It is easy to underestimate the suffering of ordinary citizens in Central America, because, after literally centuries of economic poverty and political repression, they often maintain an apparently stolid passivity, often expressed in a kind of popular irony.
One example is the name generically attached to the prison where a dictatorial Nicaraguan regime’s most-hated opponents are kept: el chipote.
In Nicaraguan Spanish, a chipote is what we colloquially call “a slap on the wrist,” or “a knock upside the head.” Yes, physical abuse, for sure, but with the implication, “it could have been worse.”
That the label is ironic should be clear from this description of a Nicaraguan “El Chipote.” “Detainees report that the cells in El Chipote are below ground level and are ventilated only by a vertical shaft in the ceiling.”
This online citation doesn’t make it clear, which “El Chipote” it describes. Is it the one in which Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega was held 50 years ago, as a severely abused political prisoner during his days as a Sandinista revolutionary trying to overthrow the American-supported dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza? Or, is it the lock-up President Ortega has been using against opponents of his bid to be re-re-re-elected for a fourth term as in November.
The fact that the label persists also has a further irony, “El Chipote” is what the original Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino called his mountain headquarters.
And here’s another linguistic trick and moral reversal: the dictator Daniel Ortega calls himself a Sandinista for his role in the movement that in 1979 overthrew the regime of the Somoza whose father had ordered the murder of Sandino in 1933.
Even when history or labeling repeat themselves in Nicaragua, bitter irony is never absent.
“More than 30 opposition figures were arrested in June,” our guest today, Linda Mannheim has written recently in The Nation. And the list of names includes some of Nicaragua’s most respected people — politicians, scholars, journalists, even Hugo Torres, who helped lead the Sandinista jailbreak that freed Daniel Ortega from the 1974 version of “El Chipote.” But, “Still, when I saw that Dora María Téllez had been arrested,” Mannheim wrote, “I thought: It’s all over.”
Nation contributor Linda Mannheim is the author of This Way to Departures, Above Sugar Hill, and the Kindle Single “Ghosts: Managua 1986.” Her latest article for The Nation is “The Arrest of Dora María Téllez Marks a New Low for Nicaragua.”