Editor’s note: This is the second of two installments from Moscow’s David Barber and his work with the Moscow Sister City Association. Last week, Barber discussed the scholarships provided by the association and the students who receive them. Today, he looks at the people, the culture and recent unrest in the country.
This description of Nicaragua as I experienced it in February predates the major ways in which COVID-19 has transformed all our lives in the United States and is starting to do the same in Nicaragua. So my account is on one level out of date, but I think it will remain basically accurate. I won’t try to adjust for the pandemic.
This was my fifth trip to Nicaragua; my purposes were to see friends, develop Moscow Sister City Association’s scholarship program and observe the present condition of the country. It was my first visit since the civil uprising of April 2018, which sparked a crisis that still continues. The United States is playing an important role (as it always has in Nicaragua) in this crisis.
Nicaraguans who support the current Ortega government are angry at the Trump administration’s recent actions against that government. Those who criticize the government — including most of the Nicaraguans I know — are pleased that the U.S. is applying pressures, such as financial sanctions against government officials for human rights violations. But the political scene hasn’t changed the basic nature of the people as I’ve experienced them: warm, welcoming and always willing to help you. These are the essential qualities of the people I know.
Certainly there is an undercurrent of brutality in Nicaraguan culture as seen in the behavior of the National Police, which the government has turned into a powerful repressive force against dissidents. And certain groups are common targets of assaults: in particular, women, farmers and indigenous communities. I often read about that, but personally I’m not seeing it. On my recent trip I was hosted warmly by four different families in four cities, but I also felt good will from people I didn’t know.
For example, one day getting off the bus in a new city and needing to contact the people who were going to host me, I realized my cell phone needed a Wi-Fi connection. I asked two schoolgirls, who were waiting for a ride home, where there was a place with Wi-Fi nearby.
There’s none around here, was their answer. I was standing around for a couple minutes trying to think of a Plan B when the girls offered me the use of their phone. One of them made the call I needed.
My hosts were always vigilant to keep me safe, especially in Managua, famously an unsafe city. My last full day in Nicaragua, my host in Villa El Carmen, Ana Julia Castillo, drove me to the center of Managua where a taxi driver, a friend of the family I was to stay with that night, would pick me up. Since Ana did not know this taxi driver, and since taxi drivers in Managua have a reputation for kidnapping and robbing tourists, she arranged with my new host for her taxi driver friend to give us a prearranged password at the meeting point. He arrived, spoke the password, and off we went.
In some ways Nicaraguans are different from Americans. They have a lot less money, of course (Nicaragua is the poorest country in Latin America), and their governmental structures, such as separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers, are much weaker, which allows dictatorships to develop. On a personal level, they are much like us. One difference is that their sense of personal space is minimal; often they seem to want to share it with you.
This quality also applies to car and bus drivers who regularly charge into traffic openings so slim that I was sure the space being entered was narrower than the car. Drivers do respect other vehicles’ personal space when they get really close: no car or bus I was in ever got within, say, two inches of a neighboring vehicle. I would never drive there.
Nicaraguans treat dogs differently than most Americans do. Dogs there are usually guard dogs, or they pretend to be guard dogs by barking a lot. My hosts Ana and Mario have a pit bull, however, who is both pet and guardian. I was assured that Trixie would eat me if we were ever in the same space together so a gate always separated us. But Ana has ways of keeping Trixie calm. Regularly she bathes the dog in warm water infused with chamomile tea leaves while playing soothing music. Trixie loves the bath and the music and she naps long after.
Nicaraguans strongly possess qualities of friendship, loyalty and family strength. I hope for their future, which seems full of dangers. It’s hugely important that national Nicaraguan elections are scheduled for next year. Unfortunately, since the Ortega government has grown more authoritarian over the years, free and open elections do not seem likely. When I asked a friend about that, she said, “Oh, we already know that won’t happen.” I hope she is being too pessimistic. Many Nicaraguans are working publicly to reestablish a democracy. How effective they will be — I have no idea.
About the author
Moscow’s David Barber is professor emeritus of English at the University of Idaho. HeI taught in the English department from 1968-2005, the final five of those years as the department chairman. Upon retirement, he returned to teach English as a Second Language in the American Language and Culture Program at UI. Since 2018 he’s been president of the Moscow Sister City Association, a group formed in the 1980s by Mary Voxman, a UI math professor, and Mardi Baron, then a Moscow City Council member. You can learn more about the association at this shortened web link — bit.ly/2Je5jJq — and on the group’s page on Facebook.