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Nicaraguan History



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Harvesting Coffee with a Gun on Your Shoulder



Deer Scare!

Is the United States a democracy? I want to say yes. I want to believe that our country was founded on freedom, justice, and equality for all, and that we promote these ideals in other nations. Yet, countless times on this Trek, evidence has shown me otherwise. All too often, our nation's foreign policy exposes the dark side of our democracy. And perhaps nowhere was our democratic policy so dim as in Nicaragua and El Salvador just a few years ago.

Nicaraguan masks
First, a little history about these Central American nations. Nicaragua has suffered from U.S. imperialism since the 19th century. In our attempts to control this tiny country, we have installed a series of leaderships which the majority of Nicaraguans hated; the most famous of which was the Somoza dynasty. Under Somoza reign, the media was completely restricted and anyone who questioned their policies was either thrown in jail or killed. Curfews were instituted and corruption abounded.

That doesn't sound much like a freedom-loving democracy, does it?

It wasn't long before a group of Marxists, left-wing priests, and students started discussing ways to overthrow the Somozas. Calling themselves "Sandinistas" after a beloved revolutionary hero named Augusto Sandino, they managed to rally enough Nicaraguans together to overthrow the dictators in 1979. It was a joyous time - people took to the streets en masse to celebrate the end of 40 years of misery. The Sandinistas' first item of business was implementing the largest land reform in Latin American history, giving land titles to 184,000 poor families. They then set about making great strides in health care, increasing Nicaraguan's life expectancy by seven years and cutting infant mortality in half. They also sent 100,000 students to the countryside to stamp out illiteracy.

That's more like it -- democracy at last!

Well, guess what? Our government didn't think so. Reagan took one look at Nicaragua's social changes and called it "Communism." The Sandinistas, he resolved, posed too great a threat to U.S. control over Central America. He decided to quash them by pumping millions of dollars into their right-wing opposition, the Contras.

This license plate says Free Nicaragua!
Since the Contras had almost no popular support inside Nicaragua, they hid in neighboring Honduras to map out their battle plans. Then they ravaged across the countryside, raiding farms and villages and killing everyone in sight. The Sandinistas couldn't just sit back and watch their people get slaughtered, so they halted their social programs and started fighting back. The Civil War was on.

Carla Miranda was 14 then. Like many students, she wanted to do all she could to help out the Sandinistas. When they called on volunteers to harvest the nation's coffee, she rose to the challenge. For a month and a half, she lived on a plantation just 100 kilometers from the war.

Stephanie chats with Carla Miranda, a Nicaraguan living in Seattle
"We had to pick coffee with rifles slung across our shoulders," Carla, now a 33-year-old social worker living in Seattle, told me. "We had to take turns keeping guard. We were told that if we couldn't identify someone, we had to shoot them. Fortunately that never happened, but many times we thought the cows walking around late at night were Contras!"

Although the Sandinistas had the support of the bulk of its people, the Contras had the pocketbook of the United States. The Sandinistas simply couldn't compete. Before long, they were using all of the nation's money and resources to fight the Contras. To make matters worse, the United States instituted a trade embargo on Nicaragua so that no other country could help them. Nicaragua's currency became worthless and the nation slid into even deeper poverty. The Contras, meanwhile, wielded shiny new weapons and flew around in first-rate helicopters. The Sandinistas fell out of power in 1990, and the country is currently being run by a man who is just as bad as the Somozas.

Carla's family
Now, where do you suppose the Reagan administration got all of the money to fund this war? That is a very good question indeed. Even though our Congress had passed laws that totally forbade it, the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iran (who was supposedly our enemy) in exchange for the American hostages being held in Lebanon. The profits from this sale then went to the Contras. Read Daphne's dispatch for details on this international scandal better known as the Iran-Contra affair.

In 1996, the San Jose Mercury News published a series of articles that linked the Contras to our own nation's crack epidemic! Although the paper's executive editor later admitted that the series "fell short" of his standards, he maintained that a drug ring associated with the Contras sold large amounts of cocaine in inner-city Los Angeles in the 1980s. Some of the drug profits from those sales then supposedly went to the CIA-backed Contras. Yikes!

Even more disheartening is the fact that the same atrocities were happening throughout Latin America, including Guatemala, Honduras, Peru and Bolivia. As soon as revolutionary sentiment started churning in each of these oppressed nations, the United States moved in to halt it. El Salvador is an example.

Like Nicaragua, El Salvador was a nation plagued with corruption and inequalities. Approximately 2 percent of its population owned 60 percent of its land. Yet, official U.S. foreign policy mandated that El Salvador support U.S. business interests above everything else - even at the expense of the impoverished El Salvadoran people. We did this by giving military and economic aid, training, intelligence sharing, and diplomatic support to a series of brutal dictators. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of El Salvadorans were fleeing from death-squads.

I would love to tell you that we simply didn't realize these horrific human rights abuses were taking place - but, alas, we did. In February of 1980, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, Oscar Romero, sent a letter to Carter asking him to stop military aid to his country. As an example, he cited an incident in which the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of protesters in front of a cathedral, killing 24 people. All Romero wanted was to stop the influx of weapons to his desperate nation, but the Carter administration continued the "aid." The following month, Romero was assassinated while giving Mass.

It seemed things couldn't get much worse, but then Reagan was elected. According to one estimate, the United States gave a total of $16.7 million to El Salvador's military between 1946 to 1979. Reagan's first year in office, that amount reportedly shot up to $82 million - all because Reagan didn't want another "Sandinista Revolution."

Carlos Dominguez is an El Salvadoran living in Seattle
"Reagan expanded the war and the repression of my country exponentially," said Carlos Dominguez, a 40-year-old El Salvadoran who now lives in exile in Seattle. "Suddenly the military had new airplanes, new uniforms, new helicopters and new jeeps. Then they went into villages and destroyed everything. People went into hiding, but the soldiers managed to find them. Since everyone was suffering from malnutrition, women's breasts dried up, which meant their babies couldn't eat. Their cries led the soldiers right to them, and then they would all be killed."

Incredibly, the United States refused to admit these killings were taking place! When journalists from the Washington Post and the New York Times wrote about the massacre of hundreds of men, women and children from the village of El Mozote, no one believed them. This is criminal, especially considering the fact that the United States trained the battalion who did it. This means we have blood on our hands as well.

"Just because the [killers] weren't blond-haired and blue-eyed doesn't mean the United States wasn't involved. From the U.S. perspective, as long as their own human bodies aren't involved, they can deny everything. This is the art of deception," Carlos said.

So here is the $64,000 question: What does all of this say about our country's democracy? I posed this question to both Carlos and Carla.

Becky hangs with Carla and Peter Costantini
"In the name of this 'democracy,' millions of dollars were given to the military in my country. If it had instead been given to social services, El Salvador would be one of the greatest countries in Latin America. But it doesn't work that way," Carlos said. "Here, it is only considered 'democracy' if it benefits the U.S. economy. If the U.S. really wants to help a nation, they need to avoid using military aid as a way to make it happen. Guns kill people. They are given to little kids who are then forced to kill other little kids."

Carla agreed. "It is outrageous [that] this country says it is a democracy! Now that they can't benefit from Nicaragua economically, the US is not even interested in my country anymore. People could be dying and they wouldn't care. Now the aid isn't even a fraction of what they gave to the Contras. They gave them three to four times more."

Stephanie and peter say 'You can change the world!'
Is there anything we can learn from these horrible mistakes our country has made? I posed this question to Peter Costantini, an American journalist who covered Nicaragua in the 1980s.

"If you start to read about how bad a place is, go visit it and see for yourself," he said. "If you see that our country is doing something bad, be offended and try to do something about it. We are responsible for what our government does. Take it personally."

I couldn't agree more. We can't allow our greed to cause other people in this world to suffer any longer. We have the power to create change in our society and in our world. Let's do it!


Please email me at: stephanie@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

America in Nicaragua: Not a New Story
Neda - The after effects of Saddam's bombs
Jennifer - So what is NAFTA all about anyway?
Nick - Is peace in the Middle East just a pipe dream?
Stephen - "Operation Just Cause" was anything but just