During the 1970s, Dionisio Marenco was one of many young Nicaraguans who decided to risk their lives by joining the rebel Sandinista National Liberation Front. He helped rob a payroll office to finance the group, joined in planning spectacular commando raids, and narrowly escaped death in a firefight when he and a band of comrades stormed a police station in Managua. After the Sandinistas seized power in 1979, Marenco held several ministerial posts under President Daniel Ortega, and then became chief of the Sandinista propaganda department. He remained by Ortega’s side during the convulsions that shook the Sandinista Front after it was voted out of power in 1990. While in opposition, Ortega helped engineer Marenco’s election as mayor of Managua in 2004. Like many other veteran Sandinistas, though, Marenco finally became fed up with Ortega, who was reelected president in 2006. The two are now on bad terms.
I recently visited Marenco at his modest City Hall office. On the walls hang portraits of Nicaragua’s two most famous historical figures, the brilliant modernist poet Rubén Darìo, who died in 1916, and the guerrilla hero Augusto César Sandino, who held off repeated US Marine assaults in the 1920s and 1930s. After an aide brought us coffee, we sat silently for a moment. I was thinking back to the turbulent 1980s, when the Sandinistas were fiery radicals and President Reagan was sponsoring a brutal war to overthrow them. When Marenco finally spoke, I realized that he too had been remembering those days. “It’s amazing,” he said wistfully, “to see how this country has gone from such superinflated importance to less than nothing.”
By many standards Nicaragua is worse off than ever. It is one of the poorest countries in the Americas. There is money to be made, but most goes to the elite; 10 percent of Nicaraguans earn nearly half the country’s total income, while 80 percent subsist on less than two dollars a day. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, 27 percent of the population is undernourished. Hundreds of thousands of people have left to find work in Costa Rica or elsewhere. A twenty-six-year-old American who lives in a northern town lamented that he has no friends his own age, because every young man who lived there has left.
Grinding poverty has been endemic in Nicaragua for decades. Governments of the left, center, and right have failed to ease it. In the countryside it is even more palpable than in the capital. Many people are so frustrated at the lack of employment opportunities that they have given up looking for full-time jobs and simply do what they can to scrape by. Chronic energy shortages make it difficult for factories to operate, and this keeps away foreign investors. Rates of domestic violence are among the highest in Latin America. If there is one bright spot, it is that levels of violent crime outside the home are remarkably low, nearer to the rates in placid Costa …