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Misunderstandings - Nicaragua.

When I returned from Nicaragua in 1983, I was eager to find out how my family and friends perceived the situation in this small Central American country. Despite the tremendous attention Nicaragua has received from the president, the Congress, and the media, they were both uninformed and confused. On the evidence of several public opinion polls, this confusion exists not only among family and friends. The contexts in which Nicaragua is discussed are clouded with powerful rhetoric which both cripples attempts at dispassionate discourse and confuses people. Having chosen to characterize the Nicaraguan govern-as Marxist-Leninist, Communist, Soviet, and Cuban-backed (terms which are emotionally packed and widely misunderstood), the Reagan administration bears much of the responsibility for the confusion of the American public about this country.

For the administration, "communism" is inherently totalitarian and expansionistic. No punches remain unpulled in the administration's attempts to document autocracy and expansion by the Sandinista government. Specifically, that government has impinged on freedom of religion and freedom of the press and has persecuted the private sector and opposition parties. In addition, the Nicaraguans have exported unrest to the rest of Central America. Drawing from my experiences in Nicaragua during the last year, which included working and living in a small community in the countryside, I would like to comment on the grim portrait that the administration has presented of the country and the government.

The word "totalitarian" always brings to my mind gray on black, absence of color, of spontaneous living. Yet in Nicaragua, the people's most frequent response to "How are you?" is "Tranquilo" or "Alegre"--tranquil or happy. The markets burst into life every morning, the produce, flowers, and textiles forming a rainbow of colors. Unlike the rest of Central America, notably Guatemala and El Salvador (which I visited), where armed soldiers dot the street corners and people avert their eyes when they pass, people in Managua smile at young Sandinista soldiers in the street. No one speaks in a whisper. Far from feeling that people were inhibited about criticizing the government, it seems to be the favorite pastime. For Holy Week, the country closes down, and the cities empty out for the beaches. The festivities for the Conception of the Virgin Mary are elaborate. Each house constructs its own altar to honor the Virgin, and the children clog the streets going from house to house caroling and collecting candy. On steamy weekend nights, the streets are crowded with people out for a stroll in the parks, a movie, ice cream, or a few bottles of beer. When I saw that the Reagan administration had applied the term totalitarian to Nicaragua, I was confused. Either I had totally misunderstood the concept of totalitarianism, or the U.S. administration had totally misunderstood Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is no utopia. The combined effects of the 1972 earthquake and the 1979 insurrection left 80,000 dead in a country of 2.5 million. The young leadership of the Nicaraguan government has, with varying degrees of success, attempted to achieve two perhaps contradictory goals--reconstruction and redistribution. In addition, the country has had to mobilize for war. Under harsh circumstances, the government has made many mistakes and a surprising number of advances, namely a literacy campaign which reduced the nation's illiteracy rate from 50 percent to 12 percent and similar campaigns launched to eradicate malaria, rabies, and polio.

What, however, can be said of the issues which the Reagan administration has emphasized as evidence of the totalitarian nature of the Nicaraguan government?


Many of the Reagan administration's accusations of religious persecution in Nicaragua stem from his simplistic understanding of socialists necessarily being atheists. Indeed, there is a conflict between the Nicaraguan government and the Catholic hierarchy; however, in no way can it be understood within Reagan's framework.

Stemming from the Second Vatican Council (1961-65) and further, from the Latin American Bishops' statements at the Medellin Conference (1968) a radical reinterpretation of the Scriptures and of Christian practice blossomed in Latin America. In a country such as Nicaragua which is 95 percent Catholic, it was a theology of liberation taught by progressive clergy, not Marxism-Leninism carried by Soviet-Cuban "subversives," which motivated people to act against social structures which were unjust and oppressive. A glaring disjuncture between the traditional teachings and symbolism of the Church and the social reality of a majority of its membership fragmented the institution and the society which it dominated for so long. Without democratic institutions through which to pursue peaceful reforms, the "popular church" and the base Christian communities increasingly pursued militant options.

Historically, the Catholic church hierarchy has allied itself with corrupt dictatorships and oppressive oligarchies in Latin America. Since the 1960s, however, this alliance seemed to be deteriorating, as evidenced by Nicaraguan Archbishop Obando y Bravo's anti-Somoza stand and Salvadoran Archbishop Romero's heroic role as social critic in the latter half of the 1970s. In central America, however, the church hierarchy has retreated from the radical positions articulated by the base communities, and Archbishop Obando y Bravo now opposes the Sandinista government. The Reagan administration's request for $5.1 million to be specifically targeted to the private sector and the Catholic church in Nicaragua (June 1982) is designed to take advantage of the widening split within the Catholic church. It is apparent that the administration is hoping to re-cement the alliance of the Church hierarchy with conservative political forces in the country.

If the split within the Catholic church in Latin America is taken into account, one can more easily understand the positions of three Catholic priests who hold Cabinet-level positions in the Nicaraguan government--Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto, Minister of Culture Ernesto Cardenal, and Director of the Sandinista Youth League Fernando Cardenal: their role is consistent with the base churchhs "preferential option for the poor." The tensions between the conservative hierarchy and the progressive Christian, grassroots organizations also provide a context for understanding the widely publicized incident at the time of Pope John Paul II's visit, when tensions erupted in a shouting match between conservative and progressive groups at a mass he gave in Managua. The Pope called for the unity of the Catholic church, loyalty to the hierarchy and apolitical clergy while refusing to address the realities of a U.S.-sponsored war which has killed 700 Nicaraguans (the equivalent of 70,000 in a country the size of the United States). If the Nicaraguan government was guilty of a damaging political and public opinion gaffe, the Pope was guilty of grave insensitivity to the Nicaraguan reality. He missed an opportunity to place his tremendous symbolic and spiritual authority behind a progressive social movement. Instead of unifying the Church, his remarks and criticisms aggravated the tensions and further polarized Nicaraguan society.

Freedom of the Press and Elections

Along with "communism," "democracy" is one of the most frequently misused and misunderstood terms in the rhetorical exchanges about Nicaragua and Latin America. In Western societies, the idea of democracy and the substantive rights and institutions which provide meaning to the concept and legitimacy to the society are taken for granted. The socioeconomic and intellectual traditions of democratic society are seldom considered. Looking at the Reagan administration's obsession for elections in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, one would believe that "democracy" can be instituted by decree.

The failures of both "Marxist" and Western democratic solutions to the particular complexities of third world peasant societies can be explained by the inability of those who propose these solutions to remain conscious of the historical and social contexts of their ideologies and their insensitivity to the particular social contexts in which they are being applied. Neither ideology, unless carefully adapted, unless translated into a comprehensible language, applies to the peasant society.

Mario Vargas Llosa addressed this issue in his article on the Peruvian massacre in the New York Times Magazine, "Inquest in the Andes," (July 31, 1983):

These guerrilla movements are not "peasant movements." They are born in the cities, among intellectuals and middle-class militants who, with their dogmatism and their rhetoric, are often...incomprehensible to the peasant masses. Likewise,

It is difficult for people to defend a free press, elections, and representative institutions when their circumstances do not allow them to understand, much less benefit from, the achievements of democracy. (p. 56)

The Sandinista leadership seems to have avoided these mistakes. As stated before, ideas of injustice, liberation, and revolution were initially approached through a Christian framework, liberation theology. The "conscientization" of the peasants was accomplished with symbols and language with which they were acquainted.

Likewise, the Nicaraguan government refrained from immediately instituting the democratic processes which the present U.S. administration insists are requisites for legitimate political power. There are several reasons for this hesitancy.

Primarily, the legacy of 43 years of Somoza dictatorships provided no foundations upon which to construct democratic institutions. All government institutions had been appendages of Somoza's will. It will take time to develop the institutional framework for the society. In addition, the vast majority of the population lacked any exposure to participatory decision-making. The literacy crusade and opportunities to participate in the democratically organized mass organizations will develop the tools for making decisions within a democratic framework.

Secondly, the overthrow of Somoza entailed an enormous price: 50,000 dead, $4.1 billion in destruction. Economic chaos followed. The national treasury had been transferred to Miami. Vital crops had not been plated. Within this chaos, it is difficult to imagine elections being held. Survival and the enormous task of reconstruction are the immediate priorities.

Unfortunately, desperate conditions still exist and reconstruction remains a priority. Ninety-two cents of every dollar of foreign exchange goes to paying for vital oil imports and to repayments on debts incurred by Somoza. The present administration has blocked most Nicaraguan exports for United States markets and most loans from multilateral banking institutions. In addition, the Reagan administration is waging highly publicized covert operations against the Nicaraguan government which drain large human and financial resources from an already staggering economy.

For Reagan, massive U.S. naval and marine maneuvers may be routine in the Caribbean. Considering that the U.S. Marines have occupied Nicaragua twice this century (1912-25 and 1926-33), invasions also seem to be routine. In light of the covert war, a threat of an overt war, and the economic blockades, it is not surprising that the Nicaraguan government declared a "state of national emergency" in March 1983 and that certain civil liberties have been sacrificed, most notably, freedom of the press. Though the Sandinistas have censored the press, the billboards along the main thoroughfares in the capital which advertise slogans of opposition parties indicate that the government chooses not to monopolize all means and symbols of communication.

What is surprising is that the Nicaraguan government has continued agrarian reforms and has continued to develop a social framework in which opposition parties could participate and elections could be held. On August 17, 1983, the Sandinista-dominated Council of State approved a Law of Political Parties. This law will allow opposition parties to freely meet, to demonstrate, to participate and run candidates in elections, and to freely campaign during election periods. The next important step toward creating the institutions and the atmosphere for democratic processes, the enacting of an electoral law, is expected before the end of the year. The important question remains of whether this legislation will be energetically implemented or whether the laws are merely symbolic gestures to quell both domestic and international criticism.

The Private Sector

The Nicaraguan government has openly professed commitments to both addressing the needs of the poor majority and to preserving a mixed economy. With varying degrees of success, the government has attempted to honor this double, and at times contradictory, commitment.

When the Sandinista government took power in 1979, it rejected programs for widespread nationalization, initially confiscating only land and holdings of Somoza and his associates. Thus, after evidence of widespread decapitalization came to light, further confiscations were made of factories and land where economic sabotage was evident. These seizures are open to appeal and occasionally overruled. Looking at the distribution of property which still favors the private sector and the allocations of credit, the government's commitment to a mixed economy has been sincere.

Unfortunately, the Nicaraguan upper and middle classes have suffered the effects of an international recession and the steady decline in the purchasing power of the principal exports. Both are phenomena which plague most underdeveloped nations. Ironically, the Reagan administration's economic sanctions have aggravated the plight of that sector which it has accused the Nicaraguan government of having persecuted.

Unlike the situation in the past, the economic woes of the upper and middle classes have not been alleviated at the expense of the poor majority. Just as workers have had to sacrifice wage increases and the right to strike, just as peasants have had to accept a cautious land reform program, the upper and middle classes must also share the costs of reconstruction and the sacrifices caused by an aggressive U.S. foreign policy.


The present U.S. administration persists in placing the widespread social unrest in Central America within an East-West framework. The scenario is very simple--Moscow exports revolution via Cuba via Nicaragua to the rest of Central America; to sever the pipeline by which Moscow sows the seeds of revolution in Central America is to end the turmoil. More specifically, if the alleged arms shipments from Nicaragua to the Salvadoran rebels are interrupted or the Sandinista connection is eliminated altogether, the pipeline will have been cut.

Convinced that the Sandinista connection exists, that it is the source of social unrest throughout Central America, the U.S. administration has unleashed a storm of economic sanctions, covert military operations, and gunboat diplomacy. Strangely, efforts by U.S.-sponsored rebels, the Honduran army, the U.S. fleet, U.S. AWACs, U.S.-constructed and manned radar stations, and now 5,000 U.S. troops have failed to document the arms shipments. The rebels in El Salvador remain strong. In El Salvador a U.S. military advisor told me what other U.S. officials have made public: that the majority of the rebels' arms and ammunition are captured from the government troops or purchased on the black market from corrupt Salvadoran officers.

No one denies that the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua exploit and agitate the problems with plague the U.S. administration in Central America; however, the Soviets did not cause the miserabl social conditions in which the unrest is rooted. The East-West framework employed by the Reagan administration in its formulation of policy for Central America ignores several keys issues, most important, the North-South aspects of American relations--more than a century of U.S. economic penetration and military intervention. Also left unconsidered are the particular sociocultural traditions of each country. The blanket term "Central America" indicates the same ignorance of the differences among Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, and Costa Rica that the term Indochina did of the differences between North and South Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

During my year in Nicaragua, I was fascinated by the ability of the people to distinguish between myself and the policies of the United States government. Despite a highly charged atmosphere, the Nicaraguans were able to distinguish my particular actions in support of their social process apart from the anti-U.S. rhetoric. The American public, the majority of which has never been to Central America, does not seem to have the ability to escape rhetoric and and approach the particular. The confusion of the American public is aggravated by the ability of the Reagan administration's simplistic framework to obscure the realities of Nicaragua and Central America in general. When we consider the particular historical and social context of Nicaragua, the misunderstandings in the United States are apparent.
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Author:Hertz, Michael K.
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Sep 1, 1984
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