Revolution, Real Life, and
the Dogs of War:
A Personal Report from Nicaragua
1. Personal Observations
I spent the last week of February, and then some, in Nicaragua as an observer of the national elections taking place there. I stayed in the village of Posoltega and in Managua; in both places I lived with families, talked with them and came to know some of their needs and concerns. I also monitored the elections with the intention of reporting back to the US on their fairness, the meaning of the outcome, and the prospects for the future.
There is a certain awkwardness that comes of being an outside, international observer of the electoral process in a country where foreign powers have dominated both the political and economic structure for most of its history. That awkwardness, however, gives way quickly when one remembers that it was the government of Nicaragua that invited these observers and when one receives the warm welcome of the Nicaraguan people themselves.
I had never been to Nicaragua, or Central America, before. I didn’t know quite what to expect except that I knew that I shouldn’t drink the water and I had to take medicine for malaria, typhus, hepatitis, tetanus, and some other things that I knew not much about. I knew the people were poor and that I should expect that they beg and steal. My Spanish was serviceable, but not fluent, and I worried about that, both in terms of being able to get around and in terms of the affront to those people my inadequacies could suggest.
After I had been in Nicaragua about a day, I realized how all of my preconceptions were typical of the empire. The people were wonderful. The first people I met—some kids, of course, in this nation where half the population is under 16—handed me a coconut with a hole in it to drink the milk. And that’s the way it was the whole time. Anything they had, they shared. Completely open, guileless, honest, and authentic, they were so much more considerate than I am or I am accustomed to finding, that it is really embarrassing. They boiled water for the gringos. They shared their meals even though food was not abundant, and they prepared really good meals. (For the first time I really understood the story of the loaves and fishes.) They fixed wonderful concoctions of fresh juices of all kinds of fruits. They would, as one guy in Managua did, have a friend (or a friend of a friend), who had a car, or whose parents had a car, that they could borrow to show us around. Simply inviting a stranger into your home is an act of faith that most of us (at least me) would balk at. Yet they invited us—strangers, foreigners, people whose country has been waging war on them—with pride and generosity, with genuine warmth. Not only did they tolerate my Spanish; they helped me with it, helped me understand their dialect, their special words, their pronunciation. By the time I left I felt a lot more comfortable with my Spanish; the inadequacy now was not so much a concern over getting around, but a concern over my limitations in being able to learn from these people.
Life in Nicaragua, both in the village and in the city, is a different world. Part of that difference is a matter of pace. I am accustomed to a day full of appointments and meetings and running errands quickly between. The schedule of the day’s activities there is substantially looser. Maybe a store will open, maybe it won’t. Maybe people will get together at 3:00, and maybe it will be an hour and a half later. That’s OK. Esta bien. The day after the election, it took me a while to figure out, people weren’t going to work. The holiday wasn’t declared or announced; it was spontaneous. And it had nothing to do with who won the election. It was just a day off. Sometimes this casual attitude toward details and punctuality and the demands of the clock and synchronization was difficult to comprehend—like the vegetarian (ham) pizza that appeared at the table in Managua and the erratic hours of some of the businesses in Managua—and I had trouble adjusting to it. At first I took it for a fatalism that meant that people just accept problems. Before I left, though, I had changed my mind and had come to the conclusion that it was more a reluctance to get worked up over the small issues in life. And they probably have a better idea of the difference in small issues and big issues than we do. Or, put another way, in our own society we tend to lose sight of the big issues, so we make the small ones big.
I took some pictures there, and someday I will share my slides with you, but right now the images that come to mind don’t need a slide projector. Nicaragua is a beautiful country. In the day there is the volcano—San Cristobal—looming over Posoltega, smoking ominously. There are the banana plantations, the cotton fields, the brightly colored birds. At night a huge sky opens up, anchored at the bottom with the Southern Cross. The sounds of the birds and whatever other creatures are in the trees are loud and both unsettling and exotic. But there are the other images, too: negotiating with taxi drivers and with merchants at Huembe Mercado; riding on top of the luggage in the back of a push-start pickup as it sailed through the Nicaraguan countryside, through the black night, under sprawling, overhanging trees, its movement making a gentle breeze of the fragrant, sultry air; the beaming faces and joyous spirits, even in defeat, of a Sandinista rally at Carlos Fonseca Plaza; walking through the plantations and cooperatives, visiting with families along the trail; visiting a real “people’s museum,” the museum of the revolution, in a warehouse, meagerly furnished, but filled with pride; and, most of all, the images endure of the warmth in the faces of people I came to know.
The people are poor, I suppose, but that doesn’t mean what I used to think. It is true, they don’t have much in the way of material goods. In Posoltega, the village of about 4000, there was one telephone. Aside from some tractors, the only vehicles were a couple of community and Agricola Department rigs. Several years ago the new government brought electricity, on a continuous basis, to the community. Plumbing for water was at each home, but outhouses were the norm in the village. (In Managua, I stayed with a family in an area that had been built after the 1972 earthquake; there modern toilets were common.) Water was heated over a fire. But at the same time, this does not mean poverty with filth and squalor and abjection. Their houses were simply made and open; in that climate that made good sense. They were sparsely furnished, but I gathered that they really did not have the compulsion to find something to put in this empty corner of the living room. They clearly were not defining happiness in terms of the size of their house as compared to that of their neighbors, or in terms of the possessions they accumulated. They are very clean. Dust was a big problem at the dry season, when I was there, so they sweep the floors a lot. Even the dirt floors would be cleaner than most of our carpeted floors. They do laundry daily. The clothes are sometimes elegant in their cut and color, sometimes simple and functional, but always crisp and clean. (Some other norteamericanos in Posoltega made the mistake of leaving some dirty clothes in the corner; when they returned they had been cleaned and ironed.) I look at my own house and am embarrassed at my housekeeping compared to theirs. Previously I thought I did a pretty good job. The deal is, they don’t have a lot of what we assume you have to have to be happy. So I am reluctant to use the word poor to describe these people who have so much of what we lack.
I saw and did things that I had never imagined before. The highs were so high. The lows were so low.
The highs? A kid named Felix gave me his favorite marble when I left. Then, there was a girl named Veronica who gave several of us each an artificial flower. We compared notes and figured out that they had been given to her as a bouquet for her fifteenth birthday. When she gave it to me she said it was so that I wouldn’t forget her—as if it would be possible to forget. Then again, I left my camera at El Museo de la Revolucion one morning and returned there that afternoon to have the man at the gate knowingly hand it to this representative of the nation that made the revolution necessary. These are small things and they may not mean much to others; in fact I feel a little self-conscious and sentimental writing them down. On the other hand, that’s the way that I felt at the time and I guess that’s what I want to tell you. Let me put it like this: When is the last time you experienced such love and sharing from your friends, not to mention from strangers? Ours is a sterile society where we are loath to respond positively to the needs of others, where we fear that we are going to be taken advantage of if we get too generous. Their society is different. Or am I just reflecting my own jaded cynicism after all these years? Maybe you can let me know about your own experience. Am I off base in my view of American society? What do you think about this stuff? I am honestly trying to figure it all out.
The lows? Well, many of the lows are simply the feelings about myself and my country that come from the same positive experiences I found there. Embarrassment, shame, anger--these all spring from and produce a depression that is low—real low. And there are the specific examples. I will share just one. A little boy—seven years old, but looked even younger (I suspect he had not eaten like the seven year-olds I know)—wanted me to take his picture. I’m short on film, got more pictures to take, already took a bunch of pictures of kids—you know how you can’t do as much as you’d like to, right? So then I wonder where his parents are. Nowhere in sight. That’s because, I discover, they were killed by the Contras. That is the kind of thing that can bring a tear to your eye if you’re not careful. Course, I’m real careful.
You know, in a way, the tough part, really, was coming back. It’s not the sense of thank god, I’m back where the water and people are clean and decent, that I guess I figured would happen. The culture shock has more relevance to re-entry into the US than it does with stepping into Posoltega, this village of dirt streets, simple houses, and more horses than cars. After leaving Managua and then catching a flight from Mexico City to Houston, I was seated next to a couple of medium to high roller types out of Texas who had been on a business/vacation trip somewhere and who had obviously had a good time of it too. They had, at any rate, been someplace different, with a somewhat more self-indulgent purpose than mine had been. The guy turns to me and asks me a question, innocent enough (honest to god, I can’t remember what it was, may have been about the weather, I don’t know), and I just almost said, No hablo ingles. It was clear we were speaking different languages, coming from different worlds.
Let me see if I can explain it a little differently. When I got back to Laramie, it was obvious to my friends that I was not really with the flow and excitement of university life. And, in fact, it was difficult to take seriously the discussions about campus politics and committee labors that often preoccupy talk. It was difficult to feel the tension that I used to feel from the demands in the job. I simply recognized that in at least one other place on this globe the stakes are a lot higher and a lot more immediate. One friend looked me in the eye while we were going over all the terrible things that had happened in the university while I was gone, and said, “This stuff doesn’t mean anything to you; it’s just small potatoes.” I denied it then, but she was right. A week or so later, somebody asked me if I was back to normal yet. I think I had figured out by then that I really didn’t want to get back to “normal.”
At any rate, the elections were why I was really there. But, in a curious way, the test presented by the elections in Nicaragua is less the test of the Sandinista government than it is the test of other governments, like ours, in responding to popular needs and aspirations in that small country. The performance of the United States, so far, in that test gives the greatest cause for awkwardness. Despite periodic calls by the President and Congress for a popularly elected government in Nicaragua, the United States government has been much more interested in securing a government imposed through military force that would assuredly be friendly to the US than in a popular government that would be mainly responsive to internal circumstances.
The origins of the elections are plain evidence of this. The war that has been raging in Nicaragua since President Reagan created and financed the Contras in 1982 had taken its toll on the economy and people of Central America for long enough when Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, in October of 1987, secured agreement from the five Central American Presidents for a process designed to bring peace to the region. The critical elements of the formula were the disbanding of the Contras and the holding of free elections in Nicaragua. Such elections were already scheduled to be held, but subsequently President Daniel Ortega moved the schedule to February 1990 instead of November of this year. In the meantime, the Contras would be dismantled by November, 1989.
The official response to this by the US government was that of a snub to Arias, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for this achievement, and the commitment to continue support for the Contras for as long as it took to secure the downfall of the Ortega administration. The possibility that peace and democratic elections could emerge within this nation was outside belief. A month and a half before I went down there, the Contras ambushed a vehicle and in the process wounded an archbishop and killed two nuns, one of them from Wisconsin. The State Department was unrepentant: the US, it said “remains committed to the Resistance,” and indicated that it would continue to support the Contras, possibly even after the elections, depending on the outcome. This was after the Contras were scheduled to be dismantled, after all of the governments in Central America had called upon the US to demobilize the Contras, and after international observers had reported that the election process was open and fair.
Indeed, for the entire period leading up to the elections the United States government, first under Reagan and then under Bush, refused to acknowledge the possibility that the elections could be fair and thus binding. This was despite the fact that a team of observers representing the United Nations under former Nixon Attorney General and Ford Secretary of Commerce Elliott Richardson and a team of observers from the Organization of American States and yet another team headed by former President Jimmy Carter unanimously reported that the preparations for the election were proper and the elections themselves promised to be square. Indeed, last November Wyoming Representative Craig Thomas (who took Dick Cheney’s seat when Cheney went to Defense—not a friend of revolution) visited Nicaragua and concluded that there was a good chance the elections would be fair and open and that UNO (the Union of Nicaraguan Opposition) could win the elections. Even so, the administration only about a week before the elections grudgingly admitted that the elections might be fair after all; even then it held out the possibility that if the Sandinistas won, it would be evidence that they were not fair.
The issues leading up to the election were clear, and they had nothing to do with the issues the US government told us were at stake. According to Washington, the Sandinista presence indicated the ability of communism to penetrate into “our own back yard.” (As I recall, Reagan said that Harlingen, Texas, would be the next beachhead.) According to both major candidates in Nicaragua, however, the issues were peace and economic growth. The United States government, which has a history of intervening militarily in Central America generally in this century and in Nicaragua itself by starting a revolution in 1909, by military intervention in 1912, with the Marines occupying Nicaragua until 1933 and leaving then only because a new, brutal internal force known as the Guardia Nacional had been created to do what the Marines had been doing, and then by supporting General Anastasio Somoza who, with his sons, established a dictatorship that remained until the Sandinistas overthrew that regime in 1979. Then the United States created and funded the Contras, largely associated with the Guardia Nacional and Somocistas. In 1911 the US minister to Nicaragua reported to Washington that “The natural sentiment of the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans is antagonistic to the United States.” In the seventy-nine years since then, US policy to Nicaragua has not changed and has in fact given deeper reason for such antagonism. In 1990 that sentiment remains the same. So it was that when the United States invaded Panama last December, even the opposition candidate, Violeta Chamorro, was quick to condemn the invasion.
The election was not a referendum on the revolution. The issues were instead those of economic growth and peace. Both candidates, Ortega and Chamorro, emphasized this. But even if you disregard the politicians (as I tend to do), you only have to sit around the table with families who sympathize with the UNO factions and with others who sympathize with the Frente. Both tell you the same thing. The economy is in bad shape. Nicaragua had previously sent 90% of its exports to the United States; that was dramatically cut off by the Reagan embargo on US trade with Nicaragua. While trade to the Soviet Bloc countries subsequently increased (an unexpected consequence of the embargo), it has not taken up the slack. Moreover, the already weakened economy has been drained further by the need to fight a defensive war waged by Guardia Nacional officers and mercenaries. With somewhere around 30,000 casualties since the Contra war began, the war has taken a huge toll--emotionally, physically, and economically. Posoltega, with its population of about 4000, has contributed 123 to that number. The desire for peace comes through every discussion with Nicaraguans, and it comes from UNO supporters and Frente supporters alike.
There is no question about the fairness of the election. Secret ballots were assured. An open press was evident everywhere. The registration process undertaken in the fall produced a registration of more than 90% of the eligible voters, a figure which Americans can only envy. And they turned out to vote. At the polls, poll watchers representing the Supreme Electoral Council, the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Sandinista Frente, and the UNO alliance were there to observe and report on infractions and irregularities. Other observers supplemented these in what is doubtless the most intensely observed election in this hemisphere and likely the world. It was also the freest in Central America and presents a challenge to other countries in that region to follow. This does not square with the picture painted of politics there by the State Department: a totalitarian regime. (Thinking about that I got a kick out of the mayor of Posoltega, Rolando Peralta, spending the last couple of days before the election not doing the ward heeler activities of the American parties and machines, but trying to devise a scheme where a guitar that was given the community could be most widely accessible. The fortress mentality? Yeah, it was there—at the American embassy, a place that could probably withstand attack by a heavy brigade.)
The main deviation from what could be considered an honest and fair election is probably the lenience of the Sandinistas in allowing foreign financial assistance to candidates. This is not allowed in the United States. Nevertheless, the United States government provided 9 million dollars to Violeta Chamorro and UNO to help assure victory. Some kind of foreign influence such as this might have been inevitable since a week before the election President Bush promised to lift the trade embargo and provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Nicaragua if Chamorro was elected--essentially a bribe. It is, however, disturbing that the United States government applies a different standard to elections in other countries than it does to those within our own borders.
In the elections, UNO won and won decisively. The meaning of that victory, however, is not so easy to augur. It is tempting to see the UNO victory as a triumph of the Reagan/Bush policy toward Nicaragua. Certainly Washington is making that claim. While it is true that the victory does show the ability of the United States through military and economic pressure, to wear down a country half the size of Wyoming and with seven times our population (or about the size of the Atlanta area), the fact is that the election denies the US the military victory it has sought. And moreover, the election came not because of US pressure but because of procedures developed by the Sandinistas and endorsed by the other leaders of Central America, even those usually considered client states of the US. The US has been an outsider all the way and has been chagrined at the possibility of a free election in the region, just as the Soviet Union has long been apprehensive of free elections on its own borders. This election may even have been an affirmation of the principle of self-determination, a principle that runs counter to US policy in the region. The only test of that will be the future in which Chamorro will determine how much of a servant of American interests she wishes to be.
3. The Future and the Dogs of War
The future contains the seeds for grave apprehensions for this embattled country and her people. If the Chamorro administration is going to govern effectively, it is going to have to change dramatically from what it has done during the campaign. UNO is not a political party; it is instead a coalition of parties ranging from former Sandinistas, like Chamorro herself, to former Guardia Nacional officers, to the Communist party, in all an alliance of 14 disparate, bickering parties with little in common beyond opposition to the Sandinistas. Once given the responsibility for developing an agenda together, the division and rancor that characterized the campaign will become more intense. Indeed, there is the distinct possibility, given that rancor, that within a few months the Sandinistas with 40% of the Assembly seats will be the dominant party once again.
As to the specific issues, the most sensitive problems will revolve around the structure built by the Sandinistas. The Sandinista army, after all, wrested power at great sacrifice from Somoza and the Guardia Nacional. That revolutionary army is unlikely to yield to the GN; it has been rumored that Doña Violeta will place a Contra leader and former GN officer in charge of the army. That will be an explosive combination of the first order if it comes to pass. And there is also talk of restoring land that has been redistributed to its “proper” owners. The campesinos who now hold title to that land are unlikely to surrender cheerfully their homesteads to the Miami emigres and multinational corporations that used to own the plantations they comprised. And the medical assistance and education in the countryside and the introduction of electricity to areas previously unserved is a problem. The contras have systematically focused their attacks on the schools, the clinics, and the power stations which represented Sandinista achievements. (The village where I stayed had one school in 1979; now it has 13. It used to have no medical service at all; now it has a clinic and access to a hospital.) Will these now be dismantled politically instead of militarily?
The challenge for Doña Violeta is huge. She will have to have exquisite skills in mediating disputes among her followers; she will have to develop an agenda that can be supported by the people; she will have to deal with the US in a delicate manner so as to avoid the antagonism, but at the same time chart an independent course for her country.
But, most important of all, the war is finally over. Or it is almost over. The five Central American presidents have persistently called for the demobilization of the Contras. Ortega has called for the demobilization of the Contras. And now President Elect Chamorro has also called for the demobilization of the Contras. The people of Nicaragua have voted for peace. There is only one thing standing in the way of an end to the war. Representative Thomas noted that last November when he said that some of the Contra leadership “are going to be lost without a war.” Yet that need not be a problem. The only thing keeping the Contras alive today as in the past is American tax money—nearly $130 million over the last decade, not counting that which went to the Contras illegally in the Iran-Contra scandal. (Tonight, March 22, I am writing part of this in a hotel room a half mile from the White House and I think of the irony of it all.) Bush and Quayle, finally, have called on them to demobilize, and I suppose we should be grateful that they have finally caught up with what the rest of the world has been seeking for years. But the latest press reports I get off the wire services indicate that now the United States figures the problem is resolved: “The Contras have been dissolved,” is the official word from the US Ambassador to Honduras, Chris Arcos. The Contras themselves have infiltrated back into Nicaragua, armed and ready for battle, to avoid the United Nations-monitored demobilization. They are still receiving support from the US Agency for International Development. Plus, the aid will continue. I noticed that $88 million of the $300 million Bush is seeking in aid for Nicaragua will go for resettlement of Contras.
The people of Nicaragua want peace and they want to return to the domestic issues that have been put on hold while they have fought off the aggressors. They want to be left alone. They have made great sacrifice for peace. Two weeks ago a wire story in the news reported one village woman who said that, yes, she wanted peace and she wanted peace so badly that even though she and her family had suffered unspeakable horrors at the hands of the Contras, if only peace would come she would welcome them back to live in her village. She may be an exception; I don’t know. The United States is fortunate that some of these people are capable of such forgiveness. There is only one cause that can explain that charitable attitude: peace.
I should qualify this a little. Before I left, four days after the election, a friend I had made down there was anxious, was apprehensive about the consequences of the election. Not that it was great shakes that UNO had won, but that rumors were running that the revolution was going to be undone. (Isn’t that what Washington told us, too?) He has his AK-47 cleaned and is ready to use it. Another person I met, not really political at all, I have since learned has already gone to the hills in anticipation. So close to peace, so close to war.
Old Dwight Eisenhower would have understood the problem. Eisenhower once argued that “. . . the common desire for peace is something that is a terrific force in this world and to which I believe all political leaders in the world are beginning to respond. They must recognize it.” In fact, Eisenhower went on, “I think people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.” Not a bad idea.
I sometimes think we hold the solution to their problem. Tonight, in Washington, D.C., it’s hard not to think that. But, really, I know better. That’s another form of the same imperialism that makes me go there prepared to feel sorry for these poor people. And that’s the same impulse that led missionaries, conquistadors, and filibusterers there in the past centuries. But it’s not that way. As with any country, the people hold the solution to their problem. What we need to do is just get out of the way and let them do it. If we stop the embargo, if we tell the Contras, who have been on our payroll, that they need to find a real job, that they are no longer on the payroll, that will help. We can call off the dogs of war. If we then try to undo some of the enormous damage that we have done by helping them rebuild the hospitals, schools, roads, power stations, and other institutions we have destroyed, that would be a decent gesture and one that can only partially atone for our past policy. But beyond that, once we get into the business of telling them what they must do to save themselves, well, that’s the point where this kid came into the movie. I didn’t like that part. And it didn’t work.
Well, that’s my report. It looks like I included about everything. But I didn’t. All I did was try to put together some of my own experiences with the larger picture of what is happening down there. Probably, it isn’t a successful mix. But two more things I want to say. One is that sharing this experience with you lets out all that mixture of wonderful and depressing feelings inside of me so I can sort them out a little better now, even a month after the elections. The other thing is that I would like your own thoughts on all this. That’s usually the way that I learn; and in the past I have learned a lot from your own reactions to my thoughts.
I guess there is one other thing. Have you ever thought about going to Nicaragua? I don’t know when I’ll be going next, but I do plan to go again. But more to the point, I could put you in touch with people and groups who do go--like the Sister City programs where American communities and Nicaraguan communities develop cooperative relationships without the intrusion of either national government, a real people-to-people effort. Or, I noticed a couple of six week Spanish language courses offered there. If you do go, let me know all about it. My hunch is—a wild guess—that you won’t be the same afterwards, either. Think about it.
Thanks for listening. Drop me a note.