"DESTABILIZATION" -- that's the word used to describe CIA activities in fifty countries around the globe, including Nicaragua, a small country of 3.5 million people and a huge cheering section. The ordinary citizens living in Latin American countries with oppressive regimes hope the Sandinista revolution will succeed. In a sense Reagan is right to be worried about the Sandinista social experiment: It could spread.
At any one rime about 1,000 Americans and 100 Canadians are at work on projects or trips to Nicaragua. Our church group of eleven went to help build village houses.
It's easy to get to Nicaragua; Toronto to Miami to San Jose to Managua takes only nine hours. Even the American in Toronto airport commented, It makes more sense to build houses than to send weapons. Unfortunately, my government doesn't agree with me." He was the first of many Americans we were to meet who oppose Reagan's policy.
In Managua, the dusty capital city of one million, the temperature hits 40 degrees Celsius. Its centre was wrecked in a 1972 earthquake, giving it a bombed-out look. There are plans to rebuild, though the danger still exists.
Nicaraguans rise early and sardine themselves into decrepit buses or hitch rides to work. Many seem idle. The unemployment rate is between 25 and 40 percent, depending on how you count the black market economy. Prices are controlled and scarce items such as gasoline are rationed. This benefits the poor but creates a black economy. Prices of essentials such as rice and beans are kept so low that farmers don't grow enough and prefer to supply the black market. The water is cut off several days a week, power failures are common and things like soap and toilet paper are scarce. We clutch our own supplies day and night.
Some of us have read the history of interventions in Nicaragua -- first by the Spaniards, then the British. Since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, the U.S. has considered itself the protector of Central America, sending in the Marines whenever American interests were endangered.
When the Marines departed in 1933 they left an American-trained police force, the National Guard under General Anastasio Somoza. But the Nicaraguans had their own hero. Augusto Sandino (hence the name Sandinista) led the guerrilla war. His small group began in 1927, housed and fed by sympathetic campesinos. He was promised a place in the government, but when he came into Managua the National Guard assassinated him.
Somoza -- first the father and then his two sons -- ruled Nicaragua until 1979, becoming more repressive as the opposition, the FSLN, grew. One of Somoza's insults was to seize the massive relief money given to Nicaragua after the 1972 earthquake in which 20,000 died. Somoza fled the 1979 revolution and was assassinated in 1980 in Paraguay. Evidence shows the 1984 elections were honest. The Sandinistas won 67 percent of the vote and 61 out of 96 seats as one of 7 political parties, yet the Reagan government views the regime as undemocratic and pro-Communist. Reagan follows the old Monroe Doctrine based on maintaining economic advantage for the United States. When the Sandinistas took over, they abolished capital punishment, so the National Guard members were not executed. This may have been a mistake because some now lead the Contras. In all our political discussions with our new friends-and some were very anti-Sandinista, no one had a good word for the Contras.
The stated purpose of the Contras, the soldiers trained by the CIA, is to destabilize Nicaragua. The recent switch in Contra tactics from a border war to terrorist-style raids on bridges and electrical pylons further inland will probably induce more people to leave. There are armed guards on the bridges but in the sunshine the Contras seem far away.
On our first day in Managua we visit Angeles Lopez, Assistant Director of Housing. In her office hangs a picture of Sandino in sombrero and black clothes. Nervously chain-smoking, she describes her government's efforts to provide low cost housing. Because housing is subsidized, owners are chosen on the basis of need, number of children, and salary. To prevent profiteering, an owner is not allowed to sell the house for twenty years. She admits 18,000 houses a year are needed but only 5,000 will be built this year. When asked about equality, she jokes that they try to give equal opportunity to the men.
Government policy, she explains, is to decentralize services into the countryside. Managua is too large and shanty areas are springing up. Each rural development has its own school and every ten houses will have water.
After our interview we stop at the market to buy straw hats, then visit Iglesia de Dios, the evangelical House of God. Since Nicaragua is eighty percent Roman Catholic, we would have preferred to meet with someone to discuss the split in the church over the new government. Some Jesuits are Sandinistas, but the Catholic hierarchy has been critical of them and the enforced resettlement of the east coast Misquito Indians away from their homelands and the Contra attacks. Ortega is negotiating now with the church and the Indians.
At the Plaza de la Revolución, a towering statue of a man raising a huge gun in the air disturbs our nonviolent hearts. The cathedral, alter the earthquake, is too shaky to be restored. We marvel at the paintings under the dome. Vandals have removed everything within reach but some gold leaf remains. Jesus and the disciples are white men.
The next morning we are on our way to work. It is 80 km down the Pan-American highway to the dusty town of Las Calabazas, meaning "pumpkins," a community of tiny homes, bands of smiling children, an abandoned Catholic church, a crumbling pool hall, and a utilitarian school. Noisy chickens, pigs, and cattle roam the dirt streets. We go straight to the edge of town, where the project has begun. We will sleep in an almost finished house. No plumbing or electricity, no water from noon to 5:00 pm., the hottest hours. But we have kerosene 'lamps, backyard toilet, and a M*A*S*H-style shower.
Feeling pale and gringo on our first day on the job, we line up in front of the boss, Ramon, who hands out pick-axes and shovels and indicates where we are to dig trenches for the next house. By 9:30 am. we are exhausted, while Nicaraguans working with us are fresh and strong.
We rest every day from noon to 3:00, walk in slow motion, seek out the sparse shade, and drink often from our canteens. But one proud day Ramon measures our first ditches and declares them straight and deep enough.
We are objects of curiosity; an alter-school pastime is to crowd around, staring through the partially-boarded up windows into our open kitchen. The children's good-natured but persistent curiosity takes some getting used to. The whole town dug trenches for the water system when other Canadians built the reservoir on the hill. The town's next project is a medical centre, already begun. The government has promised them their own doctor when the building is completed. Another local initiative is the pre-school nursery with fifty children and two volunteer teachers. Their small room has a mud floor and the little children carry their own chairs to school on their heads.
On our final evening in Las Calabazas we gather in the half-built house where some of us have learnt to soak and lay bricks. A ribbon across the doorway is cut and we crowd together for a group hug. It feels good to be at peace with each other, with God, and to be a small part of the solution in a warring world.
Back in Managua, our last serious meeting is with Dr. Gustavo Parajon, President of a coalition of seventy denominations, which expanded from helping the earthquake's victims to setting up rural development and leadership programs. Dr. Parajon answers our questions directly. "No, the Sandinistas do not persecute Christians," he says. "Some are in trouble because of their political activities." Will the U.S. invade? "The war exercises in Honduras worry both us and Costa Rica. The U.S. is saying to the Hondurans that they will always defend them against the Sandinistas." But there is no evidence the Sandinistas will invade. In January of 1984 the draft increased the Sandinista army from 32,000 to 62,000. "The government does not call up pastors and priests but does not recognize conscientious objector status," he says. When we ask what we can do, Parajon quickly answers, "Stop the war. Work on your U.S. neighbors and the churches. Nicaragua is being squelched for nought. With 60 percent of the national budget for defence, the standard of living is decreasing for the common people. This war is being waged against us by the most powerful country in the world."
Nicaragua is not a Communist country. Ortega considers the Communist label an insult and describes his experiment as a unique socialist regime based on a mixed economy (60 percent privately owned), political pluralism, and a nonaligned foreign policy. "The solution to our economic problem," he claims, "does not lie in the liquidation of private property."
The Russians have sent wheat, fuel, helicopters, and help in rebuilding fuel tanks that the U.S. blew up. But four times as much help comes from other countries.
The Sandinistas are far from perfect. Constitutional rights have been suspended and the opposition paper La Prensa, financially supported by the U.S., closed down. However, a call-in radio show critical of the government now boasts 600,000 listeners. When two of our group attended a movie, the film was stopped and the doors were closed so police could check the audience for draft dodgers. Increased Contra pressure will unfortunately bring increased militarization of Nicaragua.
The U.S. discourages other countries from helping the Sandinistas. So far, Canada's policy on Central America differs from Reagan's. We gave increased trade with Nicaragua, we support international law, and we have a more open refugee policy. If the U.S. continues to see every national people's movement as a global Communist strategy, they will continue fighting on the side of the propertied rich against the poorest of the poor.