Whew! What an experience!
Back in June I went to the town of Niquinohomo, which is about 45 minutes by highway south of Managua, to visit a friend. While there, he told me about a thing I had never heard of, called the Repliegue Tactico(tactical retreat), which is celebrated and re-enacted every year in Nicaragua, this year’s event being yesterday, July 7th. It was a big deal. So I decided to see it for myself.
The historical event took place on or around June 29th, 1979, according to Wikipedia. The Sandinista revolutionary army was in a couple of barrios on the outskirts of Managua, with the opposing army of the dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, approaching in overwhelming numbers. The tactical situation was not strong, and Somoza’s army had a tendency to massacre civilian populations sympathetic to the Sandinistas, so the revolutionaries decided to move about 8000 combatants and civilians out of Managua and south to the city of Masaya. According to one person who described it to me, they emptied out an entire neighbourhood in the process. This saved the entire group of 8000, and in Masaya, many of the civilians who were moved themselves joined the revolution.
This, apparently, was a major turning point. The revolution succeeded just three weeks later, with the Sandinista army taking Managua on July 19th. And every year since then, people have walked or ridden the 26 kilometres from Managua to Masaya to celebrate the tactical retreat by recreating it (though they don’t empty out entire neighbourhoods these days), with big celebrations at the start and at the end. I attended the one in Managua.
This really is a big political event, the main feature of which is a speech by Daniel Ortega, Leader of the Frente Sandinista and currently Nicaragua’s President. This was announced as the 33rd repliegue tactico (and the 32nd re-enactment), as was evident from the big “33” on many of the t-shirts.
Ortega’s speech was a lot of the usual bumpf, but what I noticed was that he regularly evoked the names of people who died young, with whom he fought, and I had the sense that while it was all clearly material he had used many times over the years, still it was also something that affected many in the crowd very deeply. And it looked like Ortega himself was feeling it. Maybe he was.
But of course, it was also a big party, with I-don’t-know-how-many thousands of people in attendance. Lots and lots, anyway.
Normally, I don’t mind big crowds. I like to mingle, talk to people if they seem friendly, and just generally get the feel of things, though I will admit that the pressure of being in a really big crowd can sometimes get to me. In Montreal, the Jazz Festival attracts crowds so tight you can barely move, but everything is orderly and calm, and everyone is enjoying the music, so it’s good. The same is true of the many protests and political rallies I have attended. Generally everyone has the same goal and everyone in the group is mindful of the others.
This was also true of the Sandinista rally, but with a sharp edge. People were celebrating the revolution, and the overthrow of the dictator, remembering the events of 33 years ago (many of those I spoke to fought in the war). Later on, many would walk to Masaya to re-enact the actual event, and that, they say, is where the real party happened. I doubt that the political leaders also walked, but I might be wrong. Apparently they do walk at least part of the way … but 26 kilometres? I’d want evidence.
That said, Daniel looks like he’s in pretty good shape.
There was a lot of singing and dancing, with some added fist-pumping and slogan-shouting for good measure. However, as things progressed, things got very, very close. Not being perfectly fluent in Spanish didn’t help me, but for the most part I felt fairly comfortable.
I was told the event would start at 2, so I went at just after 1 PM to be sure to find a good spot. Once there, the fellow who sold me a bottle of water told me it would be at 4. I confirmed by asking a police officer, who said 3. I went and got some lunch (which I had skipped) and got back by 2:30. I asked a couple of others, who said that the music would start at 3 but that Daniel would not arrive until 4 (he arrived at just after 5).
At first, the crowd consisted mainly of people hawking food or other things for sale – pretty normal, really, for an event like this, at least in Nicaragua. There were stands where women sold roasted corn, and people walking around anywhere you could look, trying to sell everything from cigarettes to sunglasses to little plastic alligators. One guy had some great posters, one of which I wanted, but I couldn’t figure out how I would carry it around and also take photos etc., so I resolved to look for it in a shop or on the street some other time.
Everybody was in a good mood, and friendly. Even the cops responded in a friendly way when I spoke to them, and a couple let me take their picture while standing in a line near the stage. A lot of people, seeing the camera, assumed I was with a newspaper and asked which one. I told them I was an independent photographer from Canada but that many of the shots would be published on the web. A few asked me for the address of this blog, which I gave them, of course.
There were also lots of painted faces and other body parts, and a guy making some cash spray-painting stencils on people. I was hoping the stuff in that spray can was not just regular paint, and I’m sure it wasn’t.
After a while, the crowd started to fill in and I stopped wandering around, instead staking out a spot near the front so that I could
shoot photograph the dignitaries when they arrived. The crowd filled in more, got a bit rowdy at times. A couple of fights broke out quite close to me – I had to get out of the way – between a group of Veterans of the Revolution and some FSLN Youth members, apparently over a minor offense by the latter towards the former that got out of hand. The police intervened, and I saw a couple of cops take some pretty good jabs to the face themselves before breaking up the fight. Still, they didn’t arrest anybody, and this morning the papers said that the only person they could have arrested was a minor, so they thought better of it. One person had his nose broken in the brawl.
Mainly, though, everything remained festive.
There were pickpockets, as I discovered: my wallet got lifted. Fortunately, I was ready for that, so it was only somewhat troubling. The wallet was a decoy I always have with me in Nicaragua. My money and cards were all elsewhere, except for US$5, a 10 cordoba bill (roughly 40 cents), and for some reason, my blood donor card (don’t ask why I thought that was a good idea). So now the thieves have $5.50 and knows my blood type is A-.
Just for the record (see my earlier blog entry if this seems mysterious), I didn’t notice any boy scouts or fairy godmothers in the area. But they were quick, and I might have been blinded by pixie dust.
People in Nicaragua drink water, juice and soft drinks from bags. They sell the water in little sealed bags, the corner of which you tear open to drink. I don’t buy these, because they don’t contain purified water, but I have to say they’re a good idea, and they’re cheap. Anyway, people were using these bags to spray each other with water, which was fun and also helped cool us off, as the air got more and more sticky over the course of the afternoon. They also sprayed beer, but not as much. Beer is more expensive. And yes, there were a lot of drunks.
Teenagers were making human pyramids or tossing each other in the air. Generally, it was fun.
I made one social gaffe, when someone had to remind me to take off my cap during the national anthem (oops!). Then, about half-way through Daniel Ortega’s speech, and with the help of a friendly Nicaraguan father who was leaving with his son, I beat a path out of there. It was a good thing, anyway… a group of young guys was staring at me a little too much, staring at me (and my backpack) a little too hard, and a couple of other nicas were taking care to make sure I knew that this was probably a gang of thieves. I thought it would be best to lose them, and anyway, I was emotionally and physically exhausted.
But I’m really glad I went. It was worth even the stolen wallet. And next time I do something like this, I will know to take special precautions, and if possible, not go alone.
Whew!A few more photos: