Central America’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, the home of the Miskito people, stretches between Honduras and Nicaragua. The border is at a point that juts out into the Caribbean: Columbus called it Cabo Gracias a Dios for the shelter it provided on his last voyage. As the storm that became Hurricane Eta formed above the seas of Venezuela on 30 October, it headed west towards the cape 2000 kilometres away, following the track of Hurricane Edith in 1971, Mitch in 1998 (which killed seven thousand people in Honduras and three thousand in Nicaragua), Felix in 2007, Ida in 2009 and many other lesser cyclones.
Nicaragua had a record 1.8 million tourists last year. It’s a beautiful country, and in 2017 it officially became the safest in Central America. But after three days of political violence last month, one of the few certainties in 2018 is that it will lose both records. More than 40 people died in the protests, ostensibly over government social security reforms.
While Donald Trump gives the appearance of wavering over his decision to pull the US out of the Paris Climate Agreement, Nicaragua has decided to sign it. It was one of only two countries not to sign in Paris last year; the other was Syria. Nicaragua abstained out of principle: the agreement didn’t go far enough. The target – to keep the average global temperature no more than 2ºC above pre-industrial levels – was too high, and in any case unlikely to be met. An unfair burden was being put on developing nations and not enough money was being promised to help them build low carbon economies. I met Nicaragua’s climate change negotiator, Paul Oquist, in June, a few days after Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. I suggested it would be an excellent moment for Nicaragua to change its mind, though claim no credit for the subsequent decision; I can’t have been the only one to think so.
Raise four fingers (the sign for ‘B’), touch your nose with your thumb and dip your hand down to mimic an elephant's trunk. You’ve just said ‘Babar the Elephant’ in Nicaraguan Sign Language – the sign is distinct from the one for ‘elephant’. ISN (its initials in Spanish) was developed by children. Until the 1970s, there were no facilities or learning programmes for deaf children in Nicaragua, but with the Sandinista revolution came a new impetus to provide education for kids with special needs. Four hundred deaf children were identified in Managua, and two schools created for them. Teachers were brought from Europe who tried to teach Spanish using fingerspelling, which the children couldn’t grasp because they’d never learned Spanish. But they all had their own signs that they used at home. And in the classroom, the playground and the school bus they began to share them, eventually turning impromptu communication into a common language.
On my morning walk there is a point from which I can see the sulphurous fumes pouring from the Masaya volcano. On the lip of the crater, although not visible from my viewpoint seven kilometres away, is a large wooden cross. It occupies the pinnacle on which a similar cross was first placed in 1529 after the Spanish conquest, by the friar Francisco de Bobadilla. He climbed the volcano in what is now Nicaragua, looked down into its fiery crater, decided it must be the entrance to hell and had the cross put up to keep it firmly shut. Soon afterwards, a more avaricious and foolhardy friar, Blas de Castillo, is said to have climbed down into the crater and, lowering a metal bowl on a long chain, extracted what he thought was molten gold. It quickly turned into an uninspiring lump of black lava.
In January 1983, police in Los Angeles arrested frogmen bringing 400 pounds of cocaine ashore from a Colombian freighter. But they missed their main target, the drug importer Norwin Meneses, who may have been tipped off by officials. In August 1986, a US Customs informant, Joseph Kelso, told his handlers that Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Costa Rica were sharing profits from Meneses’s LA drug shipments. The Costa Rican police arrested Kelso.
Bill de Blasio, the Democratic candidate in the New York City mayoral race, is way ahead in the polls, despite his allegedly radical credentials. Earlier this week, the New York Times ran a story on his support for the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s and a trip he made to Nicaragua in 1988.
De Blasio was a relatively late arrival on the scene. I went on the first solidarity tour from the UK in 1984, by which time the trail south from the US was well established.
Right-wing cynics were trying their best in the run up to Sunday’s election in Nicaragua. Foreseeing victory for the incumbent, President Daniel Ortega (he won with 62 per cent of the vote), they argued that at the least sign of electoral manipulation the United States should put its foot down. Robert Callahan, the US ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 until July this year, proposed a four-point plan for the US to follow in the wake of likely electoral fraud. His suggestions included refusing to appoint a new ambassador and cutting off US aid.
One of the more unusual events in the long history of popular uprisings against despotic regimes took place in Nicaragua on the night of 27 June 1979. The grip of the Somoza dynasty, which had ruled the country for more than 40 years, was slipping. The Sandinistas had advanced from their rural strongholds into the towns, and by early June they controlled the working-class barrios in the east of the capital.
On a visit to the Natural History Museum a few years ago, my eye was caught by a small exhibition of animal products confiscated by British customs officials: snakeskin belts, crocodile skin bags, wallets made from the skins of protected species, stuffed baby alligators, stuffed toads arranged around miniature pool tables, clutching cues. As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, I then noticed that at least half the exhibits seemed to come from Nicaragua, where I live.
Jenny Diski has written recently about being treated like an old bag for complaining about her young neighbour’s music. I sympathise, but wonder how much worse she would feel if she lived in Latin America. When I came to Nicaragua seven years ago, I briefly lived next door to a man who had to get up very early to go to work. His house was made of plastic and tin, but equipped with a powerful radio which he put on at full blast at 3.00 a.m. every day except Sundays.