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In A Land Of Lakes And Volcanoes, Explaining A Complicated Peace

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One thing that is clear as you as you descend on Managua is that Nicaragua is an astonishingly beautiful country. 

The fault lines that run below it have over thousands of years and in violent fits, created a severe landscape dotted with gargling volcanoes, jagged mountain ranges and majestic lakes. 

It’s almost too easy a metaphor, but for more than one hundred years, its political landscape has been just as tumultuous. There’s been several invasions by the United States, a revolution, a counter-insurgency, the birth of a new democracy and more recently the controversial return of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega to power. 

But I’m in Nicaragua because over the past few decades the country has managed to remain peaceful. While its neighbors, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been besieged by violent crime, Nicaragua hasn’t followed suit. While Honduras has become the murder capital of the world with a homicide rate of 90.4 per 100,000 people in 2012, Nicaragua’s has hovered at a rate of about 11 for the past decade. 

The difference is palpable. The streets of other Central American capitals — San Salvador, for example — empty as the sun sets. In Managua, in the dark of night, I took a walk along the shore of Lago Xolotlán in the old center of town. There are bars and restaurants that lead to a boulevard called “Avenida Bolívar.” Not without controversy, the current government has installed dozens of metal, light-up trees on every rotunda of the capital city. Avenida Bolívar is like the grand finale of a fireworks show. It’s lined with dozens of the metallic trees, lit up,  rising five stories into the sky; Nicaraguans joke that it’s Christmas everyday in Managua. 

But the Trees of Life, as the first lady has termed them, are also surrounded by the ruins of a city that was never rebuilt when an earthquake devastated Managua in 1972. So the tribute to Hugo Chávez that caps the boulevard of trees looks upon the shell of a colonial cathedral and the blackened walls of an old condemned theater. 

I’m in Managua to find out why Nicaragua — which is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere — has remained so peaceful, despite its neighbors, geopolitics and its poverty. It’s complicated and contradictory and it has to do with its history, its police force and its politics. 

Some of it is less concrete. As the sun rose on Sunday, Managua poured out onto the streets for a procession of its patron saint. 

Every August 1 without fail, a little tiny statue of St. Domingo is taken from the hills surrounding Managua and brought to the city center. The city erupts in celebration. Streets are closed and alcohol is served. Then after days of revelry on Aug. 10, the little statue is taken back to his church. It’s a procession that cuts through the whole city in the stifling heat. 

I caught the tail-end of it near the Tiscapa Lagoon, another ancient, volcanic leftover in the middle of the city. The streets were filled with the sounds of music — marimbas, bouncing off snares, dancing with saxophones and trumpets. 

It felt that at every spot, I was beckoned by a lady wearing an apron: "Mi amor, ¿una cerveza helada?" My love, how about a cold beer. Without fail, they always offered a smile. 

It reminded me of a conversation I had with Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa in Washington. He was the foreign minister during the presidency of Arnoldo Aleman in the late ’90s.

Nicaraguans, he said, are a generally a happy people. One thing that could explain its current peace, he said, is that the revolt of the past 100 years has made them wary of suffering. 

In the 80s, he said, 50,000 Nicaraguans were killed during the revolution, and about the same were killed during the Contra war. 

"I think that we were spent as a nation by the bloodletting of the 1980s," Aguirre-Sacassa said.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll use this spot as a notebook of sorts to explore that central question in my reporting. I’ll also try to bring you the sights and sounds of a country we hear little about. 

Notes

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