- Rick's 1991 Journal — El Salvador Trip Notes
- Rick's 1991 Journal — New Hope Close to the Ground in El Salvador
- Rick's 1991 Journal — Nicaragua Trip Notes
Issues in 1991:
While the US-backed coalition UNO government under Violetta Chomorro rules, many are frustrated by the effectiveness of the popular army, under former Sandinista Humberto Ortega, in protecting the gains of the revolution and frustrating attempts to recoup losses among the industrial and landed elite.
The speed of privatization is a major issue. Just how much and how fast should cooperative and worker-owned industry and farms forced back into the more efficient realm of private enterprise.
Land reform and the undoing of it is a major hot point and could very well be the explosive issue as the 120,000 small family farms created by the Sandinistas are threatened by the returning big land owners.
The FSLN (Sandinista party) continues to be a force with about 40% of the parliament. While Mrs. Chomorro rules, the Sandinistas have enough votes to block any changes to the constitution. Much can be done with a simple majority however. The FSLN has assumed the role of the loyal opposition and the army is trying to become institutionalized as a non-political organ of the government.
The 14 parties that made up UNO were united only in their hatred of the FSLN and the warmth provided by financial support of the USA. Now that FSLN is out of power and the USA is not as interested, UNO is ready to crumble. The far right wing is opposing the Chomorro wing. Chomorro is just an image of reconciliation and a tired figurehead. Her son-in-law really runs the show and is the most powerful man in Nicaragua.
Nicaragua's Parliament after the 1990 election:
UNO - 14 parties, 55% of vote, 51 seats
FSLN - 1 party, 41% of vote, 39 seats
La Purisima — the Purest Virgin
La Purisima is a uniquely Nicaraguan festival on December 7th celebrating the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin. In 1988 I celebrated Purisima in Managua. Back then it was the capital's party of the year with everybody who was anybody frolicking through the streets. Now, under UNO, Purisima is no longer a big deal in Managua. So, we drove 90 minutes to Leon, Nicaragua's third city, a stronghold of Sandinism and a very Marian place, for the best La Purisima festivities in the country.
In Leon we met with an old woman who was a long-time FSLN supporter. She used to run a safe house for the guerrillas. She explained that La Purisima, with its huge insulting paper mache dolls of aristocratic ladies, was historically the people's protest against the Spanish elite. Indians could express their repulsion with humor and be safe. Mary was ever present as the protector of the people. "That's why we have such a devotion to her." (Europe celebrated the "Carnival" during its feudal age for the same reason, as a safe and anonymous way for the low class to let off steam and express their frustration at the ruling elite.)
This biggest holiday of the year is the Nicaraguan equivalent of trick or treat, a time when it's great to give and it's great to receive. Children go from participating house to house and say "What is the cause of so much joy?" The resident says "The conception of Mary" and gives out presents or sweets. "Hooray for the Virgin" is the delighted response.
Our host gave a good liberation theology explanation of the Latin American love of Mary. "Jesus reminded those who worship Mary that more blessed than Mary who carried Jesus in her womb are those who hear the word and put it into action. We can't be so pure, we can't be the mother of God. What we can do that Mary did is hear the word and act. Mary is not a Goddess. She came from simple people...people just like us.
The festival is kicked off in front of the cathedral, an imposing place dark with tropical rot on the outside, bright with Catholicism on the inside. The cathedral seems a bit grand for Leon. It was supposed to be constructed in Lima, Peru. Even before Dan Quayle, colonialists got these countries confused.
At 6 pm the bishop, with a gaggle of government bigshots, makes a statement and yells the first "What is the cause of so much joy?" Then the bells peel, fire crackers roll like angry tumble weeds through the streets, children launch bottle rockets from their hands and families pour through the streets trick or treating. Wide open houses shined with lighter-than-air decor honoring the Virgin Mary.
With my phonetic cheat sheet, I chimed, "Kien cowsa tanta alley gria." It worked and I was given two ugly but tasty thumb-sized bananas. (Norte Americanos who like bananas come home with an understanding about the trade off in the banana business between good looks and good taste.) The cathedral square was the magnet for all the strolling families. Sculpted lions looked terrified on their pedestals. The striking contrast to El Salvador was the complete absence of police or soldiers. I didn't see a gun all night.
For some reason I skipped a cool beer in our hotel's leafy courtyard for a trip into the throbbing disco across the street. My glasses fogged up the moment I entered. Sweat sloshed across the floor. Just walking through it, the dribble draining down my spine wet my pants. The wall danced with giant MTV images of great Spanish language pop stars' love ballads and the latest American rock. This was a hot spot in a hot spot. Getting out was like making my way through an over-crowded bus rolling over a cliff.
The next morning we had a little time to wander. At the train station people waited like produce behind chicken wire walls. There was one class of train car — literally cattle class with wooden slats to keep people either in or out. Concession stands were balanced atop wandering heads.
A street raffle entertained the crowd in front of the station. I helped out, hamming things up with the mic to help the man sell his tickets. Three cordobas (50 cents) for 5 raffle numbers. He called on me to dig into the big tin can and pick a numbered Coke cap. I drew 159...my number. The crowd seemed entertained as I waded through the prizes and chose a big desk clock shaped like a wrist watch — so tacky it will end up in my office.
Back at our hotel we met the Assembly of God dental crew which flew down from various southern states to spend a week doing dental work. Nice, I think. But they were oblivious to the local politics. They were worried about Managua's riots two weeks ago but had no idea what set them off (the right wing bombing of the left wing hero's tomb). I couldn't help but visualize the priest on his motorcycle surrounded by Salvadoran military at Nueva Esperanza. Two styles of Christian compassion.
Driving back to Managua we passed the most fortified building in Nicaragua, the American Embassy. I couldn't help but shout "What causes so much joy?"
Low Intensity Conflict
Five Nicaraguan images reflecting today's reality:
- A 75 year old ice cream cart man proudly practicing his letters between sales. He's learning to write.
- When asked if he was able to get credit under Somoza the small time vendor just laughed.
- The childrens' choir applied three times for visas to perform in the USA and three times they were turned down. They performed in Canada instead.
- Just before the a key congressional vote in mid-80s, Contras were sent deep into the country on a suicide mission to illustrate to the American public that they were committed and that the Sandinistas were a real threat. They were slaughtered. Congress voted for aid.
- Exhausted by the psychological strain (sonic booms, threatened invasions, etc) of low intensity conflict, the American went to the beach for a swim. As the surf crashed over his head and the water rolled off his face he saw four US warships stationed just off the coast.
Questions about American Foreign Policy
How could El Salvador's government be acknowledged as a democracy and not Nicaragua's in the 1980s?
How do we justify the use of terror tactics.
Why does the USA undermine every regional peace initiative.
Why is Nicaragua such a threat.
Why does the USA target liberation theology and support the fundamentalist sects.
A national security state has been our preference since WWII. These are states in which:
- The military is the highest authority within a country
- Democratic elections are viewed with contempt. Democracy is a bonzai tree. It looks nice on the window sill, but if it grows to big you cut it back.
- The military is an important economic and political actor and has power beyond its weapons.
- Capital needs to be concentrated in the hands of a few for freedom and development.
- There are enemies everywhere. And life revolves around these enemies.
- Any means you use against these enemies is justified.
- Secrecy pervades the government. Death squads roam after dark. Reagan issued 275 secret NSC directives.
- The church must work within a defined role.
"There was a massively popular revolution in El Salvador and we had no other choice." — How an official at the US Embassy explained the 1980 to 1982 terror, accidently showing his cards.
Five ways for a Central American government to become a target of US foreign policy:
- If you awaken a strong sense of national identity.
- If you are redistributing wealth from rich to poor.
- If your rich don't rule.
- If USA does not control the army.
- If your progressive church aligns itself with forces for social change.
Examples of Low Intensity Conflict:
- The US defines its people as enemies. "The US people and the press lost Vietnam."
- Psychological war experts are targeting US public. They created the "Office of public diplomacy" under the NSC.
- The Contras were a military force designed to destroy Nicaragua economically, not win militarily.
- The Panama invasion just before the Nicaragua election was a strong reminder of what the US can easily do if necessary.
In the 1980s we managed the:
- Greatest transfer of money from 3rd to 1st world ever.
- Greatest transfer of money within USA from the popular class to the elite. In 1980 1% of Americans had 20% of the country's wealth. In 1990 1% had 44% of a smaller pie since Japan had taken much also. The sad joke is on the lower 99% of Americans.
- A huge transfer of wealth from USA to Japan and Europe
- The US military is at its zenith. As in any country with a lopsided economic situation, this is a necessary development for future internal security. By the way, deception is more important in democratic countries than in totalitarian ones.
International monetary fund (IMF) and Agency for International development (AID) are the leading police forces in the world. Their command is "export, export, export and make opportunities for foreign investment." The IMF is dominated by the USA. Votes are weighed according to contributions.
Recent "neo-liberal" initiatives in Nicaragua:
Privatization of industry and education
No public health undoing land reform
communication is used to stoke material appetites
food aid for apathy through conservative churches
An agency has been created rewrite history (e.g. to document only FSLN atrocities).
drop world court decision
propping up Godoy and the far right under Chomorro.
(for more information on Low Intensity Conflict, read War Against the Poor by Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.)
Market Survey in Managua's Biggest Market
Breaking into four small groups, each with a translator and survey sheets, we went deep into Managua's "Oriental Market," the best place to meet the "unorganized poor." We interviewed various small business people. The market is a vast field of shaky tarp-covered stalls selling everything from beans to TVs. The typical vendor here gives a new meaning to the term "small business." Each night many can tuck their "shops" under their arms and walk home.
Back home we compared notes. Of 20 surveyed, 18 had no political preference and two were UNO. None supported the FSLN. 80% said they were doing worse economically now than last year. UNO has cut wages and employment so the new unemployed are now in the market selling. And there are fewer buyers than ever. Before there was plenty of demand and no supply. Now there's plenty of supply, but no demand. New supermarkets were cutting into market. A good income was $100 a month. Many hoped to make much less.
This is the unorganized poor. They generally voted against the FSLN but now Chomorro has not done her promises. The political apathy or reluctance to show one's political colors was striking.
Our next visit was to a shanty town of repatriated Contras. They prefer to be called the Resistance. We met with a Contra Commandante named "Fireplug" in Spanish (long after Fireplug was etched into the journals of our minds, our translator confessed this was a mistranslation of sparkplug). Fireplug was a passionate and articulate man in a wheelchair with a belly hanging out from his too small tee-shirt and a urine-filled catheter bag hanging out of his shorts. He enjoyed the wheelchair equivalent of a chauffeur. Fireplug was accompanied by a man who proudly introduced himself as a former Somoza national guardsman.
Our group filled Fireplug's house - dirt floor, fresh cut wood siding, under a corrugated tin roof with black tarp walls defining interior rooms. The community had commandeered water and electricity and seemed to operate on the barest of resources but with pride. Children played while women washed clothes and dishes in outdoor tubs. Barbed wire defined each family's claim to land and kept the family chicken in.
Fireplug told us that the UNO government was the same as the FSLN. Violetta's there, but it's still FSLN. He was bitter about the USA's support. The USA supplies the money, we supply the cadavers. We're subjects of the USA. When they're done with us we're abandoned...tossed out like old bones. Philosophizing further he said "Nicaragua must have a rich patron, either the US or USSR. I'd support anyone over the FSLN. But this government isn't much better. Around here they say governments are the same old dog, only the collar changes."
"Here in Nicaragua you have to be either right or left. The FSLN forced their communism on us. It doesn't fit our culture. We Contras were around well before US support. The US used us to stop communism but we were created by the people. If we had won with arms we'd be in control now. The US wanted us to negotiate without victory. We were abandoned because we had too much popular support. Our own leaders betrayed us. Peace with hunger is no solution. Negotiations were the "stab in the back". If I wasn't an invalid, I'd be out there with the re-Contras. We all know that the best communist is a dead one.
Yes, we're a client state of the USA but I'd rather be under the USA than under communism. Wherever the US boot lands it leaves a dollar. The US will accept anything but a red Central America.
About human rights. War is war. There are no crimes in war. It's your life or theirs. I believe the CIA killed (Contra chief) Enrique Bermuda. He's been CIA all his life. They couldn't control him.
The Promised Land
Next we visited another new suburb, a Hooverville of 475 families living in a field of cardboard, tin and scrap lumber huts that looked much like Fireplug's neighborhood. Chomorro promised these people land. All they have received is a fight over this unused bit on the outskirts of Managua. They call their town "the Promised Land."
A community leader explained that 80% had no jobs. The police, who are more repressive now than before the elections, said they give Managua a bad image and to find a park or live in the streets.
The community council, a non-governmental organization, is working to formalize the people's rights to this land. UNO considers NGOs "communist fronts."
Our guide was a teacher. He makes $70 a month. AID's condition for loans is that the government must cut its payroll. That translates into the laying off of about 75% of the teachers. Supposedly those who remain will make a better income. This year students had to pay for books for the first time. AID is offering what's called the "golden handshake," $1000 to $2000 severance pay for government workers to voluntarily give up their jobs. Teachers are now in the Oriental Market selling TV antennas and soap.
It seems that these people have given up on politics. There is no hope from UNO or the FSLN. Their only hope is grassroots community organization.
I asked the leading question, "Is it generally understood that the IMF is a clever way for first world to take money from the developing world? The locals answered yes. When I asked if you have to be a clever developing world person to see that, they said "no." I answered you have to be clever in the first world to see that.
Managua's UNO City Council
We waited an hour for three UNO city administrators to meet with us. The air condition was on strong, we were served Coke and Oreos as they began their talk by telling us "you are in the Central American country of Nicaragua. Its capital is Managua, where you are now..." They were arrogant, flip and avoided answering any of our difficult questions directly.
AID has given them $4.2 million. He refused to discuss what strings were attached. When we referred to the squatter towns we had visited they explained that these are deceptive. "You see, many, if not a majority of these people are going around claiming many titles. They were in actuality landlords." When I repeated his answer to affirm my understanding that he was discounting the homeless problem he said simply, "That's right." I was rolled out of the room in a carpet of exasperation.
Sightseeing in Managua
Twenty years after the earthquake, Managua is still a vacant lot, a concrete ruins, a one-story city. Two buildings, the Intercontinental Hotel and the Bank of America, stand tall as Texans over a million people who've never ridden an elevator. Ruined buildings were vacant three years ago. Today they are black tarp condos. Winding through the potholes of Simon Bolivar boulevard, named after the man who freed Latin America from colonial Spain, we passed more monuments than buildings. We also passed the assassination spots of Sandino, Chomorro and Bermudez on our way to the recently bombed tomb of Carlos Fonseca, the founder of the Sandinista party. Progress seems stranded in a mine field. Political passion and memories of oppression are strewn like body parts of this sad country.
Retired FSLN soldiers were voluntarily standing guard to keep Fonseca's tomb safe against the assumed wishes of the Managua's far right UNO mayor, Aleman. The soldier we interviewed explained that the mayor put a memorial to a member of the Somoza military band in the garden of Fonseca's tomb. Sandinista's took it down. Right wingers then blew up Fonseca's tomb. And the city erupted into riots. The mayor's office was burned. The black remains of two burned up trucks still litter the history stained main drag that used to be called Somoza.
On the square, the ghostly shell of the national cathedral, who's clock still reads 1:30 from the 1972 earthquake, mourns what was its city. The cross on one spire dangles broken and the black and red FSLN flag flies furiously from the central saint. Just a vacant lot away lies the ignored and weed-eaten waterfront of a dead lake that swallows a million poor people's waste.
The Fibrillating Heart of a Banana Republic's Economy
David Dye, and independent economist and long time resident and student of Nicaraguan life met with us in our dining room/study hall. He explained the latest on this ramshackle local economy.
Three Hopes After the Election
1. A fast transition from war to peace.
In the war time over 50% of the national budget was sucked up by the war. Now military spending has dropped from 45% of the 1989 budget to 16% of the 1991 budget.
2. Change from instability to economic stability.
In 1988 Nicaragua set a new Western Hemisphere record with 33,000% inflation. In 1989 it was better at "only" 1700% but in 1990 it rose again to 13,000%. Like Germany in 1923, the Sandinistas were paying war-related bills by printing money. The new government employed a classic IMF fix — cut wages, cut employment, cut government expenses. In 1991 they finally had it down to about 30%. The economy is now stable but the political costs may be high.
3. Recovery from long economic decline.
For seven years in a row the Nicaragua GNP declined. 1980 - $900 average yearly income. 1990 = $500. While the drop in the value of export crops made this a regional problem, Nicaragua was by far the worst off. In a recent press conference UNO bragged that the 1991 growth would be zero - a real accomplishment.
In the Somoza days, a small elite and middle class lived North American standards off of an export-based cheap-labor economy. The revolution addressed the needs of the bulk of the population with its "mixed economy" but suffered from FSLN mismanagement, the war with the USA and the USA's effective embargo. Now, the UNO government has moved to a "Neo-Liberal" model in the belief that a developing world economy must work within first world parameters and the best way to lift the poor is to let the rich run the economy more efficiently, as only free enterprise can.
The guiding principles of the revolutionary economy (1979-1989) were: 1. To change the economy fast for the poor. In order to do this the state must guide and produce. FSLN had a naive faith in government as an efficient producer. FSLN failed here and Nicaragua is stuck with many good intentioned white elephants. UNO government relies on privatization. In the name of efficiency and to attract investment, the state must divest itself of revolutionary holdings. 2. FSLN believed that fast popular change needed entrepreneurial opportunities outside the elite. In an attempt to create a new entrepreneurial class, they democratized the economy, let workers run factories, offered easy credit (with hyper-inflation and almost no foreclosures) to the little guy, and created over 100,000 small farms by giving over 5,000,000 acres to formerly landless farmers. UNO believes entrepreneurial talent resides only in the proven business elite. And that elite isn't helping Nicaragua by living in Miami. 3. FSLN believed that to favor popular classes, the free market needed to be controlled. Prices needed to be set and regulated. UNO says the economy operates efficiently only with market dictating prices.
"Structural Adjustment" through programs like AID and IMF have been very strong since 1985 throughout the 3rd world. Exports boomed from 1950 through 1980. In the 80s, exports stopped and oil prices went way up. This resulted in skyrocketing debt and a developing world crises. Diversification was needed. Costa Rica now does strawberries and macadamia nuts. AID is helping Nicaragua grow cantaloupe. "Maquiladora," first world branch plants set up to enjoy cheap labor and easy environmental restrictions are the coming thing. UNO is banking on this in Nicaragua. With 57% unemployment, as in Nicaragua, this is politically popular. AID is quick to remind Nicaraguans that if they don't work for Guatamalan wages, Guatamalans will get all the work.
All this is based on the assumption that the only way for a poor country to dig itself out is to fit into the first world economy.
UNO-style Structural adjustment requires four features: 1. Reduce burden of government on the economy. Neo-liberalism calls for smaller governments with less taxes, smaller payrolls, a shift from social investment to production investment and less regulation. Small farmers' basic staples were subsidized. This has stopped and peasants are poor, landless and fall into "wage economy". The direct effect is a large urban under-class and more poor cotton pickers. Credit to small farmers virtually disappears. 80,000 peasant family farms were getting government aid under FSLN. Now only 15,000. FSLN loans were wiped out by inflation so they stoked inflation. The rationalization for this "Neo-liberalism" is efficiency. The actual result is the reconcentration of land into a landed elite. 2. Liberalization of Economy — do anything to stimulate competition. 3. Privatization of industry and agriculture. 4. Open the economy to foreign investment
US AID in the Former IBM Building
We went through the typical tight security of any place representing the USA government to meet with the local director of the US Agency for International Development, Janet Ballentine. My body knows now whenever it feels air-con it's right of center.
In her briefing Ms. Ballentine explained to us that this is a time of promise. It's not all doom and gloom. $552 million has been invested in rebuilding Nicaragua in 1990 and 1991, a large amount for a country of 4 million. Most of that simply powered this broken economy with oil, fertilizer and wheat. "The courage of the folks who elected UNO deserves to be supported."
UNO inherited a distorted economy. Labor costs here are double that of Guatemala. Our charter is to "level the playing field" so we can develop a market economy. (In other words, she was admitting that to compete in the existing structure, you can't exceed a bare subsistence wage.)
In answering our questions she explained that the "golden handshake" (voluntary severance pay option) will cut out 150,000 state workers. Major accomplishments are controlling credit, the money supply and inflation. The Sandinista's didn't do so much land reform until they lost the election. Then they had their pinyata. It was the great Nicaragua land grab. When I asked about the 100,000+ family farms created in the early 80s, she wrote that off as insignificant. (100,000 out of 1,500,000 people in the countryside is about one out of every three families.)
Ballentine acknowledged that the problem was from the conflict of two reasonable rights: right of firm defendable title to land and right of the tiller to a piece of land. The lack of respect for firm title to land has scared away the investment necessary for agricultural recovery. "Sure, everyone needs land. But how much is enough."
Somoza got too greedy. He's no longer around. So now they (the poor) are determined to get land. In a comment that seemed to tip her hand, she noted that the economy is agricultural and will remain so for at least five years.
The Sandinista Party
Next, we bussed to the FSLN foreign relations department and met with a young man who, in order to practice his English, insisted on having no translator. Our meeting room was a simple concrete meeting hall with a large portrait of Sandino behind the front table. A dingy black and white of the ten commandantes in happier times, just after the Sandinista triumph in '79, hung like a comatose revolution in the back of the room.
He very humbly and honestly appraised the ten years of Sandinista rule. They dropped illiteracy from 70% to 12%, offered free education to all, and allowed the popular class to organize. (Not even the Sandinista's remember to credit themselves from freeing Nicaragua of Somoza.) The problems they had with the US government were caused by their Marxist influence, they worked for a truly independent economy, and they "exported revolution" by helping El Salvador's FMLN.
They lost the election because they neglected the countryside peasants and some of their leaders developed an arrogance of power. "We forgot our roots and distanced ourselves from the people." The draft was very unpopular and people believed Bush when he promised that the war would last as long as the FSLN stayed in power.
But the party is changing. The FSLN, not the USA, gave democracy to Nicaragua. We didn't fight to go from one dictator to another.
UNO has given Nicaragua stability, peace, more commerce, no inflation, no negative growth. But, from a social point of view, life is not good. Education is no longer free. And the poor will go without schooling. There is no investment in health and no interest in cultural activities. UNO does its pinyata better...it looks legal. For instance, the man who's doing the new passports will earn $800,000.
Historically, there has been no room for division within the FSLN. The old guard is still fighting Somoza. It's not democratic. The Chamorro split is a shame. Nicaragua needs unity. The FSLN will be blamed. The FSLN wants stability and democracy. It is accepting UNO's economic package and doesn't even want the government leadership now.
"Please don't forget Nicaragua. We are not fighting the USA. We are not killing each other in the mountains. We need help not because we are revolutionaries but because we are human."
The Finest Hotel in Matagalpa
For our peek at rural Nicaragua, we drove three hours north into lush mountain country, to the town of Matagalpa. As we parked under the barely readable "Hotel Ideal" sign, our guides smirked "tonight we'll be sleeping in the finest hotel in Matagalpa." We swaggered past the girl selling Chicklets through the swinging saloon-type doors and into a lobby that echoed "out of business" with each footstep. Four motionless turtles decorated a pale blue concrete pool. I could tell they were real by the smell. Maybe real dead but still real. The receptionist was watching TV. The picture was just clear enough for viewers to understand that a rotund white Santa Clause was drinking Coke in a palatial only- in-dreams-or-the-USA suburban home with the perfect family peeking down on him from the top of the stairway — a white Christmas in any weather. Well, it's morning in North America, but Coke still hits the spot in Matagalpa.
My room, number 6 according to the orange crayon on the door, was nice enough. The peely ceiling was the next best thing to a canopy bed. They had no plumbing but that didn't matter since it's Wednesday and that's a no water day in Matagalpa. The only liquids available, beer and Coke, were imported. (Part of the new world order is free trade.) The Coke's are bottled in Costa Rica. Nicaragua's national beer, Victoria, is now "canned and brewed" in Monroe, Wisconsin. In capitalism you make money any way you can. If a third of the family's income is squandered on beer by the dad, the least neo-liberalism can do is make sure it's marketed cleverly and imported.
For breakfast we shook the ants out of our pants and went to the nearby Restaurant of the Unknown Soldier run by the mother's of the heros and martyrs (a group we'd be meeting with shortly). Breakfast "number one and only" was rice mixed with beans, fried plantains, scrambled eggs, tortillas and toast with black sweet coffee, coke or red pop. The toast was so dry it turned into dust in my mouth. I knew better than to ask for butter or jam. The salt shaker lid fell off with the first shake. Luckily the salt was stuck solid to the bottom. The Pepto Bismol wrappers in the ashtray reminded me how lucky I was to be healthy. A poster of Ben Linder riding his unicycle with a "Stop the war before it starts" sign shared the wall with other martyrs. His grave is on the edge of town, the first civilian American casualty of the Contra war. Black and white portraits of courageous soldiers against Somoza were yellow on the wall.
Looking through the dusty glass louvers and the rusted chain link screen, which now protects only chipped china and a few dusty condiments in the best restaurant in town, the view was children selling newspapers, the broken monument to Carlos Fonseca (the hometown boy who founded the Sandinista party) and the graphic picture of the a country ground down by the American fear of communism. A dark haggard man stood silently near the window. He didn't need to beg. He got a rice and bean tortilla sandwich. I got a memory I'll never shake.
From an Interview with the UNO Mayor of Matagalpa
"76% of Matagalpa voted for UNO. Today the people on the street are happy about the peace but would say they are worse off economically now.
When pressed to say something positive about the Sandinistas he said the FSLN taught us the difference between right and left dictatorship. We now know the evil of left as well as right. The FSLN also taught us to work more closely with the people. He had no criticisms about the US involvement here. About Ben Linder (the young North American social worker who was killed near Matagalpa): some said he was working for our community, others said he was carrying a gun.
US AID is helping lots but the money comes too slow and in the wrong way. We need dollars and the freedom to use it to make employment. All three UNO people present agreed that the Somoza system was more benign than the FSLN. The war was provoked by the Sandinistas for economic and political reasons. 50,000 died and the country was destroyed. I criticize the USA because in '83 Reagan said he wanted not to put out the FSLN, just to keep them busy. Because of this, the war took seven years.
I would like to ask the USA to run out all the Nicaraguan doctors. We need them here.
Rich Farmers to War Widows
Again our encounter with the right was with callous and flip people. The poor, especially when organized, were a nuisance...an obstruction to prosperity. From there we went to the mothers of the heros and martyrs of the revolution.
Before we had even emptied our bus applause poured out of the tin-roofed hall filled with war widows and their children. Walking in I felt desperately needed — like a wealthy young man who never visits his destitute grandmother. The walls were hung with portraits of courageous women and their lost sons, fathers and husbands. As we sat there was a thunderous drumroll and the sky opened up. And water trickled from the corrugated tin into buckets.
This was the local chapter, 600 strong, of a national group. They are strong supporters of the Sandinistas and keep vivid memories of the "War of Liberation" alive. They were wearing their tattered best clothes and explained to us how "We struggled side by side with our children to see a free homeland. For years, the Contras destroyed everything the revolution accomplished.
Now we have peace, there is no embargo, and the shelves are full. But we have no money. This government is like Somoza's. Land is being taken back. Chomorro won by fraud. The CIA gave her money to buy votes. They won by promising no draft but it was they who waged the war in the first place. We will defend our rights, and all that we learned from the FSLN. We will fight with the workers and peasants with strikes until our rights are recognized. It is more sad to die in the streets as a beggar or drug addict than in a struggle for freedom."
"So you can understand how life is here for us, I live on a war widow's pension of 75 cordobas a month ($15). This year for the first time we must pay 10 cordobas a month for each child in school. With three children, that leaves me 45 cordobas to live on. Then they also charge us for pre-registration, for report cards and for diplomas. When I try to make some money by selling things in the streets, the mayor says "no selling in the streets." My daughter has a nursing degree from Cuba. Degrees from Cuba are now worthless and she has no job.
I don't have a president — this woman. My president is Daniel. He's an honest man, a man of the poor. We used to see the peasants on TV. But today we are an ugly part of Nicaragua. We see only the capitalists. We will continue the struggle our children taught us. Even though we are old.
Things are not good now. Alfredo Caezar (fast-rising leader of the right wing faction of UNO) gets campaign money from the CIA. The killing continues with the re-contras. Anything that smells of FSLN is shut out from aid and opportunities. Only those coming back from Miami will be educated, not the poor. Large coffee owners are in business to send their kids to US schools and buy the latest cars. And they mess up the environment.
The biggest and shadiest tree left by the ten years of revolution is the farmer's union (UNAC). But a drought could come. The organization of big business and big landowners (COSEP) is now funded by the USA. The dog dances for whoever has the money.
But we poor women have strong spirits. The revolution will return with God's help and the Virgin's. Violetta's democracy is out of touch with the poor. Daniel is the president of the poor."
As I surveyed the 40 tired-of-fighting faces with deep dark seen-it-all eyes, my spirit drooped — like the limp children on their laps.
They gave testimonies and explained how they work together. When I asked about the employment created by a recent AID project ($85,000) giving a new street to Matagalpa the energy level in the room picked up like the hair on a mad cat's back and the several women replied that no Sandinista families saw any employment, only UNO people. To this government we're not human. Two old women here died of starvation. We complained and our mayor said "that's two less plates of food needed." That's the aid we get.
The markets are filled with foreign things and our eyes get very large. One thing is very clear. Prices are rising but not our income. They say there is no inflation but our buying power is down. Sugar, rice, beans...all the things that the poor eat...are nearly double the price of a year ago.
The Mothers of Heros and Martyrs were an emotional high point of our Nicaragua visit. They were nearly too tired to be desperate. They made it clear that they needed us. They gave us a huge applause and mixed us all up so we could all hold hands with each other as they said a prayer. Sixty people saying the Lord's Prayer in English and Spanish at the same time was a verbal drumroll of faith and hope.
UPANIC- Nicaraguan Big Business
What is UPANIC? That's what big business does when the FSLN takes power. We visited the organization of big business men and they were in all respects — save their concern for the poor — big. Their hairy knuckles and glittering rings gave me the Somoza creeps. A painting of a large coffee grower from Matagalpa who was gunned down by the Sandinistas looked down on our meeting.
They started their talk with "we assume you want all of us in this Western hemisphere to have the common denominator of democracy and peace. There has been a small improvement since the election but the damage of ten years of FSLN misrule is still a major problem stalling our economic take-off. Agriculture owners were hardest hit by Sandinista regime. Our hope was that the new government would undo the FSLN land grab.
There is a myth in Central America that economic and social injustice causes revolutions. It's not fair to compare us with rich nations. We weren't as bad under Somoza when the Latin American norm is considered.
When I pressed them, they wouldn't talk about Somoza excesses — just Sandinista. The people were tired of 40 years of Somoza dictatorship but after the FSLN experience we found something worse. We were forced to live off of international charity and money laundering. This is not a solid basis for an economy.
The Sandinistas were initially supported by Cuba and your peanut farmer, Carter. In one way or another the USA and USSR had to fight it out. We were the necessary battleground.
The FSLN (Sandinistas) can only exist in disorder and anarchy. Today it is the FSLN army that keeps the government from applying the law. Stability is required and the only road is neo-liberalism.
The war was not won or lost. The election brought mediocre change. The FSLN is actually still in power. The US support of the Contras was more than good. It was an obligation if we were to defend the ideology of democracy.
His talk was punctuated by lots of heavy sigh realism: "Unfortunately, in this world..."
When asked if US AID developed dependency he explained that economic independence is impossible. AID develops the private sector to produce. The only bad thing about AID is that it is basically for the private sector but the Nicaraguan government eats it all up. Dependency is healthy and necessary. Internal corruption is the problem. This government is playing with fire — the USA the richest and most powerful country in the world. You've got more than your share of beggars to maintain within your own borders. Who's your new candidate, Duke or Buchanan? He's right. America needs to look out for the 50 states.
When asked about money laundering they said "We can't talk too strongly about this. The Mafia aren't politicians, they'll kill you. All Nicaragua is one big business of superfluous goods. But there's more money than you can imagine in this country. Businesses are popping up impossibly. Where there's money, it's laundered money. These businesses make it clean."
Chomorro has a good understanding with the FSLN. If she steps down vice president Godoy takes over. With Godoy there would be complete change and a conflict with the army. In reality the army would not let Godoy take power. It would turn its back and let the people run wild. Umberto Ortega, today's Somoza, would help these people and the government would be the hostage of the army. The problem is that Violetta has not developed a presidential police. With a Sandinista police, the president is ineffective. But little by little the forces of Sandinism have been and are being eroded.
Center's teaching is based on Paulo Freire's model: Education begins with experience, then analysis, then action. Action continues the cycle with more experience and so on. If action is not taken, learning is truncated. The poor are a real part of society. Their experience must be incorporated into societal progress.
How has this trip challenged me personally?
It's much easier not to delve into things. Ask the people of Munich in 1940 about Dachau. The average American is a latent US AID worker. If he stays ignorant he supports AID. If he learns, he believes in AID's commitment to neo- liberalism.
For the same reason that free market economies become powerful, free market thinkers wield power. The truth without power is like swimming in a flushing toilet with a life jacket.
I'm standing on the rim. The sun is out and I've got some munchies and a nice drink. Will I jump in, swim with the truth or cling to lies and ignore the reality of half of human kind. The Developing World is better called the Two-thirds World, or, better yet, the "Real World."
As a Christian, I know the truthful life is not ignoring the oppressed. But as a First World Christian there are plenty of comfortable alternatives. The answer is the Mother Theresa approach. Make eye-contact with the homeless, do what you can. Don't despair if the job is eternal.
What insights has this trip given me into issues in our own society?
El Salvador is a high contrast heat sensitive photo of the USA. The powers and needs and pitfalls are no different in the USA than in El Salvador. If the powerful can keep the powerless complacent through comforts they will. But there are uglier means to the end of maintaining a lopsided economic situation.
It must be a lot easier to correct trends earlier than later. As a Salvadoran warned, "When governments are allowed to abuse people far away, they develop a capacity to do the same thing to their own people. The tide is rolling in on the poor and civil liberties.
After two weeks and two thousand dollars...my conclusion:
That's a lot of time and money to spend not finding the answer. But I did learn a lot about the Central American question. It's frustrating to bring home a clear picture of life under the USA but no clear marching orders.
In comparing this experience to my educational two week trip three years ago the fundamental issue is still land. In Central America, land is life. The average peasant has no land. I'll give hope the benefit of the doubt in El Salvador and I've affirmed my anger at the USA's power to destroy a country that tries to be truly independent, as Nicaragua did.
Nicaragua is on the verge of "africanization," a term first world economists use for a developing world country becoming such an economic basket case that it's not worth even controlling.
The value of Nicaragua's strangulation is that the armed forces of the Salvadoran popular class, the FMLN, learned that their victory would bring a similar fate upon their country. The USA will not tolerate any nation not playing by its rules in its hemisphere. The people of El Salvador understand the veto power both the USA and the FMLN hold over their lives. And the people, including most forces of the left and the right want to negotiate an end to their civil war while there's still a country to rebuild. It will be rebuilt within parameters set by the USA, but since the cold war is over and the American appetite for further Central American adventures is weak, the popular class will be allowed some real political space.
What can the USA do to help Central America? Given the track record of Yankee help, the simplest answer is to just get out. Central America doesn't want wars, dictators, Cuban missiles, or poverty. They are political adults and should be allowed to find their own answers. Ugly as land-reform is to the first world land owner, landlessness is the root of the region's poverty and thus its unrest. And the region's foreign debt makes any real growth impossible. Interest alone on many "banana republic" national debts is more than their entire export earnings. The money, loaned from first world elites to their developing world counterparts, will ultimately have to be paid by either our working class or their peasantry. The dictators and their cronies who borrowed the money are mostly long gone. The money that wasn't squandered on corrupt and worthless-to- the-local-people projects in those countries is now in Florida or Switzerland (with many of the original borrowers). For first world consultants to fly in and find ways to squeeze this money out of the poor masses is futile, counter- productive for all involved, and unjust. This debt was corrupt from the start and should be forgiven. As a tax payer, this is one scandal I'll happily cover.
And for a real win win solution, rather than force the "American dream" on campesinos, we could mellow out and learn a little from the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan dream.
Home to Miami
The flight was over-booked, which seemed logical given the future I see for Latin America. It is a powerful feeling to be able to step into an America-bound airplane and mull over just how much of the Real World's problems I want to fit into my life. Of course, I have my troubles and problems. But, if I choose to be honest, the worst of my problems would be a blessing to the normal Latin American. The Central American lady next to me had cute little Christmas bells painted onto her fingernails. So did her daughter. We're all going home to Miami.