Nicaragua, Forlorn

The following is a truncated version of an article published in the Spring issue of World Policy Journal by Forrest D. Colburn, author of "My Car in Managua."

MANAGUA—There are few visible signs that Nicaragua had a traumatic Revolution 30 years ago. The ever-present soldiers with their AK-47s are gone, along with their jeeps and trucks. Gone, too, are the billboards, posters, murals, and graffiti with the revolutionary exhortations of the Sandinistas. The newspaper Barricada (Barricade) has vanished and so have the plethora of magazines, pamphlets, and books devoted to political and economic change. More noticeable, Nicaraguans are relaxed, at ease. There is no “mobilization,” little talk of politics, and no expectation of imminent change. There is no sense, either, of danger.

The surprise is that otherwise, so little is different. Nicaragua has not undergone a metamorphosis. Except for being stripped of the material and emotional trappings of the Revolution, Nicaragua looks remarkably unchanged from the 1980s. While there are more people—the population has nearly doubled—Nicaraguans, too, say “nothing changes” in the country. “We are stuck in history,” sighs Verónica Solís, a well-educated professional. “Reading the newspapers here makes it seem like so much is happening, but it is an illusion— the country does not change.”

Solís’s conclusion is harsh yet persuasive. For all of us, Nicaraguans and foreigners alike, who had hoped the Revolution would usher in progress, the ensuing decades have been disappointing. Nicaragua is a poignant case—perhaps just one of many—that there are stark limits to what politics, radical politics in particular, can accomplish in the poorer countries of the world. It is a lesson that extends to the international community. There is nothing the U.S. secretary of state can do (other than engage in diplomatic niceties) to “help” Nicaragua. The country must find its own way despite the constraints, including those deeply embedded and poorly understood in Nicaragua itself.

Solís’s sober analysis echoes another Nicaraguan woman in the mid-1980s, who asked me, “How much can we Nicaraguans change if we are the same people?” At the time, she seemed cynical, but 30 years later, it’s clear that the staggering weight of history, custom, and culture has taken its toll. Indeed, in too many of the truly poor countries of the world, broad-based “development” is elusive.


Nevertheless, some Nicaraguans, including ranking Sandinistas, believed that deep structural reforms, from property ownership to class and gender relations, had been carried out. As the Sandinista cartoonist Róger Sánchez put it, “the seeds were planted” for a new, better, more prosperous society. Nicaragua would not only rebound but flourish.

By 2012, 32 years after the Revolution, Nicaragua is no longer in the news. It was a perfect moment to focus on the long-term consequences of this revolution and suggest lessons for other, similar upheavals—across North Africa and beyond.

Fitting the lingering paradigm of the “Third World,” which always had a whiff of socialism about it, the Nicaraguan revolutionaries were preoccupied with class inequity and determined to level the differences. Today, however, Nicaragua is still divided by class and an urban-rural divide. Most well-heeled families have retained their wealth, though they’ve often had to scramble to hold onto it. It does appear that members of the middle- and upper-classes have more respect—or at least more sensitivity—for the poor majority than they did in the past. Or maybe, as one longtime expatriate, a Harvard-educated business and public administration professor, John Ickis, says, “Members of the upper-class are just wary of the poor.”

The poor majority, for its part, seems to have a sense of resignation about the presence of those more fortunate, who they called burgués (from bourgeois) in the 1980s. Members of the upper-class maintain a lower profile than in the past, but this change in behavior is more directly traced to the region-wide rise in crime and kidnappings than to any lesson in social conscience inherited from the Revolution. Avoiding ostentation is seen as prudent, not socially desirable. There has been progress in easing gender inequality, traceable as much to Spanish soap operas (with their depictions of “modern” social behavior) as to any revolutionary consciousness. Still, Nicaraguan society remains quite traditional with both men and women practicing modesty.

Full article available at

Forrest D. Colburn is a professor at City University of New York and a visiting professor at Incae. He previously taught at Princeton University. A collection of his magazine articles on the Revolution was published as a memoir with illustrations by Nicaraguan cartoonist Róger Sánchez. The book, My Car in Managua, is in its eighth paperback printing.


  • Nick

    I’m pretty sure I owned that same Fiat he wrote about way back when. Same problems with lights and wipers, etc.

  • Martin

    For me, the most shocking thing I learned about this country is the ugly racist-like superiority felt and practiced by the 1% who rule the Nicaraguan economy and society. One of them confided in me that in Nicaragua “there are somebodys (us) and nobodys (them).” The implications are obvious: employees and workers are treated worse than dirt, upward mobility is non-existent, and the justice system works only for those with money. Has anyone who reads the Dispatch, for example, ever seen a wealthy Nicaraguan stand in line … anywhere? Samosistas are alive and well!

  • geot2

    What? No mention of Somoza?

    Third world does indeed conjure socialism. But only indirectly, only as the accompaniment of colonialism.

    Nicaragua has for sure relented. Their spirit rests. Neither has died. (More) time will tell. And tell again.