San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Festival portends future of Río San Juan, Ortega

SAN CARLOS, Nicaragua – The banks of the Río San Juan turned lively Saturday as an estimated 5,000 tourists from Nicaragua and abroad fell upon the river town of San Carlos for the third annual Aquatic Carnival. The event is a celebration of the river’s natural beauty that President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista government wants to turn into a honey pot drawing cash-flush tourists to the area.

“The main goal of the carnival is to promote the Río San Juan Department as a tourist destination at the national and international level,” said Myrna Aguilar, a representative of the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR) in the Río San Juan Department.

By that measure, the carnival’s kick-off Saturday seemed to be a success. Revelers from Nicaragua, Costa Rica, France, Germany and elsewhere were on hand for festivities that included dance troupes, carnival rides, live music, paragliding, a rowing competition and a host of food, beer and bauble vendors. 

Aguilar made special mention of INTUR’s desire to draw Tico travelers to the area despite years of bad blood between Nicaragua and Costa Rica over the Río San Juan and Nicaragua’s occupation last year of Isla Calero, near the eastern end of the river.

“Our government has good intentions to try to develop this zone,” Aguilar said. “We recognize that we can learn a lot from our Costa Rican brothers because we share so much of the same natural beauty.”

The theme of this year’s carnival, which came just a week before Nicaragua’s presidential elections, was “Río San Juan: Love, peace and life,” striking a more conciliatory note than the inaugural year’s slogan: “Río San Juan: Get to know it – it’s ours!”

Developing tourism around the Río San Juan, which snakes south and east out of Lake Nicaragua for 238 kilometers to form the border between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, has been a centerpiece of Ortega’s administration since he took office in 2007. 

The Aquatic Carnival and investment in infrastructure in river towns like San Carlos are all part of the administration’s Water Route Project, which has funneled cash into the area. New docks, immigration facilities and even reconstruction of public areas, where carnival goers drank cold beers and danced late into the night Saturday, are just a few examples of the government’s efforts.

Ortega is expected to win the election despite a constitutional ban against a president serving consecutive five-year terms. A federal judge from Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) ruled in 2009 that Ortega could run again despite the apparent constitutional ban (TT, Oct. 23, 2009).

In his speech at the opening of the carnival, Nicaraguan Tourism Minister Mario Salinas touted some of the reasons for Ortega’s continuing popularity.

“In reality, the government of Commander Daniel Ortega has now opened a formidable path of economic and tourist exchange with Costa Rica and Panama to the south,” Salinas said.

Efforts to develop tourism in the Río San Juan Department, Salinas said, have created some 1,500 jobs in the region and given hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to help local businesses. 

But Ortega was already popular in San Carlos and the Río San Juan Department, which have long been Sandinista strongholds. San Carlos was the site of an early Sandinista military victory during the Nicaraguan revolution. Sandinista revolutionary slogans can still be seen scrawled in black paint in San Carlos neighborhoods. 

Carlos Montolla, a welder from Los Chiles, just across the border in Costa Rica, spent Saturday afternoon at a plastic table in one of the carnival’s food stalls, like hundreds of other revelers, drinking Toña beer and eating ceviche made of fish from Lake Nicaragua. Montolla is a card-carrying member of the FSLN. He explained why he expected Ortega to carry the elections: “Daniel was always going to win here. Here, we’re all Sandinistas.”

Montolla said Ortega’s government has provided a good level of personal security and economic improvement to the area. People have jobs, he said, and even if the people aren’t rich, they get by and feel looked after by the Sandinista government.

“The opposition never had a chance,” Montolla continued. “They’ve been too divided among different candidates. The Sandinistas are united.”

Opposition supporters were hard to come by in San Carlos on the day of the Aquatic Carnival. San Carlos Mayor Jhonny Gutiérrez even ended his speech at the opening ceremony with a rousing “¡Viva Daniel! ¡Viva Sandinismo! ¡Viva el Río San Juan!” 

An architect and a finance manager from Managua who asked not to be identified were the only attendees The Tico Times encountered who expressed any uneasiness at the prospect of Ortega’s expected victory. Speeches at the opening ceremony, like Gutiérrez’s, seemed liked propaganda, they said, and perhaps a cheap shot given that the carnival was funded by Ortega’s government and put on just a week before the elections.

Both said the unconstitutionality of Ortega’s run for office bothered them, though they acknowledged that his policies have benefitted the country in terms of security and the economy. 

Data from the investment promotion agency ProNicaragua show that Nicaragua racked up almost $508 million in foreign direct investment in 2010 and experienced a 4.5 percent jump in real gross domestic product over 2009. The International Monetary Fund predicts that Nicaragua’s economy will grow 4 percent in 2011 – right on track with Costa Rica and several percentage points higher than Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Only Panama, with an expected 7.4 percent economic expansion, will see more growth in Central America.

This seems to fit with Salinas’ assertion that the Río San Juan region has seen a 100 percent increase in tourism in recent years and will likely see more as cash to develop infrastructure like highways and several new airports continues to flow along the Water Route.

“The future is ours,” Salinas said. “And we’re going forward serenely and with a government with a vision and a will for progress, a motivated business sector and a town resolved to improve. You can see clearly that human development is within our reach, which is to say a better life, work, tranquility and progress.”

After his speech, young women in flashy costumes filed into the renovated public square beside the new docks and new immigration facilities. A comparsa band struck up a tune and the women began to dance, as the music carried the sound of the celebration and anticipation out across the waters of the Río San Juan and Lake Nicaragua.

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