In León, the former headquarters of Somoza’s national guard is pocked with bullet holes, and inside appears untouched since the day it was cleared out by the revolution. The only adornments added since its sacking came with the conversion to a museum, when photos and old weaponry were set up in two big rooms on the ground floor. On a wall behind the main building someone has painted the silhouettes of four Sandinista fighters, who sneak towards the rear entrance — and victory.
Just inside I could hear the sounds of city life drifting in from the Central Plaza, but away from the arched entrance hall the place was quiet and still.
The museum is staffed by a few former soldiers who served as guides. Guerrilleros viejos, “old guerrilla warriors,” is how the one I was paired with called himself and his comrades. He had been there on that day, he told me, and pointed out the street corner from which he’d fired on the building. A piece of shrapnel made a sixth knuckle on his hand, and he lifted his shirt to show me the navel-to-armpit scar where a machine gun had opened him up.
He hesitated before mentioning that the machine gun would have been supplied by the U.S., and then asked me where I was from. I told him I was Swiss, a convenient half lie; being a North American in Latin America at times requires knowing when to temporarily forget where you come from.
He opened up more then, and after a brief tour and his recounting of the battle for the guardhouse and the time he’d spent fighting in the mountains before the final offensive, he asked me if I wanted to go up on the roof. I certainly did. He led me out of the main museum to the stairs, where he took the steps two at a time. It was the gait of an excited child, not a guerrillero viejo. I had to work to keep up.
On the upper level there was no attempt to show the building as anything other than an abandoned barracks. Only one room I saw had furniture, and that was my guide’s bedroom. On the floor he had a mattress, and in one corner a wooden table holding a small but neatly folded pile of clothing. He told me how he and a few of his colleagues had petitioned the Nicaraguan government for permission to live above the museum. He also showed me the live grenade he kept hidden between two folded shirts, and demonstrated just how one would pull the pin.
When the Sandinistas swept through to victory he converted from revolutionary to professional soldier, and helped train the next generation of Nicaraguans, this time to fight the Contra war. He expressed few doubts about the Sandinista cause or leadership, although he did mention that mistakes had been made.
He was extremely alert and intelligent. A few things he said that caught me by surprise however were the following:
- President Daniel Ortega, who had just returned from a much publicized and unexplained absence, had been laying low in order to draw out his enemies.
- North Americans had without doubt played a role in Hugo Chavez’s death from cancer.
- Panama is not represented by one of the five volcanoes in the center of Nicaragua’s flag (one each for Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) because it has always been a finca de los Yanquis – a farm for the North Americans. In reality it was left out because the volcanoes are emblematic of the former United Provinces of Central America, which existed before Panama’s creation, in which los Yanquis admittedly played a fairly large role.
He was an old soldier, sleeping on a mattress in an empty room where he’d won a battle a long time ago, and I was an open audience. But he wasn’t a crazy old man, not yet anyway.
Family history gives me a Swiss passport, but I’ve never visited and can rarely remember what province I come from. Regardless, what stuck with me from my time with my guide was his relationship with my real home.
He was born into a country with a baseball stadium in every large town and a northern neighbor omniscient in every chapter of its history. He had fought to bring down a corrupt regime backed by U.S. weaponry and dollars, and then fought again when that regime’s remnants resurfaced as the Contra warriors, once more with U.S. backing. I was caught off guard when he mentioned that he had actually been to the States; looking for work and escaping the collapsed post war Nicaraguan economy. He traveled up through Central America in order to sneak across the Mexican border, where he was detained, imprisoned and deported shortly after arriving.
Once on the roof we were above the street level heat, and the sunset vista was framed by volcanoes rising to the North and East. As I’d forgotten my camera, he invited me to come back the next day for photos. I did, and again bounded up the stairs after him, retracing my own steps from a day earlier, and following the steps he’d walked through war and into what I hope was some kind of peace. I wish I remembered his name, but I won’t forget him or his story, defined by the United States in a way very different from my own.