Today is the 18th July – known in Nicaragua as the “dia de alegria” – the day of happiness. It was the day that, 30 years ago, the last dictator of the Somoza dynasty, which ruled Nicaragua for almost half a century, left Nicaragua for asylum in Paraguay. In his luggage, he packed every cordoba and dollar stolen from the public exchequer and his 7 favourite parotts. The following day the Sandinistas marched into Managua, taking over power. To quote Eduardo Galeano, they “found a country in ruins, without schools or hospitals, no state institutions, no sewers or drinking water, sick with TB and malaria, where one in five children died” (thanks to the Nicaraguan Solidarity Campaign’s info sheet for this quote and some of the following statistics). Tomorrow everyone from the Mariposa will go to the Plaza de la Revolucion in Managua to help celebrate – everyone except, that is, Guillermina who is still hugely traumatised by the sound of fire crackers, of which there will undoutedly be many. Her trauma is of course an acute reminder for me of the personal tradegies which are the direct result of poverty, tyranny and oppression. We think her parents were killed in a Contra massacre in around 1987…..
Bergman and I give a Wednesday afternoon history class twice a month – he does the Spanish, me the English kind-of-tanslation, really me interjecting my own views!!! I always emerge drained and exhausted. We call the class Nicaraguan history 1900 to the present but really it is the history as much, if not more, of the US and the UK. Indeed, it is a kind of model of how Western power has operated for more or less the last 500 years in order to keep the “Third World” in check. To quote Galeano again, from his book “Open Veins of Latin America” (apparently Hugo Chavez gave this book to Barack Obama – it is easily one of the best books I have ever read and I hope he reads it too); “Latin America is the region of open veins. Everything, from the discovery until our times, has always been transmuted into European – or later United States – capital, and as such has accumulated in distant centres of power. Everything: the siol, its fruits and its mineral rich depths, the people and their capacity to work and to consume, natural resources and human resources”. That just about sums it up……
In 1912 the US marines came into Nicaragua for the first time – the then Liberal government (ironically another Zelaya) had committed the error of insisting that American companies pay their due share of taxes…..this was unacceptable. They did not leave until the mid-1930s after a protracted struggle with Sandino who was the inspiration for the Sandinistas. Important to stress, especially given subsequent publicity, that neither Sandino nor the vast majority of Sandinistas were or are communists or marxists – their driving force is nationalism in the basic sense of wanting US troops OUT of here, plus a kind of reforming zeal influenced as much by the (North) American declaration of independence and liberation theology as socialism. But I guess if thinking the campesinos should be taught to read and write is communist, then so be it. One of the founders of the Sandinistas, Carlos Fonseca, stressed the importance of teaching literacy to campesinos so they couldn’t be thrown off their land just because they couldn’t produce written documentation as proof of ownership. Somoza and his followers enriched themselves enormously using this tactic, now being used today by unscrupulous foreign speculators who are buying Pacific coast land at knock-down prices. (I know of a fishing village in Northen Nicaragua where land is being bought from impoverished fisher-folk for $1,500 per acre and then appearing practically the next day on the internet for 10 times that amount . Plus ca change!!!) One of first things the Sandinistas did after taking over in 1979 was to send out literacy brigades to every corner of the countryside – illiteracy was reduced from 52% to 12% – maybe we should update Fonseca and send out brigades to help people fathom out the internet. Free education and health care were introduced for the first time.
The above photo shows Somoza as head of the US trained and funded national Guard with his arm around Sandino – who had been persuaded to come into Managua for peace talks. Somoza had already decided, when this photo was taken, to assasinate him. Hence the title “abrazo de muerte” or “hug of death”.
Ronald Reagan, supported to the hilt by superloyal ally M. Thatcher, would have none of the new Sandinista government. He consistently portrayed Nicaragua as a hardline “communist dictatorship” which “oppresses its people and threatens its neighbours” (24. March 1984) and “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the security and foreign policy of the US”. It helps to remember when reading this kind of stuff that Nicaragua had a population at that time of a little over 3 million…….nonetheless, Reagan imposed a total economic embargo on Nicaragua and of course armed and tarined the Contra to fight a war against the Sandinistas which lasted ten years. BY the end of the 80’s some 50,000 Nicaraguans had been killed, amongst them Guillermina’s parents.
Even though the Contra did not reach this area around La Concha there is hardly a family unaffected by the war. The more I talk to people, as my Spanish slowly and painfully improves(!) I learn more and more about the extent of loss and suffering caused directly by US/UK policies. And what is really extraordinary is the resilience and good humour shown towards us Brits and North Americans who choose to either live and work here or just to visit – there is never any resentment or animosoity no matter how severe the injustice people have lived through. I think every visitor to the Mariposa would testify to that.
That is what fundamentally moves me to be here and to keep on trying to bring as many resources into Nicaragua as possible (after all we owe an immense debt to this and other “Third World” countries) – oh, plus of course I love it!!! To finish a wonderful photo (all the photos are thanks to Brian) of Don Wilbur – an ex-guerilla Sandinista fighter who is now a small producer of pineapples. He has no electricity, no running water and lives in just two small rooms with his wife and child – the Mariposa visits him once amonth and he has consistently refused to accept any money in exchange for a fascinating afternoon learing all about pineapple production – and getting to taste some of the sweetest pineapples ever…..he remarkably shows no bitterness at all when he tells me that the US destroyed the gains of the revolution.
PS I have found a way of giving a little bit of financial help to Don Wilbur – his wife has agreed to sell me some plants form her exquisite garden!!!