The Cycle of Impermanence: Collective Memory and the Politics of Monuments in Managua, Nicaragua


This study aims to analyze the state administration and citizen perception of monuments in Managua during the most recent and continuing presidency of Daniel Ortega, 2007-2013. Findings show that current FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional) administration is continuing the tradition of impermanence by having eliminated citizen participation in the monument creation process, and creating partisan monuments, which function as political propaganda. In failing to create non-partisan monuments, the current administration creates monuments vulnerable to future deletion and abandonment thus continuing the cycle of impermanence that encourages Nicaraguan political parties to rewrite the past each electoral cycle as opposed to building on the past to create a strong national identity and stable political tradition.

In the northeast corner of Granada, Nicaragua sits el Parque de la Poesía, the Park of Poetry. Though this modest park is filled with statues dedicated to the country’s pantheon of poets, the presence of a petit statue of revolutionary martyr Augusto C. Sandino, bronze in color except for the black and red handkerchief around his neck, earned the park its colloquial name, el Parque de los Tres Generales, the Park of the Three Generals.  Sandino is the third Nicaraguan General to occupy a post in the park. Previously the park was named in honor of first, conservative General Emilio Chamorro Vargas, and, second, liberal General Anastasio Somoza García, who founded the forty-five year Somoza dictatorship of Nicaragua. With the changing tides of government these nomenclatures have come and gone, each abolished to make space for a new political ideology, and a new military figurehead. The temporality of political figures in this space, manifested in a colloquial title that acknowledges not so much the Generals themselves but the trend of their replacement, demonstrates that political control of public space1 in Nicaragua is an ongoing battle.

Amid accusations of the waning importance of public space in the age of Facebook and Twitter, a growing global trend in place-based public protest such as those of the 2012 Occupy movement, and Arab Spring in 2008, display that digital public space has not yet replaced the physical public space provided by the world’s cities.  As Rita Padawangi (2013) asserts in her research on public space in Jakarta, Indonesia “Social change is rooted in the dialectic between people and space.”  As the official designers of the city, government control of the physical form of the urban landscape affects the interaction between people and space, igniting, suppressing, or directing urban political expression.

The creation of public monuments by governments extends this control to the interaction between the people and the past.  Monuments,2 as a form of public works, are intrinsically linked to memory–their creation is motivated by the desire to prevent a collective amnesia of selected historical events.  According to Carr et. al (1992, cited in Padawangi, 2013) public space is designed to fulfill one or all of five goals: public welfare, visual enhancement, environmental enhancement, economic development, or government or corporate public image enhancement.  In the latter, monument creation can be particularly useful in directing public memory of a government’s past actions, thus affecting current public political opinions.  In this way monuments act as public history classes, and at their most effective teach the population about lessons and figures in history that monument creators deem important.  In countries with low levels of literacy, and with an embroiled and polemic past such as Nicaragua, monuments potentially wield great power in their ability to influence the collective thought as informed by collective memory of past events.3

This paper is the product of a one-month study conducted in Managua, Nicaragua from November to December 2013 as part of an international study abroad semester directed by the School for International Training. The primary objective of this study is to analyze the State administration4 and citizen perception5 of monuments located at four sites throughout the city of Managua–the Peace Park, the park of ALBA/Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, the monument to Hugo Chávez at Plaza Inter and the monument to former mayor Alexis Argüello at the Plaza de la Victoria–all erected during the most recent and continuing presidency of Daniel Ortega, 2007-2013.  Through this analysis the study seeks to answer the question what does the history and current treatment of Managua’s monuments reflect about Nicaraguan political history and the goals for the current administration?6

As the capitol of Nicaragua, Managua represents the nation’s political stage, the “center that represents the nation for citizen’s living in the city and in the country” (Kusno, 2004, cited in Padawangi, 2013).  Thus the physical landscape of Managua is the government’s loudspeaker, and consequently bears the scars of changing political regimes and the majority of contemporary national monuments.

Concrete Commemoration: Understanding Monument Theory

To best understand the interaction of politics and monuments in Nicaragua it is important to first investigate the origins of monuments’.  Why do human cultures build monuments?  Monuments serve no physical evolutionary purpose, as they do not provide food or shelter–instead they serve a psychological evolutionary purpose.  Monuments are the physical manifestations of history, and thus provide the same benefits as historical knowledge: a context in which to understand the world, and our place within it. As Nicaraguan scholar and feminist Margaret Randall writes, “memory is identity” (cited by Raúl Quintanilla in Kunzle, 1995, p.xv).  As outlined by Lewis and Gregory (1998) in their discussion of monument creation at Kent State University, “the present is similar to the future in that its meaning is essentially unknown and to provide the present with meaning, it is critical that meaningful reference be made to the past,” (p. 216).  In a National Geographic discussion on monument creation between archeologists studying five different ancient cultures, Renee Friedmen of the British Museum commented that monuments created by the Ptolemaic Kings of ancient Egypt primarily took the form of large stone temples built at times when Kings “were trying to reassert their power… [or] bind society together,” (Howley, 2013).  Monumental works demonstrate human command of material and power over their environment while also binding societies together by creating a common visual narrative of shared history.

The selection of what of parts of history to put into stone, so to speak, is where monument making meets its critics.  Memory exists as a highly subjective medium, and collective memory, what many understand as history, is the dynamic combination of the memory of many, a socially constructed narrative dominated by the voices of victors of the past. Selecting one storyline to codify in a monument that will be accepted by a diverse population as the accurate representation of an event or person is a Herculean, if not impossible feat.  In democratic societies monument creation is an inherently uncomfortable process, for as the Washington Post put it, “monuments are… an attempt to place some fact or some understanding of history, beyond dispute: this man was heroic, this war was good, these people should be remembered,” (Kennicott, 2004).  Allowing monument makers to make a ruling on the past, calls into question who in our societies are the monument makers and what might be the ulterior motivations in their creations, further, assuming the aim of societal leadership is to promote equality of perspective and freedom of expression, which is by no means the goal of all, who then should be permitted to create monuments, if anyone?

Once manifested in a monument, a concept is reinforced as collective memory.  As Durkheim puts it, memory acts as a ritual supporting certain values, and through the performance of that ritual in the creation of a monument “man is surer of his faith when he sees how distant a past it goes back and what great things it has inspired,” (Durkheim, 1961, cited in Lewis and Gregory, 1998, p. 214).  In this context ‘faith’ refers to human collective memory and the values that understanding of historic events promotes.  By altering a monument towards one interpretation or another monuments have the power to direct collective memory.  Thus a thin line exists between monument creation and propaganda7 creation.  This line is primarily mediated by a monument’s intended goal.  A monument is created to immortalize while propaganda is created to influence minds.  The line is crossed when the choice of who or what to immortalize in a monument is motivated by a desire to impose a specific interpretation of history.  This, then, is an act of propaganda.  Viewers may interpret a monument, built without the intentions of propaganda, as propaganda.  Lewis and Gregory (1988, p. 218) discuss this dynamisms of monument meaning, making the point that building a monument shows the initial importance of the historic event or importance to the builder, however after a monument is built there is no “intrinsically imbedded meaning” other than that which viewer gives it.  In a society a monument can serve a diverse range of working functions, including but not limited to, a political statement, a point of geographical reference, a piece of art valued for this aesthetic beauty, or an event location. In the life of a city each monument has its role, and the meaning of each evolves with its inhabitants.

Thus, monuments serve to capture both the history and the culture of a society, and to influence its future. In Managua, Nicaragua monuments serve all of these purposes; this study aims to study specifically the interactions between monuments, as artifacts of memory in the urban landscape, and the unique political history and reality of the city.

The Urban History of Managua

The city of Managua, founded in 1819 (Antecedentes históricos de Managua, 2013), sits on the banks of volcanic Lake Xolotlán8, and is home to roughly one million.9

One of the few non-colonial cities in the country, Managua’s physical form predominately results from the influence of both natural disasters and political revolutions.  In 1931 and 1972, earthquakes repeatedly shattered the growing city, the latter of which, in combination with the resulting fires, decimated 36 manzanas10 of the lake side city center (M.Peréz, personal communication, November 19, 2013) 80% of the cities commercial businesses, and killed 10,000 people, displacing 400,000 (Tijerino, 2008).  The city’s cultural center, home to the city’s central park, movie theaters, bustling shops and the majority of Managua’s cultural monuments, lay in ruin.  Recovery efforts were minimally successful due to governmental corruption and misuse of international relief funds­–in the months following the earthquake president Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the third of the Somoza family to rule Nicaragua, declared the center city closed due to the continuing dangers of active seismic faults.  This decision pushed subsequent urban growth southward, resulting in disorganized urban sprawl, the development of unnamed street and meshing commercial development with residential sectors.

In mid 1979, after two decades of steady growth, the popular revolutionary forces of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN)11 ended its two-year insurrection with a final offensive against the Nicaraguan government and in the first weeks of July defeated the National Guard successfully ending the 45 year dictatorship of the Somoza family.  In the decade of revolutionary rule (1979-1990) that followed the FSLN triumph, the redesign of the government and US opposition to the new government’s socialist agenda in the form of the US funded Contra-war (1980-1989), and US trade embargo, prevented development and redesign of the city center.  Though now open to the public the ruined city center remained abandoned attracting squatters, and despite minor attempts to revitalize the area with the founding of Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores Park12 for youth, and a public ciclopista13 (Barricada, 1984), the area developed a reputation for crime and delinquency.

In 1990, tired of war and economic starvation, Nicaragua voted the FSLN out of power bringing a temporary end to socialist government Nicaragua. Under new rule of president Violeta Barrios Chamorro, neoliberal economic policy drew international investment to Managua. Despite initial hopes that new investment would revitalize the city center, persisting negative perceptions of the area prevented citizen use, resulting in the eventual failure of commercial investment in the region (M.Perez, personal communication, November 19, 2013).

By 2006, after three neoliberal presidents, the FSLN was again voted into office with President Daniel Ortega and First Lady Rosario Murillo at the helm. In recent years redevelopment of the city’s cultural center has been central focus of FSLN government and the Municipality of Managua resulting in the creation of Salvador Allende14 Port a strip of restaurants and bars along the lake’s edge, the redevelopment of Luis Alfonso Velasquez Flores Park, and the creation of a government funded low-income housing developments along the central Avenue Bolívar.

Contextualizing Memory in Managua

Much in the same way that memory shapes collective perceptions of history, history affects practices of memory. Both the history of earthquakes and of war has affected the way in which managuans interact with memory in the city.  For those whose lives took shape within the walls of pre-earthquake Managua, space within the city remains defined by old Managua’s landmarks. Today, as a consequence of the post-1972 urban disorganization, only Managua’s most central streets have official names, and subsequently directions are given using nearby landmarks, creating a system of informal monuments known only to those have been in the city long enough to be familiar with the sites.  While some of these monuments are the product of accidental striking urban elements, such as the small tree planned in the center of an intersection in the west of the city, referred to as el arbolito,15 others are appropriated historical monuments such as el Montoya,16 and the bust of Jose Martí17 that now function as geographic markers in addition to homages of historic figures.  Furthermore, for those above the age of forty it is not uncommon to direct people using landmarks of old Managua that no longer exist. These now invisible points of reference include old bars, popular shops, restaurants, and churches (D.M.Telléz, G.P. Leiva, M.Pérez, A.Barahona, personal communications, November, 2013). This system of spatial nomenclature creates a living link between the Managua of the past and that of the present. In the managuan mind the split between before and after the 1972 earthquake is further accentuated by common use of the words antes and despues, before and after, alone to refer to events or places that existed before or after the earthquake.

Memory of the Revolution also marks the state of memory in the Managua.  Like in most post-revolution societies, memories of the Revolution and the war that brought resulted in its fruition, carry both pride and pain.  While Nation-state monuments in the center city often focus on the element of pride in this memory, humble memorials to the human causalities of the revolution speckle Managua’s neighborhoods.  While there is little objection to the presence of neighborhood memorials, how to best represent the element of pride in Nicaraguan revolutionary memory is often a point of fissure between those who supported the Revolution because they opposed Somoza and those who supported the Revolution because they believed in the agenda of the FSLN.  Under FSLN governments, state monuments and government propaganda campaigns predominately promote a feeling of nostalgia for post Revolution national unity and socialist values.  Monuments created by neoliberal governments have frequently aimed to redirect the revolutionary conversation towards, civilian, non-FSLN heroes, and a national identity based it events independent from the Revolution.

The History of Monuments in Managua

The blank canvas provided by the city’s post earthquake open center has acted as the stage for many of the monumental productions produced by these competing ideologies. The following is a brief history of monument creation in Managua from the era of Somoza to present (1934-2013).

Figure 1 (Personal Photo) The clock tower of the cathedral in the old city center shows 12:35am, the time at which the 1972 earthquake stuck Managua.

Somoza Dictatorship (1934-1979)

Monuments made during the Somoza dictatorship have two predominate themes. The first, in classic dictatorship style, include a series of monuments to the Somoza family, including a bronze Anastasia Somoza García, the first in the series of three Somozas who would rule Nicaragua, mounted on a horse located in front of Somoza National Baseball Stadium. The second theme was the presence of international influence, both in the style of monuments hailing from Italy, France and Greece among others, and in the presence of monuments to foreign, predominately US, presidents. Monumento a Roosevelt18 originally dedicated to US president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, two large white pillars at the base of Tiscapa lagoon, still stands although it has been renamed first Monumento al Soldado Desconocido19 by the FSLN administration in the 1980s then Monumento al Soldado de la Patria20 by President Violeta Barrios Chamorro in the 1990s (Departamento de Partrimonio Historico en la Alcaldia de Managua, n.d.). During this time Edith Grøn, Danish-Nicaraguan sculptor created many prized marble works that today, are some of Managua’s oldest monuments (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 20, 2013).

Revolutionary period (1979-1990)

After years of United States cultural and political intervention, the triumph of the Nicaraguan Revolution inspired a renewed search for a Nicaraguan identity (M.Pérez, personal communication, November 19, 2013). At this time architect Amelia Barahona founded the division of patrimony within the Ministry of Culture, introducing the values of conservation and patrimony to Nicaraguan perceptions of culture and identity. She describes her motivations in the founding in relation to this search for identity as the following:

En muchos gobiernos, en muchos sectores de la población, es decir la cultura es arte. Entonces si el arte o la música, prefieren la música extranjera y no conocen la música nacional. En arquitectura la gente [los nicaragüense] copia de otros países en vez de valorar lo nuestro, etc. Pero el valor que se le da a lo propio [cultura] es lo que realmente a mi, en lo particular, me ha interesado. Es decir, reforzar eso, darle a los niños desde pequeños, un concepto y unos elementos que permitan que ellos valoren que lo nuestro vale la pena. Yo creo que ese es uno de los grandes legados de la revolución, podrán haber habido muchísimos errores, todo el mundo tiene su opinión, pero pienso que ese concepto de valorar lo nuestro, de tener una identidad de reforzar en toda su forma, ha sido un legado importante. (A. Barahona, personal communication, November 21, 2013)

In many governments, in many sectors of the population its said that culture is art. In art and music, they [Nicaraguans] prefer foreign music and don’t know the national music. In architecture they copy other countries instead of valuing our own, etc. But the value that the people give their own [culture] is really what I have interest in, or how to reinforce this, and give children from a young age a concept, elements that teach them to understand the worth of their own culture. I believe that’s one of the greatest legacies of the Revolution. There have been mistakes, everyone has their opinions, but I think this concept of ours, to have appraised identity, and strengthened it in all its forms, has been an important legacy. (Translation by author)

In order to protect patrimony Barahona’s department at the Ministry of Culture created the Law of the Protection of National Cultural Patrimony (Ley de Protección al Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación) in 1982, which, for the first time, provided a legal document outlining the responsibilities of the State in protecting national patrimony, including Nation-state monuments. Among other things, it established a register of cultural goods, and imposed penalties for the unauthorized destruction of the nation’s cultural patrimony (La Junta de Gobierno de Reconstrucción Nacional de la Republica de Nicaragua, 1982).

While Nicaraguan laws were being made to protect preexisting patrimony, a new wave of monuments emerged from the same push to establish identity. Monuments were created to honor the martyrs and heroes of the Revolution–most of whom would go on to form the FSLN pantheon of heroes including Carlos Fonseca, Augusto C. Sandino, Leonel Rugama, and Luis Alfonzo Velasquez Flores–and to promote the social doctrine of the Nicaraguan brand of socialism. Out of this the Nicaraguan mural arts movement was born, producing hundreds of murals reflecting these themes throughout Managua, painted by both Nicaraguan artists, and international artists, brought to Nicaraguan in international art brigades in support of the Revolution. In July of 1985 Italian muralist Segio Michilini founded the state-funded Mural Arts School in Managua which trained artists until 1989 when funding of the school was cut due to the economic pressures of the Contra War and the US economic embargo (Kunzle, 1995, p. 45).

Neoliberal period (1990-2006)

During the neoliberal period three successive Presidents characterized by strongly neoliberal economic policy–Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Alemán, and Enrique Bolaños–plunged Nicaragua into the turbines of neoliberal economic policy in attempt to salvage the Nicaraguan economy from the economic hardships of the 1980s.  The switch of government values from social-political to predominately open market economic greatly reduced the amount commemorative and social monuments produced by the government (S.Martínez, personal communication, November 20, 2013). This, according to Architect Barahona, resulted in government suppression of the memory of the revolutionary values so closely tied to what the liberals considered a damaging economic system (A. Barahona, personal communication, November 21, 2013).  This suppression took the form of massive mural erasures, and attempts to neutralize the nomenclature of the city after the massive revolutionary renaming that took place during the Revolutionary period (Kunzle, 1995).

The new policies themselves altered the physical form of the city as the neoliberal economic policy of this period lead to massive waves public service privatization and defunding of public works. The Nicaraguan Institute of Culture, which replaced the Ministry of Culture in 1988, was dramatically defunded and consequently public art output decreased (Kunzle, 1995). The national railroad was privatized then destroyed, its iron tracks torn up and sold. Public transit was defunded and privatized. These two transportation changes brought about a national rise in car dependence, creating massive traffic jams throughout Managua. Alemán, mayor of Managua from 1990-1996, sought to fix this problem by designing a scheme of traffic roundabouts and eliminating traffic lights along Managua’s main arteries. These roundabouts, which now have joined the cadre of urban points of reference used when giving directions, subsequently became a focus for monumental art. The neoliberal presidents of this period are credited with creating the Güegüense,21el Fuente de Rubén Darío,22 and Managua’s two largest religious statutes Cristo Rey,23 and la Virgen Concepción de María,24all located in traffic roundabouts.

Current FSLN Government (2006-2013)

The return of the FSLN to the office of the president brought with it a revival of revolutionary imagery with new attempts to synchronize old images with the FSLN’s current agenda. Some these attempts have proven successful, for as political scientist Hilary Francis (2012, p. 242) writes about Nicaragua, “Remembrance and politics are fused, irrevocably, as a result of the immense suffering of the Revolution and the civil war years, and the power of the cultural and discursive output which accompanied the wars.” For others, however, the lack of separation between partisan and national symbols under the FSLN, has fueled citizen disapproval of, and alienation from, the national government.

During the 2011 presidential campaign for Daniel Ortega’s second term in office, which in an attempt to change Ortega’s military image was dominated by a retro-70’s theme featuring bright pastel colors and campaign songs to reworked Beatles tunes, much of the first-couple’s modifications to Managua’s city-scape have involved bright colors and extravagant multi-colored lights. While the first-lady’s exact role in city planning is unclear, Rosario Murillo, known for her pop aesthetic, has received both negative and positive credit for recent decorative urban developments.

Historic Interactions Between Managua’s Monuments and National Politics:25

A Tradition of Destruction and Abandonment

Since the 1972 earthquake, monuments in Managua have suffered from a tradition of destruction and abandonment motivated by political iconoclasm. After the Triumph of the Revolution, the monuments to the Somoza family were vehemently sought out and destroyed.  Two days before the official triumph, the statue of Anastasia Somoza Garcia on horse back in front the National Stadium was toppled and dragged through the streets, soon to be followed by the dismantling of a statue of Luis Somoza Debayle, Somoza Garcia’s son. Somoza Garcia’s face was chipped from the five-part frieze depicting Nicaraguan history adorning the crown of El Templo de la Música26 in Managua’s central park. As described by former FSLN guerilla fighter and retired officer of the Sandinista Popular Army (Ejercito Popular Sandinista, EPS) Guillermo Pérez Leiva, this response belonged a global revolutionary tradition: “when there is Revolution the people destroy monuments,” he said, because “to destroy a statue of Lenin [for example]… signifies rejection, hate for the system and a desire for change, to erase the past,” (G.P.Leiva, personal communication, November 13, 2013; translation by author). Other monuments of the Somoza regime have been left to ruin, most predominately the Tribuna Monumental a large stone grandstand at the base of Tiscapa Lagoon, originally used for the viewing of military parades on the fields just south of the monument (Departamento de Patrimonio Histórico en la Alcaldía de Managua, n.d.(c)). Originally abandoned after the 1972 earthquake, the Tribuna Monumental has yet to be restored despite frequent proposals for repair (M.Pérez, personal comunicación, November 19, 2013).

Figure 2 (United photograph of fallen L. Somoza Debayle statue being dragged in the street, 1979)

In October of 1990, the neoliberal mayor of Managua Arnoldo Alemán (Judge under Somoza, President of Nicaragua 1997-2002), during the presidency of Violeta Chamorro begin a systematic destruction of murals created during the revolutionary period, destroying the most central and well-known mural, the 100m long, El Sueño Supremo de Bolívar27 located on the Avenue Bolívar. The erasure of the El Sueño Supremo de Bolívar (See Figure 7, page 20) and the murals that followed it resulted in public outcry against what Guillermo Pérez Leiva described as a blatant act government censorship, not unlike the book burnings of Nazi Germany (G.P. Leiva, personal communication, November 13, 2013). Though Alemán claimed that “that maintenance workers has misinterpreted a mandate to “erase political pintas (party and electoral slogans) as an order to obliterate pinturas (paintings)” (Kunzle, 2008) many categorized the destruction in what Nicaraguan poet and art critic Julio Valle articulates as a government attempt “turn back the clock, deny the rebirth of Nicaragua, deny Sandino and the Revolution,” (Valle, in Kunzle, 2008, forward).

Figure 3 (United photograph of fallen L. Somoza Debayle statue being dragged in the street, 1979)

Around the same time there were two bombings of revolutionary monuments, attributed to neoliberal government supporters: the bombing of the tomb of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca, and the bombing of the monument El Combatiente Popular28 inaugurated at the fifth anniversary of the Revolution to honor the memory of the Revolution’s guerilla fighters (Departamento de Patrimonio Histórico en la Alcaldía de Managua. n.d.(e)). Members of the FSLN quickly rebuilt the decimated tomb of Carlos Fonseca, while the damage to El Combatiente Popular, a large Rambo-esque figure with exposed defined abs hoisting an automatic weapon in one hand and a pic-ax in the other, was relatively minimal and thus left unrepaird. Today the figure’s exploded right boot adds to what Nicaraguan sculptor Sócrates Martínez calls the figure’s “socialist realism” style, a style that exaggerates the strength of the worker and the power of protector of the Revolution for the purposes of promoting these societal roles, vital to the success of a socialist society (S. Martínez, personal communication, November 20, 2013).

In 1996, President Chamorro inaugurated the construction of the Parque de la Paz, the Peace Park, a ambitious monument to peace, the end of Contra War, and the subsequent disarmament of Nicaragua. Centered around a large 25m light house and reflecting pool, the park contains thousands of guns collected from across Nicaragua, encased in concrete in the hills surrounding the reflecting pool (Departamento de Patrimonio Histórico en la Alcaldía de Managua. n.d.(d)). Despite the creative planning and foreign investment poured into the monument, the park experienced only minimal usage and was never completed before being overtaken by crime, and socially and politically abandoned (M. Pérez, personal communication, November 19, 2013). In November of 2013 the park had no clear entrance, the reflecting pool empty and pockmarked with grass, and nothing but dirt shadows left of the metal plaques dedicated to ‘international heroes of peace,’ that once covered a wall west of the reflecting pool (Francis, 2012, p. 241).29

Figure 4 (Old Peace Park Image, 1996) Chamorro’s Peace Park still under construction.

Public speculation as to why the park has been allowed to fall into such disrepair ranges from the economic limitations of the municipal government preventing upkeep and the necessary supervision, to the impracticalities of a park design based on water in a country suffering from water shortages and centered around a lighthouse in a country for which lighthouses are a foreign concept, to the political rejection of the park’s symbolism (R. Sanchez, M. Pérez, G.P. Leiva, personal communications, November 2013). At the time of the creation of the park, Nicaragua was already a veteran of official disarmament campaigns, and the demonstrated impermanence of these campaigns fueled skeptics’ critiques of the park’s wall of destroyed weaponry (G.P. Leiva, personal communications, November 15, 2013). The wall of plaques honoring ‘international

Figure 5 (Personal Photo, 2013) Peace Park wall with only the shadows of where plaques used to hang.

heroes’ included a plaque to US former president George Bush Sr., who during his presidency directed the US Gulf War, and one placed by Chamorro’s successor Alemán during his presidency, dedicated to himself, calling into question for some the integrity of the parks dedication to peace (A. Setright, personal communication, December 3, 2013).  Furthermore in contrast to the FSLN, whose image is derived from war heroes and fight for a different future, the park stood as a symbol of the liberal legacy, and Guillermo Pérez Leiva put it  “because it was a project of Violeta, the following governments ignored it. When Violeta ended, so did the park,” (G.P. Leiva, personal communications, November 15, 2013; translation by author).

Causes and Consequences of Destruction and Abandonment

Monument iconoclasm in Managua, as demonstrated in the cases above, takes two forms: one, the more direct, is the physical destruction of a monument from the urban landscape.  The second, the abandonment of monuments, depriving them of government funding until the population has forgotten their history–metal informational plaques are frequently stolen and sold for scrap metal–and time has eroded their form, meets the same ends while often evading public outcry brought on by sudden destruction.  The tendency for politics to shape the treatment of monuments, Guillermo Pérez Leiva says is the result of stark ideological differences between governments, who disagree not only on economic policy but also on the very structure and foundations of government, a trend that has resulted in 15 different national constitutions. War, above all, fuels this pattern and prevents the creation of a national political identity:

Un país siempre en guerra nunca piensa en estabilidad, a inventor algo estable, porque en cualquier momento viene la guerra y se acabo… cada vez que llegar un gobierno nuevo a poder tiene que rehacer todo, borra todo y comienza de nuevo… [y] cuando no hay una identidad construida, los monumentos van y vienen. (G.P. Leiva, personal communications, November 13, 2013)

A country always in war never thinks of stability, of building something stable because in whatever moment the war might come and end everything…every time a new government comes to power they have to redo everything, erase everything, and start new… and when there is no constructed identity, monuments come and go. (Translation by author)

With the goal of visual domination of the urban landscape, ideologically opposed governments destroy monuments as if every change of political party is a new Revolution.  Monument destruction results in the erasure of public access to the political and cultural memory. When a government erases a monument, says Nicaraguan muralist Frederico Matus Vega, “they are erasing a historic memory…monuments and murals reflect a moment in the life of a city, a community, a population and this is a memory,” (F.M. Vega, personal communication, November 18, 2013; translation by author). Architect Barahona continues from perspective of cultural preservation:

Son cosas que desaparecieron por intereses políticos… hay una polaridad política que no hemos logrado superar en este país, entonces esto te genera una serie de actitudes, y de dicciones que realmente a mi me parece muy mezquinas, ya porque si vos tenés un avance en el campo que sea en el campo la cultura, en el campo del arte, no lo podes borrar o no debes borrarlo. Es todo una inversión que se ha hecho no solamente en términos materiales, si no en términos emocionales, en términos del imaginario popular, en términos de otra serie de valores que debería tomarse en cuanta antes de destruir algo, porque al fin y al cabo nosotros somos resultado de la historia. Nosotros seguimos una línea de tiempo y no estamos ajenos a todo lo que ha pasado en ese tiempo… Una país como nuestro con limitaciones enormes a nivel económico, no nos podemos dar el lujo de destruir, ya?, si no de preservar, conservar y darle el valor a las cosas que tenemos. (A. Barahona, personal communication, November 21, 2013)

There are things that disappeared because of political interests… there is a political polarity that we have not moved past in this country, and this generates a series of attitudes, and decisions that really to me seem petty because if you have an advance in the field, in the field of culture, in the field of arte, you can not, should not erase it. It is an investment not only in terms of material, but also in terms of emotions, popular imagination, in terms of another series of [non-political] values that should be taken into account before destroying something because in the end we are the result of history. We follow a timeline and we are not oblivious to everything that has happened during this time… a country like ours with enormous economic limitations, we cannot give ourselves the luxury of being able to destroy, understand? Instead preserve, conserve and give value to things we already have. (Translation by author)

Despite the repercussions, the abandonment of monuments has received little public attention outside the community of Managua’s historians and public artists. The continued instability of urban landscape of Managua–of which monuments are an important part–has numbed citizens to change, adding to the national aversion to permanence, started by a history of war and mirrored by the dramatic changes between governments of differing political parties, resulting in public apathy towards urban preservation. As Architect Barahona describes it, “there is a mentality that is very Nicaraguan, that’s pessimistic, that of yoquepierdo,30 this isn’t mine, its not important to me,” (A. Barahona, personal communication, November 21, 2013; translation by author). The word yoquepierdo, used by architect Barahona, is a word belonging solely to Nicaraguan Spanish meaning the existence of which further impresses Barahona’s point. Preservation specialist for the Managua department of historical patrimony, Architect Madelyn Pérez originally from León31 argues that this attitude has particular saliency in Managua and the contrast in public value of monuments and public space between León and Managua is stark: “Citizens lack consciousness of the historic value of everything in Managua,” (M. Pérez, personal communication, November 19, 2013; translation by author) more than any other Nicaraguan city, Managuans’ lack interest and pride in the history of their city.

Nicaragua’s Preservation Laws

The 1982 Law that Declares National Works of Monumental Art Cultural Patrimony (Ley de Protección al Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación) as designed by Barahona, gives a detailed definitions of monuments, how to protect them and penalties for destruction. Article 30 of the National Constitution protects the national freedom to expression, while article 126 directly states that “the State will support the national culture in all its expressions” (translation by author). The Law of Municipalities (Ley de los Municipios), 1988, delegates the responsibility of monument maintenance to the municipal government in which the monument stands (La Asamblea Nacional de la Republica de Nicaragua, 1988). In Nicaraguan legal code there is no lack of understanding of the cultural value of monuments or delegation of responsibility for their protection and upkeep. However little to no enforcement of these laws has allowed the government again and again to violate its own laws in the destruction and abandonment of protected national monuments. A striking example of this is the erasure of the El Sueño Supremo de Bolívar mural declared protected national heritage along with all other murals on the Avenue Bolívar under the 1990 national law Ley que Declara Patrimonio Cultural de la Nación Obras de Arte Monumental32 (La Asamblea Nacional de la Republica de Nicaragua, 1990). Despite the clear legal protection of the mural no successful legal action was taken against the municipality for the mural’s destruction. The director of the department of Patrimony in the 1990s who might have lead the charge then, is still the director of Patrimony now, signaling little chance of increased enforcement of the laws protecting monuments in the face of future government monument destruction.

Figure 6 (Untitled photograph of half erased Sueño de Bolívar mural, 1990)

Ortega’s Monuments (2006-2013): Contemporary Spaces of Political Contention and Partisan Symbolism

With the reelection of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN in 2006, monuments are being built rapidly (S. Martínez, R. Sanchez, personal communications, November, 2013) and with an increasingly partisan focus despite, or perhaps because of, growing levels of urban disillusionment with the Ortega government (D.M. Telléz, personal communication, November 20, 2013). Since 2008 the Ortega has created three monuments within Managua that since their inaugurations have been notably contentious for their use as political and partisan tools: The monuments to former Managua Mayor Alexis Argüello, ALBA33 and former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez.

Monument to Alexis Argüello- The monument to Alexis Argüello was inaugurated on July 2009 exactly a year after the former mayor’s alleged suicide. Prior to entering politics Argüello rose to fame during the years of the Somoza dictatorship as Nicaragua’s most prized boxer, a three-time world champion, known for his sportsmanship and chivalry in a traditionally brutal sport. After the FSLN Revolution Argüello was shocked to find much of his and his family’s property confiscated by the revolutionary government for redistribution, an act that some attribute to his friendly, though distant relation, with the last Somoza, whom had invited Argüello as one of the nation’s top athletes, to walk in parades and attend dinners during the family’s rule. Argüello spent the decade of Revolutionary rule living in the United States and returned with the change of government to Nicaragua in the 1990s, in opposition to the FSLN. In the following decade Argüello’s feelings for towards the FSLN softened and in 2008 he ran as the FSLN’s candidate for Mayor of Managua, a move that commandant of the Revolution and current leader of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista34 (MRS) political party, proposes “was not a political change, but vanity,” (D.M. Telléz personal communication, November 20, 2013; translation by author). Despite international accusations of fraud Argüello was elected Mayor in 2008 (A. Setright, lecture, September 4, 2013) only to discover that his power as Mayor greatly limited by other FSLN officials. According to claims from his children Argüello had plans to denounce the FSLN on the morning he was found dead with a gunshot wound to the chest. Despite continued accusations of foul play Argüello’s death is officially considered a suicide with officials citing drug addiction and depression as his motivations for ending his life.

Figure 7 (Personal Photo, 2013) Monument to Alexis Argüello on the Carretera Masaya

One year later the government funded monument to Argüello stoodd in the center of the Plaza de la Revolution along one of Managua’s main highways the Carretera35 Masaya. At the onset the monument was poorly received in part due to its physical form, criticized as being poorly painted and disproportionate, disliked even by the monument’s artist, sculptor Sócrates Martínez who says the work was rushed to meet the deadline of the anniversary of Argüello’s death, and that his original design was rejected (S. Martínez, personal communication, November 20, 2013). Another factor contributing to the poor reception of the monument is the perception that the monument was a political tool used by the FSLN to assuage doubts about the circumstances of Argüello’s death. Roberto Sánchez, Municipal historian and Cultural and Historical Advisor to the President of the National Assembly, admits that though “politics didn’t matter” (R. Sánchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013; translation by author) in the planning of the monument, there was an element of political convenience in its production (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013). That convenience was explained by Dora María Téllez, “The immense majority of the people believe that they [the FSLN] killed him [Argüello], the monument is to say, to try to say ‘we didn’t kill him.’ Its not that Alexis didn’t deserve a monument, not this horrible monument [but another], but it [the existing monument] was made for this purpose,” (D.M. Tellez, personal communication, November 20, 2013; translation by author). For those skeptical of FSLN’s role in Argüello’s death, the monument to Argüello, which has been decried by some Argüello’s children, is a constant reminder of possible foul play and the appropriation by the FSLN of a national hero.

Figure 8 (Personal Photo, 2013) The nine pillars of the Monument to ALBA, with the 2013 monument to Pedro Joaquín to the far right.

La Plaza de ALBA- The debate surrounding the monument to ALBA centers on a battle for monumental space. In 1978 on the corner where ALBA now stands, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal,36 editor of La Prensa and vocal anti-somozista was assassinated while stopped at the stoplight by Somoza’s National Guard. In 1981, the revolutionary government dedicated the corner plaza to Pedro Joaquín Chamorro. Over the next 30 years the plaza suffered the same fate of abandonment and crime as the rest of the city center until in 2012 suddenly nine large rectangular pillars appeared behind a new fence surrounding the Plaza. Murals depicting images representative of each of the nine countries participating in ABLA, designed by Sócrates Martínez, soon covered the pillars and at the inauguration of the monument the Plaza was dedicated La Parque a ALBA.37 This attempt to rededicate the park which for years, though abandoned, had stood as homage to a national figure central to the anti-Somoza movement, inspired public protest.

As Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios, the oldest son of Violeta Barrios and Pedro Joaquín Chamorro and Deputy to the Liberal Bancada Democrática Nicaragüense38 (BDN), is quoting is saying in an interview about monument, “the presidential couple has already privatized Sandino and now they are trying to do the same with the rest of the countries history,” (Rogers, 2012) implying that in placing a monument to ALBA an undoubtedly left leaning international organization that has direct ties to the FSLN, was an attempt to emphasize the ALBA’s contribution to Nicaragua over Pedro Joaquín Chamorro’s anti-Somoza actions. In response deputy Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios and the BDN fought within the National Assembly to elevate Pedro Joaquín Chamorro to the status of a national hero. Soon the FSLN joined forces with BDN and proposed building a statue to honor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro outside the Plaza.  In September of 2013 the monument to Pedro Joaquín Chamorro was unveiled appeasing much of the tension between the FSLN and supporters of the Chamorro Monument.  Today the two stand by side, though, as pointed out by Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Barrios, both lighting and placements has insured that the Monument to Pedro Joaquín Chamorro remains in the shadows of that to ALBA (P.J. Chamorro, personal communication, November 14, 2013).

Figure 9 Monument to Chávez in the Plaza Inter on Avenue Bolívar.

Monument to Hugo Chávez- Continuing the trend of partisan monuments to the heroes of ALBA, is the recent construction, publically credited to First-Lady Rosario Murillo, of the approximately 10 meters, psychedelic, two-dimensional bust of Hugo Chávez in the traffic circle at the southern end of the city center on Avenue Bolívar.  Made of a printed image of Chávez on a large sheet of metal, and studded with hundreds of colored light blubs, the monument to Chávez gives the appearance of being less durable and more modern than any other in the city.  The partisan symbolism in the monument stem in part from the image of Chávez himself who, though undoubtedly gave vital economic support to Nicaragua throughout the last ten years, is also tied to both ALBA and a leftwing mode of political thought, and in part from the large multicolored sun descending from the bottom of the bust, the same symbol that adorns the majority of 2011 FSLN campaign shirts, hats, and posters.  Though the monument’s pop art aesthetic, energy use, and longevity have been challenged, there has been no outright protesting of the monument. Those who like the monument often cite the monuments lights, which include a small forest of plastic light-up trees around the base of the bust.

Analysis of Intentions and Results

New monuments by Ortega, such as that to Argüello and Chávez, favor realistic figures of people and less so symbolic depictions, leaving less space for a range of monument interpretations (M. Pérez, personal communication, November 19, 2013). This contrast between these two styles is well illustrated in a comparison between the two most visual monuments to Augusto C. Sandino, the anti-imperialist guerilla General of the 1920-1930s for which is the FSLN is named. The first monument to Sandino, and perhaps the most striking monument in Managua is a 25m black silhouette of Sandino atop volcanic hill Tiscapa, erected in the final days of the revolutionary government in 1990, before the inauguration of Violeta Chamorro. The second, inaugurated by the contemporary Ortega government, is a detailed bronze statue of Sandino riding on the back of donkey on the pedestal before the national stadium where Somoza, mounted horse back, once stood. The second projects Sandino as a humble, but valiant national hero, leaving little space for other interpretations while Sandino on Tiscapa allows for a range of meanings to be drawn from its ambiguous black form. By allowing for a syncretism of different values and interpretations, the second monument avoids alienating viewers who differ from the artist’s interpretation of a personality or event. The physical form of the monument to Alexis Argüello, Argüello hoisted from with a boxing ring by a tower of citizens, chooses to remember only that Argüello was a champion boxer, obscuring the memory of his embroiled political relationship with the FSLN and his suspicious death. In the monument to ALBA and that to Chávez there is little room for interpretation other than one that celebrates FSLN partnership with ALBA, a cornerstone in the administration’s economic policy, and leftwing Latin America. New monuments that fail to allow space for interpretations other than a specific partisan interpretation fuel opposition because they act as daily reminders of a difference in opinion. Partisan monuments within Managua are the result of a type of nationalist urbanism in which the government uses public space and public monuments to display what Guillermo Pérez Leiva calls a “partisan symbolism that promotes agreement with the interests of the political model” (G.P. Leiva, personal communication, November 15, 2013; translation by author). These monuments produced within this system function not as monuments but as propaganda, an intentional effort to change the minds and values of the citizenry. In a divided society the use of partisan symbols, of propaganda, in a city’s public spaces leads to social exclusion. Pérez Leiva explains further:

Cuando usted pone una partidaria en un espacio publico, de hecho esta limitando a un enfoque partidaria…el espacio publico por definición no debe ser excluyente, tiene que ser integrador… Pero en un sociedad tan desintegrada, fragmentada, el espacio publico también vive este situación…No es un privatización obvio no? porque a mi no piden permiso a ir a la plaza de la revolución o a la plaza de la victoria, yo no tengo un cantidad de permiso. Pero si hay establecido ya de quien es este espacio, que héroes están aquí, a quien le pertenece… [espacios públicos] pierden cohesión social, pierden la cultural de espacios públicos. (G. Pérez Leiva, personal communications, November 13, 2013)

When you put a partisan figure in a public space, the fact is your limiting that space to a partisan focus… public space by definition should not be exclusionary it should be inclusive… but in a society so disintegrated, fragmented, the public space also lives this reality…it’s not an obvious privatization, huh?  Because I don’t ask anyone to go to the Plaza of the Revolution, or the Plaza of the Victory, I don’t have any amount of permission. But it is established who owns this space, whose heroes are here, to whom it belongs… [public spaces] lose social cohesion, they lose the culture of public spaces. (Translation by author)

In an interview with city planner Brissa Súarez Bonillos, she reflected on recent government monument creation saying, “we are losing the idea of what monuments are,” (B.S. Bonillos, personal communication, November 21, 2013; translation by author). Public monuments created by the contemporary government have endangered the monuments’ fundamental memory preservation, in that (1) the speed with which they are being built is resulting in lower quality monuments both materially and aesthetically–if monuments are of poor quality or widely disliked they are less likely to be preserved, and (2) the partisan nature of the monuments makes them vulnerable for destruction should the next government seated in Managua be of a different political ideology, and thus threaten to continue the cycle of urban landscape insecurity in Managua.

Figure 10 (El Sandino, 2010) The silhouette of Sandino on Tiscapa.

Figure 11 (Personal Photo, 2013) Sandino mounted on the back of a donkey, on Somoza´s old pedestal before the national baseball stadium.

Contemporary Monument Creation

In the search for how public monuments have become so partisan one must look at who the State expects monument makers to be.  On paper and in theory the Nicaraguan government displays values in collective input into monument creation. Chapter 11, article 14 of the national law 215, the Law for the Promotion of National Artistic Expression and the Protection of Nicaraguan Artists (Ley de la Promoción a las Expresiones Artísticas Nacionales y Protección a los Artistas Nicaragüenses) states that “the design and construction of public monuments, paintings and sculptures built in Nicaragua, will be selected through competition between national artists and when necessary foreigners associated with citizens,” (La Asamblea Nacional de la Republica de Nicaragua, 1995; translation by author). While by this text the law does not require a public competition, or delineate who the judges of such a competition should be, it does mandate the creation of a range of designs before monument construction allowing for diverse interpretations of an event or personality and open discussion of how a monument should be formed prior to its creation. This, through perhaps minimal, provides for some level of democracy in national monument creation. In 1983 Daniel Ortega proclaimed “the streets belong to the people,” (Vos del Sandinismo, 2013; translation by author) belying an ideological governmental belief in democracy of urban space, and though this statement comes from first the Ortega administration in the first half of the revolutionary period, it is often quoted officially and non-officially (on websites and in newspapers) as one of present administration’s taglines.

Despite these proclaimed State values, under the current Ortega government, Law 215 has been generally ignored, most monuments being created by one artist on government mandate. Contests have fallen by the wayside, because according to Roberto Sanchez “there are no volunteers,” (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013; translation by author). Through its true that as a result of the defunding public arts programs under the neoliberal governments of the 1990s the number of sculptors in Nicaragua has decreased its hard to believe that so few remain that holding a design contest would be impossible. Further Sanchez contended that contests took too much time and the current failure to hold contests is the result of the improvisational and disorganized nature of the Nicaraguan government (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013). Sanchez’s reasoning bespeaks a current governmental consequence of a nation with a history of impermanence: in an effort to do as much as possible and create a lasting visual memory in the city before leaving office, the government is ignoring both legal and operational procedure. All new public monuments, Sanchez reports, are the results of actions by the FSLN controlled National Assembly, specific government departments, or direct mandate by the “first couple” (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013). In all cases Murillo and Ortega make the final call on whether a monument will exist or not, and often what the final form of a monument will be–as Sanchez put it “the sculptor does not decide,” the form, they instead are paid to make a specific image (R. Sanchez, personal communication, November 27, 2013). The result of this is the effective elimination of citizen input into Nation-state monuments.

Sócrates Martínez, sculptor and professor at Managua’s National School of Fine Arts and Sculpture (Escuela Nacional de Artes Plásticas), has become the current government’s informal head monument maker in Managua. Since 2008 Martínez has created eight39 public monuments, making him perhaps the most prolific monument maker in the history of Managua, followed closely only by Edith Grøn whose monuments were predominately apolitical. Of these eight, only one, the monument to Benjamín Zeledón, was the product of a design contest (S. Martínez, personal communication, November 27, 2013). When asked about Martínez’s impressive governmental employment history, Sanchez responded that he had recommended Martínez to various monument projects after seeing Martínez’s artistic talent in the monument to Zeledón. It is not surprising that Martínez has been kept around as his artistic and professional traits make him a good candidate for the government’s monument maker: in his work throughout the city he has proved to be an adaptable and fast worker (S. Martínez, personal communication, November 27, 2013), favoring colorful designs that compliment the administration’s brightly colored theme of public buildings, plaza benches and public decoration, credited to design sensibilities of First Lady Murillo.

The consequence of Martínez’s urban monument autocracy is the imposition of one person’s interpretation of history on the collective mind. As articulated by Dora Maria Tellez, artists are not chemically pure and their art inherently includes their perspective (D.M. Tellez, personal communication, November 20, 2013). Thus the continuing trend of the government’s commission of the same artist, in violation of state laws that promote a more democratic process of creation, has resulted in one artist’s domination of not only public monuments but also the memory they depict.

Figure 12 (Personal Photo, 2013) Monument to Benjamín Zeledón by Sócrates Marínez.


Nicaragua’s long history of war has resulted in a wide spread cultural acceptance of impermanence. This impermanence motivates political parties to build from the ground up each time in office, erasing monuments of past regimes in an effort to deemphasize the memories of the dissenting values of previous governments.  In Managua, the long tradition of destruction and abandonment of national monuments, in violation of national preservation laws, prevents the construction of a national, non-partisan, identity. The current FSLN administration is continuing this tradition by having limited citizen participation in the monument creation process, and creating partisan monuments, which function as political propaganda. In the words of Guillermo Pérez Leiva, “to be preserved monuments need to have…legitimacy in the hearts of the people, to transcend the limits of the party,” (G.P. Leiva, personal communication, November 15, 2013; translation by author). In failing to create monuments that do this, and failing to reflect a nationally accepted set of cultural heroes and defining historic events, the current administration creates monuments vulnerable to future destruction and abandonment thus continuing the cycle of impermanence that encourages Nicaraguan political parties to rewrite the past each electoral cycle as opposed to building on the past to create a strong national identity and stable political tradition. Not only is this vital to a future of peace and development in Nicaragua, but the preservation of national monuments is also vital the to preservation of a global historic patrimony as one of the few physical mediums of political expression memory.  Memory, both the good and the bad, informs our decisions, our thoughts, and our perceptions of self. Now, in our digitizing age, the preservation of its physical forms is of the utmost importance.

“People the world over are creating [memories] in forms that are less and less permanent–be it sound recordings, film, videotape, newsprint, photographs or computer based documents. It must be said that the output of the present century alone is probably greater than the total output of all the previous centuries put together; and ironically and tragically, it is being lost faster than ever before. It is a tragedy indeed, for what is at stake is the recorded memory of mankind.”

–Dats’Habibah Zon Introduction to the UNESCO Memory of the World programme April 17th, 1999


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Annelise Finney, « The Cycle of Impermanence: Collective Memory and the Politics of Monuments in Managua, Nicaragua », Journal of Undergraduate Research, Volume 1.1, Columbia University | LAIC, Department of Latin American and Iberian Cultures (online), published on February 24, 2015. Full URL for this article

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