Patria Libre o Morir
Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
300Trip End Nov 04, 2008
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Leon is a good place to find out about the Sandinist revolution versus the Somoza dictatorship as it is one of the cities that suffered heavy battles.
In the morning we visited the Museo de la Revolucion. An old shabby building in the central park in front of the Cathedral. You pay 10 Cordobas to get in ($50 cents) and one of the 78-79 veterans shows you round a room plastered with photocopies of books, newspaper articles and maps. All biased of course, but one should not expect well balanced information in the Sandinista veterans museum.
As a matter of fact it looks like the Ortega government probably frowns on these groups and museums as they dont have too much information on Ortega and they support the real Sandinista theology and politics
The museum itself has nothing which one cant find on internet, but the first hand explanations from a veteran of the Leon battle makes is a must for spanish speakers. We decided to get some more guidance from these blokes and we asked if they did any other tours around Leon. Roberto (the guide) happily volunteered to show us all the main fighting points of Leon during the 78-79 revolution for $15.
So after a light lunch (and seeing Germany football totally embarrass itself versus Austria) we returned to the Museum to meet Roberto. We were told he was giving classes (probably marxism or something similar) so "Cheto" offered to take us.
Cheto is a character to himself. Small man, was 18 when the fighting started and fought during all June and July 1979 versus the National Guard of Somoza. He relates all the stories of the fighting, bombs, deaths, etc which great respect and in a low voice, but canīt avoid a big smile from time to time when memories come back.
Anyway, we started walking from the Cathedral to the old National Guard headquarters. This is where most of the National Somoza Guard of Leon defended itself and were they resisted during the days of the revolution
Cheto related to us how during days they broke down holes in the surrouding houses made out of adobe in order to get close to the National Guard HQ. When they were next to it they passed a long petrol pipe which they used to throw burning petrol inside the HQ and to storm it.
It took a tough fight but the National Guard surrendered, left toward the fortress up the hill or dressed up as civilians and tried to mix with the rest. Cheto told us that he arrested to National Guards, one which he took his gold ring off and then gave to the red cross, and another one which was dressed as a civilian. The one dressed as a civilian was carrying an image of a Saint. He told Cheto "Im an Evangelist". Cheto replied to him that "How can you be an Evangelist if they dont adore Saints". Then he touched his shoulder and he was bleeding so he arrested him.
He says that many of the arrested were shot on site, and the "less bad" were handed over to the Red Cross.
All along the tour he kept showing us places where colleagues were killed or where National Guard bodies were lying rotting. He told us that next to the destroyed church down the road they had to dig a hole with a bulldozer as the bodies of the national guards were starting to stench badly. There is apparently a mass grave there.
Our second visit was of the old prison which they call "El 21". It has a certain irony to its new and current use. Now its the "Museum of Legends and Popular Stories" (10 Cordobas each) basically a collection of huge puppets which are used in carnaval or just to represent the popular legends (see pictures). The collection is distributed along the different cells were prisoners of Somoza were kept, tortured and killed.
Cheto kept smiling with each of the figures and explained to us what they meant, but then he would suddently get serious and say "here they kept people, they tortured them there and then they sent them to the fortress to be killed at night".
He was emotional with the Mango tree at the entrance which he said was planted by one of the prisoners
Our last visit was to the fortress which is slightly out of Leon. Cheto insisted in grabbing a cab that would take us there and back, and emphasised that not only is it a long walk but that it is a dangerous one too. Apparently tourists have been mugged. Its only ironic that this brave teen ager fough 15 days from the National Guard HQ all the way to the fortress in 1979, skipping over bombs and bullets, only to have to take a taxi nowadays as poverty in the area makes 2 kms no manīs land. Surely it says something about the current administration.
The trip to the fortress was quite depressing. Poverty is quite evident going up the hill, as it has been in other small towns, and the road is just a dirt track. Cheto kept telling us how he walked up all the way from Leon with the rest of his colleagues under mortar fire and machine gun bullets.
At the top we did a full visit of the fortress. Not something for emotional tourists. It state of abandonment makes the visit even harsher as you can walk around the old prison cells and defensive positions. Graffitti and rubbish fills most of the place and there is a couple of tramps livining inside now
Cheto told us that the National Guard was well armed and they had plenty of food, but that they ran out of water because the only well they had was full of bodies which they had been throwing in during the torture sessions. So once the water barrels were empty they had to abandon the fort and move North.
We took a couple of pictures of Cheto proudly at the fortress which he asked us to send to him.
Back in town, Cheto insisted that he take us to more places and related more stories. As a last story he mentioned that the National Guard had several snipers on the different roof tops. One of the worst was on the back tower of the Cathedral and he was causing all sorts of havock amongst the revolutionaries.
Cheto was at the church tower of el Calvario (see picture) from which he was instructed with another fellow fighter to "entertain the sniper" so 2 others could get closer to the sniper
He said the other 2 managed to get close enough to shoot the sniper who fell 20 metres to the floor (he also showed us the exact point where his body was found).
That was the end of the tour, but certainly an unforgettable one. Cheto was delighted when we told him we would tell everyone about his tours, although sadly he speaks no English.
P.D: The shout of the revolution was "Patria Libre o Morir" (Free Nation or Death), which difers from "Patria o Muerte" of the Cuban Revolution.
The new shout of the Ortega government (and which fills the roads and streets with huge posters and signs) is "Arriba los pobres del mundo" ("Rise the poor of the world" - see the pink poster in the museum photos). We let our readers have their own opinions on such phrase. We have seen all the poor in Nicaragua up...but basically because they get absolutely no help except from foreign organisations...