Whither US Solidarity with Nicaragua?
What are the challenges and dilemmas currently facing the progressive movement of Nicaraguan solidarity in the U.S.? In February envío participate in a meeting of the solidarity movement in Washington and got to know these challenges.
Marcos Membreño Idiáquez
The Sandinista revolution triggered a formidable social and political solidarity movement in the 1980s in many countries. One of the largest movements was in the United States. Two pieces of information suffice to give an idea of its magnitude.
The first was the tremendous cooperation effort mounted by the hundreds of US solidarity groups and institutions of all kinds. According to what movement leaders say are conservative estimates, a yearly average of $250 million in technical and material solidarity aid was channeled to Nicaragua between 1985 and 1989. That figure is only $50 million less than Nicaragua's average exports those same years. No other movement anywhere in the world reached that level of solidarity with Nicaragua-and perhaps not with any other country either.
The second is that at least 100,000 US citizens linked one way or another to these organizations visited Nicaragua as part of innumerable solidarity initiatives. People of both sexes, all ages, varying points on the political spectrum, every walk of life imaginable and probably every religious affiliation used their own vacations and their own savings to pay for their travel and stay in our country. For many, it was the first time in their lives they had seen or even taken an interest in the conditions of a third world country. Together with others who came to Nicaragua financed partly or wholly by some institution, they returned to their neighborhoods and places of work, worship or study to testify to what they had seen, heard and, above all, directly shared with the Nicaraguan people. Many also made sure their congressional representatives and other government officials heard their views.
"We Began With A Dollar for Nicaragua'"Some pockets of solidarity with the Sandinista revolution had existed since the insurrectionary period. Thanks to the initiatives of Nicaraguans linked to the FSLN, the first committees in solidarity with the Sandinista struggle against the Somoza dictatorship were created in San Francisco several years before the 1979 victory. Committees supporting the struggle soon sprang up in other US cities as well. The National Network in Solidarity with the Nicaraguan People was created in February 1979.
Movement leaders and activists unanimously agree, however, that the Reagan administration's aggressiveness toward the Sandinista government is what sparked the great "boom" in US solidarity with Nicaragua. Within a year of the media revelation in early 1982 that the US government was secretly providing financial and military aid to the Contras, the response of solidarity groups had grown into an extensive campaign in opposition to Reagan's policy.
One of this campaign's first targets was to collect a dollar in aid for every dollar that the Reagan administration channeled to finance the Contra operations. The campaign was so successful that it surprised even the organizers themselves. It not only matched but surpassed the official amounts that the Reagan and later Bush administrations earmarked for counterrevolutionary military aid.
The movement was thus born and reached its peak as a reaction by a growing sector of the US population to its own government's policy of military aggression against Nicaragua. A good part of its extraordinary vitality resided precisely in the fact that it was a social and political movement of opposition. Its rapid growth was commensurate with the growth of Reagan's military adventure, which more and more people viewed as unconscionable, illegitimate and ultimately even illegal.
But this same focus was also the source of its later fragility. While defense of the revolutionary cause was a growing component of this solidarity as increasing numbers of otherwise uncommitted people became enamored of what they saw and heard, the movement would never have reached them in the first place had it had not been for the Reagan administration's obsession.
"We Were Schooled by The Vietnam War"If Reagan detonated sympathy for Nicaragua, other factors helped harness and expand that sympathy into action. The chief factor was the chain of recent experiences of US imperialism in action, which forged the thinking and the skills of many of the progressive solidarity leaders who took up Nicaragua's cause. The biggest link in that chain, of course, was the Vietnam war, which marked the consciousness of an entire generation of US society. Many saw the fight against US intervention in Nicaragua as a replay of that epic anti-war struggle beginning in the mid-1960s.
Riding partly on the momentum of sentiments about the US role in Vietnam came opposition to US involvement in the military overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973 and its backing of the Pinochet regime. That momentum, combined with the fact that Allende, a Socialist, had come to power through elections rather than armed struggle, gave the Chile solidarity movement a greater reach and longer duration than it might otherwise have achieved.
Then came Central America, with the grisly murders of national and foreign religious workers in Guatemala and El Salvador, and of Nicaraguan and US journalists in Nicaragua, not to mention the mounting death toll of activists in the grassroots movements supporting revolutionary change in their countries. Acts of solidarity and denunciations by progressive sectors of almost all US religious denominations grew, and secular solidarity organizations with each country grew as well.
In each of these cases-Vietnam, Chile, the Central American countries and others-smaller nuclei of support within the US movements actively supported the liberation struggles and the groups leading them. One of the bright notes in all of this death, then, was the July 1979 victory of the struggle in Nicaragua, which had increasingly made the US news via the FSLN's taking of the National Palace followed by the September 1978 insurrection. Awareness of and solidarity with the new revolutionary project broadened in 1980, when the Sandinista government appealed for assistance to carry out its audacious literacy crusade.
In sum, with over 15 years of virtually uninterrupted opposition to US interventionism, an extensive fabric of organized activism had already been woven by the time Reagan took office in 1981 and began acting on his campaign pledge to roll back the Nicaraguan revolution. Opposition did not have to start from scratch as it had in the 1960s with Vietnam; it drew on a rich experience of mobilizing and lobbying. Though other issues were not set aside, ranks closed around Nicaragua and the main priority increasingly became to stop the counterrevolutionary war, just as inside Nicaragua.
"The Media Helped Us"The US mass media never looked kindly upon the Sandinista revolution, but they knew how to package it as a saleable product in the supermarket where audience ratings are traded for advertising dollars. Hardly a day went by in the 1980s without finding some aspect of Nicaragua in the news: the Sandinistas, the anti-Sandinistas inside Nicaragua, the Somocista exiles in the United States, the Catholic hierarchy's relations with the Sandinista government, the Contras, the CIA, the Pentagon, the State Department, President Reagan, and later Oliver North, Iran-Contragate, etc. The media also talked about the US solidarity movement's activities, its lobbying work against intervention and its support for the revolution.
Thanks to US newspapers and television-thanks even to Hollywood, since movies were also made about Nicaragua-this small country found itself at the center of debate by broad sectors of US public opinion. Without planning or even meaning to, the media helped the solidarity movement's work because, for better or worse, they kept Nicaragua in the public eye year after year. The abundance of information, particularly about the Reagan government's role in Nicaragua and Congress' deliberations about supporting that role or not, helped create awareness among people who either didn't know what their government was doing, or might not have otherwise believed the solidarity movement's version.
It also fed the mobilization of those who did know and were already acting in opposition, which produced a chain reaction: the greater the awareness, the greater the mobilization, the greater the pressure on Congress, the greater the breach between the administration and the legislators. The maximum expression of that spiral came when Congress finally cut off military aid, and the administration turned to illegal means of financing the Contra war-what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, or "Contragate."
"We Discovered a New Model of Society"The bulk of those who joined the solidarity movement with Nicaragua did so because they did not want their country to promote more wars in the world, even on the pretext of struggling against communism, as it had claimed to be doing in Vietnam and was now claiming again. In some cases their position came out of a strict pacifism, in others from a sense that the specific conflict in Nicaragua was not a morally justifiable one, in still others out of a pragmatic opposition to using tax dollars to pay for any internal conflict that did not affect the United States. A common thread shared by all three sectors was that they did not favor a socialist option: they either had serious reservations about such an alternative or remained noncommittal because they didn't quite know what Nicaraguan "socialism" meant.
A number of those same people contributed material aid to the Nicaraguan people in a gesture at least symbolically aimed at offsetting their government's destruction. And some of them visited Nicaragua, either to reach out to the people affected or to "see for themselves" if what Reagan was saying was true. Little by little some were radicalized by what they saw and adopted more leftist positions in favor of profound social change in Nicaragua. Most, however, never crossed the line from an anti-interventionist stance to one in support of the Sandinista revolution. It is quite likely that the bulk of those who abandoned solidarity work with Nicaragua in the 1990s came from this latter group.
Then there were the many progressive North Americans who saw in the transformations promoted by the FSLN the historic realization of their own dreams of a more just and humane society. This hope became a deep certainty among those who had the opportunity to visit Nicaragua and see the revolution close up, to help build schools or health centers, to work alongside peasants picking coffee in the mountains or cotton in the hot flatlands, to teach, to learn... These experiences infused them with the enthusiasm to convince their compatriots that the task was more than just to stop the military intervention in the name of pacifism. It was also to safeguard the viability of a new model of society.
"When the War Ended, the Bottom Fell Out"If the 1980s brought a "boom" in solidarity, the "bust" came in the 1990s. US solidarity aid to Nicaragua dropped abruptly, travel fell off, and news about the country disappeared from the media almost overnight. While aid is estimated to have shrunk by some 90%, this would still mean, however, that solidarity even today channels at least $25 million a year to Nicaragua. This is nothing to sneer at, particularly since official aid from the Clinton administration for 1997 is not so much more than that.
When the first signs of the drop in solidarity began to be seen in 1990, movement leaders and the most active grass- roots base began questioning their work and seeking new issues and ways of working. Two major meetings have been held in Washington to jointly rethink the strategy of solidarity cooperation with Nicaragua: one on February 2-3, 1994, and another on February 15-16 of this year. envío was invited to the most recent one, and thus had the opportunity to talk to leaders and activists from all corners of the United States about the challenges and dilemmas facing progressive US solidarity with the Nicaraguan people today.
There is consensus about why the bottom fell out of solidarity. It began with two interlinked events: the FSLN's 1990 electoral defeat and the end of the US-sponsored war in Nicaragua. While these are two sides of the same coin, the side that seems to have most contributed to the immediate drop in solidarity was the shift in US policy. The Bush administration's abandonment of its military intervention policy in Nicaragua left the solidarity movement without its main mobilizing issue. It also unleashed a chain reaction in the opposite direction: since Nicaragua stopped being a priority of US foreign policy, it ceased being news; since it was no longer in the news, many people stopped thinking about it.
In addition, other countries began to attract the attention of the government and the media, and therefore of solidarity circles. First was Haiti, with the struggle for the return of Aristide, in which the United States was involved. Then came Mexico's economic crash and the indigenous rebellion in Chiapas, which endangered the North American Free Trade Agreement. South Africa had been a constant for decades, but was building to a climax. Guatemala also attracted attention, particularly when the CIA's participation in the killing of Efraín Bámaca, a guerrilla married to a US citizen, was revealed. In addition, the peace processes in El Salvador and Guatemala, following off the one in Nicaragua, gave many superficial observers-media included-the idea that all was now well in Central America.
Nonetheless, while many North Americans moved to new causes needing solidarity, those linked to institutions working in multiple causes or countries-Nicaragua among them-never stopped participating in campaigns of cooperation with the Nicaraguan people. The US organizations based on "sister" relations-cities, communities universities, hospitals, etc.-never stopped either. They suffered perhaps the least deflation in the first years, because they had devel- oped people-to-people relations, and those commitments were not called into question by either the elections or the end of the war. On the contrary, the needs of the people were greater with the new government, which had no commitment to the poor, and the possibilities of assisting local development were greater, too, without war.
Two Defeats Are Too ManyThe FSLN's defeat in the 1990 elections was as big a shock to US solidarity as it was to the Sandinistas. To cushion the blow, solidarity leaders and activists alike tended to relativize the party's own responsibility for its failure to be reelected. Although everyone accepted that it had committed errors in its administration, the majority-again like many Sandinistas themselves-considered the main cause of its defeat to have been US imperialism. The pat answer was that the aggression obliged the FSLN to impose the unpopular military draft while the embargo combined with the war damages to produce a debacle in the economy. Result: profound discontent in the majority of the population, ex-pressed in the 55% vote for Violeta Chamorro, the choice backed and even financed by the US government.
For over six years, many solidarity leaders and grassroots activists-now largely reduced to sympathizers with the revolutionary cause-continued to support the Nicaraguan people and the FSLN based on that oversimplified analysis. But some actions by the FSLN began to sow doubt in their minds about whether it was still as revolutionary as they believed-and even whether it ever had been. There was the "piñata"; the FSLN's co-government with the Chamorro administration, with all that implied in terms of distancing from the Sandinista base; the decision of the FSLN's historic leadership to maintain control of the party at all cost, particularly the cost of democratic mechanisms.
The frequent publication of full-color photos of bikini-clad women on the front page of the FSLN newspaper, Barricada, just to increase sales is incomprehensible to US women. As serious as the issue is to them in itself and as a symbol of the larger women's struggle, it also seems to go to a deeper symbolism-overall betrayal of trust. These women held up the Sandinista government for special praise during the 1980s because it prohibited the use of women's bodies as enticements in advertising. If the Sandinista leadership could turn its back on that highly-touted revolutionary advance so easily, in exchange for nothing but crass commercialism, which if any other values can be believed to have been genuine?
All these doubts came to the fore with the FSLN's second electoral loss in October of last year. It was an even harder blow for the remaining solidarity movement because this time there was no war or embargo to blame. There was no other pretext to exculpate the FSLN either; the "fraud" interpretation didn't wash in the US solidarity movement. Whatever the contributing factors, the solidarity movement had to face facts: the FSLN itself was mainly responsible for only getting 38% of the vote. "How do we go on supporting a party that is no longer supported by the majority of the population?" one solidarity leader anguished in a conversation with envío at the Washington meeting.
"We're Alive and Kicking"Doubts and disenchantment notwithstanding, however, the solidarity of progressive US sectors with Nicaragua is still very active. While it has lost a considerable number of its supporters, the enthusiasm of those who remain seems not to have been dampened.
Within the movement of active solidarity with Nicaragua-as distinguished from the movement of opposition to US policy toward Nicaragua-there has always been another bifurcation: those for whom the counterpart of solidarity initiatives is the FSLN, and those whose counterparts have been non-party institutions, organizations or communities. The only solidarity grouping with direct links to the FSLN today, though it does not depend organically on the party, is the Nicaragua Network, a loose umbrella for some 300 local committees around the country which do not necessarily share those links. One illustrative example of the many institutions doing non-party solidarity is the Quixote Center, which provides solidarity assistance in several countries. Its main counterpart in Nicaragua is the John XXIII Institute at the Central American University in Managua, which, among other activities, promotes rural credit and has created an important network of poor women organized around credit. The sister-city movement mentioned above is another good example, as is Pastors for Peace.
The dividing lines between the two groups are barely perceptible to the outside observer. Both work in similar tasks: lobbying the administration and Congress, supporting community development programs in Nicaragua, doing educational and information campaigns in the United States, and participating actively in larger campaigns in defense of human, labor and women's rights. The two groups even directly collaborate in planning and carrying out certain large-scale initiatives requiring combined efforts and resources, such as the February strategy meeting in Washington.
Advocacy Issues Come and GoIn both the last decade and this one a large part of the aid sent to Nicaragua by the progressive solidarity movement has consisted of what is called "humanitarian aid": clothing, food, medicines, school supplies and the like. What has changed is the content of the lobbying slot on the movement's agenda. If it was aimed at reversing Reagan's policy of military aggression in the 1980s, it has focused on attempts to affect the design and implementation of economic policies applied in Nicaragua in the 1990s.
To that end it tries to lobby not only US institutions such as the Agency for International Development (AID), but also multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. In 1993, it joined 200 groups from the United States that had linked up with another 180 around the world in one of the largest campaigns it had ever been involved in: the "50 Years Is Enough!" campaign against the Bretton Woods organizations (the World Bank and IMF) for having so impoverished the countries of the South, particularly with their new structural adjustment policies.
Meanwhile, in the search for new terrain on which to relaunch solidarity, the movement has begun to engage in activities promoting respect for the labor rights of Latin American women working in the assembly plants (maquiladoras) set up in our countries. The Nicaragua Network and Witness for Peace are making concerted efforts to support the right of Nicaraguan women workers in the Free Zone to organize, and the initiative seems to have been embraced by US solidarity activists in general. In a poll the Network conducted among its affiliated committees in 1996, 74% of those that responded chose campaigns to defend labor rights as the number one priority for their future activities agenda. As one solidarity leader commented to us, "This theme is `in' now in the world of US solidarity."
With the Party or With the Poor?It is no small paradox that solidarity with Nicaragua has not died away despite so many disillusionments coming one on top of the other. Those who maintain direct links with the FSLN believe that, despite its errors and internal handicaps, it represents the best political alternative that the left and the grassroots movement in Nicaragua has-or, to be more exact, the only one. They think that the FSLN, together with the popular organizations that arose with the revolution in the 1980s, is the best way to defend the social, economic and political gains that the revolution bequeathed to the country (the agrarian reform, autonomy on the Atlantic Cost, property redistribution, etc.) This sector expects the FSLN to renew itself and return to its origins as a revolutionary movement, an honest and faithful representative of grassroots demands. Though they respect the historic Sandinista leaders, they do not hide their criticisms of them and identify more with some younger leaders, in whom they see the possibility of a real and thoroughgoing renovation of the party.
According to the Nicaragua Network's survey, 63% of the committees linked to it believe that their main interlocutor in Nicaragua should continue to be the FSLN, while 22% think it should be the popular organizations directly. Another 10% preferred not to offer an opinion and the remaining 5-6% said they were not interested in solidarity with the FSLN personally, but considered it inappropriate for the Nicaragua Network to abandon a relationship developed over so many years.
The leaders and activists of non-party solidarity in the United States are much more critical of the FSLN and freer from what it does or doesn't do. This does not, however, mean they don't sympathize with the party, or consider it the lesser of political evils in Nicaragua. Many of them also have friendships with certain Sandinista leaders that run very deep. These groups are Sandinista, but in their own way, and today that way is non-party. They are clear that the party is one thing and the people another, and that the Nicaraguan people are the priority right now. They think it's too risky to mortgage their solidarity with Nicaragua grassroots sectors to the fate of a political party, however revolutionary it may have once been and however democratic it may become. This, too, has its analogy inside Nicaragua.
Despite these differences, both pro-party and non-party activists are motivated by common concerns. One of them is defense of the "gains of the revolution," although one leader of non-party solidarity noted with no lack of irony that the problem for him is that "the FSLN has become one of the main adversaries of the revolution's gains."
Among the youngest activists, those who were children in the early 1980s, or among those who have limited time to work in solidarity with Nicaragua, this concern about defense of the revolutionary gains is much less evident. They feel more pulled by other issues: the conditions of women's lives, human and labor rights, environmental protection. And some of them are committed to the same thing that committed so many during the 1980s: to contribute to material aid campaigns geared to alleviate some of the pain of Nicaragua's poor.
Who Defines the Issues?It was clear in the meeting in Washington that US solidarity with the progressive causes of countries in the South has little chance of growing and making an impact unless the US government views what is happening in those countries as an important problem. As many at the meeting explained, the revitalization of the Nicaragua solidarity movement will hinge largely on being able to persuade the Clinton administration and US public opinion that some of the things happening in Nicaragua now that the Liberals are in power do represent a problem for the United States. How to do that is a big challenge facing the movement, but it is also hard to get a grip on the issue so soon after the Alemán government has taken office. It will depend on what his government does or doesn't do, as well as what the FSLN and the Sandinista grassroots do or don't do.
In the search for a relationship between what is happening in a Liberal-governed Nicaragua and domestic stability and security in the United States, some activists say that the US government is particularly sensitive to two issues in Nicaragua: drugs and the claims of US citizens whose properties were confiscated by the revolution.
Some consider that the laundering of drug money, which began in Nicaragua in recent years, will grow even more rapidly under the Liberal government, quite probably under cover of investments in construction, tourism, insurance and finance. As signs already indicate, this will allow the circulation of money that the government otherwise does not have, which will palliate Nicaragua's economic crisis. In its latest report on drug traffic in Nicaragua, the US State Department demonstrated its concern about drug dollars and stressed the need for the National Assembly to create legislation to pave the way for the fight against drug trafficking activities. The report could be the first in a list of Clinton administration pressures on the new Alemán government.
The problem of US citizens whose properties were confiscated is harder for the progressive solidarity movement to handle, since FSLN leaders and members of the Nicaraguan middle classes are among the beneficiaries of these confiscations. Some solidarity activists believe that a campaign to pressure Congress and the administration not to back claimants who took US citizenship after the dictatorship fell, even after they were confiscated, is viable. They argue that these people amassed their fortunes and obtained the properties they are claiming today through the state corruption and illegal use of public force that characterized the Somoza regime. Will the progressive US solidarity movement embark on an adventure that enmeshes it in the controversial property issue, in which the already tarnished political prestige of the FSLN could be dulled even further?
"We Can't Love What We Can't See"Some of the activists who participated in the Washington meeting are critical that no agenda issues were agreed to by explicit consensus or even defined for the coming years. But one of the cross-cutting issues for many US groups is the loss of independence inherent in such homogenizing of agendas. One participant complained to envío that "things need to be defined soon. There are many tasks and it's urgent that we be clear about them without losing our own identity." Even one of the more veteran leaders insisted that it would not be a good idea to try to unify the solidarity work that the different institutions and groups carry out. He has learned over the years that the movement's strength resides in its extraordinary heterogeneity, with activities for all tastes, time slots and political commitments. From the collecting of humanitarian aid and involvement in sustainable development programs to lobbying and academic research, no one is excluded, no one lacks a place to plug in and work.
In addition to the challenges of preparing an agenda for the coming years, another is filling the informational vacuum in the United States on what is happening in Nicaragua. This, in the view of several leaders, is "our greatest limitation." Nicaragua no longer exists for the US media. And in the Nicaragua that does exist, events succeed each other so fast and are so ephemeral and contradictory that even the activist community in the United States experiences a considerable lag between the latest news received and the ability to analyze whether or not it represents any significant change in the country's dynamic. Even more serious, solidarity activists find it practically impossible to shake off certain simplistic, even somewhat Manichean schemes that classify Nicaraguans as "good" and "bad." Reality was always more complex than that and now it comes in even more shades of grey. Nothing in Nicaragua looks like the black and white of their long-distance interpretations. Multiple efforts have been made to surmount these limitations, and the new electronic information and communication networks are opening new possibilities.
Although delegation visits to Nicaragua have decreased in volume, they have retained the same levels of enthusiasm, commitment and identification with the cause. One young student who attended the meeting in Washington talked about how important her first visit to Nicaragua-in the framework of a university contact-had been. Those who have spent a lot of time doing battle in the world of solidarity know how hard it is to keep the faith when the country or people for whose cause one sacrifices one's free time and even one's money is only an occasional small news item on an inside page of the newspaper, a 30-second sound bite on television or a year-end summary analysis in a progressive magazine. "You can't love what you don't see and don't know," lamented the veterans in Washington.
"There's `Another' Solidarity"While progressive US solidarity with Nicaragua grapples with these challenges and tries to untangle these dilemmas, another solidarity, of a conservative political and ideological stripe, is advancing and gathering strength in the United States. Indications are that this solidarity has grown significantly over the same period in which progressive solidarity has experienced its slump, and particularly since Arnoldo Alemán kicked off his electoral campaign at the beginning of 1996.
Progressive solidarity has no information about the specific decisions and amounts of this other solidarity aid, but does know that it is fundamentally humanitarian (medicines, medical equipment, etc.) and that the presence of Hispanics and particularly Cuban Americans in this movement is pivotal. There is concern that this solidarity could increase over the next five years, buttressing the populist appeal of the Liberal Alliance government. It is yet another challenge on the horizon.