Country Without Heroes

In the first delirious days after they chased the dictator Anastasio Somoza out of Nicaragua in 1979, Sandinista rebels ran the country from makeshift offices in the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the few large buildings that had survived the shattering earthquake seven years earlier. Today the hotel is owned by a Taiwanese business syndicate, and on a recent evening Daniel Ortega, who as the top Sandinista leader during the 1980s rose to world prominence by daring to defy the United States, rented the space around the swimming pool for a presidential campaign rally. He invited local businesspeople, hoping to persuade them that he is now their friend and deserves their support in the November election.

Ortega, who was voted out of power in 1990, badly wants to return, but he certainly will not succeed on the basis of his oratorical skills. Never an inspiring speaker, on this evening he gave a rambling monologue that seemed to reflect a confused mind or, some said, a sick body. He arrived two hours late and then, on the makeshift stage, mumbled and lost his train of thought. “In this globalized world, we need to strengthen the private sector,” he mused at one point. “Big businessmen, bankers, small businessmen, farmers, bankers. Also coffee producers. We went through a difficult time, but there were also great benefits. There was a sense of justice. The war ended twelve years ago. We’re all Nica-raguans, all part of this reality. In the complex time of the 1980s we managed to coexist. We didn’t abolish private property. Some people want to stigmatize the Sandinista Front. No, don’t do that, it’s not democratic. Globalization is unjust and unfair, but we will not forget the businessmen. Not forget the bankers, the private sector, the big businessmen, the farmers, the bankers. Also not the coffee producers.”

Today it is almost impossible to believe that wretched Nicaragua, an impoverished land where few people dream of more than a full plate of beans and rice, was once at the center of the world’s attention. Ortega and Ronald Reagan made it so. They were duelists in the cold war’s twilight battle, a battle that now seems not simply remote but also painfully absurd. Visiting Nicaragua today, one cannot help asking what that horrific war was about. How was it possible that this miserable place became the arena in which brothers fought each other so brutally?

During the war between the San-dinistas and Reagan’s contras, I used to show up at a government press center in Managua to hear President Ortega denounce his enemies as bloody criminals. Today the building that housed the press center has been returned to its former owner, Adolfo Calero, who during the 1980s was the top contra leader. I remember the day the Sandinista newspaper published photos of Calero and other contra commanders on its front page with the banner headline: “These Beasts Will Never Return!” Today Calero has not only returned and reclaimed his house, but he has hung…

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