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A fate like the railways?

| Tuesday, November 29, 2022

I have always had a deep infatuation with Nicaragua’s history, and throughout my life I have consistently made a point of learning as much of it as is humanly possible. I have spent countless hours reading my country’s history books, clicking through Wikipedia pages and watching archive footage found in rather obscure corners of the internet. The only reason why I still make a point of checking Facebook frequently is to peruse through the many Nicaraguan history pages I follow, taking pictures I find interesting and sending them to my friends and relatives every now and then. As winter break approaches, I will have the opportunity to go home for the first time since January, and I am ecstatic to once again set foot in the lands that saw me grow up. In my mind, nothing beats learning about history in the flesh and being able to once again tour Nicaragua’s landmarks. The opportunity to explore places I have not seen in ages for the first time in a while has me giddy with excitement. 

One of my favorite places to visit while in Nicaragua is Granada, a colonial city that boasts itself among the oldest continually inhabited European settlements in North America. The city’s historic center is riddled with colonial buildings that are several hundred years old, and the city’s character is an indubitable manifestation of authentic Nicaraguan identity. Among the city’s landmarks is the old railway station, my first stop on every visit to Granada, on the outskirts of its colonial core. Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated with the fact Nicaragua once had a railroad and forever heartbroken at the fact it was decommissioned in the mid-1990s, a few years before I was born. Over the years I have visited the train stations that are still lucky enough to remain standing and gathered anecdotes from elder relatives about what it was to ride the Nicaraguan Pacific Railroad of days gone by. 

Nicaragua’s railways ran for just over a century, having entered operations in the mid-1880s and shut down for good on December 31, 1993. When it first entered service, it was the magnum opus of Nicaraguan engineering. At the time, the roads that connected the country’s cities on the Pacific Coast were nothing more than dirt trails, and the railroad was the only mode of transportation that offered safe, reliable and quick travel from one point to another. During its golden era, the railway connected the port city of Corinto in the westernmost region of the Pacific Coast all the way to the port of San Juan del Sur near the border with Costa Rica. It brought together important cities like Chinandega, Leon, Managua, Masaya, Jinotepe and Rivas, and its branch lines helped extract valuable exports like cotton, coffee and cattle. It was a valuable component of the nation’s fabric and contributed to the country’s growth and development throughout the better part of the 20th century. By the time the railway was finally shut down, however, it was far past its prime. In 1982, Tropical Storm Aletta destroyed the line between Corinto and Leon, arguably the most profitable segment of the railroad. That part was never rebuilt, and an overall lack of investment and  maintenance led to its steady decline. When the government finally made the decision to shut it down for good, it argued it was unprofitable, obsolete beyond salvaging and simply not a fiscal priority. To this day, the decision provokes strong emotions in many Nicaraguan households, and “she sold off the train” is always mentioned when judging then President Violeta Chamorro’s administration. 

The fate of Nicaragua’s railways was sealed by a variety of factors: administrative ineptitude, a lack of proper upkeep, natural disasters, and the rise of the automobile. However, almost 30 years later, many people still can’t help but ask whether its closure was truly unavoidable. It is easy to argue that there was no other viable alternative but closure at the time the railway ceased operations. Nonetheless, it took over 40 years for it to get to that point. Mistakes, miscalculations and tragedies helped bring about its demise. 

One of Nicaragua’s railroad legacies is the lasting impression it left on the country’s collective memory. The train brought the country together and stands as an icon that defined an important part of life in the 20th century. As I have begun looking forward to my return to my homeland, I can’t help but reflect on how the railroad’s storied history can serve as a lesson for us all in other regards. People’s paths to success or failure are not an overnight development. Those who succeed have behind them long lists of small accomplishments that have helped consolidate their achievements into larger ones. On the other side of the same coin, those who have succumbed to failure can also count a collection of continuous mistakes that eventually made them buckle under their burdensome weight. 

When looking at life, and the path forward, I find guidance from a story like my country’s railway system. Its failure may have been inevitable at the very end, but only because it could no longer carry on with the gross accumulation of mistakes that threatened its continued existence. What you become in 10 years is not an exclusive product of what you’ll be doing nine years and 11 months from now. It is the product of every step along the way. Therefore, one must be diligent in distinguishing the good from the bad choices in order to avoid a fate like my country’s railway. 

Pablo Lacayo is a senior at Notre Dame, majoring in finance while minoring in Chinese. He enjoys discussing current affairs, giving out bowl plates at the dining hall, walking around the lakes and karaoke. You can reach him at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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