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Nicaragua boxing legend Alexis Arguello and the mayoral curse

When Alexis Arguello was found dead July 1, he became the latest in a line of Managua mayors to reach a bad end. His apparent suicide -- if it was that -- is surrounded by mystery.

August 06, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — What was it that Nicaragua's greatest athlete heard from the president's envoy the night he shot himself in the chest?

After dark on June 30, a loyal lieutenant to President Daniel Ortega paid a visit to Alexis Arguello, the mayor of Managua and a world champion boxer three times over. A few hours later, the mayor was dead.

No one is sure why Arguello killed himself. If it really was suicide, that is.

He was only six months into his new job as mayor. But things were not going well. The old demons of drug abuse nipped at his heels. And then there was a new demon -- at least that's how some people saw it.

Arguello had been the candidate for Ortega's Sandinista party. But if ever Arguello truly considered Ortega an ally, the relationship had soured. Arguello was being stripped of any authentic power as mayor, a maneuver widely seen as orchestrated by the president.

It's not as though being mayor of Nicaragua's capital is such a desirable position. It has become a cursed job in what a Nicaraguan historian once famously called a cursed land.

Not just because it means running an impossible city, with no real center, seated on the lip of a volcanic lake and blighted, still, with ruins from an earthquake more than 30 years ago.

Cursed because recent mayors have had a tendency to drop dead, or drop into jail or, at best, drop off the political map.

The immensely popular Herty Lewites, a former Sandinista tourism minister who served as mayor from 2000 until he stepped down in 2005 to run for president, died of a heart attack in the middle of the campaign. A predecessor, Arnoldo Aleman, made it to the president's office, but that didn't go particularly well: He was sentenced to 20 years in prison for siphoning off millions of state dollars to furnish his hacienda and other crimes. (He has since been pardoned and released.)

In the small world that is Nicaragua, internecine political battles are almost always personal and familial. Former Sandinistas hate the current Sandinista leadership; the offspring of former Contras, the U.S.-backed rebels who fought the Sandinistas in the 1980s, are now married to onetime revolutionaries.

Family after family is divided in its loyalties to a left that promises prosperity for the poor (only to merely enrich itself) or to a right that promises foreign investment and jobs for all (only to merely enrich itself).

And so, in a country where almost everyone knows everyone (or is related to them, or was once married to them), theories simmer over the fate of Managua's mayors.

When he died, Lewites, who had split from the old Sandinista party to form a new version, was leading Ortega (making his third bid to return to power after repeated defeats) by 20 percentage points in opinion polls.

Lewites was a cherished character during the first decade of Sandinista rule after the 1979 revolution. A rare Jew who remained in the country, the son of a Polish candy-maker who immigrated to Managua, Lewites blithely recommended war-torn Nicaragua as a tourist destination and shrewdly built a mini-empire of stores for resident foreigners that brought in dollars, hard currency, for the besieged Sandinista government.

Then Lewites, who suffered from ill health, dropped dead. His young, second wife refused an autopsy, and first and second families are today immersed in a battle over his legacy. (Ortega, by the way, won the election.)

The death of Arguello has similarly raised questions.

Over the years, Arguello said he knew he was being used by different political forces that were taking advantage of his celebrity. It was OK, he said, as long as good came of it. Born into abject poverty in early-1950s Managua, his eventual fame as a world-class boxer made him a trophy of dictator Anastasio Somoza and later of the Sandinistas who overthrew Somoza (and somewhere in between, of the Contras).

Attaching Arguello's name to the Managua mayoral ticket last year, in municipal elections tainted by fraud, was seen as a publicity ploy on the part of the Sandinista government.

The real trouble began, many Nicaraguans say, when Arguello really thought he was the mayor, and not the Sandinista leadership. He was speaking out, making appearances.

On June 25, Arguello traveled to Puerto Rico, ostensibly for a series of ceremonial duties, including the naming of a boxing academy in his honor. (There are whispers in Managua that Puerto Rico was also a frequent rehab stop for Arguello.) People with him in Puerto Rico said Arguello seemed happy. But while he was away, late on a Friday afternoon, Managua's Sandinista-dominated city council met and voted to "restructure" the local government in a way that diluted the mayor's powers.

Arguello returned to Managua on Monday and was said to have been furious when he learned what had happened. Furious, embarrassed, offended. And then depressed.

On Tuesday, people close to him say, he decided to resign. That night, Ortega's messenger arrived at Arguello's home. Identified by the opposition newsletter Confidencial as Francisco Lopez, treasurer of the Sandinista party, he reportedly told Arguello that resigning was out of the question.

A few hours later, early on July 1, Arguello apparently shot himself. Coroners said they found no trace of drugs or alcohol in his system.

Thousands of Managuans accompanied his coffin to his grave, mourning another cursed figure in their cursed city's history.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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