A Yanqui in Managua

If you don't go on the Potemkin-tour of Nicaragua's projects and smiling peasants, if you talk to ordinary people, pro-and anti-Sandinista, what do you learn about life in Nicaragua? REASON's "revolutionary tourist" reports.


Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president, had said, "Come and see our revolution. Judge for yourself. " So I went. When I told friends that I was going to Nicaragua to see firsthand the work of the Marxist devils, the usual response was something like, "Aren't you afraid to go down there, what with all those people shooting each other?" "No," I replied with my usual casual bravado. What with so many politicians, trade-unionists, newspaper columnists, socially conscious businessmen, peace observers, solidarity activists, and revolutionary tourists visiting the place, my only fear was that I wouldn't be able to get a hotel room. Little did I know.

I spent three weeks in Nicaragua traveling around, poking into things, and talking to anyone who wanted to talk, which was just about everyone. I found Nicaraguans very conscious of being at the center of world attention, and most of them, whether they were for the government or against it, wanted to tell foreigners all about it. Two good examples were William and Father Luis.

I met William sitting in the park by the Plaza de Ia Revolución. William is an Indian from the Atlantic coast. Like most of the people from the east, he speaks English. Also like most of the people from the east, he has nothing good to say about the Sandinistas. They are bad people, he says, communists. They mistreat the Indians and chased away the good priests who helped them. William lives in Managua with his wife and four children, but the government will not give him a ration card, so he must pay high prices for his family's food. The government does nothing to help the poor, he assures me.

Father Luis is an Anglican priest. He is also coordinator of his local Sandinista Defense Committee. He tells me that there is no conflict between the church and the government—both are working to help the people. The Sandinistas have done many good things. If this is socialism, he says, then socialism must be a good thing.

As these two conversations suggest, if you are looking for different opinions, Nicaragua is the place to go. A lot of things in the country are in short supply, but there's plenty of politics, particularly in Managua, the capital.

Managua is not someplace you would go for a vacation. The city is hot, humid, and mosquito-infested. Half the population is said to have the Dengue fever. ("Is said" indicates that my source is rumor; in a country with a censored press a great deal of important information must rely on rumor.) The center of the city is in ruins, destroyed by a 1972 earthquake and never rebuilt. Water is turned off for two days a week. During the March-to-October rainy season it rains almost every day. The city is a jumble of streets, almost all unmarked, many of which do not even have names. Managuans do not use street addresses; you are given directions using well-known places (which may not exist any more) as referents. The city is full of soldiers carrying Russian-made automatic rifles. Almost every wall is covered with Sandinista slogans, many of them decidedly unfriendly toward the United States. Even the graffiti on the walls of public restrooms are political.

My goal in visiting Nicaragua was a modest one. I wanted to find out how ordinary people are faring under Sandinista rule—whether they felt they were better off now than before the revolution, whether they felt they had a free society, and whether Reagan administration charges that this is just another Marxist dictatorship are true.

I didn't talk to people in government or to businessmen, for both of these groups have received considerable coverage in the US press. Indeed, I have read so many interviews with President Ortega that he seems like the comandante next door.

I did talk to busboys, cab drivers, clerks, students, priests, blacks, Indians, ladinos, and people who were just standing with me in a doorway waiting for the rain to stop. I talked with foreigners who had come to work for the revolution. I talked with a soldier who had volunteered and a teenager who was worried about the draft. I talked with people who were enthusiastic for the revolution and those who had no use for it. I talked with an administrator who was building a maternity hospital and with an Indian who told me that he lived in a cardboard box and the government wouldn't give crutches to his crippled wife.

On one point, however, everyone I spoke with—progovernment, antigovernment, or no opinion—agreed: they were economically worse off than before the 1979 revolution. The only division along political lines came when I asked if things would get better: the pro-Sandinistas said "yes" and the others said "no" or that they didn't know.

In fairness I should say that these reports came from wage earners and self-employed people in the Managua area and from the east coast. I was told by people who were working in the countryside that there is a great deal of optimism among the peasants, particularly those who have benefited by distributions of land or government assistance under the agrarian reform. While I have no reason to doubt these reports, I also observed that thousands of people have moved from the countryside into the vast shantytowns that ring the capital. Since the government reports that it has more land to distribute than it has takers, there must be many peasants who do not share that optimism.

Some of the Sandinista accomplishments are easy to see. I visited a centra de salud, a free neighborhood clinic. It is part of a free medical-care delivery system that makes basic care available to the great mass of people. The education system has been expanded and opened to all, albeit with a strongly politicized content. The literacy program has apparently made a significant impact on adult illiteracy, though its long term effect is hard to assess and the caveat about political content also applies.

Many landless peasants received land through the agrarian reform, usually in cooperative holdings and often subject to credit problems, but the program seems to have been carried out intelligently, and the net effect is positive for a number of people. The land that was redistributed was mainly from persons connected with the Somoza regime. Lastly, there may be some unmeasureable but real psychic benefit to people when they are allowed to participate in mass political organizations, such as the Sandinista Defense Committees, and are made to feel that they have some influence in shaping their destinies through the political process.

So far as I can tell, the foregoing exhausts the list of unique Sandinista accomplishments. They have, of course, also built one of the larger armies in the Western Hemisphere, but that's an accomplishment of another sort.

But even the positive programs raise questions. The literacy program and the new education curriculum are criticized for their Marxist content and progovernment propagandizing. The agrarian reform seized lands from some persons apparently innocent of involvement with the Somoza regime, and on paper at least, it appears that the state has tended to retain for itself those lands which produce profitable export crops, while the peasants receive lands which produce for the domestic market at controlled prices. And as for the psychic income derived from political participation, the largest and most accessible of the mass participatory institutions, the Sandinista Defense Committees, only attract about a 10 or 15 percent turnout for their meetings.

Defenders of the Sandinistas make much of their good intentions. But a government intention can be a slippery thing. Consider the ration system.

Every family in Nicaragua is supposed to receive a ration card through its local Sandinista Defense Committee. The card enables the bearer to buy a fixed amount of staple grains—corn, beans, rice, sorghum—at a low, subsidized price. In theory, this should enable every family to afford an adequate, if meager, diet.

Now is this ration system an example of a compassionate government's effort to ensure that the poor do not go hungry, or is it a calculated attempt to prevent hunger from becoming a catalyst for political unrest? I suspect that many people will find the answer obvious, though the answer will depend on whether or not they support the Sandinistas. If, however, you realize that the program was not initiated by the Sandinistas but was a creation of the corrupt Somoza regime, the matter of intent suddenly becomes less obvious.

To understand Nicaragua today it is necessary to understand something of its history.

The old story is told of a lady tourist in a Latin American country who asked a local gentleman what their favorite sport was. "Bullfighting," he replied. "Revolting!" she exclaimed. "Ah," he replied, "that is our second-favorite sport." The story is more true of Nicaragua than of most Latin American countries.

Nicaragua's history since its independence from Spain in 1821 is one of boringly repetitive revolutions and coups, relieved by occasional periods of strongman rule. Its political leadership has from the beginning been drawn from a small number of eminent families.

Despite numerous efforts, Nicaragua never developed stable democratic institutions. Its only periods of stability were under military dictators, first Jose Zelaya and later the Somoza family, and an intervening period of US military intervention. It is these periods that are most relevant to understanding Nicaragua today.

General José Santos Zelaya came to power in 1893 by the normal means of a successful revolution and ruled as a military strongman until forced out by a US-supported revolution in 1909. While recent historians have taken a more kindly view of Zelaya, he was at the time considered a threat to peace by his Central American neighbors. Today the Sandinistas have adopted Zelaya as a nationalist hero who was overthrown by Yankee imperialists.

With Zelaya out of the way Nicaraguan politics returned to its accustomed instability, much to the distress of the United States, which in 1912 sent in the Marines to put down insurrections and "keep the peace."

The Marines remained in Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, though for most of that time their number consisted of a legation guard in Managua of only about a hundred troops. During this period the rebellion-prone army was abolished and replaced by a national constabulary, the National Guard. Trained by the Marines, its officers were evenly divided between the Liberal and Conservative parties. To command this peacekeeping force, the Nicaraguans and Americans agreed upon the affable son of a coffee planter of no pronounced political sympathies. He spoke good English and got along well with the Americans. He was not thought to be too bright. He seemed like a safe compromise. His name was Anastasio Somoza.

Somoza moved quickly to build personal political support and was able to make himself president in 1936. He and his sons ran the Nicaraguan government as a family business for the next 43 years. One of the first political opponents he had executed was a general who had fought as a guerrilla against the Marines and became something of a national hero, Augusto Cesar Sandino.

During the long period of Somoza's rule, Nicaragua prospered. Opponents were harassed and sometimes jailed but only infrequently shot. Somoza liked to describe himself as a benevolent dictator. The Somoza family and friends also grew vastly rich, finally owning more than 20 percent of the arable land in the country as well as numerous businesses and other properties.

In foreign policy, Somoza maintained peace with his neighbors and was a stalwart supporter of US positions. At the beginning of World War II, when many respectable Latin American governments were friendly to the Axis, Nicaragua quickly joined the United States in declaring war on Germany. Somoza's ready support for the United States prompted FDR's famous remark that "he's a son-of-a-bitch, but he's our son-of-a-bitch."

In the end, the corruption of the Somoza regime cost it all of its domestic support and the Nicaraguan people fell in behind the Sandinista Front for National Liberation, the FSLN, to bring an end to Somoza family rule. The Sandinistas, who took their name from the murdered Augusto Sandino, were aided by the liberal governments of several Latin American nations, as well as Cuba, the PLO, and the Carter administration,, which cut off military assistance (and forced Israel to do likewise), so that in the end, Somoza's troops simply ran out of ammunition.

When the Somoza regime fell on the 19th of July 1979, several thousand Nicaraguans, many associated with the National Guard, fled as refugees into Honduras. They have since been joined by many other Nicaraguans who oppose the Sandinistas. These refugees have obtained arms and since 1981 have been waging guerrilla war against the new regime. There are also Indian groups in the east who are engaged in armed resistance against the Managua government. The various groups have different aims and constituencies, but are known collectively as the counterrevolutionaries, or contras.

John Adams said of the American Revolution that it was over in 1775; the war was not part of it. By this he meant that the change in political consensus had occurred before the Revolutionary War broke out. The Sandinista revolution, by contrast, came after the successful war to overthrow Somoza. The only political consensus that existed before the Sandinistas came to power was that Somoza must go. The great mass of Nicaraguans whose fighting toppled the ancien regime were not Marxists or socialists but simply people tired of the corrupt Somoza government who wanted democracy, freedom, and a better life. Thus the principal domestic political challenge to the Sandinistas since coming to power has been to win over the Nicaraguan people to their version of the revolution.

In Nicaragua the press is censored. The opposition paper La Prensa must submit all of its copy for approval before publication.

Though the ostensible reason is the threat posed by the contra war, newsmen complain that they are barred from reporting many nonmilitary stories as well. At a meeting I attended between President Ortega and progovernment newsmen, the principal complaint was a lack of freedom of the press. President Ortega replied that Nicaragua had freedom of the press because today all segments of society have access to the press—an answer that so far as I could tell did not win anyone over.

In the three weeks I was in Nicaragua, I did not see a single foreign noncommunist newspaper or news magazine for sale. A Sandinista supporter told me that this was done to save foreign exchange.

As a consequence, people rely heavily on rumor—quite often, it seems, to the detriment of the government. Even supporters of the government assured me that the war is going badly for the Sandinistas and that the contras control vast areas of the countryside and can take towns at will. I was also told that government casualties are quite high, especially among new recruits, and for this reason many parents urge their children to flee the draft and hide in the jungle or even join the contras. Can the truth hurt the government more than such rumors?

(After I returned from Nicaragua, the Sandinistas suspended civil liberties including political expression, freedom of travel, the right to strike, and public assembly. Now all media, not just the opposition La Prensa, must submit their copy before publication or broadcast. The government has seized the printing facilities of the Roman Catholic Church and confiscated 10,000 copies of a new church magazine said to contain material critical of the draft. When it comes to trusting their people with freedom, the Sandinistas, like most other states, prefer to err on the side of caution.)

Despite the strong Marxist and socialist traditions within the Sandinista movement, the government's economic policies have followed the pragmatic tercertista approach of selective nationalization. The result is what the government constantly refers to as a "mixed" economy, in which approximately 60 percent of the productive sector remains in private hands.

Yet the private sector is hamstrung by government monopolies on banking, credit, foreign exchange, imports, and exports. The government controls access to most raw materials and sets wages and some prices. I attended a meeting between newspaper people and government officials in which many complained about the shortage of materials to produce their papers. President Ortega's reply was that the country had many needs for paper and producing newspapers was not the highest.

There is, furthermore, the problem of the security of the private sector under a regime that does not recognize the rights of property and contract. Many businessmen are allegedly declining to invest and expand their operations out of fear of government expropriation of their businesses, either outright or piecemeal through controls. The Sandinistas have fed this fear by their inability or unwillingness to give guarantees beyond the short term and by the pronouncements of the more radical elements within the government that the mixed economy is just a "tactic" and, as one of the comandantes has said, "we can expropriate the bourgeoisie in a matter of hours."

Prices are low in Nicaragua, but so are wages. The average factory worker's wage is about 8,500 cordobas a month and will not support a family. Thus almost all families have some other source of income: an extra job, a small business run out of the home, a sidewalk food stand. Managua is full of small retail and service businesses operated out of the home or in the streets. They may not earn much, but they are untaxed.

A more serious problem they pose to the government is that workers are believed to put more effort into these small businesses than they do into their formal employment, and productivity has consequently dropped in both the private and state-owned sectors. The Sandinistas are trying to counter this by that old standby of the capitalist wage-masters, piecework pay, and the government-controlled unions have been enlisted to sell this idea to the workers.

The Sandinistas are making a major effort to win over the youth. Approximately 45 percent of the population is under 16 years of age. Since the present government has been in power for six years, a 16-year-old has essentially no recollection of what his country was like before the Sandinistas. Sixteen-year-olds were given the vote in the November 1984 election. The age of parental control has been lowered to fourteen. Public education has been revised to reflect a Marxist perspective. Young people have been sent to Cuba for training. Others have become turbas, strongarm toughs who harass the Sandinista's political opponents. Approximately 30,000 belong to the Sandinista youth organization. Despite these efforts, the resistance of young people to military service is a major problem for the Sandinistas and has cost them much popular support.

The principal institutions for individual participation in the revolution are the Sandinista Defense Committees, the CDS. There are approximately 12,000 of these neighborhood organizations, claiming a membership of some 500,000 persons. They are modeled on the Cuban Committees for the Defense of the Revolution. They elect their own officers and typically meet every two weeks or so. Committees are responsible for issuing ration cards and for organizing neighborhood anticrime patrols, the so-called revolutionary vigilance. They also issue letters that enable a person to obtain a drivers' license or a police report for a potential employer. They are open to everyone living within a neighborhood, without respect to political affiliation. Each CDS is assigned the name of a Sandinista martyr, who may or may not have lived in the neighborhood, and in many cases they erect a small memorial to that person. In theory the CDS provides a method for the government to communicate with the people directly and for citizens to voice concerns and complaints that will filter up through the CDS system to the relevant government agency.

In practice the defense committees, like their Cuban counterparts, have been accused of encouraging neighbors to spy on each other. There have been many complaints that committees will not issue ration cards unless individuals perform "revolutionary vigilance"—that is, spy on neighbors to report antigovernment remarks. Innocent people have been arrested after being denounced to the committees as counterrevolutionaries. Many committees are dominated by gossips and busybodies and are scrupulously avoided by other community members.

Finally, the committees must compete with Ronda la Piedra, an extremely popular Dynasty-like soap opera that is shown on Sandinista TV at the same time the CDSs typically meet. To judge from attendance at CDS meetings (one CDS coordinator told me that a 10–15 percent turnout is typical), a considerable number of Nicas would rather watch the upper-class intrigues of Ronda than participate in the revolutionary process.

I attended a meeting of one CDS, the "Barrio William Diaz." The meeting was announced by a sound truck. The topic was relations with the Sandinista Police.

The meeting took place in the rec room of a private home. The room was hot and humid and packed with about 80 people. The program consisted of two SP officers who spoke easily and informally as they explained new police policies. After speaking for about an hour the meeting was opened to the floor and a number of people made comments and complaints about barrio crime, rowdy young people, and personal experiences with the police. Each was answered by the principal speaker, who was not the officer assigned to the barrio but rather a community relations officer. He very skillfully used the questions and complaints as an opportunity to relate government policy to individual concerns. After the questions were over, the officer assigned to the neighborhood gave out his home phone number. Roughly two-thirds of the people stayed for the entire program, listening quietly and without obvious emotion. The applause at the end was less than enthusiastic but more than polite.

This meeting was probably a good example of how the Sandinistas would like the CDS system to work. A high portion of the neighborhood turned out (the meeting prudently began after Ronda la Piedra) to hear a well-trained spokesman explain government policy as it relates to the concerns of the people in the neighborhood. Citizen complaints were listened to sympathetically and used as an opportunity to inform and instruct. By giving out his phone number the local officer showed openness and availability, as well as trust.

The meeting also demonstrated what politics means in Nicaragua today. Although the meeting was ostensibly a local neighborhood affair, it was initiated by the government. The people were given the chance to offer suggestions and complaints, but the boundaries of debate were set by the government. The subject was not what programs shall we have, but rather how shall programs that the government has chosen be implemented.

At this meeting, as elsewhere during my visit, the Sandinistas came across as well-intentioned, pragmatic, and adaptable. They don't want to share power, but they do want to wield it intelligently. Is this a "truer democracy" than exists in the liberal Western states, where people may vote a government out but are often frustrated when they try to make government respond to their will? I heard such defenses when I was in Nicaragua. When the Sandinistas speak of democracy they do not mean what we in the West have traditionally understood that word to mean.

There are a lot of foreigners in Nicaragua. I met a number of "revolutionary tourists," European leftists and American liberals traveling on their eternal quest for a Marxist regime of freedom and equality, justice and plenty. Some came with backpacks and others on packaged tours advertised in left-wing magazines. There are at least two schools in Nicaragua that offer 2-to-8-week programs of Spanish classes in the morning and revolutionary labor in the afternoon.

Another group are the politicians, writers, and socially conscious businessmen who come to Nicaragua on 3- or 4-day fact-finding missions, during which they are led around on a Potemkin-tour of government projects, smiling peasants, and meetings with nonthreatening opposition spokesmen. Some tours have included interviews with contras, though in every case that I have read about the contra was firmly in government custody at the time. These people return home, their eyes opened to the true nature of the revolution, and hold forth at business luncheons and press conferences as experts who have seen what's happening with their own eyes.

The most numerous group I met were those affiliated with international relief organizations who had come not out of political conviction but because they had specific skills—in medicine, nutrition, agriculture, engineering, etc.—that the Nicaraguans needed. I met nurses who came to teach and an electronics consultant who was helping the government set up a computer system. I had breakfast several mornings with Gaim, an African civil engineer sent by a church group. Gaim told me that although the Sandinistas were Marxists, what they were doing in the countryside was vastly better than anything he had seen in the Marxist revolutionary regimes in Africa.

But almost everywhere I went I met another sort of internationalista, people who had come from Europe or North America or the commonwealth to work for the revolution. They are more than just revolutionary tourists. They are men and women of all ages, though mostly young, all idealistic and mostly leftist, who come to Nicaragua to help build a new society. Most seem to be paying their own way. One young man told me that he had cashed in his life insurance policy so that he could stay. Others get money from home. They're an interesting bunch, and worth a story in themselves.

One afternoon I visited the Antonio Valdivieso Ecumenical Center, where I spoke with an American lay worker who had been sent to Nicaragua by his church. He explained that the purpose of the Center is to provide a place where Christians and Marxists can engage in theological reflection on Christianity in a revolutionary situation. He told me that their work is carried out in the context of liberation theology, a theology that springs from the belief that the Latin American poor are victims of US imperialism. For this reason, he said, it is very difficult for white, Anglo-Saxon, North Americans to understand liberation theology. The Vatican sees it as a threat, as does the Reagan administration.

Liberation theology is about human liberation, he explained, and in Latin America this will never come peacefully, because the holders of wealth and power will never give them up freely. There must be violence. The question for Christians, he said, is whether they can engage in revolutionary violence out of a spirit of love.

On my last day in Managua I visited the Permanent Commission on Human Rights. The commission is housed in a nondescript cement-block building whose peeling paint is covered with Sandinista political slogans. I sat in a waiting room with several old women and a couple of teenaged boys before being introduced to Lino Hernandez, the director. The Nicaraguan government, he explained, holds between 4,500 and 5,000 political prisoners, more than in all the rest of Latin America. This is in addition to the 2,500 Somocistas held since the war.

The commission has documented many cases of torture and disappearance, he went on. Persons accused of political offenses are tried by a special tribunal, and the evidence almost always consists only of statements extracted under interrogation. Many prisoners are held at El Chipote prison, near the Hotel Intercontinental, in underground cells whose only ventilation is a tube up to the surface.

North Americans do not see these human rights problems, says Hernandez, because the Sandinistas show them only the open prison farm where the old National Guardsmen are kept and take them to meet with the government-sponsored human rights commission, which tells them that all is well. The Nicaraguan press is not permitted to publish the evidence that his commission uncovers.

The commission has always been harassed by the government. In Somoza's time they were denounced as communists; today they are called counterrevolutionaries and frontmen for Washington. Five of their directors have been imprisoned and their founder is in exile. In 1981, the Sandinistas seized their offices and forbade their activities, but intervention by Amnesty International and the Organization of American States enabled them to reopen.

After this bleak report on human rights I visited the government-sponsored National Commission for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights. In contrast to the peeling paint of the Permanent Commission's offices, the National Commission is housed in comfortable quarters in a middle-class neighborhood.

I met with an American Catholic sister who explained that their commission was set up by the Sandinista government in response to a United Nations call for each country to have its own human rights agency. They work with the Ministry of Education to teach human rights in the schools and follow the principles of the UN declaration of human rights.

The present government, she avers, is making great efforts to improve the lot of the people. The most serious human rights violations are committed by the US-backed contras. She urges me to do what I can to prevent US aid to the contras. US policy toward Nicaragua is illegal, unjust, and, she is tempted to say, diabolical.

For whatever it's worth, at the Permanent Commission we spoke in Spanish about individual cases of human rights violations and about the state imprisoning and torturing people. At the National Commission we spoke in English about politics and US foreign policy. At the Permanent Commission Señor Hernandez ended our interview because a client had come to talk about his case. At the National Commission my interviewee had to leave to meet with a group preparing to travel to the war zone to investigate contra activity. I found the two experiences pretty easy to sort out.

Like every tourist, I came away with some impressions only partially digested: The soldiers and security men who stopped me to check my papers never swaggered or threatened, but treated me with a politeness that was almost gentle. The extremely poor homes, hardly substantial enough to be called sheds, with color TV. Beggars who accept only American money. People who tell me that everyone is afraid to tell me what they think and then proceed to tell me what they think. People who express great admiration for Castro but tell me that they do not want their country to become like Cuba.

I also came away with a sense of the power of the socialist dream to people in a poor Latin American country. It is a dream that will be hard to kill with bullets. Perhaps it would be best if we let it die from reality.

Davis Keeler is a lawyer living in Menlo Park, California, and an associate of the Institute for Humane Studies.