The Lost Revolution

By Cooper, Marc | Mother Jones, September/October 2001 | Go to article overview

The Lost Revolution


Cooper, Marc, Mother Jones


A decade after laying down their arms, the Contras and the Sandinistas are squaring off in an election that could return Daniel Ortega to power. But no matter who wins, few expect an end to Nicaragua's economic misery.

On the northern edge of Managua squats the destitute barrio of Acahualinca, a jumble of dirt paths lined by decrepit one-room shacks without running water or indoor plumbing. Here, a few miles from the heart of Nicaragua's capital, there is no commerce other than petty drug dealing. The economic center of the neighborhood is the municipal garbage dump, a massive field of waste that sprawls across 100 acres. On this afternoon in early June, a line of diesel trucks belch and dump their loads. Dozens of small fires fill the air with an aerid chemical smoke as scavengers, many of them children, sift throughthe waste for copper, aluminum, and other recyclables. Overhead a flock of buzzards circles in formation. The dump serves as home to hundreds of people. The more established residents have pieced together wood-and-metal shelters along the edges of the dump. The newly arrived make do with plastic or cloth lean-tos erected right among the trash heaps.

Eddie Perez, a children's advocate with a nonprofit group called Des Generaciones, is picking his way through the mounds of garage. "The government's economic policy has only cut more and more services and jobs for the poor," he says. "They hate us, really. The government policy is to try and make all of us, all this, invisible." Perez nods to one of the younger scavengers. "A decade ago we thought we were going to get rid of child labor in the dump," he adds. "But it didn't work out. Now we realize it was only a dream."

Indeed, things were supposed to work out differently for all of Nicaragua. After decades of autocratic rule by the U.S. backed Somoza family, a 1979 uprising put the revolutionary Sandinistas and their leader, Daniel Ortega, in power. The Reagan administration spent billions of dollars to overthrow the Sandinistas, branding them as a proCuban threat to the hemisphere. In 1990, when war-weary Nicaraguans voted Ortega out of office and elected a pro-American administration.

Eddie Perez, a children's advocate with a nonprofit group called Dos Generaciones, is picking his way through the mounds of garbage. "The government's economic policy has only cut more and more services and jobs for the poor," he says. "They hate us, realty. The government policy is to try and make all of us, all this. invisible." Perez nods to one of the younger scavengers. "A decade ago we thought we were going to get rid of child labor in the dump," he adds. "But it didn't work out. Now we realize it was only a dream."

Indeed, things were supposed to work out differently for all of Nicaragua. After decades of autocratic rule by the U.S.-backed Somoza "family, a 1979 uprising put the revolutionary Sandinistas and their leader, Daniel Ortega, in power. The Reagan administration spent billions of dollars to overthrow the Sandinistas, branding them as a pro-- Cuban threat to the hemisphere. In 1990, when war-weary Nicaraguans voted Ortega out of office and elected a pro-American administration, the United States promised massive economic aid and a new era of prosperity.

But 11 years later, Nicaragua is anything but a showcase for freemarket democracy. After toppling the Sandinistas, the United States essentially abandoned Nicaragua, failing to deliver significant aid for reconstruction after the prolonged Contra war. The Washington-- backed governments that succeeded the Sandinistas have meanwhile bled the country dry through widespread corruption. The nation remains one of the poorest in an impoverished region, its 5 million residents beset by hunger, crime, and unemployment.

As the economy has deteriorated, Nicaragua has remained mired in its political past. More than two decades after the Sandinistas toppled Somoza, the two sides remain the dominant political forces in Nicaragua.

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