Two young policemen in Nicaragua served us the one and only traffic ticket we collected on the entire Epic journey. Well, not quite. The junior officers only threatened us with a traffic ticket, which they offered to waive if we paid them a courtesy fee.
It happened like this. As we pulled out of the first small town we encountered after crossing the border, we found ourselves in the midst of a line of cars. Ben was at the wheel. As the line of cars accelerated, the junior officers waved ours over to the berm.
It was only then that I noticed their radar gun. They said that we had exceeded the speed limit by 15 kilometers per hour. Since we had seen no speed limit signs anywhere, I had no way of knowing if that were true or not. But I hesitated to argue with a cop holding a gun.
Instead, I remarked that if we were speeding, then the other cars in the line were speeding as well. Why did they not stop them?
They glanced at each other from behind their dark sunglasses, before one said, “Well, we can’t catch everybody.”
That is true, of course, and I assume explains why policemen invariably stop cars with foreign license plates. I mentioned this possibility to the officers, who glanced at each other again. An uneasy silence followed, perhaps because they didn’t expect a car with foreign license plates to talk back to them, in Spanish.
One policeman stepped forward and said, in a slightly conciliatory tone, “Look, ordinarily we would take you back to town to pay a fine in front of our captain. But since you are foreigners, we are willing to settle this here and now.”
He then named his price. We had no way of knowing if the amount, somewhere between $10 and $15 dollars U.S., was more or less than fines paid in front of his captain. Of course, compared to the fine I once had to pay to a rude state trooper on the Pennsylvania Turnpike who also had a radar gun and a keen eye for out-of-state license plates, this was peanuts.
But then, any fine seems stiff one when one is innocent, or at least no guiltier than others. I protested mildly, not because I thought it would do me any good, but in the hope that a bit of righteous indignation might save a fellow motorist from paying a courtesy fee in the future. I handed over the money and we were on our way.
If you should ever find yourself in a situation like this, take solace from a wise lawyer I know. “Don’t forget, the cost of living in Latin America is low,” he told me. “After all, where else in the world can you buy a cop for just ten bucks?”
I could write a lot of things about Nicaragua. Central America’s largest country by land mass, it boasts the sub-continent’s largest inland body of water, Lake Nicaragua, home to a rare species of freshwater sharks. The country produces excellent coffee and is the birthplace of one of my best friends.* But first impressions are powerful and more than a decade later, that threatened traffic ticket still stings.
Nonetheless, one cannot write about Nicaragua without mentioning Sandino. He is the country’s recognized national hero. Like many a national hero, he lived a shorter-than-average life span and met a tragic end.
Augusto C. Sandino was born in 1895 as the illegitimate son of a wealthy landowner and his indigenous servant girl. He was raised by his mother until age nine, when his father took him into his home to educate him.
At age 26, he nearly killed the son of another prominent citizen after the young man insulted Sandino’s mother. The incident forced his exile to Mexico, a country then in the throes of a radical revolution. There Sandino was exposed to the ideas of anarchists, mystic gurus, communists and the Seventh-day Adventist church.
Core ideas of the Mexican Revolution left the biggest impression on the exile, however. Ideas like the separation of church and state, equitable land reform, the right to vote and fair wages. Sandino witnessed firsthand the formation of a new "institutional revolutionary" government that introduced a sweeping array of political and social reforms to the country.
Sandino returned to Nicaragua in 1926 and soon launched his own revolution. A civil war had erupted between the Conservative and Liberal political parties and Sandino joined the Liberal camp, rising to the rank of general. His side was on the verge of victory when a powerful foreign government intervened and forced his fellow commanders to sign a peace treaty.
Sandino considered the treaty a sham and refused to lay down arms. Instead, he retreated into the bush with soldiers under his command and launched a guerrilla war against the foreign occupation force that now policed Nicaragua.
That force was the United States Marine Corps and Sandino would fight them for the next six years. The U.S. government branded him a "bandit", the equivalent today of being placed on the list of Designated Foreign Terrorists.
Many of his fighters wielded only machetes against their well-armed foe. Casualty counts in early battles were 20 to one in favor of the Marines. But try as they might, the Marines could not kill or capture Sandino. Eventually, his exploits earned him an international reputation as a kind of Central America Robin Hood.
Sandino never came close to a military victory over the Marines, to whom he referred as “foreign invaders”. But history was on his side. When the Great Depression hit, the United States could no longer afford to maintain troops in Nicaragua. Franklin Roosevelt withdrew the Marines in 1933 as part of his recently enacted Good Neighbor policy.
On February 21, 1934, Sandino traveled to Managua to meet with newly elected president Juan Bautista Sacasa. The two were well acquainted. They had fought together in the 1926 civil war and both had declined to sign the U.S.—brokered peace treaty. In the meeting, Sacasa agreed to grant amnesty to Sandino, provide farmland to his fighters and build schools for their children. In exchange, Sandino pledged his loyalty to President Sacasa.
Upon leaving the presidential palace, Sandino and his contingent were waylaid by members of the National Guard, a military police force trained and commissioned by the departed U.S. Marines. Soldiers took the men to an isolated area on the city fringe, executed them and buried their corpses in unmarked graves.
Sandino was 38 years old.
Anastasio Somoza, another of Sandino’s comrades in arms during the civil war and newly appointed commander of the National Guard, had ordered his murder. Betrayal did not stop there. A year later, Somoza staged a coup d’état against Sacasa. The commandant subsequently ascended to the presidency himself and used the office to establish a family dictatorship that would last for more than 40 years.
When Somoza was assassinated in 1956, the presidency passed to his eldest son, Luis. Luis died of a heart attack in 1967 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Anastasio Somoza, Jr. A popular uprising finally unseated the last Somoza in 1979. He fled the country for Paraguay, where he was assassinated the following year.
The rebel movement that overthrew the Somoza dynasty named itself after Sandino. Known as the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, it claimed to uphold the legacy of Nicaragua’s tragic hero. It seemed as if Sandino’s ghost had returned to exact vengeance.
Other than his name, however, today’s Sandinistas have little in common with Augusto Sandino. Daniel Ortega, guerrilla commander turned politician, has clung to the presidency for some 20 years by manipulating sham elections and brutally repressing dissidents. His grim record of corruption and human rights abuse equals, or exceeds, that of the Somozas.
Sandino, of course, is still revered in Nicaragua. In 2010, Congress unanimously voted him a National Hero.
While on the subject of heroes, I could not write about Nicaragua without mentioning Bill.
Managua was an important stop on The Epic journey and Bill was the first person we connected with upon arrival. He was helping us organize an international forum of Kingdom workers in a pleasant retreat center in the mountains near the Pacific coast. Bill was good at stuff like that. He knew a lot of people.
Well over six feet tall with broad shoulders, shaved head and an iron grip, Bill was a bear of a man, someone you could easily mistake for a professional wrestler, retired. I recall feeling a bit intimidated upon meeting him for the first time, until he stuck out his hand and warmly welcomed me to Nicaragua. I knew immediately that I was standing before a true servant leader with a humble heart.
Bill’s heart had been stolen by the children of Nicaragua. From the time he and his wife first visited the country in 1992 and witnessed how hard life is for families living in relentless poverty, their priorities changed. The couple abandoned their pursuit of successful careers and a comfortable lifestyle and set out to make a difference.
They discovered that 35 percent of the nation’s children do not attend school. Of those that do, two-thirds fail to complete sixth grade. Bill decided he would start there, so he launched a non-governmental organization (NGO) to help Nicaragua educate its children.
He asked schools in the U.S. for donations and soon was receiving used desks and year-end surplus supplies of binders, glue, crayons, scissors, and partially used notebooks, things that Nicaraguan school children would otherwise do without. He purchased a warehouse to stockpile the material. Volunteers packed the items into shipping containers for transport to Nicaragua and distribution to a network of schools operating in impoverished neighborhoods.
Kids in impoverished neighborhoods lack many things besides education. Nutritious food is always in short supply. Bill’s NGO did some research and found a source of packaged food consisting of a rice-soy casserole mixed with dehydrated vegetables and fortified with essential vitamins and minerals. Soon the shipping containers were sending tons of food packages to be served in schools and church kitchens so children can have at least one nourishing meal a day. Many of the churches in the network also use the food for community outreach.
Bill’s NGO serves Christian educators, as well. Each year, an advisory council that understands the needs of the Nicaraguan teachers invites them to a two-day professional retreat, all expenses paid. In addition to refresher courses on educational issues, faculty members receive classroom supplies and “teacher boxes” full of gift items specially selected for them.
The network of schools benefiting from the NGO’s largess has grown to 24, serving thousands of children in communities across the country. From the beginning, the vision to help Christian schools educate Christian leaders for Nicaragua has not wavered.
I write this account of Bill’s work with a bit of melancholy. One, because this month marks seven years since his untimely death. Bill entered a U.S. hospital for routine gall bladder removal, agreeing to the procedure only when his doctor promised that he could return to Nicaragua on a mission trip two weeks following the surgery. Three days later, his wife was at his bedside, he suddenly took a turn for the worse and passed away from long-standing heart condition.
Bill was 69 years old.
His wife carried on the work in Nicaragua. However, she told me today on the phone that she is worried about their NGO’s future. In the past year, the government has canceled the operating licenses of more than 1100 private aid organizations serving the country. She asked that I not mention her name, or the name of the NGO, for fear it might draw unwanted attention to their coworkers inside Nicaragua. This is the other reason for the melancholy.
Nevertheless, I am certain their legacy will outlast any setback that might arise. Bill’s servant heart was a generous one and touched a lot of people. He relished passing on money and resources to organizations he thought were doing good work for the people of Nicaragua.
Among these was our international forum, which he evidently considered worthy of his largesse. The conference he helped organize in the pleasant retreat center in the coastal mountains attracted around one hundred participants from seven countries. When it was over, Bill said he wanted to be sure that we balanced our budget. To my grateful surprise, he then handed me several thousand dollars to cover forum expenses.
There are heroes, and there are heroes. Some heroes become celebrities, household names. Their images, emblazoned on T-shirts and billboards, are universally recognized. Magazines, television shows and websites continually report their exploits to an admiring public.
We recognize some heroes by putting their names on streets, parks and schools, or depicting them in statues. It is a way of memorializing uncommon deeds done at a crucial moment in history.
But I suspect the majority of the world’s true heroes are unsung. These are the men and women who leave earth an undeniably better place than they found it, but whose names and legacies remain hidden to the rest of us.
That is, until Judgment Day. Then the scrolls will be unrolled, the sheep and goats separated, and we all will learn the names of those who fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked and visited the prisoners.
Know anybody who might turn out to be that kind of hero?
Next time: Pure life
*Go to the blog entitled “No Joke” under the section Stalking the Wily Andes on this website