I must first qualify the following comments with the recognition that my impressions are based upon only a brief visit, and my reading from several sources; aggravated by the barrier of language. I know only too well that things are not what they seem. For instance, you might see this photo as evidence of child labor in an Esteli cigar factory. This girl, in fact, the only child there, was alongside her mother. School is out for the Christmas holiday. Another example was Francisca, a compesina who had us for a beans, rice, eggs and tortillas at her home with dirt floors and no plumbing or electricity. Yet Francisca’s view was that we had bigger problems than she.
The Nicaraguan character seems indelibly shaped by their history of sufrido mucho: colonization, dictatorship, revolution, counter-revolution, devastating volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and hurricanes. The sum of these events has left Nicaragua’s economy so crippled that the citizens are said to have the highest per capita debt in the world. They are the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, second only to Haiti.
The traffic on city and highway streets was sparse in terms of cars. Horses rivaled buses and bicycles as a means of transportation. With the exception of the Pan American Highway, which runs north & south through the country, roads are a minefield of pot holes – if they are paved at all. Electricity for the country is intermittently not unavailable, and other infrastructure problems are a fact of life.
The economy is largely agrarian, and probably its most well known crop is coffee, which was being harvested, processed, dried and roasted during our time there. However, we also saw crops of hops, corn, tomatoes, carrots, bananas, mangos, beans, tobacco and rice. Their cigars also rival those from Cuba in reputation.
Probably the best aspect of our trip was our guide, Juan Miguel from Matagalpa Tours (subcontracted from Va Pues Tours) who tried very hard to give us a good experience of his country. However, Nicaragua hasn’t had a lot of tourism and they’re still learning what we’d like. The country’s strengths as a tourist destination lie in its beaches and eco parks (jungle and cloud forests). We were seeking a more cultural experience, but Nicaragua pales in this regard compared to countries like Mexico and Guatemala. The actual indigenous peoples are on the Carib side of the country, and are so historically autonomous they often don’t consider themselves Nicaraguans. Spanish colonialism brought a brutal end to most indigenous cultures on the Pacific side, leaving in its wake a racial mix known as "mestizos," who are most influenced by the Catholic church. The largest Catholic Cathedral in the Western Hemisphere is in Leon, but even that was a mistake. It was intended to be built in gold rich Lima, Peru, but the drawings were sent to the wrong city.
Their heritage of resistance also goes back to this time, and they have a folk dance called El Gueguence which dates back to the sixteenth century in which domination is satirized, and resisted by passive-aggressively outwitting oppressors. Even today there are bullet holes from the Sandinista era still riddling some of the buildings, and a downed airplane we encountered.
The United States is sponsible for some of the country’s poverty and oppression. We have been trying to control the country since William Walker, installed himself as president in the mid-1800's. Marines were sent to Nicaragua at the turn of the twentieth century, and we supported the dictatorship of the Somoza family. Anastazio Somoza, Jr. brought on the Sandinista rebellion himself by stealing all the aid money which came into the country following an earthquake. It was a terrible disaster which left the capitol in ruins two days before Christmas in 1972.
Ironically, the United States also influences the culture of the youth of Nicaragua: we saw kids who wore Nuggets jerseys, and sported the ghetto look of low slung pants and oversized shirts. The Nicaraguans generally were carefully dressed, and very clean – even with few possessions and modest houses. I read that the class differences were expressed in the floors of the houses: the poor have dirt floors, the middle class have cement floors, and the rich have tile. We saw a lot of cinder block homes with tin roofs, but also frequently encountered mud & stick walled structures. In the cities there were row houses in various pastel colors, and as in Vietnam, front doors often left open revealing a small living room (inevitably with chairs around a television). What they must think of our houses when they watch movies and television programs from Norte Americano!