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NICARAGUA

The Day After the Dictator

August 24, 2003|Gioconda Belli | Gioconda Belli is the author, most recently, of "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War."

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — You go out in the streets, pull down the statues, participate in the general celebration. But after the bliss of the first 48 hours, the only thing left is uncertainty. People want to know who is in charge, when they can go to work, when the buses are going to run, when the gas stations will open. They want their lives back. They yearn to put the war behind them.

In thinking about the people of Iraq and what they have gone through since the fall of Saddam Hussein, I often flash back to my country, Nicaragua, and to memories of Managua in 1979, when Anastasio Somoza, our dictator, was ousted by a popular uprising. As a Sandinista, I was among the people working to get Nicaragua back on its feet after the regime's collapse.

Operating from the dictator's headquarters, known as the bunker, we set about trying to resolve a million crises. A shortwave radio linked to command posts in most Nicaraguan cities blasted demands all day: "The hospital needs supplies; what can we do?" "We have 200 National Guard soldiers wishing to turn themselves in. Tell us how to proceed; where should we take them?" "People have captured a member of the secret services. They want to try him in the town square. Should we let them?" One afternoon, a noisy crowd gathered outside the gates of the compound demanding the body of a famous Somocista field commander known for his brutality. People wanted to drag it all around the city. They dispersed only after a Sandinista guerrilla hero delivered an improvised speech about the dawn of a new era, one in which brutality would not rule our hearts.

For people who have lived in established and reasonably orderly democracies, the kind of power vacuum that follows the end of a long dictatorship is almost impossible to imagine. It's thrilling to see the terror of a regime vanish, to see the demise of a repressive army and secret police. But to find oneself in a country where the whole edifice of society has crumbled is quite another thing. However repressive the dictatorship, it was an authority that people relied on. It provided legitimacy to governmental institutions, courts and social services that kept the country running. When, as was the case with Somoza's and Hussein's regimes, the ruling parties and the state are one and the same, the overthrow of a tyrant also means that most public functionaries take flight. In one fell swoop, the country loses its police, its courts, its judges, its ministries, its knowledge of how public services run, its central bank and its medical and food-supply records. Pandemonium reigns.

After the fall of Somoza, my first job in Nicaragua was to get the state television station up and running. When I arrived there, many longtime employees, mostly mid- and low-ranking workers, were milling about, nervous to see what would become of them. I knew I needed them to guide me through the mess of vandalized equipment. I couldn't afford to send them packing just because they had worked under Somoza. There was no way I could know whether they had been loyal to the tyrant or just managed to keep their jobs, so I took them all back. Early on, we realized that to ostracize every member of his party was easier said than done.

I imagine the same holds true for Iraq. Not every Baath Party member is evil and should be sent away. Starting anew means incorporating remnants of the old structure into the new. Otherwise, the task becomes not only impossible but politically doomed. Too many jobless state employees means too many resentful and restless citizens desperately seeking either to survive or to get revenge. The best bet, as we found out, was to keep low-ranking and midlevel personnel on board and hope for the best.

After decades of fear and repression, the onset of freedom feels like an intoxicating drug. One manifestation of this emotion, which I clearly remember, is a feeling of ownership. Your country, your city, feel open and yours to roam around in and repossess. Looting in these situations begins in a tentative manner: People feel entitled to whatever belonged to the tyrant or the people who profited under him. There is no sense of safekeeping, history or limits. I remember arriving at Somoza's bunker and watching helplessly as a young woman proceeded to make a bonfire with broken photographs and torn documents taken from the offices inside. The country was possessed by an overwhelming instinct to dismantle every remnant of tyranny.

For anybody used to authoritarian rule, the line that separates freedom from anarchy is very thin. People haven't needed to have self-imposed limits. On the contrary, they've tried to push the limits as far as they will go. Hundreds of people testing a new reality can become dangerous in no time.

In Nicaragua, looting lasted only a day before it was firmly stopped by the guerrilla army. It was clear to us that unless we halted the chaos quickly, people would be sucked into it and it would be practically impossible to stop.

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