Recycled Sandinistas: From Revolution to Resorts in the New Nicaragua HTML version

Babb • Recycled Sandalistas 543
section, based on my travel to tourism sites and inter-
views with tour operators, government officials, and tourists
themselves, examines the way in which Nicaragua has un-
dergone a transition from being a revolutionary destina-
tion to one of interest to mainstream travelers. The third
section presents evidence from recent research that, con-
trary to my earlier expectations, indicates that the revo-
lution is making a reappearance on the tourist circuit. By
considering the Nicaraguan case, I will illustrate what may
also be observed in other postrevolutionary societies such
as Cuba, China, and Vietnam, as the past figures in the re-
making of these nations for tourism in the present era of
scribed as “imperial eyes” producing “the rest of the world”
During four decades prior to the Nicaraguan revolu-
tion, the Somoza family dictatorship held sway and im-
posed harsh conditions for the majority of citizens of the
country. Nevertheless, the Somoza period held certain plea-
sures for the national and international elite. The widely
traveled British writer Maureen Tweedy wrote a memoir en-
titled This Is Nicaragua (1953), in which she compared the
country favorably with her own. She paid Nicaragua her
highest compliment when she wrote, “The placid river flow-
ing so gently through the cattle sprinkled meadows beyond
Nandaime reminds me of the upper reaches of the Thames”
(1953:60). She admired the people as well for their simple,
friendly manner, writing, “In the springtime, in preparation
for Holy Week, the thrifty peasants build huts and shelters
of pineapple leaves, palms and bamboos, to rent to the pic-
nickers and bathers who throng the beaches” (1953:61). The
book concludes with Indian legends, and then advertise-
ments for Coffee Planter and Exporters based in Managua, as
well as for the capital city’s Gran Hotel and Lido Palace Hotel
(see Figure 2), which offered amenities to foreign guests.
Folkloric and modern images of the country thus shared
the same textual space.
The Sandinista victory in 1979 drew another class of
travelers to Nicaragua. Journalists, artists and writers, engi-
neers, and activists of many backgrounds made their way
to the country, often in delegations, from the United States
and elsewhere. Some stayed for a time and wrote books
based on interviews with militants and celebrated figures,
for example Margaret Randall’s Sandino’s Daughters (1981),
or memoirs, notably Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s Seven Days in
Nicaragua Libre (1984) and Salman Rushdie’s The Jaguar
Smile (1987).3 Some visitors came simply to see the revo-
lutionary society for themselves and others determined to
stay a year or longer in order to contribute to what many of
them viewed as the most significant process of social trans-
formation in the Americas since the Cuban revolution. A
cottage industry in guidebooks for internacionalistas (inter-
national activists) grew out of the solidarity movement in-
flux to Nicaragua during the 1980s.
The new travel guides were an amalgamation of brief
historical and cultural background, emphasizing the pro-
found changes recently brought about, along with practical
information about where to find cheap lodging and meals,
survive the tropical heat, and link up with other solidarity
workers. One, entitled (like Tweedy’s book) This Is Nicaragua
(1988), was made available in several languages by the
Nicaraguan Institute of Tourism and could be purchased on
arrival in Managua. It mimicked standard travel books in
its attention to the natural environment and the everyday
concerns of getting around a new place, but with one major
difference: The guide begins by celebrating the “General of
Free Men,” national hero Augusto Cesar Sandino who was
killed by Somoza’s National Guard in 1934, and by herald-
ing “a new geography for a new nation” (1988:xi–xiii). In-
deed, the Sandinista government redivided the country into
Long before revolutionary Nicaragua was remade as a tourist
destination, the country captured the interest of foreigners.
In earlier times, the country attracted some adventurous
travelers who were making their way by sea from one coast
to the other in the United States or who were going on to
Europe via the Central American Isthmus. No less celebrated
a traveler than Mark Twain ventured there with a com-
panion by ship from San Francisco during a transatlantic
voyage in 1866–67. This was only a decade after William
Walker, the U.S. expansionist, defeated warring factions in
the country and made himself president, ruling for a year
before he was routed. Writing Travels with Mr. Brown for the
San Francisco Alta California, Twain described the passen-
gers’ arrival at the Nicaraguan port town of San Juan del
Sur during an outbreak of cholera. He and his companion
found “a few tumble-down frame shanties—they call them
hotels—nestling among green verdure . . . and half-clad yel-
low natives, with bowie-knives two feet long,” the citizens
of the town (Walker and Dane 1940:39). Some four hun-
dred passengers endured 12 miles of land travel by horse,
mule, and vehicle to Lake Nicaragua in order to cross the
Isthmus. This gave the two men a chance to appreciate
the passing scene, about which Twain wrote, “Our interest
finally moderated somewhat in the native women . . . but
never did the party cease to consider the wild monkey a
charming novelty and a joy forever” (Walker and Dane
In the 1880s, a female member of the east coast
elite named Dora Hort made the trip from New York
by steamer along with her sister, a gentleman compan-
ion, four nephews and nieces, and a male servant, cross-
ing the Central American Isthmus before taking a boat
bound for San Francisco. The fascination that this Victo-
rian lady traveler held for Nicaragua and its people is re-
vealed in her memoir, Via Nicaragua, published in 1887.
Hort describes the arduous trek through jungle with bril-
liant birds and an “imbecile” guide who led them across
to the “uninteresting, desolate hamlet of San Juan del
Sur” (Agosın and Levision 1999:223)—which has become
a popular resort town in recent years. Early travel writers
like Hort exemplify what Mary Louise Pratt has aptly de-