‘There will always be unknowns’
By ANDREW MCGINN
Little more than a year ago, Andrea Baker sold Nicaragua to her parents as the “safest country in Latin America.”
The former Andrea Monroe, a 1999 graduate of Jefferson-Scranton High School, relocated last July to the Nicaraguan capital of Managua with her husband Andy and their two children — new missionaries eager to help out in a country known as the second-poorest in the Western Hemisphere.
There was no way of knowing that Nicaragua was actually a powder keg just waiting to blow.
Describing their first year in Nicaragua during a recent visit home to Jefferson, Andy Baker couldn’t think of the right word.
He kept coming back to a Spanish word: “saqueo.”
“What’s the English word?” he asked aloud, thinking for a second.
Finally, it clicked.
“I never remember the English word for ‘barrier’ either,” he added.
With Nicaragua descending into violent chaos, the Bakers outlasted the Peace Corps and the Mormon church — both of which evacuated personnel as the government of President Daniel Ortega responded to protests with trigger-happy parapolice.
There were runs on gas and food. Tires openly burned on their street.
Andrea, 37, who had just barely finished her first year teaching math at the English-speaking Nicaragua Christian Academy, began thinking for the first time in her life about rationing.
“How many pancakes will I be able to make with this batter?” she wondered. “Will we have enough water?”
Back in Jefferson, her dad, Bill Monroe, could hardly believe the unraveling of Nicaragua wasn’t bigger news in the United States.
“You have to Google ‘crisis in Nicaragua,’ ” he said.
The Baker family — which includes 12-year-old Annalysa and 8-year-old Daniel — were perhaps most wise to push up a preplanned summer vacation to Iowa.
But after visiting family and friends back home, and speaking out about the situation in Nicaragua wherever they could, Andy Baker, 36, is already back to work in Managua.
Andrea and the kids hope to rejoin him next June, but will attend school this year in the relative safety of Andy’s native Sioux City, where Andrea will teach math at Sioux City East High School.
What Nicaragua looks like a year from now is anybody’s guess.
“We May Be Witnessing the Rise of Fascism in Nicaragua,” one headline read Monday morning.
The White House on Monday issued a statement condemning human rights abuses by the “Ortega regime,” chastising the Nicaraguan government for years of fraudulent elections and for suppression of independent media.
“We knew not to say anything bad about Daniel Ortega in public,” Andrea said. “It’s not like here, where you can make fun of Trump.”
Ironically, using the lexicon of the day, Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo — Ortega’s wife — has dismissed reports of protestor fatalities as “false news.”
The U.S. State Department says travel to Nicaragua by Americans is to be reconsidered due to civil unrest. The country’s Level 3 travel advisory puts it just a notch above Syria and Somalia.
“This is such a time of need,” Andy said. “This is when they need foreigners standing up for them.”
Admittedly, Andrea never imagined she would be a missionary.
“I’ve never been a door-knocking Christian,” she confessed. “I don’t even know how to start a conversation.”
She’s a high school math teacher — albeit one married to a pastor.
Andy for five years served as executive pastor at Central Reformed Church in Oskaloosa. The couple met as students at Simpson College.
With Andy broadening his ministry globally, he jokingly mentioned one day to Andrea that there was an opening for a math teacher at the Nicaragua Christian Academy.
“Just because I apply,” Andrea remembers cautioning him, “doesn’t mean we’re going to do it.”
Many Americans haven’t paid Nicaragua much attention since the ’80s, when the U.S. backed guerillas (the Contras) against Marxist revolutionaries (the Sandinistas). That support eventually led to the Iran-Contra Affair.
“No one knows how beautiful it is,” Andrea said. “I long for people to hear about it and learn about it.”
Daughter Annalysa got to hike up a volcano on a fifth-grade field trip.
But if the name Daniel Ortega sounds familiar, it’s because he led the Sandinistas to power in 1979.
Ortega returned as president in 2007, and has since taken control of all four branches of Nicaragua’s government. As president, he also began restricting news coverage and denying journalists access to government reports.
Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America — in the Western Hemisphere, only Haiti is worse off — but the people were apparently willing to tolerate a budding dictatorship.
“People had food on their plates. They had safety on the street. And they had a free press,” Andy said.
When the Bakers arrived last July, suitcases in hand, they found a nation of extremes.
“You get in certain neighborhoods and your jaw just drops,” Andy said of the housing. “It’s just random boards and sheets of metal.
“And then you have shopping centers as nice as Jordan Creek. It’s a land of contrasts.”
His role with the nondenominational Nehemiah Center is to encourage Christian churches in the capital of Managua — a city of more than 1 million — to do more for their community.
Churches are being shown that they can do more than just hold worship services — they can conduct food programs, establish preschool and after-school programs, and offer legal advice, Andy said.
“You’re dealing with a real infant church,” he said, noting that Protestantism is only about 30 years old in Nicaragua.
Above all, the Bakers felt safe when they arrived.
“I felt safe walking with the kids on the streets,” Andrea said.
“I walked in barrios at night,” Andy added. “Everything changed April 19.”
It started with protests over Ortega’s proposal to reform the country’s social security system that would have raised contributions and cut pensions.
By late May, Amnesty International accused Ortega’s administration of issuing an edict to quell the protests: shoot to kill.
“It really went from zero to 100 in a matter of days,” Andy said.
With two children in tow, the Bakers tried to retain a sense of normalcy the best they could — a family outing to see the latest
“Avengers” movie meant detouring around various barriers and blockades.
One rights group reported last week that nearly 450 people have been killed since April, when the protestors began demanding that Ortega leave office.
Ortega has dug in, labeling protestors as “terrorists.”
Even the Catholic Church, which tried to mediate a national dialogue, has been targeted in the crackdown. Bishops and priests have been assaulted by pro-government mobs; churches that sheltered protestors have come under fire by paramilitary groups.
One doctor fled on foot to Costa Rica after receiving threats against his life — for treating victims of Ortega’s crackdown.
“It’s really hurt the most vulnerable,” Andy said.
That’s why they feel compelled to return.
“There will always be unknowns,” Andrea reasoned. “Even in Sioux City, Iowa, there will be.”