The rusted gears of the century-old metal door turn slowly behind us with a ghastly noise and shuts with a thump. We are packed into a tiny, windowless room enveloped in complete blackness.
As we found out, these were the conditions of prisoners held at El Coyotepe outside of Masaya, Nicaragua. Formerly an active fortress, today it serves as a decidedly creepy museum. During the Sandinista revolution, the ruling Somoza regime used it as a prison and held defectors there, sometimes 800 at a time, in brutal conditions. I think to myself, thousands died within these walls.
Our guide takes us through tiny cells, narrow hallways, and torture rooms adorned with shackles and bullet holes. Eerie quietness is disrupted only by intermittent hair-raising noises that make us jump. All the while the darkness follows us.
This place could be featured on Ghosthunters.
Turns out, in fact, it already was. El Coyotepe was featured in a 2010 episode of the SyFy Channel series. You can check out a clip here. It does way more justice to the place than any of my pictures.
Whether the folks at SyFy made contact with the Sandinista ghosts at Coyotepe is beyond me. What I can say for sure is that there are some non-paranormal Sandinistas who still live today and can tell the stories that their fallen comrades cannot. Later in my trip, I was lucky enough to meet one.
Fast forward a few days and I’m in León, the birthplace of the Sandinista regime.
Before learning more about the vicious conflict that took place during the revolution, I enjoyed a walk around the beautiful city center.
I make my way to the Museo de la Revolución. There I would promptly meet my guide, Carlos, a Sandinista who avoided the fate that befell on so many in El Coyotepe and elsewhere in Nicaragua. A boy of 22 at the time, he took up arms with his countrymen and went to battle against a regime that had run rampant with corruption and oppression. Now every day he shares his story with curious travelers like yours truly.
The museum itself is very modest. Housed in a former Sandinista safehouse, there are no lavish depictions nor grand displays, just images of the revolution and other mementos. The real treasures are the men themselves, all of whom served as revolutionaries in some capacity. Living, breathing relics of bygone era. While leading me through, Carlos stops at various posters that sit on the floor leaning against the wall, holding them up for us to see and explaining what we’re looking at.
He describes, often in vivid and brutal detail, the conflict that shaped his country. History time!
The roots of the revolution can be traced back to 1963, when The Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) was established by unifying the guerrilla groups that were seeking to overthrow the US-backed Somoza dictatorship. The revolution was named for August C. Sandino, who from 1927 to 1934 led a peasant army in opposition to US military occupation of Nicaragua before his capture and execution.
Sandino’s efforts and anti-US, anti-Somoza sentiment served as a foundation for the Sandinista Revolution. In the 1960’s the message began to garner more support as the Somoza regime escalated their concentration of power and nepotism. León was the epicenter of the movement, as Carlos proudly declares many times during our time together.
“León, my city, my home, the birthplace of the revolution”
The Sandinistas lurked in the shadows, recruiting others through covert messaging, carrying out guerrilla operations and doing what they could to cripple the Somoza regime. Despite some victories, due to a sheer deficit in troop numbers, President Anastasio Somoza’s army maintained complete control into the early 1970’s.
Carlos speaks quickly and with a fervent passion. Like a freight train he moves from story to story, detailing his time serving in a Sandinista barracks, dodging open fire in the streets of León, living through large scale suffering and death the likes of which I hope to never witness. All the while he sings the condemnation of “imperialist United States”, in bed with the corrupt Somoza regime. Indeed, the US had occupied Nicaragua for decades leading up to the revolution, supporting and training troops in Somoza’s army.
Carlos effectively articulates the odds of which him and his comrades were pitted against. The controlling government and the worlds largest superpower united against a ragtag group of vagabonds. On paper they didn’t stand a chance. But a series of events would open up new opportunities for the revolution in the 1970’s.
In 1972 the revolution had scaled back its combat operations in favor of recruitment and marshaling their strength. In November of that year, a devastating earthquake wrought destruction on Managua, Nicaragua’s capitol city. Businesses, schools, and hospitals were destroyed. Thousands died and hundreds of thousands were left homeless. Food stockpiles were quickly depleted.
Foreign aid poured in from all parts of the world. Sadly, to the detriment of millions, President Somoza diverted much of the funds to his own pocket. Under the guise of rebuilding the city for the people, Somoza awarded reconstruction contracts to his own companies and those of his family and inner circle. These blatantly corrupt actions served to drive people to the Sandinista side. Their numbers continued to grow.
Carlos explains how, in the mid-1970’s, the revolution ramped up its attacks, often succeeding in capturing high ranking officials and holding them for ransom. Accordingly the Somoza regime upped its efforts to suppress the movement. The President carried out intimidation, censorship, torture and extra-judicial killings like the ones seen in El Coyotepe. Again, Somoza’s brutal and oppressive actions proved counterproductive. Fighting with renewed vigor and numbers, the FSLN began beating back Somoza forces, using guerrilla tactics to gain strategic positions, picking off Somoza strongholds and supply lines, liberating cities and pueblos across the country while rallying more and more fighters to their cause.
In 1978, under president Jimmy Carter, the US cut off foreign aid to Somoza, citing human rights violations. With the well drying up, the Somoza regime began to suffer heavy losses. By June of the next year, Managua was Somoza’s last stronghold before it, too, fell in July after a monthlong siege. On July 17th the FSLN entered the city and the revolutionaries took control of the government.
Carlos shows me a picture of people celebrating in Plaza de la Republica, in the old center of Managua.
“That was the day we took our country back”
That day the mutineers became the rulers. They faced an enormous task: uniting a broken and beaten country of 2.8 million people, over 600,000 of whom were homeless, displaced, or in exile.
To restore the Nicaraguan economy the Sandinistas began carrying out a sweeping socialist agenda. Some key large scale programs of the Sandinistas included expansion of health care access, education, childcare, unions, and land redistribution, which repurposed massive amounts of private (often Somoza-held) land to farming and other trades.
Perhaps the most impressive and noteworthy of the Sandinista reforms was the literacy campaign that began almost immediately after Somoza’s defeat. The new government mobilized vast amounts of secondary school students, university students, teachers, basically anyone who knew how to read, and paid them to teach others how to read. The sheer scale of this campaign blows my mind; within five months the illiteracy rate fell from a staggering 50.3% to 12.9%.
Sadly, the full effect of the new Sandinista reforms never had a chance to truly manifest. In 1981, an anti-Sandinista movement, the Contrarrevolución (Counter-revolution) or just “Contras”, had gathered in northern Nicaragua. Many Contras were former Somoza fighters, still loyal to Somoza who had been exiled to Honduras.
While the Carter Administration had not been friendly to Somoza, the Reagan Administration took a different course and authorized covert support to the Contras. Armed conflict followed. In 1982 the Contras succeeded in assassinating a number of Sandinista government officials, creating discord and power vacuums. In 1983 the Reagan administration began an operation that would become known as the Iran-Contra affair. The whole thing is too complicated and controversial to discuss here, but it essentially involved the US selling arms to Iran via Israel, then allegedly funneling the profits to the Contras, an illegal action under the Boland Amendment.
Complete clarity on what happened was never fully reached. Investigations were held but ultimately all accused were acquitted…under President George H.W. Bush, who was Vice President under Reagan. Do your own research and draw your own conclusions.
By the 1984 election the Sandinista movement was weakened but their candidate, Daniel Ortega, still came out on top. Though a revolutionary hero, Ortega is more moderate than many of his counterparts. He served until 1990 and reentered the fray in 2007, winning the office of the president once again where he still sits today. Under his reign Nicaragua has moved away from Sandinista ideals to a more capitalistic society. I detailed the current state of Nicaraguan politics and government in a recent post, which now ties in nicely as a follow up to this post.
The tour ends and I make sure to shake Carlos’s hand and give him a good tip. I mention Bernie Sanders but he doesn’t know who he is.
This post turned into a long winded history lesson, the kind I got that day at the Museo de la Revolucion. If you’re still reading, thank you, I commend you, and I hope I was able to teach you something! I’ll end with the words of Carlos and some images of Nicaraguans protesting in the city center of León.
“The revolution never ended, it lives on today, it is only sleeping”
Like an omniscient ghost, the Sandinista specter endures.