The Nicaraguans

-- Nicaraguan teen with toy gun, Chichigalpa, Nicaragua. 1999

I found it surreal and hard to believe that not too many years earlier, Nicaragua had, in reality, been at war with America. America had funded so-called Freedom fighters after the Nicaraguan people had overthrown the ruling class that owned most of the country. But people seemed to be going on with their lives despite the utter poverty of the country – the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

From the airplane window I watched the flickering of the lights below in Nicaragua. With war photos in my memory I didn’t know what to expect. All the reading I had done about the country didn’t prepare me for the reality of the place. All those faces waiting in the airport. Then we were in a car and it was humid. We passed vendors who sacrificed sleep just trying to make a buck and prostitutes on the corners.

We stopped in a convenience store where guards had shotguns to protect the Coca-Cola and whatever else was in this oasis of American consumerism. Nicaragua at night is quite mysterious. I imagined bandits out there somewhere. A place with this much poverty and obvious economic injustice had to have criminals and corruption, right? We were told not to even think about going out at night. So I sat near the empty pool surrounded by barbed wire in the house where we’d spent the night. Soon a local woman came and sat down. She told me she shopped in Miami.

The next morning we were on a bus to a village in the countryside. We passed Lake Managua. As I looked out the window a small boy flipped me off.

The colors in the village were dripping and the Sandinista flag was painted in a few places. A few months earlier several thousand people had died nearby. The sky opened up during a hurricane and washed away the mountain, creating a torrent of mud that buried whole villages and families. Some men near the site of one mass grave were using oxen and a wagon with wooden wheels in a scene I imagined from a Stone Age re- enactment, not the turn of the millennium. Suddenly talk of the millennium, technology, and democracy seemed hollow and phony.

A few months later I was back in Nicaragua taking more pictures. I turned on the shortwave radio one afternoon and heard about a throng of protesters smashing up Seattle. Given what I was witnessing in Nicaragua, a country the IMF had given loans to, I understood the twisted logic behind this violent reaction to globalization. Obviously, these loans weren’t helping where I was standing.