By Aidrean Ó Gallchobhair
My Experience of Nicaragua
I had wanted to go to Nicaragua since late 2019 after I had visited Cuba. In 2020 I really hoped to go but the Pandemic hit. So my plans were scrapped for that year. When the restrictions lifted in 2021 I said to myself that 2022 will be my chance to visit Nicaragua.
In late May of 2022 I got my plans rolling by contacting a comrade I knew who had links with the Sandinistas and Nicaragua, he would then get me in contact with the Nicaraguan embassy who sorted out all the plans with the government. I firmly believed from what I read, what I watched and who I spoke to that Nicaragua was indeed a progressive revolutionary nation that was challenging imperialism, capitalism and inequality. However, they were some people in Ireland who would raise stories of supposed repression, corruption and violence. Now I had asked myself are they any truth in this? Is some of these stories true, have the government overreacted to some events that had taken place? Were they paranoid/irrational about US intervention?
Although I was no doubt sympathetic to the Sandinista revolution due to the gains I read about and the historical struggle against imperialism, I came to Nicaragua with an open mind. I thought I’d let the people speak for themselves and listen to the experiences they had.
What I witnessed
The wait in the airport was long enough and I was worried that my contact may leave without me. But when I got through security and customs, everything had been in order. Outside the airport it was visible to see FSLN flags hanging from the poles, they were also a statue of Augusto Sandino to be seen. The next day I walked around the local barrio where Casa Ben Linder is based, FSLN flags, black and red painted streetlights were visible all around. This area was clearly a working-class barrio, cars and jeeps with FSLN flags were also seen all around. Buses had the Nicaraguan flag and FSLN flag on their windows or on the sides. This could be seen around the city of Managua.
I visited a public housing program named after Bismarck Martinez, a Sandinista murdered in 2018 by a right wing gang. The housing was basic but it ensured people were given a better standard of living. Add-ons could be built if the family have enough money. These houses would cost $25 a month for 25 years. Health clinics, parks, schools, a bus depo and other facilities would eventually be built in this community and streets will be paved eventually. That night I attended a local festival organised by a grassroots FSLN committee in celebration of the 43rd anniversary. Thousands of people were in attendance and many wearing FSLN t-shirts, this was a clear demonstration in popular support for the Sandinista revolution.
The second day we had went to Granada, on our way there a cavalcade of motor cycles through a village in support of the Sandinistas was taking place. The police was leading the cavalcade and it was clear they were a solid relationship between the people and the police. We don’t see this in the west and the only other time I seen a people centred police force was in Cuba. In Granada we went on a boat trip around the lake. That night we attended a small house gathering where delegates and those who live in Nicaragua got together. Here I spoke to a fellow Irishman who’s lived in Nicaragua for over 20 years. We spoke about his experiences and how he was never political until he seen the dramatic changes in Nicaragua. He remembers the neoliberal period where the country was a mess and many services including healthcare were privatised. He told me once he seen the uplifting of people from poverty, better quality services and a better life that he became political and a Sandinista supporter.
Another person boasted to me how the healthcare service boosted its staff by 60%. In Letterkenny where I live, I see a shortage of staff and running down of services, so this fact had really left me amazed. An American woman who was involved in solidarity with a community since the 90s told us on how she visited Nicaragua several times during the neoliberal period. She saw children starving, people struggling, the roads were dirt tracks, they were no hospital or school in the community. The last time she had been in Nicaragua was 2007, she was amazed by the development of roads, the healthcare centres, the schools and the lack of hunger children face. All children in Nicaragua now get free hot meals in schools. Many Nicaraguans and delegates highlighted the huge changes in the 15 years of revolution.
Black Alliance for Peace held an event highlighting the need for the US to stop interfering in sovereign Latin American governments particularly Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. I found this inspirational as it showed the solidarity between black liberation movement in the US and Nicaragua, like the solidarity with the Cuban and Algerian revolutionary governments in the past. A journalist and an ex-combatant of the contra war updated us on the political situation in Nicaragua and how the revolution is continuing to advance despite imperialist efforts to stall it. I asked about how is that the reconciliation process led so many former contras to now be solid FSLN voters. The answer was land reform and social programs, this is something to be learned in Ireland. Loyalists could eventually be won over by social equality and inclusion.
That night we attended another Sandinista celebration where thousands in their pickups and cars were waving their flags, socialising and singing along to revolutionary music. Teenagers were letting off fireworks from launchers. We attended the celebrations on the 19th where thousands from Nicaragua and across the globe gathered to hear Danial Ortega speak. The capacity was limited due to Covid but in years gone by up to 500,000 would attend. It was clear the people supported their president with the chants and dancing witnessed. Again, singing of Sandinista songs took place.
After the celebrations of the 19th finished, we visited historical locations, volcanoes and had important meetings with ministers. They updated us on the economy, healthcare and the achievements of the revolution. From speaking to the economy minister, we were told Nicaragua produced little in the neoliberal period, social spending in health, education, infrastructure and the community drastically increased. Infrastructure for example seen 8 billionn allocated to it. 4 million tons of rice used to be imported now 6 million grown domestically. Nicaragua’s revenue is 14 billion, while the likes of El Salvador is below 6 billion, Honduras is at 5 billion and Costa Rica is at 8 billion. Showing the effectiveness of sustainable growth with the socialist model in Nicaragua.
The improvement in health saw child mortality down from 29 in every thousand in 2006 to 12 in every thousand. Maternal mortality down from 92.8 to 31.6 in every thousand in the last 15 yrs. Life expectancy has increased from 66 years to 75 years. In the neoliberal period they were 35 private hospitals, today in Nicaragua they are 74 hospitals most of them public and free. They are popular mobilisation and participation in community health projects. Doctors visited patients when they had Covid and gave them anti inflammatory tablets to keep the symptoms at bay. Waiting in the emergency room of a hospital in Nicaragua is between 15-30 mins in Ireland you could be waiting 14 hours or longer. The waiting list in Nicaragua is 2 months, here in Ireland I know people waiting 7 years for vital operations.
I had visited a small farm outside of Estelí where families are supported by the government to produce food and other products. The farm we visited used environmentally-friendly methods and this is what known as agroecology. Which is used in all small farms and cooperatives via the work of the ATC. In Masaya we visited a cooperative that produced foods, made a flour like substance and sauces from parts of the Uca plant. 70% of the work force work in this collective sector where they are owners of the wealth they create. Small family, community, self-employed and cooperative enterprises make up this sector. A further 10% work in the public sector.
It was also amazing the amount of men and women who you’d come across that fought in either the revolution of ‘79 or the contra war. I would ask them what their opinions are on the current situation in Nicaragua and they’ll tell you the pride they have to see the revolution they fought for flourish. They can see the improvements and achievements greatly. One ex combatant seen me wear a Sandinista pin and said that “we defend that with our lives and are proud to dedicate ourselves to the revolution”.
Media narrative versus reality
Did I see any evidence of repression in Nicaragua? Did I hear of acts of repression? Did I ask questions about the repression we are told about in the west? The first two I would have to say no and the last one is yes. I made sure to ask people about the reality of what was happening in Nicaragua.
So in 2018 with the coup attempt opposition formed street gangs armed with guns and homemade mortars. They took over many cities such as Estelí and Masaya, they set up roadblocks into barrios. For three months they terrorized and murdered the civilian population, the place I was staying in Estelí they were two people killed outside the premises by gangs. I heard stories of people being threatened at checkpoints alongside their children. I witnessed homes and buildings in Masaya which were burned out by gangs. I would see a plaque in memory of a community police officer named Gabriel de Jesus Vado Ruiz. He was tied to a truck dragged around the city before being tortured further and killed. His body was burned on camera at the barricade.
Most people I spoke told me their version of events of what had happened in 2018. They were people who were angry, frightened, confused but mostly they feared a loss of their social gains to a counter revolution. Some Sandinista supporters took part in demonstrations believing the propaganda against their own government. Yet when they witnessed the violence and reality of what was going on they obviously realised they were conned. Many people stopped going to mass as Catholic Churches were bases for coup mongers. In other words, the conservative elements of the Church provided support for violent right-wing gangs.
How did police and military respond to the violence? For three months they were made stay in their Barracks by the government while gangs looted, murdered and tortured people. Is this what repressive governments do? I thought they crushed dissent with an iron fist? While police and special forces did clear barricades, the biggest resistance to the coup mongers came from the people who armed themselves. Ex combatants from the revolution and contra war joined forces with students, workers and regular citizens to take their country back from the chaos of the right.
In 2021 they were arrests of opposition figures who were involved in money laundering, calling for sanctions, were involved in 2018 or receiving funds from Freedom House and USAID. My take firstly would be that sedition laws exist in every country and people would be arrested. One of the guys I stayed with asked everyone he encountered at the time what was their thoughts on the arrests of those who were plotting against their country. Most said they believed it was necessary to stop another coup attempt or to stop the corruption they were involved in. With most people agreeing with the prevention of the counter revolutionary elements from running amuck, is that repression of an entire population or acting on a popular will of the people?
My overall thoughts
Nicaragua is a revolutionary nation with people empowered and where the people see progress. The meaning of the “Sandinista Popular Revolution” is evident, popular mobilizations and support were seen everywhere. Poverty reduction, investment in public projects and economic power to the people are the characteristics I witnessed. Are there contradictions? Yes, Nicaraguans and even Sandinistas will point there are contradictions they face, and that the revolution is not perfect. This is the same with any revolutionary country and can be faced in any revolutionary movement. Nicaragua is not a Utopia but Utopias do not exist. I have some personal criticisms of Nicaragua but who am I to comment as I am not Nicaraguan. Yet Nicaragua shows us an alternative to neoliberalism is possible. An alternative that puts people first. It is the duty for all revolutionary nationalists, socialists and progressives to support Nicaragua and the Sandinista revolution. They have shown what a nation with independence can do for its people. When at the July 19th event, my own personal thoughts was “so this is what freedom looks like”. My advice to people on the left who are weary of what they hear in the news or media is go to Nicaragua and see for themselves what is going on. Because what I seen differs greatly from what I would call propaganda. Nicaragua is part of a nationalist, progressive, socialist and anti-imperialist bloc in Latin America which includes countries such as Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, Honduras, Mexico and now Colombia. If we stand by one we must stand by them all meaning we must stand by Nicaragua.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aidrean Ó Gallchobhair is a member of the Irish Chapter of the Network in Defence of Humanity (REDH)