After several years of neglect and inactivity by the Sandinista municipal government, the scene in downtown Granada last Wednesday morning was outright shocking: Municipal workers buzzed busily about the town, repaving the main street, Calle Atravesada, and cleaning the Central Park, even going so far as to scrub the murky fountain.
The unfamiliar show of public works could only mean one thing: The Emperor is Coming!
Sure enough, by noon that day a car strapped with a loudspeaker was circulating throughout the city to announce that “El Presidente, Compañero Daniel Ortega” would be gracing Granada with a visit the following day for a session of “El Pueblo Presidente,” his hallmark neighborhood chats. Granada was determined to put on its best face for the occasion by sweeping up its accumulated trash and laying down a shiny new asphalt carpet.
The visit here was Ortega’s first since returning to the presidency in January, 2007. The last time he came to Granada, the Sandinista leader was still a candidate making his mandatory campaign stop to talk about his commitment to tourism – a sector his government has identified as a priority for economic development.
Yet the fact that Ortega waited 450 days into his presidency to make the 45-minute trek back to Granada, the country’s most important tourism market, begs the question: How genuine is the government’s priority to supporting tourism and development?
Consider this: In his first five months in office, Ortega found the time and funding to travel all the way around the world to visit with the leaders of Iran and Libya to profess revolutionary solidarity with those countries. Yet it took him 15 months to visit Granada, and he still hasn’t found the time to travel two hours away to San Juan del Sur, the country’s other major tourism destination on the southern Pacific coast.
Even more discouraging is that Ortega didn’t even mention tourism during his visit here last week. Instead, the president talked for over an hour on a whole fruit basket of unrelated topics –from the quality of shoes made in Masaya, to the problem of mad cow disease in South America – without mentioning the city’s No. 1 source of foreign- income. It would be like the U.S. president visiting the State of Wisconsin and not mentioning the cheese industry.
Granted not all the Granadinos have benefited from tourism, and much can still be done to generate more tourism and spread its wealth among the local population.
During his campaign visit here in 2006, Ortega hit the nail on the head by addressing those issues and saying that what Granada needs is a mechanism to get more Granadinos involved in forming small businesses so that more of the population can share a piece of the tourism pie. Yet instead of returning a year and a half later as president to make good on those suggestions, Ortega instead opted to talk about the heat in El Salvador and meat exports to Venezuela.
On a positive note, some 500 Granadinos benefited from Ortega’s visit by receiving property titles that were handed out as part of the event. The city also benefited by getting a new highway and a freshly repaved Calle Atravesada.
As Transport and Infrastructure Minister Fernando Martínez half jokingly admitted during Ortega’s visit, “Yesterday we paved 1 kilometer, 100 meters in one day; the population didn’t believe it, but now they have it. Now the Granadinos say they want you [President Ortega] to come every day so that every day we’ll pave a kilometer of road.”
So in that spirit, Ortega has an open invitation to return to Granada soon.
There are plenty of roads that still need fixing here, and hopefully next time the conversation can focus more on the issues that matter to this city.