COVER

THE WAR FOR NICARAGUA

MARCI McDONALD February 23 1987
COVER

THE WAR FOR NICARAGUA

MARCI McDONALD February 23 1987

THE WAR FOR NICARAGUA

COVER

Hers was one of the thousands of tragedies. Not the worst; certainly not the last; but a terrible testament to the suffering inflicted on the innocent in war. In a hospital in Pantasma, in Nicaragua’s northeastern province of Jinotega, seven-year-old Elda Sanchez stared numbly at the bandaged stub where her left leg had once been. With her father, an evangelical minister, she and 15 others were riding to a parish meeting in the back of their village’s flatbed truck when it hit a land mine planted in the road by rebels. From the burning wreckage, rescuers pulled six bodies,

including her father’s, and 11 badly wounded survivors. They were victims of an undeclared six-year war for hearts and minds in the tiny, impoverished Central American nation which has become one the most explosive cornerstones of President Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.

Almost eight years after an uprising among Nicaragua’s 3.5 million people that led to the overthrow of the 44-year dictatorship of the Somoza family, the revolution is under siege. Last month the White House launched a new campaign in Congress for another $105 million (U.S.) to arm counterrevolutionar-

ies—known as the contras — against Nicaragua’s leaders, the Sandinistas. President Reagan has branded Nicaragua’s leftist regime a Communist “cancer” on the southern flank of the United States. His determination to fuel the country’s guerrilla war has drained the Nicaraguan economy, already shattered when the Sandinistas inherited it. Since May, 1985, when Washington imposed an economic embargo, Nicaraguans have been anxiously seeking alternative markets for their bananas, coffee and lobster. As food shortages grow and social services break down, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega faces pressure from business leaders critical of increasing curbs on their freedom in the state’s mixed economy. And the powerful Roman Catholic Church, to which about 80 per cent of Nicaraguans belong, has become a vocal critic of the government’s suppression of civil liberties.

Casualties: The country’s most pressing problem is a renewed threat from the rebels. Since Dec. 1, an estimated 2,000 to 4,000 contras have infiltrated Nicaragua in a stepped-up offensive intended to justify arguments for another infusion of congressional funds. The war has already claimed 36,000 casualties—including at least 4,911 dead—and cost Nicaragua $2.8 billion. But the Sandinistas seem less concerned about dealing with the contras themselves—which one military official compared to swatting flies—

than with the large U.S. military presence building over their northern border in Honduras (page 22). The presence of anywhere from 2,500 to 6,000 U.S. troops there is a daily reminder of the fragility of the Nicaraguans’ policy: trying to keep the revolution afloat over the next two years as they wait out Reagan’s presidency.

Weakened: At the same time, the White House’s Central American policy is opposed by several of its allies, including Canada (page 26). And domestically,

Reagan’s position has been weakened by the scandal involving the administration’s secret redirection to the contras of funds raised from illegal arms sales to Iran. Even the leadership of the contras—a hastily patched together triumvirate of former Nicaraguan middle-class leaders—is disintegrating in the face of internal differences over control of the headstrong contra army, which has been charged with repeated human-rights abuses. Still, in an interview with Maclean’s, Ortega claimed that the contras’ weakness might provoke Rea-

gan into risking a direct U.S. military intervention (page 20).

Confronting the contras and bracing for the possibility of a U.S. invasion have been costly exercises for the Sandinistas. The government allots more than 50 per cent of its budget to defencefunds badly needed to rebuild a society

torn apart by nearly two decades of earthquakes and bloodshed. At the Manolo Morales hospital, Managua’s main surgical facility, there is clear evidence that the country’s health care systemuntil recently the pride of the revolution—is crumbling. In the emergency room, doctors cannot take the blood

pressure of accident victims because their meters have broken; they have also had to stop basic blood tests and close one of their four operating rooms for lack of vital equipment.

Drained: The war has taken its toll on the revolution’s other major achievement—a free education system. Universal schooling and a literacy campaign have reduced the country’s illiteracy rate to 12 per cent from 52 per cent in less than seven years. But the system has been drained by a large exodus of teachers who can no longer survive on salaries as low as $6 a month. Said Roberto Saenz, an assistant to the minister of education: “Half the students don’t have desks. They’re standing or sitting on the floor.”

The war has also caused long lineups for basic goods—including meat, most of which is reserved for export to earn badly needed foreign currency—among the one million people of Managua, the capital. Water shortages force authorities to turn off the supply from dawn until 10 p.m. twice a week. And the public transport system is virtually useless, with most of the buses out of service because of a lack of U.S.-made spare parts. Nicaragua now exists with what Ortega calls an “economy of survival.”

Still, despite a national anthem

which characterizes Americans as the “enemy of humanity,” there is little evidence of anti-Americanism. Those who can afford it crowd into Managua’s theatres to see Hollywood’s latest films—currently Francis Coppola’s The Cotton Club. “It’s Reagan who is to blame for the war, not the Americans,” said Alejandro Cruz Gonzales, a farmer from a co-operative outside the northern village of Pueblo Nuevo.

Contradictions: Even the American ambassador, Henry Bergold, dines frequently with the Sandinista leaders, sometimes at their homes. Bergold’s good relations with the leadership may be partly a result of the fact that he has in private managed to distance himself from his own government’s policy.

The schizophrenic attitude towards Americans is one of the many contradictions that make the Nicaraguan revolution so complex, defying easy definition. While Reagan denounced Nicaragua as “totalitarian,” in fact Nicaraguans can criticize their government loudly and openly in what Managua Mayor Moisés Hassan has described as a “culture of complaint.” Although the government closed the opposition paper La Prensa, it opened Contacto 6-20, a radio call-in show devoted to airing listeners’ complaints about government policies and the hardships of daily life. The show has become the country’s most popular radio program, with 600,000 tuning in every morning. Another outlet since the early days of the revolution has been the Sandinistas’ weekly Face the People meetings with troubled sectors of the population.

In the current crisis, the Sandinistas have taken a calculated gamble to let Managua’s citizens and the middle class pay the price for keeping two more essential constituencies satisfied, the army and the peasants, particularly those in the countryside who are vulnerable to the contras’ arguments and attacks.

Immediately after taking power, the Sandinistas began fulfilling their blueprint for radical social change with a vast redistribution of land to the country’s dispossessed peasantry, a nationwide literacy campaign and a massive school and hospital building program. But by 1983 the contras were winning the upper hand in the fighting. Following a policy of economic sabotage, they destroyed some

of the best coffee plantations and reduced one of the country’s most essential exports by half. Then, in January, 1984, the government introduced a military draft—sparking massive protests, including denunciations from Catholic pulpits across the land. That initiative transformed the Sandinista army of 32,000 soldiers and reservists into a 62,000-member professional force, including large numbers of women, and turned the military tide.

But the strategic watershed also marked the beginning of the economy’s swift and disastrous decline. Many of the country’s best manpower left the workforce to take up arms. As the state refocused its efforts to equip, feed and clothe them, production plummeted. As a result, the government has found it possible to blame the war for most of the country’s ills.

Analysts say that the Reagan administration’s embargo was more effective than Washington had expected it to be, forcing the inexperienced Sandinistas to scramble for nine months to find new markets. Now, the country’s banana exports, which once made a two-day trip to California, take a costly two weeks to get to their new buyers in Belgium.

Loathing: But Ortega claims that the government has finally stopped the economic slide. And the Sandinistas appear to have maintained their grassroots support among the poor rural population through improved housing, schools and other services. Peasants like Briselda Blandón, a 46-year-old mother of 12 who works the sorghum fields on a co-operative farm outside the northern city of Esteli, responds with evident loathing at mention of the contras and their vow to oust the Sandinistas. The insurgents recently blew up a nearby bridge and took a

boy from a neighboring hamlet hostage. But Blandón says that she is not afraid of their attacks—which, the human-rights organization Americas Watch reported earlier this month, included systematic rape, murder and mutilation.

Blandón refers to the contras as “La Guardia,” a reference to Somoza’s

hated National Guard, whose former officers continue to dominate the top contra ranks. To her, they are messengers of a past she would never want to return to. “Before, we lived like animals,” she said. “Now we own the land, have a well and our children go to school. I would rather go down on my knees than go back to the old days.”

Fragmented: Even among the swelling ranks of Managua’s disenchanted, the constant complaints have failed to translate into any widespread movement that could threaten the Sandinistas politically. In part, that is because the

14 parties of the opposition—already fragmented by ideology and internal squabbling—have failed to produce any compelling leaders or policies. “There is no personality, no ideal that would bring people to the barricades,” said a Western observer. “That is the Sandinistas’ ace in the hole.”

Bitter: Despite the absence of a coherent opposition, there are indications that the Sandinistas have decided to counter urban discontent with some tentative gestures of liberalization within the prolonged state of emergency that has left the country with no opposition newspapers and smothered independent unions. Last week the Sandinistas announced that the government would allow the Catholic church’s official radio station, which they closed in October, 1985, to reopen and two of its most outspoken expelled clerics to return to the country. It was a step toward healing the bitter rift between the Sandinista hierarchy and that of the church, led by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. He and Ortega once worked together to overthrow the Somoza dictatorship, but three years after the revolution

Obando became estranged from the Sandinistas over their mixture of Marxism and Christianity and the creation of a so-called popular church in rivalry with the official church.

But many of the Sandinistas’ critics remain skeptical about the government’s recent gestures. They point out that the authorities spent months drafting a constitution to protect civil liberties and minority rights, and then—only hours after adopting it— suspended its provisions by renewing the state of emergency laws, first implemented in 1982. But Ortega has vowed that he will end the state of emergency if the United States ends its war against Nicaragua.

Betrayed: Still, some of the Sandinistas’ fiercest opponents are people who once belonged to the regime’s inner councils of power and who left, their hopes betrayed. One, a 23-yearold university student, rose in the ranks of the party and won a post overseeing the formation of one of the youth organizations designed to shape the revolution’s nuevo hombre, or new man. He charges that it gradually evolved from a recreation program

into a political propaganda course, at which the Young Pioneers, aged 6 to 14, had to study Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto in comic-book form. His disappointment deepened when the party insisted on sending a 10-year-old boy on a student exchange to Bulgaria over his father’s protests. But his ultimate disillusionment was the result of a mission to Cuba. “I saw that the Cuban youth seemed tamed and robotized,” he said. Added the former youth leader: “I realized that if I was supposed to create a new man who would be like the Cuban man, I didn’t want to do it.”

Skeptical: But many North American volunteers working in Nicaragua express skepticism that another repressive, Soviet-backed regime like Cuba’s is taking root on the Central American isthmus. And most skeptical of all are the brigade of a dozen Alberta and Saskatchewan farmers who have spent a month working in the model Casa Blanca co-operative near Pueblo Nuevo, 20 km from the Honduran border. The volunteers with the Farmers Solidarity Brigade are helping peasants accustomed to ox teams to understand the mysteries of the tractor. They are part of Canada’s aid effort—over $8 million in government grants and millions more through private groups—to Nicaragua. Some, like Doug Thorson, a 30-year-old grain farmer from Bow Island, Alberta, were fans of Ronald Reagan’s policies toward Libya and Grenada until they came to Nicaragua. “This has opened my eyes,” said Thorson. Agreed Chester Peterson, of Innisfail, Alta.: “From what I have seen, Reagan is totally wrong. I can’t see that it is Communist down here.”

Survival remains a preoccupation of the Sandinistas as they wait out the last two years of the Reagan presidency. The staying power of a people whose only history has been one of struggle and hard times has already been proven. Said Nicaraguan foreign ministry official Saul Araña: “People abroad have to understand that this revolution has the support of the people. The beneficiaries so far have been the people who had nothing.”

Briselda Blandón, who was one of those who had nothing and who now ranks as a full-fledged member of her co-operative, agrees. She throws her sorghum harvest into the air and lets the wind separate the grain from the chaff. “The revolution won’t stop,” she said. “If Reagan continues to help the contras, more of us will die. But the revolution won’t stop.”

MARCI McDONALD

PAUL GOEPFERT