Two decades after the guns quieted and Nicaragua’s devastating eight-year counterrevolutionary war came to an end, Steven Kinzer’s “Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua,” a memoir of his post here as bureau chief for the New York Times in the 1980s, is a striking testament to how much the country has changed over the past 20 years, and how much it hasn’t.
The biggest difference, of course, is also the most important: the war is over and Nicaraguans are no longer killing one another in the mountains.
But the similarities between Nicaragua 1987 and Nicaragua 2007 is what makes Kinzer’s book such a hilarious and sad read today.
Hilarious because Nicaragua’s quirkiness has managed to transcend the years of upheaval and the rotating governments. For foreigners living here, it’s easy to relate to Kinzer’s first attempt at drinking a soda out of a plastic bag, or trying to find an address based on non-existent landmarks, or getting startled by the unfamiliar sound of an iguana running across a tin roof.
Yet the story is also sad because the grinding poverty, the crippling underdevelopment and blatant social inequalities that Kinzer wrestled with 20 years ago are the same here today. The hopes and desires that the Nicaraguan people have deposited in various leaders over the years have gone mostly unanswered, and now that Daniel Ortega is back in power it appears that the presidential merry-go-round has completed a full circle.
Behind the war and the grinding hardships of the U.S. embargo, it is interesting to read that daily life Kinzer experienced here in the 1980s is not entirely disconnected from the Nicaragua of today.
The water rationings and power blackouts “continue to disrupt daily life and cost the country huge amounts of lost production,” as he noted 20 years ago, but could have written today. Managua is still a “random patchwork of unconnected neighborhoods” that still looks like it’s just starting to clear the rubble from the earthquake 35 years ago. And giving directions in Managua is still a “Socratic” art form based on knowledge of past and present landmarks and an anachronistic measure of distance known as a “vara,” which Kinzer says is “an ancient unit of measure, supposedly based on the length of a famous nobleman’s arm.”
Also,many of the colorful individuals who helped to shape Nicaraguan politics and society in the 1980s are still around today, and in many cases Kinzer’s description of them 20 years ago still holds true today.
Denis Martínez is still “Nicaragua’s greatest baseball hero,” Sir Anthony Mathews still puts on a great show as the boisterous front man of Dimensión Costeña, and Lenin Cerna is still “probably the most feared man in Nicaragua.”
(On a personal side note, as a fellow New England journalist covering Nicaragua, I have had the chance to interview many of the same people Kinzer interviewed 20 years ago, and in most cases my impressions of those people were very similar. So at times, reading this book was oddly nostalgic, as I remember the first time I interviewed figures such as Eden Pastora, Tomás Borge, Miguel Obando y Bravo and Herty Lewites. As I lay in the hammock reading, I sometimes felt my brain wandering between someone else’s memoirs and my own personal memories. It was disorienting.)
The most relevant similarity between then and now, and ultimately the reason why “Blood of Brothers” was re-released earlier this year by Harvard University Press, is that Daniel Ortega is once again president of Nicaragua.
Though the Sandinista revolution has entered into a new phase, “Blood of Brothers” unintentionally puts the political events and rhetoric of today into an interesting historical context.
For example, the new Ortega government slogan of “el pueblo presidente” is essentially a rehash of the Sandinistas’ 1980 slogan, “poder popular.”
On the other hand, there are some serious inconsistencies between today’s Sandinista Front and its erstwhile counterpart from the 1980s. For example, the Sandinistas’ emphatic mantra in the ‘80s that they would never negotiate with the Contras now seems like a promise made in a parallel universe. The Comandante Ortega of today has a former Contra as his vice-president, enjoys a cozy relationship with former adversary Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, and is even on good working term with the U.S. government. In fact, it could be argued that the Ortega of today has better relations with his former enemies than he does with his former supporters – the droves of Sandinistas who have defected from the ranks of the FSLN over the past 17 years.
The only “adversary” from the past that hasn’t changed sides is the daily La Prensa, which still seems to define itself in terms of its opposition to the Ortega administration.
Kinzer was first introduced to the curious world of Nicaragua in 1976 as an ambitious young freelance journalist looking to cut his teeth as an international correspondent.
After a stint with The Boston Globe, Kinzer signed on with the New York Times in 1983 and opened the newspaper’s Managua bureau, which he ran for five years.
“Blood of Brothers” is a passionate and engaging account of his time here. Kinzer became as well connected here as any foreigner could hope to be, and his book offers a unique insider perspective from someone who was ultimately an outsider – a Gringo in a strange land; someone who learned to eat quesillo without messing up his hand, yet yearned for the foreign flavor of cranberry juice.
The combination of insider and outsider perspectives allowed Kinzer to write a book that is both insightful yet honest. His treatment of the Sandinista revolution was surprisingly objective for someone who lived through much of it.
While the more ideological “Sandalistas” may find Kinzer’s criticisms of the first
Ortega government to be “anti-revolutionary,” hawkish readers will probably take issue with his denouncement of the Contras’ terrorist tactics and the inexplicable degree to which the United States took its incessant meddling in a smaller country’s affairs. But, for a journalist covering Nicaragua, to offend both the left and the right is about as close as one can hope to get to objectivity here.
Still, at no moment in the book is Kinzer disrespectful of Nicaragua or its people. His admiration and sympathy for Nicaraguans shines through in all of his stories and anecdotes – even when critical, he never does so as an “ugly American.”
Kinzer’s book should be mandatory reading for any foreigner who has ever voiced an opinion on Nicaragua, President Ortega or the Sandinista revolution.
Ultimately, the book might not change the reader’s opinion on this complex country, but at least they’ll be better informed for having read it.
For more information, visit Web page: www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog/KINBLO.html.
Kinzer Book Signing
Steven Kinzer, author of Blood of Brothers, will be doing a book signing and discussion in San Juan del Sur’s El Gato Negro bookstore Jan. 5 at 6 p.m.