The following is reproduced from a special edition of our Europe Through the Back Door Newsletter from 1988.
Day 6 — Mothers of the Disappeared
There have been 60,000 assassinations by the right-wing death squads in this civil war, not to mention the actual war casualties. For each of those there is a family ripped apart.
Death squads are secret para-military bands financed by the right wing to terrorize their enemies. They raid a home or village at night, kidnapping suspects, who are then imprisoned, tortured or killed, their bodies dumped on the roadside. Or — worst of all for their families — many of them simply "disappear" forever, with no explanation.
All over Latin America, mothers of the murdered, imprisoned or disappeared victims of American-supported, CIA-coached governments are uniting and speaking with a strong voice. When they take your sons and daughters, you tend to act bold.
In l984 they were given the Robert F. Kennedy award for battling for human rights. The U.S. government would not grant visas to these widows and grieving mothers to accept the award because they were... "terrorists".
We sat with eight mothers, wives and sisters of the disappeared and, surrounded by posters, photos of gruesome corpses and a chart of all the physical ways the government tortures its prisoners, we heard their testimony.
We heard horrifying accounts of husbands decapitated, their corpses left with their voter-identity cards stuck in their mouths, showing they'd refused to participate in the last election. We heard of sons and daughters tortured, killed or disfigured with acid; of political slogans cut into victims' chests; of brothers held in prisons indefinitely with no charges filed against them; loved ones missing for years with no word as to their fate; and on and on, each story documented with a scrapbook of black and white photos.
These women have very strong convictions. We were told: "The government and the military say they can win the war — assuming continued U.S. aid — just by killing the top 100,000 activists. There are lists already on U.S. computers of all the people with a free spirit. Rallies have been videotaped, teachers and priests red-listed. It's a straightforward job and victory is the oligarchy's.
"The U.S. government is the principle protagonist, the most responsible for the situation we're living in. Disappearances are part of a total policy of the U.S. and Salvadoran governments. If it weren't for the U.S. aid, we'd have no torture, no suffering. Please, leave the Salvadorans to solve their own problems."
Robert Kennedy looked down on us from the bookshelf as these women brought us to tears with their strength, faith, hope and stories of their fight against this amazing repression. Two of us had to leave, it was so intense, and I was emotionally exhausted by it all. I kept wondering how I'd ever explain these powerful experiences to my wife, Anne, back in Seattle.
The mothers finished by saying, "Thank you for coming. Your visit gives us strength and hope to continue. We hope for your prayers."
Liberation Theology — The God of the Poor
After a too-short rest in the hotel and feeling mentally very rummy, we bused to the impressive University of Central America campus and met with a priest who is one of the world's leading liberation theologians. We sat at a large table, he laid out his cigarettes and started our meeting, explaining things as easily as breathing.
Liberation theology looks at Developing World politics from a Christian perspective. God's message is meant to free people from oppression. In Latin America, oppression takes the form of poverty and political violence. By liberating people from these evils, you are following God's word.
The priest explained, "Liberation means nothing without oppression. Those who deny the need for liberation deny the existence of oppression. You must have experienced this oppression to truly understand liberation theology.
"The most fundamental oppression in El Salvador is not war but poverty. Remember, El Salvador's standard of living — not the USA's — is the world's norm.
"There are different poverties. In El Salvador poverty drags one to a slow death. It's a life not worthy of human beings. It also brings violent death. It's the poor, 60,000 of them here, who are assassinated because they want change.
"The cause of poverty is not lack of industriousness. Injustice here is structural, and this oppression is what liberation theology applies to. God shows himself to the oppressed, as when he freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. God's basic reaction is to liberate — "I have heard the cries of my people and I've come to free them."
"Some theology says God shows himself to the powerful. Reagan says God has blessed the USA in particular because they're so powerful. That's at least a heresy, if not a blasphemy."
We noted that liberation theology, which pursues structural change, is often associated with Marxism. Is liberation theology Marxist, then?
"No, Marxism is not essential to liberation theology. What is essential is a good understanding of reality. If Marx helps, great. The current system is not producing life, and Marx is helpful to understand and criticize capitalism. Of course, its analysis needs to be refined, but Marxism is the best tool for looking at the system from below. Marx has nothing to do with Lenin or Stalin or repressive dictatorships. They are political. Marx is economic.
"Whether you're a Marxist or not, you must admit that in Latin America there is a class struggle. While other systems mask it, Marx explains its economic roots. You'll find the Old Testament, with its prophets railing against the rich and powerful, has more in common with Marx than any other system.
"A prerequisite to understanding liberation theology is experiencing or exposure to oppression. If you experience El Salvador's oppression, you see that the horizon of your life is no longer you. If you don't have this reaction, I can't explain liberation theology to you. I don't understand how a real believer in God cannot do his utmost to change this death into life."
Listening to this passionate priest, I couldn't help but think of my friends at home who have not had the opportunity I've had to sit on a filthy wooden toilet seat of a corrugated tin latrine — the proud possession of a family of eight who are the envy of a neighborhood where this is a rare luxury. A pig snorting through the corn cobs outside the door is another mark of affluence unknown in Edmonds, Washington, USA.
Without experiencing the reality of poverty, how can anyone understand the importance of a movement that, for the first time in centuries, is helping peasants build a better reality for their children? My friends at home see it as a simple choice between free elections or a Godless Marxist dictatorship.
"The major opponent of liberation theology has been governments. After his famous visit to Central America, Nelson Rockefeller said, "Liberation Theology threatens US interests." The CIA fights liberation theology because it openly attacks the system.
"There is persecution of religious activists. Three archbishops in Latin America have been assassinated as have 22 priests in Guatemala and El Salvador.
"The establishment sees that religion will not go away, so they encourage the fundamentalist sects that spread the gospel of apathy (colonial theology).
As the Father talked, the crack and thud of bombs near and far reminded us of the reality that he understood. I wondered if Americans at home would ever understand.
Now I was truly exhausted, and skipped the group dinner to eat alone in the hotel and lick my intellectual wounds in silence.
Our week in El Salvador is over. Tomorrow we travel on to Nicaragua — only 45 minutes away by plane, but situated clear on the opposite end of the political spectrum.
Here in El Salvador, I've learned how much I'd underestimated the American press's ability to shape and steer public attention. El Salvador is the terrified and horribly abused child in our neighborhood that I never noticed. And only by seeing it firsthand have I learned that it is MY family that is doing much of the abusing.
While the statistics of poverty, infant mortality, unemployment, assassinations and U.S. military aid speak for themselves, the personal souvenir I'll take home is the human face behind all those numbers. I leave El Salvador with a respect for the capability, spirit and dignity of the Salvadoran campesino.
The only hope I see is in forcing America to look into the eyes of the beautiful face of its victim.
Day 7 — Nicaragua
It felt strangely exciting to land at Sandino Airport. These are very tough times here, obviously. In its ten year history, the Nicaraguan revolution has been wracked by a war, the hurricane, a devastating U.S. embargo and a huge national debt left by Somoza.
But already I felt none of the fear and tension of El Salvador. There were soldiers around, sure. But unlike the internal security forces of El Salvador, Nicaragua's soldiers milled around, hanging out with the people, dressed in casual green uniforms that looked like Boy Scout uniforms with the badges torn off. The water's rationed, there's not much food, but these people seem to have a spirit which I imagine is akin to that which enabled Revolutionary France to take on all of Europe two centuries ago. Happily, we tossed our code word for Nicaragua (Nebraska) out the window — Toto, we're here.
Nicaraguans, led by the Sandinista Front, overthrew the U.S.- backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza, in 1979. The new government carried out land reform, made health care and education available to everyone and developed a "mixed economy" combining public and private enterprise. The economy grew strongly until 1982, when the contra war began taking its toll.
The Reagan administration, calling the Nicaraguan government "Marxist" and a threat to U.S. and Central American security, organized and financed a counter-revolutionary ("contra") army, based in Honduras and Costa Rica, which has waged a war on Nicaraguan civilians. Washington also launched economic warfare, cutting off international lending and imposing a trade embargo.
Elections in 1984 produced a strong majority for the Sandinista Front (FSLN), and a constitution has been drafted and adopted. Nicaragua has a non-aligned foreign policy; during the war it has obtained arms to defend itself from a number of sources, mostly from the Soviet bloc. The Nicaraguan government has repeatedly offered to sign a regional peace treaty banning any foreign troops or bases. Today, while the U.S.-funded contras continue to menace Nicaragua, the country's main problem is the economic crisis compounded by the U.S. embargo and the devastating 1988 hurricane.
Managua, a One-Story City
Mark, our local guide, met us with a roomy bus and we enjoyed a brief city tour. Brief. Virtually everything was destroyed in the devastating 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. Managua today is little more than a series of vacant lots that used to be buildings, a few memorials and statues, multi-story buildings that are now capped-off one story buildings, and the grassy field that marks the core of the city.
There's no real downtown and no addresses. If you write a letter to someone, you address it something like: "The house two blocks toward the lake from where the Pepsi building used to be."
We stopped at the cathedral square — a gutted, overgrown memorial to the earthquake, with the belltower clock stopped at the terrible hour... 12:33 pm. We also saw the eternal flame of the country and the stately but crumbling National Palace.
I took plenty of photos, and at one point, as I sat at the foot of the cathedral reloading my camera, a little kid with 1.5 arms and a dirty grey swiss-cheese shirt put his one whole arm around my shoulders and observed.
Somoza vs. Sandino
Like just about any country down here in "banana land", Nicaragua has a history of strong-arm dictators, a small but extremely wealthy landowning class, and an exploited peasantry. U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1912 to 1932 in order to "protect" big business interests against Nicaraguans who wanted to change the colonial-style economy. In the 1930s, the U.S. withdrew its troops and established the friendly Somoza family dictatorship... at about the same time as a popular guerrilla leader named Sandino was assassinated.
Anastasio Somoza ruled with an iron fist, personnally amassing a huge fortune — his family owned a fourth of all the farmable land in Nicaragua. His blatant corruption became intolerable in the aftermath of the 1972 earthquake when he pocketed U.S. relief money. This stoked the smoldering discontent of the Nicaraguans, and the revolutionary Sandinista movement (named after Sandino) grew in power and popularity.
In 1979, the Sandinistas threw Somoza out and installed a revolutionary government. With wide popular support they pursued their revolutionary agenda — land reform, literacy programs, day care, better health care and creating a mixed economy.
The U.S. responded with military and economic warfare, funding the Contra War and forbidding trade with the fledgling nation. To make sure of their isolation, the U.S. government placed mines in Nicaraguan harbors. Though Central American leaders have made proposals to stabilize the region (like the Arias Peace Plan), Reagan consistently refused to accept them.
Since 1983, the revolution's goals have been put on hold as they fight to survive. Today it looks as if Nicaragua has won the Contra battle but is left with a ruined economy. The war — now an economic, diplomatic and psychological one with the USA — goes on.
Mr. Ortega's Neighborhood
For the next week, we'll live just down the street from the home of "Daniel" — as Nicaraguans call their president, Daniel Ortega. Considering his reputation in the U.S. as a repressive dictator, security at his home is a joke. Next to the famous green door is just one guard, and at each end of the street is a chain to stop traffic. In El Salvador, the rich and powerful live behind a shield of walls, guards and tinted glass. Here in Nicaragua, there's only one tinted-glass limousine — the U.S. embassy's.
Our home was a middle-class rambler with 6-bed dorms for men and women, a fine dining room/meeting room with maps, folk art and liberation theology songs on the wall, a large fruit bin, water cooler, a fan and a lounge with a library.
Times are tough in war-torn Nicaragua. Because of the effects of the low intensity conflict, we had lots of restrictions. Flush the toilet rarely and put no paper in it. Waterless days are Tuesday and Friday, so Managua's million inhabitants wash and cook with water from a barrel filled the day before. We had plenty of food, but if you go to a Chinese restaurant for dinner, you get your choice of rice and beans... or beans and rice. Since glass is rare, many soft drinks are served in plastic bags with straws. Reuse your plastic water cups and generally be very careful with electricity.
The economy is suffering. Changing money, we got 3500 cordobas to the dollar. It will be 4000 by the time we leave next week — 36,000% inflation. The prices on our drink cooler are in pencil.
We heard loud bangs outside, and immediately thought of bombs, as we'd heard often in El Salvador. But we soon found out that this was the festival of Mary's Immaculate Conception — these were not bombs or bullets, just the bang of children throwing firecrackers.
Ronnie, Gorby, Danny... and Marx?
We met in the Foreign Ministry building (Nicaragua's "State Department") with Roberto Vargas, a Nicaraguan who had lived 40 years in the USA organizing unions and as a member of the San Francisco city council for 10 years. He was just a seemingly normal guy, quite casual, with lots of nervous energy shaking in his leg and a great Cheech and Chong accent.
We asked Mr. Vargas why he thought the U.S. was so against the Sandinistas.
"Nicaragua is dangerous because it threatens U.S. economic control in Central America. It's an example of one of the few places in the world where money does not buy political power."
We asked about one of Nicaragua's most pressing problems with the U.S., the huge debt owed to U.S. banks.
"Yes, the debt. When we won our revolution in l979 there was only $3 million in the bank — enough to run our little country for one day. We inherited a $2 billion debt, much of which Somoza borrowed in the last year of his regime. At the time, we were earnestly explaining to American banks that the revolution was about to topple Somoza, and his men would flee with the money. We told them we could not be obligated, legally or morally, to pay this money back. Still they loaned.
"Latin America has a $430 billion debt. It can never and will never be paid. U.S. banks loaned all this to military dictators... and now want the people to pay. The dictators are dead but that debt lives on. The US talks of belt-tightening, yet the U.S. itself freely gives away guns and mines for our harbors.
"And this U.S. embargo goes on and on, justified on legal grounds only as long as the U.S. president calls Nicaragua a "national threat". Even as we were assessing our hurricane wounds, Reagan extended it another six months."
I asked Mr. Vargas about Ortega's ill-timed visit to Moscow. Why did he bait the U.S. Congress by going just before an important vote on contra aid?
"This visit had been planned for three months. You don't just call up Gorbachev and reschedule him. It was the U.S. Congress that purposely changed the date of the vote on contra aid to just after the visit."
Is Nicaragua a Marxist dictatorship?
"Our intent is a participatory democracy. But you don't move from centuries of dictatorship to full democracy with the snap of a finger. Even the USA waited 12 years after its revolutionary victory before they had a real election.
"Our National Assembly is a pluralistic system with the entire political spectrum represented, proportional to the votes they received. There are parties to the right and to the left, including the Marxist and Communist Parties, both of which, by the way, refused to sign our new constitution, calling it "bourgeois".
"Pluralism will not be affected by the current economic hardship. The hurricane has brought us to our knees for awhile. We need peace so our youngsters can produce rather than defend."
And the contras?
"The contras are at a low ebb — maybe 2,000 — but they're hard to count. (The U.S. media reports 11,000.) Like an amoeba, they divide in all sorts of crazy ways. To the disgust of many contra supporters, the contra leadership has agreed to negotiate with the Sandinistas. Amnesty is alive and contras are coming home. We invite them to go back to their land, to vote, to even run for office."
What is the major problem in U.S.-Nicaraguan relations?
"We want a realistic North-South dialogue. But the USA insists on seeing an East-West situation in everything."
Then this high-placed but very down-to-earth Sandinista leader took the time to help us find a toilet (with paper in it!) before walking us to the door.
Opposition to the Sandinistas
Our next meeting was in the headquarters of one of the strongest opposition voices in the country — the Democratic Coordinator, an organization of labor unions, business groups and center and conservative parties.
The simple building was covered with anti-Sandinista slogans. We met with the executive secretary and heard a fiery, determined lawyer — a former leader in the struggle against Somoza — explain his opposition to the Sandinistas.
"This building is the temple of democracy in Nicaragua. In 10 or l5 years Managua will be a ghost town if the Sandinistas stay in. They have betrayed the revolution.
"The Sandinistas are totally Marxist-Leninist, completely totalitarian, ruling by terror and fear. That's why this group of democratic organizations united to form the "Democratic Coordinator". It includes two AFL/CIO-backed unions, seven private business enterprises and seven political parties.
"The Sandinistas justify their strict rule by saying that a country without a democratic tradition cannot become a democracy overnight, but this is simply not true. The people aren't being given the chance to move from dictatorship to democracy."
We asked: But aren't things better now than under Somoza?
"We never suffered under Somoza like we have under the Sandinistas. Things here are very very bad. The Sandinistas have done absolutely nothing to help the health situation. There's no aspirin in the city. During Somoza there was a daily gift of bread, milk and a vitamin pill to each school student. Human rights here today are horrible. They can only be compared to Cuba. Many are in jail for only talking against the state in the streets."
Does Nicaragua have a "mixed economy" — with both socialism and private enterprise — as the Sandinistas claim?
"Yes, we have lots of small businesses and private enterprise — for now. But things are uncertain. At any moment, the Sandinistas could confiscate something."
What can the U.S. do to improve relations?
"Bush says he wants a policy of dialogue. That's good. U.S. foreign policy should permit us to evolve without foreign interference of any kind. We don't want the U.S. and USSR to negotiate it for us. That's how Cuba ended up in the Eastern Bloc."
Revolutionaries in T-shirts
We had dinner with Sophia Montenegro, the editor of the editorial page in "Barricada", the Sandinista newspaper. She talked on the women's movement and the Sandinistas. She had been a rich kid who, after a Somoza massacre, was sent by her parents to Florida to get an education and, "if you're lucky, find a husband and stay in the USA." She's been with Barricada since its first edition in 1979. "That's 10 years and two Reagan administrations — I think I've graduated."
She was young, with braces on her teeth, with a big but good looking face and nipples that caused two long creases in her Picasso T-shirt. She spoke with brilliant intellectual force, powered by a passion I can't find in my home town. Even the way she put her cigarettes out gave me goose bumps. What I'd give to share her thoughts with people who say the Sandinistas are either agents of or duped by the Soviet Union. She is a nationalist who understands the reality of poverty and American domination in a macho Catholic society.
We asked: Is Nicaragua totalitarian?
"As you know, we don't have a so-called democratic mentality. This society has never experienced democracy. We want democracy, but you can't dictate instant democracy.
"Violence is wanting food and having nothing to put into your mouth. Since the Spaniards came we've had 500 years of violence. A new mentality is growing here."
What about charges of a censored press and human rights violations in Nicaragua?
"There's no such thing as objectivity. The best you can do is to explain your position, what you want and what you see. Obviously the Rockefellers and Barricada each have a purpose. We are the paper of the party in power. We make no big deal about being leftist. We support the policies that support the people.
"According to a Harvard study, during a time of war, human rights are better here in Nicaragua than they were in the USA during World War II.
"We are working hard. Of course there's a war, but the revolution can't wait. We've outlawed the death penalty (30 years is the maximum prison term) and it's illegal to advertise using a woman's body. But many problems confront us."
My writing couldn't begin to capture the philosophical fervor of Sophia's talk. One hour, two beers and five cigarettes after she came, she was gone to a party of her friends. This country is run by people like this. Young poets and musicians and guerrillas in T-shirts and jeans whose people call them by their first name.
On My Own in Managua
After a busy day of meetings, I needed to get out and have a travel-on-my-own experience. I walked to the famous huge and bustling oriental market — ample evidence that the private sector is alive and well in revolutionary Nicaragua.
It was dark. I peed on a wall with a Nicaraguan. The streets were swimming with people as the shops closed down. Transportation was clogged. Taxis acted more like buses, gathering five or six people going in a general direction. The buses reminded me of high powered magnets in a bucket of iron filings.
I walked, following locals down dark sidewalks in order not to fall down any of Managua's notorious uncovered manholes. My destination was the pyramid-shaped Intercontinental Hotel — strewn with Christmas lights, the only major building, along with the 12-story Bank of America building, to survive the '72 earthquake.
The Intercontinental is your typical rich dinghy in a poor puddle. Mariachi band at pool side, North Americans, rich local businessmen, their families and Nicaraguans who don't consider themselves prostitutes sipping tall drinks, while waiters tried but failed to provide suitable service.
After a visit to the book and gift shop and a great sit in the immaculate bathroom, I crossed the street for a light dinner and a look at the restaurant's famous photos of pre-earthquake Nicaragua. Then I taxied home. I had no idea of my address, I just said: "La casa de Daniel Ortega, por favor."
Granola for breakfast! I woke with a sore throat, covered with that sweaty-about-to-die feeling, so I ate and drank a lot. I tried hyperventilating — assuming that since we need oxygen to live, more can only help — and decided to not be so intense. I want to be healthy.
Human Rights — The Opposition Voice
While most governments have their own office of human rights, there's generally a more critical independent monitoring organization. In Nicaragua, it's the Permanent Commission of Human Rights. This strong anti-Sandinista voice was our first stop today. We met with its director, Louis Hernandez, who once fought Somoza and now fights the Sandinistas.
He receives reports of about l30 human rights violations a month in Nicaragua and says 3,500 people are in prison for political reasons. His phones are tapped by the government and his mail is read.
Mr. Hernandez, agreeing with everyone else we met with, doesn't want the U.S. embargo since it harms only the poor people and radicalizes the Sandinistas. He opposes any foreign intervention. He said, "500,000 Nicaraguans have fled to the USA, supposedly to escape political repression, but most actually go for economic reasons."
After lunch in our homey dining hall, we went to a poor part of town to visit the leader of the Moravian (Hussite) church, Norman Bent.
Bent works with the Miskito Indians, the indigenous people of the Atlantic Coast which, in October, 1988, was devastated by Hurricane Joan. The hurricane caused nearly a billion dollars of damage, wiped out 80% of the major city of Bluefields, and caused serious long-term ecological damage to forests, farms and fisheries.
"Today our economy is worse than ever but the revolution will survive. There is no alternative. It has a certain mysticism which the USA cannot understand. Under the Sandinistas, a people who historically have had no rights are getting autonomy and dignity. Central America has accepted this revolution based on pluralism, self-determination, a mixed economy and non- alignment.
"If the people here ever believed their leaders have betrayed them, they'd be out in a minute. We all have guns.
"Strangely, it's the USA elections that affect us most. Who you elect affects us even more than it affects you!"
We had the chance to worship with the Miskitos and English- speaking East Coast blacks. Pastor Bent was as impressive as his reputation. It was so moving to see and hear local poor people giving freely to their even poorer countrymen, the hurricane victims in their East Coast homeland. The organ music was upbeat and happy. The church was packed out. The people sang like God was listening.
Shaking Hands with History
After dinner, we went downtown to celebrate the biggest church festival of the year — La Purisma, a festival unique to Nicaragua celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin.
Managua's main drag was packed with at least l00,000 people, mostly children, all visiting the various displays — like parade floats that stay put — and stand in line to get a gift. Even in these post-hurricane crisis days, the leaders of the country are out to celebrate. Each branch of government participates as do major businesses like the national airline. There are goodies sold everywhere, firecrackers, huge dolls, dancing in the streets and live music at various stalls. Mary and peace are the themes in this "Godless Marxist nation".
We saw a cluster of eager TV cameras and some commotion, and we figured it must be Daniel Ortega. He was in the street, just finishing a TV interview, surrounded by children, bodyguards and the press, handing out wooden toys to the children. Next to us two local girls giggled. "He's so cute!"
(Later we also saw his brother, Humberto, walking down the street with a gaggle of aides and bodyguards. Security here is ridiculous. Anyone can get a gun and anyone so inclined could knock off Daniel or his fellow "commandantes.")
Wendy and I jockeyed our way to within five feet of Ortega. I gave him a "Thumbs up" and he acknowledged us and made a point to come over and shake two friendly North American hands.
Ortega and his entourage moved out while our group trailed. I went in for another close-up photo with Art who wanted a handshake. Daniel's security was skimpy but hard working. As I got close, fingers frisked me lightly, being careful to protect Daniel from a gun but not from his public. While I was being frisked, grandfatherly Art got right in there. Daniel gave him a handshake and I've never seen Art so animated and overjoyed. "He shook my hand!" he said, and we hugged. We felt the magnitude of this little revolution for the people of Nicaragua.