Daniel Ortega: A victim Of
By Leigh Saavedra
16 October, 2005
The Second of Two Parts
Read Part One
I arrived in Nicaragua for the second time a few days after Christmas, as the winter was leading into 1990, the year the Nicaraguans were scheduled to have their second presidential election. The election had been scheduled for the following November, in accord with the new Nicaraguan constitution, but to compromise to U.S. demands, President Daniel Ortega (called simply "Daniel" by Nicaraguans) allowed it to be moved up to February.
The visit, from the moment I arrived in Sandino airport, was totally different from the one a year earlier when I had first arrived, a true gringa knowing not one soul in the entire country. This time I felt half Nicaraguan as soon as I entered Sandinista air space.
The first change was Sandino Airport itself, spruced up to accept the large international crowd expected to watch the coming election. Everything was spiffy and shiny, not a smidgeon of the grime seen in some Central American airports. I breezed through customs and when I presented my passport before going over to join the friends I'd made a year earlier and with whom I would be staying, a small, dark man glanced over it, then handed it back and smiled broadly. "You've come then, to see our revolution?"
"Yes." A supreme, passionate but restrained "yes." I knew where I was. I knew the familiar openness, the unique wonder of this young, newly remodeled country that wore its heart on its sleeve and shouted to the world about having won its freedom. It assumed the rest of the world shared this enthusiasm, and where the people were not blockaded by false media coverage and government statements, they did in large part. That's why young people had come by the thousands to join in the literacy program that was considered magnificently successful. I'd longed for this day ever since the morning I'd had to return home to the states almost a year ago. My glad heart had been filled with Nicaragua in the winter of 1989 and during all the months I waited, read, and planned the return.
So enamoured of the new country's people and revolution I was that I'd put my treasured heavy cloth Sandinista flag out on my porch on July 17, Nicaragua Independence Day. Independence Day was the day the people, led by the Sandinistas, had so frightened the dictator Somoza that he fled the country, taking the national treasury with him to Miami.
Now, back in the Nicaraguan airport, transformed into a gleaming, positive place where good things were happening, I could put behind me the media propaganda blaring out of U.S. TV sets at night, the lies about the "Sandinista Marxist regime," or the town meeting I attended where a hundred and fifty people from around the county came to hear my then-congressman, first district Texas, talk about the need to aid the contras. My daughter and friends had corrected him several times, and when my daughter's edge of temper showed and I went forward, having been announced as someone who KNEW better because I had BEEN there, he demanded to know for what organization I had gone. He adamantly refused to believe I had gone on my own, knowing no one, no subversive organization having brainwashed me or paying me to spread their propaganda. I HAD gone completely alone, had spent the first two days alone, not sure how to move INTO what was happening, and it was infuriating to be so doubted.
But that, the sharing of experiences that people in East Texas didn't want to believe, all of the frustration, the mainstream media -- it was all behind me. I had reentered the stratosphere of truth v. fiction and here in this lush, dusty, difficult country lay the truth.
In total, the beginning of this second winter got off to a goofy start. I was bringing various lab specimens to Kathy, a friend made last visit. Kathy was a microbiologist who worked on a project sponsored by Austria and financed by Switzerland. Its hope was to clean up Lake Managua, an ugly, desolate lake, one dirty shore of which lapped right up onto Managua, not far from the parts of Managua dearest to the Revolution. The lake was severely polluted, mostly from the Kodak company dumping mercury in the lake in the fifties, back when the U.S. could use Nicaragua for anything it wished. Though it happens when one is poor enough, eating fish caught in Lake Managua is an abbreviated path to the hereafter.
My daughter had taken me to Shreveport to catch my short flight to Houston, where I was flying Sahsa to Managua. Being a little airport, Shreveport didn't really know what to do with the lab specimens I was taking to Kathy, not to mention the eleven boxes of medical supplies I was taking to the head of the Nicaraguan Red Cross. We tried to explain, as if w had any idea of what we were talking, that these samples were nothing to worry about, just a little of this and that used to clean out a very polluted lake, and as we tried to sound knowledgeable, we held up the plane on the tarmac for more than fifteen minutes while calls were made to Houston. They accepted the papers where Sahsa Airlines agreed to carry the eleven boxes at no charge, but when I identified one little vial as a lab sample of salmonella, we immediately found ourselves in a "Houston-we've-got-a-problem" scene, and my daughter had to keep the whole kaboodle. Then, in seconds, probably to the relief of the stalled passengers, I was allowed to run and get on the plane, which began taxiing down the runway before I was fully settled.
In Houston, I rightly assumed my extra eleven boxes, all medical supplies gathered in the recent months, would be transferred with no ado. Sahsa Airlines had already agreed to add no charge for them, all contributions to the Nicaraguan Red Cross. Much of their contents broke the sanctions that the U.S. had on Nicaragua, a cruel embargo designed to choke Nicaragua by denying their people needed goods in many categories. When I had managed with a straight face to tell the Shreveport airline officials that they contained some vitamins and bandaids being sent from one church to another, but were mostly my own household goods for setting up an apartment for two months, time (and interest in those suspicious little lab vials I was carrying onto the plane) was on my side, and they focused on Sahsa's written permission to charge me no fees for excess baggage, opening none of them.
In Houston, freed from my large video camera case of lab samples, I was free to start believing no customs man was going to come for me, drag me to the back, and put me before a Somocista death squad if not an American judge who was going to indict me as a smuggler. A couple of hours later, feeling as if I had sneaked some of Somoza's crown jewels hidden in my pockets, we lifted off, and I finally felt safe. Many of the antibiotics and other medicines in the boxes were forbidden under sanctions. On the other end, in Managua, no one would care.
A bit of explanation on the sanctions, a vital fact of life in Nicaragua: The official reason for the embargo against Nicaragua was that the FSLN (Frente Sandinista Liberacion Nationale, often called "the Frente) was smuggling arms to the rebels in El Salvador. It would be easier to put the Mediterranean in the hollow of an olive than put El Salvador in a footnote, so all I can say is that the rebels of El Salvador (calling themselves the FMLN [Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front]), in their twelve-year fight against the Salvadoran death squads, had been sympathetic to the people's revolution in Nicaragua. 75,000 people perished in the FMLN's fight against an old and repressive regime, including the now-infamous death squads.
The world's attention had been drawn to the FMLN's fight against the Salvadoran Guard when their death squads murdered the young American missionary, Jean Donovan, and the three nurses in the van with her. Even further attention was drawn toward the conflict in El Salvador when Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by assassins in the same year, 1980. World sympathy seemed to lean toward the rebels, with the U.S. being an exception.
So the Frente was accused of getting arms to the Salvadoran rebels and while much of the world secretly world secretly cheered them on while the U.S. continued to back the establishment and look the other way when the establishment was represented by the notorious death squads. The U.S. not only opposed the FMLN completely but also provided funds and equipment for the Salvadoran Guard. Even as the world's outrage over the deaths of Jean Donovan, the nuns, and the archbishop grew louder, the U.S. stood firm. Its stance was harder to fight in the El Salvador case, as the FMLN tactics were not always defensible acts of those qualifying to be the "good guys." The U.S.' answer to Jean Donovan's family, when they pleaded for answers, was to charge them $3500 to ship the young missionary's body home to the states. Four years later, the general whose men murdered the young women was promoted to Minister of Defense.
So stood the attitude of the U.S. toward the conflict (or bloodbath) in El Salvador and thus the possibility that free Nicaraguans were now aiding the FMLN in their revolution was considered by the U.S. as a sign that Nicaragua's success in overthrowing a brutal dictator might set up a pattern in Central America. Almost everyone I've ever known who supported the Nicaraguans' right to take back their country also supported the FMLN. The FMLN was bloodier than the FSLN had ever been, but then, few revolutionary groups have ever spilled as little blood as the FSLN. Despite all their years in the mountains thinking and planning, the actual and physical revolution took only a few months. Whatever rationale was used to define the FMLN and whether it was right or wrong for them to enjoy FSLN sympathy, what everyone knew was that the U.S. would never allow another country to overthrow a dictator for the purpose of setting up a socialistic or partly socialistic state. It was that, the near hysteria that anything remotely connected with Marxism provokes in the United States, that was the most steadfast reason behind the embargo.
At any rate, it was a back-and-forth situation, accusation, evidence, and conclusion about whether the Nicas were helping arm the FMLN. It was generally agreed that they were, and I can't fault that conclusion, nor can I understand why the Nicaraguans could be expected not to be sympathetic with the Salvadoran rebels who sought the same thing the majority of Nicaraguans had sought -- a free and just society with hope for the poorest. There were consequences, of course, for the FSLN's sympathy with the FMLN, and that was the U.S. embargo that crippled Nicaragua's already frail economy.
The more accurate reason for the embargo, however, was to obliterate the new Sandinista government, Marxist, a mixed economy where socialism and free enterprise were designed to live side by side. As we see in all countries that try a form of socialism, the United States will simply not tolerate it. If it should succeed, as there are great signs of happening in Venezuela today, people without health care or funds for a good education in the U.S. might "get ideas." In the beginning, as the world gave the Sandinistas sound, useful and visible support, it appeared that they might actually succeed; and from the moment that this appeared a viable possibility, the new country was doomed. The disinformation war went into full gear, referring to the Sandinistas as "Marxist rebels" who were "threatening the entire stability of Central America."
At any rate, analysis and philosophizing aside, the embargo was there, and I felt like something between Joan of Arc and James Bond must have felt a few times when my eleven boxes of medical supplies finally got into the right hands.
In Managua, Kathy and my Nicaraguan friends had come for me in a jeep that was hard-pressed to carry the four of us and the bags of what I would need for two months. The eleven boxes of medicine were totally out of the question. Finally, we called Dr. Ramirez, head of the Nicaraguan Red Cross, and he came to the airport in a pickup truck with two strong sons. They loaded it all into their pickup, and that leg of the venture was settled and over. Con artist that I'd been, guilt couldn't get near my shadow; back home I'd spent months collecting the medical supplies "for the Nicaraguan hurricane victims" and every time a doctor called to say he had a box of samples and a few pieces of equipment for the "hurricane victims," I slept like personified innocence, i.e. a baby.
It was time now to prepare for the great victory of the Sandinistas, the coming election. Daniel Ortega had been elected by about 70 percent of the voters in 1984 in an election that every observing country on earth but the U.S. recognized as valid, including our ally the U.K. The success of Sandinistas winning positions in Parliament had been about the same rate.
We'd lost some support because of the dire economic situation throughout Nicaragua. It takes no added paragraph to mention that people, throughout history, have voted their pocketbooks. Memory is short, and especially the young had forgotten the poverty had ALWAYS been the standard way of life for most Nicaraguans. In 1972, massive aid from around the world poured in when Managua suffered a serious earthquake. Instead of using the money to rebuild the city, Somoza pocketed it, so Managuans already had a city that in places looked more like ruins than a civilized metropolis. It looked the same when I was last there, in 1990.
Then, as a further consequence of the earthquake, enormous numbers of jobs were lost. Managua had been the manufacturing center of the country, with more than 90 percent of the country's businesses located there. With a great loss of jobs in the city, people were moving from the country, where large landowners were taking away the small farms where farmers had managed to live and feed their families. This influx of people to a jobless city created a situation that couldn't be taken care of in just a few years.
This was the situation the Sandinistas inherited. The large landowners who had confiscated the small farms of people who then fled to the city had become richer, while those who fled became poorer. The polarization of wealth and poverty had grown into a very deep divide during Somoza's last years in power. If only, my closest friend and I so often mused, if memories weren't so short that they focused only on the embargo.
The Sandinistas had made great gains in many ways, especially where the top leadership, primarily Daniel, Sergio Ramirez (vice president), and Miguel d'Escoto (Maryknoll priest, serving as Foreign Minister) was more directly involved with the people. There were problems further out, particularly on the Caribbean coast, where the Miskito Indians live.
The English-speaking Miskitos indigenous to the coast of both Nicaragua and Honduras, have always suffered extreme poverty. Having been a British protectorate in the 18th century, when they fought with the British against the Spanish colonies, many do not consider themselves Nicaraguan. It was in this area, especially around Bluefields, where there was antipathy toward the Sandinistas and, very possibly, reciprocal antipathy. The poverty level was high, the culture quite different from the Nica culture, and there were accusations of corruption among lower level Sandinistas in dealing with the Miskitos. Like El Salvador, the situation on the Caribbean coast cannot fit into a footnote.
As explained in Part I of this memoir/record, the greatest gains of the Sandinistas, aside from eliminating the fear of the Somoza National Guard knocking at the door, lay in education and health care. After the Sandinistas came to power, with their emphasis on lowering the illiteracy that had lingered for years under U.S. supported dictators, and with the help of volunteers from all around the world, Nicaraguan illiteracy fell from over fifty percent to slightly over ten percent. Infant mortality had dropped drastically, due in large part to neighborhood "diarrhea centers" that taught basic skills to young mothers.
Thanks in large part to the Cuban doctors who donated time to free health clinics, many Nicaraguans had medical attention for the first time in their lives. But the Sandinistas paid an unexpected price for this gift to the sick and the elderly. Back in the United States, the country in the best position to end their dreams, this relationship with the Cubans was used to help convince the American public that the "Marxists" were a threat to the United States. At that time, as now, much of the American public believes that having any kind of relationship with Cuba marks one as a serious threat to the United States. We see the same thing happening now as the U.S. steps up its verbal attacks on Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, who provides Cuba its oil at the same low price he offers it to other Caribbean and Central American nations and even the poor of the United States. All that matters to some is that he sings duets on stage with Castro and gives him financial aid. Hence, he is a version of the devil. The same thing happened when Nicaragua accepted medical help from Cuba. I met two Cuban doctors my first winter there and developed a high level of respect for the medical profession in Cuba. There are areas in which they have expertise far surpassing most of the doctors in our own country, a vast understanding of dengue fever being one example. More recently, when Cuba offered 1500 doctors to New Orleans to deal with illness, both physical and mental, they were turned down, though we are aware that Cuba itself is so experienced at handling severe hurricanes that the last one claimed no lies.
At times, sitting out in the night air sharing fruit punch, sometimes pure and sometimes not, lazily letting Dolma cook her wonderful chickens and casseroles, we would joke about the crazy beliefs back in Indiana and Nebraska about the danger of Nicaraguan soldiers marching through Mexico and capturing Texas. But the laughter was weak. We knew on a quiet, serious note what the propaganda was accomplishing, despite the absurdities. What we failed to believe was how powerful it would prove to be.
Despite the better lives that health care and education gave to the poor, gains were not made in other fields. Poverty still existed, as it always had, and unemployment was high. In the atmosphere of a "new" chance at life, the unending poverty was more painful to some than it had been before. I remember my visit the year before, my first two days at Managua's Intercontinental Hotel, before I met and moved in with Managuans. From my bedroom window I could see the shanties behind the hotel. I was stunned my first morning to wake and be in the middle of the vast difference of my air-conditioned, well-appointed room and the shack across the back street, where I watched a child of 6 or 7 hanging laundry on a line. There was no evidence of electricity. It was a scene of chickens and dust, only a hundred yards from Managua's most luxurious hotel. We were close enough that I could see features of the little girl's face, which burned itself into some fleshy part of the soul and is still there.
This kind of poverty was and always had been a basic part of Nicaragua. The Sandinistas, in ten years, had not been able to eliminate it. Nicaragua had been greatly aided by many countries, but Nicaraguans were primarily indebted to the Soviet Union for keeping them afloat. Unfortunately, however successful they were financially or however much aid they had, most of it went, for years, into the bottomless pit of fighting the U.S. supported contras as they attacked civilians in farms and houses in the north, to keep them from bringing their terrorism into the cities. Several campesinos in the north had turned against their liberators for not being able to protect them from the sadistic former somocistas who would tear out a man's eyes for registering the campesinos to vote.
The tired old example was this: You build a new school and the contras burn it to the ground. You build it a second time, and the contras return to burn it again, this time perhaps killing a teacher. This time you look at it, look and the odds, and stop. The school is not rebuilt, and at a very small cost, the contra terrorists have won. Even when the U.S. ostensibly stopped funding the contras, when the U.S. congress made it illegal, the contras were still kept fighting through the corruption later discovered in the Iran-Contra scandals, where individuals sold guns to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contras.
So it wasn't paradise, and the closest it came to being paradise was the hope it offered. Every Wednesday, as I had the year before, I went to the American embassy to hear a couple of speeches and share solidarity. The U.S. embassy itself was wrapped in barbed wire as if it expected a massive attack from hordes of Mongols at any minute. It was an ugly, frightening place, but I went there to the peace vigil on Wednesdays to put in my contribution, a show of one more person to quietly pray for those who had died seeking freedom and sovereignty for the Nicaraguan people.
At those speeches I would hear the same verbalized hopes. If only the United States would leave them alone... If only the United States would lift the embargo... If only the United States would pay the huge fine levied upon it by the World Court for bombing the Nicaraguan harbor. Always, I was quiet as I returned to my Nica friends' homes and ate their bread and beans and mangos and slept in their bed.
Still, in the midst of these frustrations, there WAS hope. It never occurred to any of us that Daniel Ortega could lose the election. All polling supported that. The people might be strangled for goods by the U.S. embargo and poverty might still be enveloping the country as a result of Somoza's theft of the country's treasury and the cost of fighting the contras, but with tenacity, and enough time, we would prevail. By the time Daniel began heavily campaigning for a second term, there had been a peace treaty with the contras, so except for the danger of a random terrorist act in the north, attention could be devoted to the campaign. I was able to obtain good press credentials and, as a result, to travel with the journalists who went with Daniel and Sergio from rally to rally. I have never been good at estimating figures, but at every rally, thousands, whether it was two thousand or five thousand, appeared. The supporters were not called in; they simply dropped their shovels or coffee aprons and came when they knew he was speaking. Wherever we went, the president and vice-president were met by throngs. They touched him, handed him notes; he touched them, hugged them. Never once did I see any equivalent of the U.S. secret service hovering over them.
Once, in Jinotega, I was on the platform from which Daniel was speaking. These platforms were hastily built out in the open, eight or nine feet high, so that the speaker was visible to the thousands who listened. I was at that time carrying a huge early Sony video recorder, not the professional kind but every bit as large. I was scanning the crowd from the platform, keeping a few feet behind the president, my hands and body focused on managing the awkwardly large recorder. I turned suddenly and felt my camera lunge into someone.
I pulled away and froze. Though he caught his balance in time and no damage was done, I had almost knocked the Vice President of Nicaragua off the high platform. Never have I apologized more profusely; never have I meant it so sincerely, but he kept assuring me, insisting that I not be concerned, that it was all okay, no damage done.
Take a light moment with a very serious heart. Imagine you're standing two feet from Dick Cheney and suddenly you accidentally clobber him and he almost falls eight feet to the ground. Imagine. Do so and you will find yourself with an enormous glimpse into the difference between Nicaragua in 1990 and the U.S.
It was at the beginning of these rallies that I really met the man I'd seen driving his own SUV a year earlier on my second day in Managua (see Part I). I'd caught a taxi to the press center to get the bus to Matagalpa, where a large demonstration and rally awaited us. The taxi was late and slow, and the press bus was gone by the time I arrived. I ran around to the back of the building housing the press office and no one was there but Daniel and two men riding with him. On the other side of the parking lot were a couple of other vehicles and maybe another half dozen people. I felt desperate, but there was no way to rectify my being late. This was one I would just have to sit out.
I was standing there, probably looking dejected, when Daniel left his two companions and walked over to me. I'm smalltown and simple enough that I was utterly overwhelmed to see the man who presided over the country I so loved walking up to me. It was one of the most humbling experiences of my life and also one of the greatest. I should have counted on it: my mouth went dry. Tunnel vision made my head dizzy, and I suddenly felt absurd. It was true that half the women in Managua were in love with Daniel, but surely I wasn't simply having some strange chemical reaction to "el gallo." I wanted both to make it indelible in memory and, at the same time, to be miles away from the moment.
He asked what he could do for me. My mind raced. If I told him I had missed the bus, would it appear that I was hinting for a ride? Then again, what a fantastic thing to tell my great grandchildren, how I had once thumbed a ride with the president. I decided on the spot; I would DO it. I would ask if I could hop a ride.
We were talking while I was deciding. He was asking me where I was from, that kind of thing. It was a limited conversation, as Daniel's English is pretty equivalent to my Spanish. He was asking me questions about Texas that I couldn't quite understand. I tried telling him what a wonderful experience it had been to travel with the press corps, and I doubt he fully understood. Idiotically, I thought of the words of the popular campaign song, "Daniel es mi gallo."
After a few more words and an exchange of many "me gusto"s and other fragments of things that I hoped were coming out in the right language -- I remembered once telling a taxi driver in Guadelajara that he was a very nice horse (caballo v. caballero) -- and prayed I wasn't doing a repeat performance here. A moment of silence and the realization that his companions were becoming impatient made me swallow hard. Time to hitch the ride I could tell the great grandchildren about. I opened my mouth and heard words; but I wasn't asking for a ride. Like someone suddenly possessed by an alien in control of her voice, I heard my voice asking where I could get a Sandinista scarf like the one he was wearing.
He excused himself, went back to his SUV, rummaged around in the back while the two men with him made exaggerated looks at their watches, and then I saw him returning with an identical kerchief. Instead of fainting, and instead of having the politeness to ask permission, I lifted my camera and took a photo of him as he brought me my scarf.
In all the years that have passed since that very emotional twenty or so minutes, I have tried to lay that experience down objectively, to analyze its essence and from that essence understand what it meant beyond something as shallow as a smalltown girl getting some attention from someone in a high position. I may, in my momentary awe, have hallucinated the words to "Daniel es mi gallo," but I knew even in this, one of the most unforgettable moments of my life, that there was a meaning that went very very far beyond having anything to do with me. It was almost like listening to the climax of Brahms' Academic Festival Overture and directing it with one finger and then trying to find the meaning of life in the finger. What happened to me, I knew even then, was nothing. But what had just happened meant something enormous.
What those moments of talk meant, what the absence of bodyguards meant, what his giving me one of his own scarves meant, what the sum total meant was that for a short time, in this very poor country, a few poets had found something that possibly no other country at that particular time could replicate. That discovery, in its infancy that afternoon, carved a figure of what it represented. It carved a piece of history or time or thought or possibility that we in the United States can barely comprehend. We long ago lost the ability to comprehend such a human interchange rippling through our country from the most to the least important citizen. We lost the ability to comprehend that we are all equal. We lost the ability to comprehend it most likely because we never had it. Because of that picture, the one carved, backed up by the photo I so brazenly took and now so treasure, I've been able to develop myriad thoughts on what makes a good country, what makes a bad country, what makes a country grown distant, too big, too unmanageable, too corrupt, lacking in its last vestiges of innocence.
Being formed for the good of all the people and not just a select minority is the core of what makes the difference. The United States long ago lost that drive to build what was better for all, and I'm not at all certain that we ever had it. Nicaragua did. The president could chat with a foreign journalist who stuttered in his presence. No big deal.
Before that afternoon and after the election in which we lost out to the U.S. sponsored coalition, I often heard those years referred to as Camelot, and a hundred times or more I've paused and listened to Richard Burton's voice from the soundtrack of the broadway musical, words of King Arthur telling a young page to make the world remember that once there was a Camelot. I am not implying great similarity between the grandiose stories we have of Arthurian Camelot and the heartfelt and fullest attempt a few poets-turned-guerillas made to create a Central American country where justice could be found and grown, where the poor would never be without the basic rights a human should have. I am saying, however, that what happened in Nicaragua between 1979 and 1990 may be as close to a Camelot as the region and the nature of our species is capable of creating.
We all have the ability, if only occasionally, to sense non-verbal epiphanies of goodness. Maybe we're wrong sometimes, but we're usually not, not when the sense is like a huge gong alive with certainty. Though I had not arrived in Nicaragua unbiased and had never pretended to, that sense of such certainty was not filed down to the point of being inoperable or invisible. I felt it in a shoe store a year earlier when I met Miguel d'Escoto as he looked for a good pair of walking shoes. I felt it when I almost knocked Sergio Ramirez off an eight-foot high platform and heard his compassionate insistence that it was all right. And I felt it when I could see in Daniel Ortega's face that he did not like my country but that he was vastly ahead of one who thinks of a country as representing all its people. He was more concerned that one of those people wanted one of his scarves and he made the time to find it.
Those not familiar with the history of the Sandinistas often don't know that most of these people were young men who left school and family at an early age to go to the mountains and learn what they must do to free their country from a form of decades-long enslavement. In truth, they didn't KNOW what they had to do to be able to face the notorious National Guard, Somoza's wealth, and the backing of the U.S. They were of necessity making it up as they moved along. They lived those years in the most miserable of circumstances, in the mountains and the jungles, often without enough to eat, often having to survive on monkey. They gave up their youth and were willing to give their lives while being vastly outnumbered and having the enemy with the power of the U.S. for protection of the status quo.
The oddity that may well never be replicated is that most of them were poets. Some were good poets and writers. Omar Cabezas' work is excellent. Some are not very good poets. Daniel's poetry will probably not be compared to Heberto Padilla's. But they were mostly poets nevertheless. And perhaps it was the poet in them that made for a dream unlike any other I've ever read of. It has always been indicative of their central core that their very first action, despite the atrocities they had suffered at the hands of Somoza's National Guard, despite the tortuous deaths their kinsmen had suffered at the hands of the U.S.-supported contras, had been to abolish the death penalty.
A couple of weeks after I first met Daniel I interviewed Violetta Chamorro. Violetta had been a member of the junta that ruled Nicaragua until their first election in 1984. The meeting was in her office of La Prensa, the Chamorro family newspaper. She and Daniel Ortega had separated their ideologies some years earlier, and watching her as we spoke in her office I wondered how they had ever sat together in a united group trying for the same goals. A pleasant woman, and one with, I believe, more intelligence than that for which she is credited. But she was not of the same construction as Miguel d'Escoto or Daniel Ortega. I would never say that Violetta Chamorro did not have her people's best interests at heart, but I did not have that sense of total selflessness that was part of my magical moments with the poets.
Our conversation ran out of steam after I asked my prepackaged questions, so after the pause that is a sign that it's time to go, I went to the one that was crucial in the election: censorship. Daniel had closed down La Prensa, knowing he would be condemned around the world for this act against freedom of the press. We talked about that, but she was evasive when I asked her how she would handle it if she were president and the largest and best financed newspaper in the country began to advocate her overthrow.
After that she began to play with her glasses, looked over at me and said, "I can give you advice, Lisa. Good advice." I bit. "Get a pair of these," she answered, unsmiling, pointing to the cord attached to her eyeglasses so that she could take them off and wear them around her neck. It was a surreal exchange in slow motion. She was my country's pick for the next president of Nicaragua, and she was telling me to buy eyeglass cords. If the Nicaraguans did as the U.S. told them to do, she would be president and the U.S. would lift its embargo.
"The embargo..." I began. It was too late. She already knew where my heart was and had given me the only advice she would ever give me. She tugged at her eyeglass cord again. "New York," she said. "Get a pair in New York."
That was over fifteen years ago, and I'd almost forgotten the advice that the next president of Nicaragua once gave me, to get eyeglass cords in New York. So little it was as far as the end of an interview with the soon-to-be-famous woman of Nicaragua. I'd left with little of an opinion one way or another. Yes, she was a puppet of the U.S. but no, she wasn't an evil person. She was just a woman born and married into wealth who was chosen at the right moment of her country's history by a country who was going to control her country no matter what. Probably I sensed even then that despite her best efforts she was unlikely to do anything for Nicaragua. Then, just a few weeks ago I suddenly remembered her AND her advice. A gift came in the mail from a friend in New York. Three lovely eyeglass cords, the first I'd ever owned. Perhaps she was prophetic and just never had a chance to put it to use.
But on that afternoon fifteen years ago, I left La Prensa feeling empty. Afterwards I wished I could rewind the tape and talk about what I most wanted to talk about, the embargo. Early on during the campaign I knew that if ANYTHING could defeat Daniel, it would be the U.S. embargo.
Embargos and sanctions are powerful weapons, but they don't always accomplish exactly what they were designed to do. Probably the first trade sanctions began in 432 B.C. when Pericles of Athens imposed sanctions on Megara. Wounded by the sanctions, Megara went to Sparta for help. The result was the Peloponnesian War.
I'm in that group who loathes and despises sanctions. The sanctions on Iraq prior to the last invasion killed hundreds of thousands of babies but never kept a bowl of figs from Saddam. Much of the blood on our hands comes from Iraqi deaths due to sanctions. For almost half a century the U.S. has imposed sanctions on Cuba. Cuba has simply found aid elsewhere and been able to show the world an interesting anomaly -- in the land of the free, U.S. citizens can't join their British and Italian and Canadian friends to enjoy the beautiful Cuban beaches. Most likely it was the 1941 embargo the U.S. laid on Japan, depriving it of oil, that led to the bombing of Pearl Harbor which, in turn, unleashed the first nuclear bombs ever used.
Sanctions mortally wounded the dreams of those Nicaraguans who gave their youths and, in some cases their lives, to bring freedom and justice to a people who had never been able to fully remove their country from underneath the boot of their powerful northern neighbor. For a brief time, a few dedicated men with the backing of the Nicaraguan people themselves were able to slide themselves out from under that boot and grow a national pride and dignity previously unable to exist. The embargo killed it. The people of Nicaragua who swore in all the polls that they planned to vote for Daniel voted instead for U.S. dollars and the removal of the hated embargo, and in so doing, the best of them lost the dignity that had taken so many years to gain.
On February 25, 1990, the people of Nicaragua went to the polls. I videotaped the parade held shortly before that. I spoke with and taped members of the Communist Party who disliked the Sandinistas intensely but agreed that probably they would win because "Nicaragua is not yet ready for Communism." I talked with members of the Marxist-Leninist Party, who found Daniel far far too soft on landowners but agreed that he'd probably win anyway. On that day I taped conversations with people from fifteen different parties, and no one, however opposed to the Sandinistas, seemed to really believe that the coalition put together by the U.S. could defeat the incumbents.
On the night of the election, all of us who were with the press or worked as observers gathered in the huge Olaf Palme building, a gift to the Sandinistas from Sweden. Outside, men with machetes were expertly cutting the grass. Spirits were high and the biggest question was exactly how we would celebrate the victory.
When the results began to come in, no one could understand. More results came in and we realized we were not just getting some non-Sandinista areas in. At some point we realized that the Sandinistas were going to lose, by a notable amount. Almost no one could speak. What first appeared to be logic turned on its ear, upon closer inspection, turned out to be logic in pure form. The winner was going to be the U.S. coalition. People had to take care of their families. U.S. dollars would put a lot of food on the table. Even with that sudden understanding, I was exactly like everyone in the Olaf Palme, stunned.
When we reached the point where it was no longer a question, Daniel had still not conceded. It was early morning and grown men were seen with tears on their cheeks. I waited and waited, wanting -- as did everyone there -- to see Daniel. When we finally heard that he had conceded on the strong advice of Jimmy Carter, who was with him, we knew we wouldn't see him that morning. Everyone was exhausted, and we knew that both he and President Carter would be as well.
I started walking home, several miles away. By the time I neared the El Dorado barrio where I was living it was late enough in the morning that normally people would be out sweeping the never--ending Managuan dust out the front doors. People would be going out for coffee, to pick up a newspaper.
But it was silent. No doors opened. Nothing, as if everyone in the neighborhood was hiding behind curtains. Not a sound or a face until I was ready to turn down the street on which I was living, when a young boy, maybe ten, ran to me with newspapers to sell.
"U.S. Dollars. We get U.S. Dollars." He shouted it over and over.
The election was valid. There were not the questionable machines that the U.S. now has to deal with. Nobody hid boxes of ballots. It was, in truth, and from a literal standpoint, probably more valid than any election the U.S. will ever have again. But fair?
Is it fair to steal a nation's right to commodities, then bribe them, and finally pretend to sell their dignity back to them for a few dollars?
We knew the embargo would soon be lifted, and Dolma could get the Excedrin that I brought her each winter. The sadness in our own house, a Sandinista house where one son had been killed by Somocistas, all for nothing now, was so extreme as to be tense. No matter what anyone said, I felt like the enemy. I was the daughter of my country as long as I kept returning to it, kept paying taxes to it. I could bring all the trinkets in the world back each winter, and that wouldn't change. We tried getting together with neighbors to drink beer, and no one in the neighborhood would admit to voting for the coalition.
Only the little boys, those who spot naked emperors, would speak the truth: "U.S. dollars are coming."
I had an open ticket, so I called Sahsa and made my reservation to return "home." I skipped a lot of goodbyes, for their sakes and for mine, and I spent my last day alone, walking the ruined downtown of Managua, gutted by earthquake and Somoza's bombs, serving as shelters for homesteaders now.
Finally I found 8-year old Miguel, whom I had avoided, knowing he was one of the boys who believed fairyland was coming. I'd hung out with Miguel a few afternoons on the baseball field near the main drag, taking him to an El Salvadoran restaurant he liked, mostly because I bought him cokes to drink. American cokes; he loved them. From the looks one of the waitresses gave him, I suspected he had stolen from them at some time, maybe a coke, maybe a leftover hamburger. He was an orphan, missing his left hand after reaching for a mine far to the north a long time ago. He didn't have to tell me he was glad the "pretty lady" had won the election. I knew he was. He was a believer
Years have passed. Illiteracy has risen again. The corner health clinics have been shut down. Nicaragua is now the poorest country in the western hemisphere. People have tried to smear Daniel Ortega's name as he has remained active, running and losing in two subsequent elections. He is now said to be making a comeback, with alliances that will possibly put him in the spotlight again. Whether this is the same man who left law school to go to the jungle and fight to free his country, I don't know. Whether this is the same el gallo who brought literacy and a higher standard of health to his country, I don't know. Whether it is still the poet, I don't know. If it IS and if he shows signs of rising again, the U.S. will quickly put him in the stew they are trying to make of everyone in Latin America who wants total freedom from the U.S., freedom to pursue a brand of socialism right for their countries.
Every night I say the equivalent of a prayer that Hugo Chavez doesn't eat anything that hasn't been tested. His is a country of hope now, and I look at it and remember Nicaragua and realize that there is no end to what my own country will do to people who dare to seriously dream of freedom, who dare to question whether the U.S. way is the best way for the rest of the world.
Daniel once said, "Everybody in Nicaragua is a poet until proven otherwise." It may be that it is on that one easily-remembered comment that the history of Nicaragua hangs.
Leigh Saavedra, formerly writing as Lisa Walsh Thomas, has been writing, in one genre or another, all her life. She appreciates comments at Saavedra1979 yahoo.com