Monday, December 21, 2015

My Visa Run With An FSLN Sandinista Captain

Take a minute and honestly think about this question. What were you doing when you were 15 years old? Meet Julio C Pineda. Resident of Leon Nicaragua, Tour Company Operator, family man and a former Captain of the Sandinista Guerrilla Army, (1977 - 1990). When he was 15 he was walking home from playing baseball with his friends. He was arrested on suspicion of training to be a Sandinista (his clothes were dirty), tortured (no details) and placed alive in a coffin for 3 weeks. His family did not know where he was and gave him up as "one of the disappeared. How was I lucky enough to spend the better part of a day with Julio. Well it all starts with the 90 day "Tourist Visa Run"

Julio and I in Managua
When you enter Nicaragua you get a 90 day tourist visa. Before this visa expires you have 2 options. The first is a border run to Costa Rica. You cross the border for 3 hours, turn around and come back and voila, another 90 days. The challenge is that the bus ride is long so plan to stay a night, usually in Liberia. Why not stay the weekend? The beach is close and it's Costa Rica. Not the worst place in the world to have to spend a weekend. Why not Honduras or El Salvador as they are closer to Leon?

CA-4 the Central America 4 Border Control Agreement between Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala establishes free movement for its citizens across their borders. Visitors that enter one of the four countries can also travel to these countries without requiring an additional visa.  However, visitors will only be allowed to remain 90 days total in these countries and will need to request a extension of stay at any Immigration Office in the 4 countries if they plan to stay over  90 days.
( . So basically you can not renew in one of the CA-4 countries by crossing the free zone border. Therefor, Costa Rica (or any other country) it is.
Plantano pit stop with Joe D'amico

Option 2 as you read above is going to a local immigration office to ask for another 90 days. You can not do this two times in a row so in March it is off to the cool climes of Costa Rica.  This is the option that I decided to take. Coincidentally, one of the long term guys at the Harvest House, where we call home, Joe D'amico needed to do the same. He hired a driver (Julio) to take him and help him with the forms and asked me to tag along. So at 7am this morning, 3 days before our visas were to expire we were on the road to Managua. Road trip to Managua, how many of you have ever said that sentence?

Never far from our girl Toña
I had briefly met Julio in Via Via a few months ago. He arrived a bit before 7am which shocked both Joe and I. Nica's are notoriously late. We buckled up and Julio drove us through a few of the barrio's that we would normally not go to. Interesting to say the least. Managua was about 60 minutes away without road issues. Nica road issues you ask? Cows, horses, tractors, a bit of roadwork, Cows. The conversation was a bit muted which was fine. I do not know what triggered Julio but he started to share his life story in a real matter of fact way. Joe and I listened and asked the odd question when appropriate. Julio talked for the better part of 30 minutes. He was lucid, passionate and at times emotional all the while avoiding cows and other video game road hazards. Mercifully stopping for gas and snacks you have a variety of options.

Managua, home of the Nicaraguan Immigration Offices and the chaos that was about to ensue. Upon arriving we jumped into the first cue we saw. It might be the wrong one but until we got our bearings better safe than sorry. Well we were wrong as we were not Nicaraguans applying for a passport. We found our forms at window 23. Not behind window 23 but in front. A girl with the form that we needed and a zip lock bag to collect the C5 per form was in front of the window for what ever reason. With Julio's help the we were back in line to hand in the forms. We got this!

Wrong line number 2 was not even a line. It was 3 people standing around chatting. Soooo over to the line that looked right. A young a slightly pretty and absolutely new college graduate immigration office walked up and down the line asking what everyone was here for. When she go to us we chatted for a bit, then she shrugged and with a look of contempt walked away. "This is not right" said Julio with better perception than he realized.

Nicaraguan National Museum
It is now the moment of truth. Our leading lady has now moved behind the glass enclosed counter so over I go with a big dumb grin, Joe right behind me. I was told by many people that this process was to be clean and simple. Well sir, not today. The list of questions included, "why do you want to stay in Nicaragua", "where will you be visiting", "what is the name of the hotels you have booked", "where did you last work and for how long", "How much money do you make each month". Suddenly, she would not talk to me any long. I mean my Spanish is not great but we were just talking without issue. Up goes the Bat Signal and in comes Julio. Same questions plus more all the while she is hand writing everything on the back of my form. It really was just an exercise in control. She had it and I had to deal with it. The same process for Joe. What should have been 2 minutes was now dragging on to 15. Costa Rica was looking pretty sweet right about now.

The long and the short is, she took our forms while we waited. Someone else came back about 30 minutes later and we were told to go pay our C1500 for the 90 days. Nica Progress. Over to another line to pay and back with the receipt for our stamp. Wait, whooaa there big fella. We will call you when it is ready. 15 minutes go buy and I hear my name over the loud speaker. I have to go into a little room and shut the door and I now expect my Midnight Express moment.

Momotombo surrounded by fields of platanos
Victory was mine. A new stamp that is good until March 22, 2016. If anyone is going to be in Costa Rica in March I will be there on March 21 for a few days.
The epilogue to this adventure was that it was not just us.  Naturally when we were standing around waiting we all got to talking to everyone with looks that consisted of exhaustion, hilarity and a few young deer in headlights.  Everyone was getting hammered and abused by the bureaucracy. A few people lost their sh** which did not bode well for them. It was a first time thing not just for us rookies but for long term veterans. I was going to take a picture of the chaos but thought better of it. Honestly, when I was trying to get a police report just after Mardi Gras in Bolivia a while back, that was easier. Scarier? You bet, but easier.

 Julio's Story.

When I was 15 (1977) I was playing baseball with my friends. You know you get dirty when you play baseball. I was walking home with my 3 friends and we were stopped by the army. "Why are you so dirty?" they asked us. "We were playing baseball". "No, you do not get that dirty playing baseball. You are training to be Sandinistas, come with us". That was it. We were arrested and taken to jail. Nobody told my family what had happened. I was so scared. How could I get arrested just for playing baseball?

We were taken to jail and there were lots of men in there but they did not hurt us. I was beaten up allot and asked so many questions. I just wanted to go home. They tortured us and one of my friends died pretty fast. Then, they put me in a coffin (he needed help with this word in English) and I stay there for I think three weeks. I only knew how long after I was released and found out the day that it was. The coffin lid was shut on me and I just laid there. No food no water for a very long time. They would come and open the lid, put their fingers on my neck and flash a light in my eyes. I guess to see if I was dead.

Then suddenly the coffin door opens and they took me out. They said "you can go home but do not tell anyone about this or we will come for you". When I got home my mother cried and said to me, We have 3 choices. First, you can run away to Costa Rica but we are not rich so we can not do that. Second option is joining Somosa's army, the army that just tortured you. The third options was to be a Sandinista. So that was what I was to do.  I was living in Chinendayga so I hid at my mother for 3 days. Then on Christmas day the time was right and me and my two friends ran into the hills near The El Chonco volcano because that is where we were told to go. It was there that I trained to be a Sandinista and it was there that I found the war against Somosa until 17 July 1979. Then we all marched to Managua. I remember that I was still a little boy but the woman were all kissing me and I could fu** any woman I wanted because they were so happy. I was happy because I thought I could go home again.

Then Ronald Reagan that bastard and Gorbachev. Jimmy Carter hated Somosa when he found out what he was doing to the people of Nicaragua and he helped us. But Ronald Regan, I am glad he is dead. I was still in the army when Regan cut off aid to Nicaragua because he said we were communist. He also sent weapons to the country for the Contras who were loyal to Somosa. What else could we do. We had no medicine or food so Cuba and Russia offered to help us. We needed the help. Sure they sent some medicine, but they did not build us roads and hospitals like they said. Instead they sent us more guns. So now we have guns from Russia and Cuba and the Contras have guns from America. Now we have to fight again because of Reagan and Gorbachev....oh and that bastard Oliver North. If he ever comes to Nicaragua, we will kill him. We will never forgive him.

Now I am in the air force and I am shooting in this new war from a fancy helicopter. It is scary at first but I do get to be good. This war does not last very long but I am tired of fighting. Many of my friends have died but we are poor and just do what the rich countries make us do. But you see, in between the wars I went to Cuba and Russia to train. I did not like Russia. It was cold and there was no rice an beans and the people did not care they were indifferent (needed help with this word). I learned to fight better so now I am not scared.

When peace comes our new president, Violeta Chamorro tells both sides to put down their guns so that is what we do. But we are confused. No more war, no more fighting. We can go home. Now I like the army. I am a Captain with many men but my son he is sick. So I take my $1000 that they gave  me for fighting and go to Costa Rica for medicine and today my son is here.

I have no job so I go back to Costa Rica. I work as a bank guard and I do other jobs. Then one day I meet a lady from the USA. She is looking for a security guard at her house and to help with things. When she asks about me and I tell her I am Sandinista she runs to the other room to show me a picture of her supporting us. He husband was the Ambassador to Costa Rica but supported us. I got a job right away. She helped me learn English and I then also go to work at a hotel. First washing dishes but then parking cars. Now beside the old woman I hated all Americans. Then when I was parking a car a very nice and polite American thanked me and gave me $5 tip. I was shocked. It was then I learned that I do not hate Americans because they are people like me, I hate the American government because they ruined my country and killed my friends. That thought changed my life and I was not angry any more.

So here I am, many years later back in Nicaragua, I survived. I like working with tourists but some open tour companies in Leon and it makes it hard for me. My son is alive an healthy and I am happy. My wife's father was a Contra leader but we never tell him about me. We only see him once a month and we want happy times. After so much war, why bother? (personal note, I think this statement explains so much about Nica life and thought today).

-- Personal Note. Julio never went into any details about jail, torture, war or battles. He kept everything at surface level but with a sense of passion and clarity like it happened yesterday. Remember that the war and revolution only ended 25 years ago in 1990.

So, what were you doing when you were 15?

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