Pura Vida Travels - A Guide To Travel In Latin America

In an attempt to learn more about the past of Nicaragua in order to understand the present I've been reading a lot of books which focus on Nicaragua. On my last trip to Nicaragua it dawned on me that people might find some value in what I thought about the various books I've read and by sharing my thoughts I might be able to make a few pennies as well.

Nicaragua is not an easy place to figure out when you're an outsider. By reading these books I've slowly been able to understand many of the oddball customs that are uniquely Nicaraguan. Nicaraguans, for example, routinely serve drinks in plastic bags that are tied into a knot at the top. They "open" the bag by biting the corner off of it and drink the drink by sipping at the biten off corner. It turns out this custom took hold during the 80's when the country was at war and there were no bottles available in the country because of shortages. The practice caught on and is still used to this day. That's just one small example of something I picked up from one of these books but understanding how things came to be is important to me when trying to understand Nicaragua. Little things like that may seem like useless trivia but I find that knowing "why" people do things the way they do makes them seem more "normal".

Most of these books I've read several times. I've also visited many of the places as well as talked to people that lived through the events described in them. I've even talked to a few of the people that have been written about. I feel this gives me a rather unique perspective when it comes to reviewing what has been written. The selection of books I've presented here mainly focus on the 1980's Contra war but it is my feeling that if you do not understand that time period it is impossible to understand current day Nicaragua. The war ripped the country apart and left an indelible mark on every Nicaraguan.

My Car In Managua by Forrest D. Colburn
This is a witty story about the trials and tribulations experienced by a gringo college professor after he buys a car in Managua. Although the book was first published in 1991 and mainly focuses on life in Nicaragua in the early 80's much of what is written is still applicable to life in Nicaragua today. One of the things that I never understood about Nicaraguans, for example, was their love of sardines. Grocery stores in Managua have entire sardine sections. (On the homefront, my wifes favorite is sardines in tomato sauce. YUK!) It turns out that during the 80's sardines were one of the products that Nicaraguans actually had a good supply of thanks to their Russian comrades. Because they were one of the few products that were available on a consistant basis they became a part of just about every Nicaraguans diet. My car in Managua has a chapter devoted to the various influences that unlikely countries like Bulgaria have had on Nicaraguans.

Another interesting chapter is titled simply enough "pregnancy" and it confirms many of my own thoughts regarding Nicaraguan men and how they treat women. To be blunt, most men in Nicaragua act as little more than sperm donors when having children. In Nicaragua the stereotypical "latin lover" is most certainly a myth. Wham, bam, gracias senorita is more like it. I have been around countless families in Nicaragua and the one thing that is almost always missing is the father. Sadly, it just seems accepted in Nicaragua that the fathers role is simply to plant the seed while the mother is left to care for the garden for the years that follow. The women aren't blameless in this either as they put a great deal of pressure on other women to have children whether they or married or not. If, God forbid, a married woman isn't pregnant nearly immediately the pressure from other female relatives increases ten-fold with not so subtle insinuations that the woman doesn't know how to please her man. It's the one thing that I really find distasteful about Nicaraguan society.

In summary, this is a short book (135 pages) that you can easily read on the plane on the way to or from Nicaragua. It's entertaining and well-written just don't expect to find many of the places like nightclubs that are talked about in the book. Most of them are long gone. The good news is that while much has changed in Nicaragua some of it is for the better. McDonald's, for instance, no longer serves hamburgers with deep-fried cassava. Read the book and you'll understand...

The Real Contra War by Timothy C. Brown
Timothy Brown was the liason between the State Department and the Contras from 1987 to 1990 and one of the few outsiders that had full access to them and their commanders. His book is a detailed study of who the Contras were, where they came from, and what drove them to take up arms against the Sandinistas. The author as you might expect is decidedly pro-Contra but it paints a picture of the Contras that meshes very well with what I've seen "on the ground" in Nicaragua.

The popular "wisdom" among the left in the US is that the Contras were nothing more than a rag-tag band of mercenaries put together by the CIA to overthrow a legitimate government. The truth of the matter, as documented in excruciating detail in this book, is that the Contras existed long before the CIA got involved. In fact, the first Contras were mainly ex-Sandinistas that had helped to overthrow the Somozas. They became Contras because the Sandinistas had told their followers that they planned to establish a Costa Rican style democracy but upon taking power immediately began installing a Cuban style dictatorship. Later, after numerous Sandanista atrocities were committed against them, the Miskito Indians helped swell the ranks of the Contras. The CIA's involvement helped take these unorganized factions and unite them against the Sandinistas but they most certainaly did not "create" the Contras.

One of the most surprising revelations in this book that I had never heard before was that support for the Contras was actually begun during the Carter administration. Although, thanks to the leftist media, you will never hear Jimmy Carter being accused of meddling in the affairs of a legitimate government it seems undeniable that he authorized the CIA's initial involvement in Nicaragua.

A glaring ommission from the book is any discussion of Contra atrocities that were committed. The author clearly sympathizes with their cause so I guess it's understandable but the book would have been even better had they been discussed even if from the Contra point of view. Simply sweeping them under the rug like they never happened didn't sit well with me.

Overall, this is an excellent read and provides an excellent background on the history of conflicts in Nicaragua.

The Death Of Ben Linder by Joan Kruckewitt
Ben Linder walked out of the University of Washington with a degree in electrical engineering and a desire to use his skills to help his fellow man. His strong left-wing convictions led him to Nicaragua where he could try to bring electricity where it had never existed before and participate in a socialist revolution at the same time. On April 28, 1987 he was killed by the Contras while working on a hydroelectric project in El Cua, Nicaragua. His death would become instrumental in ending America's support for the Contras.

While I vehemently disagreed with much of what was written in this book and the way the Sandinista revolution was portrayed I still enjoyed reading it. The author is clearly sympathetic with the Sandinistas and like most liberals doesn't let the facts get in a way of a good story. The authors left-wing bias is clear from the way she writes. For example, when talking about the aftermath of the bombing of a refinery that destroyed 3.2 million gallons of gasoline the author writes, "Using the attack as an excuse, Exxon announced it would no longer allow Mexico, Nicaragua's sole oil supplier, to use its tankers." The insinuation is clear in that sentence that Exxon really wasn't concerned about their tankers, they just wanted to hurt the "revolution". Of course, that's a laughable assertion, but the book is full of similarly constructed sentences that show a complete disdain for capitalism. Frankly, it gets annoying after a while.

One of the most revealing sections of the book epitimizes what socialism is all about. After getting electricity installed in one village that never had it before Ben finds a peasant woman proudly ironing clothes and proceeds to reduce her to tears for having the nerve to use his precious electricity on something as trivial as ironing. That's one of the biggest problems I have with Socialists. They always want to control every aspect of whatever they have given to you and you can only use it as long as it furthers their agenda not your own.

This book is the flip side of the Real Contra War except it paints a picture of Nicaragua I've never seen. Not one person I've ever talked to has had anything good to say about the Sandinista revolution. Of course, I talk mostly to peasants and not "enlightened" intellectuals so that probably explains why. Like the Real Contra War this book completely ignores atrocities committed by the Sandinistas and it also portrays the Contras as a band of CIA sponsered serial killers that are somehow being forced to attack the Sandinistas against their will. There are constant references to people being kidnapped and being forced to be Contras that frankly don't make a whole lot of sense.

In summary, I liked the book but only because it gave me a glimpse into the mindset of a socialist. It's probably because of the authors bias more than anything else but by the end of the book I found myself actually disliking Ben Linder. I also came to the conclusion that Mira Brown was a complete moron and typical socialist. Anyone that spends 6 months designing a mud cook stove without actually trying to build one or even seeing if it was what people needed exemplifies a socialist in my opinion. It's the mindset of I know better than you and you're going to use it because I said so. The only character that I found remotely likeable was Don the mechanic mostly because he seemed to be the only one that was only interested in helping people without furthering his own "agenda".

Blood of Brothers by Stephen Kinzer
Far and away this is the most balanced piece I've ever read on the Contra war. Kinzer was a journalist covering Nicaragua during the 1980's for the New York Times and presents an objective look at the good, the bad, and the ugly during that time period. Kinzer provides amazing insight into the men that would become the "commadantes" of the revolution and diligently chronicles both their successes and failures.

It's probably no surprise to anyone that reads this site that I am a huge fan of Ronald Reagan. I've read many of his writings, including his diary, and know that he had a very deep understanding of world politics. The one place Reagan clearly didn't understand, however, was Nicaragua. In fact, I don't believe anyone in Washington really understood what was going on there at the time or had any idea how to deal with. While I agree with Reagan that anything we could do to hasten the demise of a communist regime was a good thing I believe the way we did it was massively ineffective. Part of the problem laid in the fact that no one in Washington knew who the Contras were. In reading Reagan's diaries it's clear that he himself believed the lefts propaganda that the CIA created the Contras. The only difference was he didn't see that as a bad thing. The problem is that it wasn't the truth. The group the CIA put together were leaders of Somoza's National Guard and most of the Contras wanted nothing to do with them. This led to a myriad of problems due to the fact that none of the Contra factions trusted each other. It also seems that Washington had little interest in a negotiated solution to the Contra war. From all my readings on the subject it seems the only solution that interested Washington was one where the Sandinista's were crushed militarily. As disjointed as the Contras were, however, it's doubtful that would have ever happened without full-scale US involvement.

An interesting part of the book is when Kinzer recounts his interviews with Costa Rican President Oscar Arias after he brokered the peace settlement that ended the war. In Reagan's diaries it's clear he was furious with Arias for holding peace talks without involving the US. It's also clear that had the US been directly involved the peace process probably never would have begun. The US had been meddling in Central America's affairs since the days of William Walker and frankly everyone was sick of it. The deal Arias got Ortega to agree to was actually quite brilliant. The provisions were quite simple, all Central American countries were to begin talks with opposition groups, enter cease fire negotiations, offer amnesty provisions to enemies, and, most importantly, stop receiving military aid from foreign governments and allowing their territory to be used by insurrection movements. Another important provision was that all "states of emergencies" (Nicaragua was the only country in a state of emergency) were to be ended meaning civil rights were to be restored immediately. For Ortega it offered him the opportunity to remain in power for the time being and "win" the war since the Contras could no longer be funded by the US and housed in Honduras. For the Contras it gave them the opportunity to become a legitimate force in the political process that could no longer be surpressed by violence and intimidation. Arias knew that if the Sandinistas followed through and implemented the terms of the accord their days were numbered. "The lesson of history is so clear," Arias said, "No Communist system can survive with freedom of the press." In effect, Arias had given the US the solution it wanted yet Reagan was hardly thrilled. A month after the agreement was signed it was clear that Reagan had little faith in the Sandinistas when he asked Congress for another $270 million in aid for the Contras which would have killed the peace process had it been approved. In the end Arias was proved to be correct and Reagan wrong as the Sandinista's did slowly follow through and would eventually be soundly defeated in a national election. Many former Contras would go on to hold high positions in the Nicaraguan government.

This book is extremely well-written and does an amazing job of bringing home what a horrible period this was in Nicaragua's history. There was nothing glorious about the revolution. Over 30,000 Nicaraguans died in the violence of the 1980's and the scars from the war are still visible today. I sincerely hope that Nicaragua never heads down that road again...

The Reagan Diaries by Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan's diaries provide a fascinating look into the 8 years of his presidency and a glimpse into the mind-numbing amount of things that a US President has to deal with on a daily basis. I've included it here because there is quite a bit on Nicaragua in the book and it gives you an understanding of what Reagan was trying to accomplish by supporting the Contras.

It's clear from reading the book that Reagan wasn't a micro-manager and trusted those under him to implement the "details" of what he wanted to accomplish. In fact, over and over again Reagan complains about having to attend lengthy meetings where "they tell me a lot more than I need to know." Probably more than anything, this lack of interest in details, led to our misguided policy on Nicaragua. Reagan's goal, which I agree with, was to stop the advance of Communism in Central America. Unfortunately, the people he entrusted to implement this policy didn't seeem to have a clue as to how to do it.

This is a VERY long book (nearly 700 pages) and it can get boring at times. If you're a Reagan fan like me though you'll find it a very enlightening read. If you're a Reagan-hater you're probably better off saving your money...

Contra Cross by William R. Meara
William Meara had a long relationship with Central America first working against the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador and then later working with the contras in Honduras. Meara has a unique perspective and Contra Cross chronicles how ill-prepared America was to deal with insurgencies in 1980's. The author (who would know far better than me) supports my own conclusions that the group the CIA put together to be the "face" of the contras did more harm than good. The fact that they spent most of their time in Miami living in luxuary on the CIA payroll while the real resistance was bleeding and dying in the jungle did little to help their cause.

There aren't any bombshell revelations in this book. It's value for me was that it put into words many things I've always known about latino culture but lacked the ability to convey to others. He talks at length about how these cultural differences made implementing policies dreamed up in Washington all but impossible in Central America. A good example is a story he relates about teaching a class in El Salvador. Students are taught much differently in Latin America than we are in the USA. They are not taught to think analytically and question but rather to memorize facts and repeat. Meara was trying to teach by having the students take what they had learned and let it lead them to new places but his attempts led to blank stares instead. I've had this experience more times than I care to remember in Nicaragua so I know exactly how he felt.

The author also writes about the absurdities of how an army designed to fight the cold war (the US army) tried to apply the same principles in the jungle. When the army arrived in Honduras, for example, the first thing they did was to build "tank traps" between a mountain pass. Considering that the Sandinistas barely had any tanks to begin with it's highly doubtful they would ever have been stupid enough to try to launch a tank assault on Honduras. Nevertheless, our army was trained to fight a war that way so that's how they did it.

In summary, Contra Cross is a good read. It's short (158 pages) and can easily be read in one sitting. It provides an excellent analysis of why things that look so cut and dry in a conference room in Washington are anything but that 2000 miles away in some jungle.

Nicaragua - The Chamorro Years by David Close
Let's see, how can I put this, well, this book is incredibly BORING! This scholarly tome is an account of the successes and failures of the administration of Violeta Chamorro. Chamorro defeated FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega in a stunning defeat. Chamorro was the first female President of a Latin American country and also the first President to take office in Nicaragua without cutting off the head of her opponent. Well, I'm exaggerating there but you get the point.

Chamorro's administration faced monumental challenges. She took over a country in a state of economic collapse with 3000% inflation rates, was opposed by a party (the FSLN) that felt that it was their divine right to rule Nicaragua, and was limited in what she could do by the tenuous alliance that made up her own party. Ironically, by working with the FSLN Chamorro was able to dismantle much of the Marxist state they had attempted to create by selling off 351 state-owned industries.

Probably the biggest failure of the Chamorro administration was their inability to resolve the issue of confiscated property. Unlike when Communism crumbled in the Soviet bloc Nicaragua had thousands of people returning and wanting their property back. The problem was that there were an estimated 170,000 families living on properties that had been confiscated one way or another. The shear magnitude of the problem combined with the limited resources of the Nicaraguan government doomed all attempts to work out any rational settlements. To this day this question remains an issue in Nicaragua.

All in all, if you buy this book you had really be interested in learning about Nicaraguan history. There are no interesting anecdotes, there are no witty stories, just hard, cold dispassionate analysis.

Nicaragua - Living In The Shadow Of The Eagle by Thomas Walker
The first thing I noticed about this book was on the back cover there's a quote from one of my old college professors praising this book. Normally, you would think that would be a good thing but this particular economics professor is a card carrying communist (no joke) and believes that the United States would be better off if we followed the fine example set by the economic superpower of Cuba. An endorsement from this particular professor automatically makes me suspicious of the content in this book.

The book spends most of it's time blaming America for all of Nicaragua's problems. It's flawed premise is that the Sandinista revolution would have succeeded if it weren't for the evil USA meddling in Nicaragua's business. It's typical liberal thinking, no matter how bad something fails the reason always is we just weren't able to do enough of it. If only the USA would have let them implement all their communist policies Nicaragua would have become utopia. Here's a typical line from the book, "Overall, however, the collapse of the Nicaraguan economy in the late 1980s was the product of deliberate US foreign policy. Though the Sandinistas had made their fair share of mistakes, they were not the wild-eyed "communist" idealogues that they were often portrayed to be in the United States."

If the Sandinista's weren't communist idealogues then I have to ask, what were they? They collectivized private property, made all industries state controlled, set wage and price controls, censored the media, and jailed those that opposed them. That sure sounds like a bunch of communist idealogues to me. The author makes the absurd claim that because they didn't have posters of Marx and Lenin everywhere they weren't communists. He conveniently ignores the fact that instead of Marx or Lenin they had images of Sandino everywhere. (and still do today) Why would they use a Russian communist as an icon when a Nicaraguan one was readily available?

Sadly, this book is used as a college text book. It's sad because this is the kind of crap that's being taught to gullible kids on America's college campuses these days. Namely, America is evil and is responsible for all that is wrong in the world. There's nary a mention in this book of the Soviet or Cuban influence on Nicaragua. I have to wonder if that means that it's perfectly acceptable for communist regimes to try to influence foreign countries but when the US does it it is somehow evil. I would argue that Cuba and Venezuela have done more to wreck Nicaragua's economy than the United States ever has yet we never hear a peep from the left about their "meddling" in Nicaragua's affairs.

To be honest, this book pissed me off. It pissed me off because the author is celebrated as an "expert" on Nicaragua when clearly he's only an expert in an academic sense. He probably read a bunch of books by other communists like himself, spent some time on the UNAN campus in Leon, sipped some lattes in the Ben Linder cafe with some other sandle-wearers, and then proclaimed himself an expert on Nicaragua. I certainly wouldn't dissuade anyone from buying this book but I would warn you to be wary that the author firmly believes in blaming America first.

Learning Democracy - Citizen Engagement And Electoral Choice In Nicaragua by Leslie Anderson & Lawrence Dodd
Learning Democracy seeks to explain the abandonement of socialism for capitalism in Nicaragua by examining the electoral process that made the transformation possible. The authors clearly had sympathy for the Sandinista revolution but they didn't let it cloud their judgement when analyzing the election results. I got the feeling that when they originally set out to write this book they wanted to figure out what went wrong that caused the Sandinista's to be voted out of office and the results they uncovered surprised them.

The authors came up with 5 possible reasons for the Sandinista's electoral defeat and set out to find evidence to support or reject each one of them. The five possible reasons were:

  • It was an accident - The poor, uneducated, Nicaraguan voters were too stupid to understand the voting process and just screwed up when they voted the Sandinista's out of office.
  • It was a repudiation - Most of the Nicaraguan people had never fully supported the Sandinista revolution and given a chance repudiated it at the first opportunity.
  • It was a choice - The Nicaraguan people supported the ideals of the revolution but they made a practical choice to replace the Sandista's with a government they saw as better able to end the war and improve the economy.
  • It was a miscalculation - This one is a little convuluted but I'll explain it the best I can. The people believed that the Sandinista's had overwhelming support and would never leave office (even if they lost the election) so they decided to send them a message at the ballot box. They never wanted to change the government, they just wanted to send them a message.
  • It was a capitualation - Desperate to end the war, the Nicaraguan people capitualated to the desires of the United States
  • By exhaustively examining the results of polling data taken at the time and newspaper articles, the authors come to the stunning conclusion (to them anyway) that the Nicaraguan people made a conscious choice when they tossed the Sandinista's out of office. The authors show rather convincingly that the people had made a well-reasoned, deliberate choice and examinations of subsequent elections show that the people had decided to stay the course with democracy.

    Nicaragua - The Sandinista People's Revolution by Tomas Borge & Daniel Ortega
    I picked this book up for a quarter at a used book store. The book contains 40+ speeches by Sandinista leaders including Tomas Borge, Daniel Ortega, Jamie Wheelock, and other commandantes of the revolution. Frankly, the reason I bought the book is I want to try to get Borge to sign it. He's my cantankerous neighbor in Managua. It turns out he must not be terribly proud of his work because he doesn't want to sign my copy, either that or he just hates gringos. (my money is on the latter)

    I really didn't have any intention of reading this book when I bought it but it turns out it's one of the better reads I've found on Nicaragua. What's amazing to me is that when you read these guys in their own words it's not hard to understand why they didn't have a whole lot of support from the masses. Thomas Borge states when talking about his role in government, "The Ministry of the Interior will remain as a powerful organ of combat, control, vigilence, and coercion." It's clear from reading this book is that the Sandinista's view of the Nicaraguan people is that of the typical American liberal. We are your betters, we know what is best for you, do what we say or else.

    What's most frightening to me is that reading this book is like listening to the Democrat party in the USA. America is evil, rich people are evil, we're going to give you free health care, higher taxes are good, the government can run industries more effectively, etc. What's even more frightening is that liberals in the USA want to repeat the same mistakes made by the Sandinista's. Obama and Clinton somehow think that the same policies that were abject failures in Nicaragua (like "free" healthcare) will magically work in the United States with them in charge. It's another hallmark of liberalism, if reality doesn't meet the needs of your theory then change reality. You see, the policies didn't fail because they were stupid policies, they failed because America is an evil, imperialist nation. It doesn't matter if it's completely untrue as long as it sounds good. You see, the truth doesn't matter to liberals as long as it makes for a good slogan.

    Bottom line, if you can find a copy of this book for a quarter like I did it's worth what you paid for it.

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