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 Rica than to those in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, the region’s comparably poor countries. Some attribute this to a gentle streak in the national character. Others suggest that it is due to the professionalism and social consciousness of the National Police, which is among the positive legacies of the first Sandinista government that ruled during the 1980s.
The gentleness of Nicaraguans is one of their country’s most endearing qualities. Despite their troubles, many remain cheerful and feel a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow citizens. I met more than a few poor people who struggle to live on pennies yet told me their lives are not bad. Nicaraguans are accustomed to difficulty. The land around them is majestic and, as tourists are discovering in steadily increasing numbers, they seem eager to share it with visitors.
By most standards, though, Nicaragua remains caught in an acute version of the underdevelopment that has gripped much of Latin America for generations. Aid agencies ameliorate some of the worst problems, the Ortega government has embarked on a food project with the aim of “zero hunger,” and local leaders like Mayor Marenco have done what little they can to bring low-priced rice and beans to the poor. None of these efforts, however, is backed by enough resources to make a real difference.
“There are no jobs and no prospects,” Mayor Marenco told me. “People don’t have enough to eat, to dress themselves, or to go to the hospital when they need to. The sense of hopelessness is tremendous. Where’s the way out? I don’t see it.” Then, as if grasping for some bright spot, he added, “Only Chávez can help us.”
While the Sandinistas were insurgents, and while they governed Nicaragua during the 1980s, Fidel Castro was their hero and inspiration. Cuba is still sending what aid it can to Nicaragua, notably a corps of doctors who practice in remote regions and have won much admiration for their hard work and willingness to live in difficult conditions. The central object of Daniel Ortega’s admiration today, though, is President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, who has replaced Castro as the chief demon in Washington’s Latin American cosmology. Chávez has visited Nicaragua four times since Ortega took office as president in early 2007, and Ortega rarely makes a foreign trip without stopping in Caracas. Perhaps, as the Nicaraguan psychiatrist Gioconda Cajina suggests, Ortega has a need for a father figure. Most Nicaraguans of all political perspectives, including Mayor Marenco, nonetheless agree that his relationship with Chávez has been crucial for the Nicaraguan economy.
Nicaragua’s most urgent priority these days is energy. Without energy there is no hope of securing the investment or achieving the economic growth the country must have if it is to begin pulling itself out of its misery. Yet it produces no oil and cannot afford to buy what it needs. By providing all of Nicaragua’s supply, a total of about 10 million barrels per year, on generous credit terms, Chávez has become Nicaragua’s greatest benefactor. “Without Venezuela’s oil cooperation, the Nicaraguan economy would already have collapsed,” Ortega said during a visit to Caracas in January. “We simply would not have had energy in our country, so productive activity would have stopped. That is to say, there would have been chaos.”
Even aid from Venezuela, however, has not been enough to resolve Nicaragua’s intensifying energy crisis. Prices for oil and electricity have been rising steadily. This has led to power rationing, rolling blackouts, and spreading demands for subsidies that the government says it cannot provide. Popular anger erupted into a paralyzing transport workers’ strike in May, the first strike Ortega has faced since taking office last year. Protests over energy costs weakened previous governments, and if Ortega cannot calm this one, even his supporters may come to question the wisdom of his alliance with Chávez.
Ortega shares with Chávez an old-fashioned developing-world leftism based on scorn for traditional democracy and denunciations of Western power. Chávez described President Bush as “the devil” during a speech at the United Nations in 2006; a year later, Ortega took to the same podium to assert that the United States is history’s “biggest and most impressive dictatorship.” At a summit of Spanish-speaking leaders in Chile last November, King Juan Carlos of Spain told Chávez to “shut up” and then, when Ortega tried to defend him, stood up and left the room. When regional leaders met in Managua recently to discuss world food shortages, Ortega ascribed the shortages to the “tyranny of global capitalism.”
In his dealings with Western nations, however, Ortega’s actions are more conciliatory than his rhetoric. He signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that imposed on Nicaragua the same conditions previous Nicaraguan presidents had accepted. In January he welcomed the director of the US Peace Corps with a speech saying that its programs are of “great value.” Then he accompanied the director of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which offers American aid to developing countries, on a tour of the countryside. While I was in Managua, I was surprised to see a group of uniformed American military officers at the restaurant where I was having lunch; they turned out to be part of a visiting delegation led by General Norman Seip, who directs US Air Force operations in Central and South America.
In March, soldiers from Colombia, which is the Bush administration’s closest ally in South America, crossed into neighboring Ecuador to chase leftist guerrillas who had sought refuge there. The soldiers found evidence suggesting that Chávez had been aiding those guerrillas, which led to a full-fledged diplomatic crisis in which President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia demanded that Chávez be brought to trial before the International Criminal Court. Ortega, eager as always to show solidarity with Chávez, immediately announced that his government was breaking relations with Colombia. Just a day later, before the Colombian ambassador had had time to leave Managua, he changed his mind and reestablished relations. The incident suggested both Ortega’s reflexive anti-imperialism and his ability to make tactical retreats when he deems it wise.
In January the United States opened the largest embassy ever built in Nicaragua. Located on top of a commanding hill, it will reportedly have working space for six hundred people. Around the same time, the State Department informed Nicaragua that President Bush’s choice to become the new US ambassador was Robert Callahan, a protégé of Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. Callahan was Negroponte’s spokesman not only while he was ambassador to Iraq and director of national intelligence, but also while Negroponte, as ambassador to Honduras in the 1980s, was helping to direct the contra war that aimed to defeat Ortega and his Sandinista comrades.
This nomination seemed an obvious provocation, and Ortega would have had good reason to reject it. Instead he accepted it almost immediately. He has even named Arturo Cruz Sequeira, who supported the contras in the 1980s and whose father was selected by the CIA to run against Ortega for president of Nicaragua in 1984, as ambassador to the United States. So although he leaves no doubt about his anti-imperialist convictions, he also seems careful not to burn his bridges to Washington. Nicaragua, however, is not getting from the United States anything like the help it receives from Venezuela.
President Ortega was elected with just 38 percent of the vote, with most of it coming from poor people who see him as more sympathetic to their plight than other Nicaraguan politicians. He remains unpopular. Recent opinion surveys conducted by a Mexico-based firm in twenty Western Hemisphere countries found him to have lower approval ratings than any other president except Nicanor Duarte of Paraguay. He campaigned on a platform of reconciliation, but since taking office in January 2007 he has been coldly dismissive in his relations with Nicaragua’s business leaders and investors. He governs in isolation and refuses requests for interviews. Yet those who voted for him in the hope that he would attract lavish aid from Venezuela have not been disappointed. That aid sustains not only Nicaragua, but Ortega’s hold on power.