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The jaguar's smile: a Nicaraguan journey.

The Jaguar's Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey

Aquick trip into the heart of revolutionaryNicaragua has become something of a rite of passage for the literate left these days. For their counterparts on the right, it's a few days in a contra rebel base. I took one of these "If it's Tuesday, this must be Matagalpa' tours of Nicaragua back in 1985. After eight days I came home with some dandy souvenirs and a rough sense that, on the spectrum of Marxist tyrannies stretching from Pol Pot's Cambodia to Tito's Yugoslavia, Nicaragua fits somewhere in the middle, on the mild side of Cuba. But my strongest impression was that such a short, casual visit, much of which was unavoidably spent in the company of eager Sandinista flacks, contained enough visual and anecdotal material to support any case I might have wanted to make about the place.

This helps explain how both supporters andcritics of the Reagan administration's Nicaraguan policy can offer such unlikely and mutually exclusive visions of that country and its future. Contra fans continue to nurse the "Founding Fathers' illusion, despite well-documented reports of contra atrocities and a distinct lack of evidence that their leaders have in mind anything Americans would recognize as democracy. Sandinista fans pretend that the United States has no legitimate strategic interest in Nicaragua or anywhere else in Central America, and that our meddling is the source of all that country's economic woes, pro-Soviet leanings, and political oppression. If we would just quit fighting it, the revolution would resume the business of securing freedom, independence, and social welfare for the Nicaraguan people.

Turtle meat heroes

The acclaimed author of Midnight's Childrenand two other novels, Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay and now lives in London. His new political travelogue* is based on the usual pilgrimage: jet to Managua (via Havana), "briefings' with the Ministry of Culture, rum-and-Coke by the pool at the Intercontinental Hotel, Jeep rides through the land-reformed countryside. In London, Rushdie belonged to a "Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign' out of a "deeper affinity with that small country in a continent [sic] (Central America) upon which I had never set foot.' A child of India's revolt against the British raj, he felt naturally sympathetic with the Nicaraguans. He and they share "some awareness . . . of how it felt to be there on the bottom looking up at the descending heel.'

* The Jaguar's Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey. Salman Rushdie.Viking, $12.95.

This was tempered by just enough doubt tomake the trip necessary: "I was familiar with the tendency of revolutions to go wrong . . . I knew about starting with idealism and romance and ending up with betrayed expectations.' But Rushdie needn't have worried. After three weeks in the country in July, 1986, he was content. "For the first time in my life. . . . I had come across a government I could support, not faute de mieux, but because I wanted its efforts (at survival, at building the nation, and at transforming it) to succeed.' The Sandinistas, he writes, are "men of integrity and pragmatism.'

How does he know? He asked them. Thenovelist describes cooperatives where, he was told, land is "owned and farmed by individuals and the government's role was limited to supplying them with power, water, health care, and distributing facilities.' There. Proof of Sandinista flexibility. No state-farm dogma here. If Rushdie had asked more questions, he might have found out that the land titles the FSLN grants to members of such co-ops are tightly restricted and do not confer the right to trade or subdivide one's "property.' And couldn't such cooperatives allow for plenty of state control? If a co-op gets out of line, the state could cut off its power, water, and health care, and reduce its access to markets. There is ample evidence that the Sandinista Defense Committees, which control distribution of food rations, operate in just such a manner. In any case, as Stephen Kinzer of The New York Times recently reported, the Sandinistas' staterun farm marketing network is riddled with corruption, mismanagement, and waste, and has spawned a thriving black market the government can't control. Perhaps, Kinzer suggests, some officials are involved.

But Rushdie doggedly ignores signs that theNew Nicaragua is like the old one. Small instances tell. He notes that there aren't any decent toys in shortage-stricken Nicaraguan shops. Just 24 pages earlier, in President Daniel Ortega's home, "Children's toys . . . were everywhere.' This irony passes unexplained and unremarked. Nor does Rushdie wonder why, despite the Sandinista's claims of mass adherence to their liberation theology-oriented Popular Church (claims which he accepts), posters of Pope John Paul II and conservative dissident Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo were "everywhere' in the shops and cafes of Managua. Nor does he find it odd that Ortega can chat about food shortages in his country as his guests consume turtle meat and other delicacies. Nor that Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, muses wistfully on the pleasures of New York City: "Oh yes. The wonderful yoghurt. It's the only thing I miss.'

The only person Rushdie vigorously cross-examinesis Violeta de Chamorro, the widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the editor of La Prensa, whose assassination (allegedly by Somoza agents) helped spark the 1978-79 insurrection. As heiress to La Prensa, which the Sandinistas closed after censoring it for months, Violeta de Chamorro is now a leader of the domestic opposition. Rushdie writes: "The first thing I noticed about Chamorro was that she wore a great deal of jewelry. . . . There were no concessions being made, the jewelry announced, to the spirit of the "New Nicaragua.''

In contrast to his credulousness toward theSandinistas, Rushdie counters every assertion Chamorro makes. She dismisses the FSLN's victory in the 1984 elections; he calls the vote "the fairest ever seen in Latin America.' His preposterous statement ignores elections in democratic Costa Rica, or, for that matter, dozens of other much fairer elections that have taken place throughout Latin history from Santo Domingo to Santiago. Yet Rushdie goes on to smear Dona Violeta: her "treatment of me did not indicate a profound respect for the truth.'

The one aspect of Sandinista rule Rushdie doesdenounce is press censorship--it leaves him "depressed.' Yet Rushdie's other remarks suggest that his concern for a free press reflects a rather shallow understanding of democratic politics. He visits a "Face the People' meeting, one of an occasional series in which Daniel Ortega or another commandante goes to a village, gives a speech, and answers questions from the audience. "I tried to imagine Ronald Reagan or Margaret Thatcher agreeing to submit themselves to a monthly grilling by members of the public, and failed,' Rushdie writes. I tried to imagine Reagan or Thatcher converting their national armies into instruments of the Republican or Conservative parties, just as the Nicaraguan army has been a wholly-owned subsidiary of the FSLN since 1979. I failed.

Rushdie sees Nicaragua through the lens of hisown shallow presuppositions. He has made little effort to grasp the history or political culture of the place, both of which influence the course of its political and economic development. To ignore such factors is a kind of insult to the very people he claims to support: it is not taking them seriously enough to study them.

Chaos as context

Peter Davis, the leftish maker of the anti-Vietnamwar documentary, "Hearts and Minds,' made a Nicaragua pilgrimage, too--in December, 1983, and briefly in 1986, so much of his material isn't fresh. He, too, spent a good deal of time listening to--and, apparently, writing down*--the party line. He is sympathetic to the idea of revolution. But he is no apologist. One conclusion, formed after watching Interior Minister Tomas Borge lording it over the diners at a fancy downtown restaurant: "Managua . . . presented an opportunity to observe the dirty little secret of revolution--that revolutionaries on winning power become precisely what they claim to abhor, an elite class.'

* Where is Nicaragua? Peter Davis. Simon & Schuster, $18.95.

Davis did his historical homework. To Rushdie,and to the Sandinistas, Nicaraguan history is a fable: U.S. intervention, the horrors of Somoismo, and the redemptive 1979 revolt--after which everything is "new.' Davis, however, is attuned to the historical patterns in the Nicaraguan predicament, one of which is that Nicaraguans haven't necessarily viewed independence quite as longingly as the Sandinistas imagine. Rather, "when the Sandinistas finally overthrew the Somoza dynasty in 1979, they took control of a people ambitious for independence from the United States but far more accustomed to dependence.' Some Nicaraguans figured the way to deal with their country's subordination was to make the best of it. As Davis finds, this attitude still turns up in the comments of Nicaraguans today. A teacher asks him: "Why don't the Sandinistas behave better, to get economic aid from the United States?'

Furthermore, Davis points out that Americanintervention was the product of more than just U.S. avarice or cold strategic calculation. Chronic chaos in Nicaragua was precondition, too. The Marines often went to Nicaragua in response to appeals from one side or the other in that country's bloody nineteenth- and early twentieth-century civil wars.

This study of Nicaragua's violent history,coupled with his questioning of the Sandinista leaders, today, equips Davis to place the Sandinistas' rule in a broader historical context. They are a product not only of foreign ideologies and domestic nationalism, but also of a distinct political culture that has never contained much room for pluralism:

What Nicaragua lacks most in itspolitical life is a tradition of comity, the sense of civility between those who disagree with each other, an opportunity for those out of power to gain it by a peaceful expression of the popular will rather than by shooting their way in. Nicaragua was born in the collective harshness of a militarized colonialism, the landed Spanish oligarchy, and the Catholic hierarchy that emerged from the inquisition. Anyone outside those small but omnipotent forces was barely entitled to live, much less have an opinion. While the country was being governed alternately by its old Liberal and Conservative parties, elections were frequently held but real power was traded at gunpoint.

Small wonder that Davis finds Daniel Ortega'sblunt rejection of American-style liberty--"your freedom, sir, is a monster'--as repellent as it is predictable. What else could you expect from someone who is both a Nicaraguan and a Marxist?

Hyping toward humiliation

Davis grasps an underappreciated point aboutthe nature of Nicaraguan politics. We may well be dealing with a political culture that, quite apart from the impact of imported ideology, is resistant to democracy as Americans conceive it. Davis wrestles with the implications, ultimately concluding that, dictatorial as they are, the Sandinistas still retain at least a kernel of idealistic concern for the development of their nation. More Latin than Marxist, they could evolve into a relatively unrepressive one-party state along Mexican lines if left alone. Maybe so, but that's hardly grounds for enthusiasm--or for outrage at the prospect that they might be overthrown.

This resistance to democracy offers little comfortto the Reagan administration or its critics. Because the promise of democracy is key to retaining support, both sides find it hard to admit--in public at least--that almost any course the U.S. takes in Nicaragua will probably yield ugly results.

For the administration, Nicaragua's antipluralisttradition makes it even harder to defend support for the contras as support for democracy. The rebels' fractiousness and authoritarian tendencies may be beyond the capacity of outsiders to remedy. (Of course, the CIA never pretended that its backing was contingent on anything but anticommunism. Pluralism and human rights were mainly of concern to the State Department.) On a purely practical level, this also means that one factor that reduces the contras' chances of winning is that they can't offer an attractive alternative to a large enough portion of the Nicaraguan people. Why trade in one group of dictators for another?

Critics of administration policy who take thestrategic issues seriously usually advocate an alternative something like the following: an agreement with the Sandinistas that grants them the right to live in a contra-free environment, but satisfies our worries about Cuban advisers and Soviet missiles. Whatever the Sandinistas say, we would reserve the right to punish violations of such an agreement through the use of our own military force. And we would shore up neighboring regimes to prevent the Nicaraguan revolution from repeating itself.

Attractive as it is in theory, however, the costs,both economic and military, of bolstering other Central American governments against the destabilizing influence of a permanent Marxist presence in their midst would probably run into the billions. Congress has been known to shrink from such long-range commitments.

But the current course has its costs, too. Andnot just $100 million a year to arm the rebels or bad publicity around the world every time the contras bomb a clinic. The administration has hyped the stakes, declaring Nicaragua almost a do-or-die test case of American assertiveness in the world. Yet it has prescribed a means of winning that test that doesn't seem to match its diagnosis of the threat. As it did by declaring a Marine presence in Lebanon vital to our credibility throughout the Middle East, the administration has laid the rhetorical basis for its own-- and the country's--humiliation in the event that its policy doesn't pan out.

Even in the administration's best-case scenario,our troubles would be far from over. Beyond vague generalities about the installation of a new democratic order, the administration has said little about what would happen if the contras actually won. Let's assume they do take Managua. There would undoubtedly be years of guerilla war after that, as Sandinista die-hards retreated to the very hills from which the contras are attacking now. That could mean American troops. At a minimum it would require large amounts of military aid to the contra government--not to mention the huge infusion of economic aid it would take to rebuild and maintain the Nicaraguan economy.

For now, though, the costs of the revolutionand the war continue to be borne mainly by Nicaraguans: contras, Sandinistas, and caught-in-the-middle types alike. Intellectuals and policymakers in the North can still enjoy their illusions on the cheap.
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Author:Lane, Charles
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1987
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