Sunday, October 26, 2014

Nicaragua versus Honduras: One survived violent past, other still living in it

On the malecon in Managua
    There's nothing quite like the smell of tropical air. We got off the plane in Managua, Nicaragua last night and there it was, that delicious aroma of heat and humidity that I have come to associate with our new life in Central America.
      My partner and I are back here for our second round of Cuso International placements, having completed two-plus years in Honduras in April and eager to do it all over again in Nicaragua. On the rainy ride to our hotel last night, Managua looked much like Honduras's two big cities where we passed a lot of time during our time living and working in that country. But within minutes of starting into our city tour this morning in Managua, I was already seeing a lot of differences.
       Hugo Chavez, for instance. There's a huge monument to the late Venezuelan president on the boulevard heading into the centre of Managua, a reminder that we are in a country with strong socialist roots and a long history of bloody revolutions and uprisings. On a hilltop high above the city sits a memorial to the many campesinos who died trying to wrest Nicaragua from the control of the powerful Somoza family and their very good friends in the U.S. government. Honduras, on the other hand, is not a country prone to revolution or to much left-leaning political activity.
      The colorful malecon - waterfront walkway - that runs along huge Lake Managua is also very different from anything we saw in  the big cities (or the small ones, for that matter) in Honduras, where the concept of beautiful and accessible urban public space remains elusive. It will take time to gauge just how much support the Nicaraguan government provides for public amenities like the malecon, but it already appears to be a darn sight more than the Honduran government cares to pony up for.
Viva la revolucion. A painting of  Augusto Cesar Sandino,
the father of the Sandinista movement
     And then there are the children's playgrounds, which are for the most part large, well-maintained, and perhaps most importantly, not sealed off behind locked gates. Nor are there armed guards in anywhere near the quantity of our former homeland, or dramatic and depressing vistas in every direction of barbed wire, electric fencing and cement walls topped with broken glass that were so common in big Honduran cities like Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.
      Honduras has the highest murder rate in the world, which came in at around 85 per 100,000 people in each of the two years we were there. Nicaragua's murder rate is 11 per 100,000. That is one heck of a difference for two small countries that share a border, a language and so many cultural attributes.
       I don't know how Nicaragua and Honduras ended up with such differences in their cultures around violence and crime, but even just the act of fearlessly pulling my camera out in one of the big public squares we visited today - and carrying it around boldly! In my hand! - was something I never felt safe to do when we were in Honduran cities.
    This is not to suggest that everything is rosy here. Today we passed a scratchy little collection of "houses" made out of cardboard, corrugated tin and duct tape that was poorer than anything I saw in Honduras. In the 2014 United Nations ranking of countries based on human development, Nicaragua ranks 132nd out of 187 countries, behind Honduras. It will take time to grasp what the big problems are here, but I have little doubt that they will be significant.
     For now, I'll just take Nicaragua at face value: Pleasant, warm, and friendly, with way less guns or horrific news stories detailing a constant stream of assassinations and vendetta killings. I know a lot of hondurenos who are dreaming of the day when all that can be said about their country, too. 

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