As a kid I grew up in the middle of the Cold War; Russia was our arch-enemy and Cuba was the evil brother just off of the Florida coast. During the 1980′s, the cold war was fought in Nicaragua and we (pro-Reagan conservative Republicans) cheered for the Contras in their armed struggle against the Communist Sandinistas. Entering Nicaragua and seeing the Communist FSLN flag flying prominently was an eye opener and a cause for self-examination.
I was not sure what to expect in Nicaragua – the country had taken on some democratic reforms and had voted in alternating Contra and Sandinista governments in the past years. Elections were approaching and the FSLN flag was flying everywhere in the north of the country. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (Front Sandinista Liberation Nacional) was the party fo the former Sandinista Ortega, a Castro & Soviet ally and arch-enemy of former President Reagan. Coming to Nicaragua as a guest and seeing (what used to be) “enemy” flags flying everywhere was an interesting experience.
As always, I find it interesting that the landscape should change at a political border. I mean, nature doesn’t know where political borders lay, why should the scenery change? I have come to believe that political borders are drawn where natural landmarks and changes occur; rivers, mountains, etc. It seems natural that different ethnic groups and tribes would inhabit different areas and may have different political beliefs – and borders are drawn based on politics. So, I wasn’t too surprised when, right after I crossed the border into Nicaragua the scenery changed from a jungly green to semi-arid rolling hills.
As Nicaragua struggles to find itself in the post 1991 surge of world democracy, some lingering evidence of the war remain. In Granada I saw a security guard with an AK-47 slung across his back. The AK-47 is a common sight in Nicaragua – an almost unheard of thing in Guatemala where guards carry shotguns. I found this mix of Communist-dictatorship and free western democratic government interesting; here you have a guard that is hired through private capitalism and he’s carrying the workhorse firearm of the past regime.
During my visit in Nicaragua I found that the people were struggling with the idea of a free economic system. Some embraced it wholeheartedly and were doing well – economically speaking while others just couldn’t break free of the old Stalinist mindset. For those stuck in the Cold War mentality, business was difficult at best.
Within our first 2 hours into the country we were stopped at a military checkpoint. Really, it was two boys who barely looked 18 years old, holding AK-47 rifles in front of a speed bump made of sandbags. We were stopped and told we had to pay “multa” – in other words, a fine. I asked what the infraction was and I was told that I was driving with my lights on. I explained – in my broken English – that the lights were on (in the daytime) for safety. The soldier told me that it was against the traffic code to have the lights on in the day and that I would have to pay a $5 fine. Of course he couldn’t tell me what the law # was or produce a copy – I had to take his world for it. I argued a bit and Jeff told me to just pay the guy, “Its not worth getting shot over $5.” I looked at the second guard, he was fingering his assault rifle a little too liberally. Oh well, what’s five bucks?
And so, Nicaragua has embraced the worst side of a free market: corruption. Not that corruption doesn’t exist in Communist countries. It does. But no doubt the bribe takers and wasted government resources will be blamed on free trade…
It would be a week or two later – after a dozen or so stops & “traffic fines” that I realized that if I’m going to have to pay $5 for every 20 miles driven, why bother with traffic lights, speed limits and stop signs? I just started driving however I liked. The the laws be damned; if I’m going to pay for “not” breaking the law, I had might as well get my moneys worth.
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