In Lak'ech. I returned last night from two months of work and travel in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. Reverse culture shock is setting in, so I have retreated to my cave-like basement apartment here in Boulder and will proceed to spew thoughts.
Last time around I presented a brief overview of U.S. involvement in Central American politics, and promised a "let the people speak" type article about Nicaragua. I was fortunate enough to stumble upon a situation which helped me achieve this goal. While in Nicaragua, I stayed for a few days in Esteli with a man named don Rafael. Esteli was the center of Sandinist support during the revolution and was the primary site of the bloody insurrection of September, 1978. Afterwards I travelled through Managua, a hot and dirty festering sore on the land, to the right-wing towns of Masaya and Granada. Thus the "right" and the "left" became living people for me. In Granada, the violence of the revolution was quite apparent from the bullet riddled buildings and the wounded veterans who sat on street corners selling lottery tickets.
My experiences in Nicaragua and throughout Latin America have led me to perceive things from a wider perspective, especially in being able to view the U.S. from without. The developing problem that I see in North and Central America is not the constant friction between the right and the left, but the widening gap between the upper and lower classes.
In the United States, this process of separation and increasing disunity is akin to cell mitosis, wherein a former wholeness is breached by an ever widening gap of polarized forces. The ruling elite, consisting primarily of W.A.S.P.'s., no longer represent the people of America. This is because a vast underground migration of legal and illegal aliens from south of the border has been taking place, filling even our northern cities with large spanish-speaking neighborhoods and hispanic sub-cultures.
At the rate immigrants are flooding through the borders, Hispanic culture is quickly becoming the primary culture, while the white ruling minorities tenuously cling to their self-appointed positions of control. Denver, L.A., Chicago, New York and Miami all have enormous Hispanic populations, and Denver and Miami have even passed "english only" laws. As an international observer of cultural trends, I see this causing a large upper/lower class division in the United States, which is fueled by the refusal of the ruling class to compromise their lifestyle, and the unstopable movement of people north, into the "land of plenty." As the Indian people know, the dominant culture will inevitably win out, and those unwilling to embrace the strange ways of the invading masses will simply die.
However, it's not an ethnic or nationalistic division that is at issue - "Mexicans against Americans" - but economic class division. Even in Mexico, perhaps more so, class division is the way of life. In addition, while Nicaraguans and Guatemalans have great difficulty entering the States (even as war refugees), it seems relatively easy for Japanese foreigners to enter the country as tourists, students, or workers. Why is this? Why are the doors open to one country and closed to the other? Money and economic class seem to be at the root of it.
The way in which the upper class rejects the lower class, and designs covert systems of prejudice, was blatantly evident in Cuernavaca, south of Mexico City. It was the last few days of my pack-bum adventure and the money was tight. I had mistakenly chosen the elite and high-strung town of Cuernavaca - where the Palace of Cortez still stands - to spend my last few days, and everything was outrageously expensive. So I bought some bread and picked a spot on my map, Chapultepec Park, a good and long walk from the polluted city center.
When I arrived I saw it had been converted into a theme park, and for the glorious privilege of venturing therein, a hefty fee was charged. No doubt the poorer people of the town could never afford to enjoy the nearby trees and streams of Chapultepec, for a cunningly purposive class apartheid had been implemented. I had chosen the park on my map as a natural place to escape the rat race and the exhaust fumes of the streets, quiet and free from human manipulation and divisiveness. The development of Chapultepec serves to delineate those people who have money from those who don't. The key here is "divisiveness". It seems like a calculated "device" to inflict division on the populace. Somewhere along the process of city planning, as the city grew and "progressed," someone had the idea to develop the park (rides, toys, railings, cement benches, garbage cans, concessions) and charge for entry. This practice is extended even to the point of forbidding to bring snacks and drinks into the park. In Mexico, where garbage cans are ignored, this rule might seem appropriate - until one sees all the city-run concessions inside the park. (And all the garbage in the grass!)
I used to go to the park for a picnic. In this case I'd go to spend money and experience nature in a style that someone else has decided. Exactly what I weanted to avoid. Divisiveness. I am divided from those who can pay, as well as still being divided from a true communion with nature. It seems purposefully devised, separating and defining the upper and lower classes, the haves and the have nots, and this is called progress. Then when I look at a more primitive country like Guatemala, I hope that this is not the kind of "progress" that will come to it. Yet alas, with the U.S. holding the reins of Central American development, I fear the worst. Nicaragua is the most graphic demonstration of what this class division can lead to: revolution.
I don't believe that the Sandinista revolution was spurned by Marxist infiltration. If anything, Marxism was a vehicle of freedom for the oppressed lower class, an ideological response to the U.S. supported "democracy" of the Somoza regime. Ironically, the "democracy" rhetoric surrounding the Somoza clan merely masked a dictatorship. In a converse way, therefore, one might suspect that the Socialist ideological claims of the Sandinistas were not essential to the freedom of self-determination (i.e., democracy) that was attempted through the revolution - and which was opposed at every step by the U.S. This paradoxical confusion is characteristic of Central American politics and shouldn't come as a surprise. To keep things simple, I will relate my discussions with don Raphael. First, a little travel background to put my arrival in Nicaragua into perspective.
I had just finished a four week work project near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. After a few days of resting in Antigua, I took an early bus to Guatemala City and connected with a bus heading east. By early afternoon, with the lowland tropical sun pouring down on me, I was hiking through endless fields of bananas looking for the ruin site of Quirigua. This site is, in fact, on private property, although it was set aside as an archeological area. Quirigua is best known for its statues, some towering 30 and 40 feet in the air. These stelae - the Maya called them te-tuns, or tree-stones - contain Long Count and Tzolkin dates enabling archeologists to accurately correlate them with our Gregorian calendar. Most are from the Classic Maya period, 300 to 900 A.D. After a few hours of exploring Quirigua, I was able to hitch a ride on a pick-up truck back to the highway. There I doubled back a short distance to the turn off for the Honduran border. I stood on this desolate outpost for only a few minutes when another bus came by. My goal for the day was to arrive safely in Esquipulas, home of the church of the Black Christ. The town is a mecca for pilgrims and is situated in a corner of Guatemala within 20 miles of both Honduras and El Salvador. Luckily, the town was not crowded and I found a small room near the church for about $1.50. After dumping my belongings, I went back to the church. Perhaps a dozen people were inside. It was almost 10 O'clock, and many of them were devoutly praying in front of the Black Christ. Local history attributes miracles to the statue. Afterwards, as I left the church and descended the long promenade of steps, a beautiful Guatemalan woman with a baby in her arms approached me. She asked me if I would marry her and take her to the States. Her husband had just been killed in the army. Needless to say, that was something I needed time to think about.
The next morning I arose early and began an uncertain trip through Honduras and Nicaragua. As often happens in Central America, fate blessed me with a strange occurrence. I got on the collectivo which ran to the border, thinking I could simply purchase my Honduran visa when I got there. A young man on the collectivo - unaccountably - asked me directly whether I had my visa yet. I said no, I didn't. As we began trundling through town, he insisted that we get off the collectivo together, right now, before it's too late. This is a dilemma that the traveller often confronts. A situation in which a quick decision is necessary. One must balance the all-too-present fear of following a stranger in a strange land with the knowledge that this kind of unaccountable guidance from a stranger often leads to an unexpected blessing. And the latter proved to be the case. Miguel led me back to the central park and a government building where he said I needed to obtain my visa, before proceeding to the border. He brought me into the office, took my passport, had a word with the clerk, and was gone. I couldn't even thank him. Two minutes later my ride to Esteli walked in. Obviously a gringo, the red-haired man spoke with a familar accent. I decided to take a chance, approached him and asked, "Are you from Chicago?" His face brightened. Mark Engstrom was, in fact, from Chicago. He had a pick-up truck and we agreed to join forces for the ride through Honduras. He was going to Managua to be a teacher and would drop me in Esteli. God was I lucky. The trip through Honduras could have taken me 2 or 3 entire days. As a result of the Guatemalan angel on the collectivo, I was eating a hearty breakfast in Esteli within 24 hours. Vaya Con Dios.
Honduras was a long drive, not to mention the complicated and tedious border crossing. After some unexpected delays at various points in our trip through Honduras (and after sleeping for 5 hours that night in a godsend hotel in Danli) we crossed the border at Los Manos into Nicaragua early the next morning. At the border I was compelled, as all "tourists" were, to buy $60 worth of Nicaraguan money. At some 500,000 cordobas to the dollar, well, you figure it out. My bizarre introduction to Nicaragua was via the jagged hills near Ocotal. Along the highway we passed villages and shotgun shacks, where dozens of little children extended their hands out to us. They looked right at us as we passed, arosing a sense of need and poverty. But ultimately I was unsure whether they were saying hello or just wanted "a hand out."
In Esteli, I stayed with don Rafael and his family in the barrio 14 de Abril. He was a man with dignity, nearing sixty, living with two sons, a daughter, his wife and little grandson in a small house that he built a year before the '78 insurrection. The barrio was well planned and relatively new, having sprung up in the mid 70's. Power lines fed the humble dwellings with civilization's propaganda, evident from the many T.V. antennas strapped onto poles and raised high above the roofs.
Talking to don Rafael over the next few days, I was happy to learn that he was eager to share his experiences and his thoughts on the recent changes with the new government. We sat at the card table in his kitchen and drank coffee.
"My father was a Yankee marine who came here in 1931. He was here for three years and fell in love with my mother."
I was curious as to his father's role in ousting Sandino. Ostensibly, this was the reason for a U.S. presence in the region during the early 30's. I asked, "Wasn't this around the time that Sandino was leading the rebellion?"
"Yes," don Rafael replied. "After I was born and Sandino was killed, my father left and I never knew him."
I wondered about what had taken place in Esteli during the more recent revolution. Many buildings were still torn up with bullet holes and shattered plaster; entire sections of occupied stores were destroyed. I asked don Rafael about this, and why they hadn't been fixed.
"Well, most of the town was completely destroyed during the insurrection so, in fact, there has been a lot of repair done." Don Rafael spoke with slowly considered words, intensely delivered. "That was a time of heroes and martyrs. The insurrection took place in September of 1978. My family was scared. The Somocista army was in the town center." (The barrio where don Rafael lives is about a mile from the town center.)
"What led to the insurrection?"
He paused and condensed the events leading up to the insurrection as much as possible.
"Before the insurrection , the land was held by the Somocistas, and was not equally made available for people to farm. Everything grown on the land was given to the landowner, and we could barely survive on what was allowed to us."
I asked, "Who were the landowners?"
The "Somocistas" were supporters of and participants in the Somoza government prior to the revolution. Historically, this government, while being supported in various financial and political ways by the United States, is now recognized for its increasingly dictatorial style in the years leading up to the revolution. This "style" of government involved assassinations, press censorship, and human rights violations.
Don Raphael continued. "After the revolution we had farms run by ourselves. We had control of our lives. Things were good for a while. But then prices went up. We couldn't get beans or rice. For three years we could barely eat! How can you raise children in such a place?"
Don Raphael told me this with anger and righteous indignation. Ignorant Reaganites use these facts - that the quality of life declined in Nicaragua after the Sandinistas took over - as proper proof that the Sandinistas were inept at running a country. But the cause of inhumane living conditions was actually in terms of U.S. policy; don Rafael understood these problems to be complex, but was also aware of the extreme scarcity of simple commodities resulting from the U.S. economic embargo. He continued with his experience of the insurrection , and he used that word with pride, as a Christian might say resurrection .
"During the fighting in September of '78 my brother was killed. It was very dangerous to go into town. The insurrection cost many lives and many people died trying to free themselves from the Somocistas. My family and in-laws came to the house here during that time. We had just finished building it. everyone was scared. The babies cried. There were about twenty people here for 15 days."
Don Rafael's house was indeed small. Made of brick, adobe and flatboard, it seemed a stretch to think of 20 people living here for any length of time. There was a communal room in front with a few chairs and a T.V., then this small dining room, perhaps 6 by 8 feet across. The furnishings were simple and few. Locally made chairs and tables and salt shakers made from old bottles. Toward the back of the house were several bedrooms alongside a courtyard filled with flowers and plants. In the far back was the outhouse and an open air kitchen with a primitive wood stove. A few chickens bucked around the courtyard (and screamed wildly at four in the morning). Later when we walked through the night to fetch wood from a friend's house, I looked up at the full moon and remarked whimsically, "La luna es llena." (The moon is full). Don Rafael one-upped me by replying, "Verdad, con agua." (Indeed, with water!)
During my stay I was given the bedroom of don Rafael's son to use, as he was away at the time. Don Rafael was not unused to having guests, as he had been a teacher at the recently closed spanish language school in Esteli. Mark, my ride through Honduras, had taken classes there a few years before, and this was how I was able to hook up with don Rafael. We picked up our conversation the next day over a breakfast of eggs, beans and coffee - the simplest and best breakfast I had in Nicaragua. I asked don Rafael what he thought of the new government.
"We have respect for the new government. And we have hope. But things are changing. Prices are going up again. The small farm collectives that were established are having their bank financing withdrawn. They are being forced to sell out to other wealthy landowners, many of whom were Somocistas. Yes, I fear that with Chamorro the Somocistas are coming back."
Indeed, according to a social worker from England that I talked with, new government "advisors" are being sent in to monitor and reform the farm and social service programs around Esteli. As a result, people who have worked on a grass-roots level in Esteli for years, building up a foundation of community trust and cooperation, were being ousted because they were considered "Sandinistas." In a similar vein, many teachers were being fired because they were known Sandinista supporters. This is really absurd because practically everyone in Esteli supported the revolution. Given the circumstances, who wouldn't? Land reform, class division, and a return of the greed-mongers seems to be the trend of changing policies in Esteli. Ideology is second. If the new government does have a discernable ideology (democracy? think again), it is probably "we want what you got." That old "the commies failed" rhetoric will receive some apparent justification because as the Sandinista "commies" leave and the Chamorro "democracy" enters, the ten-year trade embargo was lifted and Nicaragua's economy will receive a burst of temporary new life.
The slogans all over town revealed the people's concerns: "No mas guerra, queremos la paz" (no more war, we want peace), "Daniel is me Yunta" (Daniel Ortega is my chief), "Chamorro, don't change the teachers!" The amount of mind control and propoganda in Nicaragua is disheartening. Likewise in Guatemala, everywhere in the countryside you see slogans and party catch-phrases, on bridges, trees and rocks.
The Sandinista ethic, being Marxist, is sometimes accused of being anti-God. I asked don Rafael about his feelings in regard to religion. He understood the dilemma between socialist governments and religion, and was convinced that it was not an issue; socialism and religion could co-exist. He demonstrated his point with the salt and pepper shakers.
"This salt shaker is like the people's religion - it is always first." And he placed it on the table.
"Politics is like this pepper shaker." and he placed it on top of the salt shaker.
"The political system may change, but the religion underneath remains the same."
I understood his explanation in the sense that religion is the foundation of the people's worldview, and political orientation is in a different realm, having more of a superficial importance. Don Rafael then told me of a spiritual experience his family had, during the difficult times after the revolution, when food was expensive and hard to find.
Don Rafael's wife became suddenly ill one afternoon and went into a fever. Don Rafael came home and discovered his wife delirious and virtually blinded by some unknown affliction. He recognized that this had probably resulted from the intense stress they were living with, going day to day with little food, and with four children to feed. He immediately went into the street among his neighbors and fell to his knees, praying tearfully and sincerely to God. He did this continuously for three hours, loudly invoking divine intervention, and confessing all his misdeeds. When his wife's crying from inside the house ceased, he went inside and found her sleeping soundly. Her fever had broke and soon she was fully recovered.
To me, this demonstrated that religion is highly personal and a group of people cannot be condemned or judged as "godless" because of their political orientation. It is simply unrealistic to claim that all Marxists are God-denying atheists. Perhaps what a person does is more important than what a person believes. Unfortunately, Evangelical and Fundamentalist right-wing church groups are using this "commie-atheist" excuse to invade Central America with their own twisted brand of religion. The package deal includes outright "buying" of people by giving them money for doctor and dental treatments. The more ghastly aspects of this trend is the funding of Rios Montt's "land reform" projects (i.e., scorched earth genocide) by Jim & Tammy Baker's PTL club - but we don't have the space to explore this here.
The following morning I left Esteli, and remained impressed with don Rafael's friendly hospitality, his honesty, and willingness to share his story. I was going to Masaya and Granada, traditional right-wing towns. Don Rafael told me that the people of Masaya were "muy intelligente." This was equivalent to saying something good about your enemy, your oppressors - something that demonstrated don Rafael's integrity. I wondered if integrity was more important than intelligence.
I retraced my steps back through the barrio, past a seedy pool hall and an inexplicable "collectivo de Mujeres," and boarded a bus for Managua. Later that day, arriving in Granada, I found a town reeking of former glory. Extravagant palacial buildings adorned the town center, all but abandoned and covered with revolutionary propaganda. Business in this town was slow, to say the least. It took me a good while to find something to drink (a warm Coke), and it cost me 350,000 cordobas - about 70 cents. After a long search in the sweltering heat I found a dingy, unkempt hotel. It must have been a nice place in days gone by, what with three floors of balconies and rooms arranged around a small open courtyard. I sort of liked the defunct ambiance. Cracked masonry, broken banisters, aristocratic outdated paintings - as if the upkeep of this place had stopped some 12 years ago. Although none of the tenents were around at the time, the proprietor told me they were almost filled up. The room he showed me, about 6 by 4 feet with a wooden bench as a bed, was all they had left and would cost me half a million cordobas. I swept the rat turds out, left my stuff, and walked to the lake. Lake Nicaragua is a vast salt water expanse connected to the Atlantic Ocean via the San Juan river.
A bit of history is in order here, for it reveals the trend of U.S. policy toward this neglected backwater. In 1856 an American named William Walker sailed up the San Juan and promptly took Granada by force. He was the self declared president of Nicaragua for nearly two years, until he was overthrown and kicked out of the country. Later he was killed. The purpose of this venture came to light years later when it was revealed that this early soldier of fortune was paid off by New York business mogul Cornelius Vanderbilt. It seems that plans for a canal to bridge the oceans were brewing, and the shortest distance from the western shore of Lake Nicaragua (which connects to the Atlantic) to the Pacific is a mere 15 miles. Eventually, of course, the canal was built in Panama, but not without similar corporate/military deception of the locals. (When the deed for the Panama Canal falls back to the "government" of Panama in 1999, it will conveniently be the U.S. puppet government that was set up after kicking out Noriega, ostensibly on boogyman drug charges; "Rambo in Panama" is probably not over yet, so keep paying your taxes).
Walking to the lake, I passed an exclusive and expensive looking hotel. It looked like it still did a decent business with wealthy Nicaraguans. Granada is more westernized/modern compared to Esteli - more late model cars, less army vehicles and khaki green. Most shops and buildings were closed and machine gun damage, as in Esteli tells the tale of revolution. The statue of a Spanish conquistador towers with an imposing air in a little park near the shark infested shore of the lake. The plaque describes its dedication in 1973, with honors to Anastasio Somoza, but his name was defaced. A disco blared music for kids too young to remember anything, and a strange flavor hung over the depressing town, like "look what we've done."
That evening as I sat in the courtyard of my dingy hotel, contemplating a waning full moon, its stale "agua" bleeding all over Latin America, I met Maurice, a traveler from France. He sat down, lit a cigarette, blew smoke with a self consumed air, and shared the story of his travels in the Mosquito Coast along the Coco River.
"For two months I forgot about time, walking from village to village and lived with the Miskito Indians."
I could see that his face was ravaged by rough-shod travel. He was a wiry guy in his late twenties. He had been traveling for about a year, doing a slow route through Casteneda land in Northern Mexico, through Central Mexico, Guatemala, and finally to the Mosquito Coast in the remote frontier of Honduras and Nicaragua. He looked tired, and his foot was bandaged. I asked him, "What happened to your foot?"
"I don't know. It swelled up as I was leaving the jungle." A few silent puffs of smoke, and the inevitable: "I need a beer."
Regardless of his foot, we ventured out in search of beer and found a blissfully air-conditioned restaurant called Asia. We ordered the Nicaraguan made Victoria beer (as in the Queen?) and Maurice lit up another cig. I told him about Esteli and don Rafael. He volunteered what the Miskito Indians thought of the Sandinistas - not a pretty picture.
"The Sandinistas have mistreated them. The Contras were active in the area, recruiting Miskito Indians on the Honduran side of the Coco River."
Well, this sounded interesting, and reveals how the Sandinistas have been undeservingly glorified by some members of the radical left in the States.
"How were they mistreated?"
"The Sandinistas tried to relocate them by force to remove the possibility of them joining the Contras. There was resistance and bloodshed. It only made things worse."
All this should be history, I thought, because the Contras were disbanding. But apparently tensions were still high in some areas. The Sandinistas were responsible for some dubious relocation tactics, to remove the possibility of a Miskito Indian Contra force. Obviously, the Miskito Indians themselves were not politically aligned one way or the other and were simply caught in the middle. So who can we root for when we learn of this kind of janus-faced activity of the Sandinistas? It seems that it would be foolish to take sides in a war like this, where both sides are corrupt. Upper and lower class conflict, bitter, vengeful fighting, institutional corruption and nepotism on all levels. The right, the left, Marxism, democracy, meaningless political rhetoric and disinformation - it seems that conflict will always exist on some level in the world. It seems that one can only hope to extract oneself from the tangled snarl of polarized forces, to stand back and look for a deeper process at work.
A few more sweltering days spent in Granada and nearby Masaya and I could take no more. Early one morning in August I hitched to the Costa Rican border on a Russian made IFA truck, and found a completely different world. And so now it is time to unfetter this talk from the chains of limited political squabbling.