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How Safe Is Nicaragua? A Comparative Reflection

Above photo: Nicaraguan children march at the begining of the Williamsport baseball minor leagues championship in Matagalpa, Nicaragua, on Wednesday, May 15, 2024. El 19. Digital/file photo.

Nicaraguan children march before a baseball tournament in Matagalpa. Having a government that promotes communitarian trust and supports meeting the needs of everyone seems to be a crucial factor in whether people feel “safe.”

On the night before I was married in 1985, during the wedding rehearsal dinner, my “best man,” Gary MacEoin, knew that my wife and I were heading to Nicaragua a week later, where the country was in the middle of the Contra War. My wife’s parents were concerned for our safety. Gary proposed a toast, “To the second safest city in the hemisphere…Managua!” My wife’s uncle Nick, a diehard Reagan supporter, asked, “What’s the safest city?’ Gary replied: “Havana, of course.” Nick said, “He’s probably right.” (Gary was the author of more than twenty books about Latin America).

In the 1980s and again during the past fifteen years, I have often had occasion to travel from Honduras to Nicaragua overland, crossing the border at Las Manos, then down the road from Dipilto to Ocotal to Estelí. By the time I get to Ocotal, I can begin to see and feel the difference, and by the time I reach Estelí, it is palpable—the sigh of relief. Others, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, foreign visitors have told me they could feel the difference. It is subtle, this feeling of safety, and it can be missed by those who have not had the experience of living in other Central American countries besides Nicaragua. Admittedly, a subjective and fleeting feeling, but there is a more objective reality behind it.

During the past fifteen years, while the murder rate in Honduras has at times reached 80 per hundred thousand and then stayed around 40, Nicaragua’s murder rate hovered around 7 per hundred thousand. But these are numbers. Beyond the statistics is the experience…. What does it mean to feel safe? What does a safe country mean?

The 1980s

Nicaragua has held a sense of comparative safety for me over many years. In the 1980s, I lived in northern Nicaragua as a long-term volunteer with Witness for Peace. This was during the Contra War, and my WFP work took me at times into Honduras. There, General Gustavo Alvarez, with the acquiescence of a weak civilian government, had declared a state of national security. The excuse was to protect the country against invasion from Nicaragua. The excuse was a lie, but the national security state made Hondurans anything but secure and safe. At military checkpoints on all the major roads, people were pulled off busses and trucks, men were frisked and some were detained. Military units entered restaurants, movie theaters, pool halls. and dragged out young men to be forced into the military, sent to prison, or disappeared. Military Battalion 316, known to everyone as a death squad, systematically killed or “disappeared” hundreds. There were torture houses used by the police and the military. Human rights leaders and journalists whom my wife and I interviewed were under constant death threat.

In southern Honduras, along the Nicaraguan border, Catholic aid workers told me that nearly ten thousand Hondurans were displaced by the Contra camps that were set up to wage war across the border. My only sense of security was my U.S. citizenship, since Honduras was a vassal state of the US. But even I could feel the fear and insecurity of the Hondurans with whom I interacted. The worst part was that this “security state” broke down the basic trust that people and communities need to function. Rule number one was to be careful with whom you share your thoughts and opinions. It was only the tremendous courage of so many Hondurans that made life functional and the fear bearable.

On the Nicaraguan side of the border, people and rural communities were experiencing the brutality of Contra attacks, and people certainly lived in fear, which I also felt, living among them. But the situation was clear. It was the Contras and the Reagan Administration, not the revolutionary government, that was creating the chaos and insecurity. Nicaraguans worked in community, whether in urban neighborhoods or in rural villages, to mitigate disasters and provide protection. There was conflict and distrust, but it was always managed, gently, if possible, by the local community. In Honduras, however, communities and trust were systematically destroyed. The big difference here was that the Nicaraguan revolutionary government was with the people, not against them. We always knew what the situation held, but in Honduras we seldom knew. Hondurans feared and avoided their army, if they could. Nicaraguans did not usually fear or avoid the Sandinista Army or the police, but regarded them as protectors.

I should make clear that this sense of comparative safety was not the same as happiness or contentment. It was not even about physical security, since no one could guarantee that in the middle of the war. I knew that local feuds and disputes were sometimes subsumed into the larger conflict. For me, the sense of safety in Nicaragua in the middle of the Contra War was the sense that trusting others was the basic survival mode, and it was taken for granted unless there was evidence otherwise. In Honduras, distrust—or at least caution and skepticism— was the basic survival mode, unless there was reason to trust. In Nicaragua, one could miss the nuances and still be safe. In Honduras, missing nuances could be dangerous.

2018 and since

I was not in Nicaragua during the violent events of April-July of 2018. I was there in September and October when I interviewed a range of people, including longtime Nicaraguan friends from the 1980s and US and British expats who had lived in Nicaragua for many years. Some lived in cities, others in small rural communities. I encountered a spectrum of opinions ranging from strong criticism of the government to strong support. The most interesting to me were the many people, especially in rural areas, who offered a critical and nuanced support for the Nicaraguan government. I was struck by the way in which people freely expressed their feelings and opinions. I attribute that, in large part, to a sense of safety—often unconscious or latent—that people felt even, and maybe especially, when they were most vocal. I also discovered that in some rural communities that were less directly affected by the violence of April-July, there seemed to be a sense of calm that, I think, was in part a product of the revolution itself.

I was in Honduras also during this time. Hondurans referred to the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez as a narco-dictatorship. I was in several places where I narrowly escaped being killed. Hondurans who had lived through the national security state of the 1980s said that this time under Hernandez was as bad as, or worse than the 1980s. During this time, under Hernandez, as many as 60,000 to 100,000 Hondurans fled their country in some years. (Total national population approx. 9.5 million). I know the stories of some of these migrants who made it to U.S. immigration courts where I and others provided expert witness on their behalf. In 2021, Hondurans resoundingly defeated the narco-dictator at the ballot box and elected a new government that promised major changes. Hondurans are trying courageously to build a society of more trust and safety, perhaps a little more like that of their Nicaraguan neighbors.

The decades long campaign of the United States to depose the Sandinistas and roll back the revolution has used negative news and propaganda as weapons. But many of the examples used to show that Nicaraguans are not “safe” are actually examples that could reflect the opposite. One was the portrayal of Nicaragua as a country from which many thousands were fleeing. In the year from October, 2022 to September, 2023, 294,283 Nicaraguans migrated to neighboring Costa Rica. These figures were use in negative propaganda to “prove” that Nicaraguans are abandoning their country, fleeing for safety.

The propaganda fails to explain that much of this is a longtime pattern of temporary migration in search of (temporary) work. Or that in recent years drought in Nicaragua and U.S. economic sanctions have made it harder for some Nicaraguans to find work. More to the point, it also fails to explain why in the same year, 296,119 Nicaraguans returned to Nicaragua from Costa Rica, almost as many as had left. For whatever problems it has, Nicaragua has remained a place of relative safety and security for many who have experienced life in Costa Rica. A somewhat similar pattern seems to be developing with Nicaraguans who have come to the United States.

A gift of safety?

My experiences and reflections on what Nicaraguans have taught me probably come down to a few fundamental realizations. The contrast between a society based on communitarian trust and on meeting the basic needs of everyone, or a society based on one based on individualist struggle where the few enrich themselves as the expense of the many—is at the root of the sense of safety, even when physical security is not a certainty. Having a government that promotes and supports one or the other vision of society seems to be a crucial factor in whether people feel “safe.” Being safe is an intangible that thrives or dies in very tangible conditions.

I do not know to what extent experiencing the brutality of the Somoza dictatorship, the defense of the values of the revolution, the trial by fire of the Contra War, the years under neoliberal governments, and the violent interventions of 2018 may have shaped and made more important the sense of safety that Nicaragua seems to treasure today, but I can imagine that it must be so. In any case, Nicaragua continues to try to preserve this precious gift in and for a world wracked by distrust, insecurity, and trauma.

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