Mirror of our midlife crisis.
On a blasted corner in Managua, a city which, for all purposes beyond the sentimental need of every people to call some place their capital, ceased to exist after the earthquake of 1972, three white buildings continued to stand until early 1978. The buildings were white not because it is popular and cheap in the tropics --yellow and beige and pink resist the dust better and look cleaner longer--but because they performed a singular medical function that mandated a hygienic veneer. Nicaraguans came to the buildings to bleed into small transparent bags. The product was shipped north, a contribution to the raw materials Nicaragua exported to the United States. Surely this must be the kind of "illuminating detail' journalists are supposed to look for, the part that reveals the whole. What greater exploitation can three be than for an impoverished people to have their own blood extracted for the benefit of their imperial masters?
Well, yes. But the trouble with everything in Nicaragua is that one detail leads to another, to almost infinite others, until each by itself has only as much meaning as a dot in a pointillist painting. The next dot may reject the last, and in turn be denied by its successor as part of a series of contradictions and paradoxes that threaten to swallow one another and engulf the sanity of anyone trying to observe them. A clear case of capitalist imperialism or communist oppression, of social progress or economic decline, need only be turned slightly on its axis in order to be seen as its opposite. It is not that nothing is true in Nicaragua--for a starter I would say that the revolution is succeeding more than it is failing and that American policy toward Nicaragua is doing the reverse--but that the truth seems to dissolve into a collection of meanings whose common thread is their ambiguity. The only antidote is certainty. If you go to Nicaragua committed to the revolution, you will find plenty to strengthen your commitment. If you go opposed to the regime, you will find a satisfying amount to criticize. But if you go with an ambivalent attitude, you may return with ambivalence whose depth is oceanic.
A priest says the Sandinistas who control Nicaragua are trying to crush the church; a nun swears she found God in the revolution. One industrialist says the government stifles free enterprise, another claims the revolution has been good for business. A State Department official condemns the "asphyxiating' Nicaraguan atmosphere, the guns that are seen everywhere, but it is the only Central American country in which the U.S. Ambassador can go anywhere without bodyguards. The Ambassador himself is available to a wide range of reporters and is genial, informative and surprisingly nonjudgmental. But he refuses to be quoted in the American press, insisting on being referred to as "a Western diplomat,' summoning an image, for anyone raised on cowboy movies, of a Texas sheriff not unduly shy about reaching for his equalizer. But--again "but,' always "but'--the Ambassador gamely appeared on Nicaraguan television in a brisk policy debate with Sandinista officials who outnumbered but politely did not owerwhelm him. This book place in December 1983, when it was devolutly believed by many Americans and by most of the 2.9 million Nicaraguans that the United States was preparing to invade the country and replace its government.
Putting many of its meager resources into education, the revolution is on the verage of a triumphant conquest of illiteracy among peasants and workers, but the middle class complains that the newly literate are taught history, sociology and economics along strict Marxist lines. "An Americas Watch Report: Human Rights in Central America' concludes that "Nicaragua shows no signs of evolving in the direction of a democratic society in which freedom of expression is respected.' With a pride in our civil liberties that approaches smugness, Americans in general point confidently to the Bill of Rights are freedom's touchstone for the world. But Nicaraguans are not buying American these days. "Your freedom, sir,' said Daniel Ortega Saavedra, head of Nicaragua's revolutionary junta, as we talked alone late one hot December night in Government House, "your freedom is a monster.'
A Crowded, Contradictory Canvas
Soaring and plunging, the revolution is like a kite in an uncertain wind. People live normally, ordinarily--and also on the edge of sanity and peril. The cast of characters might be from one of those Renaissance canvases that seem to include everyone in Florence. The Jinotega coffee grower who pays the state more taxes than it requires because he wants the country strong for the anticipated U.S. invasion. The union organizer from Rivas, giving the revolution credit for rescuing Nicaraguan labor from serfdom. The banana plantation owner who sees in the revolution the death of democracy. The chemical executive who sees the Sandinistas as Nicaragua's determined greenhorn saviors. The lawyer from Maine, his life in what most of us would consider splinters, cheerfully finding his best self by working for Nicaragua. The Gold Star Mother from Los Angeles, her son killed in Vietnam, helping with the Nicaraguan rice harvest, putting her life in jeopardy as a witness for peace on the Honduran border. The Managua newspaper editor who does not know from one day to the next what he will be permitted to publish; his brother, a rival editor, who sees the revolution as mission, the mission as national reconstruction. The textile wokrer whose misery under the old regime has been transformed to something beyond hope: he talks of a revolutionary sunrise that gives him and his family anticipations as fond as their memories are bitter.
In this riddled context, Americans ask questions. Is Nicaragua the first mainland domino, falling long enough after Cuba to make Castro's revolution an antecedent rather than a precedent? What is the Soviet role? Given U.S. actions as well as Nicaragua's momentum, what are the revolution's prospects? What might an appropriate U.S. response to Nicaragua be? Is there a point, in terms of libertarian expectations, where the Sandinista revolution could be said to have betrayed itself?
Who validates Nicaraguan history? A secret State Department memorandum has a clarifying passage: "Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall. Nicaragua has become a test case. It is difficult to see how we can afford to be defeated. Usually it has been sufficient for us to intervene on the sole pretext of furnishing protection to American lives and property.' This memorandum, which was delcassified in the 1960s, was written in 1927. Does current thinking --that of the State Department and the Kissinger commission on Central America--repudiate this attitude as oppressively anachronistic? Or does it reaffirm America's manifest hemispheric destiny? The questions seem pertinent in the United States. In Nicaragua they recede dizzyingly before new questions, an agenda with its own demands, a socialism, for instance, hopelessly married to capitalism.
Bleeding a Country
What a relief to return for a moment to the simplicity of the Managua blood bank, draining the malnourished prerevolutionary Nicaraguans for the benefit of a rich United States, swollen like a tick from sucking up the very life substance of its subjects to the south. Except it was not exactly a blood bank. It was essentially a plasmapheresis center, where the donor's blood, after removal, was centrifuged to separate out the plasma. The packed red cells and other blood components were mixed with saline solution and reinfused into the donor. The plasma was shipped to the United States. According to a hematologist who received the plasma in New York City and a research chemist who inspected the plasmapheresis process in Managua, the center's health standards were the highest of any such facility in the world. The plasma produced was superior (with less risk of infectious hepatitis, for example) to what could be obtained from any comparable center in the United States. The three buildings in Managua contained 180 beds and were capable of handling 1,000 donors a day. When the operation was at its peak, 20,000 liters of plasma were shipped to the United States every month, approximately seven times as much as that produced by the average center in a big American city. The huge volume held the price of plasma down in the United States and made it possible for patients in charity wards to have medical treatment that otherwise would have been completely out of their reach. Nicaraguan plasma kept American hemophiliacs, who at that time were almost completely dependent on a steady flow of blood, from having to pay with their lives for failures of our own social policy and individual generosity.
The Nicaraguan donors were attended by twenty-four doctors and received better medical care than that provided at plasmapheresis centers in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles. Because of malnutrition in Nicaragua, a relatively high percentage of volunteers were rejected; they were given free food and a supply of vitamins. Those accepted were fed a hot meal after their donation, and they were paid the equivalent in Nicaraguan cordobas of what their counterparts at U.S. commercial blood banks were receiving in dollars. The pay, of course, was the reason the center attracted so many donors among the unemployed from all over Nicaragua. It was a kind of salary for the wretchedly poor, and the plasma separation process had so little effect on their health that they were able, like volunteers in the United States, to donate as frequently as twice a week.
Then everyone was served: Nicaraguans and Americans each got something they desperately needed. But there is one more detail. The Managua center was owned by an exiled Cuban doctor and by Anastasio Somoza Debayle, dictator of Nicaragua and third in his family, after his father and brother, to hold that post with the economic and military support of the United States. Although Somoza and the Cuban doctor, whose name is Pedro Ramos, did pay the donors between $5 and $10 for each unit of plasma, they sold it for at least three times that amount. For 20,000 liters per month at approximately $50 per liter, the take was around $12 million a year. Somoza, bleeding his own people, had turned his country into the ultimate family business. When La Prensa, the Managua newspaper that opposed the Somozas then and opposes the Sandinistas now, ran a series of articles in 1977 denouncing the traffic in blood, Dr. Ramos sued its editor, Pedor Joaquin Chamorro, for libel. He lost the suit and moved to Miami. In January 1978, Chamorro was assassinated, and a captured hit man identified Ramos as having put out the contract. Managua erupted. A full year and a half before the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, enraged Nicaraguans stormed the plasmapheresis headquarters and burned it down. Somoza lost a business, and his customers lost access to 15 percent of the world's plasma supply. The Nicaraguans' name for the center they destroyed was casa de vampiros.
Four and a half years after the victory of the Sandinista revolution in July 1979, Nicaragua presents the United States with a midlife crisis. Old enough to know better, they used to say, young enough to do it again. We look to Nicaragua, as we once looked to Vietnam, to test our illusions (the situation is infinitely improvable) or to confirm our disillusionment with everything (the situation is only hopeless, not serious). While we support a government of murderers in El Salvador, we oppose one of independence and progressive ideals in Nicaragua. Our policies toward Central America have edged the Soviet Union into its own contradiction. In El Salvador the Russians connive to overthrow a government that suppresses its opposition as they themselves do, only less effectively. In Nicaragua the Russians support a government committed to a pluralism they would never tolerate.
But Soviet contradiction is hardly U.S. resolution, and we contend with the shadows in our own dark thicket. If Dante, who knew a midlife crisis when he saw one, could return to make his journey through Central America, El Salvador would offer him at least snapshots of Inferno. Paradiso, despite Costa Rican aspirations, would be served up only by Club Med. For Purgatorio, the hope, the disappointment, the promise and the uncertainty belong to Nicaragua. In this most Catholic of countries, the people do speak of doing penance for the past, enduring assorted mortifications for a redemptive future. Their revolution is a mirror in which everyone can see himself. In a general way, farmers and workers see dignity, students see potential, the business class sees itself capsizing, while visiting Americans see reflected in the revolutionary fervor our own spent country come of middle age, wondering what to do with itself.
The mirror is not only in the revolution but in Nicaragua as an entity. Surely there is a narcissism to our feeling that a country has to be molded in our image or else we will not let it exist at all. One nation trying to raise another as a miniature of itself has to be afflicted with a vanity past all sensible longing. But look: there is this ghostly mirror quality between the United States and Nicaragua, each with its need for friendly neighbors on its northern and southern borders, its coastlines open to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, its racial problems involving whites, blacks and Indians, its colonial past.
Infinity of Mirrors
A mirror is almost the first object a visitor comes in contact with in Nicaragua. Above each customs booth at Sandino International Airport, a mirror perches, tilting down over the heads of arriving passengers, enabling the customs officer to look at people's feet if that is what he wants to do. He can tell if they are carrying a dirk in their boots or sporting Guccis or only wearing scuffed Adidas. The impression of surveillance is fortified by a sign on the booth quoting Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino's advice to be on the lookout for "los imperialistas Yanquis.' The mirror is straight from East Germany, which has provided training and techniques for the Sandinista security apparatus. But the customs officer is not East German. He is smiling, he is puffy with midnight sleepiness and he is, if ethnic generalizations can still be applied without insult, very Latin. "Bienvenido. Enjoy,' he says.
As it turned out, despite the presence and at times the attention of armed soldiers throughout the country, the mirror and the quote from Sandino at the customs booth were the last time I felt actively watched during two and a half weeks in Nicaragua. Either the Sandinistas cannily perfected their surveilling subtlety once the hint had been dropped heavily at the airport, or my awestruck admiration for them blinded me to their Orwellian scrutiny of my every twitch and jotting. Since neither possibility would be much in character, I have to conclude that outsiders--not, certainly, Nicaraguans--can roam the nonmilitary areas of Nicaragua unperceived by the leftist totalitarian thugs, or whatever President Reagan is calling them this week, who run the country.
Above the baggage inspection ramp a sign in English said, "Welcome to Nicaragua. You'll love it.' An official was inspecting a porn magazine he had found in the luggage of the passenger ahead of me, a Nicaraguan returning from Miami. After he gave the magazine back to its owner, he conscientiously searched my belongings before waving me through. Suspicious that everyone was an agent for us or them, and apprehensive--no, terrified--that the widely predicted U.S. invasion would begin as soon as I arrived, I glanced furtively at the night sky for planes or parachutes, then shared a cab with two Americans who spoke with slight Spanish accents. They said they were businessmen from Iowa, tire retreaders come down to do some merchandising in Nicaragua. Right, I wanted to say to them, and I'm getting set to replace Willie Wilson in the outfield for the K.C. Royals if his coke suspension holds. Can't the Company think up a better cover than that? Still, all the way into town they kept up their chatter about the Nicaraguans needing retreads since they could not afford to buy new tires. Who knows?
By all the norms and wicker of the international hospitality industry's tropical division, Hotel El Camino is easily Managua's best. First World luxury set in Third World ambiance, fashionably elevated bar above a large clean pool, tennis courts, private jogging course, rooms so relentlessly air-conditioned they rebuke the entire country that surrounds them. El Camino's problem is that it is located so near the airport it has more to do with entering or leaving Nicaragua than with actually being there. Thus it is to a prerevolutionary, pre-earthquake trapezoidal hive called the Intercontinental--the Intair as it is pronounced locally-- that except for ABC News which secretes itself at El Camino, almost everyone in the international information-gathering community turns. It is the Elaine's of Central America. The Intercontinental buzzes with journalists, photographers, TV crews, putative agents, visiting U.S. officials in-country for a quick briefing but not important enough to stay with the Ambassador, town gossips, Marxist theorists delivered straight from La Coupole along with their Gauloises, revolution groupies, Sandinista press officers and poets, black marketeers, idealists gathered for one more chance to remake the world.
The Intercontinental rises on a sloping hill in what its publicity calls an imitation Mayan pyramid, bestriding what would be downtown Managua if there were still a town to be down in. Because of the hill, it seems taller than its nine stories. Although the Intercontinental is even less representative of life in Managua than the Helmsely Palace is of life in New York City, its magnetism for such a diverse congregation allows it to reveal certain of the revolution's sliding free-form realities.
On the night I arrived, Orson Welles was crowding out all other objects on the small television screen in the bar. Like TV in many American bars, the set stayed on for the sake of the pictures, providing the the comforting illusion of more people in the room having a better time than was actually the case, but the sound was turned off. Orson Welles was followed by a trailer for a forthcoming Lou Grant episode.
Two young men came in from the pool, where there was a big party with spirited dancing. The music from the loudspeakers around the pool almost drowned out the Nicaraguans as they asked what I was doing in their country.
"Periodista,' I said.
"Oh, a journalist.'
"Si,' I said.
"Yes,' they said. "Did you come to see the revolution?'
"Isn't that why everyone comes now?'
"Do you like it?'
"I don't know. I've only been here ten minutes. Do you?'
Wait a minute! One of them was crying. "No,' he said, "it's not for me. It's good for some people, not for me.'
He was 18, or 30. It was dark in the bar, but the tears shone on his face and he tried to sniff them back.
"Why isn't it good for you?'
"It's not mine, it's not my own, this revolution. I want to love it and I can't.'
On the television screen, Lou Grant was replaced by the F.S.L.N. (Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional) logo: TODAS LAS ARMAS AL PUEBLO. All arms to the people is the literal translation. Learn to live with contradiction is the looser construction. The old mixed signal.
Outside by the pool, young Nicaraguans were flinging themselves around with what I took to be rather reckless abandon. Where were the bomb shelters, the trenches? Where was the country under siege? Is this what I was so scared of? For these people it was graduation night, maybe a Christmas ball. It was hot, at least 80 degrees, and the sound system blared "Maniac' from Flashdance while the poolside party jumped and swarmed. Behind the dancers a wall perhaps twelve feet high protected the Intercontinental from what used to be Managua. An NBC News crew came out on the terrace and briefly filmed the dancers, throwing their shadows up against the wall with a Sun Gun light that gave the cameraman the exposure he needed. "Meanwhile, in beleaguered Managua at the center of the political storm, pre-Christmas revels go on as usual among the dwindling middle class.' Elvis came on with "Hound Dog'--"You ain't never caught a rabbit and you ain't no friend of mine'--and the dancers' silhouettes kept rhythm with one another on the wall. I wondered what the U.S. Army Rangers would look like climbing over that wall in assault force. They would be followed by the Marines, of course; twelve-foot walls are nothing to those guys. Together again, the same winning team that brought you Grenada. This time in living color. NBC News went up to bed, the dancers oblivious, grinding Latinly on.
Love You, Hate Your Government
The Intercontinental affords a view of Managua, and beyond it Lake Managua, that is deceptively lush. The palms, the flowers, the poinciana trees and especially the weeds grow back so quickly it is hard to tell that beneath the green camouflage is a destroyed city. Since the hotel is a cluttered pleasure to live in, it too is a kind of disguise for what lies beyond. When I checked in I was given a cell of a room but easily got it changed. I fantasized the Ugly American speech, a facsimile of which I once heard ranted in Havana: Look senorita, I've seen better countries than yours blow away like dust when a determined President wants to stop the spread of anything further to the left than right center field. Iran 1953. Guatemala 1954, honey. Chile 1973. El. Salvador today. Bay of Pigs 1961; they stopped us on the one-yard line only because our nerve failed. O.K., Saigon 1975; we wouldn't walk the last mile. So if you want your little fight-for-life reported favorably you'll bloody well give me a bigger room. The Pegler school of journalism. At the Caravelle in Saigon, the biggies, the press vets, the World War II and Korea freaks would sit in the bar on the top floor, telling stories of real wars and complaining that Vietnam wasn't worth their attention even though we were winning. Later on at the Intercontinental, I did see a reporter give a patented Ugly American performance that froze the entire lobby. In my case they chocked off protest abruptly with the Commie ruse of a bigger room.
Fantasies disappear at the Intercontinental's front door. Managua is not exactly patrolled by soldiers, but the country is on a wartime footing, and armed police or militia or members of the regular army are posted in various spots around town, some obviously strategic, others apparently random. A block from the hotel on my first day in Nicaragua, I was halted by a soldier with a rifle. The rifle was strapped loosely around his shoulder and he was smiling, but unaccustomed as I am to being stopped by people with guns, I put my hands up. He fiddled with the rifle barrel playfully as he asked for my identification, sticking a finger down the muzzle. For a reason I did not then understand but would in a minute, I had an impulse to tell him to be careful, that thing was not a toy. But I shut up and produced a passport and a press card. The soldier fingered his rifle some more and called over his superior, who was standing a few yards away. The commander looked at the identification, smiled and told me I could go.
The crisis behind us, I asked them how old they were, and when they answered I understood why I had wanted to warn the soldier about the lethal quality of his weapon. The one who stopped me was 13, the one in charge 17. The 13-year-old was carrying a Russian BZM-52; the 17-year-old had an AK-47, the standard Russian weapon of the Nicaraguan Army, known to everyone as an Ahka. Francisco, the younger one, was eager to be liked and seemed almost ready to ask me for a candy bar. He has had his uniform and rifle a little less than a year. Javier, the senior authority, has been practicing with his Ahka for two years and hopes someday to become a carpenter. "When President Reagan lets us study and work,' he said, "instead of defending our homes.'
This theme, sounded first by a 17-year-old, was repeated to me often enough to become more than a refrain. It is a tenet of the national faith that the reason for Nicaragua's slow advance in education and industry is the militarism forced on its population by the United States. Extending the tenet, many Nicaraguans blame U.S. economic and military policies for virtually all the country's problems--whether product shortages, poor distribution, bad crops or unrest among the Miskito Indians and other minorities. The United States, they feel, is trying to strangle them. In a crowning paradox, however, they are able to like Americans while hating our government. It is as though they believe our government is not an expression of the national will but something imposed on us from without, as earlier governments in Nicaragua had been imposed by the United States. In talks with hundreds of Nicaraguans, I met only one, a professional army man from the North, who felt we were responsible for our government. Everyone else blamed the Administration, generally Ronald Reagan himself, for policies that have placed as many as 5,500 U.S. military personnel in Honduras, Nicaragua's northern neighbor, hostile armies of counterrevolutionaries on both their Honduran and Costa Rican borders, American warships patrolling their Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and an economic squeeze that not only cuts off Nicaragua's credits from the United States but denies it the opportunity to borrow from the International Monetary Fund and regional banks. Everyone else, beginning with these two teen-agers, Francisco and Javier, exonerated the American people, with whom they wanted only to be friendly, for the acts committed in our name by our leadership. Francisco and Javier left me wondering how much longer we were going to be able to get away with that.
The Miskito Problem
Outside Managua it is easier to get a sense of how the revolution is doing in its struggle against both poverty and the tenacity with which some Nicaraguans cling to their prerevolutionary ways. Nicaragua is approximately the size of Wisconsin, a little larger than New York State. More than 90 percent of the country's population lives in the western provinces and is descended from the Spaniards, who first settled the area in 1524 and ruled until 1821. But 30,000 Miskito Indians, never assimilated into the Spanish society of the West, live on the East Coast, along with several thousand Caribbean blacks and other Indians. If that section of Nicaragua acknowledged a colonial master it was England, which traded and pirated along the East Coast, not Spain, which periodically tried to conquer it.
The Sandinistas admit mistakes in their treatment of the Miskitos. These were due, they claim, largely to their overzealousness in trying to integrate the Indians into the revolutionary process, and to American propaganda and military pressure designed to alienate the Miskitos from the government and drive them into the arms of the counterrevolutionaries. Radio broadcasts and leaflets from Honduras tell the Miskitos the Communists are coming to kill them and send all their children to Russia. While I was in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas made a peace offering to the Miskitos, granting amnesty to those who had gone to Honduras and releasing 300 who had been imprisoned for fighting the government. Meanwhile, the C.I.A. was arming the Misura, a dissident faction of Miskitos and other East Coast groups, for the purpose of leading thousands of Indians away from Nicaragua. Propaganda from Honduras increased, with promises of American-style housing for Miskitos who cross the border.
From a C.I.A. perspective, Coast are the Vietnames Montagnards the Miskitos and the East Coast are the Vietnamese Montagnards Highlands redux. The area in northeast Nicaragua where most of the Miskitos live is even called the highlands. The Miskitos have always been alienated from whatever government was in Managua, just as the Montagnards always ignored Saigon, and they are perfect targets for an enemy intelligence agency to recruit and run for a while, then drop when they are no longer useful. Through their revolutionary excesses, ignorance of Miskito ways and undoubtedly some prejudice against aborigines, the Sandinistas have helped the C.I.A. make friends among the Miskitos. Last December, the government was trying to correct its mistakes, or at least was making overtures to the Miskitos. Several new villages were opened, old villages were being resettled and the land reform program was being significantly extended to benefit the Miskitos.
One morning during my first week in Nicaragua a woman from the government press office, which the Sandinistas have shrewdly located, like a fishnet, in the Intercontinental, asked if I would go to the East Coast the following day with the 300 Miskito Indians who were being repatriated. She said their villages were protected by government troops, secure from attacks by the counterrevolutionaries, los contras. The Indians would be free to build new lives for themselves. I felt too busy to join what smelled like a press junket to what sounded like a bunch of strategic hamlets, so I turned the trip down. An American lawyer, however, visiting Nicaragua to investigate human rights violations, went along and remained eight days on the East Coast with the Miskitos.
When she returned to Managua, the lawyer told of a thinly populated, exotic Miskito coast, where coconut palms sway over villages of houses on stilts. The lawyer, who, like many Americans in Nicaragua, insisted on anonymity, was able to reach some of the settlements only by boat. In several of them, books and doctors were unknown until recently. The older communities are filthy, she said, and people often defecate upstream from where they do their laundry. There is a kind of random farming but almost no other organized economic activity. Into these conditions the Sandinistas were trying to insert themselves, introducing a little hygiene here, a few modern crop techniques there, rectifying their earlier errors where they could.
One village had been previously evacuated by the Sandinistas in order to deny a haven to the contras. The Miskitos the lawyer was with were glad to bet home, and their new government-built houses were better that the shacks and lean-tos they had left. But a number of them were afraid of the government because of its past treatment of them, and the lawyer found that when she used a Sandinista interpreter who spoke Miskito, the Indians were far less communicative than when she used a Miskito interpreter who spoke English. The Miskitos told the lawyer of harassment and arrests by the government. In a small settlement along the coast called Walpasixa, the Sandinistas apparently arrested half the men and just carted them away. No one knew why the Sandinistas left the other half alone. Many Miskitos once worked for U.S. lumber companies, which arrived in the 1930s, took all the pine they could find and got out in the 1960s. Some have not been employed since the lumber companies left. In successive villages the lawyer met Miskitos named George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Washington hated the Sandinistas; Lincoln was satisfied with them. This part of Nicaragua, the Miskitos and the government agree, is a war zone, and no one is safe from roving bands of contras, down from Honduras, up from Costa Rica. The lawyer returned to Managua with her sympathy for the Sandinistas tested but intact.
The East Coast remains fickle. Just before Christmas, an American bishop accompanied several hundred Miskitos north into Honduras, presenting the counterrevolutionaries with a considerable public relations victory. Some of the Miskitos were said to be armed members of the antigovernment Misura; others were said to have gone north reluctantly, bewildered at being moved one more time. In Managua the rumor was that the Misura had got lost in the jungle on their way to raid one village and wound up in another. This village contained the bishop and an American Catholic priest, who said later they were there by coincidence when the Misura arrived and took everyone north. In any case, the bishop, whom the Sandinistas initially reported killed by counterrevolutionaries, was evacuated to the United States in time to spend the holidays with his mother and receive the winning-coach-in-the-locker-room phone call from President Reagan on Christmas Day. Over the enterprise there hung confusion, missed opportunities for both sides, conflicting loyalties, and the whiff of a bungled C.I.A. operation that accidentally succeeded.
Enter AIM and Others
American Indians have not neglected the Miskitos, with somewhat mixed results. An American Indian Movement official breezed into the Intercontinental one day early in December, took a quick briefing and emerged to declare that the Sandinistas are the best thing that ever happened to the Miskitos. The government treats the Miskitos, the AIM man said, far better than the United States has ever treated its Native American population. Then he breezed out again. He did not endear himself to the Miskitos and was regarded as unhelpful by the Sandinistas. Not many people, on the other hand, would go to the trouble of a 4,000-mile trip just to get better trajectory for a shot at the U.S. Interior Department.
A few days later, a delegation of Vietnam veterans arrived. They looked around, talked to as many people as they could and decided that while Nicaragua was not Vietnam, the United States was behaving in a similar manner, blending cruelty with ignorance. "We're not going to go through this again,' one of them said. The delegation included an American Indian, who asked stern and probing questions of the Sandinistas and the Miskitos about their intentions toward each other. He won the respect of both.
Since the western provinces hold most of Nicaragua's population, including 15,000 who have migrated from the East to find jobs, it is in the West that the revolution will stand or fall. After Managua, which has approximately 300,000 people, the largest cities are Leon, 63,000, and Granada, 45,000. Population figures in Nicaragua are rough estimates, since no census has been taken for more than a decade. One of the problems the government confronts in preparing for the elections scheduled for 1985 is that no one has a clear idea of who or where the potential voters are, never mind how many of them exist.
Fifty-five miles northwest of Managua, Leon was the capital during a bizarre episode in the 1850s, when an American pirate named William Walker conquered Nicaragua and tried to have it annexed to the United States as a slave state. Walker made the mistake of confiscating a business owned by Cornelius Vanderbilt. For most of the decade Vanderbilt had been running a transit company through Nicaragua for Americans hurrying from the Eastern states to what they hoped was the gold in California. His profits were $2 million a year, an irresistible lure for Walker. A coalition of Central American countries and the British Navy, helped by Vanderbilt, drove Walker out of his "kingdom.' When he tried to return in 1860, he was executed by the Hondurans.
Walker and Vanderbilt forecast an American attitude toward Nicaragua that lasted more than a century. Statecraft was reduced to business, business to exploitation. Guided less by Jefferson's devotion to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness than by his assertion, in 1813, that "America has a hemisphere to itself,' the United States made coffee and bananas the pedestals for its Central America policy. The U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua became at times a virtual governor general. When a nationalist leader cooperated with the British in a plan to build a trans-Nicaraguan railway that would compete with the then-unfinished Panama Canal, Washington declared him a "destabilizing' influence and overthrew him in 1909. Thereafter, except for two brief periods, the United States Marines were in Nicaragua until 1933. Then came Somoza I, followed by Somozas II and III, lasting until the Sandinista revolution of 1979.
The fall of William Walker shifted the country's capital to Managua, but Leon still has the dignity of a gracefully retired athlete who now and then condescends to do a coffee commercial. Its eighteenth-century cathedral, the largest in Central America, is said to have been built by mistake after the Spanish design for an elegant cathedral to be constructed in the gold-rich capital of Lima, Peru, was mixed up aboard ship with the plans for a more modest church in Leon. The cathedral preens over its city with an opulence that refutes the revolution, and confirms it.
The morning I was in Leon, a sound truck drove by the cathedral, blasting out instructions for a civil defense meeting where trench digging, firefighting and evacuation techniques would be taught in preparation for the Yankee invasion. The announcer, visible in the front seat of the truck, emphasized that the meeting would begin at 9 A.M. I looked at my watch and saw it was a little after 10:30. This is what is meant by hora Nica, Nicaraguan time. Meetings not only start late, they occasionally do not take place even on the day they are scheduled. The sound truck proceeded around Leon, past an open bazaar, the ancient university, shops, and signs advertising Pepsi, Coke, Black & Decker tools and "Death to hoarding and speculating.'
Across the street on one side of the cathedral is an adjacent pair of political statements typical of Nicaraguan cities. First, there are the gutted remains of a department store bombed by Somoza's Guardia Nacional during heavy fighting in 1978. Twisted metal girders are all that separate the earth from the sky. Next to this is a tiny plaza with enlarged photographs of the revolutionary heroes Sandino and Carlos Fonseca, and of the martyr Rigoberto Lopez, the poet who shot Somoza I in Leon in 1956.
Tales Out of School
On the other side of the cathedral is Collegio La Asuncion, formerly an elite
parochial academy for girls, now a girls' public school. The school no longer has its curriculum dictated by the church, but it has not embraced the revolution either. Two teachers and a school secretary I spoke with felt the Sandinistas were going backward. One of them left shortly after we began talking--"Wait, I'll show you what I mean,' she said--and reappeared with a block of unrefined brown sugar. "See, this is what we have to eat now.' It was no use telling her that American health-chic now stipulates raw sugar. The fact is that white sugar has always been a mark of the Nicaraguan middle class, and this science teacher could no longer buy it.
The two teachers described themselves as liberal but not of the left. They were pleasant and perplexed. "Even with the hostility of the United States,' one of them said, "there should be more progress four and a half years after the triumph. The government has good intentions, but it is on the wrong path. They give us no way to organize a campaign against their own mistakes.'
"When someone has told you three or four lies, the fifth time you don't believe him,' the other teacher said. "Nothing good can come of the voting in 1985. There is not enough freedom. You can't even chop a tree down without their permission. This is no atmosphere for organizing elections. Their relationship with the Salvadoran guerrillas compromises us. They should be neutral. Why don't they behave better to get the economic aid from the United States restored?'
"We are not contras,' the first said. "We want what is best for our pais, our contry, our patria.'
A nun sitting nearby looked up at the teachers and the secretary, then returned to her Graham Greene paperback, La Fuerza y La Gloria.
The secretary had been a student at the school, and her small, neat features drooped when she talked about the revolution. "I can't complain myself,' she said, "but the lack of freedom hurts the production of goods. You don't have to be an economist to see the economy is worse now than ten years ago. The U.S. boycott hurts us too, prevents us from amking progress. Because of the United States, we have to have so many people involved in defense we can't make what we need. The Sandinistas contribute to this with bad management. Their bomb shelters have broken more legs than they'd save in a raid. People run over the trenches and crack their knees. Some of our teachers have to go pick cotton on their holidays. That's not a proper activity for a teacher. I hated Somoza. The Sandinistas seemed like saints to me when the first came. I loved and supported them. But they let me down, and they don't show proper respect for the United States. They should change, be more friendly to your country, give no excuse for the United States to attack us.'
The nun looked up again as she turned a page.
"When the Pope was here in 1982,' one of the teachers said, "it was a very painful experience.'
"It was doloroso,' the secretary said. "He was insulted by Sandinistas waving their red and black flags right here in the cathedral square, while he was treated well at the university. How can you figure that? All right, some of my family are Sandinistas. We fight about it, but we're still a family.'
The teachers and the secretary left for lunch, and the school door was closed behind me for the midday break as I walked out. But there was a window in the door, barred with thin whitewashed wooden dowels. The little window opened. I had forgotten the nun. She appeared, spectral in the shadows behind the white bars. "Por favor, senor,' she said, "we do not all feel like that.'
The Nun's Story
All I could see of her was white--her face, her nun's coronet, her plain T-shirt. "First, the Pope,' she said. "I love him, and the campesinos I work with were very happy to have him visit. But he was poorly advised. He should have said something about the companeros who were killed on the border fighting against los contras. Just one word. No. He spoke only of the unity of the church. In the way the church can sometimes be, he was too dogmatic.'
The nun opened the door and came out on the school steps. She was Sister Ana Maria Macias, a social worker originally from Spain, now 36 and a Nicaraguan. She has prominent bones and eyes, and a strong nose that manages him, and the campesinos I an aristocrat. Since the revolution she has been the treasurer of a farm cooperative. "Beans, corn, rice,' she said, "I organize the selling of our produce to the markets, and I try to manage the money.'
Sister Ana Maria came to Nicaragua before the revolution. "You could not go in the streets after 6 P.M. then,' she said. "During Somoza's time, soldiers were everywhere and you could not look at them, not even a nun. They would do anything to you that amused them. At the time when Chamorro the publisher [of La Prensa] was killed, it could be worth your life only to walk past the headquarters of the Guardia here in Leon. Holy Week was full of terror. On the Monday before Easter, the Guardia killed three boys right in front of the church. The rest of the week, disappearances every day.
"But now, see the vida nueva, see the betterment. Priests and nuns in Guatemala and El Salvador are killed for doing the kind of work with campesinos I do here. The soldiers come up to me on the street and shake my hand. The agricultural co-ops bring us closer to providing for ourselves. There are shortages in some areas, but the revolution never promised Italian olive oil and French wine. The basic foods, the basic goods, we have. The poor people have the necessities they never dreamed of before. The Bishop of Leon understands this and favors the revolution. So do the Jesuits who come here from the United States. Some of them went home for a visit and were present when Jeane Kirkpatrick spoke at Georgetown. She gave her anti-Sandinista speech. We are all totalitarian pigs, or sheep, or wolves, or whatever beast was in her mind that day. The Jesuits protested quietly, politely, but they let her know how wrong she is about the Nicaragua they know.'
What Sister Ana Maria does not admire about the Sandinistas is the way they treat their opponents. "I don't like the neighborhood surveillance groups who harass people they don't agree with,' she said. "I don't like the signs that say, "Counterrevolutionaries, 10,000 eyes are watching you.' When people speak in disagreement with the government, they often try to be funny about perhaps going to jail. The fact is, they do not go to jail, but the possibility is in the air enough so they have to make a little joke about it. I do not like this, but it is the tail of the revolution, not its body. The body is healthy and growing. Tell the United States government, por favor, it's all right not to help Nicaragua, but at least don't help the contras. Two of our boys from the farm have been killed on the border. We won't let them die in vain.'
Appointment in Corinto
I continued on to Corinto, Nicaragua's largest port, about thirty-five miles west of Leon. Before the revolution sailors would get off their ships, hire Nicaraguan bodyguards known locally as cowboys and make the rounds of bars, card games and brothels without fear of being rolled. Although the Sandinistas have tried to eliminate prostitution and gambling, Corinto is still a busy little city with a market in practically everything. The revolution has not changed the face of the port, but the C.I.A. has.
Corinto is on an island and handles 60 percent of Nicaragua's foreign trade; both facts make it an attractive target for sabotage. The contras have tried to blow up the main bridge to the island but so far have failed. The C.I.A. did not fail, however, in its night raid on Corinto's oil storage depot last October. The contras had been unable to penetrate the port's defenses with either planes or small ships, so the C.I.A. sent its own speedboat into the harbor. The oil depot was shelled from the speedboat for perhaps two minutes, after which the boat escaped. Four diesel fuel tanks were hit directly. The explosions started fires which eventually destroyed eight tanks and their fuel lines, a loading crane, two molasses storage tanks, a concrete wall, two small buildings and a large warehouse with all its contents, which included coffee, beans and shrimp. Three million gallons of fuel were lost.
The following day, a group of counterrevolutionaries were captured near Corinto. They said that they had been trained for the job but when they could not accomplish it in several attempts, their C.I.A. instructors did it themselves. According to the contras, the speedboat had a 325-horsepower engine and used 60-millimeter shells.
The fire burned for forty-eight hours. Mexico, Venezuela and Cuba quickly sent sophisticated firefighting equipment which helped keep the flames from leaping to the bordering residential neighborhood. Diesel fuel is much less incendiary than petroleum. Port officials say that if the petroleum tanks had been hit, Corinto would have burned to the ground. Two of the destroyed tanks belonged to Exxon-- business, too, must make its sacrifices for democracy-- but the company will not say whether its insurance provides coverage against C.I.A. operations. Although the fire was confined to the storage area, the 3,000 people who live nearby are being relocated to protect them from future U.S. attacks.
In December, the storage depot was moonscape, with sheet metal twisted into five acres of the playful varieties of pasta. Red and green paint lay in flakes on the ground, having passed through the stages of boiling and peeling. When I was there, planes from Honduras had come in low under the radar for three days in a row. They strafed the port and were driven away before they could do further damage to the oil tanks. In international law that is known as repeated violations of airspace accompanied by unprovoked acts of war; in the intelligence community it is called keeping in touch.
Irving Ramos, a 19-year-old with a seventy-grade education, was piling rubble in the depot. Nicaragua can't afford to throw away any metal. "What you have to try to understand,' Ramos said, "is that the Nicaraguan government works for the campesinos now, instead of the other way around, like it used to be. Your war is good for nothing. If you can't send peace, at least don't send bombs. If you don't send bombs, maybe you'll send books. What about Salinger? I get off early if I go to night school.'
On the way out of Corinto, I drove past the statue of a boy holding the enormous letters A, B, C, D. The literacy campaign. Across the bridge, in the twilight, I was stopped by the blinking red lights of a slow convoy of Soviet tractors, unloaded that afternoon in Corinto. When I could pass them, I came to a caravan of Toyota pickups, also new. In front of the Toyotas were Soviet trucks and two Soviet ambulances. Just before the town of Chinandega, where I turned south to get back to Managua, I came to a field hospital built by the Russians, most of it under tents, staffed by Russian doctors, a goft to the Nicaraguans.
The way the United States and the Soviet Union were behaving toward Nicaragua was like the fairy tale about the wind and the sun. The two of them look down at the earth and see a freezing man walking along, wearing an overcoat. They devise a contest to see who can get the coat off the man first. The wind blows hard and almost whisks the coat right off the man's back, but he grabs it and hugs it tightly around him. The wind swirls around, huffs and puffs some more, but nothing works. It is the sun's turn. He shines brightly for a few minutes. The man removes his overcoat and continues walking.
The question is, Why do we have to be the wind in this story?
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|Title Annotation:||United States and Nicaragua|
|Date:||Jan 28, 1984|
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