December is a month laden with meaning for most Nicaraguans. It is not just that this is the month of the birth of Jesus in an overwhelmingly Christian country. Nor is it only that this is the last month of the year with hopeful promises of new beginnings in 2016. This December in Nicaragua is also about promises that are now becoming realities for increasing sections of a population suffering from 500 years of hunger and oppression. December is not only a month giving an opportunity to reflect upon the values of solidarity and love—it is also a month full of concrete, decisive, collective experiences for the Nicaraguan people.
In December, Catholicism pervades the air in this country with its syncretic rituals to Mother Mary rooted in a past when Christian churches were built on top of ancient Aztec temples and the Mother of Jesus was secretly associated with Tonantzin (in other places known as Mother Earth, Pachamama, Gaia, etc), and in the 1560's the inhabitants of the Nahua village of Tezoatega (today known as El Viejo) firmly opposed the Spaniards' plans to ship back to the old country an image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception that had arrived with a stranded caravel. The image of Virgin Mary stayed in El Viejo and became the Patroness of Nicaragua.
December is also a month of bitter awakenings for the Nicaraguan people, such as the night of Dec. 23, 1972, when an earthquake of 6.2 degrees on the Richter scale destroyed the capital, Managua, killing tens of thousands and injuring hundreds of thousands in a matter of seconds. The curfew order issued by Somoza's National Guard, with the alleged goal of preventing looting, instead was used by the Dictator's feared repressive forces to plunder abandoned homes while the citizens who paid their salaries lay on the ground or were screaming in the dark, calling for lost relatives or simply asking for help.
“It was like ordering the cat to watch over the milk,” recalls academic researcher Miguel Ayerdi, who claims the National Guard and the Somoza regime “were profiting from the situation.”
“The people were desperate, they didn't have food or anything else, so they attempted to break into some stores in order to loot, but the Guard started to shoot at many of them and killed a lot of desperate people,” he adds.
The tragedy of the earthquake lead to a realization, on a massive scale, that the Somoza family's oppressive and corrupt ruling system was a direct threat to the lives of all Nicaraguans, and that only frontal combat against it would allow them to survive: “¡Solo el pueblo Salva al Pueblo!” (Only the People save the People!) became one of the main slogans chanted in all the popular neighborhoods some years later, as the Nicaraguan people revolted against the Somoza dynasty and crushed its rule.
“In practice, the earthquake deepened the regime's political crisis. Back then Nicaragua had huge rates of poverty and exclusion, and the quake came to worsen problems like access to work, housing, dignified education, health... poverty became more acute,” recalls Ayerdi.
Two years after the devastating earthquake, December 1974 brought Nicaraguans hope and proof that victory against the bloodthirsty, empire-backed ruling dynasty was indeed possible: the night of Dec. 27, a squad of Sandinista guerrillas—named after the revolutionary hero Juan Jose Quezada—seized a party held at the house of Somoza minister José María Castillo in honor of the US Ambassador. Taking renowned hostages, among them members of the diplomatic corps and many prominent officials of the regime, the dictator himself barely escaped. The operation resulted in the liberation of many Sandinistas from jail, among them Commander Daniel Ortega Saavedra. It was not only an astounding victory over the dictatorship, it was also a sign that the Sandinista Front had ended its long period of silent, painstaking accumulation of forces, and the movement proved it was now ready to begin the final assault against tyranny: five years later on July 1979 the dictatorship had fallen and Latin America achieved a new revolution.
On Dec. 11, 1978, Asturian priest and poet Gaspar García Laviana was killed in combat against the forces of the Somoza dictatorship in the Rivas Department in southern Nicaragua. Father Gaspar, also known by his nom de guerre, Comandante Martin, became a symbol of internationalist solidarity and love for the Nicaraguan people. A sociologist and a priest, Laviana arrived in Nicaragua in 1969 from Spain to work as a missionary in the municipality of Tola in Rivas, now famous for its international surfing events. There, he worked with poor peasants and witnessed all the terror and the repression unleashed by the regime against those who dared to reclaim their rights, in this case the rights of rural worker families to the land.
Luis Lovato Blanco, secretary general of the National Autonomous University in Managua, himself an internationalist and engaged in the movement to preserve the memory and legacy of Laviana, tells us that the Asturian father “took a radical stance, especially after realizing what Somoza's military dictatorship really was like, in particular the corruption of the high officers of the National Guard,” from prostitution and crime to the peddling of influence. These “corrupt, repressive attitudes within the Guard led him to make contact with some Sandinista cadres, esspecially with Camilo Ortega” (the brother of President Daniel Ortega, murdered by Somoza's National Guard). Lovato Blanco says that it was on Christmas of 1977, a year before his death, that Padre Gaspar decided to join the guerrillas in order to take up arms against the dictatorship.
A former comrade-in-arms of García Laviana, guerrilla commander Javier Pichardo relates his memories of the Asturian priest. Pichado explains that back then, for the critically oriented people of his generation, to engage in armed struggle against the dictatorship became an imperative, “... because it was a shameful thing – it wasn't fair to allow such a bloodthirsty dictatorship to remain in power”. According to Pichardo, just like himself and all his comrades, Padre Gaspar García “had his parish in Tola and experienced at first hand the levels of injustice that existed around him and came to the conclusion that he had no other choice but to join the Sandinista Front in order to help fix those problems”.
“Gaspar was a very noble person and died because of his noble nature,” explains Pichardo. According to the guerrilla commander, Laviana was killed by the treachery of a person who knew the location of his guerrilla forces. Padre Gaspar, against the opinion of his comrades, allowed the would-be informer to leave the hamlet they were residing in in order to protect it. The man went straight into the National Guard and told the soldiers where the guerrillas were. Gaspar García was killed in an ambush later that day.
In today's Nicaragua it is no longer necessary to sacrifice whole generations in order to bring the prospects of a dignified living standard closer to the vast majority: Nicaraguan youth today bear quite distant memories of the past. In some cases – and this is a matter of concern – those memories hardly exist. Today, millions of toys are distributed to children of low income families in Nicaragua, and hundreds of thousands of students completing their baccalaureate receive solidarity bonuses from the government so they can celebrate at the end of the school year. In the days of Padre Gaspar, December meant death and combat. Today, the government announces plans to further develop the already impressive---by historical standards---recreational infrastructure of the country, building or rebuilding 134 parks in all the country's municipalities.
On Dec. 22, 2015, 43 years after the devastating earthquake that destroyed Managua, millions of Nicaraguans of all ages have participated in the last civil defense “multi-threat exercise” of the year, which is devised to train the population to cope with multiple catastrophes, from earthquakes and fires to tsunamis and hurricanes – a vital necessity for a country so exposed to natural disasters as Nicaragua. Where yesterday's repressive and corrupt regimes brought despair and death to those they were supposed to protect, today's Sandinista government brings people justice and hope, solidarity and security. December 2015 offers a chance for everyone in Nicaragua to value these accomplishments even more.