I wasn’t able to spend long enough in León. Nicaragua’s most northern city has long been respected as the country’s seat of intellectual and political challenge. A few days before I planned to cross the border, it started a new and important fight.
Stories about the student-led uprising against Nicaragua’s sitting government flooded through to El Salvador via TV, radio and the less formal channels of backpacker gossip. As violence broke out on León’s streets, spreading quickly to the capital, Managua, tourists holed up in their accommodation and hoped for the worst to pass.
When I went into the Tica bus office in San Salvador to postpone my trip, I found out it was cancelled anyway. Nicaragua’s borders were shut completely.
Trying to get news from validated sources was difficult. Papers and some websites seemed to censor the true death tolls and the BBC only published the latest after a full week. Despite these varying accounts, the overall consensus was a profound sympathy for the Nicaraguan people and an acknowledgment that there was a timely need for them to speak out against president, Daniel Ortega.
Six days later when I crossed into the country’s north, posters of the president and his deputy (also his wife) were repugnant. They smiled out of the billboards as if nothing had passed. Business as usual. Although León’s streets told a different story. The violence had calmed but it was estimated that more than 60 citizens had been killed at the hands of the police and the government-led military.
In my taxi to the city centre, I saw first-hand the charcoaled buildings that had been ablaze on social media videos. I kept awkwardly silent as another passenger and my driver set their current world to rights in loud, fervent Spanish.
On my only night in the city, I ordered a burger and beers in a rooftop bar. Lively student groups and nervous couples on first dates gave the appearance of normality, while across the road a commemorative banner hung from the shell of a damaged building. It referenced the death of student Cristián Emilio Cadenas and his very recent fight for peace.
Even closer to where I sat, a long mural depicted the killing of four students on that exact spot by Nicaragua’s infamous dictator, Somoza, in 1959. This was the onset of the Sandinista revolution and was the last time that the Nicaraguan people had tried, and succeeded, to overthrow their government. In May 2018, it’s a rather lost looking basketball court.
It was clear that history was repeating itself. The realisation that this morbid picture could be showing the events of only the previous week made me feel angry. At the same time I felt inordinately lucky to live in a country that hasn’t suffered at the hands of ferocious and grossly corrupt governments.
Change was necessary. And where democracy only exists theoretically, how else can change be driven? It was all I could do to smile in support of the men, women and children who marched past my hostel doorway later that evening. Car horns were sounded and chants were sung but overall the untempered violence of a few days before seemed to have turned to steely resolve.
My final view of León in daylight was from its UNESCO listed cathedral. The largest in Central America. I walked along the lines of its roof, admiring the eclectic architecture, feeling as if we were all in the middle of a grand dramatic pause. A brief moment of reflection before the plot of Nicaragua’s history turned.
Thunderclouds, almost black under the weight of their rain, lingered in the hills behind the ultra white domes of the 18th century masterpiece. With hindsight, a metaphor for what was still to come.