Histories of revolutions often focus on military, political, or economic upheavals but sometimes neglect to connect these larger events to the daily lives of "ordinary" people. Yet the peoples' perception that "things are worse than before" can topple revolutionary governments, as shown by the recent defeat of the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua and the governments of Eastern Europe. Providing the kind of prosaic, revealing details that more formal histories have excluded, My Car in Managua offers an objective, often humorous description of the great difficulties and occasional pleasures of life in Nicaragua during the Sandinista revolution.
During a year's work (1985-1986) at the Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas (INCAE), Forrest Colburn purchased a dilapidated car—and with it an introduction to everyday life in Nicaragua. His discoveries of the length of time required to register the car (approximately six weeks), the impossibility of finding spare parts (except when U.S. dollars were applied to the search), and the fact that "anyone getting into a car in Managua can be charged a small fee [for car watching] by anyone else" all suggest the difficulties most Nicaraguans faced living in a devastated economy.
Drawing on experiences from visits throughout the revolutionary period (1979-1989), Colburn also sheds light on how the Revolution affected social customs and language, gender roles and family relationships, equality and authority, the availability of goods and services, the status of ethnic minorities, and governmental and other institutions. Illustrations by Nicaragua's celebrated political cartoonist Róger Sánchez Flores enliven the lucid text.
Forays as a youth into Mexico from my native San Diego sparked my enduring interest in Latin America and my concern for the region's inequality and generalized poverty. As a graduate student at Cornell, I spent a semester in Guatemala studying rural health paraprofessionals. The stark contrast I encountered between munificence and misery left me with the conviction that the country needed a revolution. So when my mentor proposed I write my dissertation on revolutionary Nicaragua, I eagerly agreed.
I have had many opportunities to observe the richness and complexity of Nicaraguan society. After an eleven-month residence in the country in 1981-1982, I have returned every subsequent year, usually twice, for periods ranging from two weeks to three months to nearly a year (in 1985). Two excursions to Cuba, the first from Nicaragua, heightened my sensitivity to the intricacies of revolution in a small country. Even more enriching were the five months I spent in 1988 teaching at Addis Ababa University, which played a pivotal role in Ethiopia's 1974 Revolution. Ethiopia's intellectuals lost to the army a contest for power, but the University nonetheless provided a window into the country's tumultuous transformation to socialism.
In Nicaragua I have done what I was trained to do—dispassionate scholarship within the oeuvre of contemporary "social science." Slowly, though, I realized that, while the mastery of certain kinds of knowledge was facilitated by the methods of scientific inquiry, academic strictures dictated that many facets of everyday life in Nicaragua were not worthy of attention. Or they could only be heeded if they were stripped of their setting, their ambience, to be treated as comparable data.
The impetus to break from my routine and to share diverse personal experiences about revolutionary Nicaragua—to dare to use the first person singular—is threefold. First, there is the poignancy of Nicaragua, so difficult to portray in academic discourse. Second, I have always admired the descriptive accounts of the Mexican Revolution written by such inquisitive intellectuals as Carleton Beals, whose aptly titled Mexican Maze was illustrated by Diego Rivera. That genre deserves contemporary emulation.
Most immediately, though, I am inspired by my colleagues in Princeton's history department (I teach in the politics department). Many of them are critical of traditional scholarship for its preoccupation with the elite strata of society—those who govern, those who command, and those who employ. Moreover, only the public lives of the elite are thought to be deserving of study. Traditional history illuminates little of even these people's lives and, worse, tells us nothing about the great majority. History is anonymous.
In retort, and following the lead of French and Italian counterparts, a number of Princeton historians are writing what they call cultural or social history, whose aim is to show how ordinary people live and how they make sense of their lives. In this endeavor to make history more complete, the range of images and experiences judged to be of interest is infinitely broadened. One colleague wrote a book entitled The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. If the Dean let him get away with that, maybe I will not suffer for writing about my car in Managua.
What follows is the piquant transcript etched in my memory of how Nicaragua changed in the first, and undoubtedly most dramatic, decade of post-Somoza rule: what the Sandinistas wrought, and how Nicaraguans interpreted it.