Monday, February 12, 2007

Walker in Granada and a Nicaraguan Homestay

The Nicaraguan cities of Leon and Granada have had a rivalry only possible between competitive siblings. Granada has been the historic home of conservative politics in Nicaraguan history, and is proud to claim itself the cultural heart of the country. Leon, with its universities and strident intellectual atmosphere, has always sheltered the vanguard of the liberal-left. Granadan's look down upon the Leonese, the latter deriding the snobbery of their southern neighbors.

The impetus for Walker's arrival in Nicaragua was the long-standing power struggles between the conservatives of Granada and the liberals in the colonial capital of Leon. During the Nicaraguan Civil War of 1854-1855, the Leonese invited Walker to intervene on their behalf against the conservatives. Walker arrived with an army of 300 adventurers and from the lake shore of Granada launched a surprise attack that took control of the city. Instead of trying to win the support of Ponciano Corral, the gifted politician at the head of the conservatives and the potential key to national unity, Walker had him executed. This was the first of the many political blunders the filibusterer-in-chief would commit in his 20 months in Nicaragua.

The second of Walker's mistakes was a clumsy power seizure whereby he rigged elections to proclaim himself President. This disillusioned his liberal support in Leon. His forthcoming presidential proclamations, issued from Granada, not the capital, wore out what was left of his welcome even among the closest of allies. The unpopular mandates included making English an official language of the country, legalizing slavery and opening up to the slave trade, outlawing vagrancy as a means to gain the power of impressing labor, and sanctioning the absolute right of private property. Of all the missteps, the worst may have been his seizure of Cornelius Vanderbilt's railway and shipping lines. The furious Commodore was determined to make Walker pay, and he poured resources into the coffers of all the opposing governments of Central America. Walker compounded this problem when he declared, with his rhetorical 5 or None, that his aim was the conquest of all territory between Mexico and Columbia.

Bolstered by Vanderbilt’s war aid, the combined forces of Costa Rica, Honduras, and El Salvador drove Walker into an untenable position in Granada. He evacuated the city and sent orders to have every house, business, and government building--even the churches--burned. Walker's soldiers raped and pillaged, and after leveling the town to ashes, the filibusterers left a sign on the town square- Granada was Here. This last part is what most people on the street can tell you if you mention his name. A very bad man, they are almost sure to add.

Throughout his first Nicaraguan adventure, Walker never lost a decisive military battle. The Battle of Rivas, now remembered as the crossroads where the Central American forces won the decisive campaign of the war, was actually a military rout by the filibusterers. For every 100 casualties suffered by the united armies, Walker’s army lost one soldier. Cholera and dysentery were the more effective enemy. The twin scourges had thinned the ranks of both forces, and after Rivas, Walker decided his 250 men "still able to walk" did not have the means to keep on fighting. Walker negotiated a surrender by which he and his men could obtain passage back to the States. The 5th of May, 1857, they sailed for Panama and from there on to New Orleans.

I decided to take a couple hours of Spanish classes here in Granada, mostly to brush up on vocabulary for my research. Schools are also a great way to find a family to stay with, a very affordable and comfortable means to get to know a town. The family I was put with is not so much a family but the 29-year-old mistress of a local tycoon. He runs the only real option for cable television and high speed internet in Nicaragua. With his enormous belly and white suit he looks like the Nicaraguan Boss Hog. He comes around a couple times of week, once to take the mistress to his island in the lake, another time to hand her a wad of cash. Both visits he sits on the porch while one of his bodyguards mixes his vodka tonics from a well stocked cooler in the tail gate of his Land Cruiser. Another guard stands a few feet behind his chair with a very conspicuous gun on his hip. I drink a beer with him and we both laugh when he pinches the mistress' friends that suddenly materialize when he comes around.

The mistress likes to watch me from the porch while I eat my breakfast. I might need to find another family soon.

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