Back in his prime, the slender Arguello
held three boxing titles simultaneously, a feat that earned him a place
in the International Boxing Hall of Fame just down the road from us in
Canastota. When he died at his home in Managua, an apparent suicide at
age 57, his death reverberated in his home country and on sports pages
here in the United States, then faded quickly as the world mourned a
boy who never grew up.
News from Central America doesn’t find
its way into the news much any more. Even though more and more Central
American immigrants have become our neighbors, and the isthmus is
increasingly seen as a retirement haven for middle-class Americans, the
problems of the region don’t rate much attention in the 24-hour news
cycle. The five countries of Central America have a total population of
40 million, but they have held a prominent role in U.S. foreign policy
since the early days of the Cold War. Twenty years ago four U.S.
television networks had Managua bureaus. Today there are none in the
Central America is the only place on
earth where a country is governed by a Nobel Peace Prize winner (Oscar
Arias in Costa Rica). Arias has also made his country a world leader in
the struggle to contain climate change. Now he has been given a new
role in trying to mediate between factions battling over the future of
democracy in nearby Honduras.
The week of Arguello’s passing, Central
America saw its first military coup in decades. The Honduran military
sent that country’s elected president, Manuel Zelaya, packing in his
pajamas. They defied their neighbors and the Organization of American
States by refusing to let him back in the country to finish the last
six months of his term. Zelaya had sought a referendum to change the
constitution and allow him run for a second term, which some feared was
to be the beginning of a populist dynasty.
Just to the south of Honduras, the
remnants of the Sandinistas under Daniel Ortega will this week be
celebrating the 30th anniversary of the overthrow of the dictator
Anastasio Somoza. When the young, victorious Sandinistas rode into
Managua on July 19, 1979, they were greeted as liberators by their
people and seen by many around the world as standard bearers for a new
brand of Third World socialism.
Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega led the
junta that first took charge, then won the Nicaraguan presidency twice,
before being ousted in 1990 in that country’s first-ever peaceful
transfer of power. For those on the left, the Sandinista cadre of
poets, priests, and proletariat revived hopes for a revolution to
benefit Central America’s impoverished workers and farmers. The
Sandinista example revived revolutionary fervor in El Salvador and
Guatemala, which made them more of a threat than Ronald Reagan could
In one of our more shameful episodes,
the U.S. government poured millions of dollars into creating, arming
and training a guerrilla force of its own, which came to be known as
the contras. One of those contras was Alexis Arguello, a dashing boxer
with a grudge. Arguello had been utilized for propaganda purposes by
Somoza, and when the Sandinistas took over, they confiscated real
estate owned by Arguello, who spent most of the 1980s in exile,
agitating for an end to the Sandinistas.
Later on, a newly elected Ortega made
peace with the boxing great, and Arguello came home. The champ used his
popularity to win the mayor’s race in Managua, although many believed
that Ortega manipulated the results to help him. By the time Arguello
came home, Ortega had lost all connection to his roots in the struggle
to build a more just Nicaragua.
For anyone clinging to illusions about the state of the Sandinistas under Ortega, consider this: In his brief reincarnation as el presidente,
he has banned writings by Sergio Ramirez, his former vice president,
and has had his former minister of culture, Ernesto Cardenal, detained
under house arrest. Both men, former allies and unfailing critics of
U.S. meddling in the region, made a principled break with Ortega over
his authoritarian ways. Ortega, unfazed, appears committed to the same
populist authoritarianism as his compañero, the macho militarist Hugo
Chavez of Venezuela. Hopefully a new generation of democratic leftists
will be able to contain the strongman impulse that for so long has
bedeviled Latin America.
We’ll never know the reasons that drove
Alexis Arguello to take his own life. May he rest in peace. We do know
what killed the best hopes of Sandinismo: Daniel Ortega’s belief that
he alone knew what was best for his countrymen and women.