Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 74 | Agosto 1987



On the Nicaragua Solidarity Trail

Judy Butler

Solidarity between the people of the United States and Nicaragua is an extremely important element in the war that the Sandinista revolutionary process has been forced into for the last six years. What are the characteristics of this solidarity? What is the ambience that surrounds it? What interest does the average North American have in Nicaragua? These are some of the questions that Judy Butler, a US citizen who is a member of the envío English-language team seeks to answer in these reporter's notes, made during a US speaking trip in April and May. The impressionistic style of this genre and the analyses that flow from it suggestively express the complex reality that should interest all who participate one way or another in this unequal struggle between the United States and Nicaragua.

* * *

Isn't It Dangerous Down There?

The April morning air was chilly as I stood waiting for the bus service that would ferry me from the Los Angeles International Airport to the first stop on a speaking tour up and down the two coasts of the United States. Shivering in my standard Managua uniform—cotton skirt and short-sleeve t-shirt —I passed the time counting the buses of various sizes making the airport rounds. There were 83 in less than an hour, enough to relieve the public transportation crisis in Nicaragua's entire capital city.

The Easter vacation-bound occupants of the minivan I climbed into looked at me askance when I explained that I lived in Nicaragua and didn't own a sweater. "Nicaragua? You live in Nicaragua? Isn't it dangerous down there with those Sandinistas and all?" Well, that was an improvement; on my last visit home in 1984 not one bus rider in a dozen would have known that Nicaragua was located "down" from the United States.

It was an unanticipated opportunity to test the views of a captive audience of middle Americans. In addition to the speaking tour, I had an article assignment for envío: a "reporter's notebook," recording impressions of Contragate’s impact on US public opinion, the current state of the solidarity movement and, lastly, the effects of a month-long visit to the United States on a North American who had been living in Nicaragua for almost four years. Would I be able to "connect" with my fellow citizens, fed for these same four years an unrelieved diet of deceit and distortion about the US role in Central America and about the nature of the Nicaraguan revolution?

I smiled and said, "The only danger is from those 'freedom fighters' Reagan is paying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government." A barely perceptible pause followed as the ten passengers decided how, or if, they wanted to process that news. They didn't. "So you say it never gets cold enough for a sweater down there, huh?" said one.

After chatting about how practically everybody had stopped smoking in my absence, I tried another tack. "What's the population of Los Angeles these days?" Estimates ran around 10 million. "That's over three times the total population of Nicaragua," I responded. "Why is the government there considered a threat?" That got a taker: "It's not Nicaragua. They're concerned that the Soviet Union will use it as a base to attack the United States."

"Oh, I see," I said. "You know, 40,000 Nicaraguans died in the insurrection that overthrew Somoza eight years ago. And thousands more are dying to protect Nicaragua's new independence from Reagan's effort to return those same people to power. You may not believe me, but I assure you they aren't making that sacrifice just to be someone else's puppet. Nicaragua is even willing to sign an agreement—the Contadora Peace Treaty—that would guarantee legitimate US national security interests, if the US would respect Nicaragua's; but Reagan just asks for more contra aid. Also, doesn't it seem kind of unreasonable to you that our government would start a war supposedly in order to prevent one—that it would pay someone else to fight with Nicaragua today, on the grounds that someday it might pose a threat?"

The silence was longer this time. Finally, a young man leaned forward from the seat behind and asked with real concern if Nicaraguans were worried that the invasion might come during the big military maneuvers in May. It was a question that would surface again and again during my visit.

The west coast: Preaching to the already convinced?

The tour originated with an invitation to lead a weekend seminar on Nicaragua at the Berkshire Forum, in upstate New York. The Forum is a summer-long program of seminars on various progressive and leftist themes at a mountain lodge. Part of the Forum's charm is that the weekend discussions are attended in the main by people—like the wonderful and committed couple who run the Forum—with decades of experience in the US struggle. It is almost the only bridge between political activists and intellectuals who came of age in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements of the 1960s and those whose long history of commitment is on the other side of the bleak McCarthy period. Guests at the Forum tend to introduce themselves over dinner by reminiscing about what labor college they worked with in the 30s, or what US agency busted them in the 50s.

Deciding to make a proper swing through the States, I contacted several friends active in solidarity work to set up other talks. Architects and Planners in Support of Nicaragua (Apsnica) did the main contact work in the west coast, and the New York Construction Brigade, together with the Berkshire Forum, coordinated the talks on the east coast. My itinerary would take me to 16 campuses on both sides of the country, together with some media work, and a dozen house meetings and other events with solidarity activists. The Central American Historical Institute in Washington, DC, set up a meeting with heads of the national solidarity movement offices and with other interested groups and individuals.

It was a bad time to do a university tour; the semester was just ending and students were beginning to get that ragged look that final exams always bring on. It was also a difficult time for the local solidarity groups that sponsored some of the campus talks; most were consumed with the April 25 annual march for "Jobs, Peace and Justice," which this year focused dual attention on Central America and Southern Africa. And, finally, it was a hard time to attract a crowd to talks about the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua—my main theme. In 1984, when I did a tour on the same subject, the US media were still frequently reporting on the plight of the Miskitu Indians; now that the news was generally positive, with autonomy for the coast on the agenda, there was virtually no coverage and consequently little interest. In fact, only one major newspaper in the United States, the Christian Science Monitor, covered the multiethnic assembly in Puerto Cabezas in late April, attended by 2,000 people, in which the draft of the autonomy statute was debated and ratified.

For all these reasons, attendance at most west coast university talks was disappointingly small—15-30 people if organized by a campus solidarity group (up to five times more if by a professor, whose class was often encouraged to attend).

It was also disconcerting to discover that, invariably, close to half the audience would have already been to Nicaragua. The solidarity motto three years ago was to "stop preaching to the already convinced"; was I to conclude that so much headway had been made that half the country’s student population had been to Nicaragua? I got a clue to the answer when I saw a flyer announcing my talk at one of California's largest campuses: the graphic was of a skeletal Statue of Liberty standing on a bed of skulls in the shape of Nicaragua, with the word CIA emblazoned across her crown. Not exactly designed to attract the still unconvinced.

Bringing the issue home

On the other hand, my sister had set up a talk at a small, state-funded adult literacy program in Seattle where she works as a volunteer tutor. The 30 other tutors and students who came knew nothing about Nicaragua. They started paying real attention when I explained that Nicaragua's 1980 literacy crusade wasn't aimed only at teaching people to read and write, but at preparing them to think and analyze so they could participate in the creation of their own future. Many chuckled knowingly upon hearing that the biggest obstacle was that the young urban brigadistas sent to teach the peasants had not themselves been taught to think or analyze in school. Expressions clouded when I told them that the contras have destroyed nearly 400 of the 1,400 new schools built since the revolution and that literacy levels have begun drop again due to the war. It was the first of several encounters in which the issues touched the lives of the people in the audience.

It happened again at a meeting of activists in the Berkeley, California mayor's office, when I detailed the contents of the autonomy statute being discussed that very day in Puerto Cabezas. As the invited guests heard about plans to create an autonomous government that would guarantee the exercise of cultural rights, community control over their own resources, bilingual education programs and particularly the designating of the coast's four languages as official in the region, a woman active in city politics broke in: "I don't know if you're aware of this, but California passed a resolution in the November elections declaring English the only official language. People in our state need to learn about the advances being made in minority rights in Nicaragua, particularly now, when the move here is to whittle away at the few gains that have been made."

(I later learned that one activist group had dramatized the loss of cultural richness implied by this resolution by publishing a new California map with the multitudinous Spanish names of towns and streets retranslated into their "official" flat English alternative. I also learned that the resolution is soon to be on up to 23 state agendas, and may even become a constitutional amendment.)

Talks about ethnic-state relations were provided more than just this domestic backdrop. While I was in the States, a newspaper reported that the chief of the Seminole Indians in Florida currently faces a 1-year prison sentence and a $20,000 fine for shooting and eating a panther, considered by the Seminoles to be traditional religious hunting prey. The US Justice Department's office in charge of protecting endangered species admits that cars speeding down the highways that now cut through Seminole lands have killed most of the panthers, but denies any discrimination in its decision to file its only suit against Chief James Billie. The other case reported on during my visit concerned the Yakima Indians of Washington state, accused of catching and selling salmon in their traditional lands. An FBI infiltrator claimed they had violated fish and game laws by catching more than they needed for subsistence and selling the rest for profit—apparently in "unfair" competition with the large fishing companies operating in their salmon-rich region.

The prize for unexpected events went to the California State University at Sacramento. In the midst of a talk to an environmental issues class about the effects of US companies on the culture, economy and ecology of Nicaragua's Atlantic Coast, a black woman dressed in a brightly colored, African-looking robe and turban suddenly rose to her feet and presented herself as a direct descendant of the line of Miskitu kings who ruled the coast under British tutelage in the 18th and 19th centuries. She announced that "her people" were not trying to overthrow the Sandinistas, but were fighting for independence from Nicaragua and to rid the coast of the "Cubeans." Thinking to inform her that such a point of view represented a shrinking minority on the coast these days, I asked her how long since she had been back. "That's none of your business, sweetie," she snapped. A young Spanish-speaking heckler seated beside her later slipped a business card to another student in the audience, identifying himself as René González M., a San Francisco press representative of UNO (United Nicaraguan Opposition), at that time the contras' political umbrella organization.

April 25—A "60s-style" demo?

My last day on the west coast was spent at the April 25th demonstration, which was sponsored by 24 labor union presidents and 49 religious leaders, and endorsed by 280 organizations and prominent individuals. It was the largest march of its kind to date. At least 50,000 people paraded for hours through the sunny streets of San Francisco, and perhaps twice as many braved a cold and steady rain to participate in the Washington, DC companion march. The San Francisco turnout was notable for its age and racial diversity, which participants in Washington said was also the case there.

The union endorsement and participation—some said as many as half of the demonstrators—represented an open split with AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland, member of the Kissinger Commission on Central America, who had urged the federation's members to withhold support. In Kirkland's letter to the state and local central boards he attacked, among other things, the fact that the rallies would call for a cut-off of US aid to "the democratically-elected governments of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala," and include as invited speakers representatives of the "Sandinista government of Nicaragua, which has not been democratically elected." (While the National Council of the Churches of Christ challenged those spurious characterizations in a letter to Kirkland, the letter also revealed the regrettable acquiescence of the mobilization's National Steering Committee to such red-baiting: "Sensing that this invitation to a public official [Dr. Myrna Cunningham, the governor of the province of Zelaya, who was captured and raped by the contra forces in 1981] might be misinterpreted and used by some to discredit the mobilization, the Steering Committee withdrew this original invitation and invited instead a religious leader from Nicaragua who holds no official post...."

The Washington Post, faithful to the establishment media's ideological task of discrediting anything that challenges, however peacefully, the approved view of the world, carried op-ed attacks on the demonstration in the preceding days, including one by Jeane Kirkpatrick. A long article covering what the Post patronizingly called a "60s-style demonstration" said nothing at all about the significant church support; it strained to refer to the participating union presidents as "labor organizers" and to the significant labor showing as "fragmented." The fact that five of the country's six largest unions endorsed the demonstration was buried toward the end of the article. Three of those unions have at least a million members each.

The Post also left the strong impression that many people, particularly youth, didn’t have a clear understanding of what they were opposing. It was clear two days later that at least 500 did; they were arrested for staging a sit-down strike in Washington in opposition to US policy in Central America.

The night of the demonstration I was treated to a fund-raising "barn dance" for Apsnica in the tucked-away, affluent community of Inverness, north of San Francisco. Three hundred people from the town of 1,000 inhabitants, ranging in age from 10 to 50, watched a slide presentation about Venecia, a cooperative in Matagalpa where Apsnica brigades had worked with coop members for nearly a year to construct housing, a school and a piped water system. We also danced to a Cuban salsa band beneath a 3-dimensional translucent paper airplane hung from the ceiling and filled with cutouts of semi-automatic weapons and marijuana leaves. The plane was labeled "Southern Air Transport."

First impressions on the road

The next evening I was aboard a real plane bound for western Massachusetts, where I would begin the east coast leg of the trip. Could I form any general impressions about the three questions after only two weeks back in the States?

One thing was certain: Iran/Contragate had not yet become a household word; I hadn’t received a single question about it and it wasn’t even a topic of conversation among the solidarity people I met. But then the public hearings weren’t scheduled to start for another few days.

Second, as in 1984, there were still proportionately more progressive professors than students on the college campuses. This was reconfirmed not only by the age composition of the April 25 demonstration, but also by a woman carrying a leftover placard from the demonstration I chatted with at the airport, who turned out to be from Witness for Peace. In her view the solidarity networks had not targeted the college campuses sufficiently or with a well-conceived strategy. It reflects two other things as well: a greater preoccupation with material comforts by many of this generation's students than during the still economically expanding 1960s, and the fact that direct involvement in war is still only a threat for them, not a reality, as it was in Vietnam.

My third impression was that the anti-communist thrust of the Reagan administration's ideological campaign has failed in the last several years to reproduce the widespread McCarthyite hysteria I remembered from the 1950s. While the campaign has certainly strengthened the right wing, it has also sparked opposition to it, albeit still a cautious one. In short, the populace is slowly polarizing. Much of the growing opposition to US policy in Central America is in the middle-age bracket—the 1960s' youth whose consciousness was affected by the Vietnam war. They—and their children in many cases—seem less moved by vacuous anti-communist arguments. Few people I spoke with interpreted discussions about profound social change in Nicaragua as "communist," and questions about Soviet influence were phrased more apologetically than aggressively. I recalled a CBS/New York Times poll in mid-1983 that asked the blunt question: "If the communists were about to overthrow the government in El Salvador, would you support sending US combat troops to fight the rebels?" The response was 32% in favor, 57% opposed and 11% with no opinion.

A fourth impression, however, was that the entire issue of Nicaragua lacked the passion it engenders among North Americans who visit Nicaragua. Fantasies I had entertained before the trip of countering rightwing hecklers with impassioned prose rooted in impeccable logic had not materialized. More to the point, I got the feeling that for the interested but uncommitted population any real display of emotion about what the United States was doing in Nicaragua would be too threatening—although I didn't yet understand to what. Failure to "connect" with the unconvinced, I decided, would have less to do with what I said than how I said it.

Fifth, an impression I had brought with me from Nicaragua, where I had talked to close to a hundred delegations in the past year—that Nicaragua is more of an issue than it was three years ago—seemed correct. Unfortunately, however, no significant spokesperson for an alternative policy has yet emerged to consolidate what is still a generalized moral distress. The closest I had seen to such an alternative position was a membership application form from Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition, handed out at a bonfire rally in Davis, California, the night before the April 25th demonstration. The Statement of Purpose on the back pledged the new political movement to "build a constituency for a non-interventionist foreign policy, based on peace, development, the right to national self-determination and human rights." Not a bad start, but a more concrete policy alternative for Central America has yet to be enunciated.

The east coast:
A moment of political passion?

The east coast itinerary was much like the west coast, with a pleasant exception: only rarely did I encounter small crowds and lack of energy at the universities. I also had a chance to debate some confirmed rightwing students, allowing me a moment of the passion I had been missing. There was a record crowd at the Berkshire Forum, demonstrating not only that the "Old Left" is alive and well and interested in Nicaragua, but also that the topic encouraged a mingling of that audience with an unprecedented number of younger Central America activists from surrounding rural neighborhoods. Midway into this leg of the trip, Ben Linder was killed. It was to have a far more palpable impact on public sentiment than the dreary and intentionally hobbled content of the Contragate hearings.

The car trip from the Hartford airport to Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, gave me another opportunity in miniature to sound out random public opinion; the driver was a groundskeeper at Smith. Though only mildly interested in discussing Nicaragua, he was not negative. The topic he was most enthusiastic about was the jury's acquittal a few days earlier of President Carter's daughter Amy, Abby Hoffman and a dozen or so others who had demonstrated at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (neighboring Northampton) to prevent the CIA from recruiting on campus. The defense had argued that the protesters broke minor laws (trespassing and disorderly conduct) to put a stop to a larger crime by the CIA.

After a disappointing crowd at Smith, particularly given that the college has close links to several other nearby campuses, I was surprised by the decent turnout at Williams, an even more "elite" college. The talk had been sponsored by the Marcel Pallais Fund, dedicated in the name of a Nicaraguan student related to the Somoza family who had attended Williams and was killed by the contras shortly after returning in 1979 to work with the revolution. After a brief presentation titled "Revolution Under Siege," I discovered that the hall was sprinkled with members of the Young Republicans Club, reportedly still annoyed that a retired Army lieutenant colonel they had invited the night before to undercut my visit had turned out to be a know-nothing about Nicaragua.

"What about all these accusations made by José Alvaro Baldizón, a defecter from the Sandinistas' Ministry of Interior?" said one, waving a copy of Baldizón's testimony. I responded by suggesting that the questioner read the extensive section on Baldizón in the 1986 Americas Watch Report on Nicaragua, in which the authors concluded after thorough investigation that his testimony lacked credibility. To my astonishment and delight, a professor from the back of the room stood up just then and began reading from the report, which by some miracle he had with him: "Unfortunately, Baldizón's letter [in response to a letter from Americas Watch]...does not answer any of Americas Watch's principal questions about his allegations. Moreover, the letter casts further doubt on Baldizón's credibility because he alters his story in order to try to deal with discrepancies between his earlier account and established facts.... In the view of Americas Watch, this last contradiction [by Baldizón regarding supposed massacres of peasants] is so serious that it eliminates the last vestige of credibility from Baldizón."

Just as my patience with the Young Republicans was wearing thin, one of them testily raised the issue of the censorship and closing of La Prensa. "I'll make a deal with you," I said. "I’ll discuss La Prensa with you only if you’ll reconsider the myth that we have some sort of sacred freedom of press in this country. I want to share with you a personal experience. Before moving to Nicaragua, I worked for a small magazine that critically analyzes US foreign policy in Latin America. It has 8,000 subscribers, in a country of nearly 250 million people—hardly a threat, particularly to a system that has been entrenched for over 200 years and has not 'formally' been at war during the 20 years of the magazine's existence. Nonetheless, we have had our phones tapped and our personal bank accounts monitored, and as of 10 years ago we already had a big FOIA file in the various intelligence agencies. Just a few years ago the Internal Revenue Service sent an agent to audit our books—which, of course, is perfectly legal. But when he couldn't find anything wrong, he announced that he was going to close us anyway because we had 'defamed' a pillar of America—the Rockefeller family, about whom we had published a comic book. The IRS dropped its suit when they realized we had good and eager lawyers ready to fight the case. Just this year the magazine was subject to a very professional political break-in—the fancy alarm system was not tripped, no money was taken, but the files were gone through. La Prensa, on the other hand, was one of three major newspapers in a country in the midst of a convulsive revolutionary transformation and a ravaging war by the greatest power on earth; it had received money from an organization associated with the CIA, and its editor had just written an article subtly supporting contra aid in The Washington Post at the very moment that aid was being debated in Congress. What do you think would have been the fate of such a paper in the US under similar circumstances? And, finally, are you aware that during our own revolution we didn't just censor or close Tory newspapers, we smashed them, jailed Tories with no due process, took away their land and exiled 100,000 of them to Canada?" The young man did not pursue his question.

Leaving the college, I felt mildly exhilarated. At last there had been debate, sparks, something, even if it wasn't the progressive dialogue I had been hoping for. My hosts were of a different opinion; they heard the questions as sterile, disinterested posturing by future elites—debate for the sake of debate. The next morning I was awakened by a phone call informing me of Ben's death. With impotent wrath, I suddenly realized my hosts were right.

I dedicated the talk that night to Ben. The auditorium was unusually full given that it was an urban state college for students of moderate-income families who I assumed would have little time for affairs that did not directly affect their own economic futures. And in fact most of the students barely knew where Nicaragua was. The topic was "How the Revolution Changed and Is Changing the Nicaraguan People," so I spoke mainly about the empowerment of the poor majorities that had never had a voice before. Then I turned the question around and asked how the Nicaraguan revolution is changing us? What kind of democracy do we have if 65% of our population opposes Reagan's policy, yet over half of Congress ignores us and the Reagan administration itself contemptuously violates that public will?

I expected someone to ask why Reagan was doing all this, a common question during my earlier trip, but it has been replaced by another: "Why are the newspapers saying such different things than you? Are they lying to us? And if so, why?" I interpret that shift as reflecting the fact that with Vietnam, Watergate and now Iran/Contragate, many North Americans have cynically come to accept that their government is hypocritical and represents interests and values that aren’t their own; some are now beginning to grapple with the unpleasant fact that the same may be true of the mass media.

Reagan succeeded in shaping popular perceptions in recent years through sheer repetition of his "Big Lie," but we’re beginning to erode that success. If Ben's death was intentional, as it appears to have been, it can only have been to discourage the flow of US visitors and residents; or worse, prepare the way for legislation that would prohibit our presence.

A lack of political curiosity

Several times on this part of the tour I set aside my notes and asked for questions at the beginning of the talk, saying that I’d rather risk a scattershot discussion that directly addressed people's concerns than take up time with things they may already know or may not care about. In many ways it was a revealing exercise. In almost every case the questions were characterized by a) concern rather than fear (Do the people think the invasion might happen right now? What are the effects of the blockade? How realistic are reports of Soviet influence? Is there hope for a future free of Ronald Reagan?); b) articles they’d just read in the paper (What about the relocation of peasants in the war zones of Nueva Guinea? Can you tell us more about the Hondurans asking the US to remove their bases?); and c) an emphasis on topics and facts (Church/State dialogue, the human rights situation on both sides, role of women) rather than analysis and interpretation.

The latter reflects the intellectual poverty of our university system (as with the Nicaraguan students in the Literacy Crusade, we’re not often taught to examine our reality from different perspectives or to frame our questions in any context), as well as a complete estrangement from the kinds of issues that the third world in general and revolutionary societies in particular must confront. Particularly impressive is the contradiction that exists between our lack of political and intellectual curiosity regarding the third world and our traditional superiority complex toward it.

By contrast, many of the participants in the Berkshire Forum had visited China, Cuba, Grenada and the Soviet Union, and their questions demonstrated a contextualization and political interest framed by those and other experiences. What has been the result of efforts to build a worker-peasant alliance in Nicaragua? What lessons have the Nicaraguan leaders taken from the experience of Grenada? What is the nature of the model Nicaragua is moving toward, and how is socialist consciousness being built at the same time that peasants are being given individual landholdings?

A new genre of solidarity work

One of the most positive realizations on my part is that an exciting new genre of solidarity work seems to be emerging in a hitherto untapped grassroots base. I call it new because solidarity work in the past has typically been either with a people suffering major repression (Chile, South Africa), or consciously with those engaged in active armed struggle (Vietnam, El Salvador). Nicaragua now presents progressive people with a revolutionary movement "next door" that has achieved state power. This has opened the way for some innovative, unprecedented experiments in solidarity.

Nicaragua is a country within easy traveling distance of the United States in which a revolutionary movement achieved state power with the massive participation and support of the population. Unlike Cuba's, Nicaragua's revolution didn’t take place at a moment in which the world was still locked in the throes of the Cold War, and only the United States had emerged from World War II unscathed enough to dictate, for a while, the foreign policy of the western world. North Americans have the opportunity to see and make up their own minds, if they only will.

An estimated 80,000 North Americans have visited Nicaragua, and most return with a very different view of Nicaragua than the one reflecting the "Washington agenda" in the media. Chances are that most of those people have told their story to perhaps a hundred people in their workplaces, their churches, their families, or in community talks. Many others have written articles or appeared on radio programs that reach thousands.

The new kind of solidarity that has quietly arisen amidst the heated debate about Nicaragua in the past eight years seldom takes to the streets, though it is to be fervently hoped that April 25th will be repeated and multiplied in strength. It’s a gentler kind of solidarity, one that lets decent-minded people fight their own social alienation with creative outreach. If it begins with the affluent US population's historic inclination toward charity, it sometimes moves to a contagious empowerment, thanks to the character of the Nicaraguan people the US visitors encounter, and to the grassroots empowerment that is the essence of the Nicaraguan revolution.

It is this building of mutually positive human links that is the most unique aspect of the Nicaragua solidarity movement. It gives at least part of the movement the possibility of outlasting the end of the war and the short attention span so characteristic of past US solidarity efforts. It also means that a network of people is growing that knows Reagan is lying, and tells him so with every nail they pound into a simple house in a rural cooperative.

The list of such organizations doing this kind of work is long: all the sister city connections, the construction brigades, the harvest brigades, New World Agricultural Group (NWAG), Tecnica, Apsnica, Bikes Not Bombs, the alternative technology project Ben Linder worked with, the health rights groups, and many others. (Some similar groups have taken hold in Europe as well.)

Several of the organizations exemplify the multifaceted tactics that are overcoming old divisions between different levels and kinds of solidarity work. Apsnica, for example, has evolved a practice that combines material aid with delegation work and direct and ongoing technical assistance inside Nicaragua. The visiting delegations are made up of "unconvinced" professionals in the architecture and planning fields; the aid is focused on construction materials and tools; and the technical assistance is in the form of brigades that over the space of a year build homes, a school, a water system, vegetable gardens, etc., on one rural site, together with the members of a selected cooperative. I attended a fund-raising party for Apsnica in Boston, where $1,100—the cost of one house—was raised by symbolically auctioning off the elements needed to construct it, piece by piece. Former brigade and delegation members are apprised of the progress of Apsnica's work and the lives of the coop members they have come to know through a bulletin called "Framework."

Tecnica, too, has tapped the unlikely source of open-minded professionals—mainly but not only computer experts. These highly skilled workers give up their vacations to come to Nicaragua for several weeks and work with institutions developing programs and upgrading technical skills among the Nicaraguan workers. There are enough volunteers in this field to fill delegations once a month all year long.

From NWAG, which sends natural scientists to work with the agronomy university and the agrarian reform program, to the dozens of sister city programs such as the one between Burlington, Vermont and Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, to the thousands of coffee pickers (short on skills but long on dedication, and ranging in age from high schoolers to members of the Grey Panthers and the Abraham Lincoln Brigade), they come to do something useful in a place where it makes a difference and is welcomed by the government. They also come, as so many have told me, to "get recharged."

Some of these groups have attracted people with clear political views, who see such people-to-people work not just as an end in itself in the recipient community but also as a way to actively involve and educate people in the States. For example, the New York Construction Brigade (which, like Apsnica, has also begun to take on long-term rather than single projects in Nicaragua), organized three major educational events at New York universities and a fund-raising party, all in the week I was there.

A member of the US Embassy in Nicaragua remarked after Ben's death that he must have had a desire to be a martyr, otherwise if he wanted to do good works why didn't he do them in the United States, or even in Honduras. The answer is easy: in the United States or Honduras, such work as Ben and groups such as those mentioned above are doing would be token gestures within a system not designed for human well-being. To quote Simón Bolívar out of context, it would be "like plowing the ocean with a fork."

One North American told a journalist before Ben's death, "The point is, I matter here. In Nicaragua, I feel unseparated, after a long time, from the part of myself I value most." Apsnica director Steve Kerpen, interviewed by The Village Voice, summed it all up with a wink: "You know, if this goes on long enough, Nicaragua is going to save this country."

A two-hour, round-table talk with leaders of the Nicaragua Solidarity Network, the Network in Solidarity with Guatemala, Pledge of Resistance, Quest for Peace, Religious Task Force, Sanctuary and Witness for Peace in Washington, DC confirmed many of my earlier hypotheses.

Growth and grassroots synthesis

All present agreed that there has been a tremendous and mainly spontaneous growth of grassroots interest in Nicaragua in the last four years, requiring ever greater levels of national coordination of the various sectors of concern. Whereas in 1979 there was one national organization—the Nicaragua Network—there are now, in addition to the religious and secular national organizations present at the meeting, Madre, the health rights networks, artists' organizations, the sister city network, various brigade projects, and labor committees at both the rank-and-file and national levels—although the latter have focused most of their attention on El Salvador. There are an estimated 80 sister city projects with Nicaragua, at least 25 of which have formal ties through their official city structures.

As recently as three years ago there was still little cooperation between groups doing different kinds of work, i.e., lobbying, humanitarian aid, civil disobedience, political education, etc., and particularly between religious, trade union and classic secular solidarity work. A strong debate underlying this was whether the movement should limit itself to an anti-interventionist position or should also express support for the Nicaraguan revolution and educate about the structural reasons why the US government consistently tries to control the affairs of third world countries. To insist on the latter, one side of the argument went, was to limit the potential audience and thus weaken the pressure that could be applied against Congress. To do only the former, said the other side, was to fail to raise political consciousness about the fundamental issues and thus create no permanent opposition to future US interventions in other countries' affairs.

It’s an old debate, with the entrenched positions of leaders on both sides scarcely more dialectic in recent years than they were in the days of the Vietnam War. Organizations on one side of the debate have tended to see those on the other as the main obstacle to the movement’s development and few have themselves experimented with careful work at multiple levels based on an analysis of the capacities of different sectors to assimilate new ways of thinking. It was encouraging, therefore, to hear all present at this meeting agree that there has increasingly been a "joining" of the religious networks and the secular solidarity movement and, in turn, an increasingly cooperative rather than antagonistic division of labor between the different forms of work. "You know who to work with if an activity is planned with civil disobedience, where to get information, what each group is working on, etc."

As with the growth of the broad solidarity movement, the synthetic resolution appears to be emerging from the base itself. As one solidarity leader pointed out, there are "indications of a deeper grassroots understanding of the concept of self-determination, providing a link between anti-intervention and anti-imperialist positions. People are starting to ask, what difference does it make to us that the Nicaraguans choose the way they want to live? There’s no national security threat here." On the other hand, she added, fewer committed activists are "confusing form with content by insisting that the only way to be in solidarity with Nicaragua is to wave a red and black flag rather than finding ways to communicate the content of Nicaragua."

To the degree that this is occurring at the base, it is in large measure a response to the example set by the Nicaraguan revolution itself. Nicaragua has demanded not blind support for every aspect of its revolution, but rather the right to make and correct its own errors; in fact, it has demonstrated the imperative of constant, self-critical analysis. It does, however, insist unwaveringly on its right to sovereignty and on the obligation of great powers to adhere to international law. Little by little this message is penetrating a US public so accustomed to living in the most powerful country in the world that it has virtually no acquaintance with the meaning of the struggle for sovereignty.

Much of this has been communicated in the States directly by the people who have actually visited Nicaragua, thanks to Nicaragua's "open door"* policy. "People in the United States now have a personal stake in what's happening there," said a Witness for Peace director. "The attitudes of many people in the United States toward third world people have changed dramatically because of Central America, and that's very frightening to the establishment." A leader of the Sanctuary movement extended that analysis to include El Salvador and Guatemala, noting that the plight of refugees in the other countries has been made real for people through Sanctuary's work, and through the numbers of North Americans returning from El Salvador after accompanying the internal refugees who are determined to return to their communities.
*In 1983, after the Nicaraguan government expelled three US Embassy officials for their involvement in a plan to poison Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto, the United States retaliated by expelling all 21 Nicaraguan consular officials and closing their offices around the country. This had the intended effect of making it very difficult for North Americans to secure a tourist visa. The Nicaraguan government quickly announced that it would unilaterally suspend the visa requirement agreement with the United States and grant US visitors their visa on arrival in Managua.

The US government has also made its own message heard: it’s not interested in the will of the people. "When the $27 million passed," the solidarity leaders agreed, "there were months of demoralization. When the $100 million passed there was no demoralization at all, just terrible anger with Congress. Now people are no longer sitting around waiting for Congress; they're working positively, resolved to do things on their own—to work and build links." Only the Washington-based lobbyists are still extremely cautious about putting in a good word about Nicaragua as they argue against contra aid.

One creative example of linking work was a humanitarian aid caravan developed last fall by Quest for Peace: "People are encouraged to get packages together and pile them up in front of their congressional district office, with possible civil disobedience—like a 'pack-in' at the local office. One year they send a couple of packages, and next year, when the local groups get empowered, they're talking about containers."

An intuitive movement—Pros and cons

They also agreed that the movement is still mainly "intuitive," based on the simple idea that their government is doing something wrong and they want to be on the right side. The Quest for Peace leader, however, called it a "rolling" consciousness: "The commitment to send some pencils leads them to watch the news in a new way, to start looking into other networks and resources, and a political understanding develops that’s far beyond where they were three or four years ago. And it goes hand in hand—the places doing the most sophisticated humanitarian aid work also have the most sophisticated networks before the Congress."

Albeit intuitive, it’s a positive intuition that goes well beyond opposition to contra aid. "There's a genuine spark about Nicaragua," said one. "It has touched their hearts. That's what carries them, not anti-US intervention, though that plays a role. There's a recognition that the Reagan people are afraid of Nicaragua's example to other countries trying to do what Nicaragua did. As a consequence you can make positive arguments for Nicaragua much more among that network now. They're not as intimidated by the right wing's anti-communist views. In fact, these people are now taking some of the heat of it."

The moral rather than political motivation of much of the movement, while compelling it forward faster than the national leadership can keep up with it, also suggests a serious weakness. A leader of one of the largest grassroots organizations, for example, argued that since his base was driven by moral and humanitarian concerns and not by a political analysis, they weren’t yet ready to "throw out a congressperson," although he acknowledged that in fact some rightwing extremists had been defeated in the November elections.

These leaders also point to the lack of an alternative policy acceptable to both the Democrats and the movement as another limitation in politicizing the movement. "Many of us," one explained, "haven’t wanted to be part of the construction of an alternative that equivocates about US hegemony, that’s only a more benign application of it, as opposed to one that says that Nicaragua’s policies are much more promising than anything down there for the poor majority of the region and should be pushed as US policy for the region."

At least one of the participants noted that there’s a felt need at the grassroots level for such a policy debate. This elicited the comment that while the movement had grown more sophisticated in the last four years, it hadn’t done so "in the sense of being able to take complex policy and translate it into the simple kinds of reflections necessary at the American grassroots level for policy alternatives to be the engine that drives us." This limitation argues for greater coordinated efforts between intellectuals, such as those working in Policy Alternatives for the Caribbean and Central America (PACCA), and grassroots activists.

A tendency toward localism

Typical of the United States, the movement is in large measure an anarchic one, resistant to giving the support to national leadership that might permit greater strength and cohesion. One national coordinator put it in a nutshell: "A lot of big cities don't particularly care whether there's a national office, but it's contradictory. They say, 'This is a grassroots movement, we don't need a national office and don't want to send you our mailing list or bother writing you about our plans,’ yet turn right around and ask us to send them the newsletter, because they want to hear what the other groups are doing, and criticize us for not raising money for the movement from rich people.'"

Reinforcing this ideological tendency toward localism, the leadership of at least some of the national structures seems to have been deficient in responding to specifically expressed needs for guidance from their base. Such requests range from skills training and organizational assistance, such as workshops on how to speak to different kinds of audiences, to the development of a regional analysis that would strengthen the work, particularly that of the groups that have gone beyond a one-country focus.

The leaders acknowledge there has been insufficient attention to the development of a conscious overall movement strategy, either for Nicaragua or for Central America as a whole. Some fear that such lack of foresight will lead to a pendulum swing back away from Nicaragua when the US puts more heat on El Salvador, and that it will be reactive and uncoordinated.

There are real structural and political limitations behind these problems—small and overburdened national staffs, limited political sophistication, financial limitations, etc. But they also reflect a tension within the national offices between the exigencies of national/international tasks and those of carefully developing the base structures. The Nicaragua Network office, for example, has sent out an educational fund-raising mailing for Nicaragua to a million people, in addition to coordinating national speaking tours, staying on top of what other groups and networks are doing, etc.

While it would be both ill-advised and unfeasible to push for greater centralization of the work done by the different organizations and their distinct constituencies, there is an opening at the national level for a more systematic examination of that work, which would enrich its effectiveness both within and between the organizations. Several of the leaders noted that the increased dialogue at the national level in Washington and the occasional cooperation among organizations—such as occurred during the April 25th demonstration—is an important step in this direction, and one they see as important to extend.

Themes could include not only the development of multilevel short-term tactics for fighting Reagan's contra aid request in the fall, but also how to carry out skills training workshops and the sharing of successful experiences. They could also take up longer-range questions, such as the presidential campaign and a reasonable alternative policy option. Most importantly, they could begin to systematically examine the public psyche around the country and at different social levels with the goal of breaking through the sense of alienation that permits people to donate pencils and medicines to Nicaragua but not to believe they could really make any difference in the power equation.

Combating powerlessness

That’s the nature of the threat I perceived on the tour, I believe; people know something is very wrong, but they feel helpless, and often cynical. Faced with energy and passion they would be forced to admit that to themselves, and to reconsider the refuge they’ve taken in personal comforts.

The group around the table agreed, and added that the Democrats' choice of members for the Contragate investigating commission with "unassailable" credentials as contra supporters heightened people's distance from the congressional process. As an even "worse case scenario," they explained that there might very well not be a separate foreign aid bill again this year, but rather a "continuing resolution" combining many budget items, to which contra aid might be attached. "They don't even have to bring it to the floor in the House debate. If contra aid passes in the Senate and gets attached to the continuing resolution, no one believes that the Democrats in the House would hold out in the conference committee against it given the budget problems, economic problems, probable rising inflation and unemployment. So if they're playing into the demoralization and sense of powerlessness among the population, that'll be the perfect strategy."

Passionate rhetoric is not the proper motivator today, but something has to convince people that they can turn their 65-70% "soft" opposition to current Central American policy into a political weight, and counterbalance the strong pressure the swing voters in Congress feel from the rightwing PACs. (I was told separately that perhaps half a dozen congressional candidates included opposition to current Central America policy in their campaigns in November and won, a fact that received little press attention but did not escape Washington analysts.)

President Johnson was defeated by the war in Vietnam, and the Reagan forces are weakened by this war and the various scandals that attend their administration. Reagan's current refusal to act weak can be interpreted as an attempt to play the only card he has left—his actor's skill at standing tall while dummy bullets fell the supporting cast around him.

Nicaragua, as small a country as it is, is doing its part by defeating the contras and, on the diplomatic and ideological plane, consistently showing up US policy for what it is. The solidarity movement must do its by consolidating the considerable gains it has made, and discovering the spark that will ignite the incipient anger and determination to oppose Reagan's militarist policy in the coming year. The numbers are there, and their sentiments are touched; now their vocal strength and courage must be tapped.

As the Village Voice article about international (not only US) volunteers in Nicaragua pointed out, many are in Nicaragua precisely because they’ve reached the point of needing to break with the despair:

“...most of these volunteers don't act especially guilty. They're just fed up—not only with societies where they felt shitty waking up every morning, but with the whole postcountercultural web of second thoughts and rationalizations that's left Westerners so conveniently helpless in the face of their historical identity. In a way, the Internationals are going through their own version of the capacitación, or empowerment, that the Sandinistas mean to realize for Nicaragua's disenfranchised; for many of the North Americans and Europeans alike, coming here has turned out to be the beginning of the long way back from 20 years of lockstep faith that nobody can ever really do anything anyway, and nothing good can last.”

“A distracted people, busy with the fierce competitions of modern life, must be addressed while they are paying attention, which is usually at the moment of some great national or international event.”
—James Reston

The death of Benjamin E. Linder, the first North American to be killed by the contras, may not be a "great national or international event," but despite the intent of Reagan Administration officials to shift the focus away from the real issues of his murder, it appears to have caught the attention of a distracted US public. Media reports tended to give inordinate space in early articles to the contras' version and were drawn at times to administration red herrings such as whether or not he was armed while working in the war zone. Nonetheless, The New York Times pursued the question of how he was murdered until it discredited the contras, and in some notable cases articles delved into the provocative issue of why so many people like Ben have chosen to come to Nicaragua to work. In the end, the unassailable profile of a decent young North American—an engineer, a unicycling clown, a man of values and convictions and the courage necessary to live by them—emerged clear. Alongside Ben emerged his family, equally multi-dimensional in their caring, in their political views and in their strengths and vulnerabilities. If the United States must insist on images, the Linder family is an image of substance, which may perhaps help the rest of us rethink what we have allowed ourselves to become.

An analysis of over 100 newspaper and magazine clippings made clear that only the most rabidly conservative commentators and congresspeople dared try to shift the issue by discrediting Ben or his family. Their efforts reaped them little more than public outrage and shame. Likewise, of 35 "Letters to the Editor" of various newspapers about Ben's death, 29 expressed thoughtful indignation about the contras and US policy in Central America. The remainder were as full of mindless "anti-communist" rhetoric as Reagan himself. Typical of this mentality were those seen proudly sporting t-shirts with the message, "I shot Ben Linder."

As with the ABC journalist Bill Stewart, executed by members of Somoza’s National Guard in a Managua barrio exactly a month before the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship, Ben's death has regrettably had far more impact on American sensibilities than the tens thousands of Nicaraguans who died in 1978-79 because of US support for Somoza and his praetorian National Guard, or the tens of thousands more who are dying now because of US support for their remnants, the contras. The comparisons—and the contrasts—do not end there, however.

Both Bill Stewart and Ben Linder were shot in the head at point blank range by the Guardia/contras, the former after having been ordered to lie down and put his hands behind him and the latter after having been immobilized either by grenade shrapnel or buckshot in the legs. In both cases, the assassins gave flimsy excuses—in the former, that Stewart had been killed by Sandinista sniper shots, and in the latter that Linder was killed in crossfire. (The contras in fact changed their story a number of times, saying at one point that Ben was wearing military fatigues, was armed and fought before being killed; several weeks later those who admitted actually killing him acknowledged that they had been on a mission to get him, but claimed that they had been told by a local spy that he was a Cuban.)

The contrasts between the two are even more significant. In Stewart's case, his murder was filmed by TV cameramen waiting in a van who succeeded in getting the film out of Nicaragua; the whole world saw the Guardsman kick the prostrate man, put the rifle to his head and pull the trigger. In Linder's case, he was working at a stream on the outskirts of a remote hamlet in the north; the only eyewitnesses were two surviving Nicaraguans caught in the same ambush, who ran when their comrades fell. Their version, that he was killed instantly by a grenade, did not reach Managua until a day later, after an announcement was released that he had been kidnapped from his office and killed later. Not until a week later, when Ben's father David, a retired pathologist, reviewed the autopsy and talked with the military doctor who carried it out, that the truth was announced in a press conference by Dr. Linder: "What I'm telling you is that they blew his brains out at point-blank range as he lay wounded." The news barely rated a paragraph in major newspapers at the time.

In Stewart's case, President Carter called his murder "an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn." Secretary of State Cyrus Vance extended "his deepest sympathy" to the families of both Stewart and his Nicaraguan driver, who was also summarily executed, and asked the US Embassy in Managua and the Nicaraguan government for a full report on the shootings. In Linder's case, President Reagan said nothing and Vice President George Bush merely remarked, "Anytime an American loses his life on foreign soil, that's of enormous concern to everyone." Although Nicaragua issued a formal protest to the US government the night of Ben's death, US Embassy press attaché in Managua Alberto Fernández, a Cuban-American, said the following day that he could not confirm that the dead man was a US citizen, adding, "We don't know anything about this man. Was he armed? Was he unarmed?" Only members of the congressional delegation in Oregon, Ben's home state, deplored his death and asked Secretary of State George Shultz for an immediate investigation of the incident. Senator Mark O. Hatfield (R-Or.) called Ben the victim of "a war which might not be necessary if we were about the business of searching for a solution instead of for military victories." Two days after Ben's death State Department spokesman Charles Redman said the Embassy had rejected the idea of sending an investigating team to the site because "in the absence of assistance from the Nicaraguan government, the area is currently too dangerous to permit travel by embassy personnel."

In Stewart's case, the day after his death Vance proposed that Somoza be replaced with a "transitional government of national reconciliation," and asked the Organization of American States to send an inter-American peace force (which the OAS refused to do, on the grounds that it was US intervention in Nicaragua's internal affairs). In Ben's case, within days Reagan asked for more money for the contras, and two months later a passport restrictions bill (the Walker Amendment) was passed 213-201 in the House which, among other things, would prohibit North Americans from coming to Nicaragua if the purpose "is to perform services or provide assistance to the military operations of the Government of Nicaragua." The bill is a clear attempt to intimidate visitors and those working in Nicaragua, and opens the way to increased FBI harassment.

Can North Americans be moved?

The theme of breaking with apathy crept into the articles from time to time, particularly but not only in op-ed columns. "Maybe now a few more people will be willing to write their congressman or congresswoman telling them to oppose contra aid," said a former volunteer in Nicaragua, quoted in an article about a candlelight vigil for Ben attended by 1,000 people in Portland, Oregon, the day after he was killed. "It's not enough just to be against something. We have to act."

Mary McGrory, a syndicated columnist, contrasting Ben Linder and contra fundraiser Carl Channell, as two faces of the contra war, wrote: "Our tax dollars are going to buy weapons to kill good-hearted kids like Ben. Americans knew from press and television reports that peasants' cooperatives, shacks and clinics were being blown up to 'bring democracy' to Nicaragua. They confined their protest to telling pollsters that they opposed military aid to the contras.... Maybe, as the story unfolds, the country will set to thinking... that we really cannot spare many more Americans like Ben Linder, who built dams and made children laugh."

Even a Canadian reporter for the (Toronto) Globe and Mail caught the new mood. Covering a memorial service for Ben in New York, columnist Michele Landsberg noted early in her article that "the sheer, mad disproportion of the Reaganite attack is wearying. One feels hopeless against such rabid perseverance. Almost 70 per cent of Americans are consistently opposed to aid for the Nicaraguan rebels...but even this has no effect on Washington." By the end she confessed that "the dispirited detachment that had hung over me earlier began to lift. It was almost possible to believe, listening to these fresh voices [of Ben's friends paying tribute to him], that the United States could change, and that the undercurrent had already begun to shift."

In Portland, Oregon, the City Council adopted a resolution proclaiming a week of mourning for Benjamin Ernest Linder and calling for an end to aid for the rebels in Nicaragua. During an hour of poignant and persuasive testimony, City Commissioner Dick Bogle made the following statement: "America's misadventures abroad are allowed to take shape and grow... because we sit by, in silence, wringing our hands.... While [Ben's] memory is fresh, ...we need to bring what we stand for into sharp focus ...and determine what we want our nation to be. With this resolution, we are sending a message to the world. We are standing up, and saying NO! We are asking people everywhere to add their voice to the call for a new foreign policy... one that emphasizes PEACE."

In early June, the Linder family began a five month tour of the United States to honor Ben's life by telling the story of his work in Nicaragua, of his death, and of the US government's response. In Bill Stewart's case, his death awakened public consciousness. In Ben Linder's case, there is hope that his death will also awaken a dormant sense of anger, and hence of power, sweeping away the apathy that has permitted the Reagan madness to reign.

Benjamin E. Linder, 1950-1987, PRESENTE!

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