NicaNotes: How Safe Is Nicaragua? A Comparative Reflection

By James Phillips

(James Phillips is a cultural and political anthropologist who has been a student of life in Nicaragua and Honduras for four decades. His most recent book on Honduras is Extracting Honduras: Resource Exploitation, Displacement, and Forced Migration.)

Nicaraguan children march before a baseball tournament in Matagalpa. Having a government that promotes communitarian trust and supports meeting the needs of everyone seems to be a crucial factor in whether people feel “safe.”

On the night before I was married in 1985, during the wedding rehearsal dinner, my “best man,” Gary MacEoin, knew that my wife and I were heading to Nicaragua a week later, where the country was in the middle of the Contra War. My wife’s parents were concerned for our safety. Gary proposed a toast, “To the second safest city in the hemisphere…Managua!” My wife’s uncle Nick, a diehard Reagan supporter, asked, “What’s the safest city?’ Gary replied: “Havana, of course.” Nick said, “He’s probably right.” (Gary was the author of more than twenty books about Latin America).

In the 1980s and again during the past fifteen years, I have often had occasion to travel from Honduras to Nicaragua overland, crossing the border at Las Manos, then down the road from Dipilto to Ocotal to Estelí. By the time I get to Ocotal, I can begin to see and feel the difference, and by the time I reach Estelí, it is palpable—the sigh of relief. Others, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, foreign visitors have told me they could feel the difference. It is subtle, this feeling of safety, and it can be missed by those who have not had the experience of living in other Central American countries besides Nicaragua. Admittedly, a subjective and fleeting feeling, but there is a more objective reality behind it.

During the past fifteen years, while the murder rate in Honduras has at times reached 80 per hundred thousand and then stayed around 40, Nicaragua’s murder rate hovered around 7 per hundred thousand. But these are numbers. Beyond the statistics is the experience…. What does it mean to feel safe? What does a safe country mean?

The 1980s

Nicaragua has held a sense of comparative safety for me over many years. In the 1980s, I lived in northern Nicaragua as a long-term volunteer with Witness for Peace. This was during the Contra War, and my WFP work took me at times into Honduras. There, General Gustavo Alvarez, with the acquiescence of a weak civilian government, had declared a state of national security. The excuse was to protect the country against invasion from Nicaragua. The excuse was a lie, but the national security state made Hondurans anything but secure and safe. At military checkpoints on all the major roads, people were pulled off busses and trucks, men were frisked and some were detained. Military units entered restaurants, movie theaters, pool halls. and dragged out young men to be forced into the military, sent to prison, or disappeared. Military Battalion 316, known to everyone as a death squad, systematically killed or “disappeared” hundreds. There were torture houses used by the police and the military. Human rights leaders and journalists whom my wife and I interviewed were under constant death threat.

In southern Honduras, along the Nicaraguan border, Catholic aid workers told me that nearly ten thousand Hondurans were displaced by the Contra camps that were set up to wage war across the border. My only sense of security was my U.S. citizenship, since Honduras was a vassal state of the US. But even I could feel the fear and insecurity of the Hondurans with whom I interacted. The worst part was that this “security state” broke down the basic trust that people and communities need to function. Rule number one was to be careful with whom you share your thoughts and opinions. It was only the tremendous courage of so many Hondurans that made life functional and the fear bearable.

On the Nicaraguan side of the border, people and rural communities were experiencing the brutality of Contra attacks, and people certainly lived in fear, which I also felt, living among them. But the situation was clear. It was the Contras and the Reagan Administration, not the revolutionary government, that was creating the chaos and insecurity. Nicaraguans worked in community, whether in urban neighborhoods or in rural villages, to mitigate disasters and provide protection. There was conflict and distrust, but it was always managed, gently, if possible, by the local community. In Honduras, however, communities and trust were systematically destroyed. The big difference here was that the Nicaraguan revolutionary government was with the people, not against them. We always knew what the situation held, but in Honduras we seldom knew. Hondurans feared and avoided their army, if they could. Nicaraguans did not usually fear or avoid the Sandinista Army or the police, but regarded them as protectors.

I should make clear that this sense of comparative safety was not the same as happiness or contentment. It was not even about physical security, since no one could guarantee that in the middle of the war. I knew that local feuds and disputes were sometimes subsumed into the larger conflict. For me, the sense of safety in Nicaragua in the middle of the Contra War was the sense that trusting others was the basic survival mode, and it was taken for granted unless there was evidence otherwise. In Honduras, distrust—or at least caution and skepticism— was the basic survival mode, unless there was reason to trust. In Nicaragua, one could miss the nuances and still be safe. In Honduras, missing nuances could be dangerous.

2018 and Since

I was not in Nicaragua during the violent events of April-July of 2018. I was there in September and October when I interviewed a range of people, including longtime Nicaraguan friends from the 1980s and US and British expats who had lived in Nicaragua for many years. Some lived in cities, others in small rural communities. I encountered a spectrum of opinions ranging from strong criticism of the government to strong support. The most interesting to me were the many people, especially in rural areas, who offered a critical and nuanced support for the Nicaraguan government. I was struck by the way in which people freely expressed their feelings and opinions. I attribute that, in large part, to a sense of safety—often unconscious or latent—that people felt even, and maybe especially, when they were most vocal. I also discovered that in some rural communities that were less directly affected by the violence of April-July, there seemed to be a sense of calm that, I think, was in part a product of the revolution itself.

I was in Honduras also during this time. Hondurans referred to the government of Juan Orlando Hernandez as a narco-dictatorship. I was in several places where I narrowly escaped being killed. Hondurans who had lived through the national security state of the 1980s said that this time under Hernandez was as bad as, or worse than the 1980s. During this time, under Hernandez, as many as 60,000 to 100,000 Hondurans fled their country in some years. (Total national population approx. 9.5 million). I know the stories of some of these migrants who made it to U.S. immigration courts where I and others provided expert witness on their behalf. In 2021, Hondurans resoundingly defeated the narco-dictator at the ballot box and elected a new government that promised major changes. Hondurans are trying courageously to build a society of more trust and safety, perhaps a little more like that of their Nicaraguan neighbors.

The decades long campaign of the United States to depose the Sandinistas and roll back the revolution has used negative news and propaganda as weapons. But many of the examples used to show that Nicaraguans are not “safe” are actually examples that could reflect the opposite. One was the portrayal of Nicaragua as a country from which many thousands were fleeing. In the year from October, 2022 to September, 2023, 294,283 Nicaraguans migrated to neighboring Costa Rica. These figures were use in negative propaganda to “prove” that Nicaraguans are abandoning their country, fleeing for safety.

The propaganda fails to explain that much of this is a longtime pattern of temporary migration in search of (temporary) work. Or that in recent years drought in Nicaragua and U.S. economic sanctions have made it harder for some Nicaraguans to find work. More to the point, it also fails to explain why in the same year, 296,119 Nicaraguans returned to Nicaragua from Costa Rica, almost as many as had left. For whatever problems it has, Nicaragua has remained a place of relative safety and security for many who have experienced life in Costa Rica. A somewhat similar pattern seems to be developing with Nicaraguans who have come to the United States.

A Gift of Safety?

My experiences and reflections on what Nicaraguans have taught me probably come down to a few fundamental realizations. The contrast between a society based on communitarian trust and on meeting the basic needs of everyone, or a society based on one based on individualist struggle where the few enrich themselves as the expense of the many—is at the root of the sense of safety, even when physical security is not a certainty. Having a government that promotes and supports one or the other vision of society seems to be a crucial factor in whether people feel “safe.” Being safe is an intangible that thrives or dies in very tangible conditions.

I do not know to what extent experiencing the brutality of the Somoza dictatorship, the defense of the values of the revolution, the trial by fire of the Contra War, the years under neoliberal governments, and the violent interventions of 2018 may have shaped and made more important the sense of safety that Nicaragua seems to treasure today, but I can imagine that it must be so. In any case, Nicaragua continues to try to preserve this precious gift in and for a world wracked by distrust, insecurity, and trauma.

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By Nan McCurdy 

Nicaragua Now Holds SICA Presidency 
As of July 1, Nicaragua holds the Pro Tempore Presidency of the Central American Integration System (SICA) until December 31, 2024. The SICA Presidency is exercised by a SICA Member State to smooth relations between the governments and the organs and institutions of the SICA System for the continued development of the Regional Integration Agenda. It is assumed on a rotating basis in geographical order for a period of six months. Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Denis Moncada received the accreditation from the President of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, who held the Pro Tempore Presidency between January 1 and June 30, 2024. On June 29 Honduran authorities transferred to Nicaragua the Pro Tempore Presidency for the period from July to December 2024. (La Primerisima, 1 July 2024)

Nicaragua Urges Strengthening Multilateralism and Solidarity
The Government of Nicaragua expressed the need to strengthen multilateralism and solidarity, as well as the permanent search for peace and humanism, as guiding principles to overcome the great challenges facing humanity today. From June 25 to 27 the United Nations held the humanitarian affairs segment of the Economic and Social Council, ECOSOC. Senior representatives of member states convened to discuss the main themes of the meeting: “Putting humanity before conflict; climate change; strengthening humanitarian aid; and respect for international humanitarian law.” The alternate permanent representative of Nicaragua, Eleane Pichardo Urbina, pointed out the devastating situation in the Gaza Strip, where almost 40,000 people have already been killed and millions displaced. During her speech, she also stressed that we cannot ignore the more than three billion people threatened by climate change, especially in the region of Central America, the Island States and the African Continent. She explained that the cause of this climate crisis is due to the unsustainable production and consumption model of developed countries. (La Primerisima, 26 June 2024)

Anniversary of World Court Ruling the US an Aggressor State
“Today marks 38 years since June 27, 1986, when the International Court of Justice condemned the government of the United States as an aggressor state for its repeated violations of international law in its war against Nicaragua,” said Gustavo Porras, president of the National Assembly. He added that this was an “unprecedented” ruling of the World Court because it symbolized the struggle waged by peace-loving humanity against the threat of the empires of the world. “We have in force Law Number 17 approved on July 3, 1986, published in the Official Gazette of July 23, 1986, which declared June 27 as the Day of Respect for International Law,” he pointed out. Porras said that dates like these should be remembered, because they have guaranteed that Nicaragua is considered a peace-loving nation, respectful of International Law. (La Primerisima, 27 June 2024)

Government to Build Solar Energy Plant for ENACAL
The solar energy plant at San Isidro in the Department of Matagalpa will be the first government-built clean energy plant in Central America. All previous plants in Central America have been built and run by private companies. Construction began on June 26 on the plant that will produce 63 megawatts of energy, will cost US$89 million, and will be run by ENACAL, the Nicaraguan water and sewerage agency. Vice-President Rosario Murillo said that the solar energy park will produce energy for the pumps that will provide water for Nicaraguan families. Representatives of the government of Nicaragua and delegation from the People’s Republic of China laid the first stone for the construction of the plant. The plant is the first energy infrastructure to be financed by the Chinese government, with an investment of US$90 million. (Informe Pastran, 26 June 2024; La Primerisima, 26 June 2024)

5,200 Trees Planted in May and June 
As part of the “Green, I want you green” campaign, between May and June, reforestation was promoted in water recharge sites and treatment plants in the cities of León, Jinotepe, Moyogalpa and Altagracia. According to a press release, 5,200 fruit and ornamental trees were planted: avocado, soursop (guanabana), guava, mango, hogberry (nancite), elephant-ear trees (Guanacaste), mahogany, monkey pod tree (genízaro), pochote, among others. These actions are carried out in partnership with municipalities, construction companies and the Guardabarranco Environmental Movement. See photos: (La Primerisima, 26 June 2024)

Ivan Acosta Named Minister Advisor to the President
On June 28, President Daniel Ortega named Ivan Acosta Montalván as Minister Advisor to the President for International Organizations. Acosta previously served as Finance Minister. (Gaceta Oficial, 28 June 2024)

Six Years Later, Carazo Does Not Forget Bismarck Martínez!
On June 29, the sixth anniversary of his murder, Sandinista militants in Carazo marched to the site where Bismark Martinez’ body was discovered a year after he was killed, saying that they would not forget him. In one of the most brutal murders committed during the failed coup d’etat between April and July 2018, Bismarck Martinez was kidnapped while traveling in his car from Managua to Jinotepe to visit his family. He was subjected to torture for many hours and then shot to death, his body thrown into a riverbed. For many months, Bismarck’s family, who are Sandinistas living in Jinotepe, government authorities, and the National Police searched for him until they finally found his remains in 2019. See photos: (La Primerisima, 29 June 2024)

Mining Triangle to Get New Hospital
The mining triangle, composed of the cities of Bonanza, Siuna, and Rosita, will be getting a new state-of-the-art hospital that will be located in Siuna. National Assembly Deputy Loria Raquel Dixon said that the hospital is something that the people of the Caribbean Coast and particularly the people of the Mining Triangle deserve. “This hospital has been a pending debt which we have deserved for years,” she stated. The construction and equipping of the hospital are being financed by a US$103 million loan from the government of Saudi Arabia. (Informe Pastran, 2 July 2024)