The saga of Nicaragua-Taiwan relations — and their eventual end in December 2021 — dates back to the Cold War heyday of Taipei’s anti-Communist obsession.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen (right) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega engage in bilateral talks, January 10, 2017.
Credit: President’s Office, ROC (Taiwan)
We landed in Managua, Nicaragua shortly before 7:50 p.m. on July 18, 2014. Tickets had originally been booked for a cheaper flight the next day, but Pablo Morales had none.
“It’s liberation day,” he said. “You must be here. It will be special. »
He greeted me with a clasp worthy of his sea urchin physique and insisted on carrying my luggage—a lone battered backpack—to the car. Whispering from the Pacific, the evening breeze had taken the heat down a notch, from oppressive to somewhere just above sweltering.
The previous afternoon, while touring Panama City‘s Old Chinatown with a local historian, I had mentioned my intention to attend the celebrations in Managua. My guide raised a surprised eyebrow. “Be careful with these Sandinistas,” he said. “They will try to convert you for sure.”
Perhaps Morales discerned a ripple of that warning in my furrowed brow as he navigated downtown traffic en route to his suburban home. “First thing to know,” he said. “I’m a Sandinista, but I won’t try to make you one.”
Pablo Morales (a pseudonym) kept his word, but his word was not the problem.
Propaganda is everywhere in Nicaragua; the cult of President Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is omnipresent. Spray-painted images of El Comandante, fist clenched as he shouts a bugle call to the masses; constant updates from the president’s office broadcast as banners at the bottom of the screen during daytime lifestyle programs on state television; the utopian twist of almost every action or event in which the government plays a role; and Stalinist accusations of sabotage carried out by nebulous malefactors when things aren’t quite right.
The 2014 Liberation Day celebrations are a perfect example. I had been led to believe that it was Nicaraguan Independence Day, which it is not, and that it was an event joyfully celebrated by all Nicaraguans, which is not the case. The markedly disappointing attendance at Plaza de la Revolución, formerly Plaza de la República – further demonstrating how the FSLN tied the country’s identity to the party – was explained by the revelation that a Sandinista youth wing bus had been attacked by “right-wing terrorists.
Several Sandinistas insisted this happened regularly, and indeed two more attacks on party supporters were reported in the following days. I caught one of them having breakfast at the Morales family house. Coincidentally – given that I had come to Nicaragua to survey the country’s relations with Taiwan – the banner announcing the news ran down the screen during a segment about a Taiwanese woman who ran a KTV in Managua.
Elsewhere, other Nicaraguans have scorned these claims. “Anytime things don’t go their way, it’s a right-wing plot,” said a contact linked to opposition groups.
Still, if Ortega and his followers saw enemies everywhere, it wasn’t completely without reason. The causes of this paranoia are central to my decision to take this trip in 2014. I was not investigating current conspiracy allegations, but a charade that dates back decades. Eventually, I found the two coincided in the most unlikely way.