Bringing the war home in Nicaragua.
The calm is illusory. The coffee fields are a battleground, one of the primary targets of the U.S.-backed contras in their three-year terrorist war against the Sandinista government. Coffee, which brought in $150 million in export revenues last year, is Nicaragua's principal source of foreign exchange. A small harvest would have disastrous consequences for the country's economy. It is no coincidence, therefore, that in 1984 the contras destroyed eight state-owned and a dozen private coffee farms in the provinces of Matagalpa and Jinotega, where 75 percent of the crop is grown. They also killed 400 peasant leaders in that region, kidnapped an equal number and threatened many others in an effort to scare campesinos away from the fields.
The realities of the war have not been reported in this country. Most American journalists are based in Managua, away from the fighting, and have focused on other issues--opposition leader Arturo Cruz's role in the elections, press censorship, draft resistance, shortages, grumblings about Sandinista inefficiency. What they have failed to convey to American readers is the single most important fact about Nicaragua today: it is engaged in a full-scale war. In 1981 there were fewer than 1,500 contras. Now, with the help of $73 million in authorized U.S. aid (and much more in covert and private aid) they have grown into a well-equipped force of 10,000 to 15,000 guerrillas. In the last three years, nearly 8,000 Nicaraguans have died in the war against the contras. At least as many more have been wounded or kidnapped or are missing, and an estimated 120,000 have been displaced from their homes. For a tiny country of 3 million, those figures are staggering. If the United States had the same proportion of its population killed in the Vietnam War, the number of dead would have been about 400,000. And although Congress cut off official funds for the contras in June, unofficial funding has increased and Nicaragua's casualties continue to mount--3,000 dead in the last year, more than 300 of whom we children under 12. [See "Beat the Devil, page 134.]
Because the war is being fought mostly in the northern part of the country and consists largely of scattered acts of terrorism by the contras, reporters and visitors rarely witness the violence. But in Matagalpa province, where I worked in the coffee harvest last December with sixteen other North Americans, its scars are everywhere. At a party welcoming us to one farm, a campesino broke down and wept as he described how the contras had killed his brother fifteen days earlier, while he was planting trees in a reforestation program. Such stories are not uncommon. More often, though, the effects of the war are revealed in less dramatic ways. There are severe shortages of many basic items--medicine, water, shoes, toothpaste, toilet paper, school supplies, batteries, gasoline, spare parts. There is wreckage too. Altogether, the contras have caused $250 million in damage, destroying health- and day-care centers, schools, farms and other property.
To deal with the urgency of the war, in January 1984 the Sandinistas began conscripting men age 16 through 22, depleting the labor force available for the coffee harvest. In November, following the U.S.-manufactured MIG scare, the government decided that the 20,000 students in Managua who were to have picked the crop would remain in the capital in case of an American invasion. It then issued a call for volunteers, and sixty men and women from seventeen countries in Wester Europe, Latin America and North America responded by joining the Maurice Bishop international harvest brigade. Ranging in age from 12 to 74, we were the first of thousands of "brigadistas," including 500 more rom the United States, who have gone to Nicaragua to pick coffee and cotton this winter. Our brigade, sponsored by UNAG, the national union of farmers and ranchers, worked at two farms, San Jose and La Lima, located in a relatively secure area of the war zone, just north of the city of Matagalpa.
Nestled in a verdant, sprawling valley surrounded by rugged mountains rising to 3,000 feet, San Jose was taken over by the state in 1979, after its owner, a general in Somoza's National Guard, fled to Miami. Before the contra war, seventy-five permanent residents lived in the tiny wooden, shacks scattered along winding dirt roads. By December, however, twenty-three young men from the farm were serving in the army, and the 300 migrant laborers who usually help with the harvest had been transferred farther north to pick in the more dangerous border areas. The only people available to harvest San Jose's crop were women, school-children on winter break, our brigade and a skeleton crew of experienced men. Because of the shortage of pickers, the farm's production quota had been greatly reduced to 1,000 quintals (about 10,000 pounds) of export-grade coffee beans. Three years ago, San Jose's workers harvested 1,700 quintals.
Aware that their efforts were directly linked to the economic survival of the country, the campesinos worked exceedingly hard--and so did the brigadistas. We rose before dawn and were in the fields by 6. On clear days the work was slow and tedious but not difficult. Passing over the young green beans, we plucked the ripe red "rojitos" from the branches one by one. The reds, the highest quality beans, are processed and exported, bringing in $140 per quintal. We also picked the dead or diseased black beans, charitably described to me by one campesino as "very aromatic." They are separated out and used locally.
We wore baskets tied around our waists, filling them with beans, then emptying them into white 100-pound sacks. Again and again we went through this process, carrying the sacks from row to row. Our backs ached, our hands grew raw for insect bites and when it rained, which it often did, the steep hillsides were turned to mud and we frequently slipped and fell. The monotony of the day's work was broken only by a lunch of rice, beans and tortillas and by the songs and chants of many lands that echoed through the valley. At 3 or 4 o'clock, the toot of a cow's horn sounded in the distance, telling us it was time to quit and weigh in. The results were invariably and laughably the same: the Nicaraguans would each fill about a sack a day; the inexperienced international volunteers, less than half that.
Because the contras were an omnipresent threat, we always returned to our quarters before dark. Wherever we went, we were accompanied by armed militia. One who guarded us in the fields was a 64-year-old man with dark, leathery skin and a stubble of gray beard. Every day he sat at the end of a row, hunched in concentration over a notebook, his AK-47 automatic rifle slung on his shoulder. Sometimes he would join me and talk. He said that when Somoza was in power, two of his children had died before the age of 5 from diarrhea and malnutrition. Since the revolution, he had learned to read and write in the adult education program at San Jose. With a proud grin, he showed me his careful, elegant signature: "Tomas Rugama Zelaya, Nicaraguense."
At night, we occasionally heard gunfire and saw red tracers arching like fireworks through the black sky. Still, the protected setting made us feel remote from physical danger, until one day the news crackled over the shortwave radio that a volunteer brigade of twenty-one Telcor (telephone and postal) workers on their way to pick coffee had been ambushed north of Esteli. The contras had blown up their bus with mortar fire, hacked the few survivors to death with machetes and set their bodies on fire.
That night our brigade joined hands with the people of San Jose and sang a hymn for the murdered workers. The memorial service was held in San Jose's wooden one-room schoolhouse, which is named for a local hero, Salvador Gonzalez, a teacher whose framed photograph hangs on the wall. In three years, he taught all but five of the previously illiterate residents of San Jose to read and write. Like the Telcor workers, Salvador Gonzalez was killed by the contras. When he died, on January 19, 1984, he was 22 years old. He left two small daughters, who are now counted among the approximately 500 war orphans in the region.
San Jose is a productive and well-run farm, but it is underdeveloped and its people are struggling to survive. Most homes have neither electricity nor running water, many children go without shoes, and the basic diet consists of rice, beans and tortillas. Despite those hardships, the campesinos I talked to were proud of what they had achieved since the revolution and were ready to defend it.
"Under Somoza we were slaves," said Isabel Espinoza, 44, an intense man with bushy sideburns and long brown hair bristling out from under his Lee work cap. "The bosses used hunger to force us to continue working. All we had to eat was beans, no rice. If you cut an orange off a tree, you were beaten and fined. We worked from dawn till dusk every day, no vacations, for 6 cordobas a day [about 60 cents at the 1978 exchange rate], and that was for the best picker. If you picked less, you were paid less. Women were paid 3 cordobas. Our children died of starvation and disease; we were all illiterate and we lived in terror of the National Guard. If you thought of complaining to Somoza, well, you might as well have thought about the gallows first."
Today, according to Espinoza, everyone at San Jose eats three full meals a day and all the fruit they can pick. Malnutrition, once so prevalent, has been wiped out, as have polio and diphtheria. The government provides the farm with free medicine and a full-time nurse; all who wanted to, have learned to read and write; and the workers, organized in their own union, participate in decision-making about production. As a result of their protests last spring, base pay was raised to 42 cordobas a day (about $1.50 at the present exchange rate) for men, women and children and will go up to 62 cordobas after this harvest. They work eight hours a day, six days a week, with Sundays off. Each worker gets fifteen days' paid vacation every six months. Pregnant women receive three monts' paid maternity leave, and old workers retire will full pay and benefits. Next year a free day-care center will open, and there are plans to give every family materials to build their own houses and a plot of land and seeds so they can plant their own vegetable gardens.
"Why shouldn't we love our revolution?" Espinoza asked me after reciting this litany. "We have a great amount. This is what we are fighting for. We want peace, but tell Reagan that he'll have to kill us all before we'll give up what we've won."
Because the Sandinistas consider the coffee harvest an integral part of the war effort, it extends beyond the individual farm. When the workers of San Jose had finished the first picking of their fields, they moved to La Lima, about nineteen miles north, and our brigade went with them. Unlike San Jose, La Lima is disorganized and poor, even by Nicaraguan standards. The state purchased the farm less than a year ago from a private owner who had neglected it. Our housing facilities were in bad repair. We slept two to a hard wooden bunk in quarters that did not have lights, running water or, for the first four days, latrines.
At a meeting of the local union, which we attended, La Lima's production secretary reported that the farm's harvest situation was critical. About 75 percent of the beans had ripened, and the farm didn't have enough hands to pick them. This was not La Lima's problem alone, he explained. Nearly 35,000 young men from the region were in the army, and all the farms of Matagalpa and Jinotega faced a serious labor shortage. Unless La Lima increased its production immediately, he stressed, a large portion of the valuable red beans would be lost. The workers talked among themselves and then voted unanimously to adopt two measures proposed by the union leaders: to work on Sundays and to begin picking at the first light of dawn. Their sacrifice would not go unrewarded. Pay would increase proportionately for the longer hours, and everyone would get double time for Sundays.
As our skills improved and good weather provided more time for picking, our sacks grew heavier. Workers from neighboring farms joined us, and the days passed quickly. But one afternoon near the end of our stay I looked out at the endless rows of red spreading before me, and I understood for the first time just how shorthanded the war has left Nicaragua. Work as hard as we might, we would never come close to doing it all. About half of those juicy red beans were destined to turn black on the branches or shrivel and fall to the ground. The Sandinista government had hoped to export 1.4 million quintals of coffee beans this winter, but by late December it was apparent that the harvest would fall far short of that. Until the final figures are in, nobody will know the full economic impact, but the loss of foreign exchange will undoubtedly cause more shortages. The government, already forced to spend 40 percent of the national budget on defense, will have to postpone or abandon worthwhile projects--new schools, health clinics, housing, daycare centers. The transportation system will continue to deteriorate.
Americans easily forget that many of those problems, big and small, are the direct result of the contra war. Just how easily, I realized on the day we left La Lima for home. The farm's truck dropped us in the city of Matagalpa, where another truck was to have met us. But it was nowhere to be found. For eight hours we waited as UNAG officials searched for some means of transportation to get us back to Managua. Bored and irritated, some of us complained, just as Nicaraguans do, about the bumbling Sandinista bureaucracy.
When a truck finally arrived, we heard the explanation for the delay. That morning the contras had burned down seven private haciendas and one coffee storage plant to the north, near Yali. As a last reminder of the pervasiveness of the war conceived and financed by our own government, the truck scheduled for us had been commandeered to help transport the eight dead and seven wounded.
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|Title Annotation:||an American picks coffee in Nicaragua|
|Date:||Feb 9, 1985|
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