Conversation with Lucia Salazar de Robelo Minister of Tourism, Nicaragua
1) What prompted you to move to the United States?
Things in Nicaragua were getting worse. It was 1979, just after the
revolution. My father, who was a coffee grower, started a campaign against
the Sandinistas, who had just taken power. They were forcing the small
coffee farmers to sell their beans directly to them at unfair prices. So, my
father organized the farmers and helped them get a fair price from
international buyers. He quickly became a threat to the Sandinistas and he
was being followed. So, he sent my brothers, my sister, my mother and I to
the United States where he knew we would be safe. It was supposed to be a
vacation but after nine months of living with my aunt in the U.S. my father
was killed in Nicaragua. The Sandinistas expropriated my family's farm and
any money we had in the bank. They took my toys, my dog, everything. My
father was 41 when he was killed; I was 13. I never saw him again, and I
didn't return to Nicaragua for almost 16 years.
2) What was your life like in the U.S., and when and why did you decide
to move back to Nicaragua?
I got my first job in a handbag store when I turned 15. My entire family
worked - we had to. My mother was now a widow at 39 with four kids to
support so she started working as a seamstress. It was a struggle, but the
memories of my life in Nicaragua and my father helped me get through the
difficult times. And I cannot tell you that I had an unhappy childhood. We
had a very close family and my mother is strong and optimistic. We knew
somehow everything would be okay. In 1983, the government asked my mother to
be part of the junta. This was a group of Nicaraguan politicians
financed by the U.S. who lobbied Washington to get aid for the Contras. My
mother was the only woman in the organization and she was never home because
she was traveling all the time for the junta.
3) When and why did you decide to move back to Nicaragua?
When I was 15 I met Jorge, a wonderful man and also a Nicaraguan who was
living in the U.S. We dated for years when I was in high school and he was
in college. We eventually married and when the war ended in 1990 and
Nicaragua had free elections, Jorge and I realized we had a responsibility
to our country. We had a happy home and Jorge had an excellent job. He'd
worked his way up from a sales position to a corporate job in the head
office of a very successful company. But we made a decision to go back.
In 1994, right after we had our third child, we moved to Managua. When we
got there, we found an economic depression in our country. There were no
jobs, no public lights in the streets, no supermarkets. Even water was hard
to come by. Where people used to be happy, everything was gray. But we knew
we had to invest our resources and try to bring about change. Until I
started working I wasn't really happy, because it was then that I realized I
was giving back to Nicaragua. We started a mail-order business that
eventually grew to 150 employees. We gave jobs - and hope - to people who
before had had none. This kind of change began taking place in cities and
towns throughout the country, and we began to see Nicaragua transform itself.
It was amazing to witness.
4) Tell me how you came into the position you're in now, Minister of
Tourism for Nicaragua?
Jorge and I sold our mail-order company and we launched a series of business
ventures over the years that were extremely profitable. We launched the
third Internet provider in Nicaragua (we sold the company just before the
dotcom crash). Then I set up a showroom in Managua selling office furniture,
and then I worked in a bank. After these jobs I was asked to help establish
an office called ProNicaragua that promoted foreign investment in Nicaraguan
companies. I was overseeing that office when the president of Nicaragua
called and asked me if I wanted to become the Minister of Tourism. I was
absolutely stunned. I'd never wanted this - I'd certainly never planned for
it. And I knew it would be tough on my family since I would have to be away
a lot. But together we decided to take this challenge because all of us -
even my children - understand and believe that tourism is one of the only
ways that Nicaragua can counter the negative image we were branded with in
the 1980s. If we can get people to come and see the beauty of our country
and meet the Nicaraguan people face to face, then I am convinced we can show
the world we've changed.
Another challenge for me personally in taking this job is that the
commission of tourism in the National Assembly is presided over by some
members of the former government who were responsible for the death of my
father. Now I work with them. I can do that because I believe that success
is achieved through love and not through hate. Destiny has put us together
in the same place. And I can only hope that my example will help my country
because we all have to learn to forgive. My father is not coming back - I
know that. So I see this as a shining opportunity for my country. We have to
learn to be Nicaraguans, and not politicians. I am not Sandinistan. I
am not Contra. I am Nicaraguan.
5) What else would you like people to know about the Nicaragua of today?
Nicaragua is ready now to receive visitors with open arms. We have the
lowest criminal record of any country in Central America. We have a young
and vibrant population; there are 5.3 million people in Nicaragua and 65% of
the population is under 25. Also, 85% of Nicaragua's coastline is
undeveloped. Our Pacific Coast beaches go on for miles with waves that seem
to touch the sky. Our well-preserved geography is the silver lining to our
troubled history because people basically forgot about us for two decades.
And we now want people to experience the Nicaragua what was forgotten. We
want to let the world know that we have confronted our past and reclaimed
our heritage and we have beautiful horizons to share. We want the world to
see the Nicaragua of today.