Monday, November 09, 2015

Letter from Managua: Bright lights, poor country

If you’re in a window seat, you probably see the giant yellow trees of life before you land in Managua.
They’re hard to miss. About 21 metres tall - imagine a five-storey building - and 13 metres across, 17,000 bright yellow lights on each one. Some 134 and counting are scattered across Managua - in the centre of rotondas (roundabouts), in boulevards and in a dense array along Avenida Bolivar, the main street leading down to the lakefront.
‘Que bonita,’ we said to our taxi driver as we drove past the trees one night early in our stay a year ago. 
He grunted. A lot of people without electricity in their houses, he said, and the government is putting up pretty trees. Who’s paying the bills to keep the lights on? What do they cost? 
Good questions, and the first indication that the trees - pretty as they are - were not universally beloved.
The trees are a pet project of Rosario Murillo, the wife of President Daniel Ortega. Murillo, who is also communications minister and the only spokesperson for the government, is interesting - educated in England and Switzerland, a revolutionary and a poet who appears in public draped in flowing scarves and a dizzying number of bracelets, necklaces and rings.
Murillo had the first eight metal trees put up in 2013 for the annual rally to celebrate the 1979 Sandinista victory and and the resignation of Antonio Somoza. The design is based Gustav Klimt’s 1905 painting of the tree of life, a powerful image. 
Since then, Murillo has kept on planting the metal trees around around the city. The
Rotonda Hugo Chavez near our old house had three of them and a giant illuminated portrait of the late Venezuelan president, a benefactor of Nicaragua.
When we returned from Canada in September, a new copse of trees had appeared in different colours. The bright yellow has been joined by greens and blues and reds and purples. 
There is a small forest in the new waterfront park on Lake Managua, and the push is on to have more ready by December and La Purisma - celebrating the conception of Mary - and Christmas. On our way home from a play last week, we spotted the white-hot lights as welders assembled more trees in a field near the central square.(Why is there a field near the central square? A 1972 earthquake flattened the city and aid that was supposed to support rebuilding was stolen by the Somozas. Managua was rebuilt in a sprawling, decentralized way. Some 43 years after the earthquake, the old cathedral on the main square is still unsafe to enter.)
La Prensa, one of the two main newspapers, has been taking a critical look at the trees of life. The stories noted the cost, at $25,000 U.S. each, is now about $3.4 million. The electricity bill is about $1.1 million a year, La Prensa said. 
That’s a lot of money in a poor country. At least 30 per cent of Nicaraguans live in poverty. Probably more. About 22 per cent of the population didn’t have electricity in 2012, according to the World Bank.
La Prensa found experts to say what could have been done with the money spent on the electric trees - replant the region around Managua with real trees, or bring electricity to thousands of homes.
I understand politics in Canada. I figured out the politics of Honduras in about six months.
But Nicaragua is more complex. 
The media aren’t much help. The newspapers are anti-Ortega. La Prensa, in every story that mentions Ortega, refers to him as the “unconstitutional president.” (The constitution limited presidents to one term; that was changed to allow Ortega to continue to govern. He’s on his third term.) The TV stations are largely pro-government. 
There are big protests, especially about the government’s plan to let a Chinese billionaire build a canal across Nicaragua to compete with the Panama Canal. But a Cid Gallup poll last month found 66 per cent of Nicaraguans gave Ortega a positive approval rating. The opposition is divided and, from my perspective as a visitor, ineffectual.
And after 36 years, Daniel Ortega’s role as leader of the Sandinista revolution is still powerful. We rented a house in Leon earlier this year. There was a little red and black concrete monument, a couple of feet tall, that said our neighbourhood was called the Barrio 4 de Mayo, in honour of four young men dragged from their homes by Somoza’s National Guard and killed on May 4, 1979, barely two months before the revolution triumphed. 
Our neighbour told Jody how her two brothers were executed in the street, where children now played.
Maybe Ortega has disappointed. Maybe the trees are a wasteful extravagance. But many Nicaraguans remember how it used to be, in the days when death came in the night.

Murillo seemed unchastened by the media attention. More trees would be going up, bringing “beauty, colour and love” to Managua, she told the media.