By Guest Columnist TOM WEYANDT, a longtime urban planner in Atlanta
MANAGUA, Nicarauga – I have been coming to Nicaragua and Granada since 2005, when my son and daughter-in-law were married on Little Corn Island, off the East Coast. The following observations will try to set the scene of Nicaragua today, as the country goes through changes so extreme the State Department advises not to travel there because of violent crime, civil unrest and a health care system so overwhelmed by the victims of violence that not all receive care.
Wandering the streets of Granada is one of my favorite activities. The city has a large Central Park surrounded by a cathedral, of course, shops, City Hall, an arts center, restaurants. The largest lake in Central America is at the edge of the city and an easy walk. The park by the lake is modest, but cool and green with waves lapping around the horses wading in the water. Swimming here not recommended! A museum in an old convent has wonderful ancient indigenous art – monumental stone carvings.
My fifth trip planned for two weeks this June did not begin auspiciously. The storm that swept through the Atlanta airport area on the Friday evening I left delayed the flight to the capital city of Managua for hours. I arrived about midnight. At that point, it was too late to be assured of a safe trip to Granada, so I stayed at Las Mercedes, a hotel across the street from the airport.
The reason for concern had to do with the civil unrest that started over a relatively mundane issue – a change in the social security system resulting in lower pensions and higher contributions. It quickly escalated into a full-blown movement that revealed wide-ranging frustration if not outrage with the government of President Daniel Ortega. Subsequent demonstrations – including a now infamous Mother’s Day March – have resulted in well 300 deaths and the toll keeps climbing.
It is enough to say here that the disturbances are a combination of anti-government feeling bursting out, government use of police and paramilitary forces to repress and intimidate its own population, and gang activity taking advantage of the unrest. I do not know enough about the complexities to thoroughly analyze these forces.
The journey from the airport hotel to my house in Granada typically lasts an hour. This time it stretched into a 2.5-hour trip because of the need to avoid “tranques.” These road blocks are placed mostly by local people apparently trying to stymie the commerce that is perceived to overwhelmingly benefit the regime and Ortega personally.
After getting into the house, my first walks around Granada were unlike any in the past. Very few tourists, obviously. Iron gates or sheets of metal were placed on many buildings, covering and protecting those beautiful doors. But street life was remarkably calm and normal. It seemed that Granada was largely untouched by violence. Going to sleep at the house that night was normal – after watching the sunset from the roof deck.
At about 10:30 p.m Saturday, all hell broke loose. Screaming and fights, obviously very close and apparently erupting toward the market, which is two block away. “Bombas” – often a feature of any night in Granada – were far louder, closer and far too numerous to count. New bolts had been added to the front door of my house and all were secured. I never heard anything like an attempt to break in, although some stones hit the wall and a few were thrown over the wall. This continued unabated until about 5:30 the next morning. There was no evidence that police were doing anything to intervene.
As calm returned in the morning, many of the typical city sounds did, as well. The damage outside the house included nearby buildings hit by stones, streets strewn with remnants of the bombas, some metal shields ripped off doors, lots of new graffiti on walls, and new barricades erected around the market. I was told the attackers were not locals. The suspicion was they were brought in from outside and were fighting against the shopkeepers at the market and probably against each other. And yet – walking the streets was very normal. They were crowded with street vendors and people walking around the blockades to conduct their business.
Nonetheless, given the proximity to the market and likelihood of renewed attacks after dark, I took the suggestion of a Nica friend and found a hotel on the fringe of town. My thought was to do this temporarily until I could understand the situation better. The hotel bed was comfortable enough and the place had a pool – and no other guests. It didn’t have a restaurant, but I could order out and food was delivered from a nearby restaurant. At least it was a quiet night’s sleep.
The next day, Monday, I decided to go back to the house and see what the circumstances were. It was fairly obvious that the previous night had been equally violent. More debris, more barricades, more doors damaged, more graffiti. I had food in the house – expecting to be there for an extended stay – so I prepared a meal and thought about next steps. Given that I now seemed to be in the epicenter, I decided that getting away from the market was the best idea. Thus, another move to a great hotel recommended by my AirBnB host in town, but about six blocks away. There were only a couple of other patrons. Another good night’s sleep anyway away from the market.
During the following day, Tuesday, disturbances spread away from the market to the Central Park. City Hall was burned. Subsequent videos and photos showed furniture being removed prior to the fire – suggesting some official premeditation to the event. The images also showed people removing some documents before and during the fire from the second floor. Speculation was these were property records to preserve documentation of Ortega-owned property. Rumor or truth – who knows? But basic civil records of births, deaths, marriages, all went up in smoke.
As they day went, on the disturbance got louder and closer. I never went out beyond the entrance to the hotel. Taxis had stopped operating. Then they resumed operating. It is obvious that social media and, especially, a couple of Twitter feeds I followed are key to spreading warnings.
Late Tuesday afternoon, crowds gathered at the end of the street a few blocks from the hotel. A fire was set in the middle of the street. I decided that I would move again. A friend from the Ex Pats Facebook page suggested another friend well away from downtown, yet still in the city, who knew of a hotel across the street that was small, quiet and safe.
An online hotel booking agency provided a reservation and I headed out to the friend’s house. He is politically well informed, and speaks good English. I went there for a few hours and then to the hotel. Nobody would answer the door, so that evening this generous family provided an air mattress in their living room and served a wonderful rich soup. I again felt comfortable, although displaced.
The next day, Wednesday, was decision day. Obviously, I was not going to be back in the rental house. The house manager had stayed the night there to ensure its security and told me it was safe to come during the day. My driver came and took me to the house. It was obvious that the neighborhood – which is otherwise known as a very safe area – had suffered yet more violence the previous night.
My driver offered to let me use a house he owns next to his, so I moved yet again. His house is just about two blocks from the park but away from the side with the disturbances. His wife served plenty of good Nica food. I enjoyed a swim in his pool and had a quiet night. I packed everything to be ready for a run to Managua at 6 the next morning.
At 6 a.m. Thursday we left, not totally sure what we would find but my driver knows the back roads and was confident. Not far outside of town we met the first of about 10 or so tranques we would encounter.
The tranques are sometimes nothing more than trash or trees in the road. Sometimes, they’re built of paving stones pulled up from the road to build more substantial barricades. At each one there would be a group of young men, sometimes wearing face coverings of some sort. At each stop there might be a 5 to 10 minute delay and a cursory search of the vehicle. Oddly, they never searched my obvious and substantial piece of luggage in the back seat. We would be waved through; asked for a donation of 10 to 20 cord, or 30 to 60 cents; and treated politely and sometimes given a handshake or a high five.
On the other hand, I was told the tranques in the city were raised to prevent the police from entering the neighborhoods. The distrust of official authority is palpable. The police in Granada actually barricaded themselves into their headquarters.
While each tranque was a bit different, the results were the same – delay, checking the car, soliciting a modest donation and, usually, a friendly wave as we went through. It was also obvious though that at each location there were others more or less hiding beside the roads watching everything carefully. I can only assume that they would have taken some sort of action if they had felt anything suspicious in a vehicle or if somebody foolishly tried to run one.
As we neared Tipitapa, we got a warning of a difficult block in town. My driver headed off through a farm road and emerged on the main road about 10 minutes from the airport. I thanked my driver profusely and promised to recommend him to others and would always use him in the future. Somebody knowledgeable of circumstances here told me I must have had a guardian angel. I did – my driver.
Thus I ended the trip where it started, at Las Mercedes, a Best Western hotel across the street from the airport. And still early enough to have a good breakfast! Las Mercedes actually has an interesting history in Nica politics as the site where the Organization of American States’ Verification Mission lived in 1990 for negotiations on Contra demobilization.
I contemplated the next move. Costa Rica, maybe, since I was already this far? But I decided the best thing was to get some rest and three meals a day. Hanging out at the hotel I had conversations with a number of travelers including the manager of a fascinating resort and school at Laguna Apoyo, near Granada which was developed by David Allman, the founder and chairman of Atlanta’s Regent Partners; a retired businessman from Dalton who regularly comes down in support of several missions; and an extended conversation with the Nica hotel manager, who, while an American citizen, has deep family experience in Nica politics and a fascinating personal story and art collection.
As I write this, the cigar shop and chocolate factory are behind tranques and life has changed for tourists and Ex Pats. The regular hang-out for the Ex Pats has closed, the folk/rock/jazz singer has moved to Coast Rica, the City Hall is filled with ashes, the book store was burned, the Choco Museum has laid off most of its employees, the bakery and my favorite little neighborhood restaurant open just a few hours a day, people walk carefully past the tranques to the market, street musicians are gone, my house has its own tranque at the end of the street, and some friends who helped me along the way are seeking to leave the country.
As I said at the beginning, this account is nothing more than my personal experience. I have only a vague idea of the political complexities here. I cannot imagine the Ortega regime can survive much longer – a week, a month – I don’t know when or how, but it seems clear he will be going. I only hope that the damage done to this lovely country and its people will be minimal as the end approaches.
Finally, it would be hard to overstate how grateful I am for the generosity shared this gringo. This experience has been deep and moving. I hope to be back in Nicaragua in better times. I hope for these people those better times come soon.
Note to readers: To read the full version of this account, open your Facebook page and then click on Tom Weyandt’s Facebook page.
The United States on July 5 imposed sanctions on three Nicaraguan government officials in response to violence that has left more than 200 dead, according to a report by the Associated Press:
“The violence perpetrated by the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega against the Nicaraguan people and the efforts of those close to the Ortega regime to illicitly enrich themselves is deeply disturbing and completely unacceptable,” said Sigal Mandelker, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence.