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Nicaragua's revolutionary legacy

19 July 09 03:25 GMT

By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Managua

Thirty years on, Esperanza Cisneros is as much a believer as ever.

Her small Managua home seems like a shrine to the Sandinista Revolution. Its walls are adorned with political slogans.

A bicycle in the front porch has two black and red flags flying from the handlebars. Patriotic music blasts from the CD player.

But her enthusiasm is balanced with pain.

Like thousands of Nicaraguan mothers she lost a son to this country's violent political upheaval.

"A lot of blood was spilt", she says, "but now we have a government working hard for the people."

In 1979, almost the entire population of Nicaragua agreed with her.

The ouster of the dynastic dictator Anastasio Somoza was seen as a victory of hope over repression.

For as long as most Nicaraguans could remember, the Somoza ruling family had held a feudal grip on the country. The country's police force was notorious for its liberal use of torture.

By the time the Sandinistas, who took their name from their murdered historical hero Agustin Sandino, rolled into Managua, they were feted as liberators.

Their leader, a young man called Daniel Ortega, was seen as the new incarnation of Sandino.

'Revolution over'

But within months the mood changed. Many deserted Ortega, viewing his style of government as authoritarian and proto-communist.

A new rebellion began. It was stoked by foreign interests.

The Soviets backed the Sandinistas. The United States, fearing communism in its back yard, backed the counter-revolutionaries or "contras".

Overall, 50,000 lives were lost in the revolution and ensuing war, before a truce was declared in 1987.

That is more than 1% of the population. The equivalent of three million Americans.

Now Mr Ortega is back in power again, after winning the 2006 presidential election.

He says he has changed his colours, and that his administration is about reconciliation.

His government includes some of his old foes from the civil war days. An alliance has also been formed with the Roman Catholic Church.

As an apparent symbol of a softer, more inclusive form of rule, propaganda posters across the country are now pink, rather than the traditional red and black of the Sandinistas.

Some suggest the revolution is well and truly over.

Erik Flakoll, an American martial arts expert, was one of thousands of foreign idealists who came to Nicaragua in the 1970s and 80s to support something they believed in.

Months after arriving in 1980 he found himself recruited as a bodyguard to the senior Sandinista leaders.

His photo album shows him a as a young man in combat fatigues travelling the world with the new heroes of the eastern bloc.

"The uniform is from East Germany" he points out, with a smile.

Now he sees the men he once worked for as a sordid new elite, running a new oligarchy, in complete betrayal of their professed ideals.

"This leadership is not revolutionary at all," he says. "I do not know how history will determine who is the greatest thief. Is it Somoza... or will it be Daniel Ortega?

Grinding poverty

Such allegations are dismissed as absurd by Eden Pastora, aka Comandante Cero, as we talk in his office a few days before the 30th anniversary.

The room is stacked full of guns, ammunition and revolutionary memorabilia.

The silver haired ex-commander is something of a legend in revolutionary history. With 19 comrades he stormed the Nicaraguan congress in 1978, in a spectacular publicity boost for the Sandinista movement.

He has since had his differences with the Ortega leadership, but now he appears back on side.

"Everybody has heard the stories" he says. "That Daniel was funded by Gaddafi, $100,000 a month…that his brother, the head of the army was given $50,000.

"It's not true. I have been to his house. The ceiling is falling to bits. There are cobwebs everywhere. If it were true the people would not have voted for him".

He points to the achievements of the Ortega governments, from literacy campaigns to housing projects.

But most Nicaraguans have other priorities than judging whether the Sandinista revolution has been a success, or a fraud.

Grinding poverty is daily life for half the population. Unemployment in many areas is around 80%.

La Chureca rubbish dump on the outskirts of the city is home for hundreds of families, who somehow survive picking through the putrid garbage of their marginally more fortunate neighbours.

It is a place where ideology seems irrelevant.

I ask one man, stooped over a pile of plastic bags, what he thinks of his government.

"Things just seem to get worse", he says.

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