Barrio la Quebrada

1986. The last proxy conflict of the Cold War is taking place in Nicaragua, a small, poor country in the cord of land that ties together North and South America.

Many left-leaning people across the world saw the 1979 ‘Sandinista’ revolution—so called in memory of Augusto César Sandino, who had led a rebellion against United States occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s—as a beacon of hope for small, poor countries everywhere.

People of other persuasions deplored it as a communist dictatorship in the making.

The US government was now funding a counter-revolutionary insurgency against the elected, Sandinista government from military camps across the northern border in Honduras

My wife and I, newlyweds at the time, lived in Barrio la Quebrada, a working class neighbourhood in the small town of Boaco, from January 1986 until September 1988 (when we moved to the capital, Managua, staying there for a further eighteen months.) Kate was employed by the UK-based Catholic Institute for International Relations, on a starting salary of $30 per month, to work with the water and sewage ministry on a rural drinking water project sponsored by Oxfam, CAFOD and Christian Aid. I spent a year learning Spanish, building a balcony and writing an execrable novel. Then I went to work in Managua, initially as a ‘Class B’ translator in the Department of Agitation and Propaganda of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, earning approximately $19 per month. (That year, in which I threw my small weight behind the Sandinista cause, the US Congress voted an extra $100 million for the ‘contra’ insurgency, and more was on the way illegally through an ‘Iran-Contragate’ deal.)

I later joined a regional, Spanish language (and Jesuit-run) news magazine, Pensamiento Propio, as a staff writer, and also contributed to international publications. My coverage of the 1990 general elections for Gemini News Service and The Scotsman was relatively unusual in showing sympathetic understanding of the Sandinista case and predicament yet also recognising that the National Opposition Union might win—as indeed they did; closing, in my view, rather than opening, a small window of idealistic hope.

It was Barrio la Quebrada that had shown me how small the window was. It was not quite the place that I had wanted to find, not quite the story I had wanted to tell. But it was the real thing.

The following account was written in 1990, shortly after we left the country. A Postscript describes a return trip to the barrio in 2007.

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