Nicaragua is a very hot and very friendly country. In many ways its dramatic volcanic environment is an unfortunate place to wedge 6 million people. Currently there are three active volcanoes in the country.
Back at university in the early 90’s I remember sending care packages to Nicaragua after the country’s prolonged and entirely destructive civil war. Much of Nicaragua’s history is tragic and the events that eventually lead to the current populist Sandinista government of Daniel Ortega are shocking.
The capital, Managua, was destroyed by an earthquake in 1972. Then dictator, Anastacio Somoza embezzled much of the aid money that arrived. He was not a good person.
But he was not a communist. The Sandinistas were on the far left and remain by-products of the cold war. Between the Iran-Contra military funding and the election of Violetta Chamorro, the US actually spent more money on arms and election propaganda than the entire GDP of the Nicaraguan economy.
At least 200 000 people died and over a million more emigrated either to Costa Rica or as ‘wet-backs’ towards the north. When people are bombed, they migrate. This is obvious.
Now Nicaragua is reasonably stable, certainly safe, friendly, affordable and extremely young. Fully 50% of the population is under 24, meaning much of Nicaragua’s current society does not actually remember the civil war.
Birthrates throughout the region remain extremely high and with the rise of Zika and the Pope’s visit to Mexico, this has finally become a point of discussion.
Of course abortion is illegal everywhere in the region and the Church remains officially opposed to contraception.
That noted, this Latin American Pope has actually gone as far as to say; “contraception may be the lesser of two evils.” This is a start.
The Pope’s voice still counts, although here in Central America, evangelicals claim 25-40% of the faithful and they too have an active political voice.
Populist leaders such as Daniel Ortega walk a fine line between faith, family and socialism. In fact the signs all over the country declare: Vamos Adelante (moving forward together); Christian, Socialist, United! Somewhat different from Mr. Trump’s brand of faith.
Recently I crossed the Gulf of Fonseca from Nicaragua to El Salvador. A crossing I have done before and really enjoyed.
Unfortunately on this particular day the winds were so high the Nicaraguan navy delayed our departure. This was a good call. When we did finally leave, the waves were high enough to soak everyone on the the small vessel.
While being stuck at the extremely hot border port of Potosi, I spent substantial time with the passport and customs officers. They are friendly, warm and only slightly corrupt (preferring a tip to a bribe).
The border process is typical of the region (including the USA and Canada) and takes far longer than it should, but is not done maliciously.
While hanging out with the immigration officers I made small talk (hoping to expedite the process) and asked about Zika.
This new, mosquito-born virus has reached epidemic levels and, of course, is extremely scary for expecting mothers. There are many pregnant women. In a very poor, highly religious society, women often have children at a young age, with few choices.
A child born with microcephaly (an under-formed brain) appears to be linked to Zika.
El Salvador’s solution has been to tell women to wait until 2018 to have children. I hope this advice comes with sex-education and access to contraception.
Here is where the fun really begins:
I asked the immigration officers about Zika. They said most occurrences were in the capital, Managua (I still sprayed my legs with deet). Next however, a debate ensued. Once officer argued Zika is a case of chemical warfare either manufactured by foreign powers or by pharmaceutical companies in order to sell drugs. In my head I disagreed.
The other fellow also disagreed. He yelled back that if you read the Bible properly it clearly explains Zika and all of these illnesses. In my head I disagreed.
So while it took over an hour to stamp 18 passports, I was entertained by a conspiracy theory and evangelical end-times. Between the two gentlemen they had 8 children, living in a hot, poor, agricultural community.
There is so much to dissect from that exchange, I may just leave it for the moment, but as the Pope visits Mexico, the second largest catholic country in the world, it may be time for people in the region to explore the fact that lower population growth could really help bring people out of poverty.