Arya Kazemi leads us on a photographic tour of Nicaragua’s former Liberal Capital, Leon.
When Nicaragua comes up in conversation, a few minds might perhaps flash to Bianca Jagger (or Bianca Perez Morena De Macias, as she was known during her youth in Managua), or even the luscious taste of the country’s exported coffee and cigars. But for most this nation is synonymous with the political violence and repression that gripped the country for nearly half of the 20th century (1936-1979), when the despotic Somoza family ruled with an iron fist, and then afterwards when a civil war raged throughout the 1980’s between the ruling leftist Sandinistas and the American-backed Contra rebels.
Despite the fact that Managua is the modern day capital, the historic city of Leon was the centrepiece of the aforementioned bloody battles for power. It has always been seen as a leftist haven and it was there that Somoza Sr. was assassinated. Later on most of the FSLN’s (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) rank and file members would hail from Leon or the general vicinity.
Alas, very few travelers are aware of the fact that since 1990 (when the Sandinistas were defeated in the general elections) Nicaragua has been free of political violence and that in terms of general safety for tourists it is widely regarded to be the best in all of Central America – much more so than its richer southern neighbor, Costa Rica.
The current regime has such a pro-American stance that it included Nicaraguan soldiers in the “coalition of the willing” that took part in the war in Iraq. It also seems to have made an effort to remove, or at least de-emphasize, the relics of the Somoza/Sandinista era in much of the country. But this is not the case in Leon, as the FSLN’s now splintered factions have their base of support and offices there.
One of the main roads leading into the center of Leon.
A mural with the heading “Leon Is Culture,” and beneath it “after 475 years we have history, we’ll make the future.”
A mother and daughter selling various local fruits (sugarcane, mandarins and passion fruit among others) at the entrance to Leon’s main market.
Varieties of Nicaragua’s delicious cheese (including barbecued, fried, smoked and cream) for sale at the Leon market.
An antique sculpture of the animal, which gave the town its respective name at the side of the historic cathedral.
A variant of Leon’s traditional dish, the “Spotted Rooster” (Gallo Pinto). It consists of rice prepared in coconut oil, kidney beans and fried plantains.
Notice the mosaic on the right saying “no more Somozas’ and the book titled ‘Ode To Roosevelt”.
Sundry CD’s for sale in the center of Leon. The one featuring Daniel Ortega is titled “The Promised Land.”
Memorial marking the 26th anniversary of the death of six Sandinistas (a few weeks before the fall of Somoza Jr.)
Anti US graffiti on the walls of a Leon FSLN office: ‘Bush Genocide’ and ‘enemy of mankind’.
A statue commemorating fallen Sandinista fighter Edgar Munguia Alvarez (nicknamed the cat or “la gata”). As seen on the inscription, Munguia fell in 1976 (during Somoza’s rule) and the memorial was dedicated in 1984 when the Sandinistas were in power. The inscription further states: ” we are not going to cry now for those dead who don’t die. We’ll seize our rifle to continue history.”
Munguia again, this time painted on the side of a Leon edifice.
A mural in Central Leon depicting Sandino, the armed struggle of the Sandinistas and a serpent representing the CIA’s nefarious role in Nicaraguan elections!
A mural commemorating the “martyrs’ of July 23, 1959, when five Leonites were killed during anti-Somoza protests. The Spanish term ‘Presentes” can be roughly translated as “still with us.” The second anniversary of the massacre in 1961 would herald Carlos Fonseca’s founding of the FSLN.
A mural of Che and Fonseca together. The slogan has been partially wiped away but seems to emphasize ‘fighting for a more just Latin America”.
Portraits of Sandino and Fonseca among other artefacts found in an FSLN office in Leon.
The figure of a rock-throwing Sandinista youth (notice the colors of the bandanna covering his mouth and neck) and a sculpture of someone picking up a fallen comrade adorn the entrance to Leon’s museum of legend and traditions.
Above the entrances to the Museum/prison’s rooms, the various methods of torture and execution under the Somoza regime are drawn up.
This building was built as a prison in 1921 and is commonly referred to by the locals as simply ‘la 21″ (the 21). It remained a prison (and occasional boxing gym!) until 1979 and the coming to power of the FSLN. In the year 2000 the city of Leon decided to move the museum of legends and traditions, which mainly displayed traditional ritual masks and costumes and also commemorated the reputed ghost of a former Spanish Colonel and mayor of Leon (Arrechavala).
The “torture pillar” inside 21.
The portrayal of an attempted escape from “the 21,” or just a prisoner trying to catch a glimpse of his surroundings?
A page from a local newspaper (dated August 1979) inside one of the rooms of ‘the 21’. The heading describes all the individuals pictured as ‘victims of tyranny” and at the bottom, the question: “do you know anything about them?”
Some of the traditional masks and figures on display in the “the 21.”
A wall near ‘the 21’ that has been left intact all these years.
A reminder that former President and head Sandinista Daniel Ortega is aiming to regain the presidency in November’s elections.
Author and photographer – Arya Kazemi.