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Recycled Sandinistas: From Revolution to Resorts in the New Nicaragua

F L O R E N C E E . B A B B
Recycled Sandalistas: From Revolution to Resorts
in the New Nicaragua
ABSTRACT In the post-Sandinista period, Nicaragua has adjusted to the new terms of a neoliberal economy by turning to tourism
development as a leading industry. As the nation is refashioned as a safe and desirable tourist destination, efforts have been made
to conceal evidence of the recent revolutionary past that might discourage visitors from traveling to the country. Nevertheless, there
are indications that selected images and memories of revolution are making a reappearance and may prove marketable for tourism.
This article argues that the twin projects of neoliberalism and nationalism may be served by this seemingly contradictory process. The
Nicaraguan case offers an example of how the past figures in the remaking of postrevolutionary nations for tourism in the era of
globalization. [Keywords: tourism, revolution, Nicaragua, cultural politics, globalization]
Managua, Nicaragua what a wonderful spot,
There’s coffee and bananas and a temperature hot.
Managua, Nicaragua is a beautiful town,
You buy a hacienda for a few pesos down.
—Irving Berlin, recorded by Guy Lombardo, 1947
featured a lengthy article on travel in the “new” Nicaragua.
Here, however, the term has acquired a new meaning. The
author gushes, “Here come the foreigners: ‘sandalistas’ with
backpacks, businessmen in short-sleeved shirts trying to
look tropical casual, church missionaries sweating under
straw hats, and me” (2002:100). He goes on to confess that
although he is a journalist, on that day he was doing what
many other U.S. tourists have been doing in Nicaragua:
“scouting property” (2002:100). In fact, many of the 360
small islands in Lake Nicaragua are up for sale and are be-
ing purchased “for a song” by U.S. residents looking for a
bargain. Although the article describes Nicaragua as “a little
rough around the edges” (2002:99), readers are assured that
a trip is well worth it, because the country has had a real
makeover since the revolutionary period (1979–90).
For the past 15 years, I have observed the quickening
pace of change in Nicaragua2—or at least the appearance of
substantial change, even if the country has been on a rather
grim program of neoliberal free-market development since
the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election. The measures that
have been mandated by the International Monetary Fund
and administered by the U.S. Agency for International De-
velopment have produced a turn toward economic priva-
tization and the shrinking of state-led social development.
This has meant rising unemployment, ill health, and grow-
ing illiteracy for a majority, while a small elite benefits from
new products on the market, new restaurants and clubs, and
a new look to the capital city of Managua, where a third of
the nation’s population lives (Babb 1999). Other parts of
And why must we develop tourism in this God-forsaken
country? Because it’s the path to salvation for the
national economy.
New York Times for sandals from Barneys with a single
word that caught my eye: Sandalista (2002:7). It was not
only the word but also the bold font used that clearly in-
vested the word with political meaning. Surely, I thought,
there are few readers of the Times who will realize that this
was a term used in Nicaragua during the 1980s to refer to in-
ternational supporters of the revolutionary Sandinista gov-
ernment then in power. Certainly, most of those attracted
to the photograph of a single shoe, a sort of upscale version
of the rubber tire-soled sandals worn by the rural poor in
Latin America, here selling for $165, would make no such
connection (see Figure 1). But when I was in Nicaragua over
the summer and showed the ad to several U.S. citizens liv-
ing in the Central American country, they reacted as I had.
Seeing the ad took their breath away.
Another recent invocation of the word sandalista is
found in the February 2002 issue of Conde Nast Traveler
(Wilson 2002:98–112), the glossy travel magazine, which
American Anthropologist, Vol. 106, Issue 3, pp. 541–555, ISSN 0002-7294, online ISSN 1548-1433. C 2004 by the American Anthropological Association.
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—Comandante Tomas Borge, 20031
IN APRIL 2002, I came across an advertisement in the