Sincronía Spring 2000

Nicaragua: an American tragedy
Peter Costantini
February 2000


On the podium of a Managua church in 1986 sat two olive-green hats, each perched on a pair of boots.  As the priest said his homily, the sanctuary trembled with sobbing.  Two local boys had come home from their military service on the Northern Front of the contra war.

A small knot of gringos wept, too, at the sight on living faces of an anguish usually glimpsed only in television phosphors¾and at the covert fingerprints of their government on the corpses.

On a foggy morning not long after the funeral, a friend and I were walking along a major arterial in the city.  From the gray opacity on the other side of the road emerged a cow, more cattle, then three cowboys on horseback.  They guided their herd across the highway and evaporated into a side street.  We joked afterwards that if only President Reagan could have seen those ghosts of the Old West, he might have taken a shine to this little country¾only two days drive from Harlingen, Texas, as he pointed out¾that he was so intent on dismembering.

As it turned out, the Sandinista invasion of Harlingen never materialized.  The Great Communicator has tottered out to pasture and the amnesiac mists have settled over the Central American battlefields of the 80s.

These days, Nicaragua is not even a blip on Washington's radar.  But for most of us, Nicaragua never was a tangible place so much as hologram created by Reagan's "public diplomacy."  Like Vietnam before it, the contra war was a misfortune or an adventure that befell us rather than a catastrophe that we inflicted on the Nicaraguans.

Nevertheless, down on a hurricane and volcano-plagued spit of land between North and South America, an actual nation called Nicaragua still survives, barely.  The shooting has formally ended, although in many areas political violence has merely morphed into criminal violence.  In the economic trifecta, unemployment, poverty and malnutrition are win, place and show.

None of this would be remarkable in an impoverished region, except that Nicaragua had once started to climb out of its misery.  In 1979, a band of leftists, nationalists and Christians called the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, a U.S. client for 43 years.  And in fits and starts, they began to make some encouraging changes.

As you may recall, the U.S. government plowed under the Sandinista revolution and sowed it with salt.  Then, after the 1996 elections, a minor alumnus of the old dictatorship took the reins once again in Managua.  Nicaraguan politics has apparently come full circle¾or is it a spiral?

Condega, 1928

At a polling place in a small Nicaraguan town in 1928, a U.S. Marine sergeant walked in, slammed his pistol down on the table and said: "I'm the law here."  The Nicaraguan elections that year were supervised by the Marines and directed by a U.S. general.  The long U.S. occupation had provoked a guerrilla uprising led by a Nicaraguan general, Augusto Sandino.

In the mountains north of Condega, behind a low stone wall, a small band of men with old rifles lay in wait.  As a Marine mule convoy passed, the insurgents fired over the wall at close range, killing five Marines and wounding eight.

Paul Lory, a young leatherneck from Minnesota, witnessed the carnage.  Lory had joined the Corps seeking adventure.  But he also learned Spanish and talked to a lot of Nicaraguans.  He found that many actually supported Sandino and opposed the Marine presence.  "They called the rebels 'bandits,' but they were revolutionaries just like George Washington during our revolution," he said decades later in his Seattle home.  The U.S. "should have helped out Sandino, because he was trying to do some good for the country."

U.S. policy towards Nicaragua over the years recalls the Steven Wright line, "I'm having déjà vu and amnesia at the same time: I think I've forgotten this before."

Since Tennessee adventurer William Walker took over Nicaragua in the 1850s in an effort to bring it into the Union as a slave state, the U.S. has invaded and militarily occupied Nicaragua repeatedly.  Sandino contracted the nationalist fever as a boy when he saw the bloody corpse of the leader of a previous uprising dragged through the streets by U.S. forces.  When the Marines failed to defeat Sandino, Washington subcontracted out the job: it installed the Somoza dynasty, which assassinated Sandino and ran Nicaragua for 43 years as a family plantation, with U.S. support.  Then, even as Sandino's namesakes, the Sandinistas, finally sent Tachito Somoza into early retirement, the Carter administration tried unsuccessfully to keep the dictator's National Guard in power.

In the 80s, the Reagan administration's war on Nicaragua had less to do with fighting communism than with the lingering instincts of Manifest Destiny.  President William Howard Taft crystallized it in 1912: "The day is not far distant when three Stars and Stripes at three equidistant points will mark our territory: one at the North Pole, another at the Panama Canal, and the third at the South Pole.  The whole hemisphere will be ours in fact as, by virtue of our superiority of race, it already is ours morally."

It didn't matter that Reagan's war was unlawful.  A World Court packed with U.S. allies ruled in 1986 that the U.S. was committing illegal aggression against Nicaragua and told it to stop and pay reparations.  The Reagan administration ignored the ruling.

It didn't matter that the war corrupted our political system with the Iran-contra scandal and with a propaganda machine that spewed disinformation.  In 1984, for example, the State Department duped the U.S. media with a fabricated story of a Soviet ship delivering MiGs, preempting coverage of the most respectable elections Nicaragua had yet known.

For the last 130 years, wrote historian Steven Volk, United States policy has pursued remarkably constant interests: "to preserve Latin America as a special sphere of U.S. influence; to maintain 'stability' in the region; and to protect the region as a vehicle for U.S. investment and/or resource extraction."

Guatemala in the 50s, the Dominican Republic in the 60s, Chile in the 70s: with the consistency of a pile driver, U.S. cold warriors repeatedly crushed experiments seeking a third way between capitalism and Soviet-style communism.  The images ghosted across our TV screens like familiar reruns: mutilated corpses by the roadside, widows grieving, deadpan generals in dress whites on the reviewing stand.  Yet inside the Beltway, the human costs barely intruded on the ambient adolescent narcissism.

Perhaps most damaging, in the long run, has been the hypocrisy of eviscerating alternatives and then proclaiming they can never work.  Cumulatively, these interventions have robbed the world of economic and social innovations and hammered home the message that the "American way" is the only option.  Anyone who tries a different path can expect to experience a superpower tantrum.

Managua, 1986

In a neighborhood of dirt streets on the outskirts of Managua, Winkler Anderson gave us a tour of his new house, which he had built with the help of his neighbors.  He showed us the papaya trees and flowers his wife had planted in the yard, and the barbed wire he had strung up to keep out the pigs.

Winkler's neighborhood had been bombed out by Somoza's air force during the 1979 insurrection, and had squatted in the ruins until the Sandinista government offered an empty piece of land and provided some building materials.  The community invested the sweat equity.  After putting in 40 hours in an auto parts store, Winkler came home and helped his neighbors to build houses for all the families.

They had finished 60 houses out of the 96 they needed.  With cement and cinder-block foundations, wood framing and tin roofs, the homes were simple but solid.  When they were done with the houses, Winkler said, he wanted to build a baseball field for the kids.

I had gone to Nicaragua for the first time in 1986 to teach computer repair at the National Engineering University.  A lot of people I met seemed to be working for the same kinds of things my friends and I were working for in Seattle: affordable housing, health care for everyone, more rights and better pay for workers.  And despite a war that drained off most of its funds, the government usually supported their efforts.  Rather than recipients of charity or welfare, they felt they were actors in a national drama.

Not that I had stumbled into some proletarian paradise.  By 1986, Reagan's "low-intensity conflict" had succeeded in opening deep rifts in the country.  Some enemies of the government were jailed and others had their lands or businesses expropriated.  A newspaper was temporarily shut down after its editor lobbied in Washington for aid to the contras.

But torture or killing of the opposition in Nicaragua was rare.  International human rights groups investigated human-rights abuses freely and several hundred soldiers and officers of the army were jailed for violations, a rarity in Latin America.  For first time in their history, many Nicaraguan citizens and media outlets criticized their government without reprisals, in what the New York Times termed a "notoriously vigorous political debate."  In Reagan allies El Salvador and Guatemala, by contrast, tens of thousands of civilians were murdered by U.S.-funded and trained militaries and their death squads.

Although the Sandinistas turned to the Soviet Union to buy arms after Reagan intervened personally to prevent a weapons sale by France, the relationship was never close.  Sandinista leaders, many educated in the States, had no desire to trade U.S. dependency for Soviet.  And the Soviets lacked the resources to entangle themselves in another Cuba.

In many areas, the Sandinistas did the things that every government of a poor country ought to do, but few actually do.

They conducted one of the largest and most effective land reforms in Latin American history, granting land titles to 184,000 poor families in the countryside and urban shantytowns.

In health care, they quadrupled public expenditures, building free health clinics and involving thousands of volunteers in vaccination campaigns.  These measures cut the infant mortality rate in half and extended life expectancy by seven years.  In 1983, The World Health Organization praised Nicaragua as a "Model Nation in Health Attention" among developing countries.

Tripling education spending, the Sandinistas extended free public schooling to all.  Within one year, 100,000 student volunteers from the cities went out into the countryside and reduced Nicaragua's illiteracy rate from over 50% to 13%.

Even international lending institutions occasionally let slip praises of the Sandinista government.  An internal World Bank memorandum lauded its "professionalism, dedication, and response" as "remarkable."

"Government by the people in mass, acting directly and personally," was Thomas Jefferson's definition of democracy.  Having volunteered for years with community councils and tenants groups at home, I was not surprised that the nascent Nicaraguan culture of democracy was sometimes contentious or heavy-handed.  But I was impressed with the creativity unleashed by ordinary citizens as they got involved directly and personally in neighborhoods, workplaces and government.

This grassroots organizing helped to lay the foundations for the 1984 elections, the first in Nicaragua's history that most observers, including Nobel Peace Prize winner Willy Brandt and delegations from European parliaments, found free and fair.  The ferment also involved thousands of citizens in the 1986 process of drafting a new constitution.  As a visiting member of the Guatemalan congress observed: "This is really a new experience, at least in the Central American region, in that there is free expression not only of pro-government positions but also of important criticisms."

Whereas under Somoza strikes had been routinely suppressed and union leaders jailed, under the Sandinistas labor union membership grew from 6 percent to 55 percent of the workforce.  In some public-sector enterprises, workers won significant participation in decision-making.

Although branded "communist" by Washington, Nicaragua's economy remained a mixed one: only 39% of industrial production and 11% of farmland was in public hands.  It was a Latin American adaptation of a western-European social-democratic economy, more like Sweden's or France's than Soviet-style state socialism.  The Sandinistas merely tried to extend democracy and public accountability into a market system.

It was precisely this threat of a reasonable leftist example that made the U.S. right so hell-bent on destroying the experiment.  As Reagan's contra war and economic embargo tightened the screws and Latin America's overarching economic crisis deepened, Nicaragua's coffers were eventually bled dry.  In 1988, up against the wall of hyperinflation, the Sandinista government was finally forced to implement a painful austerity package of budget cuts and currency devaluations.  Inflation and the deficit began to drop, but the suffering of most Nicaraguans increased further.

"It's absolutely hypocritical," asserted Father Peter Marchetti, a U.S. priest then working in Nicaragua, "for any U.S. congressperson to talk about the Sandinistas being responsible for destroying the Nicaraguan economy, when Congress is responsible for funding and legitimizing a war whose central purpose has been to make Nicaragua's economy scream."  The Financial Times of London estimated war damages at $12 billion, about six times Nicaragua's yearly economic output.

Matagalpa, 1990

On the evening of election day in February 1990, I observed the vote count in a one-room schoolhouse in an area of northern Nicaragua that had recently been a war zone.  After the polls closed at six, electoral officials from the main parties—all poor farmers—eyed each other warily as they painstakingly counted and recounted the paper ballots under one bare light bulb.

Had the bulb burned out, there might have been a constitutional crisis, but it glowed on.  When I left at eleven, the opposition had won the precinct four to one.  Stepping out into the cool night under the Milky Way, I felt as though history had paused for a moment: at the end of a decade-long war, enemies were working ceremoniously side by side, and respecting the results.

In the 1990 vote, the Sandinistas took the hit for the economic meltdown and the long years of war.  George Bush had welcomed opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro in Washington and promised to lift the embargo and send aid if she was elected.  Just to be sure, he funneled at least 20 million dollars of covert and overt aid into her campaign without arousing perceptible indignation in official Washington at political contributions by a foreign power (which would have been illegal in the U.S.).

Nicaraguan voters got the message, and gave Chamorro's coalition a landslide.  They also punished the Sandinista party, the FSLN, for an arrogant campaign style and top-down leadership.  But the Sandinistas passed the acid test of formal democracy: swallowing a bitter defeat.  I heard FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega on the radio the morning after the vote, his voice hoarse with sleeplessness, urging his supporters to reconcile themselves with their fellow Nicaraguans and respect their votes.

U.S. Vice President Dan Quayle was amazed: "It appears we do have a new Daniel Ortega that is truly committed to democracy."  But Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes offered a less miraculous explanation: "The electoral process must be understood as a 'triumph of Sandinismo,' which was able to consolidate a whole political structure and range of parties in ten years of government."

After the vote, I ran into one of my former students from the university.  Alvaro Calero was very bright, but came from a large, poor family: under the dictatorship, college would not have been an option.  By this time, he was a graduate student teaching undergrads computer science.  He also played a major role in designing the computer system that successfully managed the registration of 1.75 million voters.  I think Jefferson would have smiled.

Bluefields, 1996

The rain pounded down on the tin roofs of the Caribbean port town of Bluefields like a timbal player in a trance, making the palm fronds twitch and toss to its beat.  When it decrescendoed to a patter, you could hear birds cackling and whistling through it.

From a ruined bus shelter padded with garbage, a barefoot man in rags with matted, dripping hair stared out into the clouds.  People called him Standing Man, because, they said, he had been standing in that spot for the last ten years.  According to one theory, he had been everywhere else in the world and now he was standing there because he couldn't decide where to go next, a fixed point in the syncopated Bluefields firmament.

The rest of Nicaragua has spent the 90s in its own sort of paralysis, locked in conflicts over the future direction of the country.  Chamorro's winning coalition quickly dissolved into factions, while the losing FSLN, the political force with the strongest base, flexed its muscles in the street.  Some leaders from both sides fattened themselves at the public trough.

For most of the period, the economy continued to shrivel.  Austerity measures by Chamorro tamed inflation, but sank Nicaragua into a savage depression.  Although the economy technically began to grow again, the rising tide swamped the dinghies and lifted only the yachts.  Over 70 percent of the people were living in poverty and more than half were unemployed or hustling in the "informal economy."  Illiteracy and infant mortality had risen substantially, while life expectancy had actually fallen.  Nicaragua had dropped to second-poorest country in the Hemisphere, after Haiti.

When I visited again in the fall of 1996 to cover the presidential elections, flocks of malnourished kids would descend on cars at stoplights to try to sell chiclets or clean the windshields.  Prostitution was a growth industry: outside the hotels and shopping malls and along the highways, fourteen-year-old girls dressed up like prom night cruised for tricks.  Nicaragua's strategic location along cocaine shipping routes led to an explosion of drug problems and corruption.  New gangs of "bad boys" combed the Caribbean beaches for washed-up packets of cocaine to sell.

In those elections, a right-wing alliance again defeated the Sandinistas.  The new president, Arnoldo Alemán, had been a leader of the Somoza youth group.  Although he has distanced himself from the dictatorship, his administration, egged on by U.S. Senator Jesse Helms, has worked to return property and power to the wealthy Nicaraguans who fled to Miami after Somoza's fall.

Since his election, Alemán has sometimes shown his repressive pedigree, attacking critical media and non-profit groups, proposing a law to outlaw most demonstrations, and helping foreign-owned sweatshops defeat union organizing.  Despite talking populist talk on the stump, Alemán has failed to walk the walk for poor Nicaraguans.  His administration, mired in corruption scandals, has signed structural adjustment plans with the International Monetary Fund and made the mandated deep social-spending cuts.  When his financial comptroller attempted to investigate improprieties in his administration, he jailed the official.

For their part, the Sandinistas have failed to offer clear economic alternatives.  Instead, they have lowered their sights and played defense.  The FSLN, which began as a military organization, still suffers internally from top-down decision-making.  Self-enrichment by some leaders as they left office in 1990 also seriously damaged the Front, which had built up a relatively clean reputation in the 80s.  Critics now see certain sectors of Nicaraguan business as the party's dominant force.

In 1998, the party was devastated by still-unresolved accusations by the stepdaughter of two-time presidential candidate Daniel Ortega that he had sexually molested her for years.  And the following year, the FSLN leadership concluded a political pact with Alemán's governing Liberals that was widely criticized as a mechanism for dividing up the spoils of office, an old and dishonorable tradition in Nicaraguan politics.

Still, split into factions and out of power, many Sandinistas and ex-Sandinistas have maintained a sense of outrage at the injustices corroding Nicaraguan society.  In the 1996 elections, the FSLN built a surprising coalition with small farmers, ranchers, and ex-contras to try to restart small-scale farming.  It has supported efforts by students to defend public funding for the universities.

General Joaquín Cuadra, the Sandinista head of the Nicaraguan army until recently, warned that continued application of economic austerity measures could cause a social explosion.  "What good is democracy," he asked, "if our children cannot go to school?"

Other groups are also resisting Alemán's economic plans.  The government is encouraging maquiladoras, duty-free plants that assemble imported components for export.  New free-trade zones have opened and maquiladora jobs have grown rapidly.  Nearly all the output is clothing or textiles, with over 90 percent exported to the U.S.

Maquiladora wages are low for the predominantly young women employees, although piecework allows faster workers to make more money.  With unemployment pandemic, any job is better than none.  Efforts to form unions have been met with intimidation and firings.

Three young women involved in clandestine union organizing spoke with me on condition of anonymity.  Two had recently been laid off from a maquiladora where workers had begun to organize out of frustration with poor working conditions and lack of respect.  "When the kids are hungry, you take any job," the first explained.  "You can't talk to each other while you work.  You can't even pick up scraps of cloth from the ground."

"If you complain, or talk back to the bosses, or don't want to work overtime on Saturday, they fire you," said the second woman.  In particularly bad shops, she said, supervisors hit the workers, or hire them for a week and then fire them without pay.

There is a Labor Code in Nicaragua, but workers don't know their rights, the women said, and the government doesn't enforce it.  "Today, the owners' word is pretty much law," said the third woman.  "There are no unions, there's no freedom of expression.  We're going to form a union that represents us, that defends our rights when there's a problem."  The first added: "Maquiladoras are fine, we want more investors to come here.  But just let us organize ourselves."

The following year, an organizing effort bore fruit for the first time.  At Fortex, a Taiwanese-owned garment plant, a group of workers had begun a secret organizing campaign three years before.  With international support, they forced the government and the company to recognize their union.  Finally, in March 1997, they signed the first collective-bargaining agreement in the free-trade zone.  By 2000, independent unions in several factories representing more than half the maquiladora workers in the zone had won recognition.

This January, however, the U.S.-based Campaign for Labor Rights reported mass firings aimed at busting the unions in two of the organized plants.  CLR implicated a new Nicaraguan Minister of Labor and new management of the free-trade zone in a campaign to rid the zone of unions.

Seattle, 2000

Remote as it may seem, Nicaragua's fate is an American tragedy.  I mean American in the inclusive Latin American sense of North and South.

For many Latin Americans, it represented the death of a more humane revolution that didn't devour its young.  It was a forceful warning to any future heretics who might challenge the one true doctrine of unfettered international finance, privatization and "flexible" labor markets that has plunged so many of them deeper into poverty.

Nicaragua was also a defeat for many North Americans.  Quashing rebellion in the tropics gave U.S. corporations more low-wage havens abroad to which to move operations and more desperate immigrants to hire here, thus helping to suppress wages in the basement of our split-level economy.  And for those who sought genuine neighborliness toward Latin America, Nicaragua was a failed opportunity to put an end to a century and a half of arrogance and brutality cloaked in the Monroe Doctrine.

The ruin of a potential third way to democracy and development now leaves the Americas confronting a subversive irony: as our economies grow more integrated, our people become increasingly polarized into rich enclaves surrounded by spreading expanses of poverty.  Money floods across borders through fiber-optic cables, yet humans desperate for work have to crawl across through sewer pipes.

The North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization represent efforts to further remove socio-economic decision-making from the public domain and to congeal business-friendly standards into treaties.  Despite the WTO's woes in Seattle, the U.S. is forging ahead with efforts to extend NAFTA's principles throughout the Hemisphere through a Free Trade Area of the Americas and to expand the WTO agreements.

The international race to the bottom, though, may finally be provoking a widespread backlash.  The economic fashion of the day is not meeting the needs of millions of Latin Americans, majorities in many countries.  Access to education and health care has become a luxury.  The widespread economic crisis "means that people have to dedicate more time to making a living just so they can subsist," according to Sofía Montenegro, a Nicaraguan political analyst.

This crisis has highlighted the interrelatedness of economics and politics.  Although formal democracies now exist in most of Latin America, many poorer citizens and communities are effectively excluded from participating in them.  In a country like Nicaragua where only a small minority of middle-class and wealthy people has the wherewithal to contribute meaningfully to public life, one person, one vote loses its connection to reality.

Without economic conditions "which allow for the effective practice of citizenship," wrote Argentinean historian Carlos Vilas, "The tensions between inequality and impoverishment on the one hand, and democratic politics on the other, can have a devastating effect on the latter."

Here in the States, many of us face low and stagnant incomes, runaway jobs, and economic insecurity.  But here, too, tender shoots of political and economic bio-diversity have emerged, such as some unions' campaigns to organize low-wage workers and cross-border organizing efforts with Mexican unions.  As Latin Americans flow north and U.S. jobs go south, the fates of workers up and down the hemisphere have intertwined like bindweed in the thickets of transnational investment.

Although the U.S. still seems an island of prosperity, it is rapidly becoming a piece of a poor and turbulent continent, and the bell long tolling for Latin Americans is beginning to toll for us as well.  It will become harder to defend our own economic security without broadening the scope of our self-interest to encompass support for Latin Americans' efforts to improve their standard of living.

The forces of economic globalization and concentration of wealth seem as inexorable and invisible as tectonic plates in the earth's crust, subducting public institutions and thrusting up international financial markets.  But they also generate opposing vectors that chafe against them, efforts to humanize the terms of globalization by harmonizing international standards upwards.

Nicaragua, a geological zone of volcanoes and earthquakes, remains a geo-political fault zone as well.  So far, the ebbing of the conflicts of the 80s has brought little improvement to the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans.  As long as their suffering continues, their survival efforts could set off new tremors and open new cracks in the fresh asphalt of the global mall.

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Peter Costantini has written about Latin America for MSNBC News, Inter Press Service, and other publications for the past 14 years.

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