Nicaragua: Where Every Day is Christmas

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Sandinistas celebrating in front of a Christmas tree in downtown Managua, Nicaragua.

In most parts of the world, including the North Pole, Christmas comes but once a year. But in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, the Christmas trees along the downtown streets are lit festively every night of the year — even in July. The nightly ritual of lighting the trees (in this case, metal poles decorated with strings of lights and various other ornaments) serves as an eternal celebration of the Sandinista government's victory over the energy deficit inherited from the previous administration, at least according to Omar Cabezas, the ombudsman for the administration of President Daniel Ortega.

To make that point even clearer, each tree is now topped with an illuminated "30" to mark the 30th anniversary of the victory of The Sandinista National Liberation Front over the repressive U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty. Nicaragua's continual Christmas theme is also appropriate because President Ortega governs Nicaragua a bit like Santa Claus. Not because he is jolly or has a tummy like a bowl full of jelly (Ortega is very serious and has kept in remarkably good shape for a 63-year-old), but because the Sandinista boss uses gifts to keep people in line, and always double checks his list of who's naughty and who's nice.


The role of Mrs. Claus is played by First Lady Rosario Murillo, who doesn't waste much time knitting stocking caps, but is terribly efficient at keeping the elves in line while Santa naps. Most Sandinistas know the best way to avoid the proverbial lump of coal in their stockings is to stay on Murillo's "nice list," which is more exclusive than her husband's. As the head of government propaganda, Murillo is also the one in charge of the Christmas decorations.

For some, it's a bit too much. Gonzalo Carrion, of the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights, is a bit of a Grinch when it comes to the Christmas trees. He says the thousands of light bulbs burning brightly each night are an offense to the thousands of impoverished Nicaraguans — Sandinistas included — who can't afford to light their own homes. "There is a lack of ethics in all this," he said. "The Christmas trees don't project the image of a humble party of the poor." The continual Christmas celebration is also symptomatic of a country "full of poets and surrealism," Carrion says.

Sandinista lawmaker and union boss Gustavo Porras has no patience for such naysayers. "We are in the second phase of the revolution," he says, "and we are fighting the same enemies as always — the oligarchy and the gringos." Porras, an Ortega loyalist, is a main architect in the government's constant mobilization and celebration. He insists the streets of Nicaragua belong to the Sandinistas, and must be claimed and occupied in whatever form — through protests, celebrations or tree-decorating parties.

Critics claim the Sandinistas' continued faux holiday cheer — whether it be waving flags around the Christmas trees in traffic circles, or throwing rocks at the opposition — epitomizes the ruling party's intolerance and fear. Sandinistas, however, claim it's democracy in action. "In Paris, if you get a million people in the streets it's called French democracy; but here if we put 10,000 Sandinistas in the streets it's viewed as violence or aggression," lamented presidential advisor Orlando Nunez.The Sandinistas insist the trees — and everything else they do — is a celebration of a historic moment in time, the Sandinista victory that represents the birth of eternal hope, just like Christmas. Except every day.