Transforming Public Spaces in Nicaragua

The experience of Nicaragua shows it is possible to regain control of public spaces, making them available for broad social use instead of serving as privatized neoliberal toll booths.

By Tortilla Con Sal

One of the most striking aspects about the steady but still dramatic process of change Nicaragua has been going through since 2007 has been the transformation taking place in the public spaces of every town, city and neighborhood. In this respect, Sandinista policies are very much a continuation and development of the efforts made during the first phase of the revolution in the 1980s.

Before the revolution in 1979, brutality and abuse at the hands of the genocidal Somoza dictatorship was a very real threat in the daily life of most Nicaraguans. Their youth was itself enough to make young people targeted as enemies by the regime. Even gatherings of no more than four or five people were promptly dispersed, often with very deliberate, demonstrative displays of raw violence. So it is no wonder that when the revolution of July 19th, 1979 overthrew the dictatorship, it lead to an unprecedented explosion of popular presence in every kind of public space, from streets, squares and plazas to stadiums and theaters.

In the neo-liberal era from 1990 to 2006, with the almighty profit principle dominating public life, people retreated into their homes, leaving the streets to delinquent gangs and to the decay of neglectful and underfunded public administration. The following pictures of the popular neighborhood of Hialeah in Managua, taken in 2005, serve as an illustration of a situation common to most popular areas in the country: streets in terrible condition, no sewage, people having to carry they own drinking water…

Hialeah, Managua, 2005: Photos: Jorge Capelan

Ten years later, people in that same neighborhood, especially children, celebrate having paved streets for the first time in their lives. Along with those paved streets, since 2007 the Sandinistas have brought down unemployment and poverty, instituted free education and health care, and also begun a host of social programs, ranging from Calles Para el Pueblo (Streets for the People), to free roofing programs, low cost social housing, support for people with disability, inputs and credits for low income rural families, low interest microcredit plans for women in urban areas, social promotion programs for various disadvantaged sectors of the population as well as sports and cultural initiatives of many kinds..

Hialeah, Managua, 2015: Photos: El 19 Digital.

The Streets for the People program, was started in February 2008 and funded by ALBA/Petrocaribe with the goal of paving some 200 kilometers of streets in Managua and the main cities. Since then, streets all over the Nicaragua have been refurbished (or built from scratch) at a relentless pace.

In 2015, the goal of Streets for the People was to build 1,780 new streets using either hydraulic concrete, asphalt or concrete paving blocks in 65 municipalities. In January, 2016, the goal in Managua alone was to build 731 new streets, of which 133 are being built with hydraulic concrete and the remaining 598 will be asphalted.

Of course, changing the appearance of the public landscape is not just a matter of building or repairing the streets. One very important aspect of this task is public lighting. Together with Nicaragua’s dramatic increase in electricity coverage, from 54 percent in 2006 to more than 85 percent today, an ambitious program of public lighting has been carried out.

October, 2105: Families from the San Judas neighborhood in Managua discuss the public lighting program in their area (Photo: El 19 Digital).

In mid-2012 a program was announced to solve problems with street illumination in Managua. Since then, the changes have been remarkable, not only in the capital, but in all urban areas in the country. In September 2015, the National Electric Transmission Company, ENATREL, anounced a program to improve public lighting in 150 neighborhoods in Managua and 220 in the most densely populated areas in the rest of the country. The program included the installation or improvement of existing lighting in 81 public parks, 25 parks that have a sports complex and another 23 sports complexes all over the country. Besides this, in almost all the main baseball stadiums lighting has been installed so that people can attend night time games of this most important national sport. Some weeks ago, the government announced that illumination will be installed this year in the last remaining main baseball stadium in the country, in Bluefields.

During the neo-liberal era, urban Nicaragua offered very few alternatives for amusement, if any, that did not involve people spending rather large amounts of money, often involving conspicuous consumption of alcohol. Today, the situation is very different, with recreational facilities and parks being built all over the country. The goal this year is to build 134 parks of various sizes in the cities and towns with 10.000 inhabitants or more. Practically all the old parks in the country have been renewed and many have been built from scratch.

Park in Las Americas Uno, Managua. Photo: El 19 Digital.

Besides slides, jungle-gyms, swings, hopscotches and other typical recreational facilities for children, as well as jogging paths and basketball courts, these parks increasingly offer free Internet access: 96 such parks in Managua, and 75 in the rest of the country, now offer fast, free wifi-spots for visitors to enjoy.

By the end of last year, the authorities of Managua announced the beginning of the construction for a new stage of the Luis Alfonso Velazques Flores Park. The park, named after a child that worked with the guerrillas during the struggle against Somoza’s dictatorship, was built during the revolutionary period in the 1980s as a recreational alternative for the children in the earthquake-ridden center of the capital.

During the neoliberal era, the park, which remained Managua’s largest recreational facility for the children, was abandoned, suffering from under-funded maintenance and downright neglect. After the Sandinista’s return to power in 2007, the Luis Alfonso Velazquez Park retook its original objective of recovering for the people a beautiful area of Managua that had been devastated by the 1972 earthquake, with the aim of creating an attractive functional recreation space, designed especially for young children and adolescents.

Baseball stadium in the park Luis Alfonso Velázquez. (Photo: El 19 Digital).

Since then, a brand-new baseball stadium has been integrated into the park along with several soccer and basketball courts. In the future, the park will include an artificial lake, a trekking course as well as several Olympic sized swimming pools which will be used in the Central American Games scheduled to take place 2017.

Whereas Luis Alfonso Velazquez Flores is the largest park of its kind, several similar alternatives are being revamped and/or built from scratch in the rest of the country.

Painted with bright, cheerful colors, these public places convey an optimistic sense of life that does a lot to boost people’s spirits. Well-lit at night, with good security and support from public services such as garbage collection, these parks strengthen people’s self esteem and their sense of being citizens with rights whose needs are met with dignity.

Street art exhibition in Northern Nicaragua (Photo: Juventud Sandinista)

Many of these initiatives also can count on support from the private sector, and they are regarded as important sources of economic activity, especially for small family enterprises that prepare food and offer other services to the visitors. But they are very much the product of deliberate government economic policy that has seen an increase in public investment from US$277 million in 2006 to US$655 million in 2015.

However, economic growth is not the only secret ingredient for the recovery of public space that has been taking place in Nicaragua. The indispensable element is the government’s clear political decision to prioritize a use of public spaces that encourages people’s participation. These parks and other recreational spaces promoted by the Sandinista government are actively used by the people for celebrations and activities of all kinds, from both Catholic and Protestant religious meetings to cultural and sports activities organized by the different Sandinista Youth sports and cultural movements and by the country’s schools.

The experience of Nicaragua shows it is possible to regain control of public spaces, making them available for broad social use instead of serving as privatized neoliberal toll booths. All that’s needed is the political will to satisfy the spiritual and emotional needs of the country’s population and also faith in people’s willingness to participate. This transformation of public space in Nicaragua is both more proof of the continuity of the original project of the Sandinista Revolution under today’s new conditions and a vindication of the socialist vision implemented in their different ways by each one of the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas, ALBA.