“De Cara al Pueblo”: Fourteen Questions for the Sandinistas
"De Cara al Pueblo" (Face the People) has become one of the traditions of the Nicaraguan revolution. Every week since the very beginning of the revolutionary process, top Sandinista leaders have met face to face with hundreds of people, discussing for hours their questions, complaints, demands and suggestions.
Each meeting focuses on the particular concerns either of a place—it might be a factory, an urban neighborhood or a rural community—or a sector of the population—be it students, market women, people from the Atlantic Coast, journalists, Christians... When feasible, these meetings, which are held all over the country, are broadcast live over the radio. Each meeting is also edited down to a one-hour version for television.
For many, "De Cara al Pueblo" is a unique expression of the new Nicaraguan democracy. Some in the opposition parties, on the other hand, see it as nothing more than an ineffective and by now worn-out escape valve. Foreigners who visit Nicaragua are always greatly interested in attending these forums for popular participation.
On a few occasions, Sandinista leaders have opened a "De Cara al Pueblo" to visitors from other countries or to international volunteers working in Nicaragua—internacionalistas or cooperantes, as they are variously called here—so their own questions and concerns can be answered. One such occasion was the First International Book Fair, held in Managua July 20-26 as part of the celebration of the revolution’s eighth anniversary. Some 350 publishers and editors from 45 countries in Latin America and Western and Eastern Europe as well as the US and Canada, gathered in Nicaragua for this cultural event. The Nicaraguan government held two De Cara al Pueblo encounters with them: one on Friday, July 24, which lasted three and a half hours, presided over by President Daniel Ortega, and a two-hour one the following day with Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge; both men are members of the FSLN National Directorate. As is customary, other Cabinet members also participated in both, answering specific questions in their respective areas.
envío was present at both meetings, and we have chosen 14 of the 33 questions that were asked on those two occasions. The questions are representative of those asked by other visitors to Nicaragua, many of whom come to see us at envío. The responses are representative as well. Choosing questions and answers from both meetings, rearranging and synthesizing them, we've constructed the following written De Cara al Pueblo, with the idea that our readers might experience this form of revolutionary communication and judge its validity for themselves.
Human rights:Q. What has been done in Nicaragua to respect those human rights that are social: housing, health, food? Do you give more importance to those than to individual rights? And what do you think is more important to people: freedom from need or the need for freedom?
Social and individual
Tomás Borge: The satisfaction of material human needs is a human right. In some countries, like ours, what happens is that the available resources are insufficient to satisfy the needs of the people. Our people have housing needs, but there's no cement, no building stone, no steel.* Our people have health needs. We've made extraordinary efforts in this area, but we lack the resources to keep up to date with scientific advances in medicine. The infant mortality rate in Nicaragua was over 200 for every 1,000 live births. In spite of our poverty, our shortages, we've been able to reduce this figure to 80 out of every 1,000. There was over 50% illiteracy in Nicaragua. We brought that down to a little over 12%, although now, because of the aggression, economic problems and scarcity of educational materials, there’s a rise in illiteracy again.
*At another point in the meeting, the housing minister said that the current housing deficit in Nicaragua is 300,000 units.
This is to say that it's not enough to have the determination to turn your country into the Promised Land. We'd like to build a paradise in Nicaragua and we'd like to be able to pull solutions to our problems out of a hat like a magician. When we talk to the people, when we go out to the barrios and see the enormous need, the tremendous limitations our humble people live under, we could tear our heart out piece by piece and give it to the people if this would solve the problems. But no, we don't have the material conditions to respond to all the people’s needs. We make efforts to respond to these social rights that are such a vital aspect of human rights. And if we aren't more responsive it's because we don't have the resources.
But it's not enough to respond to people’s material needs. It's necessary to provide them liberty. Unfortunately, the perfect society doesn't exist yet, but there are, without a doubt, more advanced societies. And there are also countries where there has been tremendous economic development but where injustice is rampant. I think that in revolutionary countries, where enormous efforts have been put into responding to social demands, great efforts are also being made to expand the democratic space. This already exists where theoretical principles have been put into concrete practice, but they’ve had their limitations. These limitations are being confronted, I believe, with success.
We believe that in the final analysis, there’s no essential contradiction between the realm of necessity and that of liberty. The most important demand, the most vital need of the human species, is liberty. When we, who have won for ourselves the right to construct a new society, surmount this aggression that’s forcing us to pour out our blood, we’ll quickly build a new society where people’s needs can be satisfied. But this can't be done at the expense of the demand for freedom. People have a right to their creativity, their participation, ownership of their own works, their own freedom. Revolutions give this to people and it would be unjust to take it away from them—that wouldn't be a revolution anymore!
The warQ. Why has the Nicaraguan government spoken so insistently about the danger of a direct invasion by US troops? Is this still a real threat? How much has the low-intensity war, the contras' war of attrition decreed by the United States, already affected Nicaragua?
Daniel Ortega: It's true that all these years we've been talking about the threat of a US invasion. And in some instances invasion has been closer than at others. The US government, and others who don't know the history of US-Nicaraguan relations, say that when we cry, "The invasion is coming, the invasion is coming!" we're like the shepherd boy crying "Wolf!" They forget that the wolf has already been in Nicaragua, that we Nicaraguans already know him, he's already ripped into us and we've had to confront him and defend ourselves. And now, once again, he's baring his fangs at us, trying to get into Nicaragua.
Yes, there’s a real threat of invasion in Nicaragua. And let's make no mistake: just because they say that Reagan has been weakened by the Irangate scandal, let's not think that there's no longer any danger of invasion. This is why we say that congressional approval of more aid for the contras would be a very serious political outcome. That would be perhaps the most dangerous time for a direct action of US troops against our country.
What are the direct effects of this interventionist war the US calls "low intensity"? To date we have 43,176 victims, including dead, wounded and kidnapped. That also includes contra casualties, because the great majority of them are Nicaraguans too. The US policy of arming one group of Nicaraguans to attack another group of Nicaraguans makes victims of all of them.
Of the total number of victims, 22,495 are deaths, just over 50%. Among them, 2,327 have been women, 2,210 children, 179 teachers, 52 doctors, 15 nurses. There are also students, workers, technicians, professionals.... The war has left 10,077 orphans and more than 250,000 displaced peasants.
The number of casualties is already 1.25% of our population, conservatively calculated at 3.2 million, with deaths accounting for 0.6%. If the United States, with its population of 240 million, were subjected, as we have been for seven years, to a "low-intensity" war like this, the equivalent number of US victims would be 3 million. And the equivalent to the 22,000 Nicaraguans who have died would be over 15 million US dead. This is just to give you an idea of what kind of war and what kind of suffering the Nicaraguan people are dealing with.
If we add up the casualties that the people of the US have suffered for their participation, rightly or wrongly, in different wars, we see that there were 320,710 casualties in World War I; 116,708 of them deaths. In World War II, there were 1,078,162 casualties, 407,316 of them deaths. In the Korean War there were 157,530 casualties, 54,246 of them deaths. In the Vietnam War there were 213,514 casualties, 58,095 of them deaths. If we add up all the US dead and wounded from World War I through the Vietnam War, there were 1,969,916 victims, of which 636,365 died. This figure is much smaller than the one projected if there had been a war of aggression in the United States like the one we're suffering now, taking into account the larger US population. Proportionally, the victims of Nicaragua are equivalent to 169% of the US victims in these four wars put together. Surely a war of this magnitude in the United States, with these figures, would never be called a "low-intensity" war!
PrisonersQ.Is there torture or abuse in Nicaraguan jails? How are prisoners treated in Nicaragua? And how do Sandinista military treat the civilian population? There are reports that more jails are being built in Nicaragua. Is this true?
Borge: There have been no deaths of prisoners in our jails and no known cases of deliberate torture in the interrogation process. But yes, we know there have been abuses, acts of violence, even murders during these years in isolated cases, especially in the war zones. There have been military personnel who committed murders, particularly in the countryside. Some of our compañeros have committed serious crimes against citizens in Region VI, as well as against citizens on the Atlantic Coast. In a very well-known trial in Nicaragua, some of those who had violated the law alleged in their defense that they did so for political and ideological reasons, to defend the revolution. But the Nicaraguan revolution doesn't understand this language! There can be no ideological justification, nor can there ever be a political justification to violate human rights. A compañero can know all the classics of revolutionary theory by heart and be able to recite Marx from memory if he wants, he may believe in God or not, it doesn't matter. Here what matters is believing in humanity, respecting human beings! We're uncompromising on this!
Alvaro Ramírez*: In the first six months of this year the military tribunals I preside over have heard 2,318 cases of offenses committed by soldiers and officers of the Sandinista Popular Army and by troops of the Interior Ministry.** I don't know of any other country that makes statistics of the crimes committed by its military personnel public, but the policy of the revolution is one of truth and we don't try to hide those actions. And don't think we pass sentence only on cases of enlisted men. Among the 2,318 cases, 465 officers were prosecuted.
*Lt. Col. Alvaro Ramírez, lawyer, in charge of the Military Tribunals.
**Although abuse and even treason are included, a high percentage is traffic violations and other common infractions of civil law.
In the Military Tribunals we hear cases of common crimes committed by military personnel as well as infractions of military regulations, things that are only crimes within army ranks. In this country, no crime or offense committed by a member of the army or within the ranks of the Interior Ministry goes unpunished.
Our starting point is that knowledge of the law, of military regulations is a determining factor in the correct behavior of all our soldiers and officers. We make a great effort to explain the Constitution to our soldiers, now that it’s established that the army owes its fundamental obedience to the Political Constitution. Nicaragua's finest sons are within the ranks of the army that defends this nation’s sovereignty, but human nature being what it is, we commit offenses and infractions like all other Nicaraguans. We're sweeping away the ideological rubble left over from the old society and making efforts to correct improper conduct by demanding justice within the military and by our efforts to give legal education to the troops.
Alvaro Guzmán*: In the process of reeducating prisoners, we start from the conviction that it’s possible to rehabilitate anyone for the great tasks of society, even though they may have committed crimes in any one of the established categories: common crimes, counterrevolutionary crimes, crimes from the time of the Somoza dictatorship and military crimes. We consider integration into work to be the backbone of the rehabilitation process, work accompanied by a comprehensive technical, recreational, cultural and artistic training program for those who have talent in these areas. We also start from the conception that the choice to enter this kind of educational process must be voluntary: the inmate is under no obligation to participate.
*Sub-Comandante Alvaro Guzmán, director of the Penitentiary System.
We have a progressive program, the starting point of which is work. For a period of about 30% of the inmate's sentence, the individual lives inside the penitentiary. In the second stage, the semi-open stage, the inmate leaves the prison compound and goes to live in a minimum security center—a work center or agricultural enterprise. The next 20% or so of the sentence is spent in this setting. Then the inmate passes to the open phase, with the option of returning to a family setting, integrated normally into social tasks, with the only condition that the person is legally a prisoner whose rights as a citizen are still suspended to the extent that they are suspended in such cases. For all practical purposes, though, the person is in the same condition as one who is legally free. In a ten-year sentence, say, a person could spend six years of it in this family setting.
Borge: It's important to add here that we’ve integrated 71% of all inmates into productive work and by the end of this year we’ll have integrated a total of 87%. For those of you who aren't familiar with the "open farms," I want you to know that there are no bars, no barbed wire and no guards there. When people ask us: "How did you come up with this kind of a system?" or ask, "And what about the prisoners, don't they escape?" we tell them that in this underdeveloped country we have created a very important factory, a padlock factory. We have an enormous padlock on every one of the open farms, and it's called faith in human beings.
Ortega: Now, about the matter of constructing new jails. We have a problem of overcrowding, which creates conditions that aren't the best. This is because we're still using the same prison infrastructure Somoza left us, though what's inside is now different. When Compañero Tomás presented us with his budget request for prison construction, it was for new construction, but within a rehabilitation and work plan and better conditions than the prisoners had before. This is a hard decision for us because of our limited resources. While we have requests to rebuild schools that have been destroyed by the contras, or health centers or cooperatives destroyed by the contras, we also have this request from the Interior Ministry to give prisoners better conditions. This isn't about opening new prisons to put more prisoners into. Rather, it's about better conditions for the current prisoners and investing more in open farms, which are a new experiment for Latin America.
AmnestyAre there pardons and amnesty in Nicaragua? If so, are they available for counterrevolutionaries as well?
Ortega: It has been shown that there’s been a very generous policy here, one that seeks a way to give confidence to those Nicaraguans who one way or another were committed in the past to the Somoza regime, or others who more recently have been committed to the terrorist actions promoted by the US government. We're not interested in having our prisons full of prisoners, so year after year we give pardons. We give pardons to prisoners not once, but several times a year.
We also have an open amnesty policy, which all Nicaraguans involved in activities with the mercenary forces can make use of, and at any moment. We’ve also made efforts through the UN High Commission on Refugees so that Nicaraguans who for one reason or another have left for Honduras or Costa Rica can return to their homeland. In all these efforts, including those who have returned to the country and those who have received amnesty, more than 9,000 Nicaraguans have benefited from this policy of the revolution.
And there’s no death penalty here. At one point we discussed whether it was necessary to apply the death penalty, given that we’re a country under assault from a power like the United States. But we concluded that the most correct thing was not to approve it. Here in Nicaragua the death penalty doesn’t exist nor will we apply it at any time.
Private enterpriseQ. Is there private enterprise in Nicaragua? And do private business people help the revolution or not?
Sergio Ramírez*: In Nicaragua we have a mixed-economy system, established from the beginning in the  historic program of the Sandinista Front, and now codified in the Constitution. Very different kinds of property ownership converge in the mixed economy. We have large private businesses, medium-sized ones, cooperatives, a communal type of ownership—which is what functions in the Atlantic Coast in the indigenous communities—and a very large number of small agricultural proprietors. The property in the hands of the large entrepreneurs is only one sector of the private economy in Nicaragua.
*Vice President of Nicaragua.
In fact, the revolution has created many private property owners in the country, by handing over more than three million hectares of land to landless peasants and also to cooperatives.
The large majority of private entrepreneurs in the country work in a positive way, in agriculture, in livestock raising and in industry. If this willingness didn't exist on everybody's part among the large, medium-sized and small business people, the economy could not function in Nicaragua. Only 40% of the means of production is directly in state hands and the other 60% is in the hands of this enormous variety of private owners.
Nonetheless, a very small fraction of the private sector, COSEP, which usually claims to represent the whole private sector of the economy, identifies with the aggressive policies of the Reagan administration. It’s a very small, extremist group—rightwing, of course—and doesn’t represent the interests of all the private owners and entrepreneurs who work within the framework of the revolution's mixed economy.
Children in the counterrevolutionQ. We've read about the recruiting currently carried out by the counterrevolution among peasant children.... What program does the revolutionary government have for these children when they manage to get away from the contra ranks?
Ricardo Chavarría*: We don't have a special program for these children; rather we treat them in the various attention centers for minors that we have throughout the country. Some of these centers specialize in caring for abandoned children or those who have suffered mistreatment by their parents. Obviously children kidnapped by the counterrevolution have suffered crueler abuse, because they’ve been trained to kill, to destroy what their own parents are trying to build. At first, these children go through a treatment made up of the affection and love the revolution gives them through many of its organizations. Then we have to determine if they have some trauma in their personalities. If they do, we refer them for treatment to professionals in our centers. The immediate next step is to return them to their families, which is the best environment for them, the one they really belong to.
*Vice Minister of the Nicaraguan Institute of Social Security and Welfare (INSSBI).
One of the most recent problems that we're taking up is children kidnapped by the contras. We have an even greater one, though: the nearly 11,000 war orphans. These are minors who have been left without parents because of the war. we have a whole program of attention for them.
Right now we’re just finishing up a diagnostic study at a national level, studying each child on a case-by-case basis to identify their situations and give them the most appropriate treatment within our means. Regarding the war orphans, we make no distinction among children under our care and attention if they’re children of counterrevolutionary families. All are orphans and for this reason we’re interested in helping them.
Borge: The counterrevolutionaries are now kidnapping children because the possibility of kidnapping large numbers of adults has dried up for them. And they incorporate them into their military units. The most painful part of this is that some of these children will die in the confrontations. But it's not only the counterrevolution that kidnaps children. Death also kidnaps them. Gastroenteritis is a kidnapper of children. For this we have an oral rehydration program, perhaps relatively the most developed one in the world. Here in Nicaragua we say that children "are the pampered ones of the revolution," but we lack the resources to care for them as well as we’d like.
ContragateQ. What do the Sandinistas think of the hearings on the Iran-Contragate scandal? Could you speculate on the outcome of this affair?
Miguel D'Escoto*: I wouldn't like to speculate on how this process is going to end. In reality, it’s a process whose end and principal objective is to give US legislators an opportunity for self-deception, so they can think that they and their country and government are concerned about and respectful of the law. These hearings have been a consummate exercise in hypocrisy, in which they’re trying to determine when and how much President Reagan knew about one thing or another or if the Boland Amendment was or wasn’t violated, when the whole world knows that the fundamental norms of international law have been violated, when the whole world knows that all the divine and human laws have been made a mockery of.
* Nicaragua's foreign affairs minister.
And while this is being discussed, the Nicaraguan people continue being killed with the complicity of Congress and the US government. Given this, it doesn't really interest me very much to speculate on how it's going to turn out.
What is being made evident, and the polls themselves show it, is that President Reagan has been seriously hit in an area that should be very important for any President: his own credibility. Let's hope that this situation helps the United States to reflect a little about the course its own political development is taking and that it decides to take the necessary steps, opting to join the nations that respect law and to fulfill the formal international accords it has freely entered into.
EducationQ. What has been happening in education since the revolution? And, in particular, what is the situation of university education? What advances have been made?
Ortega: Even in the midst of war the revolution has been making efforts to maintain the education and culture programs. In 1987 total spending in education and culture has reached a little over 13% of the national budget and represents 4.1% of the gross domestic product. The Education Ministry has a budget of 36.2 billion córdobas, and the Ministry of Culture 1.6 billion. This, given the costs of the war, which take up more than 40% of the budget.
Enrollment in all levels has reached 1,054,764 students. If we compare that to the 517,134 students in 1977, we have today double the number of students there were during the Somoza times, despite all the support he had from US governments, whether Democrat or Republican. Student enrollment has gone up 66% in primary schools, 68% in secondary schools and 22% in the universities. In preschool education there has been a 611% increase and in special education a 282% increase. In addition, there are 117,622 people in adult education. After the effort we made with the literacy campaign, which drastically reduced illiteracy from nearly 51% to less than 13%, we’ve been losing some of these gains given the war and the lack of resources. Currently illiteracy has gone back up to some 20%. But we’re not giving in and we continue struggling for education.
At the end of the Somoza dictatorship there were 13,974 teachers in Nicaragua. Today we have 27,364, to which must be added 13,531 coordinators of the adult education programs, giving us a total of 41,338 teachers. In the Somoza era there was a maximum of 5 teaching schools; today we have 14. In the best period of Somoza and with the United States directing Somoza's policy, there were 6,998 classrooms. Today we have 16,307. There would be 64 more, but they were destroyed by the mercenaries that President Reagan calls "freedom fighters."
We also have 7,220 children and 220 teachers in bilingual education programs in Miskitu, Creole English and Sumu. Before, there was only one school of special education, with 600 students. Currently we have 24 special education schools, with 2,292 students. As for publications, we’ve published 235 titles by Nicaraguan and international authors, with a total of 2,770,000 copies printed.
Joaquín Solís Piura*: Regarding university education, we’ve reorganized the whole system of higher education since the revolutionary triumph, giving priority to the careers most useful for the country's development. Before the triumph, 70% of our students were in law, humanities, arts and letters and economic management, and only 30% in the more vital areas of engineering, agronomy, education and medicine. Immediately after the triumph, we took up the task of correcting this and can now say that we’ve totally reversed the situation. Now we have 68% of the students in the priority areas instead of vice versa. At the same time, we reviewed all our study and curriculum plans, so they now respond to the national reality and not to plans and programs imported from other countries outside of our scientific reality, technology and general development.
*Minister in charge of the National Council of Higher Education (CNES).
In quantitative terms, we grew from 21,000 students to 34,000 between 1979 and 1983. We went from some 450 full-time professors to 1,500 now. We increased our physical plant, our laboratories and our libraries. Today we have around 5,000 students on scholarship within the country and 3,000 abroad. Before the triumph there were no scholarships either internally or internationally, not even one. The 3,000 who are studying abroad now are in 27 different countries, studying 180 majors that don't exist in Nicaragua.
We must frankly admit, however, that we have huge problems, as does our country as a whole. Since 1984 we’ve seen our enrollment shrink, coinciding with the worsening of the war. Right now we have 27,000 students, 7,000 less than in 1983. According to our calculations based on projections of enrollment at the secondary level, we should have 56,000 students today. The war has caused us to lose almost half of the students we should have had. We don't include this in the calculations of the war, it's not quantifiable, but we're talking about 25,000 to 26,000 professionals we should have been training who aren’t studying because of the war, because they are fighting, or because of the economic crisis, which doesn't permit all those who want to study to be able to go to the university.*
*A few days after this, in a meeting with the Nicaraguan National Student Union (UNEN) Comandante Bayardo Arce publicly noted another serious problem higher education is facing: the brain drain. Since 1979, 9,575 professionals and technicians have left Nicaragua. Although there are no figures indicating whether these are professionals who graduated before or after the triumph, the figure is significant given that 14,340 technicians and professionals graduated in the same period. Among those who have left are 1,877 professors, 1,633 engineers and architects, 1,237 doctors and 525 agricultural technicians.
AutonomyQ. How is the autonomy process progressing on the Atlantic Coast? Are the indigenous groups there really interested in this process?
Ray Hooker*: In December 1984 we initiated an autonomy process for the citizens of the Atlantic Coast, not only for the indigenous inhabitants but for all the different groups living in the region. This process has had a very positive impact. A series of consultations were held at a national level to map out a draft of the autonomy law, which was approved by the Atlantic Coast communities in an assembly held in April of this year. This bill will be submitted to the National Assembly at the end of August or beginning of September, so it can be discussed and approved by our legislature.
*Representative from the Atlantic Coast to the National Assembly and Executive Secretary of the National Autonomy Commission.
The draft guarantees the exercise of political rights. The inhabitants of the Atlantic Coast will elect their own leaders at local, municipal and regional levels. They will also participate under the same conditions as other citizens in national political decisions. They will exercise economic rights, participating in the management of national resources and state firms operating on the Atlantic Coast. They will exercise cultural rights: an atmosphere will be created in which the indigenous and black population will come to feel proud of their racial identity, their color, instead of being ashamed, as they were before 1979.
The process has three fundamental objectives: to guarantee the survival of Atlantic Coast cultures, to achieve national unity and to forge a new national identity nourished by the contributions of Atlantic culture. But it will also contribute to the democratization of this revolution.
The project has had a very important impact in bringing peace to the Atlantic Coast. More than 10,000 indigenous inhabitants have returned to their communities. Each week, two or three flights bring refugees back from Honduras to Puerto Cabezas. The number of armed fighters on the Atlantic Coast is now quite reduced: perhaps some 600 people.
The problem is that the autonomy process has generated very high expectations. We're talking about freeing the minds of the coast population in particular and all Nicaraguans in general of more than 400 years of traditional oppression. And this you don't do overnight. It's a slow, difficult process. Naturally, the coast population has certain doubts about the revolution's sincerity in granting autonomy. Never before has a government been so concerned to find a genuine solution to the Atlantic Coast’s traditional problems. People are saying: Is it true that they’re going to live up to everything promised in these documents? There are doubts among the populace. And there are also doubts in some political circles on the Pacific Coast about what they call the danger of separatism. Today the great majority of the Atlantic Coast's population wants autonomy to be implemented right away, they want to see it in place. The most difficult thing will be to satisfy all the aspirations and expectations that the process has generated so far.
Aid to the FMLNQ. It is constantly said that the Sandinistas help the FMLN in El Salvador. In a recent interview President Ortega told a Mexican journalist that this wasn't so. What do you have to say about this?
Ortega: I explained to the Mexican paper that the FMLN's arms supply comes from the United States itself. The US government sends arms to the Salvadoran army, and the principal source of arms for the FMLN right now is the Salvadoran army itself. When the FMLN takes over a military base in El Salvador, it captures a great quantity of arms: guns, rifles, mortars. There are long lists, the Salvadoran army admits it. Therefore, it's the US that is supplying the FMLN.
What has been proven is that there’s a flow of arms from El Salvador into Nicaragua, in an operation led by the CIA. This was confirmed when the plane carrying Mr. Hasenfus was shot down, revealing details of how they operated from the Ilopango Airport in El Salvador. Recently we had new proof with the Red-Eye rocket captured from the counterrevolution. It was thrown out of a plane in a parachute by a commando unit. There's the parachute and the rocket, North American. There's also the communications set, very sophisticated, that we captured. Everything Made in the USA, all sent by the United States from El Salvador in airdrops to the contras, to the mercenaries.
We’ve never denied that we’re in solidarity with the struggle of the Salvadoran people. We’ve also demonstrated our support for a peaceful solution in El Salvador and have supported proposals by the FDR-FMLN, even presenting them in the United Nations. I told the Mexican journalist that in Nicaragua there was so much sympathy with the struggle of the Salvadoran people that in certain moments, at the beginning, we did give some supplies, some support to the FMLN, even some compañeros went to El Salvador, as was the case of Orlando Tardencilla. But he hadn't been sent by the government of Nicaragua to fight in El Salvador, this was his personal decision. The official position of the Nicaraguan government is to support a peaceful solution in El Salvador.
La Prensa Q. The closing of the newspaper La Prensa has been very difficult for us to defend abroad. Why did you take this measure? In the political struggle, isn't it better to convince rather than to repress? Wouldn't it have been better to debate publicly what La Prensa said rather than close it down?
Ortega: This is a very important question to clarify. We know how hard it is for Nicaragua's friends to explain why La Prensa was closed and why there’s censorship of the press in our country. In order to understand this, you have to bear in mind first the context of war, of military aggression the Nicaraguan revolution is confronting, and the effects of this war. We’ve already looked at this.
If during World War II, the United States, without even being directly attacked on its own territory, took extraordinary measures and unjustly sent thousands of US citizens to concentration camps simply for being of Japanese origin, and also censored the media, imagine what we would have had to do in Nicaragua to defend ourselves from the unjust attacks by the United States! But here we haven't committed the outrage of jailing every US citizen or citizen of US origin. No, here they move about freely and speak out freely, those who are in favor of the Nicaraguan people and those who work against the Nicaraguan people. Here we also have many Nicaraguans of various opposition political parties who speak out in favor of the aggression and against whom no measures are taken. Pablo Antonio Cuadra [a Nicaraguan poet] enters and leaves the country saying what he wants, and we don't harass him. We don't do with this intellectual what the US did with Ezra Pound, when they persecuted him and jailed him for 12 years for thinking and speaking his mind. Pablo Antonio says what he wants to inside and outside of Nicaragua, with his own conscience, before the people and before the nation.
But your concern is just. Why not wage an ideological battle, a political struggle, and let La Prensa publish? The problem is that in the context of war that Nicaragua is experiencing we can’t permit the US government's terrorist policy to open an internal front here to support and complement its military policy. La Prensa was financed and directed by the CIA. One of its directors is now a leader of the mercenary forces. The CIA wanted to use it as a destabilizing instrument, just like the paper El Mercurio was used in Chile. After the criminal overthrow of Salvador Allende's constitutional, legitimate government, it was clearly shown that to achieve this, the CIA used El Mercurio. Knowing, then, the experience of Chile, and being forced to endure such a degree of aggression, I believe it's possible to understand perfectly well why we had to close La Prensa. The day the war ends, the day the aggression ends, La Prensa will be able to come out. If La Prensa then wants to propose that the US invade, it can do so. And we will indeed battle it out ideologically with them! But in the current circumstances, we can't be naive. We must learn some lessons from the life and sacrifice of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity government; it's a lesson we can't afford to forget.
Borge: We could give you reasons why we closed La Prensa. I'm going to limit myself to saying that we closed La Prensa for reasons of national dignity. It was a newspaper published in Spanish, but it thought in broken English. It was a mouthpiece, not of reactionary Nicaraguans, but of the White House. It defended the Pentagon and Reagan more fervently than any paper in the United States. What would have happened in the United States if after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a newspaper published in English supported Japan?
I want to say, for those who don't know it, that the United States is waging war against Nicaragua. This little country of three and a half million inhabitants has 40,000 victims as a consequence of this latest war waged against us by the US. And during the Somoza regime, a regime imposed by the United States, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans died. We have paid an extraordinarily high price for the US interventions in Nicaragua. Yankee imperialism killed Sandino, our national hero, and thousands of other Nicaraguans. The blood of Carlos Fonseca, which feeds this revolution, was another fruit of US intervention. The blood of Brother Tomás Zavaleta, the tears of mothers, the sorrow inside Nicaraguans, are all fruits of US intervention. How could it be possible to have here a paper that defended these crimes? Who did La Prensa deceive? No one! We could live with La Prensa’s lies, but we couldn't live with the affront to the dignity of Nicaragua that this paper represented. For that reason we closed it.
Whoever wants to criticize the Nicaraguan revolution has that right. Anyone can confront us with our mistakes. And we’re the first to face up to them. But no one can become an apologist for the crimes committed by the US administration against Nicaragua. No one has the right to receive the CIA's bloodied dollars. It's a question of national dignity.
The problem of AIDSQ. What measures is the Nicaraguan government taking to detect and prevent the spread of AIDS and help those who have this disease?
Dora María Téllez*: The first thing to explain is that we don't have a single case of AIDS in Nicaragua at this point. This doesn't mean that there isn't AIDS in Nicaragua. It probably just means we haven't found it. The government approved a program to combat AIDS, one with measures common to all programs to combat this disease: some technical aspects, protection of blood banks, and education; this last is the key element of any campaign against AIDS.
*Minister of Health.
We have taken some steps in this educational campaign and are preparing a stronger and more sustained community education campaign. We believe that the best means of direct education is through the health brigadistas educating the community. We’ve requested international support and have received help for this educational campaign, to apply techniques of detecting the virus, and aid from the Scandinavian Red Cross to apply investigative techniques in our blood banks.
But our program can't be as extensive as we'd like, because we’re up against much more urgent problems. The anti-AIDS campaign will turn be costly. AIDS is a disease that requires enormous costs in material resources, and in Nicaragua the primary cause of death for minors is diarrhea, and for adults is the war. The country must concentrate its health resources toward preventing infant mortality by diarrhea and preventing death in the war. With our scarce resources we have to choose, for example, between treating and rehabilitating some 2,000 or 3,000 people handicapped by war wounds and a campaign like that directed at AIDS.
The threat to the United States Q. Really, is there anything in the Nicaraguan revolution that threatens the United States?
Ortega: Yes, we’re a political threat to the forms of treatment and of domination that the United States has traditionally practiced in the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. With the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution, what's at stake is US policy toward Latin America and the Caribbean.
You have to ask yourself: Why has the Reagan administration tried so hard to destroy the Nicaraguan revolution? Why so many campaigns, so many lies, so many actions to try to isolate and destroy it? And there’s only one answer: In fact we’re a threat for the United States to the degree that the US is trying to keep its same old relationship intact with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean.
What is at stake right now is the Monroe Doctrine. In Latin America and the Caribbean a body of Latin American opinion is taking shape that favors a new kind of relationship with the United States. The Latin America of today is not the Latin America of yesterday, that allowed itself to be used to invade the Dominican Republic. In 1965 the United States invaded the Dominican Republic with the help of Somoza's troops and those from a number of the other military regimes that predominated in Latin America. Traditionally, if the United States decided to invade a country, it would invade and invite the rest of the Latin American countries to support the invasion. If it decided to isolate and blockade a country, as it did to Cuba, it would issue a call to Latin America. And most Latin American countries joined the blockade of Cuba; including Somoza, who loaned our territory to train troops for the Bay of Pigs invasion and to be the launching pad for that invasion.
Now Latin America has formed the Contadora and Support groups. For the first time the United States finds itself faced with a bloc of Latin American nations that oppose its terrorist and aggressive policy against a Latin American nation, Nicaragua. This worries some members of the US government. For the first time in history a group of Latin American countries is telling the United States that it isn't following the right path, that the right path isn't aggression, isn't war, but is dialogue. For the imperialist mentality, which prevails among Democrats as well as Republicans, the mediation of these Latin American countries isn't acceptable. Therefore they want to get rid of the Contadora and Support groups.
Reagan is nothing more than an heir to the Monroe Doctrine. He’s only defending this doctrine of domination and intervention that Democrats and Republicans have long been applying. Nicaragua has been invaded as much by Democratic administrations as by Republican ones. It was invaded even before the October Revolution. When "the East" didn't yet exist, the United States invaded Nicaragua. It invaded a whole group of Latin American and Caribbean countries, and stole and occupied our nations' territories. It is this policy that’s at stake today. And the example of the Nicaraguan revolution will be a determining factor for the future of US-Latin American relations. If a tiny nation like Nicaragua manages to survive this onslaught, these actions of US military might, it will undoubtedly strengthen Latin American consciousness. If a tiny country can confront and resist US pressure and aggression, just imagine a country like Brazil, like Mexico, like Venezuela, Colombia, Argentina, let's imagine all of those countries united, putting up resistance to the economic and financial policies of the United States!
The United States is convinced that Nicaragua isn’t any kind of threat as part of the East. They know we're not part of any military bloc, they know we're not installing foreign military bases in our country, they know we're not carrying out military maneuvers with foreign troops. On the contrary, they know we’re involved in searching for a means of agreement to convert Central America into a neutral zone. These are just the pretexts the Reagan administration uses to defend the Monroe Doctrine. They don't want to understand that the time has come for a new type of relationship, for friendly relations, not relationship between master and slave. Since we’re so close to each other, sharing the same continent, the United States has forgotten that in Latin America there’s dignity, that there are other peoples. They see a security threat in Nicaragua because Nicaragua will oblige them—and you can be sure we will oblige them—to understand that it’s time to propose a new type of relations with our people.
We’re creating a revolutionary project here, which sounds like utopia to many, but with the will of the Nicaraguan people and of the FSLN this utopia will become reality. We’re making it reality day by day. With the blood lost by the people, by children, women, young people and old, workers, in one single river with the blood of our brothers from other countries, from West Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain, Cuba, Chile, from the United States itself, who here in Nicaragua have joined their blood, their spirit and their love in a single torrent with our blood, our spirit, our love, our longings and our struggle for peace and for liberty!
Marx said that religion is the opiate of the people. And in Nicaragua so it was for a long time, to such an extent that when Anastasio Somoza García, the murderer of Sandino and founder of the Somoza dynasty, died he was buried with honors as Prince of the Church. He was blessed by the Vatican, by the bishops of Nicaragua. But then religion, the force of Christianity, stopped being an opiate. With the example of priests like Gaspar García Laviana, who gave his blood for our people, with the example of priests like Miguel D'Escoto, Ernesto Cardenal, Fernando Cardenal and dozens of other priests, other religious men and women, who joined the struggle of the Nicaraguan people, with thousands of Nicaraguans joining with them, religion stopped being an opiate. Here in Nicaragua it is being shown how the revolution, by involving Christians, and how Christians, by getting involved in the revolution, have made it possible for religion to stop being an opiate and become an element of liberation.
This revolution defends the political pluralism and nonalignment that we’re building every day with our own efforts and with the solidarity and affection of the fraternal peoples of the world. This Book Fair has made it possible for you, who didn't know our country before, to know it close up. And you’ve had direct contact with our people. The Book Fair has made it possible for citizens from all different regions and corners of this Earth to meet with us in a true communion of peoples.
When we visit the bookstall of the United States, we will meet there two United States: the United States of its people, of Benjamin Linder, with publications of solidarity. And we will also meet the United States of its government, which we know doesn't represent the will of the US people in its policies against Nicaragua. Just as we enter the US people's stall, we also enter the US government's stall. And there, along with works of high scientific, cultural and artistic value, created by the US people, are works of terror, of darkness, works of death, works that the CIA contracts from the counterrevolution.
Here we are confident of the Nicaraguan people’s firmness, and of the militant attitude of the Latin American people and the firmness of the US people to bring light to this darkness. Because the US people are those who most need solidarity, peace and love! The Nicaraguan people, with their sacrifice, their firmness, their vocation of peace, are contributing to this struggle that the peoples of Latin America, Africa and Asia are waging, and are contributing also to the struggle that the US people are waging for a truly just and democratic society.
SolidarityQ. We’ve come to Nicaragua and have seen the needs there are here. We’d like to know what we can do as solidarity in our own countries. There was so much solidarity with Vietnam and now it has disappeared totally... Will the same thing happen with Nicaragua? What can we do to prevent the bureaucratization of the revolution?
Borge: You started out talking about solidarity and ended up talking about bureaucracy. We hope that solidarity doesn't become bureaucratic! Because it’s indeed a terrible disease that we suffer from all over. I believe that if one day those crazy people in the Pentagon press the button for thermonuclear war, the human race will disappear, but what will survive are the cockroaches and the bureaucracy!
We’re trying to face up to bureaucracy. And the solidarity movement also ought to face up to bureaucracy, to useless words. It should translate solidarity into concrete deeds. I want to tell you that Nicaragua is a truly poor country; more abundant than our rivers is the river of our blood. You come from Europe and find yourselves for the first time in an underdeveloped, poor country like ours. In the streets you see people hanging like spiders from buses, you see humble homes, poverty all over, clothing a bit torn, but clean. But you will have seen in the faces of Nicaraguans a special light? A smile that lights up their whole face? How can you explain this happiness glowing in faces in the midst of poverty? It would seem there would be a strong contradiction between poverty and happiness. And the poorer the "little people"—as [Latin American writer Eduardo] Galeano calls them—are, the more they support the revolution. The less they have received, the more they support it. They’ve received almost nothing of the things that are counted in books. But they have received, yes, something much more valuable, the conviction that they’re the masters of their own destiny. And if anyone wants to know to what they owe this miracle, it would have to be attributed to the existence of the revolution.
We were happy some days ago, we were happy yesterday, we’re happy today, we will be happy tomorrow. And we’ll be happy for one hundred years, the generations that follow us! They will have even more right than us to be happy, because we Nicaraguans today have the honor of paying the price for tomorrow's happiness. We’re also paying the cost of today's happiness, this happiness that costs blood. Solidarity should bear in mind this happiness and this poverty. It should express itself—as the Nicaraguan poet Gioconda Belli says—as "the tenderness of peoples."
We’ve committed some inevitable errors, but the revolution's countenance is clean, every day we try to clean its sins and its defects, the stains left by our own mistakes. We want to be a showcase to the world of respect for the dignity of man. If not, why the hell did we make this revolution, if it isn't to respect people? What sense does it make to have revolutions that don't respect people? That could call themselves anything but a revolution?
Besides, if we begin to lack respect for our own people, I'd like to remind you that our people are armed. Armed with rifles and armed with consciousness. This is a conscious people, a people who ponders, who protests, not a resigned people, but a rebellious people. What more proof do you need than the insurrections that happened here during Somoza's time? Some dimwit asked me how it's possible that neither in Chile nor in Nicaragua are workers' strikes permitted, trying to establish a similarity... I want to tell you that in Chile there are workers' strikes, and in Nicaragua there are not. Is it because Nicaraguan workers aren't brave? Ask Somoza if the people of Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan workers aren't brave! Of course to ask Somoza you'd have to go down to hell...
In Nicaragua the workers haven't gone out on strike not because they are prohibited by the state of emergency. They don't go because they’re persuaded that this would hurt the revolution. There are no emergency laws or states of seige or bayonets or rifles that can hold back workers in any part of the world. Much less in Nicaragua, whose people have challenged fear, have challenged desolation, have challenged all dangers. And if this people doesn't fear imperialism, how will it be afraid of the police!
Here the Sandinista police walk the streets and no one is afraid of them. Managua and the rest of the nation's cities are among the safest cities in the world because they’re protected by their own people. Before, in the times of Somoza—as happens in Chile, in Paraguay and in other Latin American countries—when you go out at night, you have to be more afraid of the police than of thieves! Here, now, you can walk around at any hour and if you see a police officer, you just feel safer.
I want to tell you, finally, that when as Sandinistas we say "free homeland or death," we're not just using a catchphrase. We’re saying that we're not afraid of imperialism, that we’re ready to live and die for this country, to die and live for Nicaragua. Because by dying we live for Nicaragua. And living, we die for Nicaragua. It will never be possible to die completely. Just as those who died in the past have been revived, those who die in the future will also be revived. This is the country of the resurrection of the dead, and also the country of the resurrection of the living. Since this is the country of the resurrection of the revived, I'll say "See you soon," so that you return to your lands and tell your people that Nicaragua doesn't just feel accompanied by the solidarity of the world but that it is ready, if necessary, to sacrifice itself for the sake of human happiness.
We love and respect and are grateful for the solidarity of all the peoples of the world. We love our sister nations of Latin America. And all that we do or don't do is in the interests of Latin America. We love and respect the people of the United States. Those of you who are from the US, say to your compatriots that the doors of Nicaragua and the arms of Nicaraguans are open to receive them. We have legally withdrawn the need for a visa so you all can visit Nicaragua, but this isn’t just a legal decision. It’s a moral one, a political one, and it’s a decision of love toward the US people. The United States has sown desolation and death in Nicaragua, but its people are loved by Nicaraguans. Why? Because we’re noble, we’re revolutionaries, we’re Sandinistas, because we know how to distinguish between the devil and the people! "Free homeland or death" means all of this.