Have Yourself a Sandinista Christmas...

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Tim Rogers

Victor, 12, learns how to fire a Soviet-made SAM-7 at Nicaragua's Happy Children Amusement Park.

Wearing a green field cap and military dog tags, 12-year-old Victor steadies a Soviet-made SAM-7 missile launcher on his tiny shoulder, squinting through the crosshairs at the children screaming dizzily on the nearby Tilt-a-Whirl ride. Even without the missile, the SAM-7 launcher is as tall as Victor and doesn't weight much less. But he's having too much fun to be burdened by the weapon's cumbersome dimensions.

"That's the same type of SAM they used to shoot down Eugene Hasenfus," a bystander remarks, referring to the CIA contractor pilot whose cargo plane was downed by Sandinista soldiers in 1986, while making a supply drop for "contra" insurgents. More recently, the U.S. has tried to get Nicaragua to destroy its remaining stockpile of surface-to-air missiles, allegedly out of fear they'll fall into terrorist hands. But Nicaragua has insisted it will hold on to its 400 SAM-7s for strategic defense purposes — and amusement park photo ops.

After posing for the picture, Victor shrugs the clunky SAM-7 off his shoulder with the help of a Nicaraguan soldier, before scampering off to check out some other anti-aircraft artillery on display at the Sandinista government's recently inaugurated "Happy Children Amusement Park." At a nearby military tent, dozens of other children and adults merrily grab at a generous selection of unloaded assault weapons of different makes and calibers, and casually take aim at passersby who move hurriedly toward other park rides. Some of the teenagers knowledgeably slide and lock the bolt handles on their assault rifles with a nimble familiarity that seems to belie the innocence of their youthful looks. Despite the presence of several soldiers, the atmosphere in the tent is considerably laid back — even when one of the more rambunctious boys shoves a grenade launcher into the back of an unsuspecting soldier and yells "bang!"

At the other end of the fairground, beyond the bumper cars, circus tents and spinning tea cups, children line up outside Nicaragua's first public ice-skating rink, built inside a climate-controlled plastic tent that defies the scorching 95 degree heat outside. Wearing loosely laced second-hand skates with dull blades and inadequate ankle support, the excited children — most of whom have never seen ice outside of a drinking glass — giggle, flop and crash their way across the Zamboni-starved ice.

For First Lady Rosario Murillo, the free amusement park, funded entirely by the presidential couple's mysterious private finances, is part of the Sandinista government's "vindication of children's rights" following the "neoliberal nightmare" of the previous three administrations.

"All children have the right to learn how to skate on ice," Murillo gushed during the inauguration of the park, which plans to receive 1.6 million children over the next month, before closing Jan. 3, 2010. "This park is for the children, because they were born to be happy."

Murillo said the government would like to make the subsidized amusement park a permanent attraction, but admitted it costs "a lot of money," without mentioning a figure. "Our commitment is one that is Christian and one of solidarity, advancing towards a future of socialism ... to install the Kingdom of God on Earth," Murillo said.

Others, however, hope the Kingdom of God will have less heavy artillery.

While no one objects to the smiles of the mostly impoverished children and their families who visit the Sandinista amusement park, critics claim the Ortega government is starting to provided circuses without the bread. Children have a right to play and have fun, but they also have a right to sustainable development that includes health, education and protection, says María Jesús Gomez, head of the Nicaraguan Federation of Non-Governmental Organizations Working with Children and Adolescents (CODENI). Gomez says the Happy Children theme park is not a sustainable strategy to deal with problems facing children in the hemisphere's second-poorest country after Haiti.

"There is a national economic crisis, so the government has to be clear about its public policies and how it's using its resources," Gomez said, noting that the government has already had to cut budget funding for education and health. While the price tag on the Happy Children Amusement Park remains classified government information, the Nicaraguan media has estimated that the ice rink alone costs upwards of $2 million — roughly the same amount the government spent this year on it equally opaque program for street children.

For others, such as Monica Zalaquett, whose Center for the Prevention of Violence, has been working tirelessly to educate at-risk Managua youth about the dangers of guns and create a "new image of masculinity," the government's promotion of military weaponry is mind-blowing, especially considering the spike in gun-related deaths among teenagers this year.

"Instead of having a festival of happy children, they should have a festival of safe children," Zalaquett said. "If you want to make children happy, you have to make them safe." For a lot of the boys at the Sandinista theme park, however, happiness this Christmas might be an arms cache from Santa.