San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua, 14/12/2003
Last night Daniel Ortega was in town. The occasion was the 25th anniversary of the revolution, when the FSLN, known as the Sandinistas, took power from Samoza. Samoza owned 65% of the countries GDP, and the Sandinistas were communist. On the surface it looked to be a good thing for the common people of Nicaragua. However, as with so many group efforts governance was a problem, and separation in the party forced an election, a good sign that democracy had arrived, but with the end result that the Sandinistas were voted out. But – before they left power the leaders of the party, Ortega included, split the spoils between them. The spoils were the vast amounts of land, money and business assets owned by the Samoza family and their supporters. This act, more than any other before or since marks Ortega as simply another opportunistic Latin American politician rather than either a communist or as true ‘man of the people’. As well as the spoils he collects a salary as current V.P. as well as a pension from his past presidency amounting to $10,000 U.S. per month. 30% of Nicaraguans make less than $2.00 U.S. a day. (The current president pulls in $20,000 U.S. per month in pension and salary.) Every president Nicaragua has had has enriched himself in one fashion or another, to the detriment of the people, and most in a far greater fashion than Ortega. What makes it so awful in his case is the hypocrisy.
The celebration of the 25th anniversary was supposed to start at 6PM. At 8:30, the band, quite good, there to warm up the crowd, was tuckered. They left the stage – the bed of a flat bed truck decorated in the orange and black colours of the revolution – and local reps did their best to hold the crowd. People began to drift off, unwilling to wait any longer. When the crowd had shrunk to about 30% of the original, the band was forced back on stage to try and regain the crowd. The music got slower and more ragged and nearly stopped as the bank tired, then, from behind us, a squeal of bugles and poorly cadenced drums announced the arrival of Daniel Ortega, man of the people, making his entrance on foot, his parade of large expensive SUVs parked at the corner a block back. He looked me in the eye as he passed by, a light skinned person in a crowd of dark faces.
The lone TV camera panned the crowd who were waving the flags that had been handed out earlier. We had all been forced into one lane of a two lane road so on TV the crowd, with Ortega moving through the flags towards the stage, probably looked impressively large. In fact it covered an area no larger than 20 feet by 100 feet. Ortega and his accompanying handlers filled the small stage. Someone pushed a young boy of eight or so up the stage stairs. Ortega made a big show of welcoming him to the cheers and claps of the crowd. It was pure political pandering. Speeches by his underlings followed, some with the big bellies and coarse faces of the wealthy, others tall, slim and Spanish looking. Plastic bags were passed up to the back of the stage and up the stairs at the front were marched children. They were lined up to the side of Ortega – not in front – never block the camera shot – and from the bags came baseball hats and scarves in the party colours. Ortega personally fitted the hats and tied the scarves on each child. After thirty or so it became tedious. His deputies tried to fill the gap with more speechifying, and when they paused canned music would boom momentarily from the speakers. Finally the crowd ran out of children to offer and Ortega was forced to spin hats into the crowd like a sideshow huckster. Buying votes? At last the hats were gone, and wiping his face and taking a drink, possibly rum, from a stainless steel cup, Ortega stepped up to the mike.
His slow sonorous voice, so different from most Latin politician’s staccato manner of talking, drifted out over the crowd. By now it was ten o’clock – four hours past the scheduled time – and people who rise with the sun to work hard in the fields were tired and it was a long way home. Besides, the hats were gone. In groups of three or four, or on their own, people drifted away until those who were left were the hard core party men, the kids sitting on the curb side benches smoking and drinking rum, and the bus load of university students who couldn’t leave until their driver sobered up.