In León, Sandinista veterans keep the history of revolution and insurrection alive
Gusts of wind blast through the tall, glassless windows of the Museo de la Revolución in León, shaking up history in the process. Dead leaves and sand rustle on the worn tiles of the museum hall and, finally, some of the faded information boards come crashing down from the pale pink walls. Marcelo Leonel Pereira, 56, nom de guerre Oscar, holds on to his black beret, which sports two silver star pins and a black-and-red striped flag, and drops his wooden pointer stick. The history of Nicaragua’s glorious revolution on the ground? Never! Pereira kneels and gathers up the yellowing photos and newspaper clippings, restoring order to the past. A past he helped to create, and which now lives on in the former Palace of Justice.
This is where, separated by a narrow lane from the Parque Central at the heart of Léon, the museum opened its now badly peeling wooden doors in 1990. The soul of the revolution breathes here, spreading far beyond the square with its venerable, shady sycamore trees; it is present in the flag of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, and it celebrates its heritage
on the brilliant white façade of the city hall, which proclaims in proud black letters: “León. The first city in Nicaragua to be liberated.”
León was founded in 1524 by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco Hernández de Córdoba, 30 kilometers away from its present site. When Momotombo volcano erupted 100 years later, the original city was wiped out and rebuilt further west. León features classic colonial architecture: squat houses, streets that follow a rigid grid pattern, monumental churches. The ruins of León Viejo are a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a listing that the new León (population 150 000 and the second-largest city in the Central American nation) also fully deserves.
The treaty giving Nicaragua independence from Spain was signed in León in 1821. The famous poet Rubén Darío penned his passionate verses here at the end of the 19th century, while drinking himself to death with equal passion. In León the poet Rigoberto López Pérez shot the dictator Anastasio Somoza García in 1956. This is León’s heritage: a city of intellectuals, of artists – and of fighters. Always rebellious, always on the side of liberty. Nowhere else in Nicaragua is the history of revolution so closely entwined with a city’s soul.
Few people are as familiar with the scenes of historic events as Oscar. He commanded the 80-man battalion Arlen Siu, named for the revolution’s first female martyr, and was a revolutionary in the “First War,” which is how Oscar refers to the revolution of 1978 and 1979, when farmers and students fought against the dictatorship of the infamous Somoza clan. But the clan fought back: Supported by the U.S., the old regime retaliated against the Sandinistas under Daniel Ortega, who is still the country’s president. That was the Second War, and Oscar was also part of it, this time as a patriotic defender of his native León in the battle against the soldiers of the Contras. His battle cry has always been “For the liberty of Nicaragua!,” which he shouts through the museum’s echoing hall, raising a clenched fist in the air.
It was also during his years as a freedom fighter that he gained his two stars – trophies he cut from the epaulettes of the two soldiers killed in the brief skirmish that followed their ambush on his unit. Oscar has been Marcelo Pereira again for a good forty years. And instead of making history, he makes it come alive, together with eight old comrades-in-arms, who are now colleagues. For 50 córdoba admission – the equivalent of 1.60 euros or under two dollars.
Pereira’s jeans are stained, his shoes are worn down, but his T-shirt with the face of guerilla leader Augusto César Sandino is spotless. He guides small groups of tourists and school groups through the columned hall of the museum. None of the veterans has gotten rich, a feat that only a few particularly zealous party officials managed to achieve. And that’s probably why a museum tour is a little like an improvised performance.
Solidaridad! Libertad! Victoria!
Some of Pereira’s colleagues tie the red bandana of the revolutionaries over their mouths and gallop around the rooms with an old bazooka between their legs, others pretend to lob fake Molotov cocktails. Oscar prefers to recount the highlights of his years as a freedom fighter, the index finger of his right hand pointing upwards. His slogans are his ammunition: “Solidaridad! Libertad! Victoria!” he thunders, until even he bursts out laughing.
Anyone interested in discovering the traces of the revolution elsewhere in the city can simply ask the group sitting in the museum courtyard. For the equivalent of eight euros, one of the “old guard” is usually prepared to toss his cigarette away, briefly nod to the portraits of the “Liberators of Latin America” on the wall behind him and set off on a private guided tour to the gigantic domed cathedral of Léon with its accessible roof, to the walls with the enormous murals, to the portraits of the martyrs of the revolution, to the Park of Poets, and to houses that seem like shrines, where candles illuminate busts and inscriptions.
Despite its bloody history, the main danger in León today is the blistering sun. Like the rest of Nicaragua, the provincial capital is safe, but mainly visited by backpackers and intrepid tourists. However, there is a definite sense that while León still lives in a proud past, it is also vigorously moving forward. The streets that once saw bitter battles now house tattoo studios and restaurants, and fashion from all around the world is sold in the shops and stalls at the converted market hall.
Anyone wanting to take a look at the future of the city can stroll under the colonnades of the university, the starting point of the revolution. From here the students took to the streets in 1978 and gathered against Somoza’s troops. Today, the students work alone on their laptops instead of collectively planning a revolution. When they gather, it’s usually at the basketball court on Cancha 23 de Julio square, named in memory of the students shot during the uprising that was suppressed in summer 1959.
In front of a gigantic mural, the city’s youngsters meet to skateboard and race their BMX bikes, with the truncheon-wielding police and fleeing students providing a backdrop for their latest stunts. Maria Lopez is one of these skaters. The slight 21-year-old expertly jumps ramps and steps, and seems to be light years away from the passions of the past. Although the city has officially permitted them to use the square and some streets as a skate course, the older generation can sometimes be “narrow-minded” and does not have enough sympathy for the wishes of the young. The battle today is not for liberty, but for jobs – which are difficult to find in Nicaragua. Almost as important is the question of who’s DJing this evening at the Kush Bar or Café ViaVia. In nighttime León, choosing between salsa, merengue and bachata is a tough decision.
The old revolutionary Pereira and his pals don’t want to dance, preferring to spend the evening with a bottle of the local Flor de Caña rum in one of the comedors, the simple restaurants along the city’s narrow streets. New worries leach into the old anecdotes: a rumor that a five-star hotel will be moving into their beloved museum, but there’s still hope. While the central location may be an investor’s dream, the compañeros aren’t prepared to give it up without a fight. For Pereira the situation is perfectly clear: “If the city ignores our demands for compensation and a new location for the museum then we’ll burn the building down. Even if we lay down our lives in the process!” The fight remains the same – only the opponents change.
What to see and do in Léon
Nicaragua has nearly two dozen volcanos, some of them active.
El Convento is a luxury hotel in a former monastery.
Delicious croissants and café au lait in Central America.