve been granted the rights to build and run it. Once a Sandinista…

 


 

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Much of one wall in the museum’s main room is given over to a pair of flags. On the left – of course, the left – is the Nicaraguan bandera. Next to it hangs the Argentine national colours. But why Argentina?

Two reasons, replied Francisco. One is to honour Che Guevara, whose shadow seems to fall over every Latino revolution of the last 50 years. An image of Che – that image – is at the centre of a mural in the museum’s courtyard. For once placed in a proper context, it carries rather more weight here than it does on the T-shirts, posters and other tatty memorabilia treasured by students and backpackers the world over.

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So that’s the first reason, Francisco. What’s the second?

A beat’s pause, the pause of a practiced public speaker. Or, perhaps, of a stand-up comic.

‘Lionel Messi.’

Gales of laughter. That, though, is another revolution for another day.

 


 

Route notes: We took the simplest, shortest and flattest route through Nicaragua. Entering the country from Costa Rica at Peñas Blancas, we rode the main road to Granada via the volcano-dominated Isla de Ometepe, which we reached by ferry from San Jorge near Rivas. From Granada, we followed winding back roads via the Laguna de Apoyo and Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya to the town of Masaya, then rode from Masaya to León in a day. (Keen to make distance, we followed the new, not terribly busy highway from Managua to León, via Nagarote and La Paz Centro. The older parallel road is quieter but in worse condition. Neither are terribly scenic.)

From León, Will’s first choice was to continue riding north-west via Jiquilillo to the tiny port of Potosí, then catch a boat to La Unión in El Salvador. (Ruth returned to Granada for Spanish classes.) However, the boat service requires a minimum passenger count, and we couldn’t find anybody to make up the numbers. Instead, Will ploughed on to grubby Somotillo, then crossed into Honduras the next morning at El Guasaule.

 


 

from Antigua Guatemala, Sacatepéquez, Guatemala