No Country for Ancianos
This piece was originally published in Front Street in 2013 in a slightly different form.
It was a friendly looking crowd, but the size was unsettling. Ten thousand people had been trucked in from all over western Nicaragua in clean white shirts and jeans, waving the red and black of the Sandinistas. No one has that many willing friends. The pediatric heart surgeon who’d ventured out to pick us up from the bus station was nervous. Twice she mentioned promising her mother in Maryland that she wouldn’t leave the house after early Mass. Now I’d gone and made a liar out of her.
From the backseat I raised my camera as a woman lifted her smartphone back at me. A man who looked like Daniel Ortega stopped to watch — the Comandante look is popular down here. I felt a hand on my arm; one I’d known all my life — followed by a voice speaking to me like I was a little kid. “Put that damn thing down.”
Even half blind, the old guy had a point; the crowd was so huge that if things turned ugly there was nothing anyone could do to stop them. Not that anyone would try. These people were government employees and union cardholders who’d been given the day off, with pay, to attend the rally in support of the el Commandante. It wasn’t mandatory; employees could stay home and opt for early retirement starting after lunch. In a country where 48% of population lives beneath what Latin America calls the poverty line, that is no idle threat.
“Hey Dad, this is real civil unrest! I need to see this. We aren’t down here on vacation.” I almost sounded like an adult.
Then he barked my name in that voice of his, causing me to instantly regress into a whining adolescent. “I need to go to the rally — it might get ugly!”
"I thought you were down here profiting me!" asked the surgeon. She had a point.
“You aren’t going to any rally!” He said, “We’re going back to the hotel.”
At 43, after gallivanting through two Arab civil wars, I’d been sent to my room. And this, in a nut, is why you don’t take your father on assignment, not even on Father’s Day.
DAD ONCE GAVE ME THE FOLLOWING ADVICE: Never work for your father. He would know, he worked for his. We told everyone that he was a farmer — true, but not the entire story. He was always flying off to meet Arabs, got called to the carpet by the Pentagon once, and returned from the farm in Florida with the head of an alligator he’d caught. My four brothers thought it was beautifully gruesome. My sister held her tongue. Mom called it “No.” What Dad did — other than work for Granddaddy — was a collection of stories that simply didn’t happen in a place like Memphis.
Grandaddy’s retirement was a sad thing to watch — he grew dim and cloudy. Dad vowed that it would never happen to him, so to keep the brain sharp he taught himself German before turning to the more pragmatic Spanish. While Mom was having the house redone, he spent nearly two months in an immersion school in Mexico. The alligator still hasn’t made it to an interior wall.
Then came the detached retina that wouldn’t heal and his 73rd birthday. He said his traveling days were over. But when I asked if he’d go with me to Nicaragua in 2013 to profile an American heart surgeon, he jumped at the offer. Which was a good thing as my 20 words of Spanish came from a hospital in Ecuador. I’ll never find the bus station but can schedule a colonoscopy in a bind. We were looking forward to it. It isn’t that we were particularly close when I was growing up — no bad blood — but as one of six children it’s hard to have a private chat. His generation was defined more by work than self- fulfillment.
It defines ours as well — from the friends we keep to the jargon we speak. Our generation may fret over family/career balance, but his did not. They worked — confident Mom was single-handedly maintaining the home front. Dad traveled a lot, was worn out when he got home, and wasn’t a hell of a lot of fun. He never changed a diaper and 15 grandchildren later still hasn’t. Few of the men of his generation did. Still, he paid six children through private school and college and few men of his generation did that, either.
NICARAGUA, HOWEVER, was less straightforward. To make any sense of that mob scene, we’ve got to go back to the previous Tuesday. While standing around the Memphis airport learning we wouldn’t make our connection, nearly 100 retirees and war veterans in Managua were refusing to leave the lobby of the National Institute of Social Security (INSS) without their pension payments, which were about five years late. The INSS claimed the retirees didn’t qualify for a state pension, but with 49.7% underemployment on top of 7.5% joblessness, most Nicaraguans don’t. Ahead of the previous election, Presidente Ortega tried to quiet the ancianos with food baskets and cash handouts. If nothing else, he was declared winner and with the electoral Rubicon crossed, the payments stopped and attempts to formalize them were crushed. The press started calling Ortega El Comandante…never a good sign.
The old guys were forcibly removed from the INSS lobby on Thursday morning. By the time Dad and I were landing in Managua that night, they’d returned in the thousands. Despite the numbers, it was pretty tame. The protestors weren’t up to much more than giving the police a good frowning and lecturing their student supporters that they’d seen all this before with Somoza — the sleazy, corrupt bastard who the Sandinistas ousted in 1979.
An earthquake leveled Managua in 1972. Somoza pocketed the relief money, which lead to his eventual ouster by the Sandinistas, followed by the CIA and the Contras making themselves obvious for a decade. By the time the war was over in 1990, Nicaragua had razed itself. The locals — as locals will — rebuilt Managua with no concession to central planning which gives it the aesthetic of a parking garage. There are few street names and no addresses: directions are given from about 30 or 40 well-known landmarks.
In 2007, Daniel Ortega returned to power after “ruling from below” for 15 years (read: controlling the unions). Now el Commandante is a capitalist, and to hear him tell it, a Christian. Despite the razor thin tax base, most admit that Ortega has dumped a lot of money into rebuilding the city, which is helping. When I asked where the money was coming from, I repeatedly got the same priceless Latin shrug that says nothing and everything at once.
Still, there is a middle class, and it is growing. We had coffee Giselle Ramirez, a pretty young fundraiser for the local Corazón Abierto foundation at a hip, finca chic chain coffee shop called Las Flores. “This is my charity. For Nicaraguans who can give, our country is our charity. But there aren’t enough of us.” For her, Nicaragua is a labor of love. She too gives directions from landmarks that only exist in a sort of collective memory — like the Pepsi bottling plant gone a good ten years before she was born.
Our hotel looked like a DIY job in mid-swing. Regardless, it was a hit with the locals. Outside my door a bunch of middle-aged women and their daughters showed up dressed to the nines and dancing to mariachi music. If nothing else, it drowned out the jackhammer slamming away in the next wing. Dad brought earplugs, his secret to napping with 15 grandchildren in the house.
The food choices were good but limited. Restaurante China was a clean place with the good service and full of what appeared to several Chinese families watching Spanish dubbed Sy-Fy channel. We dropped regularly until we found the place occupied entirely by Chinese and Nicaraguan men at one huge table, beer bottles everywhere, and the television tuned to the Sandinista station. Which explained where the funding for all those building projects originated, if not the tiny sliver of the well-heeled Nicaraguans brazenly cheating on their taxes. China is pledging to dredge a canal through the Lake Nicaragua to run a trans-oceanic canal through it. The fledgling tourism industry is up in arms — which these days means impotently grumbling to yourself.
WITH NO TAHRIR SQUARE, OR A DOWNTOWN, it was easy to ignore the protests. Then the student supporters turned the demonstration into a free concert and drew hundreds more. At about 4 am, Saturday morning, as the youths were breaking down equipment and the ancianos were trying to get some sleep, the city garbage trucks arrived. Some 200 grown men wearing ski masks and Sandinista youth tee-shirts reading “Peace, Love, and National Unity” began to savagely beat the students and elderly with hammers, chains and clubs. They were really after the students, taking cellphones and wallets as the kids fled off into the pre-dawn darkness. Officially the government claimed the attack didn’t happen, and it wasn’t Sandinistas anyway. I suppose they hoped the ancianos would be terrified into silence, but you know how your grandparents are when they get into “Indignant Lecture” mode.
One student summed up the scene by tweeting: “The attack is a clear indication that we are really screwed, for those who weren’t clear about it before.”
WHAT, EXACTLY, DO YOU SAY TO YOUR FATHER after a bad scene like that? “Happy Father’s day, Pops…I promise never to wrap a bike chain around your throat if you get lippy.” It was unsettling. The student population was freaked out too. It would be a stretch to say that most of them were against the Sandinistas philosophically — about half of them wore tee shirts with the venerable Che looking out with that iconic How about a courtesy flush, Hombré gaze. No matter your political stripe, beating your grandfather eight ways to hell is off sides. Say what you want about Latin Americans, but that are very family oriented.
They're pretty religious as well. During the civil war, the Sandinistas had tried to install a state atheism, but it didn’t take. Unlike the American Catholic Church, which has spent the better part of two decades arguing that it is only about 20% as guilty as its detractors claim, the church still holds moral authority here. They are considered sanctuaries; make it inside the gate and you are safe — trapped sure, but safe. Monsignor Silvio Báez is popular figure and his sermons are seen on national television every Sunday. That Sunday, however, Monsignor Báez railed at the Ortegaistas as a “vulgar mob” indulging in “state terrorism.” Predictably, “technical difficulties” prevented the regular broadcast and the 1993 feel-good classic Free Willy was shown instead. But this is a digital age and video of the sermon went viral anyway. The blow-back was so fierce that el Comandante called for a massive “yeah us” rally on Monday.
BUS TRAVEL IN LATIN AMERICA is not for the faint of heart, or those who take their wristwatches seriously. They leave only when the bus is full — can of sardines full. Early Monday morning, in order to trek out the free hospital in Léon, we wedged in and took in Nicaragua’s one undeniable resource: Nicaragua. The place is gorgeous in a Garden of Eden sort of way: perfect until Adam and Eve got clever. Yet even pristine natural monuments have a sinister, political air. Masaya volcano was reportedly the place where Somoza, and later the Sandinistas, threw bodies of people they didn’t want found. Even in Eden, we couldn’t get way from the awful politics of this place.
When we arrived, there was a crowd outside the sort of place that the government likes to pretend doesn’t exist — and does a fairly good job of it. Almost as soon as we walked into the teaming lobby, the power went out and the place went dark. A teenage girl smiled sheepishly at us and said, in passible English: “Welcome to Nicaragua.”
The lights came back on in the grimy green hall. Nothing can prepare you for a free clinic in the third world. The only thing more disturbing is realizing that it no longer shocks you. It had been a year since I’d started following a marauding team of pediatric surgeons and first set foot in that Hospital in Guayaquil, Ecuador. A year since that wall of humid air, choked with spent diesel, filled my nostrils. A year since I’d seen parents washing their children’s bed sheets by hand in the bathroom and hanging them to dry in the courtyard. A year since I first laid eyes on the appalling sight on how the majority of the world’s population lives: The pawns of stronger men, desperate for help, standing in an endless series of lines so that a broke, crooked government can renege on social promises it can’t possibly afford. A year since I’d been smacked across the senses with all of that and heard myself uttering, involuntarily, “Jesus.”
It had been a long year. Call it cynicism or an agonizing acceptance of reality, I certainly don’t know. There it was again in the public hospital in León. I heard Dad hiss “Jesus.” And I knew that he’d seen it too.
In the lab, doctors read X-rays with a single overhead light. What medicine there was had been donated by big pharmaceutical companies in the US and Spain. The doctors work for little more than twice the minimum wage until about noon before heading to private practice to make ends meet. Without medicine and a choking backlog every day, I asked the doctors what, exactly, the free clinic provided. Dad, translating, winced when he heard the answer. “Diagnosis.” Nicaragua’s free health care consists largely of professionals guessing when you are going to die. I asked another doctor about the kids stuck in the endless bureaucratic delays. She gave me the Roman thumbs down. That didn’t need translating.
We took the bus back to Managua. And that is how we wound up in the midst of a congealing political rally for the sleazy hypocrites responsible for this nightmare. I wanted to see it turn into a riot, but I’d been grounded. At the hotel, we watched the big and uneventful rally on television as Dad translated the absurd state-run commentary. “This is a better view that if you were there in person. Why would you want to be in that crowd?”
I looked at him and he chuckled. He knew the answer.
IT HAS OCCURRED TO ME THAT THE DAMN ALLIGATOR HEAD has had more impact on my life than it deserves. Childhood symbols are like that. Dad would go on business trips to the farm in Florida, or a hotel in London, or someplace like Bahrain that I’d have to go look up. To a weird boy with wanderlust, the stories — never fully explained because I was just a kid — seemed dashing and adventurous. I never really knew what Dad did, but at some point in his line of work he did battle with some prehistoric beast — and won.
It wouldn’t take a psychoanalyst to see that I was chasing surgeons around hell’s-half acre in search of my own Alligator Story. The sort of story your children repeat with bewildered awe. One that comes from a life’s work because that defines us more than the vacations we take. These ancianos had fought a war to get rid of one sleazy dictator, and were in the cross hairs of another. The job still wasn’t finished. A young Managua businessman and father, aware of an easier life for his family in Miami, told me, “Make your place work. Burn your boats. You’ve got no choice.”
Dad and I never played catch. Our common hobby was hunting — a sport the ancestors would have considered a job. I may have fantasized about the travel, but he didn’t do it for fun. To my generation — caught as we are in the balancing act of the modern man — that seems single minded. Perhaps it is, but we’d do well to remember something about fathers everywhere: That single mindedness was for us.
[Update: With Nicaraguan election scheduled for November, Comandante Ortega has jailed most of the opposition leaders. He plans to hold onto power.]