My interest in going to Nicaragua was sparked in December by a table tent which advertised a delegation to “see the reality for yourself.” It did not take long to figure out where the students at that first meeting and the New Haven/Leon Sister City Project representative stood on the political spectrum. Comments ranging from how Reagan is a “fascist pig” to how the Nicaraguans are “victims of U.S. imperialism” are not difficult to interpret. Other comments, such as those about feeling guilty about living in the oppressive capitalist system of the U.S., caused me to ask myself some difficult questions. I strongly disagreed with most of what was being said, yet how would people react if they knew that? Would the other students be open to me anymore? Even worse, would I not be allowed to go on the trip? Not sure of the answers to these questions, I kept my mouth shut.
I knew that I would be particularly disposed against the Sandinistas because of my family heritage. While my father is Irish-American, my mother is Cuban. Her family was among the 200,000 or so Cubans arrested during the Bay of Pigs invasion (my grandfather had spoken against the regime) when Kennedy’s last minute calling-off of air support (of American planes manned by Cuban pilots) doomed the attempt to failure. Ever since I was young, I have met Cuban refugees and heard first-hand stories of the extreme hunger and dearth of basic freedoms in Cuba. However, Nicaragua is not Cuba, and I decided to apply for the trip. I wrote in my diary, “Part of me thinks that I’ll find a scared, well-policed society and the other wonders how could that possibly be true and all these student delegations not notice?”
On the flight to Nicaragua I talked with the one facilitator the project had provided for the delegation (the rest were students) and he mentioned that he had come to Nicaragua to study the effects of the “Literacy Campaign.” He said the beauty of it was that they were able to combine literacy work with political education. People were taught the theoretical value of socialism. I kept quiet.
We arrived in Managua, saw the city, and the next day went to Leon. There two students were assigned to each family that the SCP (Sister City Project) representative who lives permanently in Leon had found for us. The representative also had set up about 10 meetings with various Nicaraguans for the next week and a half. Our basic schedule was to paint a day care center in the morning, meet with the different representatives in the afternoon, and our evenings were free (I usually talked with my host family). In the first few days we met with a National Assembly FSLN (Frente Sandinista para Liberacion Nacional—Sandinista National Liberation Front) member, a FSLN member in the Ministry of the Interior, two representatives from a women’s group, and a “radical father”—according to the SCP representative—who told a story in which he said that Mao Zedong was closer to Jesus than all the priests, bishops and popes that there ever were in the Catholic Church because Mao fed 8000 people. The priest had his right to “act as a priest” (say mass) removed 15 years ago and dodged questions as to why. After the meeting one of our group members said sarcastically, “Great—maybe he’s a Maoist!” Later that day we met with three people from two “Christian Base Communities.”
The message we repeatedly heard was as follows: a) the Nicaraguan people want to live their own way and do their own thing, b) the U.S. does not like that, c) the U.S. embargo on Nicaraguan goods (in 1985) hit Nicaragua hard, and d) Nicaragua has thus been forced to take aid from the Soviet Union, Cuba, East Germany, etc. This message was stated repeatedly in the same fashion. In our group meeting (we had one every few days) people stated things such as “We agree with what they are saying, but the rhetoric is so frustrating” and “It’s a package. Buy the package.” Everyone seemed to agree. I, however, did not agree with what we were being told, and felt that the rhetoric was indicative of something else. But I did not say anything because the group still believed that I was in fundamental agreement with them.
The next day, during some free time, I walked over to an opposition human rights group that I was told existed several blocks from where we were. I found it, but the office was closed, so I started talking to a lady next door who worked for an independent union of professionals called CONAPRO. Though not entirely fluent, I began to speak to her in Spanish. She said that one of the professional groups under CONAPRO is for doctors. Before the revolution, the existing hospitals were roughly half private and half public (the latter being free of charge). Within two years after the revolution, only one private hospital remained. Now there are none, but a few private practices do exist. The Sandinistas paid the doctors what the Sandinistas decided was fair and most doctors fled the country. The lady also said that there is preferential hiring for FSLN doctors. Go visit a hospital, she said, and ask—“You’ll see.” She also said that the U.S. embargo was necessary to push the Sandinistas to change. She also told me some other things but made me promise not to say anything because she could get in trouble.
That evening we met with a university professor, Norman Guevarra, who is in the FSLN. He said that they have a course on the history of Nicaragua and a course on the history of the FSLN mandatory for all students. In addition they used to require a course on Marxism for all majoring in social sciences and law, but this year it is optional, and the other two courses have been combined. He said that private universities exist, but the government has established a base curriculum that all universities must teach. Next a student in our group asked the professor about their philosophy courses. The student said that he had talked to a female Nicaraguan in his neighborhood who attends the university here in Leon. She said that while Marxism is not mandatory, philosophy is. So far they’ve been studying Marx and Engels. The professor responded that this was not surprising since Marx and Engels were part of the broad spectrum of philosophers, and the course includes others such as Socrates. The student in our delegation said that he had asked her about that, and she had said that they had studied other philosophers such as Socrates very little. The professor then said that they used to have a Political Economy course taught from a Marxist perspective, though they have since dropped it because students didn’t attend. We talked for a while, and she said, “Yes—it’s true—Marxism is mandatory for all students” and “The Sandinistas control everything.” The next day we had a group meeting. The facilitator of the delegation, in response to the earlier comments about rhetoric, said that they were not pushing a particular point of view except that we are here “in solidarity with the revolution.” At the end of the meeting the student who lived with the same family as I confronted me with the fact that I had not told him everything that the professor in our family had told me. He had glanced at my diary entry and saw the two quotes above. So I told them the truth about my heritage and my skepticism of the Sandinistas. Most of the students were initially quite angry.
We met with more Nicaraguans the next week, yet not much changed. We toured a recently nationalized sugar mill—Ingenio San Antonio, the largest in Central America—and met with a labor union leader. The other students continued to talk to me, but they were understandably more reserved. When I arrived in America I called my grandparents in Miami.
They were able to get me phone numbers of several Nicaraguan refugees, all of whom I called and interviewed. The saddest story came from Emanuel Aguilar. He was thirteen when the Sandinistas took over, but soon disliked them because the CDS (Committee for the Defense of the Sandinistas) on his block was “trying to get us to talk against our parents.” Then some Sandinista soldiers killed his aunt “because she was respected and was known not to agree with the government.” His family was constantly harassed, and when the Sandinistas tried to draft him, he fled to the mountains. “I was there from 1982 till 1986 when the accident happened. The bomb exploded and it took off both of my hands at the wrists. It was a tape recorder, which was sent to me as a gift, and in fact it was a bomb, and it exploded.” I asked him how many political prisoners there are, and he said about 10,000. How does he know that? “Because the government itself recognizes that they are in prison. However, they say that they are common prisoners, but we know their names and the reason why they are in jail. In fact, we truly believe that they are more than 10,000.” He was quite surprised at my next question about the CDS’s and their job of community service. He said that any Nicaraguan could tell me that their main responsibility is vigilance against “counterrevolutionaries”—i.e., anyone actively against the government. I explained to him that most Americans do not hear first hand accounts from refugees. He further said, repeating what I was told by every other Nicaraguan I called, “These committees have been in existence since 1979. They watch who comes and goes into the house and make sure that no one whom they do not know comes. They keep control of the people. There is one on each block. In fact, right now my family is under ‘house arrest.’ On February 9, 1984, they came into my parents’ home and they killed my brother right on the spot. He was 32 years old. They claimed that they were looking for me, and they were punishing the family for allowing me to sleep there. In fact not only was I not living there but I was out of the country. They also shot at my nephew and one of the bullets broke the bones of his arms, and they shot at my dad breaking his wrists with the bullets. Then they burnt the house.” My grandparents said that the Miami Herald is full of stories like Emmanuel’s.
In spite of all this, there do exist opposition political parties in Nicaragua. And there is an independent press, La Prensa, that gets shut down often but operates nonetheless. These facts make Nicaragua more free than Cuba or Eastern Europe. However, they do not make Nicaragua a democracy. There was one Nicaraguan that I was able to gain the confidence of, and I asked her about the elections scheduled for 1990. She said, “We already know who is going to win.” I responded, “But there are 14 political parties.” She laughed. “We are only allowed minimal opposition.” The existence of such opposition is of course very important for people who want to claim that the Sandinistas are truly interested in pluralistic democracy. Her conclusion was that “most Nicaraguans hope for a change [in 1990].” How does she know “majority”? “Because I am Nicaraguan, I talk with people, I see how they act and what they say, and they are not happy with the current situation.” Many Nicaraguans had already related to me that the prevalent hunger, malnutrition, and near-starvation conditions are far worse than at any other time in their memory. There is no question that the U.S. embargo has contributed to this, but we also have an embargo on Panama and they are nowhere near as hard hit (but the vast majority of Panamanian businesses are privately owned). In any case, what was I supposed to think after she told me all that? I find it almost inconceivable that in these conditions the Sandinistas could win in a truly open, pluralistic election. Nevertheless, people who strenuously believe in the Sandinistas will find some way to justify their victory in 1990. Elections with opposition parties in existence have occurred at various times in many Latin American dictatorships, but the government-backed candidate has always won. Elections in controlled conditions are meaningless, except to perpetuate the current government’s political control.
I heard many logical reasons for why so many Nicaraguans have left and
spoken against the government. The economic conditions were usually cited
first. Next was that the traditional power in the hands of the middle and
upper classes had been taken away and given to the working class, the majority.
So why do the refugees say what they do? Because they want to get into
the U.S. and use false claims of political repression. I understand these
claims, but we must use our common sense. Estimates are that between 500,000
and 750,000 Nicaraguans have fled the country. I’m sure that the horrible
economic conditions have contributed to the numbers. But so has political
repression and the Sandinistas’ iron-handed political control. I’m also
sure that some of the Nicaraguans have lied to customs officials to get
into the U.S. Yet all of them? Hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans all
fleeing and lying just to get into the U.S.? Are they all “displaced capitalists”?
I don’t care what kind of policies the Nicaraguans follow as long as they
choose them. Dictatorship is dictatorship, whether of the left or the right.
Joseph A. P. De Feo
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