Having scratched the surface of this country’s civil war and revolution in Ernesto’s library, I was keen to get to the most liberal city of Nicaragua, Leon, to learn more.
Since this is a university town, this place is and has always been intensely political, with its inhabitants playing a vital role in its revolution. We stumbled across a really interesting museum just off the main square which our guide-book completely omitted. A former post office, this grand, albeit decrepit building houses two rooms of memorabilia and information from the beginning of the civil war in the 30s to it most euphoric and bloody era of the 70s; which finally saw the fall of a dynasty of dictators known as the Somoza family.
The museum is run by ex soldiers who insist on providing you with a guided tour, although interesting these guys are quite hard to follow and are not really interested in answering your questions, preferring to simply bang on about the old days like most veterans do.
Since there is over 100 years worth of history to document I am going to save you all from my usual endless waffle and opt for some bullets of the highlights in chronological order. Those of you not interested skip straight to the pics of Leon which is full of political murals that help explain the history of the revolution:)
1821 – Nicaragua gains independence from Spain creating a split in two governing powers, the Liberals (Leon) and the Conservatives (Granada).
1838 – Both Britain and the U.S become interested in Nicaragua and it’s strategically important passage to build an Interoceanic canal through Central America.
1848 – British seized control of Caribbean port of San Juan del Norte renaming it Greytown whilst the U.S gold rush in California added fire to the quest for an Atlantic – Pacific passage.
1857 – Liberals disgraced after inviting William Walker into the country and became a vagabond President. (A Tennessee-born opportunist, he initially came to prominence as a newspaper editor speaking out against slavery and the interventionist policies of the U.S however after he was employed by the Liberals to taking care of their pesky rivals in Granada, he decided to make himself President, reinstating slavery confiscating huge areas of land with close ties to the U.S.
1860 – William Walker was killed and Liberals lose power for the next 36 years after losing the trust of the people.
1893-1909 – Liberal general Jose Zeleya became dictator, antagonising the U.S by seeking a canal deal with Germany and Japan, killing two U.S missionaries in the process.
1909 – U.S begin two decades of political intervention, installing presidents it favoured, ousting those it didn’t via coercive measures employed by U.S marines.
1930s – Augusto C Sandino takes lead of the Liberal rebels fighting against U.S involvement and the U.S backed dictatorship of Somoza who developed a National Guard (Guardia Nacional) trained by the U.S.
1934 – Sandino assassinated by Guardia Nacional, beginning a 42 year era known as ‘U.S surrogate regimes.’
1956 – Despite the assignation of Somoza by Libelist rebel in Leon, Lopes Perez, Somoza dynasty continues with his son resuming power.
1960s -70s – Guerilla groups inspired by the Cuban revolution and united by the opposition to the Somozas combine to create what is now known as the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN)
1972 – A devastating earthquake hits capital of Managua, killing over 6000, leaving 300,000 homeless. The Somoza family embezzles international relief funds, fomenting discontentment with the dictatorship across social classes, thus supporting the rise of the FSLN struggle.
1972 -79 – 7 years of guerilla warfare and 52 days of all out battle sees the fall of the Somoza dynasty and on July 17 1979 the revolution is victorious.
1980s – Trying to salvage what it could of its influence over the country, the U.S authorised $75m in aid to the Sandinista government. By late 80s, U.S becomes concerned about increasing numbers of Soviet and Cuban advisers in Nicaragua with allegations that Nicaragua were supplying arms to leftist rebels in El Salvador.
1981 – Ronald Reagan comes to power and Nicaragua, like many other central American countries, gets sucked into the Cold War. Former Guardia Nacional soldiers form a military group known as the Contras were believed to have been funded by the U.S, threatening invasion of Nicaragua from Honduras. Saninista respond by building an army of 95,000 supported by Soviet and Cuban aid.
1984 – U.S covert operations revealed publicly, resulting in a judgement against the U.S by the international court of justice.
1985 – U.S puts a trade embargo on Nicaragua, persuading other countries to do the same, crippling the economy. U.S congress reject further aid to the Contras, however Regan secretly continued funding them by illegally selling weapons to Iran and diverted proceeds to the Contra. When details were leaked the infamous Iran-Contra affair blew up.
1990 – With the economy in a desperate position, the population became disillusioned with the Sandinsta revolution and opposing party (UNO) backed by the U.S came to power after the ill-fated election of 1990.
Current Political situation – after 16 years in opposition and the usual amount of corruption the FSLN (sadinista) returned to political power in 2007. With some dubious dealings with Chavez and historical enemies like the Catholic church and big business (I.e the U.S) things are still somewhat uncertain in Nicaragua with many people wondering if all the revolutionary hype has any substance at all.
Only time will tell how this story will play out and whether the amount of bloodshed was all worth while…provided U.S foreign policy and internal corruption doesn’t play a hand this country may finally do right by its people and sustain a diversified economy where all Nicaraguans can live in prosperity and safety.
Leon is surrounded by several volcanos which provided a beautiful back drop for this city which as you can see below has some beautiful old buildings.
I leave this country an Leon with fond memories and a true respect for the local man on the street who has fought so hard for things we simply take for granted.