HIS NAME is Pracxedes Leonardo. I met him two years ago in the projects in Toronto, where he was hanging out with a few ruffians I know. We didn’t talk much at first, but everything changed when I asked him where he was from.
When Pracxedes told me he was from Nicaragua, I began to tell him about how passionate I was, during my undergrad years, about American foreign policy toward the Sandinista regime. I said how much I had always admired Alfonso Robelo, Eden Pastora, and Arturo Cruz -- the leaders of the Contra rebels in Nicaragua during the 1980s. Pracxedes’ eyes lit up; he was stunned that someone, amidst the company that both of us kept, had even heard of such names. That night, he and I stayed up talking into the early hours of the morning. We were both from communist countries and, even though they were different countries, and our experiences different as well, we shared a powerful bond. We became good friends.
Pracxedes was a child of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979. Due to the violence that the Marxist revolt inflicted upon that Central American nation, Pracxedes became an orphan. His mother, who worked for the Somoza government, was caught trying to flee Nicaragua at the Managua airport. It is a tragic -- and private -- story, and Pracxedes tells me that, for the purposes of this article, it would be sufficient to say that, because of a Sandinista atrocity, he had no father and his mother couldn’t raise him the first 15 years of his life. He was raised by his grandparents.
Pracxedes recounts how, throughout all of his childhood in Nicaragua, he heard how good life had been under Somoza -- the dictator who was ousted by the Sandinistas. "Yes," Pracxedes says, "Somoza was strict, but the Sandinistas represented pure and unadulterated evil."
Growing up under the Sandinistas, he affirms, was like an experience of animals being trapped inside a cage. "It was monstrous, and the hatred and inhumanity of the Sandinistas trickled down into the society -- into all of us."
Pracxedes’ views are confirmed by the historical record. When the 43-year-rule of the Somoza family came to an abrupt and violent end in Nicaragua on July 19,1979, the victorious rebels of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) imposed an oppressive communist dictatorship on Nicaragua. As in Castro’s Cuba, the Sandinistas set up neighborhood associations as local spy networks for the government and took control of practically everything in the country – mass organizations, the army, police, labor unions, and the media. Faithful to their Marxist ideology, and obsessed with the need for the state to control the means of production, the Sandinistas took a firm grip of the Nicaraguan economy. State controls and nationalization spread, aid to the private sector disappeared, and incentives for foreign investment disappeared. In other words, another 20th century experiment with socialism destroyed a nation’s economy.
Unlike the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas did not even pretend to include democracy as a serious political objective. They forcibly relocated tens of thousands of Moskito Indians from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, and imprisoned, tortured and murdered hundreds of them. According to the Nicaraguan Commission of Jurists, the Sandinistas carried out over 8,000 political executions within three years of the revolution. The new communist regime succeeded in setting up a brutal tyranny that would distinguish itself as having one of the worst human rights records in Latin America.
Pracxedes tells me that it was the Sandinista obligatory military service that served as a foundation for the terror of the society. Forced on all young boys that were strong enough to carry a rifle, the draft took away the childhood of all young people. The Sandinistas needed a strong army, and not because of the Americans or the Contras. "If the enemies didn’t exist," he says,
the Sandinistas would have had to invent them. In order for a regime of hate to stay in power, it needs a powerful army. The enemies are created in order to exploit young men for the sake of stealing peoples’ property and making sure the population lives in fear.
Pracxedes relates how, along with implementing terror, the Sandinistas ruined Nicaragua’s economy. Taxes were outrageously high, wages were outrageously low, and despite the fact that the Sandinistas boasted about high employment, there was actually no employment at all. The Sandinistas also executed their opponents and stole property from those who had earned it. They created their own privileged class, while poor Nicaraguans, which meant all Nicaraguans, received nothing.
In these circumstances, Pracxedes says, the black market began, and it was more successful in producing goods than the official economy. But the Sandinistas would come and steal the goods from those in the booming underground economy. "The Sandinistas were not about equality," Pracxedes laughs while shaking his head,
what kind of equality is it when you go to the farmers and steal the goods that they produced without their consent? What kind of equality is it when the government kills the most successful people in the society? That is why the Contra war started, because the Contras were mostly peasants and farmers who were sick of having their property confiscated and their daughters, wives and mothers raped and killed by the Sandinistas.
And it was in the horror and barbarity of this society that Pracxedes’ childhood was shattered at a young age. When he was eleven, he had to walk to school through a big field. "People had become so desperate under the insane conditions that the Sandinistas created," he recalls,
that many of them became ruthless – they would rape and kill you for absolutely no reason. One day, on my way to school, a big man attacked me and began to beat me. I was only a young boy and I had no idea why this was happening, but later I understood that he was going to rape me.
Some gangsters in the neighborhood saw the incident. Because the perpetrator in question happened to be their enemy, they saved Pracxedes from him. "I was terrified," he recalls, "as I watched how they broke his face.’
After that episode, Pracxedes was given a choice. He could walk away and forget everything that had happened. But the price to pay was that the man would most likely come back and hurt the boy again, as well as his family. Or Pracxedes could join the gang, and receive the gang’s protection.
The young boy was confused. He was grateful that the gang had saved him, but he was also scared, not only for himself, but also for his family. He had seen enough to know that, if he didn’t join these people, the man who had tried to hurt him would hurt his family. "So I agreed," he says, "to join my saviours."
It is in this way that Pracxedes became a member of a ruthless gang in Managua, in the Southwest part of the capital. His initiation involved having a special chrome .22 pistol put in his hand and being sent on a mission. His victims did not suspect that an innocent-looking eleven year-old could, or would, bust shots.
"Looking back now," he begins -- and then pauses. There is silence. Tears stream down his eyes. He begins again,
I understand that I lost my innocence, and my childhood from that day forward became non-existent. All I knew was violence. I lost my feelings. I lost emotions. My entire life became a blur. I stopped going to school. The drug addiction that went hand in hand with the numbness that you needed to bust caps shattered the other parts of me that were still living.
At the age of 12, Pracxedes became a big-timer in his gang. He was connected to extremely serious people. "I had a lot of respect," he recalls, "I knew how to handle every kind of gun, I knew how to cook cocaine. But all of that was evil. Evil deeds in a place permeated with evil. I don’t have any answers to what could have been different."
But Pracxedes never lost his humanity completely. "I never lost my heart in a full sense," he recalls,
I was still able to understand my grandma’s pain. I understood that it shattered her heart to see what her 12-year-old grandson was doing. Normal 12-year-olds played with marbles. I was counting slugs. I felt her pain for me. But I didn’t feel the pain for myself.
When Pracxedes turned 15, his addiction to cocaine and alcohol, as well as his involvement in violence, had spiraled out of control. As military service was beckoning him any day, Pracxedes’ grandparents succeeded in sending him away. Through different avenues, Pracxedes settled with his mom, for the first time in his life, and with other members of his family, in Toronto.
Now, at the age of 21, Pracxedes is still attempting to come around, trying to understand what happened to him. When you look in his eyes, the mileage you see is more than many lifetimes.
‘I didn’t have a childhood," he says,
And of course I take personal responsibility. Gangs and violence exist in all societies, and they are universal. You cannot just blame the Sandinistas. Human evil and corruption exists in all walks of life.
But having said that, Pracxedes cannot disclose his hatred of the Sandinistas, whom he holds responsible for destroying his country and his people and, to a degree, a large part of himself. "Only those who are put into the situation that many Nicaraguans, and other humans living under communist tyranny, can understand." He continues:
In certain times of insanity and madness, there are simply only certain choices one can make. Think of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. But that bomb, no matter how much damage it did, saved a situation of complete and utter genocide and carnage. That’s what I would say about the choices I had to make. And that is what I would also say Somoza represented. Somoza represented an evil, but a lesser evil. Life was still good for the majority of Nicaraguans under his government. The Sandinistas were a much greater evil, they destroyed the entire country.
"The Sandinistas," Pracxedes reflects,
made an experiment that turned humans into beasts. They decapitated childhood. Only the Sandinistas’ kids had childhoods. Not the people’s kids. The Sandinistas’ kids had toys. I played with cardboard until I was eleven, and then my toys became guns and slugs.
So why, I ask Pracxedes, did the Sandinistas do what they did to Nicaragua? If their revolution was for the sake of social justice and equality, as they, and their Western admirers said it was, then why did that tragedy befall Nicaragua under their leadership?
"I would leave it to the people who study books to answer that question," Pracxedes says,
but from my experience of running into people with books, I have gathered that I must answer the question from my own life experience. As I think of it now, it was hatred. The Sandinistas represented the socialist idea of equality. But that idea is hatred. It is about stealing from people who create wealth and keeping it for oneself. It is about envy and jealousy. It is about coveting one’s neighbor’s goods. In fact, it is about violating almost every commandment in the Ten Commandments. The answer is hatred, hatred of the human being, and the desire to destroy who he is.
Pracxedes finishes. His is the story of one Nicaraguan. "I am a Nicaraguan," he says,
and I will always be a Nicaraguan. But the Nicaragua I dream of must now be in my mind, because communism destroyed the one that exists. And I think the same goes for what kind of person I wish to be. I have to dream of him too, because a large part of him died somewhere in the Southwest part of Managua many years ago.