Banana-ology: 12 Days in Central America — Day 9-12

The following is reproduced from a special edition of our Europe Through the Back Door Newsletter from 1988.

Banana-ology: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3-5 | Day 6-8 | Day 9-12


Day 9 — Americans vs. Their Embassy

It sure was good to talk to my wife, Anne, on the phone this morning. Someone figured she woke at 4:00 am to get me at the right time. That's Anne. I wish she could be here with me.

We were up early to go to the weekly demonstration at the U.S. embassy. The U.S. citizens who live in Nicaragua are afraid the U.S. government will use their safety as an excuse to invade this country, as the U.S. did in Grenada in 1983. So, for the last 256 Thursdays, the U.S. citizens living in Managua have met at the embassy to remind their government that they don't want to be "saved" that way. "Don't invade on our account."

The embassy staff watched through the windows of the most heavily fortified building in Nicaragua as we walked in a large circle, singing and getting to know the impressive group of "Norte Americanos" who've made Managua their home. The local Lutheran bishop led a protest song to the Battle of Jericho tune.

About a dozen Nicaraguan policemen stood in a line between us and the building, symbolically "protecting" the U.S. embassy from its citizens.

Next, several impressive speakers took turns at the microphone. I had a hard time ignoring a star wars-type periscope camera on the embassy rooftop which turned, zoomed in and photographed every person present. (I'll have to look at my CIA file someday — although I've heard that such a request would be noted on my file, as well. With the possibility of a fascist America in the future, these are big decisions.)

I bought a very revolutionary-looking Sandinista army flag from an American who's earning money to bring much-needed electrical parts from the USA to Nicaragua. I also agreed to take a bundle of mail back home. Apparently tourists are more reliable than the U.S. Postal Service when it comes to getting letters into the USA from a land our government wishes we'd just forget about.

Sandinista Economics

We rushed back to our house to talk to David Dye, a North American who's been in Nicaragua since 1982. He discussed the economics of Sandinism, analyzing what has caused the current economic crisis — natural disasters, the contra war, the situation inherited from Somoza, the U.S. embargo and Sandinista mismanagement.

"There has not been a wholesale change in the economic system since Somoza. The economy is wildly unbalanced, with 36,000% inflation and an equally wild deficit. Central America in general is in a recession — it takes 30% more bananas to buy a tractor today than it did ten years ago.

"The Sandinistas blame all the problems on external factors — the contra war, the U.S. embargo, hurricanes, and so on. On the other hand, big business ignores all this and blames the Sandinistas. The answer is in the middle.

"The Sandinistas are trying to pursue two goals simultaneously: increased productivity and a major redistribution of wealth. Historically, these are two contradictory objectives. Often, the most efficient economy is not the most just. But the Sandinistas are approaching it on two fronts: using socialism to achieve equality, but allowing a free marketplace to boost productivity.

"They're willing to sacrifice some efficiency to help the poor. While many free-enterprisers argue comparative bushels per acre, peasants know they'll be dirt poor either way — and they'd prefer to be "their own dirt" poor. Still, the government understands "the magic of the marketplace", and the economy is pragmatically mixed.

"Normally in a free economy, the rich get richer and the poor get more poor and more numerous. But the Sandinistas control some parts of the economy, and let private enterprise control the rest. They control banks so the poor can get credit. They hold a monopoly over exports, which amounts to a tax on big business. Another of the government's Robin Hood tactics is confiscation or expropriation of underused land.

"In a mixed economy, big business won't be as rich or secure as they'd like. Unions are stronger, there's lots of government controls and they can't manipulate the political scene. Big business people are angry. The question is can and will they learn to live within a system that is more interested in economic justice than economic efficiency?

"Current statistics show an economic basket case, but the underlying framework is being established.

"This is the first real alternative to Marxism for the Third World. It's exciting for the Developing World, and threatening to a First World that would prefer no middle ground between capitalism and communism.

"America's traditional opposition to communism is not based on keeping countries open to democracy but on keeping countries open to American capitalism.

"The open door policy of the USA is here to defend business opportunities — not people. The real objection the U.S. has against the USSR isn't political, but that it has slammed its door on Western economic exploitation."

We asked David if he would call the Sandinistas Marxists.

"The Sandinistas are Marxist in that they see that societies are divided into antagonistic classes. But they also understand that they must coexist with the private sector. Yes, there are undemocratic tendencies among the Sandinistas. But you must do more than criticize. Suggest a better way."

New Slums and Old Resorts

After lunch we visited the poorest part of Managua, a squatter's village on land the government doesn't want people living on since it's on a fault.

We explored this shack settlement fenced with barbed wire for the animals and filled with "mini-skirt" houses made of concrete block lower walls with tin upper halves for earthquake security. There were outhouses, outdoor wash rooms, electricity provided free for weak lights, a pay water faucet for each block (1 cordoba per jug... or 3,500 gallons for a dollar) and impromptu baseball games in the dirt alleys.

I was impressed. This may sound strange to say, but it was vastly preferable to the slums of El Salvador. Of course, Salvador has a higher population density, which increases crowding. But also, the Nicaraguan government seems to be working with its people to provide electricity, running water and even to clear title to the land.

The kids seemed happier, playing baseball in the street with a stick and a plastic pill bottle for a ball. Baseball is Nicaragua's national pastime.

The school was decorated with revolutionary slogans. The graffiti we'd seen in El Salvador was mostly anti-government. In Nicaragua it was pro-government. The "people" movements use far more spray paint. And while San Salvador is fighting bombings and "terrorism" everywhere, Managua has no problems this way. Insurgents can function only in a country where they have some popular support.

Next we had the pleasure all Nicaraguans now have of swimming at Somoza's old resort complex at a nearby crater lake. After the '79 Revolution, it was converted from a private resort to a public one. It's strange to see the ten-year-old Diners Card and American Express Card stickers in the formerly classy restaurant which now serves only beer and sodas.

The Only Church That Needs a Parking Lot

We attended 5:00 o'clock mass at the lovely Church of El Domingo, home of Cardinal Obando y Bravo. The clean white stucco building was filled with Nicaraguans in American-style suits, ties and dresses. Of the churches I saw, it was the only one with real wooden pews rather than old metal folding chairs. It's also the only church in Managua with a congregation that drives to mass.

Threatened by the rising fervor of the popular church, or liberation theology, the Pope made Obando this region's cardinal. The service lacked any hint of the "God of the Poor" message that plays such a big part in the popular church. They sang Glory Glory Hallelujah!

I joined the well-clad, well-fed rich of Nicaragua in the celebration of the Eucharist with the cardinal who is the leading contra-revolutionary voice in Nicaragua. Most of our group refused to commune with this guy, but I couldn't pass up the chance to get spiritually intimate with the religious leader of the right. Even though his line was longer I waited for the opportunity to look him right in the eyes as he placed the body of Christ in my mouth.

Giving Farms to Farmers

After dinner, we heard a talk by Ivan Garcia, a former priest who returned to Nicaragua after "the triumph" in '79 to help in agriculture reform. He chose not to stay in Nicaragua as long as it was "a farm of Somoza's and a satellite of the USA". But he wasn't a guerrilla. To him, Christianity means working for the liberation of the poor, oppressed and persecuted. In Nicaragua he saw the exciting opportunity to fuse religion and politics.

As one of the founders of Nicaragua's agrarian reform program he explained the three stages of land redistribution: First, they confiscated Somoza's huge personal holdings and used them to grow export crops. Next, they took some privately-owned lands from large landholders that were abandoned, left idle or not being used "efficiently". In the third stage, beginning in 1985, the government has adopted a stricter definition of what constitutes "efficient" use in order to expropriate more land from the wealthy.

The expropriated land is then given or sold cheaply to the peasants for private farms or to form local co-ops or larger state-run farms.

Nicaragua is still 40% privately owned by big shots (untouched by the revolution), with 60% being small private farms, local co-ops or state farms — the benefactors of the revolution. As a result of land reform, some 90,000 families now own land. The USA is losing family farms at an equally dramatic rate....

"Of course, the big landowners don't like how the government defines "efficient use" in order to justify confiscating their lands. I'd say the cards are beginning to be stacked seriously against the big landowners."

Such an arbitrary government policy really rubbed my capitalist grain the wrong way, but I guess the concern is not for the poor rich guys, but for the masses who, before the revolution, were basically feudal serfs. They've chosen economic justice over economic efficiency.

"For ten years," Garcia continued, "the Sandinistas have stayed with their convictions. I've never seen a government that accepts its mistakes and tries to improve like they do. The big question is how long this tiny country can survive the low intensity warfare of the USA. The Sandinista miracle is that we've survived. To continue, at least for the short run, we need the support of the world."

I went to bed with the thought that when Jimmy Swaggart came to visit "wayward" Nicaragua, he was met by Daniel Ortega at the airport. Along with his message of colonial theology, he gave Daniel a Bible — in English. Daniel already has one... in Spanish.

Day 10 — Contra Country

Today we used the local "Witness for Peace" bus, which is very hardy and specializes in contra country trips, and drove three hours north to the city of Esteli.

It was good to leave Managua and see small-town and rural Nicaragua, remembering that this is basically what the country is. The land was green, with rugged stunted mountains and few roads. Each intersection is a sleepy circus of hitchhikers, billboards and children selling things — cakes, soft drinks in plastic bags (everything is conserved here with the embargo, even pop bottles) and peeled oranges, which are green in Central America.

Traffic is sparse in the countryside. There are few private cars. Most vehicles are trucks, overloaded buses and military vehicles. Soldiers guard each bridge against contra terrorism. Sandinista graffiti decorate every wall.

The Nicaraguan Constitution

We visited the district governmental headquarters, a humble building with a pile of used toilet paper next to the barely working toilets, very meager security checks, and good coffee in plastic cups. We met with Orlando Penela, the Sandinista representative in the National Assembly for the region of Esteli.

He explained the two year project of writing the new constitution of Nicaragua. "In Somoza's time the people were unaware of any constitution. Now 96 people representing each region and social sector and all parties studied constitutions of many countries and drafted a constitution." (The USA refused visas to the seven man constitutional research committee who planned to come to the USA to study ours.)

"Eight of the 96 delegates refused to sign the final document. The Communists and the Marxists called it too bourgeois and the extreme right called it Marxist.

"During the process the U.S. embassy was notorious for trying to disrupt and deligitimize the constitution by bribing various groups to not sign it.

"This constitution is not just for show or because of USA pressure. It has been the Sandinistas' intent and it continues despite the war. The principle of national sovereignty, not any particular ideology, is the foundation of our constitution. National, individual and social rights are written in. Of course, social needs require a standard of living which we don't have yet.

"Like the U.S. Constitution, ours is also in keeping with the political ideas of Montesquieu, except that a fourth branch of government has been added — the Electoral branch. We have true pluralism on a uniquely Latin American foundation."

Are Nicaraguan elections really fair and open?

"In the l984 elections, even with the contra war at its peak, 1,000,000 out of 3,500,000 Nicaraguans voted. True, there were seven parties who boycotted the '84 election, but they have now said they'll run in the next one."

We asked about Russian and Cuban aid.

"Yes, we get aid from these countries and it comes with no strings or flags attached. In the old days, the USA took over control of our imports and exports. The U.S. flag flew higher than the Nicaraguan flag in our own country. We've seen nothing like this from the Soviets."

A Christian Base Community

Nearly every Nicaraguan stressed how, while these meetings were important, the most important meetings were between us and the people in the street. And tonight we were the guests of exactly those people.

The town of Esteli is a dusty rusty sleepy cliche of a Latin American town. I expected to see Butch and Sundance at the local bank. The church on the big overgrown main square, the cobbled streets without much traffic, the hombres hanging around, shoeshine boys chatting with newspaper boys, soldiers playing basketball with a guy whose arm was blown off in the contra war, crooked signs fading into a peeled and cracked pastel plaster backdrop, and broken benches in the park gave everything a Sunday-afternoon-in-the-Great-Depression kind of ambience.

We walked to the edge of town to visit a Christian Base Community. These Christian Base Communities are a powerful grassroots social and political force empowering poor communities throughout Latin America.

In our modern world, we've compartmentalized religion, making it a Sunday-only affair with no relation to our everyday lives. The Christian Base Communities are an attempt to integrate Christianity into the real world.

In regular discussion meetings — the core of the Community — people talk about their daily problems and find solutions from each other and from the Bible.

These peasants see God as a God of the poor. Refugees can relate to the story of the Israelites wandering the Sinai for 40 years; those whose loved ones have been martyred see them "resurrected" in the community as a whole; like the early Christians, they are persecuted; like Jesus, they are crucified.

In Central America, Christian faith is being combined with a revolutionary nationalism and an understanding that traditional powers cannot be counted on to help. The poor are helping themselves.

Christian Base Communities are the charcoal briquettes fueling liberation theology. Most of these people don't even understand the term but they keep cooking regardless of what their bishop says. God is the God of the Poor — and that's them.

Religion and politics mingle in Nicaragua. There are priests who fill two important cabinet posts in the Sandinista government. Fernando Cardenal is a Jesuit in charge of the Ministry of Education — shaping the young minds of Nicaragua's future. Miguel D'Escoto, the Foreign Minister, is a Maryknoll priest and an author of the Contadora plan. Ernesto Cardenal, a former Trappist Monk and former minister of culture, is still active in the Sandinista government. They feel they must be true to the people — not to the Roman hierarchy. They disagree with the Pope and believe that Christians can be revolutionaries.

The peasants of Esteli invited us into their humble meeting hall. Their founders, a husband and wife who organized the church and local community and who were killed by Somoza, were painted on the front wall. We sat on a long wooden bench. The bare fluorescent light combined with the rough brick walls and tile and timber roof to give the place a rustic sort of warmth. The women and children crowded in, obviously wearing their best clothes and eager to meet the fourteen Yankees who traveled way up to this northern edge of Nicaragua, so close to the contras and the Honduran border, to see them.

We introduced ourselves as citizens of the USA from Washington — Washington state, not D.C. The old lady who seemed to lead this Christian Base Community said "It does not matter if you live right next to the "Casa Blanca" as long as your heart is with the people of Central America."

These Christian Base Communities have a mystical strength that has caused the USA government to carry out expensive and sophisticated studies to try to understand them. It's the hearts and minds of these small, poor but strong people that the USA's foreign policy is after. And so far, the policy is failing.

Two great guitarists sang and strummed songs with titles like "All I pray God is that I don't become indifferent." Then we settled into our roundtable discussion and question/answer period which is the core of the Base Community process. When I noted that no men were present a lady responded, "Part of machismo is a fear of meetings."

Coffee and cakes were passed around to us as we asked questions. (Our guide told us later that this was the first time cake and coffee were served only to the guests. The economic times are very tough.) The people believed their miserable economy was caused by the contras. "Our government is trying very hard. Our spirit is not broken." "Nicaragua is a threat to the USA like a flea attacking an elephant." Another lady added, "But, you have every reason to be afraid, because God is with us."

The Nicaraguan people see the contras not as dedicated counter-revolutionaries, but as mercenaries who simply thought they could get a secure, well-paying job working for the CIA. One lady clucked: "They guessed wrong."

The Christian Base Communities threaten the Vatican just as they do the USA. They get little support from the Catholic hierarchy. Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the leading Catholic in Nicaragua, is considered the strongest voice for the opposition to the Sandinistas. I asked if anyone knew where Obando gave his first mass after being made a cardinal. Everyone knew — "Miami". I asked, why Miami? A grey haired old lady said, "Because it's nice to be among friends."

I was impressed. These peasants were smart. The conversation flowed with the help of our translator. Finally, we had to "distribute" the gringos to their respective host families for the night.

With smiles and hugs we big gawky gringos were awarded to our hosts. And one by one, we walked down dark dirt roads to our homes for the night. Tonight, I was a guest in Concepcion's home. It was very plain, with a dirt floor, a well-used black and white TV and five or six neighbor kids enjoying a TV show. A little sick and quite tired, I wasn't able to muster even a whimper of effervescence, although I did teach the children of the home an exciting new game — thumb wrestling.

My private bedroom was tiny, with rough brick walls and an old Donna Summers magazine photo stuck brown on the wall, lit by a bare bulb that dangled from the corrugated tin roof. I asked Concepcion where the light switch was. She twisted the bulb with a smile that disappeared in the dark. At least I had privacy and a light to do a little writing.

The trip to the latrine out back gave me a flashlight insight into their living conditions — two family pigs, a pile of firewood, a throat-level laundry wire and a pile of well-used newspaper next to the toilet.

My bed was hard burlap with strategically placed bumps and lumps that my blanket was unable to pad. I unscrewed my bulb, worried about the nocturnal activities of the lizard I saw on the wall, and began seven hours of on and off sleep with a chorus of roosters crowing and dogs barking. The joy of the night was the pitter patter of a light rain shower on my tin roof.

Last Day

At 6:30, as the children of the village dropped by my house, which was a bakery of sorts, to pick up chunks of bread and cake, I thanked my host, grabbed a small cake and rejoined our group. All of us thought the experience was well worth the hard beds, noisy night and bug bites.

The morning was spent touring a resettlement co-op. This was a model camp funded in part by Sweden (the Scandinavian countries support Nicaragua more than most countries) filled with campesinos who were resettled away from contra-threatened areas. Still, this place was very close to the Honduran border, and just yesterday we heard that the contras had slit the throats of two more farmers.

We saw poor people who understood the economic plight of the government yet still supported the Sandinistas. While economic hard times erode the support of any political party in power, and we know grumbling and frustration is on the rise, translating into political apathy, there is still no strong alternative to the Sandinistas, who are expected to rule on.


The Nicaraguan miracle is that they have survived — survived against the combined forces of Hurricane Joan, President Reagan, Brother Swaggart, Somoza's ghost... and their own mismanagement. This "banana republic" is bruised and battered, but is not about to say uncle.

Saying Goodbye, Going Home

Back in Managua, we enjoyed our final reflection time together in our lush back yard. We discussed the segments of society we were unable to meet with, compared our El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan experiences, and got into how and why the Catholic hierarchy is so against the people.

We're a together group whose time has come to say goodbye. We left what we could for the locals to use. Art left his camera, me my tape recorder. After arranging our baggage, we warmed each other with goodbye hugs.

On the plane trip home, I reflected on what I'd seen. Two weeks went by like a lizard. I was tired, eager to be home to enjoy my family and Christmas, and aware that my fist has been soaked in a brine of truth here and I'll never be the same. There's no doubt about what I've learned (or at least think I've learned) and my understanding about what needs to be done. The facts of Central America are widely available and known intellectually, but the gates of America's moral consciousness are shut. They must be opened.

A day later I was back at my routine, back to the land of smooth roads, reliable plumbing, Nut 'n Honey, Bush & Quayle. No matter how compact the disc of my American life becomes, I'll forever be scarred with an understanding of life on the edge of our empire.

Couch Potatoes for Justice?

It's been a productive two weeks. Many thanks to the Center for Global Education. And to you for traveling with me via this journal.

I came home with a feeling for the people of Central America, and through them, the Developing World. It's interesting how a concern for the world's poor people when fertilized with a splash of firsthand experience and a dash of reading can slip a decent person quietly into radical politics. I am frightened by the obstacles between the people of the United States and truth. I'm frightened of a fascist future but I don't like the prospect of being a soldier in this very awkward battle. Central America is just a peep show in a far reaching low intensity war.

My calling is still to raise local awareness with all my energy. But I also want to focus on my immediate life — Anne, Andy, my community, church and friends. This is the good life. But I can't ignore the fact that millions are needlessly denied this life, the good life. Having seen the tragedy of Central America, and knowing my country is not helping, stirs me to be concerned. More than concerned.

December 1989 up-date: While my experiences are now nearly a year old, recent events have generally deepened and confirmed my impressions. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, fresh back from these countries, has written a post script to bring this journal up to date.

Events in El Salvador and Nicaragua have continued to unfold in the year that's passed since my trip in December of 1988. In many ways the impressions I've recorded in this journal have been deepened and confirmed. Here is a brief up-date by Jack Nelson- Pallmeyer (author of War Against the Poor and my tour guide) who has recently returned from another trip.

Postscript El Salvador

The far right-wing Arena party now controls both the congress and presidency in El Salvador (see page 12). Labeled a "fascist party" by former U.S. Ambassador, Robert White, Arena is now receiving nearly a million and half dollars a day in U.S. government assistance. The Arena party has introduced but not formally approved a legislative package that has been compare to laws under Nazi Germany in which it would be a crime to carry anti-government material, hold a demonstration or talk to international human rights groups. 1989 has been a time of escalating violence in El Salvador. In the fall representatives of the FMLN and the Salvadoran government began a series of peace talks. Unfortunately, despite widespread sentiment in El Salvador to end the war through negotiations, peace talks failed when the Salvadoran armed forces and death squads escalated the violence against popular organizations. In a two week period in October and November bombs ripped through the Lutheran Church (the second such bombing in 1989 and part of a widespread attack against religious groups), the home of Ruben Zamora (a leading opposition figure), the offices of COMADRES (the Mothers of the Disappeared, see page 16), and the offices of a large labor federation (this bombing killed at least 10 people and wounded dozens more). The FMLN in the context of failed negotiations and increased repression launched the largest military offensive of the war in November. The government responded by declaring a state of siege. Then six priests, the Jesuit leadership of the University of Central America in San Salvador and widely respected voices of the people and moderation, were tortured and executed in death squad fashion. This shined a particularly bright light on the brutality of the El Salvador military and government, even causing many in the U.S. government to question the wisdom of what one congressman called "our funding of this mayhem." My impression from talking to many experienced people is that the biggest obstacle to peace in El Salvador is the unwillingness of the U.S. to accept a negotiated end to the conflict. Perhaps most disturbing, a defector from El Salvador's 1st Infantry Brigade and member of a death squad recently testified to human rights groups that the U.S. funds and provides psychological training for death squads in El Salvador. As long as millions of U.S. aid dollars flow into El Salvador the violence will continue.

Postscript Nicaragua

The main emphasis of the U.S. war against Nicaragua has shifted to the elections to be held February 25, 1990. In mid- 1989 the Central American presidents signed an accord calling for early elections in Nicaragua and the dismantling of the U.S. backed contras based illegally in Honduras. In violation of this accord the U.S. congress continued to fund the contras with so- called humanitarian aid and then closed their eyes to ongoing contra attacks against civilians in Nicaragua. Continued U.S. support for the contras could threaten Nicaragua's elections. After a bloody contra ambush on October 21, the Nicaraguan government ended a cease fire with the contras who had never really ceased firing. One hopeful sign is that a U.N. peace keeping force will soon be in place to help monitor the borders.

The U.S. imposed war has caused massive suffering and economic destruction within Nicaragua. These hardships have eroded support from the once overwhelmingly popular Sandinistas. This explains the present U.S. emphasis on Nicaragua's elections. The U.S. is illegally supporting the political opposition in Nicaragua with $9 million in congressionally approved funds for the "National Endowment for Democracy." Despite a battered economy most polls indicate that the Sandinistas are likely to win in February in part because the U.S. backed opposition is so unpopular. No election in modern history is being more carefully observed than Nicaragua's. Representationes from the U.N., the Organization of American States, Western Europe, Latin America and the U.S. are monitoring the entire electoral process as requested by the Nicaraguan government. My concern is that historically the U.S. has a very poor record of accepting electoral results it doesn't like and an even poorer record of manipulating the electoral process in Developing World countries. For example, the U.S. paid candidates not to run in Nicaragua's elections in 1984 as a way of seeking to discredit those elections. Please read carefully and between the lines when you see articles about Nicaragua's elections and the U.S. concern for "democracy" in Central America. Isn't it ironic that we pay so much attention to Nicaragua but somehow ignore that the U.S.- backed "democracy" in El Salvador has killed nearly 70,000 civilians in the past ten years? December 1989 up-date: While my experiences are now nearly a year old, recent events have generally deepened and confirmed my impressions. Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer, fresh back from these countries, has written a post script to bring this journal up to date.

Events in El Salvador and Nicaragua have continued to unfold in the year that's passed since my trip in December of 1988. In many ways the impressions I've recorded in this journal have been deepened and confirmed. Here is a brief up-date by Jack Nelson- Pallmeyer (author of War Against the Poor and my tour guide) who has recently returned from another trip.


Banana-ology: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3-5 | Day 6-8 | Day 9-12