Rock and Roll

In Nicaragua Earthquakes and Politics Play Hell With Holy Week

People have been sleeping in the streets and in their yards for a week thanks to some major earthquakes and some political hype by the Sandinistas.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—It’s been a week since a major quake hit Nicaragua—a week of many, many smaller quakes and shocks and tremors, and everybody wondering if “The Big One” is on its way.

In the wider world, because the death toll was mercifully low—one person—few headlines attracted the public’s attention. But here it’s been a long seven days of people sleeping outdoors on sidewalks, in gardens, in hammocks, in cars, in fear that their houses would collapse and kill them.

For the moment, the earth beneath our feet has calmed down. The volcanoes that loom on Nicaragua’s wide-open horizons, rumbling and smoking, have not erupted. People are thinking it’s about time to return to normal, and hoping the restive earth doesn’t trick them. But nobody’s sure. Central America, in every sense, is a very volatile place.

For the government of President Daniel Ortega, his powerful wife Rosario Murillo, and their Sandinista Party, this last week’s infernal quakes were like a blessing from heaven.

Ortega and Murillo have taken the revolutionary movement of the 1970s and ‘80s and turned it into a relentless, pervasive and apparently unbeatable political machine. They change the constitution at will to serve their own ends, and they use their vast majority in Congress to whitewash all sorts of corruption by their cronies. Indeed, that’s just what they were doing last week the very same day the 6.2 quake struck in Nagarote near the very small Apoyeque volcano.

The feeble Nicaraguan opposition had been divided between crying out loud and packing bags for the famous Semana Santa (Holy Week) holiday, which is long, loud and involves quantities of Flor de Caña rum. The aftershocks tipped the scales decidedly in the favor of the government, the holiday, and the rum.

After that first big quake on Thursday, the earth trembled constantly for almost 24 hours. On Friday two more major quakes were felt and people started to go into panic mode. The volcanic chain was activated, we were told, expecting to see cataclysmic explosions at any moment.

It was scary through the weekend with the semi-official radio and television stations blaring about the dangers we faced—and applauding the efficiency of the government response, led by none other than Rosario Murillo.

In fact, at first the measures taken were helpful. Field hospitals were prepared. Workers tore down a few dilapidated buildings left over, still, after all these years, from the “big one” in 1972 that destroyed much of Managua, killed as many as 10,000 people, and set the stage for the fall of the corrupt Somoza family dynasty.

But since Sunday the quakes have been dying down. The tremors are fewer and weaker and sometimes we’re told they happened, but we never felt them at all. Never mind. A German geologist is trotted out on official TV to announce, in effect, the end of the world: seismic faults are being “activated,” he says, and Managua could be destroyed. Again.

Murillo advised people to keep sleeping in the open, while reassuring them everything is going to be fine because Cuban and Venezuelan seismologists have arrived in the country.

So, yes, it’s been a scary Holy Week. We lived dangerously, we thought, but now, as Easter Sunday approaches the earth feels more solid under our feet. Only the official media keep up the warnings. Murillo is still reporting every little tremor. Newspapers are writing about a change in the temperature of Lake Managua—a change of one degree, which is hardly strange in the middle of what’s already a hellish hot summer. The only big ones we really have to deal with now, it seems, are Ortega and Murillo.

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Pass the Flor de Caña.